Author Archives: Brooke Ali

Christmas Traditions

Christmas was always a big deal when I was growing up. No less than seven Christmas trees were decorated and positioned throughout the house, each with a theme. My mom and grandmother would spend days cooking and baking for a Christmas party that boasted 40+ guests; tables set up in the garage became a makeshift cold room for anything that could be made a few days ahead. There would always be certain foods, desserts especially, that were made every year, like two different kinds of trifle, one berry and one chocolate, and a tart lemon pudding served in wine glasses with berries and decorative chocolate shapes resting on top. The mail was eagerly watched for the small, white box containing my great-grandmothers assorted shortbread cookies, my favourite ones had half a dried cherry on top, and fruitcake, which was my first experience with marzipan.

It’s been many years since the days of seven Christmas trees and my Gran passed away in 2007, but I can’t enter the month of December without thinking about the many Christmas traditions that I grew up with, some newly forged and some carried on from generations passed. As I look forward to spending my first Christmas as a mom, I’m thinking a lot about where my family’s traditions came from and which ones I’ll continue (or start) with my own family. And I find myself, as I often do, turning to genealogy to help answer these questions. Genealogy can tell us a lot about our present, and uncovering the history behind treasured traditions is one of the most rewarding aspects of the pursuit. All this month I’ll be looking at Christmas traditions and what they say about our family history. So what are some of your favourite holiday traditions?

The Story of the She Wedding

I found this report published in the London St. James Chronicle on March 30, 1765.

(I’ve updated to modern spelling for you, but kept the adorably old-fashioned capitalization)

For the St. James Chronicle. Story taken from a Pamphlet in the Harleian Miscellany, entitled The She-Wedding, &c.

In the Year 1684, a Girl at Deptford proving with Child by a Sailor, when he went to Sea applied to his Mother, averring that she was his Wife, which the old Woman did not choose to believe unless the Certificate was produced. In this Dilemma the Girl consulted with a female Neighbour, of a masculine Make, between whom it was agreed that a Sham-Marriage should take place, which was solemnized at St. George’s Church in Southwark, and the Clerk being bribed, antedated the Certificate six Months, which making the supposed Mother-in-Law easy, the Wench received all the Favour such an Alliance entitled her to. But, O Grief of Griefs! the two families being overheard calling each other by the Names of Husband and Wife, it created Suspicion, and upon Examination the Cheat appearing plain, the Parson complained to the Civil Magistrate, and they were both committed to Gaol.

The moral of this story (at least for genealogists): don’t trust a single source document as proof of anything. Always seek out other sources to verify a fact, as there have been lots of reasons, over the years, for people to want to falsify documents.

Free Irish Newspapers You Can Search Online

Old Timey Newspaper

Newspapers are one of my favourite resources to search. Not only are they fun and interesting to read, but they provide a sense of the lives and concerns of their particular place and time that is unavailable in census reports and birth records. It’s so easy to get sidetracked and start reading a fascinating story about town politics or who won what at the county fair. They’re an excellent source of birth, death, and marriage announcements (especially useful if the civil registration records don’t exist or are unavailable) and you can discover some surprising information about your family (like I did when researching my ancestor Josiah Spriggs). You can also use them to learn about how world event effected the people in the community where your ancestors lived.

Newspapers are definitely worth your research time. Here is a brief list to get you started.

Richard Heaton’s Index to Digititalised [sic] British and Irish Newspapers Online Beta One of the wonderful things about the genealogy community is that its members are always creating content to help each other. Richard Heaton has created this index of digitized newspapers of the British Isles and Ireland. Not all the newspapers listed are free and some that are require membership to a library in the UK, but it’s an excellent place to start your search.

The Belfast Newsletter is available as an index, another example of genealogists helping genealogists.

An archive of Trinity News in Dublin from 1953 to 1970 has been digitized from the bound volumes of a private collection. The website also has a link to the newspaper (still in production) which has its own archive going back to 2008.

Villanova University Library has a searchable collection of historical Irish periodicals, mostly from the 19th and 20th century.

Eddie’s Extracts is yet another example of a genealogist’s hard work made available to us all, providing indexes and transcriptions of many different types of notices in local newspapers of Northern Ireland. Nick Redden is another genealogist whose newspaper extracts are worth a look.

Ireland Old News contains transcripts from, you guessed it, old Irish newspapers. It covers most counties, but its coverage varies greatly. However, they add new transcripts often, so it may be work bookmarking and checking periodically.

