The many historic parishes of Norwich (and other fine cities)

Years ago, someone told me Norwich had 52 churches (one for each Sunday of the year) and 365 pubs (one for each day of the year).  An interesting fact I probably would have thought no more of, had it not been for discovering my own ancestral roots in that beautiful city.

My 3xG grandfather, Thomas, was from Norwich, and it was there that he met and married my 3xG grandmother (not a local).  They had five children before moving to Yorkshire, where a further nine children would follow.  In the 1861 census their daughter Emily, now in Leeds, gave what at first I considered a strange response to the question about place of birth: ‘Norfolk St Martin Norwich’.  A church…?  Why on earth would she give as her birthplace the name of the church where, presumably, she was baptised?

I suspect some of you will already know the answer – particularly if you have ancestral or other connections to historic towns like Winchester, York and Exeter.  But to me it was a puzzle; and to find the explanation we first have to go back to the 11th century.  It seems towns which developed at that time tend to have many small parishes, while those developing just 100 years later are more likely to have one large parish.

Norwich dates from Saxon times.  At the time of the Norman Conquest it was one of the largest towns in England with a population of over 5,000.  When the city walls were built (1280-1340), enclosing an area a little over one square mile, the population had increased to 10,000 people.  And yet, records show that there were around 58 churches – far more than required to accommodate the worshipping needs of a population that size.  A fascinating map, created using contemporary documents, shows the original churches of Norwich existing during the 13th century or earlier.

This was of course before the English Reformation.  The Church of Rome had taken hold, but the old ways of thinking were not yet forgotten.  This preference for many parishes may be explained by the practice of cults of specific saints, each bringing protection in the event of specific circumstances.  Hence the greater the number of saints venerated, the greater the protection.  Note too, the number of churches dedicated to Anglo Saxon or Celtic saints – e.g. Edmund, Etheldreda and Ethelbert (actually East Anglian), Cuthbert, Swithun.  There is comfort and strength in familiarity.

Those pre-13th century churches are not the same buildings that exist today.  Their present-day counterparts were mostly built in the 15th century.  I’ll say more about them in a later post, but an 1819 map shows that they were built on the same sites and tended to retain the same dedications.  As you can see, as at 1819, only 36 churches are shown.  Several had been demolished in the 16th century.  Prior to that there had at one time or other been as many as 63.  The number of pubs given in that old local saying is inaccurate too: there were, at one time, more than 500.  So, for balance, I give you an 1892 Drinker’s Map!

Of course none of this explains why my 3xG aunt Emily felt the need to record the scene of her baptism on the census.

The answer is all connected with the topic of my last post: the parish.  If I had only known it back then, Emily was flagging up that, at the time of her birth – 1829 – it was the parish that had responsibility for recording the population, and in so doing it exercised not only spiritual but also secular control.  In Norwich, as in Lincoln and York (47 parishes each), Oxford (20 parishes), Exeter (29), Thetford (22), Winchester (57), Canterbury (17) and the City of London (a whopping 126 parishes in the square mile!) it really would have mattered which parish you had been born in, or had in some other way since birth achieved legal ‘settled’ status.  It was the parish where you had settlement rights that had a duty to provide if you fell on hard times.  Even though my 3xG aunt Emily had long since left Norwich, it would have been natural to think of her origins not in the city as a whole but in the Norwich parish of St Martin at Oak.

That list of towns in the paragraph above is not exhaustive.  You may have ancestral ties to another town with a similar parish arrangement; and if so, what follows applies to your research too.

For us as genealogists, there are two points to come out of this:
The first is a bit of a pain.  It was the individual parishes that kept records, and these records are still arranged at county record offices by parish.  Therefore if you find yourself in the local archives looking for 18th century records relating to an ancestor from Norwich, York, Lincoln, Exeter, London, etc you may have to look through many sets of parish records before you find them.  (I do indeed have an ancestor known only to have been born in ‘London, Middlesex’, circa 1816….. horrors!)  Even if you have information, if your ancestor moved around within the city, you may have to look at the records of several parishes.

