Why genealogists love general elections

This post is by Stuart Raymond, Pharos Tutor and prolific genealogy author

As another general election approaches, it is time for genealogists to think about what is in it for them. Answer: a great deal of evidence! The records of elections include many lists of names, beloved of genealogists. Parliamentary elections in the counties were conducted by sheriffs in their county courts. Between 1696 and 1872, they had to compile lists of those who had voted, showing how they had cast their votes. Many of these poll-books survive, some in manuscript, some printed. From 1832, registers of those entitled to vote had to be compiled and published annually, a practice that continues to this day (although information may be withheld from the modern published registers due to privacy concerns). These lists of names are invaluable sources for tracing the homes of family names across wide areas.

Poll-books and electoral registers are valuable sources of information for family and local historians. In those constituencies where the franchise was wide they may list thousands of our ancestors, telling us where they lived, and perhaps their occupation or status. The Westminster poll-book of 1774, for example, lists over 7,000 voters, with their residences and occupations.

The arrangement of poll-books was not uniform. Some grouped voters by parish, ward, or even street; others provided a straightforward alphabetical listing; a few listed them by trade. I have even seen a poll-book arranged in the order in which the electors cast their votes! Electoral registers are more uniform; the Somerset Western Division volume for 1832 is arranged alphabetically by hundred and parish.

In county constituencies before 1832, the franchise was held by freeholders who held land valued at forty shillings per annum. That qualification dated from 1429. In the succeeding half a millennia, the value of forty shillings declined considerably, and the numbers of those eligible to vote consequently greatly increased.

In the boroughs, there was no uniform franchise. It was frequently restricted to freemen, with the result that borough court records are often full of admittances to the freedom immediately before elections took place. In the City of London, the franchise was held by liverymen who were also freemen of the City. The 1768 London poll-book has a peculiar semi-alphabetic arrangement, whereby surnames are listed alphabetically by livery company. Elsewhere the franchise might be restricted to the burgesses – those who held land in the borough. At Old Sarum only those who held a ploughed field by burgage tenure could vote. There were very few voters!

The widening of the franchise came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as successive Representation of the People acts gradually extended the right to vote to all adults other than prisoners and peers. An interesting account of the ‘History of the Parliamentary Franchise’ is available for download at www.parliament.uk/topics/Electoral-franchise.htm.  London electoral registers, 1832-1965 can be searched at http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid=1795. They are also available on a number of other sites. Of particular interest are the ‘absent voters lists’, which record the names of servicemen at the Front during the First World War. The information provided included regiment, number, and rank. For the Leeds absent voters list of 1918, visit www.leeds.gov.uk/leisure/Pages/Absent-war-voters.aspx

Poll-books and electoral registers can generally be found in local studies libraries and record offices for the areas they cover. There are also good collections at the Institute of Historical Research at London University, the Guildhall Library, and the British Library. Full lists of surviving poll-books and electoral registers are given in:

• Gibson, Jeremy, & Rogers, Colin. Poll books 1696-1872: a directory to holdings in Great Britain. 4th ed. Family History Partnership, 2008.
• Gibson, Jeremy. Electoral Registers and Burgess Rolls 1832-1948; . Family History Partnership, 2008.

A number of poll-books and electoral registers for Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, and Yorkshire have been reprinted, and are available from the Internet Genealogical Bookshop at www.genfair.co.uk.


Stuart says:  I work as a genealogical bookman. That is, I am not only an author publisher, but I am also a trained librarian and a genealogical bookseller in a small way. My ambition is to ensure that local and family historians receive the guidance they need to undertake effective research. Principally, I do that through my writing, but I also lecture, and run on-line courses through Pharos. Most of my books are now published through the Family History Partnership www.thefamilyhistorypartnership.com of which I am a member.

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I wish I knew when they were born!

Have you ever wondered how long the gap was between a date of birth and a baptism? When you are used to knowing a date of birth from working with civil registration records, moving into parish registers and having only a baptismal date can be frustrating, particularly in the absence of other good quality information about a person. Sometimes in questions of multiple identity we really do need a precise date of birth, or at the very least a definite year and probable month. Sometimes we have a date of birth perhaps from a family record, but no baptism date. How far along should we search? What was the common interval between a birth and a baptism?