Not an Irish newspaper but it may be of use, The Boston Pilot ran a “Missing Friends” column from 1831 to 1921 in which Irish people could could post messages searching for lost friends and relatives who had emigrated to America. The collection is hosted and made searchable through Boston College.


If you’ve run through these free options and found yourself less than blessed of Irish luck, and you’ve decided to open your purse a little, a good option is the Irish News Archive. It provides access to over 40 papers from around Ireland covering 300 years of publishing. Costs run from €10 for 24 hour access to €350 for a full year. If you have a good idea of what you’re looking for (names, keywords, dates, location, etc.) or would be willing to binge search the archive for a few hours, you may find the results worth the cost of a 24 hour subscription.

What are your favourite resources for searching Irish periodicals?

Vintage Guinness Advertisements

There’s that old joke that an Irish seven course meal is a potato and a six-pack of Guinness. There is no question that Guinness is an iconic part of Irish heritage, not least because of it’s fun and clever advertising. Although it relied on word of mouth for most of its long history, it began launching ad campaigns at the end of the 1920s, many becoming so popular that even today they can be seen on posters in college dorm rooms throughout the world.

Some of the most iconic of the vintage Guinness ads are the ones attributed to John Gilroy, a graphic designer working at S H Benson, Ltd. His first published ad in 1928 started the “Guinness for Strength” campaign.

If St. George and the dragon both have a Guinness, won't they be evenly matched?

If St. George and the dragon both have a Guinness, won’t they be evenly matched?

Over the next 35 years he helped create nearly 50 poster designs for Guinness, including some of the brand’s most memorable. He is responsible for the various zoo animals (the toucan being the most famous) and for that (rather creepy) face in the beer froth that appeared regularly in ads from the 30s to the 60s.

So creepy

So creepy

Apparently the toucan was originally designed as a pelican balancing seven pints of Guinness on its beak for the “A Guinness a Day is Good for You” campaign, but it was redesigned as a pelican by Dorothy L Sayers who was part of the team that worked on the Guinness account.


Of course, more recent advertising standards have meant that Guinness hasn’t been able to use the “Guinness a Day” slogan in years, although some studies have suggested that a pint of Guinness may have similar effects to aspirin to reduce blood clots.

Although many of the ads are cute or silly, the brand has still made use of some of the usual tropes one expects to find in a beer ad.

Two Things

My Uncle, Wrongfully Convicted

Serendipity is an important source of information. Although it’s completely out of our control, unlike intentional searches, it can be just as productive. If you sit down at a table of genealogists, you will be guaranteed to find a story of serendipity from each of them. That’s part of the excitement of research, you never know what you’re gong to find when you’re looking for something else.

My favourite moment of serendipity came a few years ago when I was researching my great-great-great grandfather, Josiah Spriggs. I knew that he was a journalist in London and I thought it would be cool to find some articles he’d written, so I did a newspaper search for his name on I did succeed in finding his name, but not in the byline as I had expected. What I found was an 1897 newspaper article from the Liverpool Daily Post titled “The outrage on a lady cyclist in Flintshire.” The article explained that a man named Frank Wallace Spriggs (my great-great-great uncle) was arrested and charged with “robbery with violence” and “attempted criminal assault” for allegedly knocking a young woman from her bicycle, attempting to “indecently assault” her and stealing her ring and bracelet. Josiah was mentioned in the article because he and my 3g grandmother spoke as witnesses for him, stating that he had been either at home or in the company of a family member all that day.

Obviously, I was surprised and very intrigued. A family member arrested for robbery, assault, and what can safely be assumed to be attempted rape! I began browsing through issues of the Liverpool Daily Post and found another article from a few months later. This one was much shorter, more of a blurb than an article, stating simply that he had been sentenced to five years penal servitude. Penal servitude?! More searching came up with nothing and the trail, as far as newspapers were concerned, was closed. Or so I thought. Then came the next bit of serendipity. Another ancestry member made a connection with my tree based on our shared ancestry with the Spriggs family. She was happy to be connected to the Liverpool articles about Frank, which she had not found herself. What she had turned up was an article from a New Zealand newspaper called The Colonist. It was originally written in Maori, but my new friend was able to send me a transcription of the translated article. It stated that my uncle had been released after two months and the author of the piece felt that he had only been convicted because the judge had unjustly influenced the jury. It included some information not found in the earlier articles, such as the fact that a dozen witnesses had swore that he wasn’t within a hundred miles of the incident and that the cyclist and others had identified him through his photo.

