Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Metal Detecting, Genealogy and Family History

I have two great hobbies: Metal Detecting and Family History. You may think there is little connection between the two since you would have great difficulty in finding any metal objects relating to your own family with a metal detector unless you happened to know where something had been lost. Other detectorists however, are regularly finding personalised metal artefacts as I call them, which would be of considerable interest to anyone researching the families to which they relate. There is an army of family historians throughout the world eagerly searching for any scrap of information about their ancestors, especially the tangible proof of their existence that artefacts can provide. For us detectorists this can bring interesting stories about the individuals associated with our finds; a possible market for finds, some of which are being consigned to the scrap box and potentially another sector of the public looking on our hobby in a favourable light.
From the family historian’s point of view there is considerable difficulty in discovering what artefacts even existed let alone what has been lost or discarded and where. For instance I only know of one missing metal artefact from my family and that is my grandfather’s long service award gold wristwatch, inscribed to Frank Jones, which was stolen from his Birmingham home some 40 years ago. What has happened to it since is anyone’s guess. Clearly there are difficulties on both sides of the fence since generally the family historian doesn’t know what’s been found and by whom and the detectorist doesn’t know who may be interested in his or her finds. But before we try and resolve that one, let’s take a look at the sort of objects we’re finding that have family history connections, and some of the publications which can help trace their origins.
Military Medals
From at least the time of the Napoleonic Wars, military medals have been inscribed with the name of the recipient and usually other details such as rank, regiment and number. The medals that turn up are usually from the First World War but I do know of at least one Falklands War medal found. Also presented to the next of kin of men and women killed in active service during WWI were the almost five-inch diameter bronze plaques often dubbed ‘death or dead men’s pennies’ which were sometimes thrown away in disgust. These plaques have a design on one side only, which shows Britannia standing with a lion, the deceased’s name in a tablet and the legend: ‘He (or she) died for freedom and honour’. Plaques inscribed with women’s names are very rare.
Civilian Medals
Medals have been issued for all sorts of reasons and events of which sport undoubtedly accounts for a large proportion. Among perhaps the less energetic pursuits, which attracted awards in the past, was school attendance. I have inherited a bronze medal awarded to my grandmother for four years excellent attendance when she was 11 years old, inscribed Hilda Brotherton 1908 around the edge and I found a similar Sunday School attendance medal in Devon, although this unfortunately had no legible inscription. An interesting gilded silver medal I found in Kent was awarded to J M WARDEN in 1929 for services to Esperanto, the universal language invented by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof in 1898. This medal also shows maker’s details: ANDRIEU FECIT DE PUYMAURIN DI, which also may be of some interest to a family historian.
Buttons are probably the most common metal detecting find largely as a result of the former use of old clothing, called shoddy, which was used as an agricultural mulch and eventually was ploughed into the land. Buttons can provide a wealth of information in three main areas. The first is that on most of the more elaborate buttons, the maker put his name and often his address. A List of button makers can be found in Alan and Gillian Meredith, Michael J Cuddeford, Identifying Buttons, (Mount Publications, 1997) but this list is far from complete. Secondly and particularly interesting among buttons are 18th- 20th century livery buttons which are usually large (about 25mm diameter) and embossed with a family crest. These would generally have been sewn onto the uniforms of staff and servants of the family whose crest is displayed. James Fairburn, Fairburn’s Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, (London, 1986) is the standard and very comprehensive work on family crests. Finally there is the much scorned group of buttons, which nevertheless have great potential for family historians, colloquially known as fly buttons from one of their uses on men’s trousers during the 19th century up until about 40 years ago. I have to confess to being old enough to remember trousers with buttons and know such buttons were also used to fasten braces and adjust waistbands, I suspect they were also used on undergarments as well as overalls. It was only recently that my detecting friend, Brian, handed me one of these buttons and asked if I’d seen one like it before. "Hundreds!" Was my immediate answer until prompted to take a closer look when I read Oliver Gold Chilham embossed on the front of the button. Knowing Chilham to be a small Kent village not likely to support button making, I was puzzled and went off to look Oliver up on the 1881 census, which is freely available in most libraries and record offices. It turns out he was the village tailor and must have had his details stamped on the buttons he used as a form of advertising. Brian and I went through some of our buttons found in Kent and around 10% carried tailors’ inscriptions from places near and far.
