My criminal ancestor was sentenced to transportation – Australia

The banishment of dangerous criminals from England was first introduced by an Act of Parliament in 1597 as an alternative to hanging. Transportation to the US was authorised by a Privy Council Order of 1615.

Transportation as a sentence in intself was not introduced until the Transportation Act of 1717 when criminals could be sentenced to 7 years, 14 years or life transportation as an alternative to prison.

From 1615 to 1775 criminal were transported to colonies in North America, such as Virginia. Such transportation ceased with the start of the American civil war. However, without a sufficient central prison system the transportation system was re-introduced in 1787, this time to the new land of New South Wales (NSW), Australia which Captain James Cook had discovered only 17 years earlier.


Transportation to Australia continued until 1868 during which time in excess of 160,000 men, women and children were transported and the areas colonised included NWS, Tasmania from 1803-1853 and Western Australia from 1850-1868. In finding out whether your Australian ancestor was a convict it is important to know which states and at what times convicts were sent.

Convicts were usually transported to serve a sentence of either 7 years or 14 years. Once their term had been served the individual would be given a ‘Certificate of Freedom’ was free to return to their home country although few did.  A sentence of transportation for life in the case of the most serious offences meant that the individual would never return home, even if they were released early.

Many convicts sentenced to transportation would seek a pardon. “If a convict had been particularly helpful to the authorities (for example, helping them recapture escapees) then a Conditional Pardon could be issued. Very rarely, in exceptional circumstances transported convicts could receive a Royal Pardon, which was an absolute and unconditional pardon”.

Research Plan

Anyone researching their Australian roots, particularly where it is known those roots are not of native Australia (i.e. Aborigines) will first need to trace the origins of their ancestors back to the earliest known in an ancestor in Australia. This should initially be carried out using Birth, Marriage and Death records and census records.

Birth, Marriage and Death records (B/M/D)

Compulsory civil registration began in Australia at different times in different states:

  • Tasmania                                1838    1 Dec  
  • South Australia                       1842    1 Jul   
  • Western Australia                   1841    9 Sep  
  • Victoria                                   1853    1 July 
  • Queensland                            1856    1 March         
  • New South Wales                   1856    1 March         
  • Northern Territory                  1870    24 Aug
  • Australian Capital Territory   1930    1 Jan

However, records of B/M/D were kept prior to these dates, much as in England, in church records of baptism, marriage and burials. As in England, indexes to B/M/D have been prepared and include records before compulsory civil registration was introduced which were created from the church records by the registrars. These records are available online on both the English and Australian versions of the Ancestry website and on the Find My Past website, spanning the years:

  • New South Wales       1788-1910
  • Northern Territory      1870-1910
  • Queensland                1829-1910, 1915-1919
  • South Australia           1842-1922
  • Tasmania                    1803-1910
  • Victoria                       1836-1910
  • Western Australia       1841-1905

Birth indexes are searchable by name, year of birth, place of birth and names of parents; marriage indexes by name, year of marriage, place of marriage and name of spouse; death indexes by year of death, place of death, estimated year of birth, father’s name and mother’s surname.

Copies of certificates would need to be obtained from the appropriate registry office:

The information to be found on the certificate will depend on when and in which state the event took place but largely they followed the style of certificate the same certificates in England.

Census records

Census records in Australia began earlier in Australia than in England. By 1828 many convicts had served their sentences and had settled as free men. They could no longer be compelled to attend the annual musters and therefore the first census was conducted in New South Wales. These are available in two copies – one held in Australia, one held at The National Archives (TNA) in England.

Censuses were then held in 1833, 1836, 1841, 1846, 1851, 1856, 1861 after which they were held every ten years to 1901. The returns New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia for 1851 through to 1891 appear to have been destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire of 1882. Census returns for the Northern Territory survive for 1881 through to 1921. The records which do survive are again, much like those in England, they are the Collectors books and not the actual household schedules.

The following surviving records can be searched online by name, year of birth and place/territory:

  • 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy)
  • 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (TNA Copy)
  • 1841 New South Wales, Australia, Census (including what are now the states of Victoria and Queensland)
  • 1891 New South Wales, Australia Census 
  • 1901 New South Wales, Australia Census 

The census returns include details of where a person was born and therefore the earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia having being born in England (or Ireland) should be able to be located unless of course the earliest ancestor to arrive, arrived during the period 1851 to the end of transportation in 1868. If that is the case, there are census substitutes available:

  • Population Musters of convicts and military (see below);
  • Electoral rolls which began in NSW in 1842;
  • Trade Directories which began in the early 1800’s;
  • Depasturing licenses of grants of land from the Crown to settlers;
  • Rate and valuation books from the later 1850’s;
  • Lists of convicts (see below).

Many of these records are available online at previously named websites and They can also be found in most major archives and libraries in Australia.

Population Musters of convicts and military

Prior to, and beyond, the 1828 census population counts or Musters took place in NSW in 1800 (settlers); 1806 (first complete muster that has survived); 1811 (convicts, including those given tickets of leave, pardons etc); 1814; 1816 to 1821 (convicts); 1822; 1823 (military not included) to 1825 (military not included); and 1837.

And in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) 1811 and 1808 to 1849. 

They contained more information than would be found on an ordinary census, with some early musters list children, wives, and servants:

  • Name;
  • Address;
  • Status (convict, free, military);
  • Sex
  • Ship of arrival
  • Trial date and place
  • Sentence and any other remarks.

So, where an ancestor can be found in the population musters the information found can be used to trace that ancestor back to their origins in England. Where it is identified that the ancestor was a convict the information found in respect of the ship they arrived on, their trial date and place, will help direct the researcher to records held at The National Archives (TNA) and more locally in England.

Lists/Returns of Convicts

If an ancestor cannot be found in the Population musters, they may be found in the Lists or Returns of Convicts. The Convicts Index 1791 to 1873 (“A single searchable database containing certificates of freedom; bank accounts; deaths; exemptions from Government Labor; pardons; tickets of leave; and, tickets of leave passports. There are 140,000+ entries to search”) is available to search for free at New South Wales Government State Archives and Records website provides:

  • Name
  • Alias
  • Ship
  • Year
  • Record type   
  • Date   
  • Remarks         
  • Citation

The same website also contains a Convict Indents (Digitised) Index for 1788 to 1801 which is a fully digitised index containing a list of the convicts transported to NSW. “Early indents provide name, date and place of trial and sentence; later indents usually contain more information such as a physical description, native place, age and crime”

The index to convict indents and ships for New South Wales and Van Diemen’s land from 1788 to 1842 are also available on microfiche at TNA.

The New South Wales Government State Archives and Records website is a good place to start researching convict records in Australia once the first ancestor to arrive in Australia is known, particularly for those researchers living in Australia.

However, there are a vast amount of records available in England for those researchers based in England.

For Queensland convicts the British Convict Transportation Register 1787-1867 can be searched at the State Library of Queensland website:

If an ancestor was in the first or second fleet to be transported, there are published lists of the names of those convicts:

  • “The First Fleeters” by P G Fidlon and R J Ryan;
  • “The Second Fleet Convicts” by R J Ryan
convict memorial

The Convict Transportation Register 1787-1870

Series HO11 held at TNA is a list “of convicts transported in various ships, giving the dates of their convictions. Transcripts of these registers can be accessed via the State Library of Queensland website[12].

The Convict Transportation Register can downloaded for free from the TNA website  and the following can be searched online at

  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – First Fleet, 1787-1788
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Third Fleet, 1791    
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Second Fleet, 1789-1790

And include the convicts name, date and place of conviction, term of sentence, name of ship on which they sailed to Australia, date of departure date and the name of the colony to which they were sent.

This will help confirm the information which may already have been found in the population muster or lists/returns of convicts. However, it may also be useful where the first known ancestor to Australia cannot be found in the census, musters or list/return of convicts because such records may be incomplete. Where a person is named, for example on a birth certificate as a parent, then the Convict Transport Register can be searched for them. If not in these records, then it is probable that the ancestor was not a convict but arrived as either a free settler or military/naval personnel. 

Settlers and Convicts, New South Wales and Tasmania: Records 1787-1859 

Found in series HO 10 held at TNA this is another list “of the male and female convicts and former convicts in the colonies giving particulars as to their sentences, employment, settlement in the country, the land and cattle acquired by them and other information; lists of pardons granted; lists of convicts embarked for and arriving in New South Wales; general musters and census of 1828 relating to settlers and convicts”.

These records can be downloaded for free from TNA website. These records not only help with tracing the origins of an ancestor in England but may provide further details of their lives after serving their sentence and their then settlement in the country.

Botany Bay, Australia

Other records available at TNA which can be used to identify whether a named ancestor was a convict (not digitised)

  • TS 18/460 – 515: Contracts for the transportation of convicts, naming convicts, with date and place of trial and sentence;
  • HO31/1: Orders of the Privy Council 1782 to 1794 contain lists of convicts for transportation;
  • PC 1/2715: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Eden to New South Wales, with correspondence, 1840;
  • PC 1/2716: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Tortoise to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1841;
  • PC 1/2717: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Elphinstone to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1842;
  • PC 1/2718: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Anson to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1843;
  • T 1 Treasury Board papers and T 53 Treasury Money Books also contain ships’ lists of convicts who were transported.

Prison Hulk Records – records held at TNA

  • HO 9/1 – 15: Convict Prison Hulks: Registers

Registers of convicts in the prison hulks, 1802 to 1849, arranged by hulk name.

1811 to 1843 images and indexes can be downloaded for free the TNA website.

