History and enthusiasm

image001David Williams in the churchyard of St Anne’s Church in Soho, alongside a plaque for his namesake, the founder of The Royal Literary Fund

In the first of two articles by former local resident David Williams, the journalist-turned-tour guide and lecturer explains why he often returns to the area to give talks to local groups.

Whether I am talking to a genealogy group or local history enthusiasts, I know that at some stage there will be a discussion with someone who wants to tell me how far back they have traced their ancestors. The common factor here is their enthusiasm. I suppose we have to thank the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? for encouraging family history research and I can only imagine how long people spend trawling through census forms, parochial documents, workhouse records and the Old Bailey online.

Without access to the mass of information available now on the internet we would all face hours travelling to libraries large and small, trying to decipher the handwriting of someone in the 19th century who was making notes and taking down details of what we all hope will lead us to that distant relative who finished up in Newgate Prison or made – and subsequently lost – a fortune.

I was chatting with an old school friend the other day and he was anxious to tell me more about his East End roots and, in particular, his Huguenot ancestry. But I had to remind him that although finding out more about the life and the world of his three times great-grandfather was a triumph of his tenacious research, he was unaware of the social background of his discovery. What was the story behind the census return or the death certificate? What did he know about working and living conditions of that period?

I am not a genealogist but my interest in social and oral history has intrigued me for the past 15 years. Trying to find something to occupy my time after retiring from a career in print journalism and the film and television industry, it soon became obvious that concentrating on reducing my golf handicap was not the solution. That was when a casual search on the City of London Corporation website revealed an item which seemed worth investigating. They were inviting applications from people who were prepared to consider becoming tour guides and lecturers.

I applied, was interviewed and offered a place on the year-long course. In 2005 I proudly received my badge and certification in the Egyptian Room of the Mansion House. It was the start of a late, late career as a historian – and leading walks and giving talks about the City of London. Since that day, this ex-Churchfields Primary School boy – who fluffed his educational opportunities in the 1950s – has never improved his golf handicap but can certainly appreciate the value of further education.

David will be giving a talk for the Woodford Historical Society about 19th-century London at Trinity High School, Woodford Green on 18 November from 7.45pm (visitors: £3; call 020 8504 6552).The talk will be repeated for the East of London Family History Society at Wanstead Library on 22 January from 7.30pm (visitors: £1.50; call 020 8554 8414).