Posted by: billpurdue | June 6, 2011

Local and family history

You may not have heard of David Hey: he isn’t a prolific author, but if the one book of his that I have read is anything to go by, then I want to read more. The book in question is Journeys in Family History [National Archives £9.99  – originally £30 – 978-1903365618] a copy of which I bought, because it was so good. It contains a lot of advice on tracing your family history, but it’s not just a “how-to-do-it” book. A large part of the book explores times past and looks at how our ancestors lived , how marriage and other customs have changed; migration and industrial trends; the social groups of the past and how they evolved. This might seem a little dry, but even though I’m not an avid family researcher, I read this from cover to cover. The plentiful illustrations really did complement the text. It’s still worth searching out, even though the publication date behind the title page is 2004, but of course much of the website information and many of the addresses at the back of the book will have changed.


Another of his books by Professor Hey which I would like to get my hands on is How our Ancestors Lived [National Archives; now out of print] which appeared in 2003. Using the 1901 census as a starting point, David Hey paints a picture of what life was like at the beginning of the 20th Century. As my father was born in 1900, it would have a particular resonance for me.  It looks as if rather a lot of people would also like a copy of this book as the cheapest ex-library copy available from Amazon sellers is priced at just over £25 (the paperback is even more). My searches elsewhere have not revealed anything cheaper.


David Hey grew up in the countryside not far from Penistone in what used to be the West Riding of Yorkshire (now South Yorkshire), so he’s well qualified to write about that area of the country. It wasn’t easy to find up to date information about him, but I can tell you that he is (or was) a Lecturer in Local History in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at Sheffield University. His latest books include the 3rd revised edition of A History of Sheffield

[ Carnegie £16.99 978-1859361986] and the 2nd edition of the Oxford Companion to Family and Local History [OUP £14.99 978-0199532971]


You can read a 2005 interview with David Hey in the “Barnsley personalities” section of the Around Town Online website:



Last week I told you I was reading Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the secrets of metamorphosis by Kim Todd [ I B Tauris  £17.99 9781845114312]. The life of Maria Merian spans the period of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when women were least expected to  engage in any kind of scientific activity. Merian was particularly interested in studying the life cycle of insects whose lives consisted of three stages: caterpillar, pupa and full grown insect and producing colourful and detailed paintings of her subjects. This was at a time when all sorts of strange theories abounded about how a caterpillar became an insect. Many scientists gave credence also to the theory of spontaneous generation, where certain types of animals appeared instantly in the right circumstances.


Born in Germany, but later moving to Amsterdam, Merian pursued her interests all her life and even spending two years studying the exotic animals and especially insects in Surinam (out of a planned five years, but illness cut the stay short). The last few chapters of the book look at Merian’s legacy and show how only in recent decades have scientists returned to studying insects in their own environment, a method of study pioneered by Merian. If you are only interested in Merian’s drawings and paintings, then this is perhaps not for you as there are few reproductions of her exquisite artwork. There are several titles which reproduce examples of her artwork, such as The Insects of Surinam [Taschen £24.99 978-3822852781] by Maria Sybilla Merian and Katharina Schmidt-Loske, which contains reproductions of all 60 copperplate engravings which appeared in the 1705 edition of Merian’s “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium”.


I’m reading On the Slow Train by Michael Williams: 12 railway journeys in various parts of the UK.





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