  • ADM 6/418, 420, 422: Registers of convicts in prison hulks, with gaolers’ reports 1814 to 1835, each indexed at ADM 6/419, 421, 423 respectively.
  •  to 1831 images and indexes are available at in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935;
  • PCOM 2/105: Portsmouth Prison, Hampshire: registers of prisoners, nos. 1-1477 from Sept 30, 1847 to Apr 18, 1853

Images and indexes are available at in series in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935;

  • PCOM 2/131 to 137: Registers of convicts on specific prison hulks from 1837 to 1860

Images and indexes are available at in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935;

  • HO 8/74: Quarterly returns of convicts in prison hulks for 1842 Dec

Available at TNA only.

These records will provide details of name, age, offence committed, when and where tried, date of transfer to a ship for transportation. This essentially forms a paper trail of the convict’s movements between conviction and transportation.  Many prisoners were initially held on prison hulks awaiting transportation. Not all were in fact transported. The records may not provide any additional information which may have been gained from other record discussed above however they could be used in alternative to those set out above or as confirmation of information already obtained.

Petitions for clemency and pardons

Series HO 17 and HO 18 held at TNA hold original petitions made by or on behalf of convicts asking for a revocation or reduction of their sentences. “Attached to some petitions are related papers and some returns, made by the governors of convict prisons, of convicts recommended for early release for good behaviour”.

  • HO 17 holds petitions made between 1819 and 1839;
  • HO 18 holds petitions made between 1839 and 1853.

There is an index to the petitions which can be found in HO 19 arranged alphabetically giving the reference of the original petition, the place of imprisonment and the outcome of the petition. 

Many have been indexed and digitised and made available at in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935. HO 17, 18 and 19 can be found as subseries and can be searched by name, year and place.

Petitions are most likely to include personal information regarding the convict, such as their age, family circumstances, where he lived prior to his conviction, previous good character, his occupation and any extenuating circumstances.

Newspapers reports

Once the court and/or area is known, before searching the court records it may be worth searching newspaper reports to see what further information may be gleaned about the case and the convict. Newspaper reports often include personal information about those they are reporting on, including age, occupation, where they were from, where the offence was committed and sometimes details of their family. The largest collection can be found at the British Library but there are several websites where newspapers can be searched:

  • The British Newspaper Archive;
  • Find My Past
  • London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes
  • Local newspapers will also be available in the local archives for the area where the trial took place.

Court Records

Once you know the court your ancestor convicts’ trial was heard then the court records can be searched for more information. To be sentenced to transportation, a convict had committed a serious offence which would have been heard in either their local Assize Court or the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court. 

Assize courts

The former Assize Court, York

Assize court records, where they exist, are largely held at TNA although some may be found at local archives (for example searching the Surrey History Centre online catalogue there are various papers from the assize courts which appear to have been provided to the archives from personal collections or as part of the Quarter Session records), however many records were destroyed. Records may be found in various series held at TNA, none of which are digitised and can only be viewed at TNA:

  • ASSI 1 – 54: Records of the Justices of Assize from 1554 to 1971 arranged by circuits;
  • KB 6/1 – 6: Depositions 1836-1886;
  • KB 10/1 – 92: Indictments (London and Middlesex) 1675-1845;
  • KB 11/1 – 107: Indictment (Rest of England) 1676-1845;
  • KB 12/1 – 228: Indictments files for all counties 1846-1926;
  • KB 19/1 – 3: Pleadings

It should be noted that the Palatine courts of Chester, Durham and Lancaster (Lancashire) merged into the assizes system in 1876. Prior to this their respective court records will need to be searched at TNA is series CHES, DURH and PL

Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court

The Old Bailey was essentially the Assize court for the City of London until 1834 when the Central Criminal Court was established. The Central Criminal Court had jurisdiction over the City of London, Middlesex, parts of Essex, Kent, Surrey, crimes committed at sea and abroad.

The Old Bailey was essentially the Assize court for the City of London until 1834 when the Central Criminal Court was established. The Central Criminal Court had jurisdiction over the City of London, Middlesex, parts of Essex, Kent, Surrey, crimes committed at sea and abroad.

Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court session papers are held Guildhall Library and at TNA in series PCOM 1 for 1801 to 1904 and CRIM 10 for 1834-1912.

Old Bailey trials for the period 1674 to 1935, can also be searched at They may also be searched online at under their series Middlesex, London, Old Bailey Court Records 1674-1913.

Civil registration, census returns, parish records and parish registers.

Once you have found, from any of the resources above, where the convict ancestor lived at the time they were convicted, then further research can be continued in the well-known genealogical record, to find their origins (parentage etc) depending on the period of time:

  • post 1837 – civil registration records
  • 1841 and beyond – decennial census returns
  • pre-1837 – parish registers and records.

The records discussed above represent a sample of records available to help trace an ancestor convicted and transported to Australia. There are numerous other records available both in Australia and England, online and off. The National Library of Australia has a very helpful research guide as does TNA and both should be consulted where such a research task is to be undertaken.

Part 2 will examine researching ancestors transported to the US.

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My ancestor was a criminal, what happened to him?

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey History Centre, Woking, Surrey, England. Tried at: Summer Assizes holden at Guildford

When examining the “Calendar of Prisoners tried at the Summer Assizes, holden at Guildford on Wednesday, the 19th day of July 1899″ William Weller, caught my interest. At the age of 28 he was convicted of stealing a bicycle and sentenced to four months imprisonment with hard labour. The entry provided details of four earlier offences all involved stealing items of what appeared to be minor nature: beef, a chopper, a handbell and a coat. All his previous offences had been tried in the PS.

William was described as a labourer and his offence had been committed in Dorking. Dorking is small rural market in rural Surrey. The parish of Dorking was and remains largely residential and agricultural. Agriculture in the later Victorian years was increasingly difficult to earn a living from due to mechanisation. Pay for agricultural labourers was generally poor but especially low in the south where there was little competition from the lure of the new, industrial areas of the Midlands, North West and West Yorkshire, where wages were higher. 

Having always had an interest in what people commit crime, this made me wonder what had led William to a life of petty crime in his 20’s. Was he typical of the petty criminal of the time? Was there anything in his early years which influenced his behaviour? How effective were his punishments in preventing a future life of crime? Did his life of crime continue into more serious criminal activity? Are there any comparisons between his life of petty crime to today?

Surrey History Centre (SHC) online catalogue and the National Archives (TNA) Discovery catalogue should identify records available for Dorking Petty Sessions, Reigate Petty Sessions and Guildford Assizes to be examined at the relevant archive. Surrey was part of the Home Circuit Assizes which in 1876 combined with the Norfolk Circuit creating the South Eastern Circuit, although Surrey remained unattached until 28 July 1893.

Wandsworth prison records are held at The London Metropolitan Archive (LMA) whose online catalogue should identify appropriate prison records to be examined.

Census returns, civil registration records of birth, marriages and deaths, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials amongst other records which may be available online will be used to trace his earlier, later and family life and circumstances, using commercial and government websites as well as any other records identified and held at and SHC using their online catalogue.


Local newspapers reports can provide details of crimes being tried and are therefore a good starting point for research Three local newspaper reports describing misdemeanours of William Weller were found using the British Newspaper Archives website:

Alcohol in Victorian Britain

Two of the newspaper reports suggest William’s behaviour was caused or affected by alcohol, causing delirium and his admission to Brookwood Asylum in 1898. Whilst William was not arrested for drunkenness, there is suggested a distinct connection between alcohol and his offending.

Victorian Britain saw an emergence of stronger ales and spirits, in particular gin, and a boom in public houses, with 30,000 new beer houses opening in 1831 without the need for licences. Drunkenness was more often associated with the poorer working classes, who, by the 1870’s spent up to a quarter of their income on alcohol.

The Old Brewery, Newdigate, Surrey c. 1910, Courtesy of John Callcut, Chairman of the Newdigate Local History Society

Dorking Petty Sessions

Unfortunately, the Dorking Petty Sessions register for periods 1893,1895 and 1899 held at Surrey History Centre (SHC) are “unfit for production”. Staff at SHC confirmed the register for 1893 is a book in extremely poor condition, being described as “almost dust” so no further information is available regarding this offence. However, staff at SHC were able to obtain details of his 1895 conviction from the register which differ to the Calendar of Prisoners, the register stating his offence was “stealing a Bill Hook at [an unreadable location], Newdigate”. The complainant was Martin Weller.

A Bill Hook

Reigate Petty Sessions

His convictions in 1894 and 1985 were not found in local newspapers. Reigate Petty Sessions registers are available at Surrey History Centre (SHC) but unfortunately do not include any records for 1894, covering January to May 1893 and January to February 1898. All other registers covered the 20th century.

No.DateName of Informant or ClaimantName of defendant, and age if under 16Nature of Offence or Matter of ComplaintMinute of AdjudicationJustices Adjudicating
1898 Jan 111898 Jan 11James BriceWilliam WellerDrunk & disorderly on the highway at Horley on 4th Dec 1897Fined 5/- Costs 5/-E W Brockhurst, Fred Pawler, Henry Greenhill and Wentworth G Cauley
REIGATE PETTY SESSIONS REGISTER Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Reference 2003/4/1; Page 6

I did examine the register to see what type of information may have been available and in doing so, I found a William Weller convicted on 11 January 1898 of being drunk & disorderly on the highway at Horley on 4th Dec 1897. There are no further details to identify him, and this conviction does not appear in his entry in the Calendar of Prisoners. It is therefore unlikely this is the same William.

Assize records

Assize records are held at TNA and include Indictment Files, Crown Minute Books (Agenda Books), Depositions and Miscellaneous Books. The Indictment files for 1892 to 1920 and Depositions for 1890 to 1912 are few and held nothing for William. The miscellaneous books included a precedent book of documents used in the Assizes, and four detailing offences and sentences covering the 18th century.

