Eclectic Collecting

 Eclectic Collecting

Genealogists are collectors. While most people think that genealogists collect family trees and pedigree charts, I can attest that they collect a wide range of materials as well as the above. Collections can include books, maps, certificates of vital statistics, and much more. As an avid genealogist/self-appointed family historian ages, my collection of books includes not just genealogical how-to-guides, but very specific collections of any books on a specific locale or county in the U.K., from which most of my own ancestry derives (Welsh, Scottish, English, admittedly a sprinkling of Irish.) My husband ‘s ancestry is much more interesting and less homogeneous. It includes Scots, plus a very intriguing group of folk from SW England (from which our surname derives) and then Dutch who moved through the Erie Canal Region towards Canada and SW Ontario.

And the collection is not merely books, but many, both current and old replica ordnance maps. As we pursued our ancestry, we found old ordnance map surveys of Britain extremely useful in pinpointing exact names of villages, hamlets and surnames, as they elide into what we have today.

Ordance surveyIndeed, years of research on the Benjafield name, done both while we lived in England, and back here in Ontario has provided us with complete proof of our ancestors’ movements around SW England. Genealogists are often derided as more worried about the BMD’s, (Birth, Marriages and Death Records) or as we like to call them — the Hatched, Matched and Dispatched. I like the local colour more. That is, I want to know where they lived, how they lived, rather than whether they were indeed the spawn of a specific progenitor.

DNA testing is so au courant these days. But all we can really know is that most of us come from peasantry or Ag Labs (Agricultural Labourers in the U.K.). Sorry to disappoint those who hope they were somehow related to royalty, Alexander the Great, or famous artists or musicians. That is unlikely given we live in Canada, land of a great flood of impoverished immigrants.

This ancient map hangs in the Gillinghan, Dorset Museum and shows the hamlet of Bengervill, which is now the Benjafield farm

This ancient map hangs in the Gillinghan, Dorset Museum and shows the hamlet of Bengervill, which is now the Benjafield farm

A collection of maps is a great boon to serious family historians. Also having a rare surname such as mine really helps. If you are a Smith, McLaren, or Harris, good luck to you. Our collection of ordnance maps are from the 19th century, and they show huge detail of the topography including markers for churches, schools, and buildings that no longer exist. It is rather fun to compare them with the current swat of ordnance maps we have from our drives around Britain on our regular visits there. We have even bought a book on the history of ordnance map surveys, which most historians and genealogists would find deadly dull, but not us. Not at all.

Along with maps, we collect any books we can find that deal with specific areas of Britain in which we are interested. These can be found in antiquarian bookshops, or more often now, online. We would haunt the local museums and art galleries to find what they held. Most of it was printed ephemera. What is that?

Well, once having belonged to the Society of Ephemera Canada, I feel I can say. I met once a man who collected only local E.D. Smith can labels. For me, it was all the brochures, pamphlets, and ‘pocket display’ material from any given museum or gallery. Yes, hoarding becomes a problem with this, but one never knows when that information might come in handy. I still use some today, for research purposes. Anything printed qualifies. So the lovely mounted watercolour sketch of the remote isle of Jura, W. Hebrides, from which my maiden surname came is a treasure. As is the map of the London Underground found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, recreated not with the real names of the tube stations, but with the names of philosophers and celebrities. Then there is the collection of local pub coasters my husband, a devoted ale drinker, started saving in the 70’s when we lived in Britain when enjoying pub lunches. Not exactly antiques, but we have discovered that with pub closures and Gastro pubs now owned by huge conglomerates, these coasters no longer exist. So we hopped to it and had a selection framed.

Then there is the Black Sheep in every family. My husband’s side of course, not mine. Once I discovered this really nasty man who blackmailed George IVth, the Prince Regent, in the late 18th century, I have followed his paper trail through every reference to him in books. Court cases, letters from Clarence House denouncing him. It is a strikingly large collection of copies from various books, both in print and online. We have wandered into the farthest reaches of Norfolk County U.K., old ordnance maps in hand, tracking his whereabouts and locating his various homes. This rogue ended up being a Lord of a Manor for two years before he died. Kinfolk in the U.K. have furniture and artifacts from his home, plus framed certificates in their home. Collecting pulls in all sorts of characters, and takes many forms.

London A-ZFinally, there is the famous London A-Z street guide. When our surname was added to a rather dodgy area of E. London recently, named after yet another rather well-known but questionable character, we had to buy the new guide, outdating the previous one. Benjafield Close is in Edmonton, E. London. Not a pretty area.

So, genealogists collect maps, any printed ephemera (theatre tickets, political posters, poor house records, programmes, vital stats certificates, bookplates, land deeds, school records, indentured labour documents) indeed anything that will tie in their ancestors to a place and time. Not just books. Maps and printed ephemera. The collecting continues.


Article written by Gail Benjafield ( and reviewed by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor ( )


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