The National Burial Grounds Survey

I have to admit to having a soft spot for a good burial records book. So it was with great interest that I learned a few months ago of a project to map every churchyard and burial ground in England and Wales. There have been a few articles published about it over the past couple of months so you may already know about it, but if not I hope this overview will be of interest.

It’s a huge project, commenced in the autumn of 2021 by Cumbria-based surveying and mapping company Atlantic Geomatics. Using state-of-the-art equipment, they are creating accurate maps of everything in every churchyard or cemetery. They will then photograph the memorials and headstones, and finally scan in original records of parish registers, linking them to specific graves on the map. Apart from the obvious uses for genealogists, church and local authority officials will be able to access their own private areas on the website, adding new records and photographs and recording biodiversity and health & safety information.

There are more than 18,000 church and municipal burial grounds in England and Wales. As of last August more than three hundred of them had been mapped, and it’s expected that the entire project will take seven years.

Although the church and other organisations will have free access to their own part of the website, there will be a cost to us, currently set at £8 per burial ground per month. This seems to me ample time to gather all the information for all ancestors buried in one parish or one municipal cemetery, and then perhaps subscribe another month to a different place.

Although The National Burial Grounds Survey website is now live, at the time of writing it just provides information about what’s happening and what will be available. There are also a couple of examples of mapped graveyards, but without the interactive records and headstone facilities. We won’t all have to wait seven years before any information beomes available, though. Completed data will go online diocese by diocese, as all stages of work for every burial ground within its boundaries become complete.

I’ve been thinking about how it might help with our research. Clearly there are overlaps with already available record sets and websites. Find-a-Grave, for example, (owned by Ancestry.com) includes data from 549,619 cemeteries in 246 different countries, with burial site, plot, information and headstone photographs. However, availability of information depends on whether or not a member of the Find-a-Grave ‘community’ has photographed and added the details to the website. The National Burial Grounds Survey will be systematic and largely all-embracing. I note from a document provided for the information of church/parish officials (see link at bottom of post) that ‘unmarked graves’ will not be mapped but can be added by officials when their whereabouts becomes known. I’m assuming this means plots simply not presently known to be graves, rather than ‘graves without a headstone’.

Family researchers like us will be able to do an initial search for free, and then subcribe by the month to access detailed information, including the exact location of the grave. This will be a great improvement on existing arrangements, which often involve contacting ‘Cems and Crems’ or religious burial ground officials, or even someone representing ‘Friends of XXX Cemetery’ going out and walking around to try to track down a specific grave for us. I’ve been lucky to have had great experience of these kinds of contacts, and free of charge, but some authorities make a significant charge for providing the information (more than the £8 monthly fee suggested here for just one request). It will be much easier to do an online index search and take it from there.

Linking the grave to the burial record is useful. Although much of this information is already available online, to see digital photos of the original record you do generally need a subscription to the commercial website licensed to provide it by the relevant Records Office where the originals are lodged. Furthermore, although coverage is increasing, not all parishes are yet available online; and certainly not all municipal cemeteries. My experience is that records kept by the latter are generally far more comprehensive than parish burial registers, easily standing in for a civil death certificate if required. In other words, the information provide by the records will vary in quality and detail and certainly won’t differ from what might already be available online.

Finally, although I note that the interior of churches will be mapped and location of pews, etc, recorded, there is no mention of the recording of graves within the churches, nor indeed the memorial flagstones, which I think is a great omission. Since amateur and professional genealogists are likely to be the primary paying users of the website, I think this is a missed opportunity. It’s a pity a representative from the Society of Genealogists or other family history organisation was not called upon for advice regarding the type of information we want. That said, precise locational information about who was buried where may already have been lost. The 1663 parish burial record of one of my ancestors states he was buried in the south aisle of the church. I’ve tried to find out precisely where, and with a view to photographing the memorial flagstone. Unfortunately, in this case the flagstones have long since been replaced, and there is no map.

To conclude, based on the information so far publicly available, I’m optimistic about this project. I’m sure it will make tracking down the final resting place of many people a simpler task, and without the need to bother local administrators with individual requests. Finding the exact location of the grave of many ancestors will be much easier, and that’s to be welcomed. I know I’ll be keen to subscribe for a month as soon as I know any of my main burial grounds of interest have gone live. That said, for the reasons outlined above there will inevitably be gaps in the indexes and, particularly for long-ago burials, it may not provide that vital piece of missing information we’ve been desperately hunting.

*****

Here’s some additional information found online:

A document produced by the Church of England/ Atlantic Geomatics for the information of church and parish officials

An article about the project: The Spooky Quest to Build a Google Maps for Graveyards (NB: I don’t think it’s at all ‘spooky’!)

New Year, New Goals!

Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! I hope the festive period was happy, enjoyable, peaceful, comfortable – warm! – or whatever it was you needed.

I decided today to talk about setting goals for our family history research. I’m not talking about anything wild and vague, as often seems to be the case with New Year’s Resolutions, but I do always think of New Year as a fresh start, so for me this seems like a good time to be focusing on goals and how to formulate them so that they’re useful and achievable.

Let me illustrate with an example from my own family tree.

I have a brick wall at one of my 4x great grandfathers: William Moss, who married in Northallerton, Yorkshire in 1800 and died, also in Northallerton, in 1827. So far I’ve used only online records to research him. I could set myself a goal that ‘This year I will break through my brick wall with William Moss’. But, well… maybe I will and maybe I won’t. It depends on how much time I can give to it, of course; but more importantly, if further records relating to his life simply don’t exist, or are hidden away in a private collection then the chances are I will not succeed in this lofty goal. It’s better, instead, to express my goal as an objective, and to indicate a series of steps I will take to move towards this goal.

Let’s start with what I already know about William.

  • His burial record at Northallerton in November 1827 gives an abode of Northallerton and an age at death of 57. If correct, this indicates a birthyear of about 1770. Of course, it might not be correct, but it’s a starting point.
  • William married Elizabeth Bumby at Northallerton in January 1800. The record indicates that this was a first marriage for both parties, and that both were of the ‘parish and township’ of North Allerton. If the birthyear of 1770 is correct, this would indicate an age of around 29 or 30 for William at the time of marriage. Elizabeth, whose baptism is known, was about 24.
  • The marriage was by Licence. Since these had to be paid for, this generally indicates some at least minimal degree of wealth. William signed the register in a confident hand, as did five witnesses. Elizabeth made her mark.
  • I have found only one child for the couple: William, who was born 4 January 1801 and baptised at Northallerton two days later. The entry in the baptism register indicates that William senior is a blacksmith. This connects with what is known about Elizabeth, who comes from a long line of blacksmiths, but based in Thirsk, about 8 miles away. Elizabeth’s uncle, also a blacksmith, was one of the witnesses at the couple’s marriage in 1800.

