Genealogy: Essential Research Methods

I remember the day I realised the records I had been finding, downloading and attaching to my online tree did not ‘belong’ to Ancestry.  Rather they had been photographed and indexed by/for Ancestry who, with permission from the relevant archives, made them available via their website. 

The progression from Beginner to Intermediate skills for the genealogist is peppered with such realisations.  Broadly, as we become more proactive in searching for specific records to close specific gaps we must develop our knowledge of the types of records that exist and which ones might hold the information we require.  Alongside this we must develop the skills to find them (since these additional types of record are less likely to have been made available online), analyse them and support each one with effective citation, keeping records of our progress and findings.  Helen Osborn’s work Genealogy: Essential Research Methods leaves aside the records themselves, focusing here on these essential skills of finding and using them.  It’s definitely not a book for Beginners; rather it’s a serious, diligent and methodical approach to genealogy.  You’ll get the most from it if you’re already working at a sound Intermediate level or higher, and looking to improve further.  For pretty much anyone who falls into these categories, I think there will be something to learn from this excellent work. 

The book focuses on researching within England and Wales. All references to archives and the records framework, and all examples from the author’s own work are from these two parts of the UK.  The principles of good research practice, however, are applicable everywhere, and from that perspective the book will be of use to anyone serious about developing as a genealogist and family historian.

The book was first published in 2012, although my copy was printed in 2020. It goes without saying that there have been changes in genealogy since then, in terms of wider online availability or records, website links, and even in the organisation of some of the archives themselves.  This issue is mostly limited to chapter 4 but for me is the only drawback, and is generally easily remedied with a Google search rather than simply typing in the sometimes defunct link.

It starts with a chapter setting out common genealogical and research challenges.  In the remaining chapters, techniques and ideas for working with and around these challenges are presented.  Yet it is not prescriptive; rather it reads as an ongoing personal exploration by a highly experienced professional genealogist, historian and qualified archivist inviting us to join in this exploration.  It is very readable. 

Within those chapters you’ll find the following:

  • How to seach online, using effective search terms
  • The importance of reading the particular website’s instructions
  • An understanding of the records framework for England and Wales, including the various jurisdictional levels and the legal, historical and geographic framework that underpins it
  • Different types of archives, the types of records they keep and how they are organised
  • Guidance on drawing upon work already done by others, including online trees and transcriptions
  • Analysis of each document in terms of value, bias and to get every last shred of evidence from it
  • Developing a thorough action plan and other ideas for when you get stuck
  • The importance of documenting sources, and different levels of citation
  • Why we should record our research process
  • Different ways of storing the info, including paper and digital; organising it in a way it can be passed on, perhaps to family or perhaps published in family history magazines or as a family history
  • Evidence and proof

Two meaty issues that have been a constant topic of interest for me – simply because there are no British genealogy ‘standards’ for them – are citation of sources (which has requirements for genealogy that differ from general academic fields in some respects) and advanced-level proof.  The former is dealt with in Chapter 8, with guidance on what needs to be in a citation and also what to record in a research log. The emphasis is on understanding ‘why’ rather than simply ‘what’. If we understand why such information should be noted we will develop the ability to create our own citations rather than simply adopt a formulaic approach. Proof is dealt with in Chapter 10. The two are of course linked, since it is through rigorous citation that we will record the evidence we are presenting as proof, thereby enabling not only ourselves but also others to follow our trail and decide for themselves if they are in agreement with our conclusions.

There is one more chapter that I know I will return to from time to time: Chapter 7 on Planning and Problem-solving. This entire chapter is about approaching brick walls in a systematic way, rather like having ‘a second pair of eyes’ to look for something you might have missed. There is advice about how to approach the problem solving in a systematic way, and also a checklist for record sources, some of which you might just have missed.

When I read this book I already considered my research and analysis skills to be well-developed but was looking for ideas to be more rigorous, particularly in documenting work done and developing action plans. I found I could mentally tick off much of the advice – yes, I’m already doing that – but there were also gems here and there where I knew I could do better, and which I’ve used to develop a personal action plan for improvement. If you’re serious about developing as a genealogist I recommend this book.

Click the image to find this book on Amazon.co.uk.
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Old Peculiars, New Peculiars…

For some months now, all in the cause of my Advanced Genealogy course, I’ve been up to my eyes in old manorial records and samples of archaic scripts. I’ve really enjoyed the ‘Manorial Documents’ module, and have several action plans for various ancestral lines, to be actioned when it’s safe to visit the archives. In case all this is new to you, I’ll start by saying that historically, a ‘manor’ is not a rambling, pleasant country house such as we see dotted about the English countryside. Rather the term refers to the land that came under the jurisdiction of the ‘lord of the manor’ who lived in that fine house, and to the relationship between him and the people who lived within its bounds. Originally, most of these people would have been bonded to the lord, although by the 16th century this was no longer the case.