The second point is much nicer.  Clearly, these parishes covered a very small, if densely populated, geographical area.  In the absence of records with street names and addresses, through these various sets of parish records we can see more or less where our ancestors lived at different stages of their lives.  Hence I can use baptism, marriage and burial records to see that my 4xG grandmother, Hannah, was born in Norwich in St James Pockthorpe, was living in St Peter Mancroft when she married, and thereafter lived in a total of five parishes all within a quarter of a mile of that, eventually dying in the parish of All Saints.

One final point – and maybe it’s just me – but I love the names of these old churches!  They tell us so much about the history of the place, from the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic saints outlined above; to St Mary Unbrent: properly called ‘St Mary in combusto loco’, or ‘in that part of the city burnt in the great fire of 1004’; to St John Maddermarket – one of my favourites, since it refers to the market selling madder and other natural dyestuffs for use in the local production of woollen cloth.

PS. I’ve started a new category with this post: Intermediate genealogy skills, since I think if you get to the stage of researching parish records in the county archives you’ve definitely moved on from Beginner.  Whatever stage you’re at in your family research – happy hunting!

Parish records

So far we’ve talked a lot about Civil BMDs – Birth, Marriages and Deaths – the registration system that came into operation in 1837.  But this wasn’t the first system for keeping track of the population.  A different system had been in operation since as early as 1538.

In that year, during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell ordered that every baptism, marriage and burial in the land was to be recorded.  Although the order wasn’t immediately universally implemented, certainly by the end of the century all parishes would have been keeping records.  The focus, as you can see, was slightly different to the post-1837 civil system.  What was recorded were the religious rites rather than the biological events, so we have baptisms rather than births, and burials rather than deaths.  Or to put it another way, BMBs rather than BMDs.

The information recorded in early records was often minimal in the extreme.  Examples might be a burial of ‘Widow Smith’, with the date recorded; or perhaps a baptism of ‘John, son of Joseph Brown’.  No other identifying facts.  These are the types of records that tend to bring our research to a full stop, particularly if there are several John Browns being baptised in the same parish in a likely time period.  Others, however, are more helpful, perhaps including the mother’s name, or the ‘abode’ (road, area or outlying village) of the family.  (And don’t forget my hero, the wonderful vicar of Tadcaster mentioned in my last post!)

Of course, not all these early records have survived.  Inevitably, some were lost, some became so fragile or damaged as to be illegible, yet more will have been destroyed.  However, from 1598 a second copy of the records had to be made, for the information of the Bishop.  These are known as ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’.  Their use for us as genealogists is twofold.  Firstly, even if the parish records have been lost / damaged / destroyed, there’s a good chance that the Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs) will have survived (or vice versa).  Secondly, if the handwriting on one copy is illegible (or at least difficult to our modern eyes) we have the possibility of a second copy to compare it with.

It’s worth getting to know which of the subscription websites include parish registers or BTs (with images of the original documents) for areas of interest to your research.  For example, I know that Ancestry provide West Yorkshire parish registers, whereas FindMyPast provide the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire.  For my Norfolk ancestors, both of these sites include both parish registers and some BTs.  Of course, the originals will be found (plus micro-fiches of them) at the relevant county records office.

There are some important points to come out of all this:
First, unless you find you’re connected to a noble line, you’re unlikely to get your tree back any further than the commencement of parish recording of BMBs in 1538.  (And often, you won’t manage to get it even as far back as that.)

Second, the significant unit is the parish, which may not be the same as the town/village, etc.  Remember, too, that parishes could change as populations changed over time.

Third, this record-keeping role for the parishes points to an important fact.  Prior to the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, the parish’s role was both spiritual and secular; it was the local administrative unit.  In addition to parish registers for BMBs, you’ll also find vestry minutes, parish accounts and records relating to administration of the Poor Law, settlement rights, apprenticeships and a whole range of other secular responsibilities.  Without the regular decennial census, which was not introduced until 1841, these are the types of records we need to draw upon as we start to research pre-1837/1841.  What happened in 1837 was the separation of the spiritual and the secular.  Of course people continued to marry, to baptise their children, and to be buried at the church, but the recording of these rites assumed less importance in daily life as the state assumed responsibility for keeping track of its population.

