Anyone who has watched 'Who do you think you are' will have marvelled at the exotic journeys embarked on when following the paper trail of records. In John Shackleton's case, they led to the remote hill top settlement of Widdop, where visitors often asked the Water Board ranger who had lived up there 'in the middle of nowhere'.
As he told a packed meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society, John knew only a little of the family's story when he embarked on his quest, but he discovered a rich vein of documents in various local archives which helped him to fill in some of the details of the story. The detective work began on the ground with two barns, one of which has since been demolished, which had belonged to one of the farms which made up the hamlet of Widdop.
Census returns showed which of the farms John's ancestor had lived in, and surveys and maps from the Savile archives revealed even more, giving names of tenants and listing the field names and what was grown on this poor ground. These records enabled John to trace his family back to the early seventeenth century. They had stayed put in the small settlement right through till the nineteenth century, subsisting with farming and some weaving.
Archaeology added more detail: low water levels at the reservoir revealed pack horse trails which connected Widdop with the outside world. Close to where John's branch of the Shackletons had farmed were fragments of medieval pots, early glass, evidence of kilns and even a coin from the reign of Charles I.
It is amazing to realise how much documentation can be found when tracing a family history, even when it is based in such a remote corner of West Yorkshire. John has used maps, wills, land surveys, censuses and court rolls to help him put together the jigsaw of his family's past. He has now created a website showing his findings, and helping others in their search.
Any one inspired by John's talk and website to set out on their own voyage of family discovery can get help and advice from the Hebden Bridge History Society Family History Section, which has regular sessions based in the Society's archive at Birchcliffe Centre. Details can be found on the society's website.
On Wednesday 9th December Jill Liddington will be speaking to the society about 'Vanishing for the Vote' – when suffragettes, including some from the Calder Valley, boycotted the census as part of their campaign. Meetings are held in the Hebden Bridge Methodist Church and start at 7.30. Visitors are welcome. Details here
The group runs a popular programme of workshops and drop-in sessions at the Birchcliffe Centre
Upper Calderdale's suitability for the preservation of local cultural tradition is nowhere shown as strongly as in its wealth of folk tales about places, many of which are still being passed on by word of mouth.
For some years now a small group of friends has been exploring the evidence for prehistoric activity in the South Pennines.