Family history

[ I haven’t posted much lately. Lots going on but it’s not really blog material. Meanwhile the following might be of interest. I wrote it a few months ago for one of my nieces, who was doing a school project on family history. I’ve checked with my immediate relatives and nobody can think of any reason not to post it here. ]

I heard you’re doing a project on family history and I’ve been thinking about what sort of thing you might want to know. Here are some of my thoughts. Remember that these (especially the “general ideas” that I’ve written first) are only one person’s ideas, and other people might have different ideas. It would be good to check with other people rather than just believing everything I have written.

General ideas about our family

In this section I’m going to write down some general things that I think are unusual about our family when I compare it with some other families. I’m very interested in patterns, so when I am thinking about history I look for things that happen over again in similar ways, so that they make a sort of pattern in time. (Sometimes I might go too far with this, though – I might think that things are following a pattern when actually they aren’t.)

I don’t know the whole history, of course, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about people from four or five generations of the family, so these ideas are based on those stories.

Moving to new places

The first unusual thing is that our family doesn’t have its roots in one special place. Some people, when you ask them to tell you their family history, will talk about a place (or perhaps a few places). They’ll say “That’s where we come from.” Even if they live in a different place themselves, they feel that there is a special place (a house, or a village, or a city) where their family really “belongs”.

Our family isn’t like that. In most generations, after our ancestors grew up they decided to move away to a different place to live. Nowadays lots of people do this, but in past times it was not such a normal thing to do. Our family was ahead of the times! I like to think that this is because they were clever people. They looked around at the world, and thought about what they could do best themselves, and moved to a place where they could make the best use of their own abilities.

Of course, the sad thing about all this moving around was that quite a lot of the children grew up without having relatives nearby. In other families (like part of my husband’s family, for example) there were cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all living a short walk away.

On the other hand, a good thing about it was that they had relatives a long distance away, so they could go and visit them, and learn about how things were different in other places.

Here’s a suggestion for your project. Make a map of Britain and mark all the places where people in our family have lived. You could even draw arrows from one place to another to show how people moved. This might be quite an interesting bit of the project.

Women who do interesting things

In many families, the family history is really a history of just the men. The women only come into the story because they are the daughter, or the wife, or the mother of a man who did something interesting. They didn’t do interesting things themselves. In our family it’s not like that. The women were often in charge and made the decisions about what to do. I like that (because I’m a woman!).

Getting involved with politics

Several people in our family, particularly on Granddad’s side, have been very concerned about things that don’t seem to be fair (there are lots of examples of this kind of unfairness, such as some people having more money than others, and so on). Rather than just saying “that’s the way things are and there’s nothing you can do about it”, many of us have tried to make things better. Quite a few of us have done this by joining the Labour Party. Others didn’t agree with all of the Labour Party’s ideas but have still tried to make things better in other ways.

Of course, we haven’t solved all the problems of the world! But there are some things that we can point to, some changes that have happened that really have made things a bit better for everybody, where we can say “I helped to make that happen – maybe if I hadn’t bothered to get involved, it wouldn’t have happened at all”. This is very satisfying.

Stories about particular people

I expect you’ve already looked at the family tree and been given a list of who is who. These are just some extra stories to fill in the details. Please ask me if you need more information to understand how these stories fit into the big picture. I haven’t written about all the interesting people because I didn’t have time – it would fill a whole book!

Murdina Alice Crown (later Murdina Alice Winter): Grandma’s mother

Her family came from Sunderland, and I’m pretty sure that her mother was Irish. (Check this with Grandma because I can’t quite remember!).

She preferred to be known as Alice. I think she didn’t like the name Murdina because it’s an unusual one and she was a no-nonsense kind of person who preferred names to be more ordinary. She didn’t like “making a fuss” about things. I think it’s rather a nice name – it’s an ancient Scottish/Gaelic one originally. If it had been my name, I would have used it!

She must have been a clever girl, because after leaving school she trained to be a teacher. In those days very few girls went to University and you would only be able to do that if you came from a rich family. Training to be a teacher was the next best thing.

She married a man called Thomas Winter. He had various different jobs but didn’t earn a lot of money, so it was very lucky for the family that she was a teacher, because this gave them a home as well as money. The teacher in a village school in those days would be given a house that went with the job, so they lived in the School House, first in a village called Cliff, and later in a village next to the sea on the east coast of Yorkshire, called Atwick. Atwick was a very small village, so the school was very small too, and children of different ages sat alongside each other – there weren’t enough children to have separate classes for different ages.

(Murdina) Alice and Tom had two children, Margaret (your Grandma) and her elder sister Jean. Both of them went to the village school, so they were taught by their own mother until they were 11 years old. After that they would go to Bridlington on the bus, to the High School. It was a long bus ride, too far for children younger than 11.

