View of hydraulic forging presses in a bay at the Elswick Steel Works, Newcastle upon Tyne, c1905

Thomas Blagburn – My Approach and Sources

In this post I have captured the approach that I followed and the sources that I used to write my second great grandfather Thomas Blagburn’s story. You can see that I have roughly used the same approach and headings as I describe in my earlier blog post on creating your family tree. Again, my aim is to bring this to life, help you research your own family history and tell the stories of your ancestors.

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The cover image is a view of hydraulic forging presses at the Elswick Steel Works, courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Asking relatives and exploring family photos

I started out by asking my mum and wider family what they knew about Thomas, which was very little! They were able to give me some clues that would prove important later on. From this I learned that Thomas worked as a ‘puddler’ which is similar to a steel smelter. They also told me that the family had a fish and chip shop on Scotswood Road and that they had lived in the seaside town of Cullercoats for a time.

I was also told that Thomas was sent to a lunatic asylum and that my grandad had always said that there was nothing wrong with him. This would prove to be really important for finding his death record and understanding his final days.

My auntie had some old photos from my great grandmother, Thomas’ daughter, Sarah Robson (nee Blagburn). There was one photograph of Thomas with my grandfather James Blagburn. 

Basic registration records: birth, marriage and deaths

Using Ancestry I was able to find Thomas’ birth and marriage records in the England & Wales Civil Registration Birth and Marriage Indices. With this information I ordered a copy of his birth and marriage certificates from the General Register Office

I found it harder to trace his death record for two reasons. There was another Thomas Blagburn born at a similar time who lived in nearby North Shields in Northumberland. His records complicated matters so I created a separate family tree for him on Ancestry to keep track of any sources relating to him. In addition, I could not find any death records from Newcastle upon Tyne for the time in which I assumed he had died (after 1939 but before 1952).

There was one Thomas Blagburn death entry for 1942 but the death was listed as Northumberland. Remembering what I had been told about his admission to a lunatic asylum, I looked up the registration district for St Nicholas Hospital in Newcastle. This was the City’s main mental hospital and was known as the Newcastle City Mental Hospital in Thomas’ days. I confirmed that any deaths registered here would haven been recorded as Northumberland rather than Newcastle upon Tyne. I ordered the 1942 death certificate on this basis and it proved to be the correct one.

A copy of Thomas Blagburn’s death certificate entry. It states that he died on Fifteenth January 1942 at Newcastle City Mental Hospital, Gosforth. Cause of death is listed as Cerebral Softening – 9 months. His death as registered by his son-in-law Patrick O’Connell.

A copy of Thomas Blagburn's death certificate entry

Census data

I was able to find Thomas in the census information for England & Wales on Ancestry in 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911. The census data was really interesting because it showed how the family moved around the Newcastle and Gateshead area. You also get a better feel for who is living together at any given time and the occupations of each member of the family. 

I was also able to find Thomas, his wife Bella and children living at 6 Mona Terrace in Cullercoats in the 1921Census of England & Wales. I could see that another family lived at the same address, the Montague family, as did Bella’s brother John James Bell. The 1921 Census is only available to view online at Findmypast.

I supplemented my understanding of where Thomas and his family lived and for how long by reviewing the Newcastle upon Tyne Electoral Registers, which are available on Ancestry. Using these I could see that Thomas moved back to Scotswood Road in Elswick by 1925.

I was also able to find Thomas and Bella living at 652 Scotswood Road in the 1939 Register of England and Wales, also available on Ancestry. At this point his grandson, my granda, Jimmy was living with them. Thomas’ children were all living just around the corner on Alexander Street.

Parish registers

During my visit to Northumberland Archives I was able to view parish registers on microfiche. It was here that I found Thomas’ baptism record at St. Peter’s church in Newcastle. The record stated that his parents lived at Princes Street in Newcastle. I was also able to find his sister Jemima’s baptism record, by which point the family had moved to Lisle Street.