William was found in the Crown Minute Book for the Surrey Assizes Summer 1899, held over Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th July, with a Grand jury of 22 and a Petty Jury of 12. The Grand jury’s role “was to accuse anyone who might be guilty of an offence and to protect others against unfounded prosecution (such as an accusation made out of malice). The grand jury would decide if there was sufficient evidence in a case to put the defendant on trial”; the Petty Jury’s role was to hear “the evidence in a trial and decided on the innocence or guilt of a defendant. After listening to the witnesses and lawyers (if present), the jury would retire, or huddle, and reach its verdict”.

The entry adds no further information.

  4Puts Guilty. 4 cal month William WellerFeloniously stealing a bicycle of the good of Frederick Halliday at Dorking on 4th July 1899 2nd Court receiving

“Puts guilty” suggests when the charge was put to him, he pleaded guilty. “2nd court receiving” suggests he first appeared before the Petty Sessions and his case transferred, possibly due to his previous convictions and the value of the bicycle, to the next available higher court. “Many justices may have, adopted a common sense approach, and sent thieves and other minor offenders for trial at whichever came first” The Assize court was held only 16 days after the offence took place.

Wandsworth Prison Records

The Prison was opened in November 1851. Originally built to house 700 prisoners in separate cells each with their own toilet, however conditions had deteriorated from the 1870’s with toilets removed from the cells to increase capacity and the practice of ‘slopping out’ being introduced, which remained in force until 1996.

Prison life in Victorian times was quite different to today – no early release for good behaviour, no education or rehabilitation programs; hard labour was just that! Some prisoners worked in quarries, at the docks or building roads. Other prisoners ‘worked’ on devices such as the treadmill/wheel, “the prisoner simply walked the wheel…. the treadmill provided flour to make money for the gaol… in later times, there was no product, and the treadmill was walked just for punishment”; or the Crank, “a large handle, in their cell, that a prisoner would have to turn, thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of ‘screws’”.

Wandsworth prison records are held at LMA although the vast majority cover the 20th century and/or those condemned and executed. For the 1890’s there are Nominal registers of admissions. These A3 size hardback books in good condition are laid out in columns as per the transcription. The registers covering his incarceration in April 1894 were “unfit for production and handling” however it is fair to assume that record would be like those examined.

     Name (surname, Christian Name)Date and place of committalAssizes, session date and placeOffenceSentenceEducationAge, Height, colour of hairTrade/ occupationReligion/ Birth placeNo. of convictions and reference to last entryDate of discharge and remarksArchive ref and page no.
10700Weller Wm23 Mar 1895 Dorking Stealing a bill-hook of 2/-1 C M HLImp23 5.5 D.BrwLabC E Dorking122 Apr 95ACC/3444/PR/01/069 Page 76 Nominal register
10537Weller William7.1.99 Dorking Stealing Coat14 days HL 28 5.6LabC of Dorking220.1.99ACC/3444/PR/01/088 Page 198 Nominal register
17502Weller Wm Surrey Assizes 19/20.7.99Larceny4 C mos HLImp28 5.5LabCE Dorking318.11.99ACC/3444/PR/01/091 Page 240 Nominal register

They do not add much to the information already found. They do confirm that his conviction in March 1895 was for stealing a bill-hook to the value of 2/-, agreeing with the entry in the Dorking Petty Session records. It may be a simple error in the calendar of prisoners, incorrectly noting the offences committed in 1894 and 1895. There is no way to clarify this given the Reigate Petty sessions records are lacking for 1894, the prison records are unfit for production and no newspaper report could be found.

The prison register describes William as 5ft 5in or 5ft 6in tall with dark brown hair. NO other records provide such a description.

A dietary sheet found amongst the prison records, provides details of the different diets for the seven different classes of prisoners based on length of sentence and whether sentenced to hard Labour (HL).

Class 1: not exceeding 7 days.

Class 2: 7 days but not 21 days.

Class 3: HL for a term exceeding 21 days but not more than 6 weeks; those not employed in HL exceeding 21 days but not more than 4 months.

Class 4: HL exceeding 6 weeks but not more than 4 months; not HL exceeding 4 months.

Class 5: HL exceeding 4 months.

Class 6: Sentenced to solitary confinement.

Class 7: Prisoners under punishment for prison offences not exceeding 3 days; Prisoners in close confinement for prison offences under the 42nd section of the Gaol Act.


The diet sheet also included the ingredients for soup (per pint): 3 oz cooked meat without bone, 3 oz potatoes, 1 oz barley, rice or oatmeal, 1 oz onions or leaks, with pepper and salt; and gruel (per pint) 2 oz oatmeal per pint to be sweetened on alternate days with ¾ oz of molasses or sugar and seasoned with salt. “In seasons when the potato crop has failed, 4 oz split peas made into pudding ma occasionally be substituted, but the change must not be made more than twice a week”.


William served three periods of 1 calendar month HL – a Class 3 prisoner with a diet of:

Breakfast:             daily – 1 pint of oat gruel; 6 oz of bread

Dinner:                 Sun/Thur – 1 pint soup, 8 oz bread

Tues/Sat – 3 oz of cooked meat without bone, 8 oz bread, 1/2 lb potatoes

Mon/Wed/ Fri – 8 oz bread, 1lb potatoes

Supper:                daily – same as breakfast

His fourth term in prison was 4 calendar months HL – a Class 4 prisoner with a diet of:

Breakfast:             daily – 1 pint of oat gruel; 8 oz of bread

Dinner:                 Sun/Tues/Thur/Sat – 3 oz cooked meat without bone, ½ lb potatoes, 8 oz bread

Mon/Wed/Fri dinner – 1 pint soup, 8 oz bread

Supper:                  daily – same as breakfast

Brookwood Asylum

The newspaper report dated Saturday, January 14, 1899 states William had been certified insane and sent to Brookwood Asylum whilst on remand. Brookwood opened on 17 June 1867 on the outskirts of the village of Knaphill, four miles west of Woking, Surrey and held up to 650 pauper ‘lunatics’. “Brookwood was the County Asylum chiefly serving west Surrey”.

Brookwood Asylum photos courtesy of Surrey Live website
Brookwood Asylum photos courtesy of Surrey Live website

Their registers of admission are available online. There were two entries for William: 6th November 1897 discharged 28 February 1898 and 30 June 1898 discharged 27 December 1898. Both admissions describe excessive drinking. The newspaper report from July 1899 also states William was “in drink at the time”.

When first admitted, he was also suffering from Pulmonary Congestion for which his symptoms could have ranged from fluid on the lungs or milder chest infection.

Brookwood records held at SHC were examined to find more details about his admission and treatment, including Registers of Admissions; Alphabetical Admission Register; Removal, discharge and death Register; Record of Discharges; Medical Superintendents Private Record of Patients Admitted; Male Case Book No. 18.

Date of AdmissionDate of Reception OrderDate of Continuation of Reception OrderChristian and SurnameAgeCondition as to MarriageCondition of Life and Pervious occupationsPrevious Place of AbodeUnion. County or Borough to which chargeableBy whose authority sentDate of medical certificate and by whom signedForm of Mental DisorderSupposed cause of InsanityBodily Condition and Name of DiseaseDuration of Existing AttackDate of Removal, Discharge or DeathRemoved, discharged or deadObservations
1897 Nov 6Nov 6 1897 William Weller26SingleLabourer Ch of EngDorking (1 week) previous temporary residence Epsom, Newdigate, LeatherheadDorkingH.L Steere, J.PH. Chaldecott 6 Nov 1897ManiaSupposed excessing drinkingPulmonary Congestion (put to bed)3 days28 Feb 1898Recovered 
1898 June 30June 30 1898 William Weller27SingleNo Occupation Ch of EngNewdigateDorkingJ.C. Deverell JPH.J.W. Blakeney 29 June 1898DementiaProbably excessive drinkingFairly good3 days27 Dec 1898Recovered 
Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Mental Health Admissions; Facility: Brookwood Asylum; Facility City: Woking; Year Range: 1897-1899; Register Number: 5; Admission Number: 8747-9242; Reference Number: 3043/5/1/1/11;,

These records suggest a troubled young man with a history of excessive drinking causing quite severe mental health problems with episodes of hallucinations, tremors, confusion, sleeplessness, restlessness, memory loss. The case notes dated on 31 June 1898 state he had stolen a coat which he sold for a drink and that William had early signs of pneumonia later described as bronchitis.

William’s lack of presence in records such as the Patients Money Account ledger and Return of Patients Property book suggest a poor financial position. It does beg the question how did he pay the fine and costs he was sentenced for his first convictions?

His notes state he “usually employed with the brick layers” but he was not employed when admitted the second time. On both occasions he was discharged to “RO” (Receiving Officer). When first discharged he was provided with clothing and a monetary allowance of 10/.  There is no record for any criminal charges following his arrest on 1 November 1897.

During his time in Brookwood, there are no record of him engaging in any activities available or gained any skills to help him gain employment on discharge. Records available of activities/employment within the asylum include the Mat makers/Basket makers shop employment book and the Stewards Reports which detailed those engaged in labouring work. It would be nice to think William attended weekly entertainments including a variety of dancing and singing, occasional theatrical performances and artistes. The New Years Eve 1898 celebration included “The Brookwood Snowflakes”.

The Weller Family and Newdigate

William lived in Newdigate in 1893. The Newdigate guide gives the population in 1851, according to the census return, as 605 “with 212 under the age of 14 and 23 over the age of 70”. Seven family names – Beedle, Burberry, Gad, Horley, King, Taylor and Weller – accounted for one third of the total population, the last name belonging to no less than 43 inhabitants” and was a longstanding family of the village, which can still be found there today.

