From the office: Getting family history inspiration in Cambridge

By Editor, 22 September 2016 - 3:08pm

A trip to Cambridge for the AGRA conference at St John's College has inspired Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine editor Sarah Williams to follow some new lines in her research

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 22 September 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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St John's College Cambridge AGRA conference
The awe-inspiring 'Bridge of Sighs' by moonlight at St John's College, Cambridge (Getty Images)

I really enjoyed meeting familiar faces and new at the AGRA (Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives) conference in Cambridge at the weekend. Considering my grandfather studied there, I can't believe I have never visited St John's College before.

We ate in the splendid main hall (it probably has a better name), and then piled up at the bar, as genealogists are wont to do, for a bit of networking. After an excellent conversation with Else Churchill about the British women in India collection at the Society of Genealogists, I staggered off in search of an exit only to find that the gate I had entered by was now closed.

Wandering around the various courts in the moonlight I was struck by the beauty of the place and the almost palpable sense of history. I can't imagine what my grandfather must have felt as a scholarship boy, the son of a carpenter and the first boy from his village to receive an education post-14. I have had the privilege of a well-travelled life and still I held my breath in awe as I walked over Cambridge's 'Bridge of Sighs'.

For my grandfather, having the opportunity to study there transformed his life and the lives of his descendants. Although he didn't live long enough to meet any of them, all 16 of his grandchildren went to university. It's a legacy I'm sure he would have been proud of.

AGRA conference St Johns
AGRA members at St John's from left to right: Mike Trenchard, Helen Osborne, Simon Fowler, Sharon Grant, Ian Waller, Les Mitchinson and Antony Marr

The next day I spent time catching up with my aunt who filled me in with some great family stories, including one about my great great uncle Alec Caldwell who was in the Hong Kong police and was sent back to England to find a wife. Apparently his employers felt this would calm his wild behaviour down. The story, as my grandmother recalled it to my aunt, was that he asked my grandmother if he knew the name of the woman in the blue dress that he had met at a party. My grandmother told him, and he replied "Thank you, she has agreed to marry me but I failed to ask her her name". By all accounts the marriage to Margaret was not a great success.

She also told me about his First World War service which has led me on a trail of Gazettes and the wonderful Army Lists now available for free on I have also found a detailed history of his regiment's action in the First World War with a possible mention of him, although I need to check whether there were other Caldwells they could be referring to.

As an officer his service record isn't online and I will need to view it next time I'm at Kew. I also need to pay a visit to the Society of Genealogists to see what I can discover about the women in my family who found themselves in India. I confess I had no idea how extensive the SoG's India collection is.

Two different conversations have set me on the trail for new documents and new stories and reminded me how important it is to share information. I've also been inspired by walking in my Grandfather's footsteps. So thank you AGRA for inviting me along and I look forward to your next conference.



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