That’s it.
Let’s now turn this into a ‘Research Objective’ with an action plan:

Research Objective: To carry out further research into the life of William Moss, born circa 1770, parish unknown; died November 1827, Northallerton, Yorkshire, with a view to finding his baptism and parents

  1. Carry out page by page examination of the Northallerton baptismal register (digital images of original records available online at FindMyPast in the record set Yorkshire Baptisms) from 1801 to 1820, with a view to locating any additional children born to William Moss and Elizabeth née Bumby.
  2. Purchase William’s will, probate 1828, together with additional probate documents, located via search on FindMyPast. Examine for any additional information about William, his family and his place of residence.
  3. Contact Borthwick Institute for Archives regarding availability of marriage licence. This may include an age for William. If age given is 29-30, this reinforces the age given at death. Examine for any additional information not included on transcript. (Note point 11 below – possibly Marriage Licences will comes under the diocese of Durham.)
  4. Carry out wider search on FindMyPast for William Moss plus variations, using birthyear of 1770 +/- 10 years, with gradual increases in location starting with Northallerton + 5 miles, then 10 miles, then 20 miles. Note locations of Moss surname within these areas, even if there seems to be no baptism for William.
  5. Note also that William junior (b.1801) married in Kingston upon Hull in 1823 (also by Licence). Could William jr. have relocated to Hull for an apprenticeship? Note that the 1823 Licence gives William jr’s occupation as ironmonger, which clearly has connections to the father’s trade of blacksmith. Might William senior and Elizabeth also have moved there for a period of years? By September 1824 (baptism of first child) William jr and his family have returned to Northallerton, where they remain until some time after the death of William senior (who is buried on the same day as the baptism of his son’s third child.) Therefore the possibility of a family removal en masse is consistent with this (even if unlikely) and wider connections to Hull may also be explored.
  6. If William senior’s will indicates any further children other than son William, searches will be carried out for their baptisms.
  7. At this stage (at the time of writing this plan) progress is delayed pending arrival of the 1828 Will and information about the survival or otherwise of William and Elizabeth’s 1800 Marriage Licence (awaiting reply to email). However, further investigation of a more general nature can be carried out as follows:
  8. Northallerton was a parliamentary borough/ constituency from 1640. However, there is no mention in Gibson & Rogers Poll Books finding guide of the survival/ whereabouts of any Poll Books from the period prior to 1832 specifically for Northallerton. Initial investigation indicates that in Northallerton the right to vote was vested in the holders of burgage tenements, of which there were roughly 200. Might William senior have had the vote, and might any Poll Book entry provide further information regarding his residence? (Awaiting email response from North Yorks Record Office).
  9. As a Borough, might there be any Apprenticeship records? Might William senior have completed an apprenticeship in Northallerton? Or perhaps in nearby Thirsk, where his wife Elizabeth was born and raised, and many of the family are blacksmiths? Equally, might William junior have completed an apprenticeship in Northallerton or in Hull? What records exist for these three boroughs, and if any exist, how much information is provided about the apprentice’s father?
  10. The Manorial Documents Register (MDR, National Archives) indicates seven manors for the parish of Northallerton. Can a map be located to show the whereabouts of each? Can any of them be discounted as a residence for William senior, based on information on marriage record that his residence was in the ‘parish and township’ of Northallerton? (Awaiting email from North Yorks Record Office). It is noted from the MDR that most manors have a good collection of surviving records including some that could help to locate William in the township. However, the Northallerton Borough Manor records unfortunately end in 1635. No further investigation to be carried out until receipt of information from Record Office.
  11. It is noted that for some aspects of the Church of England administration, Northallerton and the former Allertonshire were part of the diocese of Durham rather than (as expected) York. Clarify which aspects, and (bearing in mind that all records so far identified as relevant to this family are lodged with North Yorkshire Records Office and Borthwick, York) whether any record sets of potential use might be found still at Durham.
  12. Only one trade directory has been located for Northallerton for the period of William senior’s known life in that place: Baines Directory of 1823. William is not included. Might any other directories have survived? In 1823 William would have been about 53 and therefore expected still to be working as a blacksmith.
  13. The GENUKI page for Northallerton has been located, also the FamilySearch page and the Northallerton page of Parishmouse Yorkshire. These will be examined for any further information.
  14. A dedicated Family History Society has so far not been identified. However, the Northallerton & District Local History Society has a website and contact details.

So that is my research objective and action plan to date. Much of it has already been set in progress and at the present time I’m awaiting information in the form of William’s 1828 probate documents, and replies to several emails. I’m unable to do more until I have that information and (I hope!) can gather further clues.

The next stage, after all of the above has been worked through, will be a visit to the North Yorkshire Records Office, which is in Northallerton. However, that would would involve a very long journey, and while working on the above I realised I have a few other ancestral lines in the North Yorkshire area, also requiring some attention. It would make sense to work on each in turn, researching the local history, jurisdictions, availability of records and so on, and preparing a detailed action plan for each for a visit to the archives, probably in 2024. This timescale allows for a thorough yet leisurely approach, and a few days in Northallerton would be very nice!

By approaching goals in this way, refining the plans as required and making notes on findings, the time is not wasted even if our ancestors’ origins are not ultimately found. It will not be a failure. At the very least in doing this we’re eliminating avenues, familiarising ourselves with what records are available and hopefully gathering a little more information. New record sets are being made available online all the time, and perhaps at some point in the future something new will turn up, and a quick refresher with notes made now could enable that new information to slot easily into place.

What about you? Have you set yourself some New Year goals for your family history research? Is there a brick wall you’d love to smash? How are you approaching it? If you haven’t previously tried setting out your goals as objectives with detailed step-by-step plans, I hope the above helps.

Here’s a to a successful year – genealogical and otherwise – for us all.

The Family Tree

Bare branches hung with Christmas baubles, lights and tiny framed photos

This month sees a sort of completion – well more of an off-the-starting-blocks, really – of a long-thought-of project: my Christmas ‘Family Tree’. I’ve had this in mind about fifteen years, ever since I bought three Victorian style photo frames for hanging on the tree. Back then the idea was to put them on my main Christmas tree, and use them for three beautiful photos of my grandma and great grandmothers. I don’t know why it took me fifteen years to do it… Anyway, during this last year the plan expanded and I’ve been seeking out suitable little frames online. I didn’t want to use the standard ‘Christmassy’ photo frame tree ornaments. I really wanted them all to be ‘of the period’ for the photo they would contain, and since they are harder to find than you might imagine, to date I have only eleven. That said, I’m very happy with how it looks, and already have plans for more frames and photos from both sides of our family. It makes a lovely addition to our Christmas decorations.

I’ll be taking a break over the Christmas and New Year period but wherever you are, I wish those of you who celebrate a Happy Christmas, and to everyone a very happy, healthy and successful New Year.

Using historic directories in genealogy research

Have you ever used historic trade and local directories to help with your family research?

History
The first directory of London merchants was published in 1677, and from 1734 London directories were published annually. Directories for the rest of the country started to appear from around 1760 in the cities and big towns, a little later in more rural areas and small towns. Some of the directories covered a county, a wider region, or perhaps a collection of adjacent towns. These ones may include quite small towns.

Original purpose
The primary purpose of these earlier directories was commercial, and it’s no coincidence that their appearance coincided with the Industrial Revolution. They facilitated the trade and distribution of goods, including raw materials used by manufacturers. These earlier editions were aimed at commercial travellers. They therefore included distances from each town included to the others, distances from London, the location of the Post Office, plus carriers, stagecoach connections and later, railway connections. Places of worship and important public offices are also often included.