Newdigate is a rural village about six miles south east of Dorking and 18 mins south west of Reigate. The main employment historically was agriculture which would have been hard work because the land is thick clay “with 21 farmers employing 138 men as agricultural labourers or farm servants”. Many were employed in other occupations which enabled Newdigate to be a self-sufficient village, such as “gamekeepers, wood reevers gardeners, blacksmiths, grooms, wheelwrights, swayers, rat-catchers, bailiffs, thatchers, cattle doctors….bricklayers, tailors, shoemakers, grocers, dressmakers, carpenters, innkeepers, nurses, teachers,…a fellmonger, a charwoman, a general dealer, a confectioner, a brick maker, a rector, a letter carrier, a laundress and a brewer”. In 1923 a brick and tile works opened which is now a nature reserve owned by Surrey Wildlife Trust, however brick making had been taking place in the nearby village of Beare Green since 1830.

The men of the Weller family in 1851, “were mostly agricultural workers living in and around workhouse green”.

By the 1890’s whilst larger houses were starting to be built as a new Victorian middle-class wealth began to inhabit the area, “there was still much poverty and many of the cottages were overcrowded and insanitary. There was a place for everyone, and everyone knew his/her place. The men worked hard with long hours and low pay and the poor doffed their caps or curtsied to the rector and the wealthy”.

William’s early family life

The census returns reveal William was the youngest of eight children to George and Mary Weller.  

Three things are noted. Firstly, William was born after the 1871 census; secondly, he lost his father, George when he was young (between the 1871 and 1881 census); and thirdly, his mother, Mary, became an Annuitant suggesting George had invested during his life perhaps in a local Friendly Society. Searching the SHC online catalogue there were several Friendly Society’s in Surrey but nothing specific to Newdigate.

A search of parish registers for Surrey, found William’s baptism record at St Peters Church, Newdigate on 25 June 1871, with a date of birth as 28 May 1871.

Searching GRO birth indexes in 1871 found three possible entries, two identified the mother’s maiden name. A search for his parent’s marriage record was conducted to find the correct mother’s maiden name for William’s mother. A search on Ancestry identified two possible entries for a George Weller and Mary, one in Sussex the other in Newdigate, Surrey. The family lived in Newdigate, the census returns gave George’s birthplace as Newdigate and Mary’s as Charlwood (a neighbouring village). Checking the bride’s maiden names against the two birth entries from GRO, identified the correct marriage and correct birth for William. His birth certificate gives his date of birth as 27th May 1871.

A search in the GRO birth index for his siblings was undertaken as a further check to confirm the parentage revealing George and Mary had nine children, in 1856 they had a daughter Jane who sadly died in 1858 age 1.

Searching online for his father’s death found he died aged 50 on 24th December 1877 of “Blood poisoning from absorption of fluids in Pig Killing 4 days”. His death being employment related in winter suggests George was a permanent employee of a local livestock farm having security of income, not reliant on seasonal employment.

It is impossible to say what impact losing his father so young (6 years old) had on William, but this could be a factor in his later behaviour. By the time George died, the three eldest children, George, Mary and Mark, were no longer living at home having already married. A search of the GRO marriage records, parish marriage registers and census returns finds all William’s siblings went on to marry and have quite large families themselves, except Martin, who may be the person who accused William of stealing his Bill-hook in 1895. The census returns suggest William attended the local endowed school, originally built in 1660 by George Steere, the then Rector of Newdigate.

By 1838 it had become dilapidated and was rebuilt. By the time William was born it was compulsory to attend school until the age of 10 years old, the headmaster was Henry Hackwood who “had been there since the new building was first opened in 1872 …. His pupils … came mostly from the surrounding cottages and farms, and had little expectation beyond following their parents onto the fields or into service in one of the larger houses”.

The Calendar of Prisoners and the prison records describe William’s education as “Imp” meaning semi-literate. Unfortunately, whilst there are records associated with the school for the 1870/80’s held at SHC there are no registers or other records concerning attendance of children.

William in the 1890’s (enclosure 6)

A search of the 1891 census for a William Weller born in 1871 (+/- 1 year) living in Newdigate, found one result. William was age 19, an agricultural labourer living at Kingsland, to the north west of the village being a row of four old timber-framed cottages (more recently divided into two dwellings) with his mother (a widow “living on her own means”), a brother, a niece, and a lodger. This suggests his mother was living off income other than from employment, such as investments.

Kingsland date unknown courtesy of The Newdigate Guide
Kingsland.  Photograph © 1910 courtesy of The Newdigate Local History Society

A wider search of this census for Newdigate provides details of his accomplices, victims and witnesses.

1893 Offence (by reference to the 1891 census)

His accomplice, David Hall, lived at Parkgate, a small hamlet to the northeast of Newdigate, in 1891, David was 23 years old and a Basket weaver. He was married with a young son and at the time of the census his younger brother, aged 15, was staying with them.

The shop, Alfred Dean was described as a grocer, draper and baker. The Dean family were “the best remembered shopkeepers … ran the stores from the 1890’s until the second world war”; the shop and house being called Wirmwood. They sold “products as diverse as bacon, tin kettles, butter and clothes, and anyone tall ran the risk of knocking his head on the boots that hung from the ceiling”.

Courtesy of The Newdigate Guide

The only “Mr Martin” was Frederick Martin, a neighbour of William, also living at Kingsland. It is not clear where “Mr Martin’s orchard” was located. The population had grown to 684 in the 1891 census and it is likely William was known to Mr Dean and Mr Martin.

The witness, “a man named Lucas” was possibly Harvey S Lucas aged 18, an agricultural labourer living with his mother (a widow) and younger siblings at Kingsland. Harvey is stated as having been born in Newdigate and it is likely William and Harvey had grown up together, hence this Mr Lucas would have easily been able to identify William. There were however several Mr Lucas’s living in Newdigate at the time.

1898 offence (court hearing January 1899 – by reference to the 1901 census)

Albert Monk from whose shed William stole a coat also lived at Kingsland, being a self-employed coal merchant and Fly Proprietor, again someone who William likely knew. Henry Streeter was a young agricultural working living at Parkgate with his parents and siblings and may have been known to William through employment or simply drinking in the pub. The Six Bells Inn, which has existed for as long as records exist, derives its name from the number of bells in the parish church tower, “prior to 1803 when the church had only five bells, the pub was also known as The Five Bells”.

Courtesy of The Newdigate Guide

William may have had an uncle living in Reigate, but no research had been carried out into the wider family.

1899 Offence (by reference to the 1901 census)

Frederick Halliday, if which there was only one living in Dorking, was a retired civil servant in British India, age 65 living at Tower Hill, Dorking with his wife and four servants. Tower Hill was an area of housing development in the 1850’s to 1870’s when the “National Freehold Land Society was responsible for housing developments in …. around Tower Hill”, with detached houses for the wealthier. William would certainly have been out of place in the area.

Life after prison

In the 1901 census, William, age 29 and a general labourer, was living back with his mother and brother Martin.

William then disappears from census records. In 1911 his mother and brother Martin are still living together but no William and no other entries could be found for him. (see enclosure 9). Had he died? A search of the death indexes find he died at Dorking Union Workhouse on 6th October 1901 age 31 years. The cause of death is given as Phthisis which is better known as Pulmonary Tuberculosis or TB, a common cause of illness and death in Victorian England, particularly “associated with persons from the lower socio-economic groups because they were more likely to live in crowded conditions which favoured its spread”. There is no evidence any other family members suffered from TB and it is likely his lifestyle choices and incarceration lead to his illness and death.

William appears to have been a very troubled young man. He had no specific skills which could enhance his life chances and at a young age fell to the perils of drink and a life of petty crime to fund that addiction. How William’s life took such a different turn to those of his siblings may never be known, but his father dying when he was so young may have been a contributing factor as would have been his apparent lack of skill, the difficulties associated with a predominantly agricultural labour force and his penchant for alcohol! Further research into the life of his parents, siblings and wider family may provide further insight.

Continuing the theme of criminal ancestors, my next blog will look at how to trace your ancestors who wer transported to Australia.

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The Crimes of our Ancestors

The criminal records of our ancestors can offer a fascinating insight into changing attitudes to crime and punishment often a result of social and economic influences. The Victorian era saw the end of transportation with prisons beganning to be used as a punishment and not just a place where criminals awaited trial, execution, or transportation.

Crime, criminal behaviour, sentencing and many other aspects of the criminal justice system has changed signifantly in the last 500 years and is still evolving today with the latest Police, Crime, Sententing and Courts Act 2022 commencing on 28th June 2022 bringing into effect Harper’s Law following the long petition by the wife of PC ANdrew Harper who was killed in the line of duty in 2019.

What types of crimes?

Many of the crimes of the past continue today and will be familiar, some no longer exist in that they have either been re-named or simply merged into wider categories. So what names of crimes might you find in the criminal records or the past?

