Thursday, 28 January 2016

Highly decorated 17th C parish register from St Mary's, Kidderminster

Today we are looking at the artistic efforts of a 17th C Worcestershire man.  He found the most ordinary document a medium for expressing his creativity.

A highly decorated page in the St Mary's, Kidderminster parish register

As family history researchers will know parish registers are a mine of information recording baptisms, marriages and burials.  In the 17th century John Pitt, school master and clerk of St Marys church Kidderminster, found that in making entries into the parish registers he could practice his calligraphy and explore different types of fonts and pen man ship.  As time went on he added decoration, colour and caricatures of Richard Baxter (a Puritanical churchman who helped reform the church in Kidderminster).  He was to go back in the volume and make the entries relating to his forebears much bolder and even highlighted a few by drawing pointing fingers in the margins.

A caricature of Richard Baxter, the Puritan church leader, incorporated into a decorated letter in the St Mary's, Kidderminster parish register

The February 1645 entries feature a floral flourish

John Pitt, son of a weaver, received little formal education but was to eventually become Head master of King Charles' school in Kidderminster.  From 1642 he occasionally helped make entries but took on full responsibility in April 1643.  His subheading for April 1645 is particularly delightful, written mainly in colour.  John relinquished the duty of completing the parish registers in April 1646, perhaps after being told to rather focus his energies upon his duty as school master.  Subsequent entries have none of these former flourishes.  James, John's brother, became parish clerk but he unfortunately did not share his brother's talents.  In March 1653/4 James re inscribed the entry recording John Pitt's burial but it lacked the finesse of his brother's efforts.  From this point James stopped trying to emulate his brother.

The entry for April 1645, decorated by John Pitt

Staff at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service have long admired John Pitt's efforts and have used them in many outreach activities.  When Martin Wall, eight times great nephew of John Pitt, arrived at The Hive recently to view the work of his ancestor he was overjoyed to hear what high esteem staff held John's work in.

Carol, Archive Assistant and Martin, the 9 times great nephew of John Pitt, admiring his handiwork together

The Kidderminster St Mary's parish registers are available to view on microfilm in our Self Service Area at The Hive.

By Carol Wood

Friday, 22 January 2016

Volunteers repackage over 200 volumes for Archive Service

Thank you to my team of stunning volunteers who have worked so hard measuring, cutting, folding and stamping to produce bespoke boxes for over 200 large volumes that were previously wrapped in brown paper!

Mary and Lesley placing the final boxed volumes on the shelf

Working in pairs for three-hour sessions, volunteers have worked with me in the Conservation studio to produce the boxes.  The large, and often heavy volumes do not fit easily into our standard sized boxes here at the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, so were wrapped in brown paper before they were placed on the shelves.  Whilst the paper does provide some protection from any dust that may settle on the volumes, it can be difficult and frustrating to re-wrap the volumes following consultation, and acid in the paper may actually be damaging the volumes rather than protecting them.

The completed row of over 200 boxes produced by volunteers – and a glimpse on the left of those still to be boxed.

Each box has to be produced by hand, after measuring and calculating the size required and has been made from acid-free 'Archival Quality' card.  As a result, the volumes are now easier to handle and are protected from dirt and dust whilst being stored on shelves.  In addition, boxing volumes provides extra protection should disaster strike in the form of a fire, with the box acting as a barrier that burns before the volume inside is significantly damaged.

Whilst being an important aspect of preservation, the sheer volume of material requiring my attention means I would not have been able to produce the boxes myself and without the work of my volunteers these volumes would still be in their brown paper wrappers.  So thank you very much to all my volunteers who have worked so hard!  We now have a row of boxed volumes that I am very pleased with and will ensure the volumes have the best possible protection for many years to come.

Now that just leaves all the other shelves of brown paper packages in need of boxes!

By Rhonda Niven, Conservator

Sunday, 17 January 2016

New book on Kemerton Dig

Robin Jackson with his new book on Huntsman's Quarry, Kemerton

The earliest village we've found in Worcestershire is the subject of a new book by Robin Jackson, a member of staff in our Worcestershire Archaeology team. At Kemerton our archaeologists discovered evidence of settlement 3,000 years ago, not just traces of occupation, but groups of huts, the earliest we know about in the county. It also provided an important collection of prehistoric pottery. The book has been published by Oxbow Book, with the support of Historic England. Copies will be on sale soon in our shop, which you can visit on Level 2 at The Hive

Friday, 15 January 2016

Chaplain's Letter from the Trenches

100 years ago the Worcester Herald published a letter from the trenches sent by John MacRae, vicar of All Saints Worcester, describing life in France. John had recently gone out as a Chaplain and his letter provides an insight into daily life.

