St John’s College Library, Cambridge

Ancient library with rows of dsecorative dark wood shelves and a large stained glass window at the far end

My 7xG grandfather, Lister Simondson, studied at St John’s College, Cambridge.  I found him there quite by chance while doing a general search on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  I could never have imagined then, that within two years I would be walking in his footsteps inside the Upper Library at St John’s.

The library was completed in 1624.  That date is affixed in stone to the exterior of the building on the brick parapet above the oriel window, and clearly visible from the river, which flows immediately outside, as well as from the adjacent Bridge of Sighs (which is where I was when I took the photo below).  By the time Lister arrived in 1696, it was still fairly new, but even so the Library of St Johns College could claim to be the largest and most impressive in Cambridge. The books are arranged on 22 beautifully carved tall, dark oak bookcases alternating with 20 ‘dwarf’ cases.  At the end of each of the taller cases little doors open onto a tiny cupboard, inside which are itemised, in various hands contemporaneous with Lister’s time in the library, the contents of the shelves.  It seems likely, then, that the library remains pretty much as it was when he was there.  In 2005, it was designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council as of national and international importance.

The library isn’t usually open to the public, but a year ago, by some strange quirk of fate, a distant cousin from the US on my husband’s side was awarded a visiting fellowship at St John’s, and a few months ago I was able to visit.  Since I was with a Visiting Fellow, we were able to go up there and wander round, just three of us, alone.  We weren’t allowed to touch any of the books but we could take photos without flash, and I took quite a few.

I was looking for any books that Lister, who graduated from St John’s in 1700, might have used.  This little set seemed likely – the Holy Bible in Ancient Greek, Latin and German. I happen to know Lister was a talented linguist, and he went on to become a Church of England vicar.  Of course I can’t guarantee he used these books, or even that they were in the library at the time he was there (1696-1700) but online research confirms that they were published in 1596, edited by David Wolder and printed by Lucius Jacob.  So I’m thinking they were.  Imagine that!

Ancient leather-bound Bible in 3 volumes, in Ancient Greek, Latin and German

The Cambridge University Alumni records for 1200-1900 are available on Ancestry.  Or you can search without any subscription here.
Oxford University Alumni records, 1500-1886 are also available on Ancestry.

Norwich’s medieval churches

Highly decorative medieval church

St Stephen  (Shame about the wheelie bin)

In a previous post we looked at why some of our historic English towns/cities had so many churches, and some of the implications of that for our family research.  I explained then that it was a chance entry on the 1861 census about one of the parishes within the city of Norwich that had brought all this to my attention.

Since discovering my Norwich ancestry, I’ve had several opportunities to visit the city and to photograph all the churches of interest in my family research.  On my last visit my trusty camera and I covered about 40km on foot, so I think by now I’m quite familiar with the lay of the land!  I can personally attest to (a) the beauty of these churches, and (b) the fact that often they’re situated literally paces from each other.  (How I came to cover 40km, then, in this area of a little over one squre mile, I can’t explain.  But the iPhone Health App doesn’t lie….)

Why were so many of these churches such fine buildings?

To answer that we must travel back in time to the origin of the English textile trade.  A significant part of this trade was based in Norwich and the surrounding lands, from where large quantities of woollen cloth were exported to Flanders in exchange for the finer and better finished cloth produced by the Flemish weavers.  Norwich’s geographical location was an important factor in its success.  Not only did the city’s proximity to the North Sea coast facilitate easy export of goods to the continent, but also Norwich benefited from several waves of migration, initially from the Low Countries, later also including Huguenot silk weavers from France.  There is evidence of the presence of migrant settlers in nearby Worstead as early as 1134.  However, it was the second wave of migration, dating from the 14th century, when Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, invited the ‘goode and trew weevers’ of Flanders to come over in large numbers, that helped to establish Norwich as England’s second city.  Thanks to these people, who became known as the ‘Strangers’, the early, primitive manufacture of woollen cloth in England was gradually transformed, with new techniques and higher quality standards.  Eventually, the manufacture of linen and woollen textiles in England would reach such a level of perfection that it was acknowledged throughout Europe as the best available, preferred to that of any other country.  Textiles woven in Norwich were considered the crème de la crème.

