A Secretary Hand survival guide

Handwriting dated 1678

Unless we limit ourselves to transcripts of documents, sooner or later every genealogist has to confront the challenge of archaic handwriting styles.  Later eighteenth and nineteenth century handwriting styles generally pose no difficulty for me (although I’m aware from online genealogy groups that this is not universal) but earlier than that it’s a whole new ball game.

Developments in handwriting were not an accidental process.  Different styles of writing were devised to meet changing needs.  Hence ‘Textura’, the beautiful calligraphic script we know from illuminated manuscripts, was very formal and tidy, but the clearly separated letters were themselves composed of separate strokes, the pen being lifted from the page after each stroke.  Beautiful it may have been, but the process was very slow and painstaking.

The evolution of cursive handwriting in the middle ages was a significant development, making the process of writing quicker and more efficient.  Formed with as few strokes of the pen as possible, the whole purpose of the new cursive texts was the speedy copying of official documents or records.  The earliest cursive script we’re likely to see in parish registers is ‘Secretary Hand’.  Imported to England from France and Italy in the fourteenth century, its use became widespread in the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – exactly the period when the keeping of registers of baptisms, marriages and burials became mandatory.

The handwriting example above is definitely one of the easier examples I’ve seen.  It was written by my 8xG grandfather in 1678.

The difficulties of reading Secretary hand can include:

  • It was popular at the same time as other cursive scripts, including ‘Italic’ (which I find easier to read) although the two hands were used for different purposes.  By the mid seventeenth century a hybrid style developed incorporating aspects of these two and what was to become the (much easier to read) eighteenth century ‘running’ hand.  We’re likely to see examples of all of this as we look at parish registers and other documents of the period and on occasion we will need to try to decipher them all.
  • There were of course unique individual handwriting styles and idiosyncrasies, just as we have today
  • The formation of certain letters can actually look like other letters to our modern eyes
  • Writers still used the now obsolete Anglo-Saxon letter y, or þ (known as ‘thorn’) to represent a ‘th’ sound, the long s, which we can easily confuse with an f, and sometimes the Middle English letter ȝ, easily confused with a z but in fact known as yogh, and used where modern English has gh or y.
  • Words may be abbreviated or contracted
  • Some syllables or letter combinations were replaced with hieroglyphs
  • Writers were not consistent in the use of the above, even in the same document or the same sentence
  • Spellings were not uniform, and certainly were not the same as today’s
  • In the case of surnames and placenames, the scribe may have written down what he ‘heard’

However, there is lots of help available online.  I’ve put together a list of resources from respected bodies you might find useful when trying to decipher Secretary and other sixteenth and seventeenth century scripts:
Basic guidance, abbreviations and editorial conventions for reading Secretary Hand from Folger Shakespeare Library
Recognising different letter forms of medieval scripts from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections
Secretary Hand alphabet examples from FamilySearch

Or if you’re really determined, and have the time to devote to it, here are a few online courses, made freely available:
English Handwriting Online 1500-1700 from University of Cambridge
Palaeography tutorial & exercises from University of Oxford
Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800: A practical online tutorial from The National Archives
And finally:
Early Modern Scottish Paleaography: a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I’ve just completed in preparation for commencing the Advanced Genealogy Diploma.  The benefit of this course is that the basics of paleography are introduced via a series of mini ‘programmes’ (videos) by Dr Lionel Glassey.  These are excellent and perfectly targetted for the general interest audience – although I’m still finding the older Secretary Hand difficult to read.  (I’m hoping this will improve with practise, since this is a major part of the first year of my forthcoming course.)  The MOOC is provided via futurelearn by the University of Glasgow.  The paleography is intertwined with Scottish history, and is therefore doubly useful for those with Scottish roots.  However, these sections can be speed-read if you wish.  If you do have Scottish roots you might be interested in using your new skills to help in transcribing the kirk session records of Govan Old.  There is a link to learn more about this right at the end of the course.

My Ahnentafel based filing system

In my last post we looked at the Ahnentafel system.  I outlined how it works and how I use it sometimes in printed family histories.

However, my main use of this system is purely administrative.  I use it to organise information on my computer – and I find it invaluable.

This is how it works:

  • I have a folder for Family History.  Within that folder there are some miscellaneous files.
  • However, most of the information is attributed to the appropriate direct ancestor and stored in a filing system based on the Ahnentafel system.
  • Each folder has the ancestor’s Ahnentafel number followed by name and birth/death years.
  • To make it easier to home in quickly on the correct folder I include the generational prefix.  So I am 01_001, my Dad is 02_002, my Mum is 02_003, my grandparents are 03_004 to 03_007.  My great grandparents are all within the prefix 04, GG grandparents within the prefix 05, and so on.
  • Putting all of the above into practice, a typical folder will have a title like 09_368 William Wade 1702-1783.
  • The folder is created when the ancestor is found.  Inclusion of dates is advantageous for distant ancestors, partly because naming patterns often mean there are ancestors over consecutive generations of the same name, and partly because I don’t remember the name of every distant ancestor and which generation they fit into.
  • Whenever I have a new piece of evidence (downloads, photos, etc), I store it in the appropriate file for that direct ancestor.  Remember that you won’t be able to see any evidence linked to your online tree on Ancestry, etc, if you let your paid subscription lapse.  You may also have downloaded evidence from other online sources, or you may have family tree software on your computer.
  • Some of the info I have relates to siblings / other children of the family who are not my direct ancestors.  For these, I store them with one or other of their parents.  If one of these people has an interesting history with a lot of additional documents I create a sub file for them within the parent’s file.

