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: