My first ‘heraldic commission’, way back in 1975, was to enhance a trophy honouring the most scurrilous contribution made to the newsletter of Brighton & Hove Hockey Club (for which I played about five hundred games between 1969 and 1981). The stainless-steel plaque not only looked very convincing, but also inspired a ‘proper’ souvenir which may still grace the clubhouse of Roermond HC in the Netherlands:

The 1970s also brought me a birthday present in the form of a plaque of ‘Your Family Arms’. I've never been fond of goods of this type, partly because so many are crude but also because they are rarely (if ever) based on specific research. For example, at least twelve shields of Arms can be obtained for ‘Walter’—and that's ignoring those that are customarily identified as ‘Walters’ or ‘Walker’! But the Walter Arms come from different parts of England and, though links between some of them undoubtedly exist, vital influences of this type are customarily ignored. I have since tried to ensure that commissions have always been executed as accurately as possible.

I've also fulfilled projects intended to make the recipients laugh, but they’ve always been based on appropriate context and established heraldic principles. Consequently, they must be accompanied by a realistic blazon (sometimes, admittedly, with a deviation or two from classic terminology: how do you describe a foaming beer glass? “In its vigour”…?). A friend became an ‘Officer of the Legion of Disreputable and Inebriate Engineers’—an ‘O.L.D.I.E.’—on a particularly significant birthday.

There have been many ‘proper’ commissions, but this work was little more than a hobby subordinated to writing and research. In 2000, however, I was appointed to lead a Conservation of Industrial Heritage course run jointly by the British Engineerium and the University of Brighton. My remit was to prepare supporting literature, which included a guide to the methods of analysing markings. This touched on heraldry—particularly in relation to artefacts with civic origins—and has since been enlarged more than once. In 2011, International Military Antiques ( commissioned a full-length version of the chapters dealing specifically with the military aspects of the subject. The Heraldry of War (click the illustration for details), illustrated throughout in colour, was published in 2015.

One of the most satisfying tasks is to take the history of a family back as far as possible. Even those of humble origin often prove to have a fascinating history. The last four investigations have taken stories back to 1775, 1570, 1470 and 1640. One family now rooted in the south of England proved to have Cumbrian origins; and, in addition, one antecedent had managed three taverns and an inn—all of which, we discovered, not only still stand but are also still following their original trade!

I discovered that I had, on my mother's paternal side, more relatives in the U.S.A. than in her native Scotland. This was simply because all but one of the sons of one marriage (and eventually their father, too) had travelled from Ireland to Scotland and then to North America to escape nineteenth-century poverty. On my father's side, I discovered a coat of Arms granted in 1581 which made nonense of ‘Buy Your Family Arms’ offerings…

My ancestors include smugglers and churchmen; surgeons and gentleman farmers; a lodging-house keeper, a publican, and a career soldier or two. I put paid to some family myths (a shame, because some were really lurid!), but discovered new facts. In addition, considering only intermarriage on the paternal line, I have genetic links with Blist, Burwood, Davey, Douglas, Kettell (Cattall), King, Lee, Newman, Potter, Stanley and Taylor families.

So did your ancestor fight with Marlborough at Ramilles? Was he out with Bonnie Prince Charlie in ‘Forty Five’…? With Nelson at Trafalgar? Alongside Wellington at Waterloo? At the Charge of the Light Brigade? In South Africa with Buller or Roberts? On the Somme or in Passchendaele…? Was he one of 'The Few'? Did he invent something? Write a book? Marry four times? Was 'he' a 'she'...?

It's amazing what can be found. Identification can fill gaps in family history, or enhance the value of porcelain, tankards, salvers, canteens, cigarette cases, swords, sporting guns and many other artefacts. If appropriate, badges, crests or coats of Arms can even be created on the basis of historical, geographical or literary context.

Please note that I only undertake genealogical work on the basis of specific requests. I am not associated with ‘Your Family Arms’ merchandise, which has no relationship to a prospective purchaser other than commonality of name…

Click here to see a sample report