Searching the treasures of the Glamorgan Archives

Monday 8 October 2012, 16:51

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Last week after a meeting at the BBC in Cardiff I found myself with a free afternoon. Despite fleetingly being drawn to the shiny bright lights of the shops in town, I headed instead to the Glamorgan Archives, where it’s always nice and warm and friendly.

Several hours later my brain was working overtime and my notebook was full of delicious scribbles about cholera, Catholics, cremations, convictions and the Crimea.

Searching the archives

Unusually for me I started with a completely blank canvas. Simply by entering keywords into the search facility of their main catalogue, I discovered a wealth and variety of precious and eclectic documents.

Try it from the comfort of your own home. Think of a word and type it into the search box on the top right of the page. Obviously if your research interests don’t lie within Glamorgan then try it on the website for the relevant county archives (and if you don’t know where these are then go to Genuki and click on the country and county).

As I was in the building I was able to order up the original documents, and after a brief wait I could see, touch and smell parchments that were over 250 years old.

Oath from the Quarter Session Rolls

Q/S/R/1758/C/15 doesn't sound very glamorous but when it arrived I was amazed to learn that it was an oath from the Quarter Session Rolls from the Midsummer of 1758.

Christopher Haskins, master and David Rees, mariner of the sloop Fanny of Newton had sworn on oath that 58 bushels of white salt, the property of Didvil Erasmus of Margam, were lost at sea between Bristol and Newton on 14 March 1758 when they met with violent and stormy weather.

How much is a bushel worth?

Already I needed to know what a bushel is in modern money and who would name a child Didvil. Sadly, if you put Didvil Erasmus into Google then it seems that several other people have already claimed him so I can’t add him to my family tree!

William Price of Llantrisant

William Price in Llantrisant Statue of William Price in Llantrisant

Then from the recesses of my mind I recalled that during the research for Patrick Mower’s Coming Home programme for BBC One Wales I had come across William Price, a Welsh physician famed not just for being a radical, eccentric vegetarian but for being arrested after cremating the body of his infant son in 1884 (since he believed that it was wrong to bury a corpse, thereby polluting the earth) near his home in Llantrisant.

Twenty thousand onlookers

During the trial that followed in February 1884 Price successfully argued that there was no legislation that specifically outlawed cremation. This led the way for the Cremation Act of 1902. When Price died in 1893, he too was cremated in a ceremony watched by 20,000 onlookers

Not only does Glamorgan Archives hold a photograph (actually a glass negative and contact print) of the public cremation of Dr William Price on 31 January 1893 (Reference: DXIJ/3/85) but incredibly they also hold a photograph of a bronze medal made by William Price to commemorate the cremation of his son on 13 January 1884 (Reference: DXIJ/3/83) and a series of reminiscences about Dr Price compiled by Mrs Mary Ellis Joshua.

Searching for Francis Baker

Just before it was time for me to leave I remembered why I had been drawn to the archives in the first place! Mrs Irene Rees from Ponthir had asked me to help her find the name of the ship that her great grandfather Francis Baker had sailed on, when he came to Cardiff in the 1890s.

A quick glance at cardiffmariners.org.uk showed no entries for anyone by that name, and while welshmariners.org.uk has details of over 23,500 Welsh Merchant Mariners, Francis Baker’s name was not among them.

I found a link to the Crew Index List Project, or CLIP, and quickly entered Francis Baker’s details.

It turns out that Francis Baker was born around 1842 in Whitby. By 1891 he had been listed as a crew member on several vessels including the Potomac which was registered in London, the Gabalva and the Penzance, both registered in Cardiff. 

I suggested to Irene that she makes the short journey from her home to visit the Glamorgan Archives and asks to see the wealth of original documents that they hold relating to these two ships before she does anything else.

One last thought to leave you with. Saturday 13 October 2012 is the annual family history fair for Glamorgan Family History Society. This year it is being held in Merthyr Tydfil and admission is free.

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