About English Ancestors

Writer, genealogist, family historian

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!

Ireland’s Public Records Office: Beyond 2022

What’s this? A post about Irish records on an English genealogy blog?!
Back in 2016 Irish Central ran an article reporting that, according to DNA test results, the average British person is one fifth Irish. In England, northern regions generally have the highest rates of Irishness, although London isn’t far behind. However, Wales, and particularly Scotland have higher average Irish ethnicity than England, with as high as 46.6% for Scots close to the border with England. In Ulster, on the other hand, the average person’s Irish DNA is just 51.9%. This is explained by not only the proximity of Scotland to Northern Ireland, but also the deliberate colonisation which took place in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

My own largely northern England DNA bears out all of the above. According to Ancestry’s Ethnicity Estimate I have 29% Irish DNA and 12% Scottish. Much of the Irish comes from two 2x great grandparents who were born in County Mayo and migrated to England around the time of the famine. The rest of the Irish, and I believe all of the Scottish, comes from a 3x great grandfather from the Belfast/Antrim area, plus a different line where both 3x great grandparents are from either Derry/Londonderry or Newry (a mystery caused by a census enumerator’s inability to decipher with certainty the place of origin). There is also another 3x great grandmother whose origins are simply ‘Ireland’. I know nothing more than that. I do think these percentages are skewed a little by the Irish diaspora, and the fact that many more people in North America and Australia have tested than people within the United Kingdom. I suspect these percentages for me should be a little lower, but the general thrust of the results does tie in with my documented family tree.

Since you’re reading this blog about English ancestry, there’s a pretty good chance that you, too, may have some Irish ancestry. Even if you don’t, read on anyway, for the sheer wonder of what I’m going to tell you!

The tragedy of Ireland’s lost records
If you do have Irish ancestors and have tried to trace them back in the old country you’ll know how difficult it is. For all my Irish ancestors, once they arrive in England I have a great deal of information about each of them; but as to their origins – even the parish or township where each was born – I have nothing at all.

The reason is largely this:
On 30th June 1922, in the opening engagement of the Irish Civil War, Dublin’s enviable Public Records Office was destroyed by explosion and subsequent fire. Along with the buildings, most of seven centuries’ worth of archived records were lost. These included censuses and parish registers.

What comes next owes much to the dilligence of a certain Herbert Wood. At the time of the explosion and fire he was Deputy Keeper of the Public Record Office. Very fortunately, three years earlier he had published’ A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland’. This publication gave the precise location of every single item in the archives.

Beyond 2022
For the past few years a number of Irish historians and archivists have been working on a project to create a virtual 3D reconstruction of that former Public Record Office. A collaboration between the National Archives of Ireland, National Archives UK, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Irish Manuscripts Commission, and the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, plus over 40 other institutions in Ireland, Britain and the USA, the goal was to recover as much as possible of what was lost. And thanks to Herbert Wood they knew exactly what they were looking for. Their work has involved identifying surviving material and surrogate copies or substitutes available in various repositories in Ireland and worldwide.

The short video below (2 mins 44 secs) was published four years ago and gives more information about the aims of this truly extraordinary project.

Here’s another more recent short video (3 mins 2 secs) from 2020. It has some of the same information but different images, and by this time they had already worked out the structure of the website. I think it’s amazing.

The wait is over
This week, exactly one hundred years after that devastating fire, the virtual archive went live. You’ll find it [here] and it’s entirely free to use, no matter where in the world you are.

I’ve been delaying any further attempts at work on my Irish lines until the launch of the website. It also seems like a good time to use this as a springboard to start to learn more about what Irish records are available.

So far I’ve only had time for a quick click around, but based on the second of those videos above, I’m itching to do more. If you have Irish ancestry and find you can use this fantastic new resource to bring about a breakthough in your research, please do share in the comments.

Inferred Chromosome Mapping using DNA Painter

A new tool has been added at DNA Painter: the Inferred Segments Generator. If you have a parent, sibling, half sibling or a descendant of a sibling whose DNA test results are on any of the sites displaying the chromosome browser, then you can make use of this new tool. Just a note though that it won’t be of use to you if your grandparents are related, or if they’re from a group with a high level of endogamy: you have to have grandparents whose lines are clearly distinct.