Until the 17th century, the Church in England & Wales required that no longer than 7 days should elapse between birth and baptism. Indeed some baptisms in the mid-16th century (when parish registers begin) are known to have taken place on the same day as the birth (Chislet, Kent) and it is thought that medieval practice was also for baptism on the same day as the birth. The Book of Common Prayer held that a child should be baptised on the next Sunday after birth, or failing that the following Sunday. But did people obey this ‘rule’?

Yes and No.

One of the interesting but highly frustrating things about doing family history, is that each family is unique, and of course some parts of any family are going to be more awkward and less conforming than others. After all, if everybody did exactly the same thing, then it would be easy to find them and easy to predict them, and genealogy would not be full of all those ‘But why?’ type questions, and all the duller for it. Historians can satisfy themselves with what was the ‘norm’ by looking at all the births and baptisms from those rare parish registers where both are recorded, (the well-known ‘Dade and Barrington’ registers of Yorkshire and Durham have both) and draw some general conclusions, but unless we family historians have the specific facts in front of us, there is no way of knowing how much our own family conformed to the rest of society. It seems very likely that different districts had different ‘norms’; thus it would be foolish to presume that birth/baptism intervals in both Kent and North Yorkshire would be the same. Many factors are likely to have come into play; how far the church or chapel and baptising Minister was from the family home, the time of year, whether the family were Dissenting or not, what the neighbours did, how strict the Minister was, indeed how strict the diocese was, and whether the community was rural or urban.

Nevertheless, we can apply a rule of thumb to the period when the Church tended to have a tighter grip on things, say prior to the 1640s. If you have a baptism but no way of knowing the date of a birth, then it should be within a 14 day period, and in the 16th century probably more like 7 days, unless something very unusual had happened. That is the good news. The bad news is that most of us don’t have our ancestors back as far as this, or at least only have a few ancestors back as far as this. Over the next 200 years, the interval between birth and baptism tends to get longer, particularly growing in the second part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. The work of historians and demographers tend to tell us things like ‘75 % of children in X parish were baptised within 14 days of birth in 1750’. This does not help a genealogist work out a likely gap in 1830, in Y parish, although it might be helpful to know that you should consider a gradually increasing interval as being normal. In a regular church going family it is highly likely that any child would be baptised between one and six months old. But then, not all families were regular church goers, as the Victorians were shocked to discover from the 1851 Religious census. http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/building-on-history-project/resource-guide/source-guides/religious-censuses.htm

I have been building a big tree for a client, and one family has 14 children born in the period 1800 – 1820 in various locations, including in India and one even at sea. The family were good church attenders with the father being a churchwarden at one point. We have dates of birth for all of them from family records, so we can be sure that we have a fairly accurate picture. The eldest children were all baptised within 28 days. With the younger children it becomes much more flexible, with the biggest interval stretching to six months, but most of them being baptised at four or five months. In the previous generation of the same family, (1760s to 1780s) the birth baptism interval (where known) is always about one month.

Looking at my own family at the start of the 19th century, where the information on both birth and baptism is known, some children are baptised at one month, but there are also others at around five months. Perhaps a conclusion to be tentatively drawn from this is that the more children you have, the more lax you tend to become, suffering less pressure from others to do the ‘right’ thing.

Historians and demographers have only done studies on a very few parishes, because it was hard for them to locate registers where both birth date and baptism dates were known; Pevensey in Sussex is one. However, now that so many registers are online it is hopefully not going to be too long until studies based on more registers which show both birth dates and baptism dates are made.

Where there are really long intervals, as with adult baptisms, it does beg a lot of questions. I have an interesting example in my own family, with four children baptised on the same day in 1815 in a chapel far from where they were living in central London. The father was an Attorney at Law, and although of foreign extraction (his father being an Italian-French migrant to London); I have no evidence for him being anything other than Church of England. He was educated and well to do, so why did two of his children get baptised in London (the two boys), and then all four children (boys and girls) get baptised or in the boys case, re-baptised (one of them within 2 months of their first baptism) at Aldborough Hatch, a little chapel of ease for Barking?

