The Acts of Enclosure


The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Authors unknown, circa 1700s

The first two verses of this rhyme popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook recently.  It was being circulated as a commentary on certain present-day events, but I recognised immediately its original meaning.

This is a seventeenth protest rhyme against enclosure of land in the English countryside.  A little googling resulted in this fuller version, although as with any such rhyme passed on by word of mouth, a number of versions have survived.

Although this ryhyme is thought to date from the 18th century, the process of enclosure started in England as long ago as the 13th century. The term ‘enclosure’ (or, to use the archaic spelling, ‘inclosure’) refers to two distinct practices: firstly, the consolidation of smallholdings into larger farms, and secondly, the fencing off of formerly ‘common land’, which would from that time be owned privately.  The rhyme refers to the latter.

The point about ‘common land’ is that it is for the use of all local folk.  They could perhaps graze animals there, or hunt the odd rabbit or goose as an addition to whatever they could grow on their own small plot of land.  Enclosure of the land meant all hunting, grazing, fishing and other rights would now be for the amusement and benefit of the landowner.  Henceforth, the shooting of a wild animal on that private land by someone whose ancestors had been doing this for centuries as a perfectly respectable way of supplementing mealtimes would be ‘poaching’, punishable by the law, and resulting in imprisonment or even transportation.  What land did remain for the common good was often of poor quality and unsuitable for grazing.

During the Georgian era this process of enclosure speeded up, and from 1773 enclosure was by Act of Parliament.

The process of enclosure had several consequences, not only for our countryside but also for the development of English society as a whole.  Understandably, the process of enclosure itself was met with resistance, resulting in bloodshed and criminalisation of individuals.  Larger farms opened the way for more efficient farming practices, resulting in a surplus of labour.  Life became harder and families became hungrier in the rural areas at exactly the same time as the great industrial northern towns and cities were starting to boom.  In this way we can see that enclosure contributed to the ‘push’ factors away from the rural lands at exactly the same time as the industrial revolution created the ‘pull’ factors.  This certainly is borne out by my own family history.

Most of us, I’m sure, will have agricultural labourers in our ancestry.  Some genealogists complain that ‘ag labs’, as they’re referred to, are pretty much all they have.  I can understand their frustration, because unless our ag labs had regular run-ins with the law there is often very little information to be found about them.  We might easily imagine they lived small, uninteresting lives.  But it’s little things like this rhyme that let us know this was not necessarily so.  Our ancestors were fully aware that their lands were being taken and their rights eroded.  They were aware of the unjustness of what was happening.  It might even be imagined that the chanting or singing of this rhyme would be considered seditious.  In any event, just this little bit of background information may help us to think differently about an ancestor with a history of poaching convictions.

Developing genealogy skills

September is just around the corner, and my brain still connects that month to new academic years and new beginnings.  So this seems as good a time as any to write about setting ourselves goals for becoming better family history researchers.

Goals don’t have to be huge.  They can be as simple as deciding to do something different, like visiting the National Archives to look at great great grandfather’s military medical record.  I regularly set myself these types of goals.  But some of my personal challenges do involve a lot more effort.  At the end of last year I realised there were two big issues I needed to spend time on: understanding Irish records, and developing my use of DNA for genealogy.  I decided to spend this year trying to develop my DNA application skills and leave Ireland until the following year.

I need to understand things on a deep level.  What will suit you wouldn’t necessarily suit me, and vice versa.  If you’re more of a visual thinker you might be able to work with less information than I need.  But whatever level you’re at, and whatever your learning style, here are a few ideas you might want to think about to help move yourself forward.

Practice makes perfect
In other words, just get on and do it, make mistakes, learn from them, and over time you’ll improve.  This is the best way to build confidence and get to know the records, how the software or the online site works, and so on.

Watch videos
Building on the last point, if you google your subscription site name + how to do XXXX, you’ll probably find a ‘How to’ video that answers your need.

But neither of these will help build your knowledge of alternative records, contemporary issues in society, and so on.  You’ll become a whizz with the tree-building, but to move you on to the next level as a researcher you’re going to need something else.

Ask for help
Your nearest central library might have a local history reference library with knowledgeable staff. Some of them even do short courses.
Your local County Records Office will have an archivist as well as librarians and other staff who can advise.
If you can get to your nearest FamilySearch Family History Centre, the volunteers there may be able to help.

Join a group
If you still live in the area where your ancestors lived, is there a local family history group?
If you can make daytime meetings, your local U3A might have a genealogy group (free to members of U3A).

I try to have one book related to an aspect of genealogy on the go at any time.  It might be aimed specifically at genealogy, at local history, focused on a specific historical period or event, or even fiction but set in a time and place of interest to me.  It all helps to build knowledge and understanding, and I’ve come across some completely unexpected nuggets of information that have solved all kinds of riddles in my tree.  As one example, I was reading The Real Oliver Twist, reviewed in a previous post, because I wanted to learn more about my great grandfather’s early life, growing up as an orphan in a workhouse.  But while reading I came across the name of one of the leaders of the Chartist movement, and realised another of my ancestors had been named after him.  This not only solved the mystery of why this person, with no Irish ancestry that I could find in any part of his tree, had a very Irish forename and middle name, but also indicated that his quite lowly parents were striving for a better life.  Then, towards the end of the book, I came across a very clear explanation of the position of a sizar at Cambridge University, which had been the status there of another of my ancestors.

Online courses
If you enjoy studying and respond well to structured learning with deadlines you might consider doing a genealogy course. There’s a range of options, from one-off short courses to programmes that build up to a qualification.

I know of three online course providers:
The one I studied with is Pharos Tutors.  They offer individual courses on a wide range of genealogy topics, and for many of them you can choose to be assessed or simply to study, take part in online group discussions, etc, but with no assessment.  If you want a qualification, there’s an Intermediate level course (which is what I did), comprising ten of the individual courses, and you just pay for them as you book each one.  There’s also an Advanced course.  At the time of writing they’re having a sale.  Until 31st August 2019, if you use the code AUGUST20, you can get 20% off any course not taken for assessment.  So if you wanted to give them a try before perhaps thinking about doing the certificated course, now is a good time to do that.

The other two course providers are not in England, but are both available online.  Strathclyde University offers an 8-week online Beginner to Intermediate Level Genealogy course, which they say covers sources from across the world with an emphasis on research within the British Isles.  If you have Scottish as well as English ancestry, it might be worth checking this out.  They also offer a range of more advanced courses.

If you have some Irish ancestry and would like to get to grips with Irish records, you might be interested in the online Certificate in History of Family and Genealogical Methods run by the Irish Ancestry Research Centre at the University of Limerick.

It’s also a good idea to keep a look-out for MOOCs.  These ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ are free and available online for anyone to do.  Sometimes they’re ‘self-paced’, while others have definite start and end dates with group interaction.  There was a brilliant one, much-loved by genealogy enthusiasts, offered by Strathclyde through futurelearn.  Unfortunately it’s not currently available (I suspect it may have been expanded and is now being presented as the certificated course above) but it would be worth googling ‘genealogy MOOC’ every now and then to see if another one becomes available. Just be sure any you choose relate to your country of interest.  e.g. I just found one about Understanding UK Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates offered (free of charge) by Lucy Hayden of Family Ancestry Tips.  I don’t know anything about it – you’d need to check it out for yourself and see if it meets your needs.


I’ll now be taking a short break from the blog.  When I return I’ll be reducing the frequency of my posts slightly, from one per week to three per month.  So I’ll be back on 1st September, and after that will aim to post on the 1st, 11th and 21st of each month.

Generations, pedigree collapse and mind-blowing stuff

Here’s something that’s quite obvious when you think about it, but perhaps you’ve never had much reason to do so.  We each have:

  • 4 x grandparents
  • 8 x G grandparents
  • 16 x 2G grandparents
  • 32 x 3G grandparents
  • 64 x 4G grandparents
  • 128 x 5G grandparents
  • 256 x 6G grandparents
  • 512 x 7G grandparents
  • 1024 x 8G grandparents
  • 2048 x 9G grandparents
  • 4096 x 10G grandparents

In other words, the number of grandparents doubles with every generation.

Since the earliest parish records start at 1538 (and most of them later than that), unless you have aristocratic lineage, you won’t be able to get back much further than 10xG grandparents.  But look how many there are for you to find!  Surely a lifetime’s dedicated work to track down the 8190 direct ancestors across all generations from you to your 10xG grandparents.  That puts our results into perspective doesn’t it!