  • Murder and attempted murder
  • Felo de se: Suicide – suicide was a crime until the 1961 Suicide Act, it is still a crime to assist someone to commit suicide
  • Manslaugher
  • Infanticide
  • Petty Treason – the crime committed by a servant in killing his master, by a wife in killing her husband, or by an ecclesiastic in killing his superior- this ceased to be a separate offence from murder under the Offences Against the Person Act 1828
  • Cannibalism – no longer a specific crime in England althought it was effectively outlawed by the Human Tissue Act 2004
  • Assualt
  • Bodily Harm (Gross and Actual)
  • Public Disorder
  • Rioting
  • Mutiny
  • Radicalism and Policital movements
  • Robbery
  • Highway Robbery – no longer a specific crime in England, now comes under robbery or armed robbery (the last mounter highway robbery is thought to have taken place in 1831)
  • Grand Larcery and larceny – no longer a specific crimes in England, now more generalised crimes of burglary, robbery, fraud, theft and related offences
  • Theft
  • Smugling
  • Poaching
  • Stealing animals
  • Arson
  • Uttering, Counterfeiting, forgery
  • Rape
  • Sexual assualt
  • Sodomy
  • Obscenity and pornography (publication of images)
  • Bigamy
  • Prostitution
  • Abduction
  • Treason – Until the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 this was the only crime for which a person could still be sentanced to death following the end of capital punishment in 1965. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 ‘reduce’ the sentance to life imprisonment
  • Sedition – abolished in England under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009
  • Espionage and other political crimes
  • Bankrupcy – no longer a criminal offence in itself unless it relates to criminal offences such as fraud
  • Vagrancy

Has sentancing changed? In the era of transportation it was not unknown for such crimes to be punished by transportation, such as these two entries found in the Surrey Calendar of Prisoners, for the Surrey Assizes held at Guildford:

William Jones (Aged 35, who could not read or write) was charged with and found guilty of stealing a chestnut mare on 8th June 1848 and was sentenced to 7 years transportation

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey, England, Calendar of Prisoners, 1848-1902

To put the above sentence in context, horse stealing was a significant crime prior to the intoduction of the motor car and prior to 1832 horse theft attracted a death sentence. Following the Larceny Act 1916 the sentence was imprisonment for up to 14 years. Horse theft is no longer a specific crime but would be dealt with as theft for which the maximum sentence of 7 years (Crown Court) or 6 months (Magistrates Court) with or without an unlimited fine.

Richard Amor (aged 20 who could not read or write) was charged with and found guilty of stealing a silver watch from a person on 26th May 1849 and was sentanced to transportation for life

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey, England, Calendar of Prisoners, 1848-1902

Such a crime today would be classed as a Robbery for which the sentancing guidelines state that custodial sentances begin at 4 or 5 years with the most serious of offences such as armed robbery attracting a maximum of life.

Earlier examples can be taken from Peter Wilson Coldham’s book, “Bonded Passnegers to America” available on the Ancestry website:

Robert Allerton convicted at the Lent Assizes in 1770 in Yorkshire for stealing a sheep at Hampnell was sentenced to 14 years transportation on reprieval Bonded Passengers to America (9 vols. In 3)

Daniel Hicks convicted at the July Assizes in 1720 in Hampshire for horse stealing was sentenced to 14 years transportation on reprieval

It must be remembered that whilst prisons, also known historically as “Bridewells” or “Houses of Correction” have existed for many centuries, they were largely used to hold prisoners awaiting execution or transportation, debtors (known as debtors prisons) or those being held on remand. Convicted criminals were unlikey to be sentaced to a term in prison. It was only in the 19th century when Transportation ended that the prison population began to grow.

The increased use of prisons to house criminals brought with it the introduction of penal service or sentencing of a term in prison with hard labour when the Penal Serviture Acts 1853 and 1857 were introduced to replace transportation.

Several new prisons were built in the 19th Century to house the rising number of criminals, “Offences went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840”. “Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built or added to. It was a massive building programme, costing millions of pounds” this included a new prison for Surrey at Wandsworth, which like many built in this period is still in use today.

Wandsworth Prison, Surrey, when it first opened in 1851

Prisons were not the easy option. Facing rising crime, the Victorians believed in punishment and prison sentences were often accompanied by hard labour, even for what would be a petty crime for which an offender today may simply receive a fine and/or community service.

Petty crime was often unplanned and opportunistic stealing small amounts of food, clothing, money, jewels etc, usually tried at Petty Sessions (PS) or Quarter Sessions (QS), occasionally finding their way to the Assize courts, particularly if they were a repeat offender.

See my next blog in which I trace the life of a petty criminal in the late Victorian years who was sentenced several times to prison with of hard labour which I will also discussed further.

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The Central Law Courts of our ancestors

Lady and scales of justice

The English Legal system comprises of criminal law and civil law. Civil law encompasses several areas such as common law (established from cases and judgements of the courts), family law, wills and probate, the law of tort, law of contract, law of trusts and equity and so on.

Prior to 1875 different areas of civil law were administered by separate courts: The Court of Chancery, the Court of Exchequer, the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the High Court of Admiralty. There was no Court of Appeal.

Several other courts had existed in the earlier centuries but ceased to exist before 1875: The Court of Augmentation, the Court of Star Chamber, the Court of Requests, the General Eyre, the Court of Wards and Liveries, and the Palace Court. Away from Westminster there were courts in the Palatines (Chester, Durham and Lancaster) and the court of the Duchy of Lancaster which had the same functions as the central Westminster courts, in their own areas.

The common law courts of the Court of King/Queen’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas established in the 12th Century had, overall only one means of legal redress, that of financial compensation. This would not solve an issue such as trespass or rights of use of land where what was required was an injunction. Common law courts could also not enforce trusts which by the 14th and 15th centuries were growing in use, particularly in connection with land and inheritance. Courts of Equity therefore began to be established to address the faults with the common law system.

Each court developed at different times and had different functions although there was some overlap between several courts in the types of cases they would hear.

The Courts

General Eyre (12th to 14th Century)

Central courts

This was essentially the senior criminal court dealing with serious crimes (and some civil matters) which were beyond the jurisdiction of the manorial courts. It was a hearing of the King’s Judges who were sent out from London every few years (an average of every seven but often less frequent) to hear civil cases such as trespass, debts and cases against the Crown; and to hear criminal cases of those accused of felonies, that is crimes which held a sentence of imprisonment or death.

The Coroner was a key figure in General Eyre proceedings, presenting the Justices with rolls of inquests into suspicious or unnatural deaths and collating records of the crimes and events taken place between each General Eyre.

The General Eyre was also responsible for overseeing local administration, presentments made by juries and the general behaviour of the community. Failure to comply with the complex and convoluted legal procedures was punished by the levying of large fines both on individuals and entire communities.

The General Eyre were essentially the ‘eyes, ears and enforcers’ of the Crown maintaining law, order and civility across the country.

High Court of Admiralty (1160 to 1875)

Central courts

Being an Island, England has a long history as a seafaring nation, little is it any wonder that piracy was once a significant problem and that disputes arose in the maritime industry.

The High Court of Admiralty was established around 1160 and had both criminal and civil jurisdiction, dealing with criminal matters such as piracy and murder alongside civil matters such as the condemnation and sale of enemy ships (‘prize cases’) including those captured by privateers under Letters of Marque first issued in 1293 and abolished in 1856 (although only usually issued in times of war). 

They also dealt with civil disputes such as collisions between ships and the damage caused including loss and damage to cargo; salvage of ships; seaman’s wages; seizures of ships and cargo by customs officers; and chartering of ships.

From the 17th Century, the criminal jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty, particularly in cases of piracy and murder, was transferred to Admiralty sessions at the Old Bailey and in 1834 to the Central Criminal Court. In addition, in the 17th Century ‘prize cases’ were heard in separate Prize Courts.

Appeals in civil dispute cases (other than ‘prize cases’) from the High Court of Admiralty were heard by the High Court of Delegates between 1535 and 1833. The High Court of Delegates was a court in which appeals were made to the Crown in Chancery where they were heard by Commissioners appointed by letters patent under the Great Seal.

Also established from the 17th Century were Vice-Admiral Courts in nineteen maritime counties around England and in the British Colonies which represented the High Court of Admiralty in those areas and dealt with local admiralty cases. Appeals from these courts were to the High Court of Admiralty.

Court of the King/Queen’s Bench (12th Century to 1875)

Central courts

This along with the Court of Common Pleas was the oldest and highest common law court in England, although it did also deal with criminal matters, dealing with matters which either affected the Crown in person on the King/Queen’s peace. They also supervised the lower courts and had a local jurisdiction in Middlesex. The court was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice.

On the Crown side (criminal law) the court would deal with the most severe crimes such as treason, breaches of the peace, highway robbery, felonies and misgovernment. They would also hear appeal cases; were it was claimed there was an error in a conviction by the lower courts.

On the Plea side (civil law) they would deal again with the more serious cases such as fraud, breach of contract, abuse of power by public officials and writs of habeus corpus (seeking freedom from alleged illegal imprisonment).

Being the highest common law court, there was no means of appeal to the Court’s decision in civil proceedings. Until 1830, the King’s Bench acted as a court of appeal for the Court of Exchequer (see below), Court of Common Pleas, Eyre circuits, Assize courts and local courts.

Its own decisions and records were sent to Parliament to be signed off although from 1585 and the creation of the Court of Exchequer Chamber (see below), King’s Bench decisions could be appealed and following the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Exchequer Chamber in 1830, the King’s Bench ceased to be an appellate court.

Court of Common Pleas (12th Century to 1875)

Central courts

This court developed in the 12th Century from the King’s Council (Curia Regis) evolving from unlimited jurisdiction to a purely common law court. Typical cases concerned land or debt between individuals, cases which did not concern or affect the Crown. It was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas and a varying number of puisne justices (who were usually Barristers).

The Court of Common Pleas was gradually superseded by the King’s Bench and Court of Exchequer (see below) because its methods and procedures were much slower than those of the King’s Bench and Exchequer courts. But it maintained its dominance in the jurisdiction of real property disputes until 1875.

Privy Council (14th Century to 1875)

Central courts

The Privy Council developed from the Curia Regis and was a legislative, judicial and administrative body, essentially an advisory court of the Crown.

It was made up of the Crown’s most important officials including ministers such as the Lord Chancellor and Treasurer, bishops and household officials, conducting most of its business through committees (one of which is now the cabinet) which were concerned with matters of foreign affairs, royal grants of land, pardons and tax.

Judicial matters of public order such as treason, rebellion, heresy and petitions received from individuals and communities to resolve local matters, were in time, referred to the Court of Star Chambers (see below) and Court of Chancery (see below) respectively. In those matters, the Privy Council remained the final court of appeal through its Judicial Committee, the High Court of Delegates.

