Recording women and business in the censuses

It has long been considered that women’s occupations were under-recorded in the Victorian censuses. From the end of the eighteenth century there was a growing separation of work spheres for men and women. A middle class ideal had emerged, in which a woman’s place was in the home, where she had responsibility for the emotional, physical and moral needs of the family, while the man’s role was to work to provide for them all.

Of course this was not an ideal to which most working class women could aspire. Although many married women from the labouring classes of childbearing years had no choice but to stay home and look after their children, they did this alongside cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. They may also have taken in work to fit in alongside the above. Those three little words: ‘Unpaid Domestic Duties’ – or even a blank space where the name of an occupation should be written – may suggest a life of leisure, but the reality for many women involved long hours of hard physical work.

There was also the matter of the legal position of women and property. Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1770 everything a woman earned was legally the income of her husband; while prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. It isn’t difficult to imagine that these assumptions and attitudes would filter through into society, and indeed into the decennial enumerations of people and their lives:

“Census enumerators, who were mainly men, gave to household heads, again mostly male, census household schedules which they filled up using instructions provided by the exclusively male civil servants of the General Register Office (GRO) in London. The Victorian enumerators collected the household schedules and copied them into census enumeration books (CEBs), and then dispatched these to the officials at the GRO. When the latter received the CEBs they proceeded to ‘abstract’ the information in them using classification and coding systems they had devised to create tables and commentaries to be published in Parliamentary Papers.”
(See Edward Higgs and Amanda Wilkinson: Women, Occupations and Work in the Victorian Censuses Revisited.)

Based on in-depth research and analysis, the report just cited included a provisional conclusion that the nineteenth-century census returns *are* a reliable source for the study of women’s work in the period. However, as genealogists we look at individual people rather than trends.

A research project I’m working on has prompted me to think about a very specific occupational group: firstly, family businesses, where the husband/ head of household and the wife are working together from the home or shop; and secondly, exactly the same circumstances, but where the woman owned and ran the company before marriage.

Census records from my previous research for two examples of this are as follows:

In 1911, Oldham (below), a husband was listed as ‘Musical Instrument Dealer’, working on own account, and the premises were a shop with the family living above it. The business was established and seemingly successful. His wife is listed as ‘Assisting in the business’. In the ‘status code’ added in pen by the enumerator (second column from end) the husband’s status is 6 (own account); his wife’s is 0 (meaning ‘no employment’):

Extract from a 1911 census schedule showing the different attitudes to men's work and women's work

In 1891, Leeds (below), the husband was listed as ‘Wardrobe(?) Shop Keeper’, employer. His wife and their 19 year-old daughter are both ‘Shop Assistants’, employed. (Employment status is indicated by the location of the X in the last three columns.)

Extract from an 1891 census schedule showing the different attitudes to men's work and women's work

But then I came across Mary.
Mary was a Lodging House Keeper on the Isle of Wight. As an unmarried woman, living in a new house in an attractive expanding town, she built up her lodging house business from scratch. However, in 1853, fifteen or twenty years into her lodging house business, Mary married.

Legally, from the moment Mary signed the marriage register, everything she had worked for, and everything she owned, passed to her husband, Richard. If he had wanted to gamble it all away, throw her out on the streets, or whatever his whim, he could have done it. According to the Law, Mary had not a penny to her name. How would this play out on the records?

From that time, it is Richard who is listed in directories as the Lodging House Keeper. By virtue of the property he also has the right to vote in 1857 – something that was, of course, denied Mary prior to that. To Richard, too, it also falls to pay the parish Poor Rate Taxes. However, the census enumeration books tell a slightly different story:

In 1861, the first census after their marriage, Richard is listed as head of household and ‘Lodging House Keeper’. Mary, however, is not relegated to Unpaid Domestic Duties: she is ‘Lodging House Mistress’.

Unusual extract from an 1851 census in which the husband and wife are accorded (almost) equal occupational status in the census enumeration book entry.
Richard and Mary Hayman, 1861 England Census: Class: Rg 9; Piece: 658; Folio: 14; Page: 23; GSU roll: 542679

Ten years later – even more astonishing – both Richard and Mary are listed as ‘Lodging House Keeper’.

Unusual extract from an 1851 census in which the husband and wife are accorded equal occupational status in the census enumeration book entry.
Richard and Mary Hayman, 1871 England Census: Class: RG10; Piece: 1166; Folio: 37; Page: 19; GSU roll: 827798

Looking through census pages, the only examples I’ve found of a woman named on the census as the person running a business is if she was unmarried or widowed. I’ve also heard of women listed in local directories as having businesses in the high street, and yet having no mention of their occupation in the census – although I haven’t yet actually found any examples of that myself. If you look up Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Gaskell in the censuses taken at the height of their success, you’ll find an unmarried Charlotte whose occupation is ‘none’, and a married Elizabeth who is a ‘Minister’s wife’. All of which makes Mary’s entries here even more remarkable – to the extent that I’m surprised the census enumerator didn’t water it down on transferring the information to the enumeration books.