I don’t know when the two middle children, the girls, were born, but I think they were about 8 and 5 years old in 1815. Naturally it is one of the girls I particularly want a more accurate date of birth for. They definitely lived in the parish of St Anne’s Soho in London, so this little chapel was obviously chosen as an out-of-the way place to avoid any nosey neighbours, but why? Were the parents not legally married, which was then rectified just prior to this set of baptisms in June 1815? It was obviously originally considered more important to baptise the boys rather than the girls, so were the 1815 baptisms a change of heart, in which case why include the boys?

If anyone has any ideas, or similar stories from their own family, please share them!

What are the birth and baptism intervals in your family?


Read more from Stuart Basten
Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

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Pursuing Probates

This is a guest post by Andrew Millard who maintains a very useful webpage listing probate records

Probate records are a gold mine of information for genealogists, but the records can be hard to find. Prior to the creation of national civil probate courts (1858 in England, Wales and Ireland, 1876 in Scotland) one has to search the records of local, regional and national jurisdictions depending on where one’s ancestor owned property, and that means searching multiple indexes or calendars and accessing records from various archives.

For over 30 years I have been conducting a one-name study of the name Bodimeade, and ten years ago I had reached a point where I decided that a systematic check of every probate index was the next logical step. I also had some other surnames where I regularly collected all references in pre-1850 or pre-1800 records as I found them (in case you are interested: Brooksby, Littlechild, Redington, Spriddle), and intended to collect all the index entries for them as well. So how did I go about it?

I started with the book Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills by Jeremy Gibson and Else Churchill which describes the area cover by each court and lists all known indexes (and their deficiencies). Although it was last updated in 2002 this book is invaluable as a concise guide to the courts, the printed indexes and the locations of the original records. My copy is very well thumbed!

As I have easy access to a major research library, I started by systematically working through all the probate indexes published by the British Record Society. Then I went to Probate Jurisdictions to identify other indexes and checked as many of them as were in the library. I made slow but steady progress in lunchtime sessions in the library, but after a while it became obvious that there were new indexes appearing that weren’t in Probate Jurisdictions, so I started annotating my copy and checking them as well.

It’s all very well writing ‘see BRS 102, 108, 111’ in the margin of book to denote a new set of indexes for the London Commissary Court but I soon started finding online indexes, and added notes like ‘online index bristol.gov.uk/ccm/content/Leisure-Culture/records-and-archives/bristol-wills-index-1793-1858.en’ for the Bristol Consistory Court. When I revisited an index that had to be typed out again, and I decided that I’d be better off creating a webpage with the links in. So my page Recent Indexes to English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Probate Records was born, initially just for my own use. As it developed I made it public because it seemed others could benefit from my efforts in compiling it.

Since then it has growed like Topsy. Although I have tried not to duplicate material from Probate Jurisdictions, I have included older indexes that have been scanned and placed online. I periodically search sites with major collections of scanned books, like archive.org and books.familysearch.org for newly scanned indexes. In doing this I’ve found a handful that were omitted from Probate Jurisdictions. That might be because they are superseded by a later index, but in some cases I know of no other index.

New indexes are coming out frequently, and existing ones move to new web addresses, so it is a never-ending task to keep my list up-to-date. Even if it is up-to-date it is not comprehensive, as many indexes published in the 20th century are in copyright and not digitised. So please do use my list to find indexes to pursue probates relating to your ancestors, but don’t forget to refer to Probate Jurisdictions to find indexes only available in print. Inevitably you will want to look at original documents not just an index, and if images of the originals are not online, then Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills will tell you where to find them.

About Andrew:  Apart from his full-time day job teaching at Durham University, Andrew somehow finds time to act in the following capacities;

Chair, Trustees of Genuki: www.genuki.org.uk
Maintainer, Genuki Middx + London: www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/MDX/ + ../LND/
Academic Co-ordinator, Guild of One-Name Studies: http://www.one-name.org
Bodimeade one-name study: community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/Bodimeade/
My genealogy: community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/

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What happened in the year….?

This is a guest post by Wayne Shepheard

I have a booklet, given to me by my sister on the occasion of my 60th birthday, called Once Upon a Time in the World 1945.