Appeals were also heard by the Privy Council from the Admiralty Courts (see above), the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Crown colonies, dominions and later Commonwealth Countries.

The Court of Exchequer Chamber (14th Century to 1875)

Central courts

This was essentially an ‘umbrella term’ used by four separate courts which heard appeals from common law courts – the King’s Bench, the Court of Exchequer (see below) and from 1830, the Court of Common Pleas directly.

Appeals were presided over by four judges belonging to the two courts other than the court the matter had originate in. Where the appeal was to determine an important point of law, twelve common law judges may sit, the matter being referred to the original court once with point of law had been determined.

A judgment of the Exchequer Chamber was usually considered the authoritative statement of the law although further appeal to the House of Lords was possible.

Court of Requests (1483 to 1640’s)

This court was essentially the Court of Chancery for the poor man, also known as ‘the poor man’s court’. It was established to enable those whose cases were below the threshold of £10 set by the Court of Chancery.

The types of cases dealt with included land enclosure disputes, rights over common land, customs of the manor disputes, annuities and marriage contracts. Although its jurisdiction was mainly civil law, it could also hear some minor criminal and admiralty cases.

Its procedures where much simpler and quicker than other courts which made it a popular court, particularly with female litigants who may otherwise be discouraged from bringing a case.

Because of its procedures the court soon became unpopular with common law judges who during the late 16th century became angry at the number of cases being brought before the Court of Requests. The 1590’s was perhaps the start of their downfall when the higher courts began overwriting many of the Court of Request decisions and prevented the Court of Requests from imposing prison sentences.

Court of Star Chamber (1485 to 1641)

Central courts

This court was established as a committee of councillors to deal with the judicial function of the Privy Council in matters which required the intervention of the Crown (see above). Their role was two-fold: to administer law directly and to supervise other courts.

From 1485 to 1560 the court dealt with both civil and criminal matters; from 1560 it dealt almost exclusively with criminal matters, such as “allegations of official corruption, abuse of legal procedure, alleged perjury, conspiracy, forgery, fraud, trespass, assault or riot” .Usually, they were cases involving prominent powerful individuals who were perhaps otherwise thought to be immune from criminal proceedings because the lower courts would not have the power to convict them.

In Tudor times (1485 to 1603) it also dealt with public disorder and rioting, perhaps such crimes were associated with acts of recusancy, heresy and even treason in the turbulent years after the dissolution of the monasteries and establishment of the Church of England.

The court was abolished by an Act of the Long Parliament in 1641 perhaps reflecting the fact that the court particularly concerned itself with and imposed unpleasant punishments on those who were thought to oppose the Crown.

Court of Augmentation (1536 to 1554)

This court was a ‘short-lived’ court created by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries to resolve land and property issues raised as a result of the sale of monastic land and to ensure the revenue from such sales was received.

The court had its own chancellor, treasurer, lawyers, receivers and auditors. Their main purpose and the collection of rent. Auditors would appraise monastic property and prepare particulars upon which the Court would then grant a warrant allowing the sale of the property, the Court being responsible for collecting the income from the sale.

Henry VIII established this court rather than having to go through the complex, lengthy procedures of the Court of Exchequer. Following his death in 1547 the court continued until it was abolished by Mary I in 1554 with the Court of Exchequer taking over its duties. This is perhaps not surprising given her attempt to reverse the Reformation.

Court of the Exchequer (16th Century to 1875)

Central courts

The Court of Exchequer was originally established to oversee the collection of taxes but soon developed into an equity law court dealing with any cases where, it was accepted for the purposes of the law, it could be argued that the case affected or may affect the plaintiff’s ability to pay any debts or taxes he may owe to the Crown thus affecting the Crown’s revenue. Until 1649 “litigants had to have some genuine connection with the royal revenue, as officials or tenants of the Crown”.

This logic meant that virtually anyone could bring a claim in the Court of Exchequer and plaintiffs had a choice of bringing their case in either the Court of Chancery or Exchequer.

A plaintiff may choose to start proceedings in the Court of Exchequer instead of Chancery because it was thought the process in the Exchequer was quicker. However due to its popularity, overtime “its advantages disappeared, and the court became over-burdened”. Thus, from 1841 the equity cases were transferred to the Court of Chancery.

This court was presided over by four Barons who decided cases collectively hearing disputes over title of land, tithes, wills, trusts, mortgages, bonds, manorial rights and debts.

Court of Wards and Liveries (16th Century to 1660)

Central courts

This court was another court established by Henry VIII essentially as another ‘easier’ means of revenue than the Court of Exchequer. Created by statutes of 1540 and 1542, its role was to supervise and administer the estates of a minor heir (those under the age of 21 for a boy, 14 for a girl) of a tenant-in-chief following his death (as well as the estates of lunatics. Such minors and lunatics were made ‘wards of court’. The Court was not only responsible for the financial management of the estate and collecting feudal dues, they were also responsible for the care and marriage of young heirs.

The court was abolished in 1660 although feudal tenures had been abolished 15 years earlier, in 1645

Palace Court (1630 to 1849)

The Palace Court was a minor civil law court which sat in Southwark with jurisdiction limited to within 12 miles of the Palace of Westminster, mainly hearing small debt claims with a value of below £5 (raised to £10 by the Frivolous Arrests Act 1725 and to £20 by the Imprisonment for Debt Act 1827), superior courts heard cases above this value. The figure of £5 was raised to £10 by the Frivolous Arrests Act 1725 and to £20 by the Imprisonment for Debt Act 1827. Its lower limit for the value of claims was 40 shillings. This court was abolished in 1849.

The civil court system since 1875 has been much simplified comprising: The High Court of Justice in London with law administered on a local level in County Courts; the Court of Appeal; and the Supreme Court of Judicature.  There are then the appeal courts: The Court of Appeal, the Privy Council (limited jurisdiction) and the UK Supreme Court.

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Researching an ancestor in the Chancery Courts

This blog sets out to demonstrate what resources maybe available and how they may be used to research an ancestor in the Chancery courts.

The National Archive (TNA) collection of Chancery Records are now largely searchable online at their discovery website and provides a good starting point.

A quick of family surnames, Richardson and Huddlestone, on the (TNA) discovery website for chancery proceedings, being common surnames finds around 4,500 and 500 references respectively. Researching my married surname, Pettyfer, finds only 4 references:

  • “Reference:    C 6/548/132
  • Short title: Pettyfer v [unknown]
  • First plaintiff: Richard Pettyfer.
  • Defendants: [unknown].
  • Document type: bill only.
  • Date:   [1649-1714]
  • Reference:      C 8/321/212
  • Short title: Pierce v Cotterell.
  • Plaintiffs: Edward Pierce.
  • Defendants: George Cotterell, Richard Pettyfer and Thomas Goodlucke.
  • Subject: money, Wiltshire.
  • Document type: bill only
  • Date:   1668
  • Reference:      C 2/ChasI/K27/108
  • Short title: Knybbe v Dean of Windsor.
  • Plaintiffs: Henry Knybbe and Emott Pettyfer on behalf of themselves and other copyholders of Manor of Austy, Warwickshire.
  • Defendants: Dean and Canons of His Majestys Chapel of St George in the Castle, Windsor, Berkshire.
  • Document type: rejoinder only
  • Date:   1625-1660
  • Reference:      C 11/1719/9
  • Short title: Cotton v Cotton.
  • Document type: Bill and four answers.
  • Plaintiffs: Robert Cotton, esq of Gidding, Huntingdonshire.
  • Defendants: Jane Cotton, John Cotton and Elizabeth Stewart Cotton, infants (by John Pettyfer, clerk), Charles Jamens senior, Charles Jamens junior, Mary Jamens, Elizabeth Jamens and Robert Jamens, infant (by said Charles Jamens senior), Dame Mary Burdett, Sir Robert Burdett bart, infant (by Robert Holden, esq), Elizabeth Burdett, Jane Burdett, Mary Burdett, Frances Burdett, Ann Burdett and Dorothy Burdett.
  • Date of bill (or first document): 1722”

I also searched the spelling ‘Pettifer’ and found 55 references; the spelling ‘Pettefer’ found 4 references; and the spelling ‘Pettifor’ found 5 references. These of course should also be checked to see if they are in fact ancestors. These are all cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ is named as a party to the proceedings.

The online searches at TNA can only be by names of Plaintiffs and Defendants. They do not include cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ was a Deponent in a case or made an Affidavit. If it is known that an ancestor was a Deponent or made an Affidavit in a case any record of the deposition/Affidavit would need to be searched on the TNA website by the case name/parties using indexes IND 1/16759 and IND 1/9115 to IND 1/9121 for town depositions, IND 1/14545-14567 for Affidavits covering the period 1611-1800 and IND 1/14575 -14684 for Affidavits covering the period 1801-1875. Country Depositions can only be searched by surname of the parties there is no index.

Further, the references found all concern pleadings: the first two cases appear to have Bills of Complaint only; the second is a Rejoinder; and the third is a Bill of Complaint and four answers. It may be that the cases did not progress further and therefore no other records exist; or it may be that other records have either not been missed from the online listing; or appear under different names if the parties changed perhaps because a party died, married or due to some legal necessity. Cases could be protracted and continue for many years.

Whilst the TNA online index does not appear to limit its searches to first plaintiff and defendant (from my searches above) it may not always correctly identify cases involving a particular surname (most likely due to mis-spelling, simply missing a party from the list etc). Further the descriptions on the online catalogue are not always accurate or full so through viewing the actual records more about the case may in fact be discovered without resorting to further indexes. For example, if a case did not proceed further there may be a record to that effect on the documents; or there may in fact be more documents in the ‘bundle’ of pleadings than is stated in the description.

It is therefore always worth searching the records found in an online search and the physical indexes and calendars at TNA.

