Burying in woollen

One of the things that interests me as I wade back through history in my family research is the shifts in power between the various institutions, and the impact of these shifts on our ancestors’ lives. In the earliest days to which I’ve traced ancestors the Manor would have held sway, but its impact gradually waned, and the already-powerful Church was given a big boost by the requirement to keep registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. Gradually more tasks became the responsibility of the secular parish authorities, which eventually gave way to local councils, and beyond that the growth of the State in setting out standards, duties, responsibilities and rights.

Within the Parish, the distinction between religious and secular might seem straightforward, but even something as clearly ‘religious’ as the recording of the rites of Baptism, Marriage and Burial actually had a secular purpose: a record of every man, woman and child in the country, created at the behest of the King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell. In fact there are so many ‘grey areas’ in the purpose of historic parish records that in his seminal work The Parish Chest, W.E. Tate divides his chapters into part one, considering ‘Records Mainly Ecclesiastical’ and part two, covering ‘Records Mainly Civil’.

I came across an interesting example of this mingling of religious and secular in a burial register recently:

Entry in burial register, 1702.
“4 Deborah daughter of J[ohn] Lucas of Woodhouse carr att & cert”

What interested me was the bit at the end: “att & cert”, short for “attested and certified”. Athough it was the first time I had seen this in the registers, I knew what it related to: the deceased had been ‘buried in wool’. You can see the above entry within the Leeds Parish register at Ancestry.co.uk [here]. Looking through the years before and afterwards I see that this particular notation was introduced in this parish at the beginning of 1701 and gradually ceased in 1704.

However, the requirement for burial in woollen cloth was much longer lived. It was introduced in 1666 by Act of Parliament, and amended by further Acts in 1670 and 1680 – collectively known as the Burying in Woollen Acts 1666–80. The text of the 1678 Act provides that:

No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague), shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet, or shroud or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or in any stuff or thing other than what is made of sheep’s wool only; or be put into any coffin lined or faced with […] any other material but sheep’s wool only.

The purpose of the Acts was to protect the English woollen trade from foreign imports of linen. Maintaining the demand for domestically produced wool benefited the wealthy merchants, the sheep farmers and landowners whose tenants relied for the payment of their rents on their work with the sheep, the wool and the cottage manufacturing of cloth.

The Acts required that, within eight days of a burial, an affidavit had to be sworn by ‘two credible persons’, attesting that the burial was carried out in compliance with the Act. The affidavit was sworn before a Justice of the Peace or the Mayor; or failing that, in front of the priest – generally at the time of the burial. That’s clearly what happened in my example above – but why did the entries including the words ‘att & cert’ stop in 1704?

I wonder if the answer might be that the priest decided that the register of burials was not an appropriate place for the recording of what was essentially a secular statutory measure, and started a separate register. Signed, printed affidavits do also survive in various archives, but many were just thrown loose into the parish chest and have been lost or destroyed. You can see examples of several that have survived if you google ‘burial in wool affidavit uk’ and filter for Images.

The Burying in Woollen Acts were not popular. Despite a hefty £5 fine for non-compliance, those who could afford it often chose to ignore the requirement and simply pay the fine. Reasons for wishing to do so were a desire to be buried in one’s finery or conversely to be buried simply in linen, according to Judeo-Christian practice. Nevertheless, although largely ignored by 1770, the Acts were not repealed until 1814.

Have you come across ‘burial in woollen’ before? What wording was used in the parish register? Or perhaps you even found an affidavit for the burial of an ancestor? Do leave a comment if you did.

Tracing history through parish registers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

Spinsters

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.

The Acts of Enclosure

THE GOOSE AND THE COMMON

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 rhyme 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.