Layout
Originally only the chief inhabitants are included: principal landowners (‘gentry and clergy’ or ‘private residents’), more substantial tradesmen and professional classes. The listings of traders followed the local worthies, laid out by trade, and in alphabetical order within each trade. Over time, directories grew to include heads of households, with alphabetical listings of individuals as well as listings by trade. Some also include alphabetical listings of streets.

As an example, Pigot’s Directory of Kent, 1824, commences with a description of the county followed by distances between the various towns in the county, and from each town to London. There then follows a separate directory for each town, the towns appearing in alphabetical order. Within each town business types are arranged in alphabetical order. For example, Chatham has Academies, Attorneys, Auctioneers, Bakers, Bankers, and so on; and within each category, individual tradesmen/businessmen are listed alphabetically, with first and last name and street. You’ll find it [here].

I find it useful to start at the beginning of the directory, get a feel for the layout, and then use the index and page number links to flip about through the books, gradually homing in on towns, surnames and trades of interest.

Where to find them
There are various ways to access the directories.

First of all, the local and family history library covering your area of interest may have original copies for you to browse – possibly even a full collection of every historic directory published for the area if you’re lucky.

Next, there is a brilliant resource available online: the University of Leicester Special Collections Online. This includes 689 directories, ranging from the 1760s right up to the 1910s.
The collection is available [here].
The example used above (Kent and Chatham) is taken from this website.

Ancestry have a good selection that is searchable by clicking on ‘Search’ on the top toolbar, then selecting ‘Schools, Directories and Church Histories’.

FindMyPast also have a good selection. Click on ‘Search’ and then ‘Directories & Social History’ to start your search.

You may also find directories relevant to your needs in the relevant town/ parish on GENUKI.
I found transcriptions of three directories for Huntington, including my 4x great grandfather Thomas Cass, who was victualler at the White Horse inn, in the (very short!) 1823 Baines Directory for that parish

You may also find directories online by Googling, or by searching directly on Internet Archive with terms “directory” + name of town. As an example, Googling ‘internet archive York directory’ led me to the 1822 Baines Directory for the whole county of Yorkshire. Within its pages I can see that my 4x great grandfather John Wade is already at his woollen draper and tailoring business at Stonegate, York. I also found two members of my Bumby family, both blacksmiths, along with their addresses in Thirsk.

There may also be transcripts available from the family history society relevant to your area of interest.

That’s a lot of possibilities to work through!

How can directories help us as family historians?

  • First, from a local history perspective, it’s interesting to note what businesses were needed in the various towns, how these might vary from town to town according to location, and how this changed over time.
  • After 1841, they are a useful check-in for the years between the census, alongside addresses and occupations given on Births/ Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths/ Burials/ Cemetery records. Any one of these might add just a little more information that the others don’t have.
  • They can also be used to help locate people in the census if they are elusive. You might be able to search by address rather than name, or even find the correct Enumeration District and virtually ‘walk the route’ until you find your people.
  • Before 1841, they provide valuable information about trade and actual address. Usually, the abode on parish registers is the name of a village or area of town, rather than a specific address.
  • You may be able to use this new information in conjunction with contemporary maps to locate your ancestor physically within the town and its facilities.
  • If the individuals are in a town or city with Guilds and apprenticeship records, these should tie in with the trade being practised. I found that one of my 4x great uncles in York had changed his occupation. Having been apprenticed as a printer, he went on to become a bank clerk.
  • Here’s an interesting one: I recently read that many of our female ancestors were recorded in the census as doing ‘Unpaid domestic duties’ in the censuses not because it was the reality, but because census enumerators only enquired about the waged occupations of male heads of households. As an example, the 1851 census for Keswick recorded no landladies, whereas the Directory listed sixty-nine. (Steinbach, 2004, p10). Prior to the censuses, and once more using the Chatham Directory (above) as an example, I found a good number of women traders. If the business owner is a female of the finer sort her first name may not be included. So we see Mrs Bagster, the Misses Burr, Miss Omer and Mrs Russell all run Academies. However, Ann Chidwick is listed as a Boot & Shoemaker, Sarah Clark as a corn chandler, and so on. This information about the women’s businesses would be difficult, even impossible, to obtain via other means, even after the commencement of the census, but certainly before it.

I hope this has given you some new ideas for expanding your research.

Source
Susie Steinbach: Women in England 1760-1914: A Social History, 2004, Phoenix/ Orion Books, London.

The Western Front

Original World War 1 trenches on land surrounded by trees

It has become my tradition to focus on military ancestors for my mid-November post.  Today’s post continues that with the topic of trench warfare, which has become almost synonymous for us with The Great War and the Western Front.  Not all our military ancestors and family members were killed in action, and the topic of trench warfare gives us an opportunity to broaden our gaze and think of others who, although they returned home safely, suffered unimaginable terrors that often blighted the rest of their lives.

By 1914, advancements in ammunitions and artillery meant the mass infantry assaults of former grand battles were no longer an option.  Although field works and trenches had been used for centuries in military campaigns, they now came to the fore as a means of defence. They became longer, stretching out along entire fronts, and deeper – ideally about twelve feet deep. Their zig-zag construction prevented the enemy, should they access the trench, from firing along for more than a few yards. Typically, there would be several trench lines, each running parallel to the next, and connected by communications trenches. Hence the ‘front’ could extend up to a mile behind the first, or ‘outpost’ trench. It was through the communications trenches that food, ammunition, orders and indeed troops were delivered; also letters to and from home.

The distance between the opposing sides could be surprisingly narrow – sometimes as little as about thirty yards, but it could be as much as 250 yards. Between them was ‘No Man’s Land’, where coils of barbed wire were positioned as a means of slowing down the enemy, should they attack. If you’ve watched War Horse, you may remember that Joey the horse becomes tangled and seriously injured in the barbed wire as he runs to escape from the explosions and noise.

Although trenches gave cover for both sides, they also made for a long, gruelling war of attrition.  The point was to push forward your own front by gaining control of the enemy’s trench system. This meant daring and deadly attacks, forcing men to go ‘over the top’ of their own trench’s parapet, and run across No Man’s Land towards the opposing trench. An element of surprise was preferable, but the intense artillery bombardments generally preceding such raids gave the heads-up to the enemy that attack was imminent. This gave them time to bring up reinforcements and increased the likelihood of heavy losses for the attackers.  What’s more, land gained in an attack could be lost again in future enemy raids.  The hundred days of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) for example, resulted in a gain for the British front line of just five miles.  The cost of those five miles was almost six hundred thousand lives, between the two sides.

These photographs were taken in 2014 at Sanctuary Wood Trench Museum (Hill 62) near Ypres, Belgium. The trenches are original, just as the farmer found them when he returned to reclaim his land at the end of the First World War, although there has more recently been work to preserve them. This is just one section of the trenches on the land – there were more. The photos show the zig-zag layout and the depth of the trenches. Visitors can walk in them – although I can guarantee that the experience of doing so will bear no comparison with that endured by our ancestors more than a hundred years earlier.