But there’s another important point to come out of all this: something referred to as pedigree collapse:

Continuing the doubling up of direct ancestors and going back just a few more generations, we each have 4,194,304 x 20G grandparents and 67,108,864 x 25G grandparents; and after that my calculator runs out of spaces for the required numbers, but people with better calculators (or brains!) have worked out that after thirty generations, which brings us to the Middle Ages, we each have roughly a billion ancestors – an impossibly high figure because this is greater than the total world population at that time.  (See the Wikipedia entry on Pedigree Collapse here.)

The only explanation is that some of our ancestors are related to each other.  Sometimes this is quite obvious.  For example, a marriage between cousins (which has always been permissible in the UK) means their offspring will have six rather than the usual eight G grandparents, and therefore 12 GG grandparents, 24 GGG grandparents, and so on…

But what about less obvious connections?  I’ve found that a member of my family and his wife (and me!) are descended from the same 9xG grandparents, making them 10th cousins.  I’m also on the hunt for a connection between my paternal grandparents who seem to be related at around 8th cousin or earlier, their ancestors having moved off in different directions before reuniting in Leeds in the 20th century.  I’ll probably never know their most recent common ancestors, since their connection may be just before records began, but I know the surname and I know whereabouts they lived.  And although I love this idea and will never cease to be delighted at finding such connections, bearing in mind all of the above it seems this is to be expected rather than the wonderful coincidence it seems to be.

It’s even suggested that every single one of us is related to every other person on Earth as 50th cousin or closer.  Go back far enough and we are all family!

1752: the year the calendar changed

The Julian calendar was introduced in 45BC by Julius Caesar.  Based on a solar year, it had twelve months, but a miscalculation of 11 minutes resulted in a leap year formula that overcompensated to the extent that every 128 years, a whole day was added.  By the 16th century, astronomical events such as the equinoxes and solstices were falling ten days early, and since the timing of Easter was linked to the vernal equinox, it was increasingly becoming removed from its proper season.  To overcome these problems, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the ‘Gregorian’ or ‘New Style’ Calendar.  Not all countries followed suit immediately.  In fact it wasn’t until 1927 when Turkey finally made the switch, that everyone was on board.  However, since the change-over involved cutting ten days from one month in the first year of adoption of the new calendar, countries that didn’t change over were ten days ahead of those that did.

It was in 1751-52, following the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, that the UK (and British dominions) adopted the Gregorian calendar.  By this time the UK calendar was eleven days out of sync with the astronomical events and seasons, and these days were removed in one fell swoop in September 1752.  In that year, September 2nd was followed by September 14th.  Many of our ancestors were distinctly unhappy about the loss of eleven days.  There was a genuine fear that their lives would be shortened by that number of days.  They were also concerned at the interference with the Church calendar, particularly with the moving of Easter, and on top of all that they objected to the imposition of what they viewed as the ‘popish’ calendar.  This may or may not have resulted in the ‘English Calendar Riots’ of 1752.  Many historians today view them as a sort of Georgian urban myth.

However, the removal of the eleven days was not the only important change to flow from the Act of 1750, and it is this other aspect that impacts upon us as genealogists.  Prior to 1752 the English year began on 25th March.  This was Lady Day, one of the four Quarter Days, the others being Midsummers Day (24th June), Michaelmas Day (29th September) and Christmas Day (25th December).  I first learned of Lady Day while studying Tess of the d’Urbervilles for English Literature A-level – it was the day tenancies changed and rents were due; and Tess, with her recently widowed mother and siblings, were evicted from their cottage.

Before 1752, then, December 31st and the next day, January 1st were in the same year.  The year continued until March 24th after which, on March 25th, the new year would begin.
The 1750 Act provided for a changeover involving the following series of steps:

  • 31st December 1750 was followed (as usual) by 1st January 1750, and 24th March 1750 was followed by 25th March 1751.
  • 1751 was a short year, running from 25th March to 31st December, then December 31st 1751 was followed by January 1st 1752.
  • Finally, with the removal of the eleven days in September 1752, September 2nd of that year was followed by September 14th.

