Wearside Echoes: Getting to the root of family history

RIVER SCENE: A photo from the Antiquarian collection.
RIVER SCENE: A photo from the Antiquarian collection.
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A PROJECT aimed at tracing the histories of families across Wearside – and documenting them for future generations – has been relaunched.

The success of TV show Who Do You Think You Are, combined with a move to larger premises, has inspired Sunderland Antiquarian Society to return to the favoured topic.

“We are appealing for people to donate copies of their family trees,” said the group’s president, Douglas Smith. “It doesn’t matter in what format, paper or disc is fine.

“You don’t need to have traced your family back hundreds of years, we are happy to hear from anyone who can go back just one or two generations. All information is welcome.”

The appeal for help forms part of the society’s Continuing Corder project, which is aimed at picking up where the dedicated local historian and researcher left off in the 1940s.

James Watson Corder devoted 40 years to compiling 25 hand-written volumes on local families – now housed in the Central Library – detailing births, deaths and marriages.

“His volumes of parish register extracts, pedigrees and pithy comments are a treasure – particularly helpful to those just starting to look at their own roots,” said Douglas.

“What we want to do is take up where Corder left off and record the family trees of those living in Sunderland today, so future researchers will benefit from the information.”

Corder’s own roots can be traced back hundreds of years to Pebmarch, in Essex. His father, Francis, was born there – but moved to Sunderland in 1863 to become a draper.

Later that same year, the successful businessman married County Durham-born Edith Watson and James, their first child, was born in 1867. Four daughters followed.

“Corder attended the Quaker-run Bootham School in York. He never married and most of his life must have been entirely taken up with genealogy and local history,” said Douglas.

“He started his studies in his 20s, copying the registers of ancient churches. He also used information held by chapels, as well as trade directories and marriage licence bonds.

“It would seem he made personal approaches to families for details too.”

Corder’s work did not, however, contain just dry information. Indeed, he often spiced up the pages of intricate details with potentially libellous comments about certain people.

“He dubbed one man a ‘worthless nonentity,’ another a ‘habitual drunkard’. Other subjects had ‘dissipated habits’ or were of ‘unsatisfactory character,’” said Douglas.

“With these pithy and somewhat scurrilous comments, it is no wonder his volumes long lay behind the librarian’s counter. Now, however, they are freely available once again.”

The decision to relaunch the Corder manuscript project was prompted by the popularity of shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as a recent move by the group.

The new Antiquarian base offers far more space for research, exhibitions, meetings and indexing than before – as well as ample storage.

“We now have more space than ever,” said Douglas. “Finally, we can comfortably house and display our vast archive, as well as add to it – hence our family tree appeal.

“We would be very grateful for any information. Who knows, maybe years into the future, a descendent might be very grateful indeed to be able to study the details you provide.”

Help is also on hand for those about to start tracing their family trees, with advice and encouragement on offer each Saturday from Society members between 9.30-noon.

The group’s treasure trove of artefacts, such as photos, documents and memorabilia, can also be accessed during the same hours. Admission is £1, including refreshments.

“The internet has made it much easier to research family history, as have the many TV shows, but what do you do with your ancestors when you are finished?” said Douglas.

“After all, you don’t want all that research lost when you become an ancestor yourself. It is our aim to preserve your information for future generations of researchers.

“Whether you are from Sunderland, or moved here, please get in touch.

“Just think of the interest your details will rouse in 100 years, when the world will be very different.”

** To take part in the Continuing Corder project write to Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX – or pop in on a Saturday morning.