Having spent some time finding out about Mary, I have a sense of a strong woman who liked to help the young women in her family to progress in their lives. These entries add to that, perhaps providing an insight into her marriage: Richard’s respect for Mary, and Mary’s strength of character.

What about you? I’d love to know of any other finds along these lines. Mary is unusual, but I hope she isn’t a one-off!


When I started my journey into my family’s past I never expected to find riches and grand families. Indeed, what I love about genealogy is that it enables us to home in on the ‘little’ people, and to find the extraordinary in their seemingly ordinary lives. I soon realised that this ‘bottom up’ focus was the difference between Genealogy and the History I studied to ‘A’ Level at school. Yet we cannot really understand our ancestors’ lives without knowing something of that social and political backdrop which is the stuff of formalised history studies: the local history, the manorial system, changing governments and their legislation and increasingly, as we travel back further in time, the whims, decisions, abuses and power of the monarch.

Today, as the coronation of Charles III as King of the United Kingdom takes place at Westminster Abbey, I thought it would be interesting to focus on the kings and queens of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and to see how that history merges with and indeed shaped the world our ancestors knew.

Let’s start with a YouTube video from UsefulCharts about the British Monarchy Family Tree: Medieval Kings of England & Scotland to Charles III. This deals with the succession of the monarchy from Anglo-Saxon times right through to present day.

At 30 minutes long, the video requires a little investment of time, but the family tree chart is absolutely brilliant, allowing the narrator to whizz up and down and from side to side as he explains very clearly the sometimes complex events and reasons leading to the passing of the throne from one king or queen to the next. Even if your grasp of all this is quite sketchy, you’re sure to meet people whose names you know, and you’ll start to see how they all fit together. In my case, studying heraldry and pedigrees, and getting to grips with the cataloguing of official documents according to the regnal years dating system forced me to familiarise myself with some of the medieval monarchs. However, in this chart you’ll also meet Macbeth, ‘Lady Macbeth’ and Duncan, as well as Alfred the Great; and you’ll be able to untangle the relationship between Aethelred the Unready and King Canute, and the events that led from them to the invasion of William the Conqueror. There were also some female monarchs about whom I knew very little: Lady Jane Grey, Queen Anne and – for shame – I am one of those people who thought Mary Queen of Scots and Mary I of England (the older sister of Elizabeth I, also known as ‘Bloody Mary’) were the same person. If you never really understood how William of Orange came to be next in line to the English throne, or how George I came to be king (he is in fact descended from the Stuarts and the Plantagenets, but not on the direct male line), this video will clarify everything. Finally, I hadn’t previously realised that it was the accession of Henry VIII to the throne that brought an end to the War of the Roses, since he was of both the House of York via his mother and that of Lancaster via his father. This also explains why the Tudor Rose, or Rose of England combines the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of Yorkshire at its heart.

Other monarchs feature in events more personal to my own family research. For example Edward ‘The Black Prince’ has a special place at the heart of my home town, Leeds – although no one really knows why! A large bronze statue of the Prince in City Square was unveiled in 1903 to mark Leeds’s new city status. Then there’s Henry of Lancaster who, via a circuitous route, had inherited the Manor of Leeds. Consequently, in 1399 when he was crowned Henry IV, Leeds became a royal manor, remaining so until 1629. Watching the video I see that Edward The Black Prince is the older brother of Henry IV’s father – John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster – who, as mentioned above, had by chance become lords of the Manor of Leeds… and that seems to be as close a connection as we’ll ever find. Nevertheless, the statue is much-loved, and on a personal note I’m pleased to have done my part in clearing that up…

My knowledge of the Jacobite Uprising has largely been informed by Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (it turns out I’m not as high brow as you might have imagined), and I already knew of a tenuous link from this to my own ancestry: on 24th September 1745, my 7x great grandfather, the Reverend Lister Simondson, was one of the Association at York Castle who pledged funds to raise a militia against the Jacobite Threat.

I wonder if this video sparks off any connections, tenuous or otherwise, to your own ancestry?

If you enjoyed the above video I also found a couple of shorter ones. The first focuses on the more recent connections: the descendants of Queen Victoria, who feature in the royal families of all of the European monarchies and kingdoms. You’ll see footage of George V and Tsar Nicholas: first cousins, and looking uncannily alike, as well as lookalikes Edward VII and his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II (also therefore George V’s first cousin, as well as third cousin to Nicholas II).

And finally, a little more information about the descent of House names, and specifically Charles III’s technical connection via his father to the House of Glücksburg, although he will maintain the Windsor name. In both these videos you’ll see how marriages were far from love matches, but a means of building empires and wealth. In this they are simply grander and more pan-European examples of the kind of pedigree charts we have in this country.

You simply can’t do advanced genealogical research without having an understanding of the importance of this historical backdrop, and at least knowing where you can go to look it up, so if any of this is new to you, I hope you’ve found this little selection of videos useful and interesting. Preparing it has certainly clarified some things for me.


