Thursday, 28 February 2013


This is another blog for the excellent Perfect Pint website. 

Without doubt the most popular pub snack is the potato crisp. Tens of millions of bags pass over the bar counter every year. 
Like most other things in the pub their exact origins can be debated. What is certain is that their introduction into Britain is the responsibility of Frank Smith, a curiously shadowy figure.
In the early 1920s, so the story goes, Frank packaged crisps cooked by his wife in greaseproof paper bags selling them from his pony and trap around north London. He also included a twist of salt for flavouring.  
Why and how he had this idea we will probably never know.
Crisps became so popular that within a decade Smiths Crisps dominated the infant savoury snack industry.
Crisps were originally marketed as being a nutritious convenience food for busy housewives, which could be enjoyed reheated as well as straight from the packet.
Smiths were also keen to break into pubs. Before crisps, pub snacks largely consisted of pickled eggs, stale sandwiches and, as George Orwell found: “those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses”.
Crisps had the advantage of having a reasonable shelf life, the packets looked attractive, and of course the salt encouraged thirst.
But they were expensive. A packet cost 2d, when a pint was 4d or 5d. So take-up was limited.
Their success in pubs probably results from the fact that they were one of the few foods not rationed in wartime.
Originally crisps only came with little packets of salt that the customer sprinkled on themselves. Maurice Gorham in The Local urged crisp-eaters not “to miss the salt which is in a little blue bag inside the main bag.”
The first flavoured crisps were marketed in the 1930s, including a celery flavour. But they really took off in the 1960s. The top flavours of the swinging sixties - cheese & onion and salt & vinegar - are still the most popular today.

I've only just scratched the surface of crisp history. There's a lot more to be discovered. The fate of Smiths Crisps in the 1960s, when the company was taken over by American asset strippers, and the pointless and almost fatal rivalry with Golden Wonder (itself owned by Imperial Tobacco) is a good example of how a British industry was almost destroyed for short-term gains. And over the last fifteen years are have seen the rise of 'artisanal' chips and crisps reinvigorating the savoury snack market. Something to think about when opening the next packet of Port and Cranberry.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Pigs may fry - a recent history of pork scratchings

I know, I know I have been remiss in keeping the blog up. However, I've just agreed to blog for the Perfect Pint website. And here's my first go. It's on a subject dear to my heart.

For me it was love at first bite – the hard skin the melting fat, the saltiness. And above all the certain knowledge that the scratching was doing me no good at all.
If there is a world centre of scratchings it has to be the Black Country. Every pub worth its, err, salt has a range of crunchy porky snacks. I still remember standing at the bar at the Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill thinking I had died and gone to heaven with a choice or three brands of scratchings and three varieties of pork crunch (scratching’s inferior cousin).  And if you are lucky the pub might offer home-cooked scratchings. On a rare warm day in July I enjoyed a packet sitting in the garden of the White Lion in Bridgnorth. Wonderful!
You might think that drinkers have been breaking their teeth on scratchings for centuries. Surprisingly, however, they don’t seem to have appeared behind the bar counter until the 1970s.
In June 1977, the Sunday Times Prufrock Column reported on “an unlikely product with a distinctly unpalatable name that has become the latest delicacy in pub grub.” Their journalist interviewed John Vizko of Birmingham’s V&T Products who said “We can’t make enough. It has definitely got some people addicted.” Vizko proudly mentioned a lady in Eastbourne “who was clamouring to have scratchings sold in the town.”
But not everybody liked them (and the world is definitely split between fans and haters). A drinker told the Prufrock column they were: “unappetising.. fatty… a poor companion for a pint of real ale. Awful.” 
And scratchings really don’t have a good reputation. One can sort of see why.
But their image is being buffed up with help from trendy food writers Tom Parker Bowles, Matthew Fort and Rupert Ponsonby who have launched their own brand of Mr Trotter pork scratchings. Oops, they insist that they selling pork crackling made from the pampered skin of superior British pigs (most scratchings come from pigs reared in Denmark). 
Personally I find them slightly unpleasant, rather cloying on the palate. Which is perhaps just as well as Mr Trotter’s crackling is sold at frighteningly high prices at Fortnum and Mason, Chatsworth House, and several gastropubs.
But perhaps they ignore the whole point. Scratchings are best in local pubs accompanied by a pint of local ale.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Mystery researcher: James Clavell Library and Archives

