• Otterson - Berry Roots

These are the stories of our ancestors: The lives they led - the paths they trod - the times they faced.

We are here today because they survived. Wars, poverty, economic depression, disease, unemployment, and constant uncertainty. All without the benefit of social security, pensions, decent housing, electricity, the right to vote, telephones, cars, and with the knowledge that your newborn child in the 1800s had a roughly even chance of making it to the age of 10. These are the stories of the people, the places and times of an extended family over the centuries - from civil wars to world wars; from rural Ireland to the great cities of England; from Australian penal colonies to America's Indian Territory; from battle axes to nuclear physics, and the rise and fall of empires.

Standing outside the former POW Camp 70, Italy

In 2024, we retraced the steps of Sergeant Robert Otterson, of the Royal Corps of Signals in the British Army, from his capture in North Africa in the summer of 1942, to the grim prisoner of war camp at Benghazi, Libya, then through three separate prison camps in Italy, and finally his transportation to Germany at the end of 1943. There he stayed for the final 20 months of the war. This is his story.


This site has three principal sections, which are explained in more detail below - The People, which tells the stories of our ancestors, The Places, which shows some of the places where they lived and what it was like when they lived there, and The Times, which take us back to those days which were so different to what we now experience. Use the menu at the top of each page to easily navigate. And please feel free to leave a comment on the Comments and Search page. Your email address is never shared.


 

Few aspects of family history are more poignant than the stories of those who served in the armed forces, many of whom died on a battlefield far from home, shot down by anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighters or torpedoed at sea. Others were incarcerated for years as prisoners of war.  This short video is a simple tribute to a few of the men from our extended families who fought and died in battle, or were fortunate to survive, from the British Empire in its heyday to World War II.

Robert Otterson, World War 1 veteran (1881-1970)

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Latest additions to the site

Villages of Alston Moor - added July 2024
William Otterson (1916-1957) - added July 2024
A Soldier's Story (1942-1943) - added June 2024
John Charlton and Sarah Burdon (1718-1888) - added September 2023
Henry Wright and Joanna Henwood (1782-1856) - added August 2023
Jeremiah Pipe (1787-1850) - added August 2023
Gordon Roberts (1935-2023) - added March 2023
The Otterson DNA - where were these ancestors 3,700 years ago? - added August 2022

THE PEOPLE

PEOPLE OFTEN THINK OF HISTORY as the great sweeping dramas of bygone days – the wars, the revolutions, the political intrigues of royal courts, the contests of religious faiths, the rise and fall of empires. True, this is history. But when we see how those great events touched the lives of ordinary people – especially people to whom we are related – then it becomes history at its most absorbing, history that truly lives.

Most of our ancestors before the early 1800s left little trace that they even existed. Perhaps it’s a name scratched by a cleric with a quill pen on a fading parish record from the 1700s, or a gravestone so covered with moss and lichens that it has become almost unreadable. Others left wills, letters or, if we are very lucky, a journal or diary, like William Dowsing, the English Civil War Puritan who in the mid-1600s left a trail of destruction through Catholic churches in the county of Suffolk.

From whatever traces we have, we can build a better picture of the lives our ancestors led by studying the places and times in which they lived.

Why does this matter? Because understanding where and when our ancestors lived, how they coped and what drove them to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, grounds us with a sense of connection and so teaches us something about ourselves.

William Dowsing, Puritan iconoclast
Dutch family burial plot, Wawarsing, New York. Photo: Michael Otterson.
Image: Origin unkown
Air pollution, Merseyside, England, late 1800s
Air pollution on Merseyside, England, late 1800s (Public domain, author's life + 70 years)

In rural England before the mid-1700s, most people didn’t travel much beyond the distance of the nearest county fair. But then came that tectonic shift in history known as the Industrial Revolution, which between 1760 and 1840 transformed the face of Britain. Now, there was work in the cities, with wages far above that of the rural agricultural laborer. And so began the great uprooting and mass movements of people that has never stopped.

If you were a poor farm worker in southern England, like Lewis Dix (1853-1893), your eyes might now turn north to the great coal seams being discovered in  County Durham, where many of our stories are based. Once there, you were no longer tied to one place but instead followed the work. As one mine petered out, you looked for another one somewhere nearby, or for other work on the docks or factories. As long as there was work, there was bread and shelter for the family.

New industries – coal to power homes and industries, railways and ships to carry it to the cities, steel and building materials for the burgeoning population needing places to live – all began to transform towns that had changed little over the centuries into great cities.

Looking back, we see name after name of hamlet, village, town and city - Menheniot in Cornwall, Hoxne in Suffolk, Jarrow in Durham, the cities of Liverpool and Sunderland, or, in the United States, Oklahoma when it was still Indian territory or upstate New York where witchcraft had left its stamp on place names. What were they like when our ancestors lived there? What do they look like today?

THE TIMES

The pandemics such as cholera, smallpox or influenza that periodically swept Europe over the centuries, or the periodic famines which gripped nations when crops failed, must have been terrifying to those like James Reed (1807-1852) who faced them. Our ancestors did so without the benefit of immunization or practices of sanitation and hygiene that are assumed today. They faced these early periods without literacy, without retirement pensions, social services, electricity or paved streets.  If they were born rich, they had choices. If they were born poor, a rigid class system ensured that few would ever move beyond those confines.

As late as the mid-1800s, children seven or eight years old like John Otterson (1827-1904) or Robert Storey (1822-1889), were being sent down the coal mines to work in pitch darkness, because the pittance they earned would help put bread on the table for their families. Some of their fathers worked long, hard hours in the fields or in Dickensian factories, while both fathers and mothers who could not work could easily find themselves in a workhouse where they were likely to be deliberately shamed for their supposed idleness.Ship masts graphic

How did it feel to face the discipline of the Royal Navy on a ship driven by wind, or to serve below decks as a stoker in the heat, dust and grime as sail gave way to steam 

The world of our ancestors would seem alien to us, even as recently as a hundred years ago, when four out of every ten children died before their 10th birthday. Through the stories of real people, this website tries to capture some of those times.

Main family names on this site:

Abernethy - Berry - Calvert - Charlton - Dix - Dowsing - Dyball - Garwood - Giles - Henwood - Middlemas - Otterson - Oxton - Pipe - Reed - Reynolds - Smailes - Storey - Thornton - Wright

We'd love to hear from you

Perhaps you're a student of history. Or maybe you're just mildly curious about what it was like to live in the very different world of 100 or 200 years ago. Or, you've been tracing your family tree and come across our site. Whatever the reason, we're glad you're here.

If you think you have family lines that touch those featured here, or if you can expand or correct any of the text or help with photographs, please leave a comment so we can get in touch.

Copyright issues

We respect the artistic work of others, and so acknowledge copyright when you hover over an image. Most of the images are our own. Some are from Wikipedia under a free Creative Commons license. Any image labeled "Photo: Michael Otterson" or anything with the Otterson name on it is our own image and can be freely used for any non-commercial purpose as long as there is a link back to our site. If a picture is labeled "Public domain" or "family album," then the copyright has expired or there is no copyright. If you feel we have inadvertently infringed copyright, please advise and we will correct it.