On an unrelated matter…
If any of you are in Leeds, and might be free for an hour next Thursday 11th May 2023, at lunchtime, I’ll be giving a talk about my research on one of my own ancestral lines, the kinds of records I used, and what I learned about seventeenth century Leeds and Woodhouse in the process.

Publicity screenshot for a talk to be given at Leeds Central Library on 11 May 2023

If you’re interested, please see all the information and reserve a (free) ticket [here].

Danny Boy

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so!

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!

Lyrics by Frederic E Weatherly (c.1910-1913)
Set to the tune of Londonderry Air

Political and historical background
The Acts of Union of 1800 were parallel Acts of the Parliament of Great Britain and that of Ireland.  The Union came into effect on 1 January 1801, abolishing the Irish Parliament while giving Ireland 100 MPs at Westminster and 28 peers in the House of Lords.  The whole of Ireland was now part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  However, from the 1870s, nationalist agitation grew, ranging from support for Home Rule from the Irish Parliamentary Party (but remaining part of the Union) to calls for full independence from the republican Sinn Féin movement.  It was during the 1910s and early 1920s that nationalist opinion shifted from the former to the latter, the period 1912-1923 being known as the Irish revolutionary period. 

In 1914 the UK Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act, intended to establish self-government for Ireland, but with the outbreak of war in July of that year, implementation of the Act was suspended.  The Easter Rising against British rule in April 1916 was quashed within a week, yet the execution of fifteen people by firing squad, the imprisonment of hundreds more, and the imposition of martial law were decisive in turning popular support towards the Republican cause.  On 21 January 1919 Irish Republicans formed a breakaway government and declared Irish independence.  This began the Irish War of Independence which ended with a ceasefire on 11 July 1921.  The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December of that year after negotiations led by Michael Collins on the Irish side, with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for the British team.  The Treaty envisaged an ‘Irish Free State’ which went much further than Home Rule but fell short of full independence: Ireland would remain within the British Empire.  For this reason, agitation would continue with the outbreak of Civil War on 28 June 1922, concluding 24 May 1923.  The Irish Free State Constitution Act was passed by the British Parliament on 6 December 1922 and originally included all 32 counties of the island of Ireland.  However, the treaty allowed the six-county Unionist-majority Northern Ireland one month in which to decide whether to be part of the Irish Free State or remain part of a United Kingdom of Northern Ireland.  On 8 December 1922 Northern Ireland chose the latter.  The Free State came to an end on 29 December 1937, when the state of Ireland headed by the new President of Ireland (in place of Governor-General of the Irish Free State) was formed.

The view from the Census
Although the decennial census in the rest of the United Kingdom commenced in 1801, the first full (UK government) census of Ireland was taken in 1821.  In keeping with the rest of the UK, there followed one census every ten years, from 1831 to 1911.  In view of the War of Independence, there was no census in 1921, and from 1926 the censuses for Ireland became a matter for the Irish government.  Also as in the rest of the UK, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 focused on the numbers rather than the people, with the first modern census taking place in 1841.  Unfortunately, almost all of the returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were destroyed on 30 June 1922 when, at the commencement of the Irish Civil War, Dublin’s Public Record Office was destroyed by explosion and fire.  (I wrote about this and the subsequent virtual reconstruction of the former Public Record Office [here].)

In 1841 the census recorded a total of 8,175,238 people living in (the island of) Ireland.  Ten years later, on 30 March 1851, that number had fallen to 6,552,385.  Given the natural anticipated rise in population, in normal circumstances a number closer to nine million might have been expected.  Taking this into account, the loss of population between 1841 and 1851 could be computed at 2.5 million. 

The reason was, of course An Gorta Mor, or The Great Famine, which commenced in 1845 with the potato blight and continued until around 1850.  In his report for the 1851 Census in Ireland, Irish Registrar General William Donnelly wrote that around a million people had died from hunger or famine-related diseases, although he added that the true figure was impossible to count and this may be an underestimate.  A further million people emigrated.  In one eight-month period from 1 May 1851 to 31 December 1851, 152,000 people left Ireland, but it did not stop there.  A further 190,325 emigrated in 1852; 173,148 in 1853 and 190,556 in 1854.  As Donnelly wrote in his report, these were mostly from the lower classes.  These were of course the hardest-hit, being largely dependent on the potato crop for their own sustenance.  It is not difficult to understand how this disaster fed into the movement for Independence.  Other crops and livestock were unaffected; and while the poorest people starved to death, exports of such produce continued throughout.  Further, absentee landlords, numbering about ten thousand, had no interest in their Irish lands other than as a source of income.  The management of their lands was carried out by hired middle men, who rented out small parcels of land to tenants and even during the famine dealt ruthlessly with those who could not pay the rent, with the result that many of the starving lower classes were also without land or a home.  It is easy to see why, when the potato blight returned to Europe in 1879, this fed into the nationalist agitation.