Original World War 1 trenches on land surrounded by trees

Reading through the Battalion War Diary for the Prince of Wales´s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment: 49th Division, in which one of my great uncles was serving, the routine seems to have been roughly one week on the front line, one week off.  Away from the front, days were spent cleaning, drilling and training, relaxing, playing sport, and marching to new positions as required.  In the trenches it was a different matter.  Dysentry, cholera and typhoid fever were common, and trench conditions also attracted rats which got into the men’s food and nibbled at them when they were sleeping. Lice were prevalent, and constant scratching increased the likelihood of contamination of skin abrasions by lice faeces, resulting in trench fever. Also common was trench foot, caused by constant immersion of the feet in the dank, muddy water in the bottom of the trenches during and after heavy rainfall. While painful, this is preventable and treatable today, but during the conditions in the trenches in 1914-1918, the dead tissue often spread across one or both feet, sometimes requiring amputation.  Similarly, frostbite could result in the loss of fingers or toes.

Even without enemy action, there was always the possibility of it, and the stress caused what we now know as PTSD but was then called ‘shell shock’, as well as a type of gum infection called trench mouth.  In his War Diary entry for 29th July 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harold Tetley (again, West Yorks Regiment, 49th Division) wrote ‘Nothing to report – Steady shelling all day by both sides’.  I have tried to imagine how far from ‘normality’ conditions must stray for the one to equate to the other.

That same great uncle had a narrow escape when, following German deployment of mustard gas shells, men in his counterpart Battalion suffered such severe mustard gas effects that hundreds were evacuated to England and the land itself was rendered too dangerous for further activity. The goal of a mustard gas attack was not generally to kill but to harass and disorientate; only 2-3% of victims actually died. However, many who didn’t die were nevertheless scarred for life. Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions, and many eventually died of tuberculosis. 

It almost makes one feel that those whose lives were taken were the ‘lucky’ ones – luck being a relative concept in this scenario. I think we owe it to those who returned and were ‘changed’, to try to understand what they experienced. I know I would not have been one of the brave ones.

Section of original World War 1 trenches showing muddy water collected at bottom of trench

Sources

Kirk, Andrew, Leeds Rifles: The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) 7th and 8th Territorial Battalions 1914-1918: Written in Letters of Gold. 1917. Pen & Sword, Barnsley.

UK, WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium and Germany), 1914-1920: Prince of Wales´s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment: 49th Division: Piece 2795/1: 1/7 Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (1915 Apr-1919 May)

Stoke-on-Trent: a family historian’s dream!

19th century buildings that are part of a historic pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. Now a museum.
Middleport Pottery, Burslem. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

I will admit that Stoke-on-Trent was largely a closed book to me until quite recently.  I have The Great Pottery Throwdown (initially BBC, later Channel 4) to thank for piquing my interest, and in September I visited one of the potteries where the programme has been filmed.

From ‘Six Towns’ to ‘Stoke-on-Trent’
Thanks to an abundance of local clays and coal, from the mid-seventeenth century, six towns in Staffordshire emerged as the centre of the British pottery industry, and one of the foremost pottery centres in Europe. These six towns were Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent and Tunstall. A flip through the 1891 census shows Fenton, Hanley, Longton and Stoke-upon-Trent categorised as sub-registration districts under the civil parish of Stoke-upon-Trent.  Tunstall was a sub-registration district under Wolstanton civil parish, and Burslem was a separate civil parish. 

Map showing the Six Towns of Stoke-on-Trent
Location of the Six Towns.
Image taken from thepotteries.org Click image to go to the page.

Modern-day Stoke-on-Trent is, famously, an amalgamation of those ‘Six Towns’.  This happened in 1910, with the creation of the federation and county borough of Stoke-on-Trent. Later, in 1925, Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status.  The county borough was abolished in 1974, when Stoke became a non-metropolitan district of Staffordshire, although it became a unitary authority in 1997. (Note that the original town and parish name of Stoke-upon-Trent becomes Stoke-on-Trent when referring to the modern city/unitary authority; or indeed, just ‘Stoke’.) 

Even in 1911 and 1921, after the creation of the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent, the census returns continue to be enumerated under the headings of the distinct towns.

‘The Potteries’
Today, in recognition of the importance of Stoke-on-Trent to the British pottery industry, this whole area is known as ‘The Potteries’. By the turn of the nineteenth century there were more than 300 potworks here. However, in the last quarter of the twentieth century it became difficult to compete with cheaper overseas producers. A succession of factory closures resulted in the loss of 32,000 jobs in the ceramics industry: from 45,000 in 1975 and 23,000 in 1991 to just 13,000 by 2002. (The Guardian: Gone to pot, 29 May 2002)

I’ve not been able to find a properly sourced account of the proportion of the population of ‘The Potteries’ actually employed in the industry during its heyday.  However, census pages suggest a very high proportion.  Try looking for Clarice Cliffe’s entry on the 1901 census.  This future ceramic artist and designer, now regarded as one of the most influential of the 20th Century, was born in 1899 in Tunstall, and is to be found in 1901 living with her father, Henry T Cliffe, mother Ann and three older siblings at 19 Meir Street.  With the exception of Clarice’s father (a Foundry Ironmoulder) plus four other people, every single person of working age on the two pages straddled by the Cliffe family’s entry is employed in the potteries.

An alleyway between 19th century industrial buildings. The buildings are connected at first floor level, above the alley. Today, the buildings make an attractive scene, with fairy lights.
Middleport Pottery, Burslem. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

Okaay… But why ‘a family historian’s dream’?
Pottery has been a huge part of Stoke-on-Trent’s past; and although there’s no doubt that the factory closures and decline of the industry have taken their toll on the local economy, it is immediately obvious to the visitor that it’s still very much part of the area’s present. First, a number of significant producers continue to thrive.  These include Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton; Portmeirion; Steelite International; Burleigh; Wade; Churchill; Endeka; Johnson Tiles; Dudson and Emma Bridgwater. Second, a number of the closed factories are now open to the public as museums. One account I read described the area as a sort of ‘pottery theme park’, but this is not a derogatory statement. Quite apart from this successful move to tourism, it’s clear from other blogs and articles found online that these museums attract serious ceramics enthusiasts as well as practising potters. It’s here, too, where the genealogical goodness is to be found. Wherever we’re from, most of us are descended from the ordinary workers, not the big people who employed them, made the rules and more frequently made the news. Often, all we know about our ancestors is a handful of entries on a number of official documents. However, by reading about the area, the industry they worked in, the history of churches the devout ones attended and so on, we can build up a picture of their lives – and for me, this is really enjoyable. How much more so, then, if we can add to this by visiting the actual place where they worked, or at least one very similar to it, listen to recordings/ watch footage of people who worked there, and see before and after photos of the place. Apart from the New Lanark mill and village, now a wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site but being a much smaller, individual concern, of direct ancestral relevance to fewer researchers, I haven’t come across anywhere to rival Stoke’s living heritage experience. If you know of other places, please do say so in the comments.