Look at the records!

Okay, hands up…. How many of you accept the transcription of a record without actually going to look at the image of the original?

I know I used to do this when I first started.  The error of my ways was pointed out to me by an experienced genealogist who was researching the same surname as me and thought we may have a connection.  We didn’t, but he spotted that my 4xG grandfather, Joseph, had married Anne Hobson and not, as I had recorded, Anne Stolson.  It was the correct record, but instead of going to look at the image – which was, after all, only a click away – I had accepted the transcriber’s deciphering of the old text.

So there’s the first reason why you should always view the original with your own eyes:
Transcriptions are not always correct
This isn’t a dig at transcribers.  Usually, they get it right.  And old handwriting can be hard to read.  Take this baptism entry, for example.  Can you make out where William, son of Joseph Armitage was born?

Text in secretary hand from an ancient baptism register

Surnames and place names can be particularly difficult to work out, since the word isn’t necessarily familiar to you, and all the more so if you’re not familiar with the geography of the place.

So have you worked it out yet…?
I couldn’t.  I had to ask for help on a genealogy forum.  I thought it said ‘Pols Parke’, but there was nothing on the modern day map that suggested such a place might have existed.
It’s Idle Parke.  As soon as it was pointed out to me I could see it.

So that leads us nicely onto a second reason for looking at the originals:
It will help you to get used to reading old handwriting
You can start by using the transcription as a ‘parallel text’, helping you to compare the antiquated letters – but always remembering that what’s transcribed may not be correct, of course.

Sometimes transcriptions are spectacularly wrong
According to record sets on both Ancestry and FindMyPast, my 5xG grandfather and all his siblings were baptised simultaneously at St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton in north west Norfolk.  This confused me greatly.  Eventually, I asked on a Norfolk genealogy forum – it seemed unlikely, but was Necton by any chance a chapelry of St James Pockthorpe?  With help from a genealogist with local knowledge I realised that the ‘Necton’ records – a transcript-only set, i.e. there was no image for me to see – were the work of one organisation and the entire parish register had been mis-attributed to Necton. The baptisms had all taken place at St James Pockthorpe, and this had been correctly attributed in a different set that luckily included images.

If it doesn’t feel right, stop, think, ask for help.

Even if the transcription is absolutely accurate…
There may be far more information on the document than the transcriber had ‘fields’ to write it in
The transcript of the Tadcaster baptismal register in the Yorkshire Baptisms record set circa 1780s at FindMyPast records the names of the child and parents, the date of birth and baptism, the denomination and the parish.  Click on the image, however, and a double page spread of the original register reveals:

  • The father’s name and occupation; his own father’s name, occupation and parish; also his mother, with the name, occupation and parish of her father.
  • The mother’s name; her father’s name, occupation and parish; and the name of her own mother, along with her mother’s father’s name, occupation and parish.
  • The date and day of the week of the birth.
  • The date and day of the week of the baptism.

This is highly unusual.  Most of my baptisms from this period don’t even give the mother’s name.  (I am just a little bit in love with that old vicar of Tadcaster! :D)

Then, following on from my last post
You may be able to step back from the record, to look for the bigger picture
The transcript of my 7xG grandfather’s baptism in the Yorkshire Bishop’s Transcript of Baptisms record set at FindMyPast includes his name, the name of his father (Thomas), the date of the baptism and the parish.  On the face of it, that’s exactly what the original image says too, although it’s in Latin.  However, there is something important hiding in full view: a list of churchwardens, along with their signatures.  One of them is Thomas, and I can see by comparing his signature with the rest of the page (particularly the formation of the letters of his son’s surname in the baptism record) that the whole page is in Thomas’s hand.  My 8xG grandfather, born around 1648, wrote not only English but also Latin!  (I’ve since confirmed this by comparing with the handwriting on another longer document.)  There is no transcription that will tell you that!