I've recently been to the grandly named James Cavell Library and Archives in Woolwich. It houses the  archives of the Royal Artillery and is attached to the Firepower Museum in Woolwich Arsenal. I didn't go into the Museum (it cost money) but it looked slightly rundown.
I had imagined the James Clavell Library and Archives to be housed in some splendid 18th century premises, but it turned out to be a smallish overheated room with a surprising amount of naval memorabilia, for a regimental museum, on display. The atmosphere was friendly, although not particularly quiet because the searchroom also has the library assistant's desk and a scanner.
There was supposedly space for a dozen people to work around a large table, but there were three of us researchers surrounded by records and books, so there wasn't really room for anybody else.
Admission is by appointment only. I had ordered war diaries, which were ready when I arrived. And they quickly dug out a selection of related memoirs and diaries which had been suggested by the archivist, Paul Evans, in a previous email.
There didn't seem to be any public catalogue. If you wanted to know what they had you had to ask. As is common in small archives basically the catalogue was in the archivist's head, which was great because Paul really did seem to know a huge amount about the Artillery, its history and records right up to the present day, but when he wasn't present things rather fell apart. That said he was extremely helpful, rather beyond the cause of duty, and very knowledgeable.
Photocopying is 20p a sheet which is done immediately by the library assistant. But only Paul could take the money and issue a receipt. There was a long wait while he took a long phonecall before I could pay up.

Room: 5; Staff: 8; Experience: 7; Catalogue 3

Sunday, 23 October 2011


My Tracing Your Ancestors book has been out for a few months now and has had lots of very positive reviews, which you can read at

Pen & Sword will be publishing my new guide to Tracing Naval Ancestors at the end of November. You can read about it (and order a copy) at Surprisingly it is the only book on an important aspect of genealogy currently in print.

Meanwhile Family History: the Experts (now renamed Family History: Digging Deeper) is chugging through the editorial processes at The History Press and should be available in time for the Who Do You Think You Are Show at the end of February.  

Pub History Society

I'm organising the Pub History Society Conference and Workshop which takes place on 26 November at Canterbury Halls, Cartwright Gardens, London WC1. We have speakers on a variety of subjects from freemasons to maps and plans. I will be giving a short paper on Taverns on Trains: a bizarre attempt by the newly nationalised British Railways to offer something new to travellers.  
More details are at

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Mystery researcher: Essex Record Office

It's some years since I last went to the Essex Record Office. Since then they have moved to a purpose built archive, just south of the city centre. It is well signposted and appears on many local maps. The searchroom is light and airy (and a delight to work in) with a separate map and large document consultation area as well as a surprisingly busy microfilm and library area. Admission is through a CARN card. As mine had expired I had to renew it which was easily done. Before you go into the reading room you have to both sign in and be logged-in to the system. This was not made clear so I managed to circumvent the system to the annoyance of the staff. Everything is done through the SEAX catalogue and you have to log in to order material. SEAX is an excellent system and is easy to use. I had used it at home so knew what I wanted to look at, but had forgotten to note down the reference. A rather officious staff member tried to show me how to use the system, ignoring my feeble protests that I knew what I was doing. We found what I was looking for, but had I been a complete beginner I would have been none the wiser about how to use the catalogue. The document was produced in about fifteen minutes. There were a couple of items I wanted to photograph but was told it cost £10 a day. I could see no sign with this information, so it came as a shock. As it was a quiet day, the buzz in the reading room mainly came from a woman and her daughter looking through a parish register.
Room: 8; Staff: 5; Ease 6; Catalogue: 8