When Murdina Alice got too old to work any more, she retired. By then there were even fewer children living in the village, and the education authority decided to do something different about teaching them (I’m not sure what happens now – perhaps they get a bus to somewhere nearer than Bridlington). So the school house wasn’t needed any more, and they let her and her husband stay there. They lived there for the rest of their lives. The school itself stood empty for quite a long time, but eventually it was converted into a community centre for the village.

There was an article in the local newspaper about her when she retired. Ask Grandma about this – she’s got a copy of it.

She was very musical, and used to play the piano and also the church organ. She was very good at knitting and crochet as well.

Frederick Woodall: Granddad’s grandfather

He grew up somewhere in the Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, maybe?). I don’t know a lot about him (Granddad can tell you more, I’m sure). He was a tailor and also a Quaker. He moved to London.

He used to make tailor’s chalk (a special kind of chalk that is used for drawing lines on cloth so that you can cut it out accurately). He made white tailor’s chalk for normal use and a blue version for drawing on white cloth because white marks don’t show up on white cloth. He invented a way of making the chalk into solid pieces like little cakes, by pressing it into shape in a cylinder and then squeezing it out and chopping pieces off. To give the pieces an edge so that they could be used for drawing, he would rub them on pieces of white cloth.

One day he washed out some of the white cloths that he’d used for making an edge on the blue tailor’s chalk, and he noticed that they seemed to come out a very bright, clean-looking sparkling white. He realised that the blue colour in the blue tailor’s chalk made white cloth look “whiter than white”. He mentioned this to a man he met in a pub, who paid him £10 for it. This other man then went to a company called Reckitt and Coleman, who made washing powder, and sold them the idea. For many years afterwards they sold a special blue washing powder called Reckitt’s Blue, which was based on this invention. Ten pounds doesn’t seem like much money for such a good idea, but this was a very long time ago and money was worth much more then, so actually, thinking about it now, it doesn’t seem like such a very bad reward.

I don’t know anything else about him or his wife.

He had several children, and they all (as far as I know) went into the tailoring business. Some or all of them moved to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. They were all Quakers. There were two daughters who never got married, and lived to be very old. Younger people in the family called them “The Aunts” and were quite scared of them – they used to boss everyone else around. I met them once when they were very old and I was a very little girl (younger than you are now). Ask Granddad about them.

There was also a son in this family, who was…

Henry Woodall: Granddad’s father

I never met him. He died just before I was born, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about him.

One of the special things about being a Quaker is that Quakers refuse to join in when there is a war. They won’t join the army, the navy or the air force, because they don’t believe that being violent is ever the solution to any problem. They even refuse to join when the government is telling everybody to join, which happens sometimes in history (not very often – only when there is a really big war going on). This is called being a Conscientious Objector.

When Henry Woodall was a young man, the First World War happened, and he was a Conscientious Objector. Instead of joining in with the fighting, he decided to do something to help make things better, so he joined with other Quakers who were organising an ambulance service to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefields. He had to be very brave to do this, because it was very dangerous to go onto battlefields where there were lots of bullets and bombs. He probably spent more time in those dangerous places than a lot of the soldiers did, so he was quite lucky to come out of it alive.

He was given some medals later on for what he did with the Quakers’ ambulance service. (Your Dad has got these medals now – ask him to show you). Another interesting thing happened because of this later on, after the war was over: one of the men he had worked with in the ambulance service had a father who was called Ramsay MacDonald. About six years after the war ended, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister (he was the first ever Labour Prime Minister), so Granddad’s father got to go to a party at number 10 Downing Street for all the people who had worked on the ambulance service.

He lived on for another 40 years after the end of the First World War. As well as being a tailor, and carrying on being a Quaker, he was very good at playing bowls. He won a lot of cups and trophies for this.

He was married to…

Evelyn Avis (later Evelyn Woodall): Granddad’s mother

I don’t know much about her early life or her parents. I think her family didn’t have very much money. She was quite clever but she had to leave school quite young to get a job and start earning money. She started work as an apprentice tailor in the Woodall family’s business, and this is how she met Henry, who later on became her husband. I don’t know whether her family were Quakers or whether she became a Quaker after meeting him, but anyway she was one for all the rest of her life.

She and Henry set up a tailoring business together in Eastbourne. They lived in a tall house. The ground floor was the shop, where customers would come to be measured and to choose the materials for their clothes. At the back, behind the shop, was the workroom where they would cut out the clothes and sew them together. Upstairs were the living rooms and bedrooms.

