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Digging into Social History

St. James, Clerkenwell

Paul Howes, in this new blog post, highlights what I consider to be the best aspect of One Name Studies.  And Paul also offers the reader a challenge at the end of the blog!  Read on....

One of the real benefits of conducting a One-Name Study (ONS) is that you stumble into aspects of social history of which you were broadly aware but the implications of which had perhaps not fully dawned on you.

In my own ONS, for example, I have: 
- three African-Americans who were lynched in the early 1900s in Mississippi, making me much more conscious of the reasons why so many moved to places like Pittsburgh
- early US immigrant families whose families took full advantage of the land of opportunity with large families, some of whom then moved West along the traditional migrant routes
-British families who dispersed around the world and staffed up the Empire, many dying for king or queen and country.  There are 720+ Howeses recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves website.

Early instances from the Ruby study include many German Ruby families who fought for their own country in the same 20th century conflicts.  There are Ruby war deaths from England all the way to Kazakhstan with several dying on the Eastern Front in the cold winter.  There are reminders there of the need for resources in wartime: the reason German troops went so far East was for deposits of coal and oil to help with the war effort.  However, as I researched further, I found that 70% of the population of Karaganda in the early 1940s was 70% ethnic German as Stalin had evacuated many people who had moved east to the Volga valley almost 200 years before and had been allowed to retain their German language and culture.  Kurt Ruby had been born in 1913 in the Rhineland-Palatinate.  So he was almost certainly a serving soldier.

Another topic of which I was peripherally aware was the overcrowding of cemeteries in London and other, older cities in England.  In my home town of Norwich there are one or two church cemeteries which are a few feet above the surrounding ground level after needing to accommodate large numbers of graves over the centuries.  So I had known of the issue but it was not until I learned of the death of William Ruby in the churchyard of St James, Clerkenwell in 1816 that I realized just how serious a problem it had been. 

William was 20 (twenty) feet down digging a grave when the ground gave way and fell in upon him.  Another man ten feet above him was also buried but lived to tell the tale.  The coroner’s inquest learned that some graves in that cemetery had been as far as 26 feet below ground level!  The coroner’s verdict on poor William was death by misadventure because he had not followed his supervisor’s advice on shuttering as he had gone down.

The inquest heard that when William died on 31st July 1816 he was 25 years old with a wife, two children and another “on the way”.  This was originally going to be a story about how to take a single event and build a family around it, but beyond William’s burial we have so far been unable to trace his marriage or birth or the births of his children or even the identity of his wife.  We know he had held his job for only three months.  So it is possible he was a recent migrant to the city from elsewhere.  Can you help?

Interested in reading more about the cemetery conditions in Victorian England?  See this article from the Guardian in 2015:

From Paul and the Ruby team


  1. Have replied on your facebook page, but I wonder if William's wife and children might be found in the Workhouse? There do seem to be some Ruby and Rub* admissions in 1816 in the records in Ancestry.


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