Monday, 25 April 2011

I’m writing a book on Advanced Family History for The History Press which is due out at next year’s Who Do You Think You Are Show and I’ve spent some time thinking about what records are and why we keep them. I could find very little written about this topic at least in regard to post-medieval records. In the end the paragraphs below didn’t make it into the book, but I share them below in case readers have any comments:

Records can perhaps be divided into two types active and passive. We might say that they are active when they provide evidence that a particular action took place and was recorded be for legal, business or personal purposes. From July 1837, for example, births, marriages and deaths have had to be registered by law in England and Wales.  And it is basic business practice to note down when invoices are issued and paid. Photographs, letters and memoirs are also records of evidence as they confirm a particular event. A family holiday may be recorded in postcards, photographs and even remembered in an autobiography written years after the event. Active records, because they record actions or decisions, are more likely to survive than passive records.
Passive records those which were used for planning and analysis, where the evidence of a particular action is not required or assumed. Any notes you make while working out where ancestors should sit on the family tree fall into this category. More seriously The National Archives has file after detailed file planning the D-Day landings in 1944, in which almost every eventuality was accounted for.  And afterwards it is often sensible to analyse what went well and what didn’t, so that lessons can be learnt for the future. War diaries are kept, for example, so that official historians can examine what each unit did under fire. Also included are working papers, such as drafts of novels or scientific workings.
Occasionally there are overlaps when sets of records fulfil both functions. Account books not only record payments made and received but can be analysed to reveal a company’s or a family’s financial state of health (see below). RAF Squadron Records Books record each operational flight made by individual aircraft and show which aircrew flew in which plane. But they were have been examined by academics studying particular campaigns or losses of aircraft Indeed they are divided into the daily “Summary of Events” forms (Form 540) and the more analytical “Detail of Work Carried Out” forms (Form 541).  
A particular study might well involve both types of records. Research into the loss of The Titanic could use the blueprints of the ship’s construction and the voluminous enquiries into the disaster conducted by the Board of Trade and the US Senate, which are both examples of passive records of planning and analysis. Also under consideration might be the passenger and crew lists and copies of wireless messages, which are active records, showing who was on board, the survivors and those who drowned, and that messages had successfully been sent.
Traditionally historical sources have roughly divided into two: primary and secondary. According to Arthur Marwick: “primary sources are sources which came into the actual period of the past which the historian is studying, they are relics and traces left by the past while secondary sources are those accounts written later by historians looking back upon a period in the past.”
In practice, primary sources might be regarded as being original material, such as registers and files, while secondary sources is material which provides background rather than unique information about your ancestors. Unique is the key word here for secondary material is usually printed and available in multiple copies in libraries and elsewhere. Reference books, for example, are secondary material. There is some overlap, such newspapers and directories which can provide unique information about individuals but which are available in multiple copies.
I am not sure that the divide between primary and secondary sources means very much in family history. Our interests and goals are very different to those of traditional historians. We are less concerned with secondary sources, for example, as we are searching for names which may not always be found in reference books. More importantly the divide is meaningless for a number of key genealogical resources, such as newspapers and directories. As printed items both newspapers and directories are not unique (a criteria of secondary sources), but they refer to contemporaneous events (so primary).     
The divide in genealogical record sources should perhaps be between “direct” and “indirect” sources. Direct sources are by far the most important because they directly describe our ancestors. Photographs reveal what our ancestors looked like, baptismal registers record individual baptisms, while muster rolls list sailors and soldiers one by one. Directories and newspapers are also direct sources, because they include names, but both of course they can be used indirectly. For example directories often include descriptions of the towns which they are covering as well as list all the innkeepers, while newspapers will graphically describe the flood in which an individual was drowned.
Indirect sources are unlikely to mention individual ancestors, but can provide important background about their lives. War diaries and regimental histories may well describe a unit’s activities but not mention individuals, although they are a key source to understanding an uncle or grandfather’s wartime experiences. Maps too are important as they can show the area where an aunt lived or the land she owned. You are unlikely to use indirect resources when you begin your family tree, but you may turn to them as your research progresses or if you decide to research an interesting forebear in depth.