This week Fiona interviewed Alec Tritton, who will support Elsa Churchill in presenting the English Track in the British Institute in September 2015.
“Alec is a humourist, and in the thirty years he’s been a genealogist has collected some great stories. In discussion it was clear that Alec is very unassuming about the body of knowledge that he’s accumulated in his own research. I came to the conclusion that anyone that attends the English track, will be entertained as well as educated, about English family history”.
Q. 1 How long have you been a genealogist, and how did you get started?
AT: For 30 years. Quite simply my mother died. It happens to everybody unfortunately, but when I looked around I found that the only two people that I knew with the same name as me, were in fact my brother and my father. I looked in the telephone directory, and there was nobody else with the same name as me at all. It was only then that I really got interested. I think that a life event really does make people wonder where they come from, where their roots are, and literally it was from there that I then carried on looking.
I’ve since managed over 30 years of a quest, to go back to 1481 in a small village in Kent. My ancestors were yeoman farmers. I personally come from the second son of a second son of a second son, etcetera, and therefore I come from a long line of agricultural labourers (laughs).
FF: Alec traced his family the ‘analogue’ way, before records were available on microfiche or computer.
AT: I would spend one day a week in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives, to look at the Registers and other records. At some point I’ve looked at every single register in East Kent, to check for the surname Tritton. And of course, I did it long before this thing called micro-fiche had been invented.
The old way of learning how to work with documents was much nicer than working on computer. The next generation of genealogists will miss out on some of this, because they’re working at a remove from the original records and the archives. I appreciate that it’s no longer possible to handle documents, because of the number of people that have since become interested in family history – the documents wouldn’t survive – but it was a much nicer way to work. We got to know the lady-archivist, Portia. She brought us down into the dungeon, or into the crypts. Looking around, we walked around the corner and there was Archbishop Laud’s ring! A bit further on there was a large pile of manuscripts. I asked “What’s that?” and she said “nobody knows, nobody’s had the time to even look at it.” I replied, “I bet my ancestors’ are buried in there.” (laughter).
Q2. What do you enjoy most about being a professional genealogist?
I always try and avoid that term. I consider myself a jobbing genealogist who’s been researching for 30 years and has learned far too little about far too many subjects during it (laughter). Nowadays I thoroughly enjoy lecturing, it’s what I do more than anything else. I much prefer to lecture and get the knowledge over, particularly about social history nowadays – about the life and times of our ancestors, not necessarily as I’ve just done at WDYTYA, Live, about the documents in the parish chest and the documents of non-conformity. I much prefer to talk about things like body-snatching, things leading up to the 1830s Anatomy Acts, how Non-Conformity goes wrong. And, I’ve done a lot of work on 19th Century religious sects.
Q3. What is your area of specialisation?
AT: Social history relating to anatomy, death and burial. I have a reputation for having an unhealthy interest in death and burial! (Laughter). I do walks around London burial grounds. I have 5 different walks which I do for the Society of Genealogists, taking people around the burial grounds or former sites of burial grounds, there were in fact so many. In the 19th Century a lady called Isabella Holmes was commissioned by what was then the London County Council to survey all the burial grounds and she found there were 352 at that time, of which only 41 of them were open still. It’s interesting to note how many of these sites are still around today. So yes, I’d talk quite happily about London burial grounds all day.
FF: So are you a historian of London, not simply of burial grounds?
AT: It’s too big a place to be a complete historian of. What I tend to do is concentrate on the churches. When I do my burial walks, I find out bits and pieces of the social history of the parishes. Give you a couple of examples, in one of the parish wills I found one lady left a bequest of two and sixpence [2s 6d] to the church, “for buying a faggot for the burning of heretics.”
Or another one, just after the Plague  in St. Peter’s Cornhill, the parish were paying for bushels of ladybirds, because they decided that was where the plague came from! So every bushel of ladybirds that was collected, the parish would pay a bounty for it. It also tells you the extent of the wildlife, flora and fauna that was around in London those days, compared to today.
I quite often find M.I.’s [Memorial Inscriptions] that I find amusing
A gentleman dies, and he puts on his stone
“As I am now, so you must be,
So prepare to follow me.”
He left a space underneath for his wife, and she put
“To follow you, I’m not content,
Unless I know which way you went.”
She was obviously a lady who liked to have the last word.
Q4. Can you give one genealogy tip that you would always recommend in research?
AT: Never stop searching! (laughter). Basically, never stop searching, and I always have next to my desk at all times Mark Herber’s book [Ancestral Trails: Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History], and also Phillimore’s Atlas and Index of Parish registers. Nobody can remember everything. The Atlas is great for identifying what records have been known to exist at any one time, and seeing where somebody is situated within the county or country. Mark Herber’s book has so many weird and wonderful tips – it’s phenomenal really. If you want to find out about White Russians in Europe, there are records, and he points you at them.
Q5. What are you most looking forward to about attending the British Institute in Salt Lake City in September?
AT: (Laughs) Can I put it another way? One thing I’m not very good at, is getting up in the morning, and an 8am lecture start is going to kill me. (Laughter).
I’ve been to Salt Lake a number of times. What I probably look forward to most, is meeting old friends, because I’ve been there a lot of times. At one time I was chairman of the Federation of Family History Societies and I know most of the genealogists in the English section of the [Family History] Library, so renewing acquaintances will be fun.
Q6. Can you tell us a little bit about your role, you’re leading one of the tracks in the British Institute?
AT: (Laughs) I’ve always come second in my life either to a horse or a woman, and Elsa’s leading it, not me. I’m there to assist her and do some of the lectures. I’m looking forward to the ones I’m giving. Certainly, one or two of them will be a challenge to me, because like most genealogists I know a lot about a lot of things, but to them I’m supposed to be an expert, and I haven’t yet done all my research – I shall be doing an awful lot of reading before I get to Salt Lake, especially on Manorial Records.
I know manorial records, I’ve worked with manorial records, but I need to do more research before I go.
It’s a different thing when you and I are talking about something, and to actually be lyrical [in talking] about something when teaching students.
FF: After we talked last week, I went onto the National Archives website on Monday morning, and began to read their introductory guides to Manorial Records. So you’re already encouraging one person to re-engage with Manorial records.
AT: (Laughs) that’s good news. There’s nothing like research. Especially if you find what you’re looking for, the euphoria…
Q. 7 What can people expect to learn from attending your talks?
AT: I hope they learn what they’ve come for; I’m not just there for lectures and am willing to answer any questions or help out where I can. If we can find out something out for them, they haven’t found before, I’ll be as over the moon, as I hope they will be.
Q. 8. How can you best describe the British Institute?
AT: We have an awful lot of experts on this side of the Atlantic pond. The British Institute is probably the expert place for English or British genealogy in Salt Lake