The museums
The Visit Stoke website has a page dedicated to the area’s award-winning pottery museums, heritage centres and pottery factory outlets. Here, you’ll find, among other listings:

Spode Museum Trust Heritage Centre This tells the story of Spode and its importance to Stoke over the 230 years of its operation, with displays of its history, people and working conditions from the 1770s until closure in 2008.

Etruria Industrial Museum The last working steam-powered potters’ mill in Britain.

Dudson Museum, in Hanley. Located in an atmospheric, original Grade II listed bottle oven, and focusing on the history of the company’s production together with industrial history, what life was like for the workers, etc.

Middleport Pottery, in Burslem. Includes the mould store, rooms where the paintresses worked, original Victorian offices, and a Grade II listed bottle kiln. The earlier series of The Great Pottery Throwdown were filmed here.

Gladstone Pottery Museum, in Longton. The only complete Victorian pottery factory. Although not one of the famous potteries, it was typical of hundreds of similar factories in the area making everyday ceramic items for the mass market. Here, you can experience what conditions were like for the men, women and children who worked in the Staffordshire pottery industry. The 2021 and 2022 series of The Great Pottery Throwdown were filmed here.

Bottle kiln, now disused but Grade 2 Listed, at Middleport Pottery in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent
Bottle kiln at Middleport Pottery, Burslem. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

The museum we visited was the Middleport Pottery, home of Burleigh ware and known locally in its time as the ‘Seven Oven Works’, this being the number of bottle kilns (three biscuit and four glost bottle ovens). All my own photos included here were taken there. It’s free to wander round outside, with a charge if you want to go into certain rooms and exhibitions.

The Middleport works opened in 1889, on the banks of the Trent & Mersey canal, and the Burleigh company was hailed as an example of efficient production and greatly improved conditions for the employees. That said, although these photos suggest a picturesque industrial past, The Potteries was not a healthy place to live and work. While today there are only forty-seven bottle kilns remaining in the city, there were previously more than two thousand. You’ll find more information about the bottle kilns [here].

Longton, below, situated in a slight hollow, was the most polluted of all the towns. Writer Arnnold Bennet considered it ‘akin to Hell’.

Photograph taken in 1895 by A.W.J. Blake, showing rows of workers' housing alongside working bottle kilns, and a great deal of smoke hanging over the town
Longton, circa 1895, with at least 65 bottle kilns and a great deal of smoke. Photo A.W.J. Blake. Click the image to go to the Longton page on the Stoke on Trent/ Potteries local history website.

Clearly, such living conditions would have caused and aggravated lung diseases for all inhabitants. However, for those in close proximity to processes involving flint or alumina powder, there was an additional hazard, known in the trade as ‘Potter’s Rot’. Caused by breathing in large amounts of the dust, this affected the lungs of potters. If your potter ancestor’s death certificate recorded a cause of death of silicosis or other lung disorder, there’s a good chance this may have been Potter’s Rot.

Room with long tables in centre, and chairs, where women once worked to paint pottery. Old pottery moulds are used to display shelves around the room
Long tables where the Middleport Pottery paintresses once sat and worked. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

It was a poster about Potter’s Rot in one of the rooms at Middleport that opened my eyes to the possibilities of this as a fantastic, experiential source of information for family historians. I have no Stoke-on-Trent or potter ancestors at all, but I’ve enjoyed researching this, and have no hesitation at all in recommending a weekend in Stoke with visits to as many of the above-named museums as possible for anyone who can trace their ancestry back to this area.

Other resources
If a visit is out of the question, there are still other resources, several of them freely available online.

On YouTube, search for “the potteries” and other similar terms to find lots of videos, including some documentaries.

Read the works of Arnold Bennet, which tend to be set in the area, including Anna of the Five Towns. Most of his works seem to be available for free from the Amazon Kindle store. (On the Amazon website, limit your search to Kindle, and search for “Arnold Bennett free”.)

The Colour Room is a film about the life of Clarice Cliff.

There is a good bibliography on the Stoke-upon-Trent page at GENUKI. I’ve seen excerpts from The Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent… by John Ward (1843) and On the Mortality of the Parish of Stoke-upon-Trent, with reference to its causes, and the ratio of deaths among children and potters by John Thomas Aldridge (1864) whilst researching for this post; and they would be very useful for family historians. The older books are likely to be available freely online through Internet Archive or similar.

I also came across a chapter about the Pottery Industry in Staffordshire by Peter Van der Heyden which had useful historical information.

Whether you have Potteries ancestry or not, I hope you found this interesting. I hope it might give you some new ideas about thinking outside the box when researching the lives of your own ancestors. Do please add comments about any similar places you’ve come across, that would give useful insights about the lives of people working in particular places and industries. Is there anything to rival Stoke-on-Trent?!


Robert Blincoe and Litton Mill

Every so often, you read a book that resonates deep within you, and for me one such book was The Real Oliver Twist by John Waller.  I posted a review of it back in March 2019, and although it was one of my earliest posts for this blog, I’ve since referred to it in several more recent posts.  This ‘real Oliver Twist’ – the real-life boy on whom Dickens is thought to have based his novel, is in fact called Robert Blincoe.  Ever since reading his story I’ve considered him a hero.

Waller’s book was published in 2005.  It runs to 450 pages, but his starting point for the work was a 68-page pamphlet written by John Brown and published in 1822 with the title A Memoir of Robert Blincoe.  Born around 1792 in St Pancras and living as an orphan in the parish workhouse, in 1799 Blincoe, together with about fifty other children from the workhouse, was apprenticed by the Parish Overseers first to a cotton stocking manufacturer in Nottinghamshire and then to Ellis Needham, owner of Litton Mill in the parish of Tideswell in Derbyshire, where he remained until about 1813.  Blincoe didn’t set out to publish a memoir. By the time he was approached by John Brown he was living in Manchester, married with children, and the owner of his own waste cotton business, but he had made no secret of his humble origins and the cruellest treatment imaginable he suffered as a pauper apprentice at Litton Mill. 

Crucially and perhaps almost astonishingly, despite his experiences, Robert himself was a good man of unblemished reputation, who somehow knew right from wrong.  Those who worked under him, either in his capacity as employer or as adult employee in someone else’s business, had only the highest praise for him.  Following publication of the pamphlet in 1822, his story became the focus for campaigns highlighting working conditions for children and also for factory reform and the short time cause.  Despite this, and even with plentiful evidence of the cruel excesses of capitalists and mill owners, it would not be until 1847 that the Ten Hours Bill passed into law.

With the benefit of almost two hundred years’ perspective, John Waller analyses the story in the pamphlet, verifies facts using original records, and sets the whole story in the context of social and political history.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, and if I’ve whetted your appetite please read my earlier post to find out more.

Last month I had reason to revisit Robert Blincoe’s story – quite literally: during a week’s holiday in Derbyshire I walked part of the Monsal Trail.  Here, along the deep ravine forged over millennia by the river Wye, Litton Mill still stands.  Now beautifully restored and converted to luxury apartments, the setting of the former mill is breath-taking.  A row of workers’ cottages adjacent to the building, probably also known to Robert, look out onto the river.  This is a popular beauty spot within the Peak District, of great interest to geologists, walkers and rock climbers.  A beautiful setting for a truly dreadful story. A get-away-from-it-all destination that, in Robert’s day, amounted to complete isolation. No-one was coming to rescue him and his fellow apprentices.