It resides in the bathroom, along with other reading material, where I can occasionally look back on that momentous year, such as the following: among many World War II news stories, in February of 1945, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt met in Yalta to discuss war arms; the Nobel prize in Medicine was awarded to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst B. Chain and Baron Florey for the discovery of penicillin; the Oscar for Best Movie went to The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman; the song, Sentimental Journey reached number two on popular music’s Top Ten Hits; and, in August, atomic bombs were dropped on two cities in Japan.

So I wondered what I could find for those years in which some of my ancestors were born. Perhaps looking at the news of the day would give me a better understanding of life then – the important events that affected day-to-day life, or just what might have interested or entertained them. I started with my paternal 2nd great-grandfather, John Shepheard. His birth in 1830 was far enough back to offer interesting comparisons with the modern-day world but not so far back that finding information would be very difficult.

On December 30th, the date John Shepheard was baptized, the four-page newspaper Trueman’s Exeter Flying Post had all kinds of interesting information on:

• world affairs – comments on the effect of the French and Belgian Revolutions on trade; the Five Great Powers agreeing “to acknowledge the independence of Belgium”; the King of Prussia adopting “precautions to preserve his share of the plunder of Poland from the epidemic of revolt”
• government notices – one given setting the date for the Epiphany General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the County of Devon
• domestic matters such as – a report on a meeting about Poor Relief; the Quarter Sessions summary for Exeter City
• results of criminal court matters – such as the sentencing of three gentlemen to transport to New South Wales “for disinterring and carrying away dead bodies at Stoke Damerel”
• classified advertisements for – real estate for sale and rent; positions available; commercial goods and services; auctions
• association and club meeting notices and reports – including some information about future fox-hound group meeting dates
• commercial transactions and market reports
• birth, marriage and death notices from several areas in Devon and elsewhere

Page one of the Post also had a series of interesting advertisements for many medicinal products including Butler’s Cajeput Opodeldoc (a remedy for chronic rheumatism, spasmodic affections, chilblains, palsy, stiffness and enlargement of the joints), Improved Pectoral Balsam of Horehound (for coughs, colds, asthmas, hooping [sic] cough and all obstructions of the breast and lungs), Partridge’s Concentrated Pills (for “head ache, giddiness of the head and dimness of sight”), Hart’s White Itch Ointment (for obvious afflictions and which could “be safely used by persons of the most delicate constitution”), Dr. Sydenham’s Antibilious or Family Pills (for “bilious and liver complaints, gout, indigestion, flatulencies, habitual costiveness, spasms and nervots [sic] headaches”), Congreve’s Balsamic Elixir (for “coughs, hooping [sic] cough, shortness of breath and asthma”) and Powell’s Balsam of Aniseed (also for “coughs, colds, hoarseness, difficulty of breathing and huskiness in the throat”). These were real eye-openers of the complaints of the times!

It was like reading ‘A day in the life of. . .’! There were no reports from the Cornwood area in that particular edition of the Post, of course, as Exeter is some distance away and a small, rural parish did not always generate much activity that was newsworthy. I did find some references to the parish in other issues of both the Post and the North Devon Journal published during the year 1830, though.

Turning to events outside Devon, a Google search for “events in 1830” had 32,500,000 hits so it looked like I would not have any trouble finding out what was going on that year. Narrowing the search to “events in 1830 – United Kingdom” alone resulted in 858,000 hits. Wikipedia listed: the death of King George IV and his succession by his brother William IV in June; the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; the last hanging for piracy in London; the Swing Riots by agricultural workers in East Kent who protested the against the use of labour-displacing threshing machines; another disturbance called the Otmoor Riots, in Oxfordshire, following the enactment of laws concerning enclosure which disadvantaged many farmers; and, closer to home for me as an Earth scientist, the publication of the first volume of Principles of Geology by the Scottish geologist, Charles Lyell.

Next up – what happened in the year 1792, when my 3rd great-grandfather was born?

Have you done something similar with your family history? We would love to hear about what was happening on specific days when your ancestor was born or married.

