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18 September 2014
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An Intriguing Family History

By Dr Nick Barratt
Cliff House, Cullercoats
The intriguing Cliff House, at Cullercoats ©

This vivid account of a family's rise and fall provides an insight into a small 18th-century coastal community, and shows how a wide range of sources can help create an interesting family tree. Could your own family history reveal an equally fascinating tale?

Beyond the family tree

For many family historians, completing a family tree is just the starting point. Although it tells you who your ancestors were, it does not tell you what their daily lives were like, where they worked or where they lived. To get a better picture of the past you need to find out more about the communities your ancestors lived in.

To discover where your researches might take you, meet the Armstrong family, whose ancestors lived in Cliff House, an intriguing property in Cullercoats, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. See how research into their one-time family home led to the discovery of some intriguing family stories.

In the middle of the 18th century, Cullercoats was a hamlet, whose residents made their living from the sea. Some embraced smuggling as a way of making easy money. Several histories have been written about the area, including notes about Cliff House, which is positioned overlooking the sea.

'The main clue was his occupation ...'

This story begins with a reference to the sale of 'a piece or parcel of ground at Cullercoats where a cottage formerly stood', in Historical Notes on Cullercoats, Whitley and Monkseaton, by William Weaver Tomlinson (W Scott, 1893, p.19).

Although the house, Cliff House, that was built on this land was initially the focus of the piece of research, the information contained in this small article was used to look further into the story of one Thomas Armstrong, the man who allegedly built the property. The main clue was his occupation, stated as 'commander of His Majesty's cutter, Bridlington'. This proved to be a customs vessel used to patrol the seas from Newcastle to Sunderland, with a remit to intercept smugglers.

One way of finding out more was to see if further details about Thomas could be obtained from customs records held at The National Archives, London. Another was to find out more details about his immediate family through records at the local record office, in this instance the Northumberland Record Office, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and this was the preferred path.

Published: 2004-09-13

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