Chaplains served throughout the army, and many will have heard of MacRae's fellow Worcester priest G.A Studdert Kennedy, known as Woodbine Willie, who was vicar of St Paul's in the Blockhouse. Although Studdert Kennedy is perhaps the best known chaplain, there were plenty of others serving out there providing support to the troops.

Being a chaplain was not without risk. As reported in the Daily Diary published on our website on 5 January Rev James Stewart, who was with the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, was killed by a shell whilst leading a burial service just behind the line. A number of chaplains died during the war, and Studdert Kennedy was just one of a number who won the Military Cross for their actions and bravery.
Rev John Macrae

Like many letters home MacRae includes details of the primitive conditions he was living in, although mixed with some stoicism as they made the best of conditions. Getting hold of food could be challenging, and although they ordered 22 geese they could only get turkeys, and when they arrived they were pretty small so someone had to go out to get an extra pig.

Weather conditions were also hard, and MacRae related the problem all soldiers suffered from, which was being wet most of the time with little opportunity to dry themselves or clothes once they got wet.

Chaplains were often the conduits for presents from home, and at Christmas MacRae received a package from Worcester containing soldiers comforts.  Ladies from All Saints like many other churches had been knitting and producing items to support and cheer up the men. In this package there were "26 pairs of socks, 8 pairs mittens and cuffs, 17 mufflers, and a body belt to their Rector". 20,000 cigarettes also arrived, an important commodity and one which gave Woodbine Willie his nickname as chaplains often gave these out when they met men in the trenches.

As well as living among the men and helping support their emotional and spiritual needs individually on a daily basis chaplains led services, as you'd expect, although most of these were in makeshift locations. For Christmas 1915 MacRae led two services, one in an orchard for another company, and one in a barn for his own. These were opportunities for men to put aside their soldiering temporarily, and were enjoyed by many, as MacRae related by describing their hearty singing of Christmas carols. Limited transport meant he couldn't travel to carry out as many Christmas services as he wanted, for MacRae said he would also gone and carried out another couple if he could. Chaplains also had to muck in like other soldiers, and this included helping cook food and digging drainage trenches.

MacRae was interviewed for the role in September 1915 and appointed Temporary Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class on 18 October 1915. The interview cards have been digitised by the Museum of Army Chaplaincy, and MacRae's card can be seen online here. Included is information that he passed his medical, could ride a horse, lived at 104 Bath Road, was married with 2 children, would be free in two weeks, and had references from the Bishop and Dean of Worcester. This has been provided by the curator David Blake.

The Museum also holds the personal notebook of the Rev Harry Blackburne DSO who was the Assistant Chaplain General to the 1st Army.  He records his impressions of the Anglican chaplains who served with him in 1st Army.  The entry for Rev J E Macrae reads:

MACRAE J E – 19th Division.
A large man with a strong personality.

Rev John MacRae left the army on 23 October 1916 and returned to All Saints, Worcester. In late 1919 he chaired the first few meetings of the parish War Memorial Committee before leaving to return to his native Scotland. He was contacted a number of times by the committee to check whether he could remember some of the men put forward for inclusion for the memorial. From 1936-47 he was Dean of Brechin.

You can read more about the role of chaplains in WWI on the BBC website here
You can also search for records of other chaplains at the Chaplains Museum site.  

Rev John MacRae is mentioned on this memorial board in All Saints for the peals marking the end of war and peace

Letter from Worcester Chaplain
Rev.J Macrae's experiences on the Western Front [published Worcester Herald 16 Jan 1916]

     In a letter to his parishioners, apparently written on Christmas Eve, the Rev. J.E.MacRae, Rector of All Saint's, Worcester, who is serving as an Army Chaplain in France, says,

     "This is to wish you everything good for the New Year. We had no festivity last night for we could not procure anything to be festive with, and dined on some rather ancient beef, which as the newly installed mess president, I had to contrive into a stew: boiled rice and a pound of prunes completed the modest meal. Afterwards we visited the sergeants mess – to wit twelve of them in a wash-house behind the farm: planks on boxes for a table, candles stuck in bottles et tout cela. Fortunately we had procured a turkey for them: they supplied at 9pm. We made cheerful speeches and hoped all would be ended before another twelvemonth: then to bed, expecting the guns, which had been silent most of the afternoon, to salute the New Year. They didn't, and the night passed without a shot, so far as we could hear, for the wind was from the north."