About the Author

Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (Intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

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The Best Family History Lessons I Never Had

Do you remember the defining moments when suddenly something clicked into place, or you learned something the hard way without reading about it or attending a class? I can count the following seven “aha” moments as some of my best learning experiences.

1. Don’t skip on collecting all relevant information. When I joined the Society of Genealogists and was given a birth brief to fill out, I still remember the sudden thought, ‘Oh, so I should be collecting all the births, marriages and deaths of all my ancestors!’ Such methodical collecting had simply not occurred to me. But give me a form to fill and I like to set to and fill it out. From then on I was doubly hooked and the tree really started to take solid shape, instead of being an odd collection of bits of information.

2. Names in later life are not always exactly the same as at birth (duh). Exactly how much time I wasted looking for Elizabeth Sutton only, I don’t want to confess. The name on the back of the photograph said Lizzie, surely she had to be Elizabeth? It was totally beside the point that my own mother only uses her middle name and never her first name. I was boxed in by my assumption. For a long time I thought this birth was unregistered, but it was there all the time under Susan Elizabeth Sutton.

3. Multiple marriage partners may have had the same first name. A man named John might marry a woman named Mary, then after Mary dies, he might marry another woman called Mary! This one causes a lot of confusion, but when you spot it, it makes you proud to be such a good detective. It is worthwhile collecting all the possible marriage details for your John, even after you think you have the one and only marriage for him. The clue is usually a gap in the children’s births, and maybe an anomalous age for Mary in the census. This lesson might also come under the heading buy all the civil registration certificates that you can afford.

4. Don’t rely on your parents or grandparents to have got the dates for their own parents and grandparents right. Invariably you need to widen the searches to include far further back than you have been given to believe. ‘She must have died in the 1950s’, means she died around 1932! I now understand more about how memory is a very inexact thing, and can lead to totally false bits of information. In fact, I no longer rely on any information given by relatives unless I can see the documents, or it involves their own birthday.

5. If you have a rare surname, collect everyone. This one occurred to me early on, when I first saw that it would be possible to collect all the known instances of a rare surname from various indexes and then analyse the results – AHA, now I might be able to put together all the missing bits in the tree. Of course, I started out by sticking to just one spelling, but I soon had that idea knocked out of me.

6. Helpful documents are sometimes available in printed collections and available from the library or on the bookshelves of the archives. It is not always necessary to call up an original document at the National Archives or the local record office, often there is a printed copy published by the local record society and they tend to be indexed. Not only that, but it prevents you having to struggle with difficult handwriting, so saves you time. I once spent a whole day on the original hearth tax returns for Wandsworth, without making a great deal of sense of them, before finding that in fact they were printed by the Surrey Record Society and all I had to do was look in the book, which just happened to be in a room quite close to where I ordered up the originals. It has been annoying me ever since.

7. Don’t set out for the record office without all your information and that includes double checking the parish, county and archdeaconry, and knowing the names, places and date ranges you are searching for. This one still happens to me, although I have got very much better than I used to be.

What are your best ‘aha’ moments? Do share them.

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Online Parish Clerks, A Great Volunteer Activity for Genealogists

This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard


I volunteer as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four ancient parishes in Devon – Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice. So what does an OPC do and how do they help family historians? I have written a few articles that explain the OPC scheme. There was also a great piece in Family Tree magazine by Roy Stockdill (2012) about the subject. References to them are listed below.

Several counties in England now have an OPC program – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Somerset, Sussex, Warwick and Wiltshire. Basically, an OPC adopts a parish or parishes and compiles reference material in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites such as mine (http://www.cornwood-opc.com/) where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed. A major stipulation for being an OPC is to share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email.

Map of England showing counties in which an Online Parish Clerk program is present – dark grey-shaded areas show where individuals act as OPCs, light grey-shaded areas are represented only by a coordinator who manages all data received from others

I get one or two requests per week from people looking for information about their families. Because I have copies of all of the BMD registers, censuses and lots of other information, I can access the data right at my desk, at any time, and quickly answer many of the initial questions from family researchers Most often they want confirmation about dates of baptism, marriage or burials or the names of parents. Some of the information is now online at Ancestry or FindMyPast however not everyone has a subscription or can get to a library to access these databases. With a simple search of a parish name, my websites come up and researchers then have at least an initial contact.