By the time of the 1861 census the population of Ireland had collapsed further: a reduction of almost one million more people, to 5,764,543.  Almost two hundred years after the onset of The Great Famine, Ireland’s population has never recovered to the 1841 position.

Where did these people go?
Those who could afford it tended to go to the United States of America.  Those who couldn’t crossed the Irish Sea to Great Britain, where they arrived hungry, destitute and clothed in rags.  Many would also have been unable to speak English.  I have several United States censuses to thank for clarifying this.  Other than in Ireland, the UK census did not, at this time, include any questions about languages, and in any case, of course, the 1841 and 1851 census returns were lost to us in the fire of 1922.  However, following up on the families of some of my own DNA matches who settled in Pennsylvania, I found that the recorded mother-tongue of many of the contemporaries of my County Mayo ancestors was Gaelic.  Indeed it is estimated that as of 1841, half of the Irish population spoke only Gaelic or were bilingual Gaelic-English – and that most of the Gaelic speakers were concentrated in the west and south-west: the provinces of Connaught and Munster, and the very places most impacted by the potato blight and the consequent deaths and emigrations.  Now, desperate for work and somewhere to stay, they start to appear on English, Scottish and Welsh census returns, crowded into slums in the poorest, unhealthiest areas, sometimes as many as thirty to a room, subjected to racial discrimination and accused of dirty habits.  Census figures show that in 1841, of a total Great Britain population (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales) of 18,553,124, there were 419,256 individuals on the census who declared their place of birth as Ireland.  In 1851, of a GB population of 21,121,967, there were 727,326 Irish-born residents.  And in 1861, when the GB population numbered 23,085,579, there were  805,717 Irish-born residents.  Of course, by this time, some of these incomers would have married and had children in their new locations, meaning their children, although perhaps identifying as ‘Irish’ and living in Irish communities, would show up in the census as British born.  Initially, most of the Irish-born migrants settled in Liverpool and in other pockets of Lancashire, in Glasgow, London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Workington and the Newcastle upon Tyne area.  Click [here] to see a map showing where they had settled by 1851. 

Danny Boy
The starting point of this post was the Irish ballad ‘Danny Boy’.  In fact the lyrics were written by English lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly.  It isn’t clear if he set them to the traditional Irish melody of ‘Londonderry Air’ or if this was done afterwards.

It’s also not absolutely clear what the song is about!  Certainly it’s from a mother to a son.  But is that son going off to war?  Is he, as suggested by the calling of the pipes, participating in the Republican cause?  Or is he emigrating in search of a better life for economic reasons or following the famine?

Today, the worldwide Irish diaspora extends to over 100 million people – more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland, and as many of them celebrate St Patrick’s Day and remember their roots, you can be sure that many of them will be singing Danny Boy. For me, it’s about the pain of emigration, about the mother who knows she is unlikely ever to see her son again, but wherever he is, her love will always be with him.

Front cover of an original copy of Danny Boy sheet music


The main part of this post, The view from the Census, draws upon Roger Hutchinson’s book: The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker. In my next post I’ll be reviewing the book.

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 [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.

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 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?

‘A Crysome child’

On 22nd August 1702 the child of one of my kinsmen was buried. The entry in the parish register reads ‘A Crysome child of George Lucas of Woodhouse Carr’. I imagined George going to the church and speaking to the vicar: ‘What is the child’s name, Mr Lucas?’ With a long sigh and a weary shake of the head, I could hear George replying: ‘Ayyy… it were a crysome child, ‘ardly drew breath before it were tekken…’ I took the entry on the register to mean that the baby had died even before George and his wife, Ann, had named him or her, and thought it a rather quirky find, that the vicar had recorded those words: a crysome child. I added the baby to my tree with the name A Crysome Child Lucas.

Well, I was partly right. And mostly wrong. It didn’t help that the entry was spelled ‘crysome’, which – look it up in any dictionary – means ‘characterised by crying or weeping; tearful; lamentful’. This was surely a frail, weak baby who was clearly in discomfort.

But it turns out that what the vicar should have written was ‘chrysom’ or maybe ‘chrisome’. The precise spelling varies, but the ‘h’ was important.

A chrysom (or chrisom) cloth was a white cloth or mantle. Symbolising purity, it was thrown over a child during baptism or christening. The cloth was annointed with ‘chrism’ – consecrated oil – and its practical purpose was to protect the oil from being accidentally rubbed off.

Part of a memorial monument showing three chrisom swaddled babies.

The image shows part of a monument to Thomas Selwyn 1546-1613, and his wife Elizabeth (Goring) of Friston Place. The full monument shows the two of them kneeling at a prayer desk, beneath which are three chrisom swaddled babies, all boys. Source: Wikipedia: Chrisom.

The baby’s family retained the chrisom cloth for one month after the baptism. This coincided with the mother’s return to society after giving birth. Today, the ‘churching’ of women is viewed as a thanksgiving and blessing for the delivery of the child and the mother’s survival, but until 1552 there was a purification element to this. Helen Osborne (Our Village Ancestors, p.30) writes that the baptised child would continue to be covered by the cloth until the mother was churched. For any baby dying during this period the chrisome cloth would be used as a shroud, and the baby would be termed ‘a Chrisome child’.

