In praise of reading the whole document

I have been ploughing my way through some of the original parish registers of Gillingham in Kent, looking for people in the 18th century. All of Gillingham’s registers are readable online on the wonderful online archive that is Medway Archives CityArk. The three Medway towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham all blend into each other along a curve in the River Medway, which then enters the Thames estuary. The Thames and the Medway thus provide a highway for shipping to and from London.

I started by searching just for burials, and checking various baptisms that also appear in indexes online, but it quickly became apparent as I chased one particular family backwards that it would be more methodical to actually go through all the available registers for something like a 80 – 100 year period. Thus it is that I have been reading page by the page two sets of composite registers written up by the various vicars of St Mary Magdalene, Gillingham. I have gained so much more than if I had only done the individual checks and short searches I originally planned.

These then are my impressions. They are not scientific, but nevertheless provide some food for thought relevant to all parish register searches.

  • Firstly, the registers themselves are in a mess, lots of scratchings out, ink blots and illegible spidery notes at the bottom of the page and many entries too faded to read properly. If I find that events for this family are missing, then it seems likely that the record keeping could be to blame. No index can tell you this.
  • Secondly, there are many baptism and burial entries in Gillingham for Chatham people, although mention of other contiguous parishes is fewer. However, there are a notable number of marriages for couples from other places along the Thames estuary, and into London. Plenty of migration inwards might be expected for Gillingham, as it was so closely linked to the huge employment opportunities of Chatham Dockyard. London places mentioned are Hammersmith, Deptford, St Bride’s, St Katherine’s, Aldgate, and Stepney, all of them not far from or along the Thames. If you are missing events in London, it might be worth looking in Gillingham and Chatham for them, particularly if you have any suspicion that someone was a mariner, and vice versa. In the first quarter of the 18th century, for some reason there are many couples where both of them are from Rochester and Sheerness getting married at Gillingham. I wonder if Gillingham had a reputation for being a bit lax where anyone could marry? Such ecclesiastical laxness could be a mirror to the physical laxness of the registers.
  • Thirdly, there were quite obviously scores of travelling people moving through the town, many of them buried at Gillingham or having children baptised there. They are usually noted just as a ‘Traveling’ man or woman, but sometimes names are given as well, particularly in the later part of the 18th century. Many of them would have been gypsies, perhaps on their way to and from the hop-fields and orchards of Kent for harvesting and other work. Nameless people cannot be indexed so they disappear.
  • Fourthly, from the 1750s onwards there are a growing number of illegitimate children baptised. The frustration of the Vicar shows through with pointed little comments about “the reputed father”. There is also a horribly high death rate of children, similar to that of London, with couple after couple burying child after child. Always, always check burials ad baptisms together.
  • Fifthly, a handful of family names are constant over the centuries, but probably 75% of the population appears to change from one 30 year generation to the next.
  • Finally, there are many, many drownings in the River Medway noted, often just written as “buried a stranger, drowned”. There is also the death of a stranger in a snow drift. These are not sailors from the Navy ships at Chatham, since they appear always to be given their name, rank and ship.

On switching to the registers at Chatham St Mary, which in contrast are very orderly and obviously a fair copy from drafts, I found no laxness but also sadly little information apart from names, although I am confident that here are all the same families as in Gillingham, since the local surnames from Gillingham constantly pop up also in Chatham.

If I had stuck to indexes, partial transcriptions or just a few little look ups, I would not have discovered any of this. The original registers have given me so much more; a feel for the character of the place, the danger of working on the river, the hoards of traveling people and other visitors in a constant stream from the ships and boats, and the tough, tough conditions rearing children in Gillingham. It is also completely obvious that records from the two towns of Gillingham and Chatham must be used together in order to provide a more complete picture of a family.

What have you recently taken the time to read through in its entirety? Do you feel you get to know a place or situation when you do?
Information about the registers I was looking at is here:
http://cityark.medway.gov.uk/
P153_GILLINGHAM_ST_MARY_MAGDALENE_1558_1986/P153_01_02

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11 Responses to In praise of reading the whole document

  1. Gail Roger says:

    City Ark has been a great joy to me for years, and yes, being forced to read through the register (although I do have a system!) has its rewards. My husband’s family has deep roots in the Medway area and I have stumbled upon other family members in parishes where I never expected to find them — some in the direct line — while looking for someone else. City Ark also has a marvellous picture category which includes documents. My husband’s great-great-grandfather was a well-established butcher in Rochester and the photo file has a couple of his bills for a client, listing what was ordered and the price.

  2. helenosborn says:

    Thanks Gail,

    It is a great resource. I particularly appreciate that the full catalogue description of the registers is there to read as well. Although it might be a little unwelcoming to the new researcher, the site is a joy for those who are used to working with original documents. I have not been able to work out how to resize the image screen so that I can see a whole page at once. Have you managed that?

  3. Gail Roger says:

    The size issue never bothered me, Helen, because I developed a system, in going through scores of images on my PC, of scanning the left side from top to bottom, scanning to the right at the bottom, and finishing by scanning bottom to top on the right. This results in a sort of circular (well, u-shaped) glance which takes me a matter of seconds per page. On a laptop, of course, it’s no problem, because I just “pinch” the image on the screen to the size I want.