Fine medieval great church overlooking colourful market stalls

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich’s ‘Greater Church’, overlooking the market square which has been in continuous use for almost 1000 years

It was the wealthy cloth merchants who built the churches, clearly as a demonstration of their social standing and wealth; and as a reflection of the size, wealth and importance of the city; but also undoubtedly as a means of easing the way to heaven when the time came.  The distinctive feature is that most of the churches were built from locally found flint.  Several combine this with highly skilled, elaborate limestone flushwork.

Inside, too, the wealth of the merchants was amply demonstrated.  By the second half of the fourteenth century, an inventory of the ornaments of all the churches in the archdeaconry of Norwich shows the abundance of silk vestments and high altar palls owned by 46 of the churches.  By the time of the Reformation these treasures had increased many times over.  Norwich’s civic and ecclesiastical records show that following the decision of Parliament in 1643 to rid the nation’s churches of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism, many fine paintings, crucifixes, statues, stained glass, seating, vestments and organ pipes were removed, smashed, destroyed and publicly burnt.  For the most part, though, the churches themselves remained standing.

Baptismal font with highly decorative wooden canopy

Baptismal font inside St Peter Mancroft where my 3xG grandfather was baptised. The highly decorative wooden canopy is an 1887 reconstruction

T. Kirkpatrick’s sketch of the North East Prospect of the City of Norwich gives an idea of what the city looked like in 1723.  Although several of the 63 original churches had been demolished in the 16th century, and a further one would follow in 1887, Hochstetter’s map demonstrates that by 1789, 36 churches remained.  That was also the year my 4xG grandparents were married at St Peter Mancroft.  Their son, my 3xG grandfather, would be baptised there six years later.

During the Second World War, Norwich’s beauty and historical significance, as highlighted in Baedeker’s guide, marked it out as a target for the Luftwaffe High Command.  The raids on the city that took place between 27th April and 19th October of 1942, continuing sporadically until 6th November 1943, became known as the Baedeker raids.  Accounting for 60 per cent of lives lost through air raids in Norwich during the war, and causing damage then requiring £1,060,000 worth of repairs, the raids were also responsible for the loss of five of the medieval churches, although St Julian, of particular historical significance as the late 14th century residence of Dame Julian of Norwich (whose work The Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book to be written in English by a woman) was rebuilt.

Today, then, 31 of the historic churches remain within the ancient, crumbling city walls, and Norwich can claim the largest collection of urban medieval churches of any city in Western Europe north of the Alps.  However, the majority of them no longer serve as chuches.  Three are under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust (search for ‘Norwich’ to find them) and one is in private ownership.  Since 1973, a further eighteen, managed by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, have been brought back into use as community, cultural and arts centres.

St Michael Coslany church, showing richly decorated facades

Nicholas Groves has written an excellent book about The Medieval Churches of the City of Norwich, which has accompanied me on all my meanderings across the city.  It’s widely available in Norwich bookshops.  I bought my copy in the little bookstore within St Peter Mancroft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Michael, Joseph and Richard

Memorial to the Great Hunger in Ennystimon, Ireland

Gentlemen,
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about four years, he is an orphan, his father having died last year, and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night who is now about being buried without a coffin!! unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the workhouse gate expecting to be admitted. If not it will starve.
Robs S. Constable

Part of memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-1850 showing small orphaned boy waiting at a door.

There weren’t many records online when I first started my family tree, so for the first ten years I worked on it in fits and starts.  Each time I came back to it there were more collections available, but without easy access to the various Records Offices, progress was limited.

Everything changed in 2010; and this memorial was the catalyst.  It’s to be found a mile outside Ennystimon, in County Clare, directly opposite the hospital which was itself built on the grounds of the former workhouse.  It commemorates those who suffered and perished during the great potato famine of 1845-1850, referred to in Ireland as The Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.

The memorial text is based on an entry in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians for Ennistymon Union.  It references actual events of the bitterly cold morning of 25 February 1848.