It follows from all of the above that a baptism was not the planned, family event into which it has since developed. Almost certainly, the mother would not have been present, since she would be temporarily away from society. Where the vicar also recorded the birthdate, it is clear that until the eighteenth century, babies were baptised as soon as possible. According to FamilySearch: Birth-Baptism Intervals, studies have shown that in the sixteenth century baptism was normally no more than a week after birth. However, from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards the interval gradually increased, one study for the period 1650-1700 indicating 14 days before 75% of children in the register were baptised. That said, I have several records from my own research clearly showing early 19th century babies being baptised on the day they were born. It was important, since tiny babies often died; and only a baptised child could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But back to 1702, and to George Lucas and his ‘crysome child’. Whilst preparing this post I googled the term with that exact spelling. One of the items returned was a Thoresby Society transcript of the Leeds Parish Registers, opened at page 180. That’s the parish where George buried his baby. On that page alone five ‘Crysome’ children were buried. Four more on page 179, five on page 178, and so on, all the way back to page 169 where the entry for George and his baby are to be found. That’s a lot of fathers to have the exact same conversation with the vicar about their own recently born, sickly, deceased child…

In fact the term ‘Chrisome’ (various spellings, but remember the ‘h’!) had come to be used for any baby dying before baptism. This puts a different spin on all those entries in the Leeds Parish Register. (None of this is restricted to Leeds, by the way; it’s just that this seems to be the only place where the ‘h’ is omitted in the records, resulting in ‘crysome’.) It made me think about the term ‘Christian name’, which was historically a religious personal name given on the occasion of a Christian baptism. Bearing in mind the church’s dual role in this respect – to baptise the child into the church and also to record the existence of an individual in accordance with the requirements of the state – there is the possibility of a punitive aspect to the recording of a child who has not been baptised, and therefore officially and religiously has no name, as merely ‘a Chrysome child’. We might assume any child so recorded is unbaptised, since a baptised child – even if a Chrysome child in the sense of dying within a month of baptism – would be recorded with his or her own Christian name. It seems comparable to the recording of a child born out of wedlock as ‘baseborn’ (or related terms). How much more difficult for the parents of this period to know that not only would their dead child never be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but also he or she would forever remain nameless in the eyes of God.

In the midst of all this pondering I watched the Season 11 finale of Call the Midwife, in which it was revealed that even in 1967 it was common for premature babies to be buried with another deceased person, this being the only way to make sure they had a proper Christian burial and resting place. There is no doubt that George’s unbaptised ‘Crysome child’ was buried, but I wonder if, as an extra pain for the parents to bear, it had to be in an unconsecrated part of the burial ground.

By way of conclusion I’d like to make a few points. First, it’s important that we keep an open mind about our interpretation of records. Something new may come along to make us think ‘hold on… I wonder if….’; and if it does we should explore it. Second, we need to learn about the society in which our ancestors lived and worked. The vital importance of the baptism, as revealed above, just doesn’t translate to our own modern society, but in former centuries it was the equivalence of a birth certificate, a proof for inheritance, settlement rights, and the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven. And finally – if we think laterally, we will find information to help us progress our family research in the strangest of sources. Thank you, Call the Midwife! 🙂


I’ll be taking a break for the rest of April. I’ll be back with my next post on 1st May.

The Princess Mary Gift Box, 1914

My first post this year was about my maternal grandparents who were married on 24 January 1920, three weeks after my Granddad returned from India. He had been away with the Army ten and a half years, and they had not seen each other since he went away shortly after proposing to the young lady who would be my grandmother. By the end of 2020 their first child, my uncle, was born.

I’ve been thinking about them a lot, recently: all those years my grandparents never got to be together. I suspect the hardest times were when my Granddad’s Regiment was posted to yet another exotic location with no home leave at all, and when he wrote each time to his fiancée to tell her his homecoming would be delayed yet again. That and Christmas, when he would have loved to be with her and his family. In a strange echo of the past, their son would write from India at Christmas 1945 to say how fed up he was to be delayed in India after the end of the Second World War, instead of being back home.

Back in 1914, when it was still thought the war would be over quickly, seventeen year-old Princess Mary wanted to send every soldier and sailor involved in the war effort a personal gift for Christmas.  ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary’s Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fund‘ was created, and donations were invited from the general public.  In a letter released by Buckingham Palace early in November 1914 and published in British and colonial newspapers, the princess wrote:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?

Please will you help me?”

The gift was to be a small embossed brass box containing a number of small items. Most contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess. For the non-smokers the brass box contained a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case with pencil, paper and envelopes, and the Christmas card and photograph.  Boxes for the nurses contained the card and chocolate.