This leads to more questions. Why had the police had a photo of him in the first place? Did he already have prior arrests? Is that what prejudiced the judge against him? Who are the other witnesses who identified him? Surely they couldn’t have been witness to the crime itself, because who would be stupid enough to try to rape somebody in from of an audience?

Although I tend to keep my research restricted to my immediate ancestors, this story has kept me fascinated. Next step is to try and find some of the primary records involved: the arrest record, the court records, his transportation records to New Zealand. One open door leads to a whole corridor of others to explore. That’s part of the fun!

How Do You Say “Search” in Gaelic?

In an effort to encourage the use of its traditional language, the National Library of Scotland has added a Gaelic search page to its website. Gaelic is on my list of languages I’d like to learn, although I can already sing a few Gaelic songs (thanks to The Rankin Family). I have yet to find any records that indicate that my own Scottish lineage included Gaelic speakers, but I’m always on the lookout.

Vintage Toronto Facebook Page

I like the idea of having regular structured posts, mainly because it gives me a guaranteed theme for at least one post each week! So I am introducing Vintage Fridays, where each Friday I post about something cool and vintage.

This week’s post is about the Vintage Toronto Facebook Page. This page showcases beautiful photos of Toronto gone by. The photographs are very diverse, including buildings and street views, as well as historical moments. They have recently started a Flikr group, as well, to make the photographs searchable. Try not to get lost scrolling through all the historic photos!

Scotland in Stitches


Textiles and history are intricately connected in our consciousness. When we talk about history, references to textiles abound: we weave a story, tell a yarn, and spin a tale. And why not? Textiles have long been a common medium for recording history, with the tapestry coming first and foremost to mind.

This may be why internationally known story-teller Alexander McCall Smith got the idea to propose a tapestry that stitches together (pun intended) the history of Scotland – or at least as much of it as they could fit into 143 m of Scottish linen. The Great Tapestry of Scotland now holds the record as the longest tapestry ever made. The 160 panels were drawn by artist Andrew Crummy and embroidered by 1,000 volunteers over 50,000 hours. The tapestry beats the famous Bayeaux Tapestry in length by 70m, and the organizers claim that they intend to continue to add to it as Scottish history rolls on.

Many of the stitchers have a personal connection to the work they did on the tapestry. Some modeled figures in the tapestry after their own family members, or included references to their personal history in the design. One woman, while researching for her panel, discovered that her ancestors were actually a part of the whaling industry that she was depicting.

As an avid amateur textile historian, I’m enthralled with this piece. It gets my imagination going and makes me wonder what a Canadian history tapestry would look like. Although it certainly wouldn’t be as long as Scotland’s, which includes more than 12,000 years of history, it would definitely be diverse, including events, people, and culture from our vast land.

After touring Scotland, the tapestry will be brought to the UK, America, and Canada. I’ll definitely update when I find out the specific tour details; hopefully it will make a stop here in Toronto.

Read the BBC article, which includes a 2 minute BBC News video, here.

“Genealogy Roadshow” – Nashville

First, a correction: I had read on a genealogy blog that last night’s episode would be set in San Francisco. It was actually set in Nashville (which I should have figured out by the trailer I linked to *facepalm*).

The show is formatted very much like antiques roadshow, the difference being that instead of just showing up with an antique teapot and standing in the line for the expert on antique teapots, participants had to submit their genealogy questions ahead of time, which makes sense considering the amount of research that would be required to answer anyone’s question. They showed a wide variety of cases, my favourite being a woman whom they were able to prove was related to the outlaw Jesse James. They also included short histories of some of the famous people who were researched, and the historical building in which the taping took place.

In all, I enjoyed the show, although I missed the last 15 minutes because one of my babies started crying and I needed to go deal with him. I look forward to next week’s episode, which will be set in Detroit.

“Genealogy Roadshow” Premieres Tonight


There has been a proliferation of genealogy television shows lately. From Ancestors in the Attack to Who Do You Think You Are (produced separately in America, Canada, and England), there are lots of options for armchair genealogists. Tonight a new title is being added to the selection. The producers of the very popular Antiques Roadshow have created Genealogy Roadshow. Just as you’d expect, they travel around the country to provide access to history experts, only instead of appraising antique tea cups, they’re uncovering the truth behind people’s family history. Tonight’s episode comes from San Francisco, a city with a fascinating history including bootlegging, gangster, and the Gold Rush.

For those of us in Toronto, tune in at 9:00 on PBS Buffalo (WNED). You can see trailers for the show here. I’ll post my thought’s on tonight’s episode tomorrow.