Your Family History Stories – Using Historical Newspapers to Gain an Insight into the Character of Your Ancestors | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Your Family History Stories – Using Historical Newspapers to Gain an Insight into the Character of Your Ancestors

We’ve said it before, but hearing your wonderful stories about what you’re finding in The Archive make us feel like we’re travelling to Canterbury with a motley crew of ancestor-finding pilgrims.

The latest family history pilgrim to share her story is Emma Jolly, a genealogist from London, who has been researching her ancestors from the Birmingham area. Emma has been finding newspaper stories that offer a fascinating insight into the personalities of her forebears.

In particular, we love the colourful story about her 4x great grandfather, who appeared in court in 1835 for keeping his ‘beer-shop’ open until midnight – hmm, so even in pre-Victorian times, pub ‘lock-ins’ were very popular. We’re not making any judgements about court appearances, though, as that sort of thing happens to the best of our ancestors.

Emma has written a terrific article about her research in The Archive and has very kindly allowed us to post her article below.


Confirming Joseph Harrison’s Identity
Recently I discovered that my 6x great grandfather, Joseph Harrison (died 1805), was a prosperous farmer and landowner in the then hamlet of Edgbaston in Warwickshire. Today, Edgbaston is a garden suburb of the city of Birmingham. Its present layout, including the eponymous cricket ground and middle-class villas, is somewhat removed from its appearance in the late 18th century when Joseph lived there. Joseph also owned property in the nearby hamlet of Erdington and parish of Aston.

I was able to confirm that Joseph was my direct ancestor by finding evidence of his son’s and grandson’s identities in the British Newspaper Archive. First I found a death notice for one of Joseph’s sons, my ancestor Thomas Harrison (1769-1817), which revealed he died “near King’s Norton” in Worcestershire. This explained why this part of my family were no longer in Edgbaston. Instead they had moved a few miles south.

Birmingham Gazette – Monday 13 October 1817


Thomas Harrison is a fairly common name but articles for his son, my 4x great grandfather, Frederick Harrison (1806-72) were easier to locate. I knew from the 1851 census (Class: HO107; Piece: 2050; Folio: 53; Page: 45; GSU roll: 87460) that Frederick had been born in Edgbaston and had found his baptism record. I also knew that by the mid-nineteenth century he worked as a “retail brewer”, farmer and maltster. On his probate record of 1873 he is described as “Farmer and Publican”.

‘Keeper of a beer-shop’
I found a mention of Frederick Harrison as “keeper of a beer-shop”, in a court report in the Worcester Herald of Saturday 12 September 1835. This stated that his beer house was in Northfield, Worcestershire – 2 miles west of King’s Norton. Although post 1837 records show that Frederick lived in Oldbury, Halesowen and Harborne (all in the Birmingham area), the 1851 census stated that his daughter, Sarah, was born in Northfield around 1836/7. This confirmed the link with that parish. In fact, Northfield was not far away – its neighbouring parishes were Harborne, Edgbaston, King’s Norton, Halesowen and Frankley, where Frederick’s wife, Harriet (my 4x great grandmother) was born.

According to the report, Frederick was hauled in front of the magistrate at the Petty Sessions in Alcester Lane End on the 5 September and was convicted of keeping his beer house open until midnight. He was awarded the maximum penalty of five pounds. The article features colourful testimony from a local “respectable farmer’s wife” who arrived at the beer house to collect four of her sons. The concerned mother told the court that, “She found the house full of drunken men, fighting and swearing” and went on to give the unlikely assertion that “during the fight it appeared that one man had his nose bitten off.” No further details were given on this poor man!

Worcester Herald – Saturday 12 September 1835


All the evidence I have suggests that Frederick was energetic and worked hard, perhaps keen to mirror his grandfather’s landowning success. His multi-faceted business of growing, brewing and selling beer will have enabled him to keep costs low and maximise profit. The court report stated that Frederick was keeping his beer-shop open beyond the legally allowed 10pm. To me, it appears that Frederick wanted to make as much money as he could – even if that meant stretching the law. I can only imagine the shame and irritation he must have felt at being dragged before the Petty Sessions and then forced to pay a £5 fine (about £250 in today’s money).

The conviction did not appear to harm Frederick’s business. He moved away from Northfield and in 1841 was working as a maltster in Halesowen. By 1861 he was farming 14 acres, while continuing to brew beer and run a pub, and by 1871 his land had increased to 20 acres. After his death in 1872 he left just under £200 (around £9000 today) to his widow.

Later Generations
Sadly, my 3x great grandfather Henry Harrison did not continue his father Frederick’s success. Henry followed in his footsteps as a maltster, but died in 1864, his thirtieth year, leaving his widow to earn her keep as a laundress. Henry’s only surviving son, John Anthony Harrison (1859-1893) moved away from the beer business, preferring to work, like his maternal grandfather, as a dairyman.

About Emma Jolly
Emma Jolly is a professional genealogist and runs the Genealogic research service in London. Her latest book, Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census (Pen & Sword, 2013), is available now.

Twitter: @emmajolly



6 comments On Your Family History Stories – Using Historical Newspapers to Gain an Insight into the Character of Your Ancestors

  • My Harrison family come from Birmingham too. (1757 to 1824) he was a grocer in Birmingham. I have found his grandson Thomas Maddocks Harrison through the British newspaper library archive but am struggling with my searches for Thomas. Putting the correct search wording is obviously important.

  • I so much enjoyed reading Emma’s article. I am also researching my Birmingham ancestors and they too owned / managed pubs in and around the Birmingham area.

    The newspaper archives have helped hugely in adding information about various ancestors – including my grandfather x4 who was murdered in a Birmingham street.

  • Thank you Ann and Diana for your comments. Ann, if you think there may be a connection between our Harrisons please send me an email and I’ll look into it. Great to hear that you have Birmingham victualler ancestors too, Diana. What period?

  • My cousin Peter Jolly of Billericay, Essex has been researching his family history for many years and has a substantial archive. Peter has been unwell recently but I could put you in touch with his relatives in Essex

  • Emma Jolly’s article was really interesting. My Grandfather Henry James Dowse ran the Cricketer’s Arms in Southampton and I found an article in the Southampton Echo for 1893 where he was before the court for serving drink after hours! His plea was that a wedding party had run out of beer and he was supplying a jug at his own expense! The charge was thrown out of court!!

  • Very interesting article. This Frederick Harrison is also my 3 great grandfather. My line follows from His daughter Martha.

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