     In another passage, relating to the obtainment of supplies, Mr MacRae says, The 22 geese we ordered from E Force canteen could not be got: so I was promised turkeys instead. Last night S came back with turkeys, small birds only 8lbs each – no good – so we sent him to buy a pig as well for our mens Christmas dinner. Tonight we have found a large oven, and the 'grub' and beer will be consumed in the barns in their groups – a rough and not very ready picnic, but the best we can do.

     "I wonder if people at home can picture the condition under which we actually live here? The newspapers, one and all, have told such tales of marvellous organisation, comfort in abundance, and so forth, that the real facts of crowding in barns – lucky if straw if handy – and everything being done in field and orchard, with the roughest food that a man can eat and keep healthy, are lost sight of. The men go for a fortnight or more without taking clothes off, day or night, till somehow, when in reserve, getting in one of the wash-houses some miles distant. Can anyone at home picture what this means in winter time? When we get wet – and that's often – nothing can be dried, and we just go on and hope for a little sunshine in the course of a week.

     "January 4th – We shifted down here yesterday again into huts and the mud. These shifts are days of strenuous toil for each and all – pack, lift, sit down, and rearrange everything – a job that cannot be completed in daylight anyhow. A scrimmage for food, tumble in as best we can, and on the morrow try to contrive means of existence for unknown days ahead of us. My job as chaplain, of course, has to go on one side for a day or two, and I help to get our men's various necessary affairs along, that we may live. Today I cut drains all around our hut, and built a brick and mud Kitchener for rough cooking, as our stove is worn out.

     "Yesterday, by a great stroke of luck, my parcels at last arrived. W's box is A1. A parcel of comforts too, from ladies of All Saints Parish came – quite an unexpected boon. Tell them (I will write also) that, for men just out of the trenches, socks, etc, are an absolute Godsend. Those sent will be given to Worcester men. I had also 20,000 cigarettes from L.I.S's sister. It was a lucky day for me. We got all our belongings in dry – a blessing only those who live in the open will appreciate.

     "On Sunday I had two very interesting services. One for a company from the other battalion of our diocese, in an orchard behind a shattered church; the other in a barn for our company. Christmas hymns – as we stood round as best we could, crowded together. The French women of the farm peeped across their yard, and seemed impressed with our singing, which was certainly very effective. Had my horse been available I would have had two more services.

     "You do not seem to have had all my letters. Can the Censor have been busy. I also sent a dozen others to people in Worcester. I am quite fit and well".

Friday, 8 January 2016

New Year Resolution to start family history?

Is it your New Year Resolution to start or restart your family history? We're the ideal place to come and begin your journey. We hold a large amount of information here. The archives and local studies library contains a vast amount of information for those with ancestors in Worcestershire, and via computer we can provide access to lots of free information for England and Wales.

We are used to people coming to us to get started, and we are used to guiding people. There are very few questions we haven't been asked and we know the frustrations as well as joys of genealogy.

In the coming months we are running a number of  workshops aimed at helping you begin. These include a 1 hour tour of our resources, a two-part workshop, and sessions specifically on the website, so you can choose what is most useful to you. They are led by our knowledgeable staff, who have been helping family historians for many years and have been carrying out their own research into their own families so can empathise with you!

Starting Family History workshops

Wed 3 & 10 February 10am-12:30pm
A two part workshop to help you begin tracing your ancestors and building your family tree? We will explain how to get started, key tips and the main sources you will need, including census, civil registration records, parish registers and wills.  At the end of each session we'll go onto the computers so you have the opportunity to put of it into practice and have a go looking for information


Wed 10 Feb 2-4pm
Wed 16 March 7-9pm (repeat)
Ancestry is one of the best family history websites, but how do you get started on it, how do you make the most of it, and what information is available? Our workshops focus on researching family history using the website and there will be opportunity in the second half to get hands on and have a go on the computers to search the website so participants should already be familiar with computers and the internet.

What's New on

Thu 21 Apr 10am-12pm
Lots of new information is added to this website every year, but how do you keep track? In this workshop you can find out about what new sources are available and what's been added over the last 2 years

First Steps in Family History

First Tuesday in Month 11:30am – 12 Jan, 2 Feb, 1 March, 5 April, 3 May, 7 June
These 1 hour introductions will guide you round the most useful family history resources we hold on the Explore the Past floor and give you some tips on getting started. The sessions take up to 5 people and are £5 per person.

These workshops need to be booked in advance, and be done so online at For more information you can phone us on 01905 766352 or email