Litton Mill: former cotton mill of late 18th century construction, located in the valley of the river Wye near Tideswell, Derbyshire
Litton Mill. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

When I wrote that first post about Robert Blincoe I always intended to read the pamphlet that started the whole thing off.  That original pamphlet, with the full title A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy; Sent from the Workhouse of St Pancras, London, at seven years of age, to endure the Horrors of a Cotton Mill, through his infancy and youth, with a minute detail of his sufferings, being the first memoir of the kind published, is available online via Internet Archive [here]. Finally, after my visit to Litton Mill, I read it.

I remembered the cruelty meted out to the children, the overwork, the inadequate food, both in terms of quality and quantity, and the lack of sleep.  Now, reading the pamphlet I found it was much worse than I had understood from the excerpts in John Waller’s book.  Children would routinely be required to work sixteen hours a day, but on Saturdays they worked until midnight, Sunday being a day of rest.  On at least one occasion they worked a full twenty-four hours without break.  The children were required to wash morning and night, but were not given soap.  Since they worked with heavily greased machinery, plain water was no match for this; and since they were so hungry, the bran they were given instead of soap was eaten instead.  Food was coarse, often mouldy and foul-smelling, but eaten anyway.  The children would be bribed to keep working without a meal break during the day with the promise of a halfpenny – but often the halfpennies did not materialise.  When they did the children bought food, collected for them by a kindly blacksmith who worked on the floor below.  Insufficient clothing was provided, and the children were covered in lice.  Effectively, they were commodities.  If one died, no matter – there was an inexhaustible supply of them from more workhouse orphanages.

Wandering around the site, I tried to work out where the Apprentice House had stood.  It is referenced in the 1822 pamphlet as accommodating two hundred, and standing about half a mile from the mill.  Waller describes its location as across the river, and therefore in the adjacent parish of Taddington, meaning that burial of any children dying in the Apprentice House was the responsibility not of Tideswell but of that neighbouring parish.  The building no longer stands, but given that the opposite bank of the river was, like the mill side, bordered by the steep ravine, it is difficult to imagine any reason for housing the apprentices there other than that given by Waller.  There is no village nearby, no other form of habitation, and no road or obvious footpath. It would appear to be difficult to access from other parts of the parish of Taddington.  Robert did recall that the children who died were buried half and half in the two parishes – so as not to attract too much attention at the number of them.

Plaque adjacent to churchyard at Tideswell, Derbyshire, commemorating burial of orphans of Litton Mill
Plaque adjacent to churchyard in Tideswell. Photo: Janice Heppenstall

What was truly shocking, though, was the violence.  Those were different times, and violence used as a means of ‘correction’ was acceptable.  It can even be argued that overseers needed the children to work as quickly as possible so that they themselves were not punished for insufficient output.  Hence the children were beaten to leave them in no doubt that slowing down was not an option.  It’s difficult for us to think that way, but back then it was the norm.  What wasn’t the norm, however, was the level of beating, the cruelty, and the enjoyment derived from this by the men in charge at Litton Mill.  Children were made to dangle over moving machinery, having to lift their legs at the knee with every motion of the machine.  They had clamps weighing up to one pound attached to their ears and noses, and were expected to work that way.  Rollers were aimed at their heads.  Supple leather belts with brass buckles were used to whip them.  Teeth were filed. These, and other activities, were done for fun.  The children were, in consequence, constantly covered in bruises, cuts and welts.  When they did finally reach their beds it was often impossible to find a position they could lie in without pain from the injuries. If the acceptable use of beating was as a means of making the children work harder, then the thugs at Litton Mill were either too stupid or too evil to recognise that they and the children would produce more if they did not take time out for this particular form of ‘fun’.

Obviously all of this took its toll on the children’s health.  Malnutrition and insufficient rest meant that some of the children’s bodies were deformed – Robert Blincoe included.  Children were often sick, and many died.  Why didn’t the doctor raise his concerns with the authorities?  For the simple reason that the doctor, the magistrate, the magistrate’s clerk and the factory owners, in this case Ellis Needham, were all on the same side.  They socialised together, as Robert found to his cost on two occasions when, as a teenager, he tried to alert the authorities to the cruelty at Litton Mill.  The only outcome was more brutality.  Knowing this, some prayed to God to take them during the night, there were suicide attempts, and some of the boys committed crimes, purely in the hope that their punishment would be transportation to Botany Bay, which they believed would be better than the cruelty they were enduring at the mill.

Map showing location of Litton Mill alongside the river Wye and in relation to Tideswell and Litton, Derbyshire
Google Maps
The steep ravine forming the valley of the river Wye alongside which Litton Mill is situated is shown.

As outlined above there is, ultimately, a happy ending to Robert’s story.  He retained a sense of justice and was a good man; he married, established his own business and had children.  His son won a scholarship and went to Cambridge, and one of his daughters made a very good marriage.  Meanwhile, Ellis Needham was bankrupt in 1815 and died a pauper.

What can we, as family historians, take from Robert’s story? 

Starting with the obvious and the specific, if you have ancestors in the Tideswell or Litton areas of Derbyshire – or in Lowdam, Nottinghamshire, location of the first mill to which the St Pancras children were apprenticed – you may recognise a name or two from the text.  Even if your ancestors aren’t named, the story still serves as background history to the area where they lived. Today, Robert Blincoe is very much part of the history of Tideswell.

However, even if this part of the country has no relevance to your research – as is the case for myself – there is still much to be learned from reading texts like John Brown’s or John Waller’s. This can then be applied to the reality for your own ancestors.

If you have ancestors in Yorkshire, Lancashire or other areas where large-scale textile production was a major part of the local economy during the 19th century, understanding about life in a textile mill might be useful to you. Mills, for example, needed to be situated alongside water for powering the wheel, hence others were built in locations like Litton that we might now consider beauty spots but back then, with no local amenities other than what the mill owner chose to provide, increased the likelihood that children of workers would also be sucked in to the same work. Some might even be paid with tokens so that families had to buy their food and provisions at the mill owners’ shop.

More broadly, there is the social history, the operation of the Poor Laws, the Factory Acts and the apprenticing of parish and pauper apprentices.  The nature of these apprenticeships is quite different from that of privately negotiated apprenticeships for sons of families who could pay. Robert Blincoe’s apprenticeship happened before the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834, when the earlier system of relief of the poor was coming under strain.  Many parishes in the south sought to save money by offloading their orphans and children of paupers to the northern mills.  My impression is that these mills could operate only because of the slave labour of the pauper children.

If you have an ancestor in the northern mills with no baptism record or identifiable parentage, it’s worth considering whether they might have been taken from the south to work in the mills.  Conversely, if the sibling of an ancestor in the south disappears but no burial record is found, consider looking for them in the booming industrial towns in the Midlands or the North.  They would have to remain living until 1851 for their place of birth to be confirmed on the census – Robert Blincoe gives his place of birth as London in the 1851 census.