Henry was a very skilled tailor but he didn’t have the ability to manage a business, and would not have been able to do it on his own. The business worked well because both of them worked at it together. A woman came in to help in the house and look after the children so that Evelyn had time to work at the tailoring business. (I suppose the proper word for a woman who does that sort of job is a “servant”, but I think that gives the wrong impression because they weren’t the kind of rich people who you think of as having servants – they just needed somebody to help out because of the business).

The Second World War caused a big change in their lives. They were too old to need to worry about being involved in the war itself (only young adults get told to join armies and navies etc usually, and by this time they were middle-aged, not young any more), but the war still caused them big problems. Because Eastbourne is on the south coast, German bombers would fly over on the way to London, so lots of their customers moved away and went to live in places they thought were safer. Now there were not enough people left in Eastbourne who wanted to pay to have their clothes made, so the tailoring business stopped making enough money to pay for the family to live. Evelyn and Henry therefore had to move.

They decided to go and start again in a town called Abergavenny in South Wales. It must have been difficult for them, starting up their business all over again in a new place where nobody knew them. I don’t know why they chose Abergavenny. There were very few Quakers there, and most of the other people were Welsh. They must have felt very left out to begin with. But eventually it worked out alright, and they found enough people who wanted to pay to have clothes made. They also found a house that was arranged in the same way as the house in Eastbourne had been, with a shop and a workroom on the ground floor, and the living rooms upstairs, and they stayed there all the rest of their lives.

Lots more people…

Oh dear! I’ve been typing all day nearly, and I’ve left so much out. I’d better stop now and get some work done. If I have time, I’ll write again and fill in some more facts about other people.

Some things on the Web

Here are some things you can find on the Internet about people in our family.

Granddad has done lots of research work in computer science and mathematics. Here you can see a list of some articles he has written. Actually that only shows a few of them, just the most recent ones. There is a famous computer science textbook by Donald Knuth called The Art of Computer Programming. Granddad is mentioned in this! His name is in the index. Maybe you could include a photocopy of that bit of the index in your project.

Here is a bit about the village of Atwick. (There is a caravan site at Atwick. You could go and see what it’s like. The sea there is very cold!)

Here is a website about the Quakers.

By the way, if you want to know anything about me, you can look at my personal website.


Dealing with errors

Unintended distractions impede communication

My work is about improving the flow of information. To communicate ideas successfully to other people you need to get rid of distractions because they will irritate your audience and divert attention from your message. Errors of fact, errors in grammar and punctuation, inconsistencies in style and infelicities in appearance can all distract your readers.

Strategies for minimising errors

There are three distinct approaches to the problem. They are not alternatives: you need to do them all.

  • Check finished work so as to find the errors in it
  • For each error that you know exists, decide what to do about it
  • Improve working methods so as to reduce the occurrence of errors

The process of finding errors

To find errors that might impede communication you have to think about how the recipient might misunderstand your meaning. You have to look with fresh eyes at the draft publication, examining it for errors, ambiguities and opacities that might cause a reader to waste time trying to fit incorrect but plausible possible meanings to it, or to start thinking about some other aspect of the material that doesn’t relate to the ideas you are trying to convey.

I am excited by the work of identifying errors and infelicities, whether they occur in text, in pictures or in computer source code. I enjoy the mental process involved: the imaginative effort that it takes to put oneself into the position of the reader (or the computer), lacking the background knowledge that would resolve ambiguities, and then to see whether the text still makes sense. I also enjoy the state of total immersion in the task, which is absolutely necessary for this work of polishing and improving – it can’t be done if you have any part of your mind on something else.

It happens that I am rather good at this. As a reader I am very easily distracted and misled by errors in text, even those that many other readers don’t see. They irritate me and make my mind wander away from what the author is trying to say. It can be a real annoyance when I’m reading for information, but this propensity is exactly what gives me the ability to do this sort of work successfully.

See my art pages to understand the connection between the way I think about making (or editing) pictures and the way I edit text or software. There are some surprising parallels here.

Deciding whether errors are worth correcting

To make a thoroughly professional job of preparing a publication you have to do something that is more difficult, and less satisfying, than simply finding the errors – but absolutely necessary. You have to decide, for each error you have found, whether it is worth fixing: whether the risk incurred by making the change is greater than the risk of harm being done by leaving the error in. The hardest thing about this work is having to make a decision to leave a known error uncorrected.

To a person inexperienced in the field it is very hard to see why this should ever be necessary. It is very difficult to persuade authors of text that a correction, although clearly desirable, simply can’t be done – even if the book hasn’t been printed yet. Similarly, restraining junior programmers, especially very able ones, from fixing bugs in software is very difficult. The most important task for the professional handler of errors is to make the right decision about each error and to persuade everyone else involved to accept it.