The response to the appeal was overwhelming.  The cost of purchasing sufficient quantities of the gift box for 145,000 sailors and 350,000 soldiers was estimated at £55,000 – £60,000, but the appeal raised £162,591 12s 5d, meaning the gift could be sent to all British and Imperial service men and women: about 2,620,019 in all. The gift boxes were to be delivered in three waves: First all naval personnel and troops at the Front were to receive theirs before, on or shortly after Christmas Day.  Wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (whose gifts were held in reserve) and nurses serving at the Front were also included in this first wave, as were widows and parents of soldiers killed in action.  The wording on the card was ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’ 

The second wave included all other British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles; and finally in the third wave, all troops stationed in Britain.  Second and third wave recipients were to receive their gifts during or shortly after January 1915 – although in reality some had to wait much longer than that.  For them, the wording was amended to ‘With Best Wishes for a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’.  The front of the card bore the Princess’s monogram, with the year 1914 for the first wave and 1915 for the rest.

Princess Mary’s plan to give the service men and women ‘something that would be useful and of permanent value’ was a great success.  The empty brass box was light and air-tight, but also of quite sturdy construction.  It could be used to carry and keep safe small personal items such as money, tobacco and photographs throughout the rest of the war.  Many of them, my Granddad included, treasured it for the rest of their lives.  That’s his (now mine) you see photographed here, together with the original card from Princess Mary that indicates he received his in India as part of the second wave: it’s dated 1915 and bears the ‘Victorious New Year’ greeting. 

As for the ‘Victorious New Year’, well that was a little longer coming…

You can read more about the Princess Mary Gift Fund Box, and see photograhs of some with the original contents, on the Imperial War Museum website, and on the Netley Military Cemetery website.  They are a lot more sparkly than mine.  I decided not to clean it.


On that note, thoughts return to 2020, and to the present Christmas.  As I write this, here in the UK hundreds of lorries are backing up at the ports; European hauliers, with no food and few facilities, are unlikely to make it home to be with their families for Christmas; and many people’s already scaled-down plans have been dashed following emergency measures announced after a mutation of the COVID-19 virus.  Wherever in the world you are, and whatever changes from your usual festive arrangements you’ve had to make, I wish you a Safe and Peaceful Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year for us all.

Relief of the poor: Settlement

The threat of ‘the workhouse’ loomed large over our nineteenth century ancestors.  Even if they worked hard and were able to provide well for their families, there was always the possibility of accidents (even fatal ones), disability, sickness, failure of harvests… and therefore no longer being able to work.  The workhouse regime began with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and was formally abolished only in 1930, yet it wasn’t the first legislative arrangement for dealing with ‘paupers’ and ‘vagrants’.  Prior to 1834, relief of the poor was based on the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the Act of Settlement of 1662.

There are two important issues at the heart of all this.  The first is that relief of the poor was a parish matter.  This had less to do with any sense of ‘Christian duty towards those less fortunate’ than with the fact that alongside the spiritual role we associate today with the local church, the parish was also the local administrative unit, responsible for collecting monies and ensuring the smooth-running of the local area.

The next important issue follows on from this.  Since local people had to cough up the money to provide for the poor, the parish was at pains to ensure that only genuinely local poor people were eligible.  This led to the concept of ‘settlement’.

Even if we say that essentially, a person had the right of settlement in the parish in which he or she was born, there still had to be some acknowledgement of migration, and a system for allowing the acquisition of settlement for those genuinely moving into a new parish for sound reasons.  It was the 1662 Act (and later amending Acts) that introduced the rules under which a newcomer acquired such legal rights.  These were:

  • holding parish office
  • paying the parish rate
  • renting property worth more than £10 p.a. or paying taxes on a property worth more than £10 p.a.
  • being resident in the parish for 40 days, after having given the authorities 40 days’ notice before moving into the parish
  • being currently apprenticed to a master in the parish
  • having served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident
  • being hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day
  • having previously received poor relief in that parish

However, the above rules applied only to men and unmarried women, and there were different rules for children born within wedlock and those born illegitimately:

Much as the need to restrict relief of the poor to genuinely local people was real, suffice to say there was plenty of scope in all of the above for trickery, twisting the rules, cruel, draconian decisions and absurd outcomes. It became common practice, for example, to look for masters outside the parish when placing a child as a parish apprentice… so that in case of problems the child would have ceased to be a burden on the home parish.  Over time, this extended to sending children as young as seven years old to growing industrial towns in the north, often many miles from home.  Robert Blincoe, for example, believed to have been the real-life inspiration for Dickens’s Olver Twist (see above link), was sent from London to Nottingham.  Later, he was transferred to a parish in Derbyshire, where the unscrupulous mill owner built the apprentice living quarters just across a stream in the adjacent parish. In other words, the profits and benefits of the mill and the children’s labour went to the owner in one parish, while the burden of providing for their burials and other disablement expenses fell to another.  Another ploy was the avoidance of settlement rights after employment for a year and a day by employing migrant workers only on short term contracts.  And the different arrangements for men, women, and legitimate / illegitimate children could mean that in times of genuine hardship the man’s settlement was deemed to be where he had worked; his cohabiting but unmarried ‘wife’s’ settlement was where she had been born – or even in the parish of another, estranged, husband; while their illegitimate children would have settlement in their own place of birth and those aged over seven then apprenticed to masters throughout the country.