Occasionally people want to know about family relationships, especially where there are several families with children of similar names (not uncommon as children were often named after their grandparents so cousins often had the same name). The spelling of surnames is often different in various types of documents. For example, I found the same individuals on BMD and census records with the surname of Kellow, Kellar, Callard and other minor variations. Family members moved around Southwest Devon quite a bit and in each place they lived, their surname seems to have been recorded differently.

Another researcher wanted information on an ancestor named “George Chapple, alias Geo. Chapple Standard”, according to his Royal Navy service record (Shepheard, 2014). He was baptized in Plympton St. Mary parish as George Chapple Standard, son of a single woman named Margaret Standard. He married as George Standard and had three sons in the 1850s all baptized with the same surname, although the last one was registered as Chapple. But by 1861, as shown on the census, the family was using Chapple and did so from then on. We still do not know where the Chapple name comes from, possibly from his natural father, but George obviously thought that was his real name from the age of about 35.

One of the side-benefits of being an OPC is that, through requests from others looking for their family members in my parishes, I have met many new “cousins” from all over the world. Since the Shepheards inter-married with a number of other families, I was directed to those additional names via specific queries. Through some of those cousins I found out information on other branches of the family that I may not have discovered for some time, if at all. Along with that knowledge, in some cases, came histories that I would not have known about and copies of documents and photos that I might never have seen.

Anyone with an interest in family history can be an OPC. Volunteers are always welcome, especially if they have knowledge about a specific parish or county and like helping others find their ancestors. Have a look at which counties and/or parishes are open and contact the relevant administrator for more information.


Shepheard, Wayne (2012). The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks. Crossroads, quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association. 7(2), pp. 6-13.

Shepheard, Wayne (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: Examples of information gleaned from parish registers. Relatively Speaking, quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society, 41(1), pp 14-19.

Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: A case study involving the use of information from parish registers and other data sources. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, May (146), pp. 24-29.

Shepheard, Wayne. (2014). George Chapple Case Study. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, February (149), pp. 29-31.

Stockdill, Roy. (2012). Online Parish Clerks. Family Tree, 28(7), pp. 38-41.

OPC information can be obtained at the following Websites:
• Cornwall – http://www.cornwall-opc.org
• Devon – http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/OPCproject.html
• Dorset – http://www.opcdorset.org
• Essex – http://essex-opc.org.uk
• Kent – http://www.kent-opc.org/index.html
• Somerset – http://wsom-opc.org.uk
• Sussex – http://www.sussex-opc.org
• Warwick – http://www.hunimex.com/warwick/opc/opc.html
• Wiltshire – http://www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/
• Hampshire – http://www.knightroots.co.uk/parishes.htm
• Lancashire – http://www.lan-opc.org.uk


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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:

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Are middle names just a fashion statement?

When did middle names start in your family?

The oldest one of mine is Robert Porten Beachcroft who was born in 1744. I thought 1744 was pretty early, because the majority of middle names in my tree start in the early 19th century, becoming more frequent as that century goes on. I would like to find out more about when it first became fashionable to give children a middle name, and when common-place. The entry in Wikipedia is not very helpful, saying:

It is debatable how long middle names have existed in English speaking countries, but it is certain that among royalty and aristocracy the practice existed by the late 17th century (and possibly much earlier), as exemplified in the name of the Stuart pretender James Francis Edward Stuart (1688–1766).

I consulted Alison Weir’s Britain’s Royal Families and discovered that the first Stuart with two Christian names was born in 1594; Henry Frederick, eldest son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, and his wife Anne. Anne was the daughter of the King of Denmark and Norway and she seems to have brought the practice of middle names into the Scottish Stuarts. When the House of Hanover took over the English throne in 1714 they too added a Continental preference for second and third Christian names. George I was baptized George Louis, and his father was Ernest Augustus, (born in 1629). Perhaps it was George II and his family who made the practice of two names fashionable in London from the 1720s onwards. George III’s descendants had three or even four Christian names and from then on, many of the Royal children have had four names.