If you have no idea what a chromosome browser is, take a look at my previous post [here]. What you need to understand for inferred chromosome mapping is that we have two copies of each chromosome: the copy we inherited from our father and the other from our mother. DNA Painter is all about helping us to separate out which of those two copies any specific DNA match segment should sit on. However, homing in on any one of those copies, the DNA on either the mother’s or father’s copy is a random mix of what they inherited from their own mother and father, and this is why we talk about ‘segments’ – we will have a ‘chunk’ of DNA from our father that came from his own father’s side, followed by another chunk from his mother’s side, and so on. So at any specific place on our two copies (maternal and paternal) of any specific chromosome, we have inherited DNA from either our grandmother or our grandfather. A DNA match means we have inherited exactly the same segment as our DNA cousin, but precisely where the segment match begins and where it ends is where one of us – me or my DNA cousin – has switched at that point in our DNA inheritance from one grandparent to the other.

Inferred chromosome mapping is simply about using this understanding alongside our DNA results in comparison with those of our parent, sibling or nephew/niece. Let’s say my brother and I both match second cousin A on our maternal line. We know that this shared DNA comes from our mother’s paternal line. Now let’s say my brother’s shared segment with second cousin A on one segment is longer than mine. We can infer that here, the DNA I inherited from our mother has switched from my maternal grandfather to my maternal grandmother. Now, when I get a new match on those segments that I have been able to allocate through ‘inferred mapping’ to my maternal grandmother, it greatly reduces the parts of my tree I have to look at in my efforts to locate any new matches.

In the short video below, Jonny Perl, founder and creator of DNA Painter, explains all of the above with diagrams. He then explains what his new Inferred Segments Generator is and how you can use it for inferred chromosome mapping. I’ve been able to use it so far for just two matches my brother and I share – a second cousin and a second cousin once removed (both on the same line) – and I’ve been able to ‘infer’ and allocate 195 centiMorgans worth of segments.

For those of you who are into DNA for genealogy – may you be blessed with many, many centiMorgans of inferred DNA!

*****

For the next three months I have a very heavy workload and will be reducing my posts to one per month, the 1st of July, August and September. From October I’ll be returning to my usual pattern of two posts per month. Until next time, have a good June.

Tracing history through parish registers

I’ve spent a lot of time, in recent weeks, analysing the baptism, marriage and burial registers of Leeds in the 17th century.

All English genealogists working at intermediate level and beyond know about ‘the Interregnum’ – the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – and the devastating impact this can have on tracing back generations who might have been baptised, married or buried during this period. But have you ever looked at the parish registers of your parishes of interest to see how such events played out on a more general basis in the records being kept?

Before starting this particular research I contacted the local archives and was told the registers for Leeds were complete. I then started to investigate the period more fully, through background reading, and found that the Interregnum was just one of a whole series of contemporary social and political factors impacting on the town.

First, Leeds had both economical and tactical significance in the English Civil War, which began in 1642.  The Battle of Leeds took place on 23 January 1643, and while the parish burial register indicates relatively few deaths, the vicar of Leeds was forced to flee the town.  

Two years later, an outbreak of the plague wiped out one fifth of the population of the township.  The overcrowded, close-built housing, and particularly that on lower ground by the river and becks (streams) where fulling and dyehouses, and housing for the humbler clothworkers were situated, was perfect breeding ground for the disease.  In March 1645/46 the situation was so serious that the parish church was closed, and no religious rites performed there for some weeks. 

Extract from Leeds parish burial register for March 1645/46, indicating lists of numbers buried buring the plague.
Extract from Leeds parish burial register:
‘About the beginning of April 1646
came Mr Saxton to the vicar at w[hi]ch time
prayers and sermons begun againe at the
ould church then were burials taken notice of as before’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see the whole of this page, and the notes on the preceding page [here].

Next came the Interregnum, which lasted from January 1649 until May 1660.  During this period the church was effectively disestablished. Moderate Anglican clergy were replaced with those of Puritan persuasion.  Custody of the parish registers was removed from the ministers and given to civil parish clerks, and solemnisation of the marriage ceremony became an entirely civil function.  Bishops (and hence Bishop’s Transcripts) were abolished, and although records were kept they were often badly organised. When Restoration came in 1660, and the role of the church returned to its pre-Interregnum position, vicars often refused to accept the validity of records handed to them by the secular clerks. 

In a practical sense baptisms did continue, but it seems the previous arrangements for local chapelries to report names of those baptised to the main parish church collapsed.

