Explore Your Archives – Home

22 Nov, 2020

Explore Your Archives – Home

As part of Explore Your Archives Launch week, RQG student member Dawn Jennifer has written a piece about Home:

Social distancing? Not necessary with an online archive!

Home “1. A village or town; a vill[age] with its cottages. 2. A dwelling-place, house, abode; the fixed residence of a family or household …”

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1983.

When I started researching my family history I didn’t know much about my maternal grandmother’s early life. All I really knew was that she had been raised from a young age by “Granny and Grandad Morris” in their shoe shop in Billericay, Essex. The Billericay Community Archive made it possible for me to corroborate the family stories about my grandmother being raised by her grandparents in their shoe shop. The Archive also provided me with a better understanding of the thriving locality in which she had lived and grown up.

My grandmother, Winifred Bertha Westfield (1899-1999), was born in Billericay, Essex. She was the ninth child of Milly Wood (1865-1934) and George John Warner Westfield (1844-1924), a Commercial Traveller at the time. In the 1901 census, at the age of two, she was living in Chelmsford with her parents and four of her elder siblings. At the same time, her grandparents, Sarah (1841-1922) and Edward James Morris (c. 1841-1915), a Bootmaker working on his “Own Account at Home”, were living at High Street West Side, Billericay. I had worked out early on in my research that Sarah Morris (née Seakens) was Winifred’s maternal grandmother, and Edward James Morris, Sarah’s third husband, was her step-grandfather.

Turning to the 1911 census, the household schedule confirmed the family’s word-of-mouth accounts – Winifred was living with the Morris’ at High Street, Billericay, Essex. By now, Winifred’s grandparents were both 70 years old. Her step-grandfather was still a Bootmaker working on his own account at home. Winifred was a scholar, aged 11 years old also working on her own account at home.

It wasn’t clear from the census whether or not the Morris’ actually had a shoe shop as family folklore suggested. I wanted to know more about where Winifred lived as a young child beyond the name of the street. I wanted to try and locate the exact building in which she’d lived. I decided to look at the Morris’ neighbours along High Street West Side, Billericay to see if this would help. By exploring addresses in the 1901 census I could see that neighbouring buildings included an ironmonger’s and a butcher’s shop, and a bank. Ten years’ later, in the 1911 census, the Morris’ immediate neighbours included a Hay Merchant, a Butcher, a Grocer, a Bank Agent for Barclays and Co. and an Ironmonger.

Soon after my examination of the census information, I discovered the Billericay High Street 1955 collection at the Billericay Community Archive website. The photograph collection showing various parts of the High Street was organised by building number. Since I didn’t know the number, I began searching through the archive looking for anything that might mirror the information I’d found about the addresses and neighbours in the 1901 and 1911 census returns. A couple of links stood out: Barclays Bank at No. 67, Harrington’s Ironmongers at No. 53. By taking the information gleaned about my ancestors’ neighbours from the two census returns and cross-referencing it with the photographs curated by the Billericay Community Archive, I was able to work out that the Morris’ had lived at No. 47, the High Street. When I clicked on the image, I saw that the text alongside the photograph said that No. 47 had a history of being a shoe shop: currently a Clarks shoe shop (although since the archive was published it closed in 2019), the Curtis Shoe Shop in 1955 when the photograph was taken, and evidence that the building was Morris’ Boot and Shoemaker in the 1920s. Later, though, I was able to establish that the Morris’ Boot and Shoemaker premises had been in existence since the early 1900s from photographs which featured in Roger Green’s pictorial history of Billericay.

A fantastic online resource, the Billericay Community Archive has allowed me to fill in the gaps about my maternal grandmother’s whereabouts in the early 20th century and given me a better understanding about the area in which she lived. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, online archives such as this one enables amateurs and professionals alike to continue researching their ancestors. We may have to socially distance from the living, but we can still get close to our forebears!

Dr Dawn Jennifer
Family History Researcher 

Clare O'Grady