But the English had, and sometimes still have, a liking for giving a middle name to a child that comes from the surname of a grandparent or great-grandparent (or perhaps a godparent?), whereas the evidence is that our Royal family gave their children grand middle names such as Augustus (meaning ‘great’), not surnames from connected families. Thus Robert Porten Beachcroft is the first in my tree, not only to have a middle name but also one that provides an extra clue to his ancestors, Porten being his mother’s maiden name. His younger brother Joseph Mathews Beachcroft takes the Mathews not from a slip in any spelling of Mathew, but from his paternal grandmother’s maiden name of Mathews.

The Beachcrofts were a family ‘made good’ in Georgian London and they were probably only too conscious of status and the fact that they had no real gentry connections, so they were aping the aristocracy, where it was more common to take a female name into the male line when a wife was an heiress in her own right. I would be very interested to know more about when this practice started in families who were not landed gentry and without aristocratic connections, and whether it is confined to London or occurs country-wide.  I wonder too whether such names were a way of expressing trading relationships in the City of London.  My research has shown that City men married into those families they did business with. Good connections were vital in a world where personal recommendation was key, so a middle name that reminded your associates of connections to well-known business families would be important to help you advance.

The first female in my tree to have two Christian names, is Ann Juliana Taunton born in Devon in about 1748. Why did her parents give her such a European sounding middle name? I am glad they did, because with plain Ann as a name, I might not have found her family. The difference between Ann Taunton and the Beachcroft boys, is that her name does not come from a parental snobbery (or business good sense?) that wishes to emphasize valuable connections, but it is nevertheless a fancy sounding name. Perhaps it signifies a different kind of ‘otherness’; one that wishes to distinguish a female child from the run of the mill. Interestingly either Ann or her name was thought to be important enough for the name combination of Ann(a) and Juliana to pass down three generations in her tree. There is certainly room for some more investigation there.  Was it fashion or something else entirely?

What are the earliest middle names in your tree? Can you beat 1744? Are they female surnames or normal Christian first names and when did your female ancestors start being given middle names?

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What has demography got to do with it?

Demography is the study of the human population by statistical methods. Stated baldly like that, it might appear to be irrelevant to the genealogist. But, if there were no demographers then there would be precious little in the way of sources enabling the kind of genealogy research we are able to do in Britain and Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe. Demographers have been responsible for the census, for civil registration and even for the recording of people in parish registers. John Rickman who was the architect of the five census returns from 1801 – 1841, was one of the most important from a genealogy point of view, and his work deserves to be better known. Thomas Malthus who published in 1798 the Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future improvement of Society, is much more famous for his theoretical work, but it was Rickman who enabled the British government to find out whether the population was rising or falling, and who started the process of statistical analysis of the people.

One of the best websites as an introduction to population statistics for Britain and Ireland is Histpop, where you can find useful essays on the census returns and learn more about the organization of the General Register Office.

One of the most potentially useful aspects of the work of more current academic demographers is their published work on the accuracy (or not) of our vital records. How many times have you wondered how complete the parish registers are, or what exactly is the known under-representation in the civil registration of births? Existing work on these subjects should be in every genealogy help or text book, but authors usually prefer to describe records, rather than try and produce useful new works of synthesis by applying what is known by the demographers to help us with genealogy puzzles. Even if the genealogy world generally ignores demography and anything statistical, that doesn’t mean that work on the accuracy of the records we use isn’t available (see the works of D V Glass, E A Wrigley and R S Schofield among others).

Free PDF back issues of Local Population Studies journal up to 2008 can be downloaded, many of these contain extremely useful articles to genealogists and local historians:

Current academic work on population is headed up by The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. They are publishing results online using mapping tools, on such interesting topics as: mapping the economic geography of England in 1851; mapping population growth by hundred 1761 – 1841; mapping turnpike roads and waterways with their dates; and the demography of early modern London, among other items of great interest. All of these projects could help you visualize the world of your ancestors and work out how or why movement from place to place happened. Their work is freely available on the website and deserves to be accorded a special place in the heart of any serious genealogist. The visual appeal of the maps certainly takes the pain out of any dry statistical analysis.

Why wouldn’t we want to study this work? Demography, bring it on!

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Natural Disasters and Their Effect on the Lives of our Ancestors

This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard

The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.