For us as genealogists it’s the period between 1st January and 31st March in each year before 1752 that can confuse.  If you look at any parish register before this time you’ll see for yourself that the recording year did indeed start on 25th March and end on the 24th.  So if your ancestors married on 1st April 1632 and their first child was born on 1st February 1632, that child was born ten months after the marriage, not two months before it!  You might also have come across unlikely coincidences in record sets such as the birth of Elizabeth to parents James and Mary on 15th January 1732, and another Elizabeth to the same parents on 15th January 1733.  What really happened is that one transcriber amended the date to the Gregorian calendar and the other didn’t.

Historians and genealogists can get around this confusion by using a technique called ‘double dating’.  Any date after 25th March is recorded as usual (e.g. 1st April 1632).  However, any date from 1st January to 24th March is recorded in a way that recognises its position both within the Julian and the Gregorian calendars: e.g. 1st February 1632-33, or 1st February 1632/3.  If you’ve already got your research back to these earlier parish registers, you may decide to use this system.  However!!!! the online trees find it difficult to cope with.  After asking you repeatedly if you’re sure this date is correct, it will accept it but only show the earlier of the two years in the person’s profile.  Be strong!  It’s your tree!  😀

One final aside….
There’s another important side-effect of these changes, and one that remains with us today.  Formerly, being the start of the year as well as the first Quarter Day on which rents were due, Lady Day was also the start of the English tax year.  However, with the loss of the eleven days in September 1752, it was deemed appropriate to delay the collection of taxes to April 5th, thereby avoiding the loss of eleven days of tax revenue. That’s why, following another tweak to the calendar in 1800, the UK tax year starts on the surprising date of 6th April.  And after a quick revision online, I now see that the date in Tess of the d’Urbevilles is ‘Old Lady Day’: 6th April.  Is this an indication that a hundred years after the event, rural England hadn’t fully embraced the new calendar, or did landlords move the day rents were due to coincide with the new tax year…?

Finding Mrs Fezziwig

Last month I played Mrs Fezziwig in the Alan Menken / Lynn Ahrens musical production of A Christmas Carol.  As part of my preparation, I re-read the original Charles Dickens story on which the musical is based.

The kindly Fezziwigs feature as one of the happier memories from Ebenezer Scrooge’s life.  Guided by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he revisits the warehouse from where Mr Fezziwig runs his business, to enjoy once again a fine Christmas Eve party where food, friendship, wine, song and enthusiastic dancing are the order of the day, and everyone is welcome.

Reading the original account of that long-ago Christmas Eve party, I realised something that wasn’t made clear in the musical.  As a young man, Scrooge had not merely worked for Mr Fezziwig; he had been apprenticed to him.  Understanding the apprenticeship system before the Industrial Revolution is an important part of genealogy.  Evidence of an apprenticeship may open the door to a whole range of records, including trades guild membership, freedom of the city or town, perhaps an entry in historic local directories, and much more.

Dickens didn’t think it necessary to tell us what, precisely, was the nature of Mr Fezziwig’s trade.  However, lost, by now in the challenge before me I realised I could easily find the information I needed.  There should be a record of the apprenticeship agreement, probably held at the London Metropolitan Archives.  As a master of his trade, Mr Fezziwig would have been a member of the appropriate London Livery Company; and upon completion of his apprenticeship, young Scrooge would have been eligible for membership too – generating more records.  Depending on the dates, the apprenticeship may also have been recorded on the UK, Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811, and with names like Fezziwig and Ebenezer Scrooge they would be easy enough to track down.  This would also provide Mr Fezziwig’s first name, which would help me to find his marriage, and by extension the first name of Mrs Fezziwig, which should enable me to find her baptism and perhaps information about her background…  By the time I remembered that Scrooge and the Fezziwigs were fictional characters, I had quite the mental To-Do List!

Be warned!  Genealogy is strongly addictive and can addle your brain!  It can transport you to previous time zones, while causing a serious loss of all sense of time in the present one.  ‘Just quickly checking this record’ can turn into hours following through from one rich, newly-discovered seam of records to the next.  It may provoke concerned glances between loved ones when you tell them what you’d really like for Christmas this year is a handful of death certificates.  And it may ignite a previously unknown wanderlust for holidays in the most unlikely of places (‘You want us to spend a week visiting disused MINES????!!’)

It’s on that cautionary note that I’ll end my genealogical jottings for 2018.  I’ll be back in January with more.

In the meantime, to those of you who celebrate, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.