Much of England was divided up between the patchwork of many and varied manors, and you can easily find out if land in your ancestral places of interest formed part of a manor by using the online Manorial Documents Register at The National Archives. You can search by name of manor or name of parish. Some manors have no known surviving records, but for the majority that do you can click on the results and find a list of collections, together with the archive where they’re lodged. Be warned! They are originals, written in contemporary script and sometimes in Latin…

Working on this Manorial Documents module has helped me get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding a number of my ancestors who lived in Pannal (Harrogate) and had their wills proved at Knaresborough Honour Peculiar.

What’s a Peculiar?
The Court of Probate Act, 1857, created a Court of Probate along with probate registries in London and districts throughout England and Wales. In doing so, it removed responsibility (and power) for the granting of probate from the ecclesiastical courts, making this a civil function. Prior to this Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration when someone died had been the responsibility of those ecclesiastical courts: usually the courts of the diocese and archdeaconry. However, for many centuries, certain places had been exempt from the usual jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon. These were referred to as ‘peculiars’.

Ever since learning about my Pannal ancestors and their wills I had assumed the ‘peculiar’ was the parish. In fact this didn’t really make sense, because Pannal (where they lived) and Knaresborough (where probate was granted) are two different parishes. Now, after a good deal of research, troubling over misleading definitions and scratching of the head, I understand that peculiars can be parishes, manors or liberties. Where a peculiar is a manor, we can refer to it as a manor-peculiar. This was not a privilege granted to all manors: it was, after all, ‘peculiar’. Where this manorial right does exist it can generally be traced back to some former connection with an ecclesiastical corporation, such as the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.

As I said, untangling the above was not straightforward. Most definitions of ‘peculiar’ mention only parishes. Even when I got to the bottom of the concept of the manor-peculiar, I still had to unravel the reason why Knaresborough’s manor-peculiar had jurisdiction over Pannal; and this is because it was an ‘Honour’. An Honour, such as Knaresborough Honour where these wills of my ancestors were proved, was a sort of overarching manor, the seat of a lordship with several dependent manors. It’s likely that my ancestors held land within the Manor of Pannal or the Manor of Brackenthwaite (also in Pannal), but that this manor came under the rule of the Honour of Knaresborough. (I hope to be able to confirm all this when I can eventually visit the archives.)

Identifying peculiar jurisdictions
You can find out if a parish of interest to you came under peculiar jurisdiction by using FamilySearch maps. If you’ve never used this – it’s brilliant! Try it now by searching for Pannal (It’s the one in Yorkshire). The map shows you the boundaries of the parish, and a box pops up with three mini pages: ‘Info’, ‘Jurisdictions’ and ‘Options’. Click on ‘Jurisdictions’, and amongst other jurisdictional bodies you’ll see that before 1858 Probate was dealt with by The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough. By contrast, the adjacent parish of Kirkby Overblow had the usual probate arrangements: Exchequer and Prerogative Courts of the Archbishop of York. Now try this for any parish you like, and it will tell you if there was peculiar or the normal ecclesiastical jurisdiction for probate. Then it’s a matter of finding out where these probate records are kept, and whether they are available online. In my case, some of the wills proved at The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough are online with Ancestry. These ones are lodged at the West Yorkshire Archives, because Pannal and Knaresborough were formerly in the West Riding. The rest are at the Borthwick Institute in York, which is where the main collection of ecclesiastical records for the Archbishop of York’s province is lodged.

Old Peculier
But this is New Year’s Day, and I’m still appreciating the down time. So the real reason I’m writing about this today is that one of the oddities that turned up in my research was about Theakston’s ‘Old Peculier’. The name of this beer (note the archaic spelling of ‘peculier’) is actually a reference to these historic courts. On the website Theakstons say ‘The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham [where the brewery is located] as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also reference to the strong characteristic of the beer.’ (Having just drunk the glass in the above photo I can confirm it is very nice! 🙂 ) Using FamilySearch maps we can see that Masham was indeed subject to the testamentary jurisdiction at the Court of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Masham. Not ‘unique’, though… but definitely peculiar.

It seems fitting to end this very peculiar year with a bottle of ‘Peculier’ beer of Peculiar origins, and to raise a glass to 2021 in the hope of it being decidedly less, well… peculiar. I hope this finds you and your families happy and healthy, that the festive season, although low key, was enjoyable, and that we can all look forward to what the New Year holds.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, peaceful and successful 2021 for us all!

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.