Every generation has stories about living through the worst weather or natural disaster to befall mankind! And yet each generation only repeats similar stories told by previous generations. Today, through instant, world-wide communication technologies, we can see the results of major natural disasters and how they affect people locally, regionally and globally. Reports of the devastation caused by these events are readily available on television, in newspapers and, especially, on the internet, almost as they happen.

In past centuries, there is no doubt that similar disasters caused significant death and destruction, often over wide geographic areas and across broad socio-economic groups of people:

  • Storms, floods, earthquakes and disease all had immediate impacts on people and communities.
  • Volcanic activity, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, drought and famine all affected living conditions and economies lasting from several months to several years.
  • Gradual changes related to climate change occurred over hundreds of years and had much longer-term effects on the environment and human habitats.

In the study of the history of families and the communities in which they lived, it is instructive to consider how people were affected by, or reacted to conditions we have witnessed in more recent situations. Would your great-great-grandparents have been forced to give up their farm if they were flooded out? Would your carpenter ancestor have moved to a location where there was a great deal of work available to repair the damage caused by a major windstorm? Did any of your ancestors lose their lives when tragedy struck in the form of a natural disaster?

Major storms – one example of natural events – have inevitably resulted in significant mayhem. As a maritime nation, Britain has had its share of such events coming ashore from both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

A much-written about storm, called The Great Storm, struck the south of England and parts of Europe bordering the English Channel on 26 November 1703 (7 December 1703 on the Gregorian calendar, already in use in continental Europe but not introduced to Britain until 1752). The Great Storm occurred during the height (or depth) of the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), a period of much cooler global temperatures and extremes of weather conditions.


Picture used with permission, copyright British Library

The storm was part of a massive counter-clockwise, very deep, low pressure trough that moved across the region, from west to east, affecting areas as far north as Birmingham and Norwich. Some of the devastation dealt to the country over the space of just a few hours included the following:

  • Wind gusts possibly topping 120 mph at the peak of the storm, levelling almost everything in its path
  • Over 700 ships wrecked while docked or at anchor in harbours around southern England and while still at sea, with an estimated death toll of up to 10,000 sailors
  • Thirteen Royal Navy warships sunk, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; many others severely damaged
  • Over 120 lives lost, and hundreds more injured on land across England and Wales
  • Significant damage in towns and cities – in London over 2,000 chimney stacks blown down, demolishing parts of the houses to which they had been attached
  • Tens of thousands of head of cattle and sheep lost on farms along the storm’s path
  • Major parts of forests levelled
  • Areas around major estuaries impacted by floods from storm surges, in many cases more dangerous than the accompanying winds
  • Severe disruption to local economies just emerging from decades of recession, the effects of which felt for years afterward
  • Mercantile shipping, involving fleets serving major cities like London and the export markets, disrupted for many years until replacement ships could be put to sea
  • Immediate inflation of prices in foodstuffs and other goods – building materials in particular
  • On the plus side, work multiplied for tradesmen such as carpenters, masons and plumbers, the latter being expert in the installation of lead sheet roofing

Losses during the storm have been estimated at about £6 million, representing about 5% of the total value of the building stock in England and Wales at the time – a very significant proportion! The potential loss for such a storm if it were to strike today might be well in excess of £10 billion.

Could it happen again? There have been other, major storms which battered Britain, causing significant property loss and numerous deaths – in October 1987 as an example. Modern improvements to sea defenses around harbours and estuaries, beach stabilization methods, inland flood control measures, early storm warning systems and rapid response of disaster teams all have aided in preventing the same levels of devastation as occurred during The Great Storm of 1703, however.

Was your family impacted by The Great Storm of 1703 or from other types of events? I am compiling examples of natural disasters and their impact on people and communities in past centuries. If any readers have such stories of events that affected their own ancestors, I would very much like to hear about them.


Brayne, Martin. (2002). The Greatest Storm. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.

Defoe, Daniel. (1704). The Storm or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. Downloaded through University of Adelaide website 30 March 2014 under Creative Commons License from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/defoe/daniel/storm/complete.html

Lamb, Hubert & Knud Frydendaho. (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.


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