The image records for St. Peter’s are also free to view for free on Family Search as part of the England, Durham Diocese Bishop’s Transcripts, 1639 – 1919. Note that these records are not searchable, you have to manually read through them to find what you are looking for. It is very satisfying when you do however, so worth the extra effort.

Burial records

I was struggling to find a burial record for Thomas, but the helpful people of RootsChat were on hand to help. They were able to locate his burial in the records for Elswick Cemetery and send me a link to the image on Family Search. They also sent me a link to the graves register  where you can see that he is buried in an unconsecrated grave with 4 others, including his daughter Margaret O’Connell. 

They didn’t stop there! They sent me a plot map to see where the grave is located in the cemetery and they also created an entry for Thomas on FindaGrave, which will help anyone else looking for him in future. 

Finally they were able to provide me with the details of the notice from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 16th January 1942, page 7, column 3 “BLAGBURN 108 Georges Rd., Jan 15 aged 64 Thomas, beloved husband of Isabelle. Internment Elswick, Saturday leaving 1.30. Funeral private”.

If you take anything from this, remember that it’s OK and often wise to ask for help. RootsChat is a great source of support and the people I have encountered are more than happy to assist you in your research where they can.

Delving deeper - adding to Thomas' story

This is the most important part of the research for me. The information that I found in this section is what turned Thomas’ life from a collection of names, dates and addresses into a story. 

Local History

I wanted to get a feel for the area in which Thomas lived, in particular Benwell and Elswick where a large number of the houses have since been demolished. The Newcastle Photo Archive, a volunteer run organisation, is an amazing source with an interactive map allowing you to explore different areas. In particular, I was able to locate a photo of 652 Scotswood Road, taken in 1956. Another great place to see old photographs of the area and read people’s memories is the Facebook group Elswick Scotswood Benwell & Surroundings Past & Present. The St. James’ Heritage and Environment Group is another excellent source of information and history about Newcastle’s west end.

I also spent some time looking at OS maps to understand where each of Thomas’ residences were located. These can be accessed for free at the National Library of Scotland Website.

I also wanted to understand more about Princes Street where Thomas was born, and which has since been demolished. I found this extract on the British History Online website describing Princes Street and the surrounding area. I formed the impression of an impressive and vibrant area of town.

Newspapers

I always search both Newspapers.com and the British Newspaper Archives when I am looking for information (both of which require a subscription). As standard I search for names, known addresses and skim through the local newspapers for any significant dates that I have identified.

I found an advertisement for the sale of 6 Mona Terrace in Cullercoats from 1914. This is the house that Thomas, Bella and their children occupied in 1921. The advert states that the house is “close to the station, beach and trams; containing Three Sitting Rooms, Five Bedrooms, Bathroom, w.c., Kitchen, Scullery, Box Room, Gas, Hot and Cold water throughout”. In summary it is a large house, even though shared with another family, and had modern amenities for the time.

Newcastle City Mental Hospital

I searched for Thomas on the Northumberland Archives online catalogue and discovered that there was an inquest into his death. In order to obtain a copy of this I visited the archives at Woodhorn (although it is also possible to pay for research services and copies of documents remotely). The inquest didn’t have a great deal more information about his death than his death certificate. it did however contain a same of his case notes from the Newcastle City Mental Hospital giving an insight into his condition and as to how he was treated during his time there. If I wished I could also try to obtain his full case notes from the Tyne and Wear archives, which would probably also include a photo from when he was admitted.

I was able to obtain further information and photographs of the Newcastle City Mental Hospital, now known as St Nicholas Hostpal, from a number of sources. They include the Country Asylums website, the Newcastle University Co-Curate website and the National Archives Hospital Records Database (no longer maintained but still valuable).

There are a number of areas that you can explore to broaden your understanding of your ancestors and the times in which they lived. Another thing that helped me was drawing out a timeline of Thomas’ life and noting major historical events against this. This illustrated to me that Thomas lived through two world wars and he trained for his work in a time that industry was expanding and also saw industrial decline. My timeline technique helped me keep track of my findings and connect them to the history of the time.

Do you have any techniques or sources that you use when researching your family? Please share them in the comments.

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