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Tuesday, 26 June 2018


My recent lack of posts here is down to one of my occasional splurges of interest in family history research, which can be all-consuming. I discovered a previously unknown daughter to one set of my great-great-great grandparents and have been tracing her descendants. I find this intriguing because most of my ancestors are from the same area, and many of their descendants including my own family remained there, so I keep finding that people I know are not-so-distant relatives. For example, one lad with whom I went all the way through secondary school turns out to be a third cousin, although we had absolutely no idea of the connection at the time.

One family name I have been looking at is Penistone. Some may find this name, with its rude hints, implausible or amusing, but it is very common in parts of Yorkshire. My research, however, has been made unnecessarily difficult by inaccuracies in the data on – the genealogical resource I use. Time and time again, Penistone has been transcribed at Penestone or Panistone or numerous other variations, with the effect that searching the indexes produces incomplete results. For example, if you look for all the Penistones living in the village of Snaith in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, you will find Panistones and Pennistones, even Kenistons, but hardly a Penistone in sight.

In fact, there are so many spurious entries in the indexes – literally hundreds and possible thousands – that it cannot be due to error. A handful, perhaps, but not hundreds. Most of the original sources from which the indexes are drawn are clear as the top line of an optician’s chart, so it is as if some transcribers have deliberately chosen not to write down the name Penistone, but written something else instead. It would also be difficult to mistake Penistone for Penestone because they appear in the index in alphabetical order, so Penistone would be after Penfold and not before. Some of these records came from another resource called FreeBMD where they appear correctly. Has someone carried out a global substitution? Could it be prudery – bowdlerisation on a massive scale? Could it have anything to do with Ancestry’s Mormon origins? Without insider knowledge, one can only speculate about the history of these mistranscriptions.

I am not saying I fail to see the funny side of the name. My brother had a friend called Penistone, whose wife was appalled when she received her new driving licence to discover that in those days the driver number always began with the first five letters of the surname. And a group of us from school had to suppress our sniggers when travelling between Sheffield and Manchester by train on the now closed Woodhead line in the presence of a teacher, and the train stopped in the small Yorkshire town of Penistone. Two of the girls were adamant the station sign had an extra gap between the S and the T. And then there were the tales of people in the early days of the internet, who were unable to enter their names or addresses on internet forms because filters were cruder than the words they were supposed to filter out; those named Penistone from Penistone or Scunthorpe particularly affected. Yes, I’m glad it’s not my name.

But the first rule for any genealogical transcriber is that you record what is there, even if obviously wrong. If someone’s name appears in an original source as Taster Dunman, you record it as Taster Dunman, even if you know it should be Tasker Dunham. There is no excuse for recording Penistone as Penestone or Peinistone or Panistone. If it says Penistone you record it as Penistone, and if it says Stiffcock, you write it down as Stiffcock, no matter how offensive you think it is. 

To quote Tom Lehrer:
All books can be indecent books
Though recent books are bolder,
For filth, I'm glad to say, is in
The mind of the beholder.
When correctly viewed,
Everything is lewd

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Review - The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister
Stories of the Law and How It's Broken (3*)

British justice is in a pitiful state: a broken system struggling on its knees; whether because of amateur magistrates for whom ignorance of the law is no barrier to appointment, prosecution and defence barristers given only a few minutes’ sight of the incomplete papers on which a complex case is based, defendants trying to defend themselves because they cannot afford proper representation, hearings postponed at the last minute because witnesses have not been able to get to court on time by public transport (their local court having closed), politicians cutting budgets and meddling with the law for cheap popular appeal, sentencing guidelines too complex for even professional judges to understand, the appallingly inhuman conditions in prisons, … the list goes on and on. 

Did you know, for example, that if you are wrongfully accused of something – perhaps simply because you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – you could incur tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal defence fees, yet receive no financial help whatsoever. It can mean goodbye to your house or your pension, and probably your job and your marriage as well because of the years of anxiety while the case comes to court. Few now qualify for legal aid.

Even worse, you could be like Victor Nealon who spent seventeen years in prison, branded a dangerous sex offender, wrongly convicted on vague and conflicting evidence against which he was poorly defended. And when eventually his conviction was quoshed he received nothing in compensation because the government had changed the rules to make it nigh impossible. The Secretary of State for Justice at the time was Chris Grayling, who in his more recent persona as Secretary of State for Transport introduced generous compensation for passengers whose trains were delayed by more than fifteen minutes, because they should not be inconvenienced by events outside their control. What would they get for the inconvenience of a train delayed by seventeen years?

But we don’t care about these things. The popular press rarely mentions state miscarriages of justice, or appeals that result in reduced sentences, as opposed to the hue and cry with which they report sentences they regard as too light, or the parole of prisoners who have served their time: the recent John Warboys furore for example.

We should care. We should be furious. We should be very disturbed by this book. But no politician ever won votes by promising more money for the justice system or better conditions for prisoners. These things are easy to cut. We proudly believe, as we are told, that British Courts are the best and fairest in the world. 

Relatively few of us will ever encounter the Justice system. For the rest of us the whole thing is just too tedious to bother with. Which is the problem with the book. Despite its brilliant humour, outrage, satire, importance and readability, parts of it are like a legal textbook. You have to persist to get to the end, but it’s eye-openingly worth it.

I hope our Members of Parliament, all of whom received a free crowd-funded copy, do persist to the end and take note. I also hope I never have to face a day in Court, whether as juror, witness or defendant, innocent or guilty.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.