These are the things we have to weigh when deciding whether to correct an error:

  • How much will the correction cost? How much work will have to be re-done as a consequence of the change? How much delay will be caused? What is the cost of the delay?
  • How much harm would the uncorrected error cause? Can the user or reader, although perhaps annoyed by it, work around it without serious inconvenience? How much will the presence of the error harm our reputation or weaken the case we are trying to make?
  • What new errors do we risk introducing in our efforts to correct this one? Are we likely to notice them in the time we have left to re-check the final result? What is the risk that they turn out to be worse – more harmful – errors than this one?

In the software industry this decision process is commonly referred to by a term borrowed from the field of emergency medicine: triage. It is usually the responsibility of a release manager working in conjunction with a product manager. I have done a lot of work in this area.

Preventing errors from occurring

Dealing with errors in a publication is in some ways analogous to the job of testing and debugging a software system. To communicate successfully with a computer you need to avoid making errors of logic that will mislead it. This is not very different, conceptually, from the process of eliminating errors in the text and layout of publications to prevent them misleading human readers. As a software engineer I spent a lot of my time worrying about errors and devising ways of preventing them appearing, and I became an advocate for the use of configuration management systems, portable programming techniques and coding standards long before the need for these things was generally taken for granted. I learned some valuable lessons from this, many of which I believe are applicable in publishing also.

Since I began my career in the software industry in the early 1980s I have seen huge advances in the understanding of error prevention and in the general acceptance of systems and working practices that help with it. In the 1980s and early 1990s some respected software developers would argue passionately against the use of a source code control system on the grounds that it stifled their creativity, or object to running nightly builds and automated tests on the grounds that they wasted resources. This kind of thing is much less common today. I believe the same kind of change will eventually happen in the publishing industry also.

Feedroll proves disappointing

I’m disappointed to see that the new RSS feed on my website doesn’t seem to update very quickly. This post is really just to see whether I can provoke it into doing something…

Updated personal website

Now its the turn of my own website. I’ve done the redesign and finished the work-releated pages. Some of the other stuff – local politics and so on – is not done yet but Ive decided to go ahead and upload the new site because the old version was horribly out of date, and even in its unfinished state I think the new one is better.

Comments on the doodle that decorates the page headings would be welcome. I cant decide whether it’s a good idea or not.

Renoir landscapes at the National Gallery

Monet is better! Really Renoir should have done figures all along. (They show two early works of theirs side by side and it’s obvious.) But some of Renoir’s work is very good – especially later ones with less distracting stuff in them, just lots of vegetation.

Sometimes it looks as though he has turned up the Shadows/Highlights filter in Photoshop too high – shadow areas aren’t deep enough and they’re too blue.

[ We actually went to this exhibition a week ago last Saturday, but I haven’t fully got into the blogging habit yet so it only just occurred to me that it’s the kind of thing I could post. This is transcribed from my notebook entry at the time. ]

The personal and the public: 10 years on

Ten years ago we brought down the Government, and then we got married. It was a very happy time, all in all. Lots of things are conspiring just now to bring it all back, and to remind us how long it’s been.

There’s Tony Blair’s resignation, of course (I could write a long essay on all the emotions that produces. Maybe another time. I guess there are enough of those essays about at the moment – you don’t need me to add to them).

And this morning I got an email from a friend who did one of the readings at our wedding (a few lines about marriage taken from Four Quartets), asking for a pointer to the text so that he could read it again at someone else’s. So I dug the wedding script out again and spent a happy half-hour wallowing in nostalgia.

Andrew has just installed MediaWiki here so that we can have our own household wiki, for shopping lists and so on — mundane stuff, mostly. (Much cursing during the installation process, which seemed to require a complete OS upgrade on our fileserver. Why are these things always so hard?). So this morning I put the wedding script in as the first page. Seemed a good starting point.

Doesn’t time fly?

Must be Spring

Everyone I know who has a blog seems to have written a new entry in it over the past few days; even those who hadn’t written anything for months. Perhaps they had time because of the Easter holiday.

I’ve started something new too, though in my case it’s displacement activity (I’m writing text for a book and I have to deliver it in a couple of weeks’ time): I’ve finally got tired of being an anonymous editor, and have created myself a Wikipedia account. I was stuck for ages on choosing what to call myself. Naming is so hard to get right.

There is a Posy Simmonds cartoon strip about displacement activities called “Nine to Five”, an ancient copy of which, cut from a newspaper, I’ve just located (the search for it was, of course, a displacement activity in itself). I’m just wrestling with my conscience about copyright issues. I’d love to post a scan of it. As far as I know, it’s no longer available for purchase or download.

del.icio.us

I’ve always ignored del.icio.us because of its silly name (though perhaps as the Managing Director of Little Pink Cloud Ltd I should be less snobbish about such things). Anyway, today I found out that it’s useful. So I’ve started to use it.