Back in time
How did your ancestors live?
What did they do?
Times of war or peace?
How far back? That;s a frequent question when searching for ancestors. My answer is usually on the following lines. If your ancestors were agricultural labourers (like many of mine) not that far. If they were from noble families quite a long way and argued by some to God. If they owned property or land there is a good chance that records were kept. If they rented property you may find them named in document that recorded the transaction.The question here though is how useful are English Parish records in tracing ancestors and when did they start?
Church records are vitally important to genealogists. They provide, almost the only, evidence of births, deaths and marriages prior to 1837 when civil registration of these events commenced. They did not stop after 1837; these events continue to be recorded in parish churches but were supplemented by civil records.
- Parish records begin 1538.Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) initiated the process of keeping parish records and a mandate was issued by Henry VIII in 1538 to keep parish registers.
- Queen Elizabeth duplicated the law in 1558 and more registers began at this date.
- Bishops’ transcripts and use of parchment instead of paper 1597
- Copies of the registers were sent to the local Bishop, sometimes the copies were made contemporaneously and some ministers waited until the end of the year.
- The original records are generally more reliable than the transcripts however, some of the earlier paper records did not survive.
- Early registers did not follow any standard form and the details included were at the discretion of the minister.
- 1642-1651 English Civil War
- Parish records were often neglected and Bishops’ transcripts were not required.
- 1754 Lord Hardwick’s Act. This required separate registers for marriages.
- 1812 Introduction of a standard register
- Separate books were to be used for baptisms, marriages and burials. The rector was required to record the details in the register at the time or no later than seven days after the ceremony. The rector was obliged to keep the register in a secure, dry well painted chest within his usual residence.
- 1837 Introduction of civil records for births marriages and deaths
The marriage record from 1837 was made in duplicate one copy kept by the parish and the other passed to the secular registrar.
Lord Liverpool led the government in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815. Great pressure was put on the for social, economic and political reform. However, the government introduced in 1815 The Corn Laws to protect British agricultural landowners from cheap foreign imports. The effect was to increase grain prices and decrease supplies. The laws, designed to protect landowners, caused serious hardship to the poor. Low grain harvests in 1817 did not help. Famine ensued.
The Reform Bill was blocked on procedural grounds. Dissidents rebelled and began to take civil action to draw attention to their plight.
The Gag Acts were introduced and the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended leading to imprisonment of radicals without trial.
Radicals organised meeting to plan action and therefore decided to appeal directly to the Crown. They prepared a petition that was to be presented to the Prince Regent.
On 10 March 1817 around 5000 marchers, comprising mainly spinners and weavers, gathered near Manchester along with a large crowd of onlookers. Around 25000 people gathered. Each marcher carried a rolled blanket or a large overcoat to sleep under at night as a sign that the man was a textile worker.
The march to London failed since it was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guards, many were arrested and the march ended in confusion but it did not end before the men were attacked in Ardwick on the outskirts of Manchester.
The Blanketters’ March led to the formation of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to combat future insurrection. It became infamous later for its role in the Peterloo Massacre.
What were your ancestor doing at this time? Would these events have impinged on their lives?
Marriages, Allegations and Licences
Marriages before 1837 in England and Wales conventionally took place in parish churches. From 1937 there was an option to choose a civil ceremony and avoid the trappings of a religious ceremony.
Both before and after this date Church of England marriages required announcements called Banns to be read for three Sundays prior to the wedding to provide the opportunity for anyone with objections to the marriage to intervene.
To avoid this couples could marry by licence and avoid the need for the Banns to be read. Licences were acquired for a variety of reasons. The main being speed and simplicity; perhaps because the woman was pregnant or perhaps family members did not approve. Another reason was because the couple followed different religions.
The example is an allegation. In this instance the groom has acquired the licence. Although the marriage was by licence there is, in this also, a record of the marriage register for the church in the parish where the bride lived.
The bride, who lived in Islington in London prior to the marriage, went afterwards to live with her husband in Deal in Kent; about 84 miles and one wonders how they met. Did they have holiday romances in 1881?
The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846.
The law that abolished the slave trade entered the statute books of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on the 25 March 1807. This made it illegal to engage in the slave trade in the British Colonies. Despite this trafficking, between the Caribbean islands, continued until 1811.
The Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805
A famous battle indeed. Won under the leadership of Admiral Lord Nelson who lost his life in the battle. Nevertheless the British fleet with twenty seven ships of the line with six others defeated the combined forces of the French and Spanish with thirty-three ships of the line. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships whilst the British lost none.
The Acts of Union 1801 was an agreement that united England, Scotland and Ireland under the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Beginning of the French Revolution – One of them!
Genealogical records come in a variety of forms. But, how much can we rely on them?
At the heart of any genealogical are vital birth, marriage and death records. They mark the beginning the middle and the end. Two events are inevitable; the third optional and can be repeated.
The nature of these records will depend on where and when. If you ancestor was an agricultural labourer then it is unlikely that you will find any records in England and Wales before 1600 and realistically probably not much before 1700.
If your ancestors were from nobility or had land then earlier records are likely to be available. It does of course depend on the location.
However, this article is not about what records exist but how much we can rely on the information they provide whether they be the vital records described above or land records, wills, censuses or military records. There are many more types of records – too many to list here.
One of the key elements of the reliability of a record is the way in which it was made and how close it was to the initial event.
Genealogists use three terms to define the nature of a record; primary, derived primary and secondary. A primary record is one made at the time of the event like an entry of a marriage in a register at the time of the marriage. A derived primary is a transcription of that record.
Secondary records appear in newspapers, books and magazines and encyclopaedia such as the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland. A family history is a secondary record.
So, how much can we rely on these records.
The essence of reliability is the proximity of a secondary source to the primary. The further away in time and in the number of times the information is repeated increases the opportunity for error. Writing styles have changed so what was written cannot always be understood today. The spelling of names will often have depended on the interpretation of a name by a registrar when registering a birth if the parents of the child were illiterate – and they often were. You are likely to have seen the phrase the mark of instead of a signature on a birth certificate.
That leads neatly on to the accuracy of primary records. It is easy to see how errors occur when transcribing a record but primary records are not necessarily evidence of truth. They are just evidence what was written at the time. One of the witnesses on my grandmother’s marriage certificate was her sister, the death certificate of whom is dated one week before the marriage.
The following example is a marriage certificate – there are some obvious errors – the witness has been recorded as Jane’s father. There are other discrepancies too that would require me to go into other evidence about this couple but that is for another time. There are almost certainly more lies than truths on this document.