The means by which such decisions were made was the Settlement Examination, a legal document drawn up pursuant to those rules outlined above.  Generally, the trigger for a Settlement Examination was the application for poor relief by the person who had fallen on hard times.  The examination focused on the personal, employment and ownership histories of the individual, or if a married woman, of her husband, late husband or absconded husband.  You can read more about Settlement on the London Lives website – a general overview; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have London roots – and there is also a separate page about Settlement Examinations.  On both pages there are links to examples of Settlement Examination documents, or you might like to follow the case of one person’s experience:

Susanna Flood:
Settlement Examination 1
Removal Order 1
Petition and Appeal
Settlement Examination 2
Removal Order 2

If you come across Settlement Examination documentation in your own ancestry it will give you valuable information about family members and any migration history.  In the pre-census era this can help you add detail to your ancestors’ lives.

May you live in interesting times

If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I consider myself not just a researcher of the past, but also an ‘ancestor of the future’.  Mindful of how much I would love to be able to sit down with many of my ancestors and ask them questions over a cup of tea, I’m always thinking of ways to leave my descendants the answers to some of the questions they may one day have about me and my family.  I am in fact writing a collection of stories about the characters that leap out from my family tree as having a particular tale to tell, and in the past I’ve started to write down snippets of my own life and times – something I found difficult because ‘slice of life’ stories never appeal to me – I need the drama!  My lifetime has, thankfully, largely coincided with peace.  Yes there have been massive societal changes and developments, but these have been gradual, largely just happening in the background.  There have been exceptions of course: 9/11 and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, for example.  Whenever I met young people from Ulster in the later years of that period I was always struck with how attuned they were to politics and current affairs.

But my goodness, this has changed over the past few years.  The saying ‘May you live in interesting times’ is often said to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse – the implication being that ‘uninteresting times’ are so because they are peaceful and unchallenging; ‘interesting times’ are difficult.  Apparently, though, no one knows of a Chinese phrase upon which this might be based.  Curse or not, we can at least now appreciate what ‘interesting times’, even ‘unprecedented times’, are like.

Over the last few days I’ve heard of a number of ‘Lockdown Diary’ projects around the country.  The Mass Observation unit at Sussex University, in operation since the 1930s, are inviting people to apply to contribute to their archives. You can read all about their Covid-19 project [here], and apply [here].  They say ‘Correspondents may email, type or write by hand, draw, send photographs, diagrams, cuttings from the press, poems, stories, letters and so on.  No stress is placed on “good grammar”, spelling or style.  The emphasis is on self-expression, candour and a willingness to be a vivid social commentator, and tell a good story.’  You can read more about what they’re looking for [here].  If you don’t want to be a regular contributor you can take part in their annual one-day mass observation project, coming up on 12th May.  This year is the tenth anniversary of that project.  You can read about it [here].

It may be that your local authority archives is operating a Lockdown Diaries project.  I heard about one on the local news a few evenings ago, and have seen more by doing a quick Internet search.

Or if none of that appeals, how about something more private that reflects you, your personality and interests?  At the beginning of Lockdown I started work on a reproduction panel of the Bayeux Tapestry!  It won’t be finished by the end of Lockdown, but when it finally is finished and framed I’ll label it as my ‘Lockdown Project’.  For as long as it exists it will be known that this was stitched in 2020 when much of the world came to a standstill and most of us were required to isolate ourselves in our homes.  It will be a piece of social history twice over – depicting the Battle of Hastings and commemorating the Coronavirus.

I’ve also written a short ‘history of my life through music’ – Number 1’s on key dates of my life, and pieces that bring back memories of a specific moment in time, particular events or even just a period of my life.  What would reflect you?  Would it be music, great reads, wonderful places you’ve visited, or something else?

I leave it with you to ponder on all of the above, but bear in mind that the 12th May Observation Day is fast approaching.  I hope you and your loved ones are happy and healthy, and that together we will continue to do all we can to beat this pandemic.


Full page of TitBits magazine dated April 1889, featuring responses to a competition for spinstersImage from Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian on Twitter.
Click the image for a slightly bigger version that will be a bit easier to read.

Dr Bob Nicholson, who shares stories from the Victorian era on Twitter, recently wrote about a competition in Tit-Bits magazine in 1889.  Single female readers were invited to answer the question: ‘Why Am I A Spinster?’, with a prize awarded to the lady providing the best response.  In the event, there were too many good responses to be able to choose just one, so on 27th April, 1889, the full page of responses pictured above was published. Some are witty, some poignant.