A good starting point to search for other records where the date (range) of a case is known is the indexes to the Masters’ Reports (C38) found in IND 1. For example, the second case listed above is dated 1668, I would therefore start a search in IND 1/1937, the index covering that year’s Master’s Reports for Plaintiffs with surnames beginning K – R (the plaintiff in that case being Edward Pierce) and then search the indexes for a period of at least five years.

If records exist, the relevant bundles can be found by searching the indexes for the Masters’ Documents and Master’s exhibits (C117 – C126 (covering period 17th Century to 19th Century) and C103 – C114 (covering period 1234 to 1860)) again in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period. These records are particularly useful from the 18th Century onwards.

However, a case may not have been referred to a Master if no factual evidence was required. In such cases, or if nothing is found in the Masters’ Reports, the Decree and Order books may be the next stage. These are found in C33 (1544 to 1875) and are indexed in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period, and in calendars on the open shelves at TNA. Taking the same example of the 1668 case, the appropriate index to begin with would be IND 1 1613 which covers book B (surnames beginning L – Z) for 1668 and then search indexes for at least the next 5 consecutive years.

Final decrees could be Enrolled. Enrolled Decrees covering the period 1534 to 1903 can be found in C 78 and C 79. The Anglo-American Legal Tradition website can be searched for online versions covering the whole of the series. For those enrolled during the reigns of Henry VIII to George III the index IND 1/16960A & B can be searched.

There may also be records of appeals against enrolled decrees and those records are now held at the Parliamentary Archives as such appeals were made to the House of Lords but can be search on the TNA discovery website.

Decrees which were not enrolled were also often appealed. These appeals went back to the Lord Chancellor and would be found amongst Ordinary and Appeal Petitions in C 36 (covering the period 1774-1875) which can be searched in the indexes 1/15029-15047 or for period 1876-1925 in IND 1/15048-15282.

For later cases, those between 1842-1880, the best finding aid to begin with may be the Cause books which consolidate “references to decrees, orders, reports and certificates made during the course of a case, together with the names of all the parties to it and their solicitors and the dates of all their appearances”. They are found in series C 32 and are indexed for the period 1860 to 1880 in IND 1/16727-16747.

I have considered above depositions available to search by index at TNA and noted that there is no index to country depositions at TNA although an online search of the case name may find such records. A better finding aid is Bernau’s Index and if no records for an ancestor can be found at TNA online, then this may be the better starting place as they may not have brought or defended a case but may have been a witness.

Bernau’s index can be found on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists (SOG) and at LDS Family History Centres. This is a card index of proceedings and depositions (although many cards refer to ‘correspondence’) in the Courts of Chancery and Exchequer includes about 4.5 million individuals and is particularly useful for Chancery Proceedings between 1714 and 1758 found in TNA series C 11 as the index for this period names every litigant. Bernau’s notebooks for this period, in 426 volumes, also include parties and summaries of the disputes.

The Index is also particularly useful for finding country deponents, listing all county depositions from 1558 to 1649 (TNA Series C 21) and town depositions up to 1800 (TNA series C 24).

The index cards provide a bundle and suit number and the reference should be noted in full as they do not represent modern references at TNA and “you will otherwise be lacking vital clues when it comes to translating the obsolete references given into the modern National Archives references”. To translate the references, Sharp’s How to use the Bernau Index should be consulted. Because the index provides a bundle number, which usually refers to a box of depositions from many different suits, the suit number is provided by Bernau’s index to be able to find a specific deposition within the box, although the names of the parties to the proceedinsgs are not provided.

Another drawback to using Bernau’s Index is that it can be difficult to read and there can be variations in spelling of the same surname. There is also a lack of additional information to be able to distinguish between individuals with common surnames without recourse to the original documents. They are however indexed in alphabetical order by surname and then first name.

The SOG also holds the Great Card Index on microfilm, which is another card index of several million names containing various miscellaneous information, including amongst others, references to Chancery proceedings. If visiting the SOG to search Bernau’s index it may be worth searching the Great Card Index too.

Where a case involves an inheritance dispute, Coldham’s Index is a good finding aid to search first. Otherwise known as the Inheritance Disputes Index, it is available to search online at Find My Past and can be searched by name (including variants), year, county and country. The index (a transcript of the original) provides: the names of the testator, the plaintiff and the defendant; the year of case, place and TNA reference covering the period 1543 to 1714.

The index includes over 26,000 cases concerning wills, bequests, grants of administration, descent of property, identity claims and other testamentary disputes tried in the Chancery Court, with cases typically involving several members of the same family.

A search of this index for the name Pettyfer, including variations, finds one result under the variant surname Pettifor. No first name is given but the other information provided is:

  • “Year  1661
  • Place   St. Martin Le Grand, London
  • Testator first name(s) William
  • Testator last name      Samuell
  • Plaintiff last name      Pettifor
  • Defendant last name   Samuell
  • Case details    Pettifor v. Samuell 1661
  • County            London
  • Country           England
  • National Archives reference   C10/487/193”

It would seem likely that the Defendant is the widow, son or daughter of the deceased. This case is amongst the five listed in my search on TNA discovery website in the name ‘Pettifor’. The entry on the TNA website provides further information as to the parties:

  • “Reference      C 10/487/193
  • Description:  
  • Short title: Pettifor v Samuell.
  • Plaintiffs: Elizabeth Pettifor and Jane Pettifor.
  • Defendants: Anne Samuell, widow.
  • Subject: personal estate of William Samuell, St Martin Le Grand, London.
  • Document type: bill only.
  • SFP
  • Date:   1661”

So, it would appear that there are in fact two plaintiffs and that all the parties are female; the defendant being the widow of the deceased and executor of his estate. Other finding aids at TNA should be searched for further records in the case (as discussed above).

Other finding aids include several volumes published by the List and Index Society and available to purchase from their website[11], including:

  • Samples of Chancery Pleadings and Suits: 1627, 1685, 1735 and 178
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, 31 Eliz I, 1588-9 (C 66/1332-46)   
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/86-130)  
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/46-85)
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 30 Eliz I, 1587-1588      
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 2 (with index to grantees)                              
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 1         
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 27 Eliz I, 1584-1585, (C 66/1254-70), with index to grantees, 23-27 Eliz. I          
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 20-23 Jas I           
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 18-19 Jas I

There are other volumes which are currently out of print.

Whilst the British Record Society website details several Chancery Proceedings index publications, when the items are opened on the website, they all state “This publication is no longer available”. They are publications generally from the 19th and early 20th Century and are available online on websites such as Internet Archive.

If it is known a case was begun in the years 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 it would be worth searching Horwitz and Moreton’s Samples of Chancery pleadings and suits, 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 which provides, as the title suggests, an index to a sample of about 1000 cases from the four specified years.

Other finding aids online include Ancestry’s “British Chancery Records, 1386-1558” set which they describe as “an index to the Chancery Court proceedings, which consist of bills of complaint, answers, replications, and rejoinders, from 1386-1558”. This index provides the names of more than 286,500 individuals involved in the Chancery Court proceedings between 1386 and 1558, providing references to the location of their name in the original records, found at TNA in series C 1.

A search in these records produces interesting results for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ and variants, such as:

  • Christopher Petyfrer
  • Place:  Hertford, Hereford
  • Date:   1544-1547
  • Volume:          9
  • Page:               96
  • Bundle:           1150

There were 112 records indexed largely from the 15th and 16th centuries of which in fact only 17 were variants of ‘Pettyfer’ the rest were variants of ‘Bedford’. The surname variants included Petyfrer, Petefer, Petifer, Petyfere, Peytefere, Pitfforde, Pyttford, Pedeford, Paytefere, Pytford. This is a useful tool in finding surname variants to search in other finding aids.

These can be searched online at the TNA discovery website.

The Ancestry website also holds three further searchable indexes to chancery proceedings:

  • A calendar of chancery proceedings: bills and answers filed in the reign of King Charles the First (976 records)          
  • Abstracts of inquisitiones post mortem relating to the city of London, returned into the Court of Chancery (897 records)
  • Index of chancery proceedings (Reynardson’s division) preserved in the Public Record Office: 1649-1714 (523 records)

There were no results from these sets of records when searching for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ or variants.

As is demonstrated above, finding ancestors in Chancery proceedings may not be an easy task, however where records are found, they can be very rewarding for the family historian providing many genealogical details as well as social, financial and historical context to an ancestor’s life.

Chancery Courts are of course, not the only equity court records available. I will provide an overview of the other central law courts in which you may find records of your ancestors which may be found at the TNA in my next blog.

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Where there’s property, there’s a dispute!

Lincolns Inn and the Court of Chancery

One of the most under used resources for family history research are the records of the Chancery and other Equity Courts held at the National Archives (TNA). Why? Because they are often thought to be complex, legalese, difficult to read, large often very large rolls or boxes of documents, and dirty! But they can be full of family, property and local information which may not be found anywhere else or may only otherwise be found by searching numerous other records.

So why use them? Firstly, they are in ENGLISH even before 1733. Yes, there may be palaeography challenges reading the old handwriting but as with any old records, names and places can often be spotted quite easily. Whilst there is legalese in the records, the records are usually of a set format and once that format is known and understood they make for easier reading.

They are also some of the earliest records available and are particularly useful before the inception of parish registers, dating from the 14th Century to 1875.

What are the Equity Courts?

Equity courts developed in the medieval period when the existing common law and civil courts which followed strict procedures and rules of evidence were slow and cumbersome.  Tenants and poorer people were often reluctant to bring claims against their more superior land holders and Lords of the Manors. Seeking better access to justice people started to petition the King directly, which he passed to the Lord Chancellor to deal with.