  4. jaygen2014 says:

    I love being able to read through original parish registers – and I agree, it does give you a sense of getting to know the place and the people. Sometimes there’s a wealth of information that doesn’t always appear in transcripts. It’s been sometime since I’ve needed to look through parish registers at City Ark, but I love being able to search through the registers at Ancestry, Family Search and FMP. Frustratingly, I know there are marriages and baptisms missing for my family members and direct ancestors at Prestbury, Cheshire during and after the Civil War. As I was searching through the register, I came across confirmation of the disruption caused in that parish in the following note dated 1644
    “During the tyme of War this and the
    other par church Register were for
    there pservation for several years hid
    and the Registers taken in pap? were in
    Valentine Brathwayts custodie whereof
    some part by hiding were ——– other
    pulled in peeces? and defaced & that for
    diverse years —- —— out of them all
    as could be made certayne is herein ——”
    Sometimes, the writing and spellings are so obscure that the only way to find a record is to search through the registers yourself.

    The only way I’ve found to reduce the size of the images at City Ark Helen, is to press the Ctrl key and scroll the mouse towards you. Hope that helps,
    Jayne.

  5. One of the great advantages of being an Online Parish Clerk in Devon is that I got to look at every page of every parish register on my way through transcribing and doing look-ups of information for other family historians. In the process, like Helen, I found many interesting side comments from the vicar or clerk, as the case may be, about the people, families and communities. Looking after four adjacent parishes also gave me a broader perspective of the region. I also found many references to strangers passing through, nobility, members of the military and regular folk, some quite sad – especially those about children who died very young. In going through all of the records it was possible to get a real feel for the history of each family and how they interacted. I wrote about a few interesting examples gleaned from from the parish registers in my own blog at http://discovergenealogy.blogspot.ca/.

  6. helenosborn says:

    As more images are put online, I hope that increasingly people will want to access and read through whole documents, not only of parish registers but other records as well. As Wayne says, getting to know the documents from several adjoining parishes does give a real flavour of the area and teaches you much about the local history. Making a full transcription is the best way to do this, because you really get to know the author(s) and the place. However, you do need a certain amount of time, particularly when the handwriting is awkward or the parish heavily populated.

    Wouldn’t it be great if there was just one place where you could access the original images, a transcription, plus an index, and a scholarly commentary about the text as well? Maybe that day will come.

  7. Great post! You ask what documents we have read in full. Not quite the same, but I am going through an antiquarian book about Hothfield at the moment. Why? Well, when I was at the Guild of One-name Studies Conference in Ashford recently I took the chance of an early morning drive around a few parishes where we have very early QUESTED references (some from the 14th century).

    I visited Hothfield, and then, after I had got home, found that they have a History Society: http://www.hothfield.org.uk/History.htm

    And that they hold a CD of a complete transcription of an antiquarian history of the village (by a former vicar, of course), which I have not found elsewhere. So I emailed the society and the very helpful man there found several NEW QUESTED variants in the book.

    It is on my screen now as it was cheap at the very reasonable price for such a great CD.

    I am reading every word, not just to find QUESTEDs, but to get a picture of their lives long ago, and also clues as to other early record sets I might investigate, to discover more.

  8. helenosborn says:

    Thanks for your comment Penny,

    Not wishing to pour cold water on your antiquarian findings, but I am just now preparing a talk for a group of students who are doing an MA in local history, and I found this great quote to start us off, and which made me smile.

    “The researches of many eminent antiquarians have already thrown much darkness on the subject; and it is possible, if they continue their labors, that we shall soon know nothing at all.”     — Artemus Ward (US Congressman)

    • jaygen2014 says:

      I love that quote Helen! Not sure if it applies, but it reminded me of a passage I came across several weeks ago.

      I’ve been relying on a lot of county histories, printed court records and visitations etc. in recent months, but I’ve become more cautious about sources since I came across the following…

      “In the course of preparing this volume for the press the Editor had occasion to test the statements made in Dugdale’s Summonses, with the result that he found that work to be not only inaccurate but quite untrustworthy. This is the more unfortunate as it is the only printed book that genealogists have on which to rely for the dates and particulars of writs of summons after the reign of Edward IV… It can hardly be conceived that a great antiquary like Dugdale should have stooped to such fabrications, and it must charitable be assumed that it was some trusted assistant who betrayed him.”

      I’m grateful for this editor checking Dugdale’s work and the likes of Thomas Helsby who edited and added to the research of George Ormerod’s History of Chester.

      Sadly, in some cases, “thrown much darkness on the subject” is no exaggeration!

  9. Annabelle says:

    Helen, when register images are too faint to read, a really good scanner can bring them up in a way you would not believe. I have not seen anything remotely good in England offices, but at Salt Lake City, when I was there in June, their scanners can do miraculous things with faded or too dark images, and when you have altered the page, you can then ‘spot-clean’ parts of that page separately. I was blown away by these, and spent many happy hours making some of my parish pages readable … now if only they would open 24/7, or – even better – give every FHL one of these amazing machines.

    Of course, I have also found that the original is actually readable, when I have been lucky enough to be able to check these (obviously keeping a list of those needing to be checked is a must!)

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