Decoding surname variations

A question often asked by less experienced genealogists relates to the spelling of surnames. ‘We spell our surname ‘Beecroft’ but in the 1841 census I can see a family looking like my ancestors, but it’s spelled ‘Beacroft.’ Or something along those lines.

More experienced genealogists know that such spelling variations are generally easily explained by the fact that our ancestors may not have been literate. Or perhaps they were not fully literate, and although they were able to spell their name they didn’t have the confidence to correct an official. Or even – and this definitely happened – the official just assumed they would be illiterate and left a space for our ancestor to make their mark. In any of these circumstances it was the official who decided how the surname should be written, and they wrote what they heard. Sometimes the resulting name is even further removed from what’s expected because of the informant’s accent. My 2x great grandfather’s first daughter was named ‘Anice’ after her maternal grandmother, but his first wife, although registering the birth in Leeds, had grown up in London. What the clerk at the Registrar’s Office heard was ‘Hinnis’, so that was how she was recorded. Since, obviously, I was working backwards in time, I hadn’t yet found the wife’s birth family, so it took a little while for me to work this out.

Then again, some surnames have changed over the years to become separate ‘branches’ of the root name. My surname, Heppenstall, originates in the small village of Heptonstall near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. The transition to ‘Heppenstall’ is easily explained by the Yorkshire accent, but although the spelling of my branch has been settled since the early 19th century, there is still an entry for my great grandparents on one of the censuses for ‘Heptonstall’. My great grandfather knew how it should be written, but his ingrained mistrust of the authorities won over, so he left them to write it as they wished, threw in a false forename, and presumably had a chuckle at their expense. One hundred years later, at Beginner-Genealogist-Me’s expense too. Bless him…

So… to any less experienced genealogists reading this – look at the entire record. If all the forenames match, all the ages and places of birth look right, and the occupations are in keeping; and all that differs is the slight misspelling of the surname, then there’s a strong likelihood that this is the correct family.

But now we’re going to travel further back in time… to the years when spelling was very much down to who was doing the writing, the rules were not particularly fixed, even fewer people were literate, names could be written several ways even within one document, and the writing was quite different to what we’re used to. (Take a look at this Wikipedia entry about the spelling of William Shakespeare’s surname, and you’ll see that he is known to have signed his name at least four different ways.) Yes, we’re now well and truly in Advanced Genealogy territory…

I’ve recently been doing a lot of research about the Lucas family of Woodhouse in Leeds. Since around the second quarter of the eighteenth century the spelling of this surname has been fixed as ‘Lucas’.  Prior to this time, other spellings are also found.  In Leeds these include ‘Lukas’, ‘Lucus’, ‘Lukes’, etc. However, in nearby parishes there are other families with essentially the same name but recorded as ‘Lookes’, ‘Loukes’, ‘Lowkes’ and ‘Looks’. 

These are contemporary documents and differences are purely down to the spelling chosen by the clerk. As genealogists we have to accept this and go with the flow. However, when working with search engines and indexes it can be complicated further by mis-transcriptions. During this current research I came across ‘Luras’, ‘Lutas’ ‘Sucas’ ‘Levas’ and the mis-transcription of ‘Sykes’ as ‘Lucas’. These are all perfectly understandable, although they do indicate that the transcriber wasn’t fully familiar with seventeenth century handwriting styles.

More unexpected was the recording of the name as ‘Lukehouse’, ‘Lukhouse’ and ‘Luckhouse’. In fact, when I first came across this I thought it was unlikely to be my family and only pencilled it in. Gradually, more records with these spellings appeared, and although I didn’t really understand why, I was sure this was my family. It was a chance sighting of a Wikipedia entry that helped me make sense of it all. I was trying to identify the precise location of an area of Woodhouse known as Woodhouse Carr, and a Google search led me to the Woodhouse, Leeds Wikipedia page. The entry starts with information about the origin of the name ‘Woodhouse’, and then this: ‘Locals refer to it as Wudhus’.

Immediately it all made sense. My ancestors did not pronounce their name ‘Luke-house’, to rhyme with ‘Wood-house’.  Rather, the reverse was true.  In fact I do vaguely remember hearing that pronunciation when I was growing up; and it would have been all the more so in the seventeenth century.  Hence, a clerk, upon hearing a local pronunciation of ‘Lucas from Woodhouse’ as ‘Lucus from Wudhus’, might conclude that, like Woodhouse, the individual’s name should properly be recorded with the ending ‘-house’. Drawing further on all this, and the spelling of the first syllable as ‘Luck’, I now strongly suspect my ancestors pronounced their name ‘Luckus’. How wonderful to be able to ‘hear’ their accents through an entry in the baptism register!

So what does all this mean for us, searching for our ancestors? Here are my tips.

  1. Keep a list of all the spellings of this surname in records you’ve already identified.
  2. Take a look online at one of the surname alternative finders, where you enter a surname and see lots of variants. Variant Names on We Relate and Free BMD Search Names are useful. Admittedly some of the names returned will seem pretty unlikely, but at least you can then choose from a wide range of possibles.
  3. Since a name index is only as good as the transcriptions of surnames entered into it, use more than one website to search. If necessary I use Ancestry, FindMyPast, FreeBMD, FreeReg, FreeCen and FamilySearch. The last four in that list are free to use, and sometimes have given better transcriptions than the commercial sites. You may also find transcriptions made by local family history societies, and these are likely to be of good quality.
  4. Make sure you understand how to use each individual website’s search engine to achieve what you want. For example, Ancestry’s search engine treats most searches as ‘approximate’ unless you tell it to be more specific. So a search for ‘McKay’ will return records for ‘McCoy’, ‘McCay’, Mackay’, etc. However, at FindMyPast the search engine is far more focused. If you want surname variants, you have to tick a box to tell it that’s what you want.
  5. You may also be able to use wildcards, so ‘Sm?th’ will look for ‘Smith’ but also ‘Smyth’.
  6. Even with surname variants, you may feel the number of variations you’ve found for your surname of interest far exceed what could be expected of one pass of a search engine. With my Lucas research I might tick surname variations but then input ‘Lucas’, then ‘Lukas’, then ‘Luckhouse’ and then ‘Lukehouse’.
  7. And finally, if all that fails – there may be nothing for it but a line-by-line search of the register, being as broad in your approach as you think fit. Again, with my Lucas research, when doing line-by-line searches in the early 18th century and earlier I now consider pretty much any surname beginning with an ‘L’, having a ‘K’ sound in the middle and ending with an ‘S’ sound.

Burying in woollen

One of the things that interests me as I wade back through history in my family research is the shifts in power between the various institutions, and the impact of these shifts on our ancestors’ lives. In the earliest days to which I’ve traced ancestors the Manor would have held sway, but its impact gradually waned, and the already-powerful Church was given a big boost by the requirement to keep registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. Gradually more tasks became the responsibility of the secular parish authorities, which eventually gave way to local councils, and beyond that the growth of the State in setting out standards, duties, responsibilities and rights.