I haven’t discovered any tailors, button makers or British aristocrats in my own ancestry but I have a link to Dent’s, the glove manufacturers, who also used metal buttons, for, in 1837, my great-great grand aunt Sarah Davis Bennett (nee Northwood) married Jeremiah Macklin Allcroft, one of the firm’s partners.
Bachelor brothers, John and William Dent, founded the firm known then as J & W Dent & Co. in Worcester in 1777, soon gaining additional premises in London. In 1801 Jeremiah Macklin Allcroft was apprenticed to John Dent and by 1822 had become a partner in the firm which became known as Dent, Allcroft & Co. in 1855. By this time Jeremiah and the Dent brothers had retired and John Derby Allcroft, Jeremiah’s son by his first wife, was running the show. Under John Derby’s management, annual production quadrupled to over 12 million pairs in 1884 and Dents became the premier glove producer in the world. Over a hundred years later Dents are still very much in business based in Warminster, Wiltshire; the London and Worcester factories having closed.
It’s not often that you come face to face with your own family history out in the field but about once every thirty years it seems to happen. I was taking part in a local metal detecting rally when out of the blue a stranger showed me the female half of a press-stud engraved with the words: DENT’S MAKE he had dug up, asking me if I knew what it was. Why he asked me, I don’t know, although he probably wished he hadn’t by the time I’d related the complete history of Dent’s the glove-makers. The enquirer escaped before I had chance to make an offer for the best find of the rally as far as I was concerned and I thought I would have to try and corner the guy later. As it happened I didn’t need to, for about an hour later I found a complete Dent’s glove button myself. Both the button, which quite recently went out of use, and the press-stud, still in use today, were used for fastening leather gloves at the wrist, by the way.
Maker’s Plates and Marks
There are a considerable variety of manufactured items, which bear some details of their maker. In the case of jewellery, watches, cutlery and bells the makers’ mark was stamped somewhere on the metal object itself. Other larger and less metallic items, such as saddles often had a metal plate attached, carrying the makers’ name. There are a few books around which can help trace some of these manufacturers. Most books on hallmarks, for example, Judith Banister, Ed, English Silver Hall-marks, (Foulsham, 1983) contain a list of precious metal workers and their marks. E R Matheau-Raven, The Identification and Dating of Sheffield Electroplated Wares 1843-1943, (Foulsham, 1977) lists 700 makers of Sheffield plate and there is a list of bell founders in Gordon Bailey, Detector Finds, (Greenlight Publishing, 1992). A further point concerning some items such as watches, jewellery and cutlery is they may be further personalised with their owner’s name or initials.
Since medieval times substitutes for the coin of the realm have been produced to either satisfy a shortage of small change or provide for a more specific and often local function. Today the token still exists in a fairly uninspired form mainly to feed slot machines of various types but in the past there were two major periods of trade token issuing in response to severe shortages of regal currency. The most recent, during the late eighteenth century to early nineteenth century, was started in 1787 by Thomas Williams, owner of the Parys Mines Company in Anglesey who produced the well-known druid’s head copper halfpennies and pennies on coin presses, he also owned, in Birmingham. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker followed suit issuing tokens spasmodically until after the Napoleonic wars which were partly the reason for shortages of coin. The standard reference works are: R Dalton & S Hamer, The Provincial Token-Coinage of the 18th Century, (1910-1918, 1977, 1990, 1996); W J Davis, The Nineteenth Century Token Coinage of Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, (London, 1904, 1969) and Michael Mitchiner, Jetons, Medalets and Tokens, Volume 3, British Isles, (London, 1998). Other more general but nevertheless useful books are: Peter Seaby and Monica Busssell, British Tokens and Their Values (London, 1970 & 1984); Edward Fletcher, Tokens & Tallies Through the Ages, (Greenlight Publishing, 2003) and Edward Fletcher, Tokens & Tallies 1850-1950, (Greenlight Publishing, 2004)
More than a century earlier the civil war had produced a currency crisis, which started the issuing of base metal trade tokens in mainly farthing and halfpenny denominations. The typical token displays forename, surname, place of occupation and trade of the issuer; initial letter of spouse’s forename and an image, commonly a shield, related to the trade or the family. For example a token I have is inscribed ‘Edward Crayford in: Canterbury Grocer’, one side shows a black boy smoking; the other has the initials E C B which stand for Edward Crayford and his wife who was probably named Bess. The first catalogue of 17th century tokens was compiled by William Boyne, Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century in England, Wales and Ireland by Corporations, Merchants, tradesmen Etc., (London, 1858) and subsequently revised by George C. Williamson (1967) and Michael Dickinson, Seventeenth Century Tokens Of The British Isles And Their Values, (London, 2004).