Note on Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649, in which the scribe blames parents for neglecting to report baptisms in the local chapels to the main church
Extract from Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649:
‘The most of the children baptized at the several chappelles
in this parrish for this last yeare, are not to bee found in this
book, because their careles parents neglected to bring in their
names, and therefore let the children or such as want the names
hereafter blame them, who have beene often admonished of it and
neglected it’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

Simlarly – and note that this is the same hand as above – the recording of marriages brought about much displeasure:

Note on Leeds parish register, dated October 1659, in which the clerk blames prties to marriages and other ministers for the breakdown of the marriage registers.
Extract from Leeds parish marriage regiser October 1659:
‘Those that come hereafter to search about Registering of marriages
from the 8 of June last until this present 11 of October 1659 may
take notice that the persons married within that time took the liberty
either to marry without publishing as many did or else they went to Mr
Browne Curate of the ould church and got married there and at
several chappels in the parrish without ever acquainting the Registrer
or paying him his Dues, and therefore if any occasion fall out to make
search for such they may judge who is to blame. those and many others before took the same liberty
October 1659′

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

More strife followed with religious division, and persecution interspersed with periods of greater tolerance.  The population of Leeds was largely split down the middle in terms of traditional Anglican and adherents of a more hellfire-and-brimstone approach to the scriptures.  This, too, meant that at various times ardent Royalist or committed Puritan ministers in turn were ejected from the church, bringing about further disruption in the registers.

As a consequence of the above, although in terms of coverage of years it is true that the Leeds parish registers have no gaps, in terms of the content of those years, not only are there significant gaps, but also (as you can see in the two images directly above) the uniform, neat handwriting of the Interregnum years belie the fact that these are the church clerk’s later transcriptions of the contemporary notes formerly made by the civil parish clerk.  (And we all know that transcriptions may include errors and omissions.)

Even when working in later periods, when faced with a selection of potential records that don’t quite fit, it’s important to remember that record sets may be incomplete.  Records may have been lost or damaged, may not be available online, may have been mis-transcribed and indexed, or may never have existed – sometimes through clerical error at the time and sometimes because of an issue of wider application such as those outlined above.  It has been fascinating to read about these events in textbooks and then see for myself the impact on the registers, but also sad to realise that some of those life events that failed to make it onto the parish registers may have been my own missing ancestors.

If you’d like to try this for yourself
I’ve found the easiest way to browse record sets (whether that be to examine them line-by-line in search of an ancestor, or to browse them looking for the impact of historical events as I have used them above) is on Ancestry, and the easiest ‘way in’ to browse any parish register is to go to an existing record for any ancestor from that record set (already in my online tree) and then use the links at the top of the page to go to the exact parish and year I want. In the example below, the record set is for the whole of West Yorkshire for the period 1512-1812. If I click on ‘Rothwell, Holy Trinity’ I can select any other parish I need from the drop-down menu. Then if I click on the year I can change that to the one I want. From that point I can browse the whole year of baptisms, marriages or burials for the parish. After a while you can easily work out roughly where the marriages or the burials start, and go straight to the appropriate pages for each year. Obviously this will only work for you if Ancestry have a licence with the relevant archives for your parish of interest.

Screenshot from Ancestry.co.uk showing top of page from Rothwell parish registers and title header bar

On FindMyPast, if records from your parish of interest are on there, you can move backwards and forwards from any page for a record you already have, but this is cumbersome, and there’s no way of knowing how many more pages remain of the year you’re currently looking at before you’ll get on to the following year. However, some of the record sets are ‘browsable’, and this is an altogether better experience but not all record sets are available yet to browse in this way. The difference is that ‘browsable’ sets have a ‘filmstrip’ facility (see bottom left on image below) which you can click to open, and then whiz back and forth along the pages, quickly homing in on the pages you want.

To find these browsable record sets, select ‘Search’ from the upper menu bar, and then ‘All Record Sets’. Type ‘browse’ in the upper left hand box, and you’ll see the numbers of records reduce to just those collections that are browsable. Then, in the box below, select ‘England’, and finally type in your place of interest. I entered ‘Norfolk, England’, and from the 50 record collections available I selected ‘Norfolk Parish Registers Browse’. On the next page you enter a year range (or leave it blank) and an event (baptism, marriage, etc) or leave it blank, and then the parish. I haven’t yet found any records of interest to me that are browsable, but this will be a good facility when more are added – and you might be luckier than me.

Front cover of a 'Banns Book' showing location of link to open 'filmstrip' facility

On FamilySearch (free to use, you just need to register for an account) a huge number of images are available to browse, but not all parishes are covered, and even if your parish is, there may be gaps. To find them, from the upper menu bar, click ‘Search’, then ‘Images’. On the next page type in the name of your parish. I tried several of my parishes of interest before finding one for which images were available: Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. It may ask you to select from a few options, and then click ‘Search Image Groups’. On the next page you’ll see precisely what they have. For Great Yarmouth it was just marriage registers, with an almost complete coverage from 1794-1899, but some gaps.

It would be great to hear if you have any successes with this. Have you come across a significant event in your town and then verified it through parish records?