All that – just a click away!
Familiarise yourself with the record sets that include images of the originals, and those that are just transcripts.  For example, I know that the West Yorkshire, Church of England set on Ancestry always includes the image, whereas the England, Select Marriages set, while providing the same basic information, includes no images.  Certain record sets don’t even include the dates and places – simply the names of key people.  These are of no use whatsoever.

Always choose the images collection where it’s available, and look at the record.  Check the information for yourself.  It’s daft not to. 🙂

What can death records tell us about life?

In a previous post about Death Certificates I talked about a whole range of alternative records that could provide sufficient information about a person’s death to make purchasing the official certificate unnecessary. Today I want to return to this topic but with a different focus: to consider how these same records, purportedly confirming a person’s death, might tell us a great deal more about their life.

We know that after 1837 Death Certificates record specific information: the deceased’s name, age, place and cause of death, occupation (husband’s occupation if a married woman or widow) plus description/relationship and residence of informant.

Yet these facts of the deceased’s death start to give us clues about how they lived.  Did they live to a ripe old age or die young?  Does the cause of death suggest anything other than natural causes, e.g. an occupation-related disease, an accident, a suicide?  Was the informant a close relative?  If not the spouse or adult son/daughter, was it a sibling, indicating that the family remained close both geographically and in kinship?  If we then also add in some of the alternative sources of information about deaths (I listed them in that previous post), we might find we can learn a surprising amount of additional information.  Here are four quite different examples from my own research:

Coroner’s Reports
On 17th March 1898 my 2xG grandfather, Edward, took his own life.  The death of a person in unexpected, unexplained or violent circumstances triggers a Coroner’s hearing.  Where records of these survive they will be at the local Archives/ Record Office.  Sometimes they are quite brief, but Edward’s isn’t.

The Coroner interviewed four people: the bridge turner who was the last person to see Edward alive: the coal boat master who found his body in the water; and the woman who strip-washed and laid him out.  The principle interviewee was Edward’s daughter, my great grandmother, Jane.  Between the four of them they provide information about what happened that day.

But Jane also talks about how Edward was in life.  She paints a picture of him in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  He smoked his tobacco but had a serious, ongoing bronchitis condition (they probably hadn’t worked out the connection by then); he received 3 shillings a week from the Poor Law Guardians; he had a life insurance policy with the Prudential (I wonder if they paid out for suicides).  She visited him daily, and had seen a change in his behaviour – he had become very ‘irritable and childish’ during the past 3-4 weeks.

I learned that Edward lived in a ‘yard’, above a stable.  He had given notice but had not yet left.  A few days before Edward’s suicide, the occupier of the stable below had ‘insulted him’, causing him to fear that the stable occupier would return on St Patrick’s Day to break all his windows.  Whatever happened, and whatever was at the root of the animosity, it was clearly weighing heavily on Edward’s mind.

The reference to St Patrick’s Day is intriguing.  What was the significance?  Edward’s first wife was Irish, but she was long dead; and although I’ve never found Edward’s baptism, family legend has it that ‘he went back to the place where he was born to drown himself’.  Have I been looking in the wrong place: could Edward have been Irish?  Edward is the enigma that keeps on giving.

Obituaries
If your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life, you may find an obituary in the local/ national newspaper or other publication.

My 4xG uncle Edwin Wade, was Lord Mayor of York in 1864-65.  A successful surgeon-dentist, he was active for many years in local politics, a ‘mover and shaker’ in many public bodies, and an early investor in the railway company.  I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a pillar of the community he had been until I read his obituary in the York Herald, 13th December, 1889.  (FindMyPast newspaper search.)  There, I learned that Edwin was also senior Justice of the Peace and associated with public bodies such as the Lunatic Asylum, School for the Blind, York Tourists’ Society, York Savings Bank and the Merchant Taylor’s Company.