Within the Parish, the distinction between religious and secular might seem straightforward, but even something as clearly ‘religious’ as the recording of the rites of Baptism, Marriage and Burial actually had a secular purpose: a record of every man, woman and child in the country, created at the behest of the King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell. In fact there are so many ‘grey areas’ in the purpose of historic parish records that in his seminal work The Parish Chest, W.E. Tate divides his chapters into part one, considering ‘Records Mainly Ecclesiastical’ and part two, covering ‘Records Mainly Civil’.

I came across an interesting example of this mingling of religious and secular in a burial register recently:

Entry in burial register, 1702.
“4 Deborah daughter of J[ohn] Lucas of Woodhouse carr att & cert”

What interested me was the bit at the end: “att & cert”, short for “attested and certified”. Athough it was the first time I had seen this in the registers, I knew what it related to: the deceased had been ‘buried in wool’. You can see the above entry within the Leeds Parish register at Ancestry.co.uk [here]. Looking through the years before and afterwards I see that this particular notation was introduced in this parish at the beginning of 1701 and gradually ceased in 1704.

However, the requirement for burial in woollen cloth was much longer lived. It was introduced in 1666 by Act of Parliament, and amended by further Acts in 1670 and 1680 – collectively known as the Burying in Woollen Acts 1666–80. The text of the 1678 Act provides that:

No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague), shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet, or shroud or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or in any stuff or thing other than what is made of sheep’s wool only; or be put into any coffin lined or faced with […] any other material but sheep’s wool only.

The purpose of the Acts was to protect the English woollen trade from foreign imports of linen. Maintaining the demand for domestically produced wool benefited the wealthy merchants, the sheep farmers and landowners whose tenants relied for the payment of their rents on their work with the sheep, the wool and the cottage manufacturing of cloth.

The Acts required that, within eight days of a burial, an affidavit had to be sworn by ‘two credible persons’, attesting that the burial was carried out in compliance with the Act. The affidavit was sworn before a Justice of the Peace or the Mayor; or failing that, in front of the priest – generally at the time of the burial. That’s clearly what happened in my example above – but why did the entries including the words ‘att & cert’ stop in 1704?

I wonder if the answer might be that the priest decided that the register of burials was not an appropriate place for the recording of what was essentially a secular statutory measure, and started a separate register. Signed, printed affidavits do also survive in various archives, but many were just thrown loose into the parish chest and have been lost or destroyed. You can see examples of several that have survived if you google ‘burial in wool affidavit uk’ and filter for Images.

The Burying in Woollen Acts were not popular. Despite a hefty £5 fine for non-compliance, those who could afford it often chose to ignore the requirement and simply pay the fine. Reasons for wishing to do so were a desire to be buried in one’s finery or conversely to be buried simply in linen, according to Judeo-Christian practice. Nevertheless, although largely ignored by 1770, the Acts were not repealed until 1814.

Have you come across ‘burial in woollen’ before? What wording was used in the parish register? Or perhaps you even found an affidavit for the burial of an ancestor? Do leave a comment if you did.

Regnal years

If you’ve looked at legal documents or official government documents from previous centuries you probably noticed the use of regnal years instead of the usual calendar system.

Regnal years work like this: the month and day of the month are just as we use them, so this post is publishing on 1st August. However, instead of the year 2022, we write the year of the monarch’s reign. So today is 1st August 71 Elizabeth 2. In other words, 1st August in the 71st year of the Reign of Elizabeth II. Elizabeth’s reign commenced on 6th February 1952, so that’s the date her regnal year changes, hence 5th February of this year was 5th February 70 Elizabeth 2, and the following day was 6th February 71 Elizabeth 2.

Fortunately we no longer use this system, but believe it or not, its use in parliamentary documents was not brought to an end until 1962! (Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act 1962)

Here’s a seventeenth century example from my own research:

Text of legal document written in Secretary Hand from the year 1689.
Memorand[um] that the first day of May in the first yeare of the Raigne of our Sovaryne Lord and
Lady William and Mary by the grace of god over England Scotland France and Ireland King & Queene
defenders of the Faith I John Lucas of great Woodhouse in the County of yorke Clothier and Anne […]
Click this image for a bigger view.

Obviously there is a problem with all this: we have to know the date of accession of the named monarch. To help with this here’s a handy Regnal Calendar Table. Scroll down a little to the second section.

Working with my example above, we can see that William and Mary reigned together for six years. They acceded to the throne on 13th February 1689, so this is the date on which each new regnal year will start. The last day of their reign was 27th December 1694, and the reign of the following monarch, William III (this is the same William, following Mary’s death) commences the following day: 28th December 1694. This will be the date each new year of his reign commences.

If you get your genealogy research back as far as the very end of the 12th century you’re in for a special treat: King John’s regnal year was based on the date of his coronation rather than his accession. However, his coronation took place on Ascension Day – a moveable feast. Go back to the Regnal Calendar link and this time scroll down to the notes at the bottom. There, you’ll find a list of the commencement dates of the eighteen years of John’s reign. You’ll see, for example, that Year 3 commenced on 3 May 1201, while Year 4 started 23 May 1202. In other words, the regnal year John 3 had two x 3rd May, two x 4th May, and so on, right up until two x 22nd May. (Horrors!)

In my own example, the calculation is very easy: the document was written on the first day of May in the first year of William and Mary’s reign, so 1st May 1689. However, even setting aside King John, it isn’t always that easy; and since a long reign can involve a bit of mental gymnastics, you can find Regnal Years Calculators like this one online. If you input ‘William and Mary’, the ‘1st of May’, and year of reign ‘1’, you’ll be told that these monarchs reigned from 13 February 1689 to 27 December 1694, and the year of your query is 1689 AD. [Note: the Wikipedia entry gives an explanatory note about the transition from William & Mary to just William. Some sources state that William continued using the same regnal years as previously; others say not.]

We now have another complicating factor to throw into the mix, and one with which I know most of you will be very familiar. Prior to 1751-1752, the Christian year began on 25th March, this being the Feast of the Annunciation. Until then, this was the changeover date for the new year in all parish records. So 24th March 1688 was followed by 25th March 1689. For clarification, historians and genealogists use ‘double-dating’ for the days prior to 25th March in each year, and luckily the Regnal Calculator takes this into account too. Look again at William and Mary on the calculator, and this time input ‘1st of January’ and year of reign ‘1’. This time you’ll be told the year of your enquiry is 1689/90 AD. To clarify: the 1st of January William and Mary 1 comes *after* the 1st of May of that same regnal year. You can try this for any monarch prior to 1751 (the changeover came in the 25th year of the reign of George II): input a date before 25th March and another one in the same year after that date, and you’ll see the year change.

To conclude, here’s another example…

What we might think of as 1st January 1727 would be 1st January 1726 in the parish registers and 1st January 13 George 1 in legal and parliamentary documentation. We would record it as 1st January 1726/27.

Six months later, 1st July 1727 would be recorded just so in the parish registers but in legal and parliamentary documents would be 1 George 2.

We genealogists have to keep our wits about us, don’t we!