Heraldic Mounts and Pendants
During the 13th to 15th centuries heraldic mounts were popularly fitted to portable equipment as a means of identification and pendants were suspended from horse harnesses by way of decoration. These pieces only relate to ancestors who bore arms and there are often difficulties in interpreting them because the enamels used tend to disappear or change colour in the ground and the heraldry itself may be less than accurate. I have, for instance, a mount found on the site of Shillingheld manor in Kent, which depicts arms so similar to Shillingheld that it is highly unlikely to be from a different family, however the facing and the extent of the beasts portrayed is incorrect. Details of some of these mounts and pendants have been published in a number of places but there is no catalogue as such, however, Joseph Foster, The Dictionary of Heraldry (London 1989) is very useful for identifying what arms were awarded to whom.
Seal Matrices
The device that makes the impression, usually in molten wax, is called a seal matrix and these matrices were in use from the twelfth century until largely replaced by the rubber stamp in recent times. Illiteracy was rife until the twentieth century so, for those who could afford it, the sealing of documents was an effective way of distinguishing between signatories and consequently seal matrices were produced in considerable numbers in either ‘stock’ or personally commissioned designs. The personalised matrices will be of particular interest although attribution to a particular person is often difficult for a number of reasons. The earliest designs, usually made in lead tended to be typically inscribed in Latin: ‘Seal of Forename son/daughter of Forename’ so, unless you can find a document with the very same seal applied it is very difficult to identify the former owner. Similarly later designs, usually made in bronze, often take the form: ‘Seal of Forename of Place Name’ and even matrices bearing a surname are often misspelled or contracted. Despite the difficulties an ancestral seal matrix would make a wonderful family treasure. Although there are sections on seal matrices in several of the general metal detecting finds publications, the only comprehensive work I have come across is: P D A Harvey & Andrew McGuinness, A Guide to British Medieval Seals (London, 1996).
Contacting Family Historians
With the ever increasing popularity of both Family History and Metal Detecting hobbies it probably won’t be long before someone starts an index of personalised metal objects with the aim of bringing finds and families together. Meanwhile there are four monthly magazines: Family Tree Magazine and Practical Family History, both published by ABM Publishing, 61 Great Whyte, Ramsey, Huntingdon, PE26 1HJ (; Ancestors, published by the National Archives, PO Box 38, Richmond, TW9 4AJ ( and Family History Monthly, published by Diamond Publishing, 45 St Mary’s Road, Ealing W5 5RQ. The first two magazines mentioned would be my choice for trying to make contact with relevant families through their reader’s letters, interests or small ads pages. Alternatively or additionally, as there is a network of family history societies covering all counties, you could contact individual societies in the area where your find originated. The Federation of Family History Societies, PO Box 2425, Coventry CV5 6YX ( will be able to direct you to the appropriate society.
The DIY Route
Family history research is a vast subject and, although it is quite an easy task to carry out, it would require a complete article or two just to outline the basics. If you want to try your hand at researching people associated with your finds or your own family history for that matter, the best advice I can give you, other than to check out your local library, is to contact The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ( Members of the LDS Church are encouraged to trace their ancestors and Family History Centres have been set up in most major towns. As a gesture of goodwill these excellent research facilities are open to the general public for free and with absolutely no expectation or pressure for you to join their congregation.

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