Edwin’s funeral was a huge event.  As the cortège passed through the streets of York, the whole city came to a standstill.  Blinds were drawn on the Mansion House and other public as well as residential buildings; shutters were closed on local businesses.  A comprehensive list is given of the York great and good who attended, and also all family members.  This helped me to track down a number of marriages and other connections.

Wills
For any ancestors who died since 1858, you can search the government’s wills and probate website to see if they left a will.  Be sure to enter your search (surname and exact year of probate – which may be after the year of death) in the correct section: 1858-1996; 1996 to present; or soldier’s wills.  Once you’ve identified the correct person on the ‘Probate Calendar’ you can order a digital copy of the actual will (cost £10) which will be emailed to you.

Wills can tell us a huge amount about our ancestors and their families, and I’ve ordered quite a few over the years.  However, in the example that follows, just the information on the Probate Calendar was enough to solve my current problem:

I had traced one of my lines back to a William Wade in York, and I knew his wife (my 3xG grandmother) was Jane, but wasn’t yet sure either of Jane’s maiden name or of William’s parents.  One of the possible marriages was to a Jane Cass in Huntington, daughter of Thomas, an innkeeper.  Possible parents for William were John Wade and Sarah; and if this was correct, I had found baptisms for all of William’s siblings.  I entered all this on my tree, noting that it was not yet proven.  Some time later I found a likely death for Thomas Cass, and then an entry on the Probate Calendar:

Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

I could have ordered the actual will and I’m sure I will, eventually.  However, although this short entry told me only one thing I didn’t know about Thomas (he left ‘Effects under £300’), it proved without doubt that all parts of my hypothesis about this line were correct.  It linked my known 3xG grandfather William Wade to Thomas Cass, and even included William’s older brother, Edwin.  Strange I thought at the time, to name the  brother of your son-in-law as the chief executor…  Of course, that was before I knew that Edwin Wade was your all-singing all-dancing politician, board member, soon to be Lord Mayor of York, and in general the man to trust if you wanted something done!

Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches
For reasons that deserve a separate post it’s not always clear if our ancestors were Nonconformists.  For years I couldn’t find a baptism record for my 3xG grandfather, John Ingham.  Eventually a possible emerged.  Everything made sense: the location (Morley), the year, even the names of the parents and siblings which I could see repeated in his own children.  The only problem was that adult John seemed to be Church of England.  He married Betty in her C of E parish church (Calverley), and all their children were baptised accordingly.  But this baptism was in an Independent chapel.  I dithered for a long time over whether to accept this record as John’s.  In the meantime, continuing to research other lines, I gradually realised that a lot of my other ancestors came from Calverley and adjacent villages – and they were all Nonconformists.  There seems to have been large communities of different Nonconformist congregations in a triangle taking in Calverley, Pudsey (Betty’s actual birthplace) and another village called Idle. Might there also have been some sort of connection between these congregations and that of Morley, where the possible baptism for John took place?

It was a memorial inscription that made everything fall into place, erected in 1880 to the memory of Betty’s brother Abraham Gamble, by his wife Elizabeth.

How on earth could this have helped?  Well, it’s to be found in Pudsey (Betty’s birthplace), on the wall of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, thereby confirming Nonconformity in Betty’s wider family.  It followed that my 3xG gradparents Betty and John might have met on social events between their respective congregations, and therefore the unexpected Nonconformist baptism record for John could be correct.  Together with all the other information, I was now happy to accept the John on the baptism record as my John.  It may seem tenuous, but afterwards, I did find that Betty and Abraham’s mother, Hannah, had also been baptised in the Morley chapel, moving to Pudsey after marriage.  The connection between the two families was an old one; but it was that memorial inscription that tipped the balance of probabilities for me.

As I hope these examples illustrate, we can look upon these death-related records as simply a confirmation of names, dates and places.  Or we can really look at them, wringing out every last clue to better understand our ancestors’ lives.

Do you have any similar examples?  Or are there perhaps as yet unseen clues lurking in the death records on your tree?