As soon as I saw this memorial my heart broke for little Michael Rice.  Immediately, I understood why my GG grandparents had left Ireland and come to Leeds.  I had learned about the Potato Blight at school, so I have no idea why the penny hadn’t dropped sooner, but there and then I resolved that as soon as I got home I would honour their memory by returning to my family research and learning more about them.  Well… if you have Irish ancestry you may already understand that I was on a hiding to nothing.  The records simply don’t exist.  In fact it’s only within the last month that, through DNA, testing I’ve made some headway with my Irish folks.  However, before long I made a different, quite shocking discovery

I was searching the 1881 census for my great grandfather Joseph (an English great grandfather, not the Irish line).  Locating a likely record, I opened it up and found him, not within a family group, but a ‘scholar’ within an establishment of some sort.  I still remember the horror as, clicking left to turn the pages until I reached the name and address of the establishment, I saw that Joseph, along with one of his brothers, was in the local workhouse.  Joseph was eleven; his brother Richard was twelve.  Further investigation showed that in 1875, when Joseph was just five years old, his mother died.  Within six months his father was dead too.  Joseph had been in the workhouse since the age of six.  He was my flesh and blood version of little Michael Rice.  I remember dissolving in floods of tears, because Joseph was not some distant, faceless ancestor.  He was my father’s granddad; and I had photos of him – photos suggesting that despite his own tragic start in life, he spoiled his grandson.

Since that day, Joseph has had a special place in my life.  He has, indeed, many stories to tell, and I feel a strong connection to him.  Also since that day, this beautiful yet tragic memorial just outside Ennystimon has taken on additional meaning for me.  It represents the suffering of the Irish people at the hands of mother nature, heartless landlords and the uncaring policies of a remote government in Westminster; it represents my own ancestors who fled County Mayo with the hope of making a better life in Leeds; but it also represents little Joseph and Richard, and their fear and misery as they realised that, having just lost their parents, this, now, was to be their home.

St Mary’s Tadcaster: Hidden past

St Mary's church, Tadcaster

Whenever I’m working on an ancestor I try to get an idea of their life and surroundings by seeking out old photographs or paintings.  If there’s no chance of ever having a photograph of this ancestor (which obviously is most of them), then I use a photo of a building or place that had meaning for them as their profile picture.  Often that will be the church where they married or were baptised.  This is why I came to be in Tadcaster, drinking coffee in the oldest café in town, and taking photographs of the parish church, St Mary’s.

St Mary's church, Tadcaster.

Back home, I looked up the church on the Internet to find out more about it – when it was built, and so on.  It was then that I learned this little church has a surprising story to tell!

Originally built around 1150, the first church was burnt and sacked by the Scots.  It was rebuilt around 1380, with further additions bringing it to its present size and shape by about 1480.  And yet… this is not that church, not exactly.

The church stood next to the River Wharf, close enough that when the Wharf burst its banks, which seemingly it did frequently, the church was flooded.  To prevent this, in 1875 the decision was taken to take down the church, brick by brick, and rebuild it largely to the same shape and dimensions, four feet higher up the bank away from the river.  The work was completed in 1877.  It cost £8000 and was deemed to be a success.

View of St Mary's church, Tadcaster, as seen from Tadcaster Bridge.

But do you notice how dreary and overcast it is in these photos?

It was 30th November 2015 when I took them.  It had been raining torrentially for days, and by Christmas there was still no end to it.  Exactly one month after I stood on the ancient bridge over the River Wharf to capture the scene above, it collapsed.  It had stood, connecting the two parts of the town, since around 1700.

But the church was safe, right…?  I mean, after all the careful taking apart and rebuilding at a safer spot four feet higher up the bank?

Well… not exactly.

Church and churchyard flooded

One hundred and thirty eight years after the rebuilding of the church, the elements once again had the upper hand.

This fantastic photo was taken at the height of the floods, by Otley-based commercial photographer Giles Rocholl.  He previously gave permission for me to post this photograph on another blog.  (Yes, I know, it knocks the spots off mine!)