So here’s a snippet of what it looks like when I have xplorer open on my desktop.  On the left you see some of the folders for my 8th generation (5xG grandparents) and on the right I have opened one of the folders so you can see the kind of information I store in there.

Screen grab of computer filing system based on the Ahnentafel numbering system

You may wonder why I did this.  It’s true that it involved an initial investment of time.  However, it has paid dividends ever since.  I can now quickly store and retrieve any digital file connected with any of my ancestors or their close family members.

I find this better than just having a handful of surname files, such as one for the Wades, one for the Thompsons, and so on.  In part this is because it’s so much easier to retrieve information from a smaller folder – there could be a LOT of information to plough through to find the right file amongst all the others in a general ‘Wade’ file.  This also worked better for me in keeping consistency with women who have changed names upon marriage.  A filing system focusing on group surnames could ‘lose’ married women who started out with their father’s surname and changed to their husband’s.  My system means that every woman has her own file in her birth name, and any changes upon marriage can be accommodated by simply including the correct files in her folder, regardless of what name is used and indeed however many times she changes her name.


I haven’t mentioned Lockdown for a while, but just a quick note to say I hope you are all well, and if any of you are in areas that have gone into localised Lockdown, keep safe.

The Ahnentafel system

Have you come across the Ahnentafel genealogical numbering system?

‘Ahnentafel’, meaning ‘ancestor table’ in German, is an ascending numbering system for ordering and identifying ancestors.  Starting with the Subject of the tree (i.e. you, or the person/ descendant whose ancestry is being shown) and working backwards, every direct ancestor is given a number.  The Subject is number 1, his/her father is 2, mother is 3, paternal grandfather 4, paternal grandmother 5, maternal grandparents 6 and 7, and so on.

A quick Internet search will return many examples of Ahnentafel templates and charts, some circular, some with colours, some completed, for example with the royal family’s details, some looking very much like a regular pedigree chart but with the addition of numbers….  This one from Lost Cousins is the one that introduced me to Ahnentafel in the first place.

The features of the Ahnentafel chart are:

  • It starts with a Subject / descendant and works backwards through the generations
  • It shows only the direct line – no siblings, no other children
  • Apart from the Subject – number 1 on the chart, who may be male or female – the direct male ancestors are always even numbers and the direct female ancestors are always odd numbers

Calculating each ancestor’s number
Thanks to the elegance of mathematics, the correct number can easily be allocated to an ancestor, even if they are many generations in the past, simply by following this simple formula:

  • To obtain any person’s father’s number, anywhere on your ancestry, double that younger person’s number.
  • To obtain any person’s mother’s number, double their own number as above, then add 1 to that figure.  The mother will therefore always be one number higher than the father.

You are number 1
Your mother is number 3   [1×2 =2 +1 =3]
Her father (your grandfather) is 3×2 =6 and her mother (your maternal grandmother) is 3×2 =6 +1 =7
Your maternal grandmother’s mother (your mother’s mother’s mother) is therefore 7×2 =14 +1 =15
Your mother’s mother’s mother’s father is therefore 15×2 =30.
His father is 60.  His father is 120 and the mother is 121, and so on.

This arrangement of numbers of course applies to everyone’s tree in the same way.  But be aware if you’re working on your cousin’s tree that the arrangement of numbers will not necessarily be the same.  If your cousin is the child of your mother’s brother, your maternal grandparents will be your cousin’s paternal grandparents.  In other words, although half of your trees will be identical, the arrangement on the Ahnentafel will be completely different.

As you see, using this system, provided you have already calculated the Ahnentafel number of the closer generation (which you will, since we always work back through time), then you can always work out very easily the Ahnentafel number of that ancestor’s parents.

Generation numbers
We have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 GG grandparents, and so on.  The number of direct ancestors doubles with each generation.  To make it easier to see at a glance in which generation an ancestor is located we can choose to include a prefix to the Ahnentafel number.  In the worked example above, my mother’s mother’s mother’s father is 30.  As my GG grandfather he comes within the fifth generation, and I could therefore indicate him with the reference number 5: 30 instead of just with the A-number 30.

Table showing organisation of generations by Ahnentafel numbers

Why would you use this system?
It is undoubtedly easier to pinpoint an ancestor at A-number 418 or 9: 418 than to describe him as the subject’s mother’s father’s mother’s father’s father’s father’s mother’s father – or even to use the shorthand of that: MFMFFFMF.  But of course it will only be easier if we’re using it in communication with someone else who understands the system!  You may, like me, be familiar with the glazing over of the eyes of pretty much any family member if you stray too far into the detail of a fascinating (obviously!) ancestral tale.  I know that if I started to refer to my ancestors using numerical code or possibly worse, using long strings of M’s and F’s, those glazed expressions would quickly transform into something questioning my sanity.  Generally speaking, ‘my 6x great grandfather’ will more than suffice!

Even on paper, because of the doubling of ancestors that must be squeezed onto the page with every new generation, there’s a limit to how many generations can be included on one page.  Even if you’re able to print out on A3 paper, the sheer numbers of ancestors to fit in the additional columns will mean only a couple of extra generations at most can be added.  The Lost Cousins example linked to above includes 3xG grandparents (six generations total), requiring space for 32 names in the final column.  Two more generations would require space for 128 5xG grandparents in that final column – and I have identified several 10x and 12x great grandparents!

The above problems can of course be overcome by effectively starting a new table, appropriately re-numbered, at each 3xG grandparent.  This would get you back to eleven generations, or your 8xG grandparents and would be less unwieldy.  In this way, I find Ahnentafel a useful system to include in a printed family history, making it easy to pinpoint certain ancestors when interesting stories emerge.  However, I have also adapted Ahnentafel in my own information organisation system.  I’ll write about that in my next post.