The age of Hand Transcription

Thirty years ago there were no digital cameras and taking photos with film could be a dicey business. You did not know how the photo would turn out until you had had them developed and very often you could not go back to the place where you took that photo in order to get another!
So, how did the “old timers” manage to record cemeteries?  Very simply really, all you needed was a clipboard, a wad of “once used” paper (scrap from your office computer) and a clutch of black ball point pens. A large clear plastic bag was an essential – if it rained you put on your raincoat and put your clipboard, writing hand and pen in the plastic bag and carried on recording!
Initially we used to work in pairs which was both time consuming and dangerous! One would call and the other would write but the danger lay in the spelling of the names.  I might spell Nixon as Nickson and the person calling might not know that there was more than one way of spelling the name and that they should spell it out. Also some “callers” could speak quite fast and some writers were painfully slow. After several years of this we decided that each person would do a set number of rows by themselves then they would swop with the next person who had finished their allocation and check the accuracy of what had been done. Things speeded up considerably after that and it was possible for four people to knock off a fairly large cemetery in a day.
Another thing to remember is that in “those days” the genealogical world really cared about the full inscription on the old gravestones and they do not realise just how much they lost when they decided that all they needed was dates and names.  Sometimes the inscription would be a date of death only but the little verse clearly indicated a child or young person (i.e. Lovely bud so young and fair sent hence by early doom) or it would give the cause of death and many other valuable little bits of information to enable the researcher to look further into that person's life, especially if no death notice (or fully completed death notice) was available.
Having got the days' inscriptions the next step was for the designated typist to take them home and type them on the typewriter and each week's efforts would be checked against the original by the typist and another of the team. I need not remind you that errors meant a retype and another check in case another error had occurred in the process!  
All this work held good for the country cemeteries of which we did a very great many and in the process learned to cope with “Kowie bush” ticks, wild bees, sunning snakes and curious mongoose and above all had a truly wonderful time out in the country come rain or shine, summer and winter!
When we worked in the town on the “newer” cemeteries we had pre-printed sheets with 4 slips to a page on which the details were written. Once typed these slips were cut into pieces, put into alphabetical order and filed in “papsak” wine boxes which had been cut in half and were a perfect size! Later these slips were all glued onto sheets of paper and became what the East Cape branch knows as the “lick and sticks” and which serve as a permanent record of what was recorded.
We had great fun and went to places that are not even marked on the maps. We saw little bits of history that few folk know about and we would not have missed any of it for any reason known to man!
Taking photos to-day is great as it enables people to see the full inscription and is much quicker to do too. Sadly many of the old gravestones have become damaged or worn out but one thing does make me happy – in our slow, old fashioned way the wording on those very stones is as fresh today as it was 30 years ago because we wrote it all down with a black ballpoint pen and gave to posterity our gift from the past!

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