I’ve been meaning to write about spinsters for a while.  I’ve noticed a few in my ancestral lines and wondered why.  After all, society was not geared up for independent, single women.  Of course, as suggested in the Tit-Bits article, there could be any number of reasons.  Perhaps they were not interested in men/ marriage/ motherhood, or perhaps one daughter was expected to stay home to take care of ageing parents.  Perhaps they had lost their one true love in war?  Or maybe, despite the ‘old maid’ sniggers, they wanted to retain their independence, and this was the only way to achieve that?

To refer back to my previous post about researching female ancestors, before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. The only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.

Most women, of course, would not need to trouble themseleves with the matter of how to hang on to their personal wealth.  It was more a matter of how would they survive.  This was not just a concern for spinsters.  Widows and abandoned wives, too, may have had difficulties in later life when left without a husband/ father bringing in the money.  Many had to rely on charity for accommodation (e.g. almshouses or living with a brother’s family) and for living expenses.  Some of our maiden great-aunts will of course have been sufficiently well provided-for, and others had worked all their lives and continued to do so.  I have examples of all of these in my tree, and perhaps you do too.

However, one of my own ancestral families particularly piqued my interest.  My 4x great grandparents, John and Sarah, had five sons and five daughters.  The family business (Woollen drapers to the people and gentry of York) was doing well, all five boys married after securing admission to the Freedom of the City of York, and the oldest son rose to the position of Lord Mayor of York in the 1860s.  And yet of the daughters, one died aged 25 and the others remained at the family home until the death of their parents in 1860, by which time the sisters were aged 48 to 32.

Some years ago I obtained their father, John’s, will.  At first sight I was quite upset by what I read.  John bequeathed all his money and the family business only to his sons.  The four daughters were not even mentioned.  Indeed by the census of the following year one of the sons had bought out the family business and although he and his wife remained in their former home, all four sisters had moved out of the rooms above the shop premises in Stonegate and were living together in a private house in York.

And yet the sisters did not seem to go without.  In the censuses of 1861-1901 they describe themselves as ‘Railway Annuitants (Railway Stock)’, living off the dividends from these investments.  I could also see from the Probate Calendar on Ancestry (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995) that each of them would eventually leave a will, bequeathing what she had to her remaining sisters.

The Probate Calendar does not provide a copy of the actual will.  For that, you have to place an order via the Find A Will website.  Fascinated though I was by this story, I really couldn’t justify spending £40 on a series of wills just to satisfy my curiosity.  You may remember, though, that last July the price of wills was greatly reduced, from £10 to £1.50 each.  Now spending £6 to satisfy my curiosity was entirely reasonable….

It seems that each of the four sisters made a will in 1862, and on the basis of this, when the oldest, Maria, died in 1895 she left £1523 to her sisters.  Shortly afterwards, the remaining sisters, now aged 66 to 78, each made a new will, leaving her worldly possessions to whoever outlived her, and in the event of herself being the sole survivor, to three named charities.  I suspect each sister chose a charity dear to her own heart, and all had agreed to share the final funds equally between the three charities, regardless of which sister survived the other two.  Hence at her death in 1899 Louisa left £1983; and in 1900 Emma left £1956 to just one surviving sister, Sarah.  It’s interesting too, to note the circles the sisters moved in.  These were educated and knowledgeable women, able to take on the role of executrices for each other.  However, the executors for the will of whichever sister died last were to be the solicitors George and Frederick Crombie, both of whom described in the wills as ‘friends’, not merely professionals carrying out a service.  It was not until the death of Sarah at the age of 87 in 1904 that they were required to perform this role.  Her estate, totalling £6140, was left in equal shares to the York Branch of the RSPCA, the Royal Sailor Rest at Portsmouth and Devonport and the Sailors’ Orphan Home.  According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, this figure equates to around £750,000 in today’s terms.

How on earth did Sarah end up with so much money?!
I think the key is in the census entries: they lived in York, and they were living on dividends from investments in the railway.  Investing in the railways at this time must have been akin to buying shares in Microsoft in the late 1970s.  The sisters were very fortunate.

But this brings us to the question of who, exactly, made the investments.  Perhaps sometimes the sisters invested their own money, out of any wages or allowance they received from the family business, but almost certainly the bulk of the funds would have come from their father, John.  To understand why he would do this we need look no further than the financial arrangements prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, as outlined above.  What John was doing (and what many other fathers did) was to protect his daughters from the system.  Had he left 1/9 share of his business to each of his offspring, and had any of the daughters married, her capital would immediately have passed to her husband.  And not all husbands were kind, family-oriented men who were good with money…  This way, John was ensuring that each of his daughters would never be without an income of her own.

I was so glad to have worked all this out.  I’m no longer cross with my 4x great grandfather.  And as for his daughters, I would like to have known them too.

Just to clarify – this information wasn’t hard to find!
I found it all using just three types of document:

  • the census returns
  • the Probate Calendar
  • copies of the wills (this would currently cost £7.50 for all five)

… And then I sat back and thought about it all, drawing upon my wider reading and a bit of lateral thinking.

Perhaps there will be similar stories lurking in the wills of your ancestors.