Equity is about fairness and what is just in all the circumstances, looking morally at what was right and wrong and taking personal responsibility. The court of equity could order an individual to do what they were obliged to do by conscience, such as perform a contract, restore property or even refrain from doing something. Failure to comply meant facing committal for contempt of court. They were able to impose injunctions and not just monetary compensation.

The Courts of Equity could hear cases where much of the paperwork had been lost or was unavailable to the plaintiff, where lowly tenants could challenge the great landowning families, where the dispute did not fit any of the set processes laid down in the common law.

There were several courts of equity:

  • Court of Chancery
  • Court of the Star Chamber
  • Court of Requests
  • Court of the Exchequer
  • Palatinate of Durham
  • Palatinate of Chester
  • Palatinate of Lancaster
  • Duchy of Lancaster

There were two courts of common law:

  • The King’s Bench
  • The Court of Common Pleas
Court of Chancery

What type of cases were heard in the equity courts?

There were four main categories of case:

  • The case did not come under the jurisdiction of common law
  • The case could be heard under common law but it was felt that no remedy could be obtained
  • The common law was being used oppressively or fraudulently
  • Cases brought on the grounds of forgery or duress

Expanding on these, the type of cases that did not come under the jurisdiction of common law included:

  • largely family disputes!
  • The case concerned a trust or a mortgage
  • Cases where discovery was required. Discovery is used in the sense of ‘uncovering’ or revealing information. This might be in the form of supplying a copy of grant of land, or accounts, or copy of a will
  • An injunction could be sought by the plaintiff to prevent the defendant from carrying out an action such as cutting down valuable trees on a property which the plaintiff believed should be his
  • The plaintiff was not in possession of the relevant documents to establish his title to lands or property
  • If a creditor died before a debt was repaid, the executors of the deceased creditor could not be sued under common law, but the plaintiff could bring a case against the creditor in the Chancery Court
  • An agreement had been made verbally with no supporting documents
  • Plaintiff might be too poor to afford common law courts
  • Plaintiff might be a weak person compared with the defendant, such as a case where a tenant was bringing a case against a mighty landlord
  • Plaintiff feared local corruption or a prejudiced jury
  • Plaintiff was afraid of being harmed by the defendant
  • Plaintiff could not recover money which the defendant had improperly deprived him of under the common law
  • Where the plaintiff was owed money by the defendant, but the defendant might have obtained a release or receipt from the plaintiff by fraud

The Chancery court generally did not deal with dispute involving less than £10 or where a common law remedy was available.

The type of people involved in Chancery cases.

The questions to ask is, would or did they make a Will? Would they have been entitled to an inheritance under a Will? If yes, they are the sort of person you might find in a Chancery case:

  • Landowners
  • Yeoman farmers
  • Merchants
  • Skilled craftsmen
  • Servants
  • Manorial tenants
  • Women
  • Children

You may also find others who caught up in proceedings as witnesses. Women feature quite frequently in Chancery proceedings such as: 

  • A widow claiming her rightful income from a marriage settlement, particularly if the children who inherited the land were from her husband’s earlier wife.
  • A claim brought against a widow who took possession of all her husband’s property on his death, during the minority of her children, and then refused to release it to the eldest son (or other child(ren)) when he/they reached the age of 21.

Others may be associated with the dispute but not part of it:

  • Close relations bringing cases on behalf of children.
  • Agricultural labourers and husbandmen can be referred to as tenants of small pieces of land.
  • Servants are often chosen as deponents with their evidence providing information as to how long they had been in the plaintiff/defendant’s service.

What are legal and Chancery Records?

Chancery records

The records are known as the pleadings and include:

Bill of Complaint

The process starts with the plaintiff bringing a Bill of Complaint. Although a lawyer wrote this, it often contained the actual words of the plaintiff and so brings this person to life for us.

The name of the Chancellor can be an important clue as to the date of the bill as this is not always given. The lawyer’s name would usually be written in the top corner of the bill. The bill contains the plaintiffs name, quality or occupation, place of abode, the nature and circumstances of the complaint (repetitious and full of legal jargon) and finally, a citation of the names of those complained against.


Chancery records

In response the defendants then produced their Answers. Again, a lawyer wrote these, but often contained the actual words of the defendant. They give the defendants name and although not required to state their residence, this often becomes clear for those living outside of London by means of a subscribed certificate stating where the answer was sworn.

The Bills and Answers are usually sewn together although have now become separated. They are large and can be fairly repetitive and full of legalese requiring much concentration to understand them, but the information provided makes it worthwhile.

Many cases do not progress beyond this stage, indeed many do not get beyond the initial Bill of Complaint which would often act to frighten the defendant into acquiescing. It should also be borne in mind that the dispute could settled out of court, in which case no further records will be found after this point.

Some cases however do continue.


Occasionally these would be followed by a Replication where the plaintiff reiterates his case, adding some new information in response to the defendant’s answer. The defendant then had the opportunity to reply to this in a Rejoinder.

The above Chancery Pleadings can be found at TNA in series C 1 – 16 which are searchable at the TNA’s discovery website


The next stage was for both the plaintiff and the defendant to draw up a written list of questions, or Interrogatories, for their chosen witnesses to respond to. Each witness would answer only those questions that were relevant to them, such as ‘were you present when the document you are being shown was written and were you a witness’ or ‘have you always paid rent to the lord of the manor’ for the piece of land in question.

These can be found in series C 25 at the TNA.


Witnesses (deponents) gave evidence before the commencement of a trial to bolster the allegations of the plaintiff or support the defence of the defendant. Along with the pleadings, they are the most useful and accessible Chancery records for the genealogist. They can provide information about the case not included in the pleadings and contain useful biographical information such as a deponent’s name, age, residence, occupation, how long they had lived in the area, who they worked for etc. The first question was usually how long they had known the plaintiff/defendant. Some of the answers would invite a yes/no response or “I don’t know” so in order to interpret the depositions correctly, the interrogatories need to be read.

The witnesses were interviewed near their home, usually in an inn, and the answers to their questions were written down by the clerk as Depositions. They are arranged by Country depositions (taken outside London) and Town depositions (taken in London).

They can be found at TNA in series C 21 – 22 (E134) for Country depositions searchable by the parties names and C 24 (E133) for town depositions searchable online. There is also a register of Affidavits in C 41.

Depositions can also be searched in Bernau’s Index available at SOG (see further below).


Documents could then be submitted to the court as Evidence to help the case of either the plaintiff or the defendant, such as a will or a marriage settlement.

Masters Papers

Master of the High Court of Chancery;

The Master (the senior lawyer hearing the case) might then summarise the case in a Master’s Report which would be submitted to the judge to help him make the correct judgement and can be found at TNA in series C 38 and 39 covering the period 1544 to 1892.

Masters’ Documents contain the affidavits, examinations of witnesses, estate accounts, wills, birth, marriage and death certificates, abstracts from parish registers, summaries of deeds of title, notices of auction, draft Masters’ Reports and written objections by parties. Few cover dates much earlier than the 18th century but from then onwards, they seem to have been regularly preserved. They can be found at TNA in series C117 to C126 covering the 17th to 19th centuries.

Masters’ Documents contain the affidavits, examinations of witnesses, estate accounts, wills, birth, marriage and death certificates, abstracts from parish registers, summaries of deeds of title, notices of auction, draft Masters’ Reports and written objections by parties. Few cover dates much earlier than the 18th century but from then onwards, they seem to have been regularly preserved. They can be found at TNA in series C117 to C126 covering the 17th to 19th centuries.

The collection of private papers that were supposed to be claimed by the parties at the end of a suit form the Masters’ Exhibits. Though they were mainly documents, they were sometimes objects produced by the Master to supplement or verify other evidence. They could include account books, rent rolls, estate deeds, indentures, diaries, personal and business correspondence, bonds, newspaper cuttings, prayer books and bibles, often of an earlier date than the actual suit. These can be found at TNA in series C103 – C114 covering the period 1234 to 1860.

Masters’ Accounts concern the estates administered by the Masters during the often lengthy course of suits whilst the ownership was in dispute in Chancery. Estates would also be in Chancery care if the owner was a ward of court with the administration remitted to trustees who were supposed to provide annual accounts to the Master. The Masters would then report to the court on these matters, with pertinent documents, such as a will or title deeds, attached. These can be found at TNA in series C 101 covering the period 1750 -1850.


During the case the judge might issue Orders or Decrees. These might be to command the defendant to submit his answer, or they might be to admit a new plaintiff or defendant to the case, or they might be to give the final judgement. Sadly, from our point of view, the final judgements are quite rare.

Decrees and orders prior to 1733 may be in Latin. If the case did not proceed after the bills and answers had been filed, no orders will be found.

They are usually found in large volumes and calendars would need to be consulted to help locate the correct records. Many entries are purely administrative however some can provide a summary of the case, with details of other orders, petitions, affidavits and masters’ reports.

They can be found at TNA in series C 33 from 1544 to 1875 along with Decree Rolls in C 78 and 79.

Other finding aids

Bernau’s Index

The Bernau Index is a card index naming over four million parties and witnesses who appeared in Chancery and other courts, although it covers only a minority of Chancery cases. It can be difficult to read and there can be variations in spelling of the same surname. The lack of additional information makes it difficult to distinguish between individuals with common surnames without recourse to the original documents. They are however indexed in alphabetical order by surname and then first name.

It can be consulted at the Society of Genealogists (SOG) and LDS Family History Centres on microfilm. How to use the Bernau Index by H. Sharpe (SOG, 1996) is an essential guide to using this aid and articles in Family Tree Magazine are also helpful for this purpose.

Coldham’s Index

Where a case involves an inheritance dispute, Coldham’s Index is a good finding aid to search first. Otherwise known as the Inheritance Disputes Index, it is available to search online at Find My Past  and can be searched by name (including variants), year, county and country. The index (a transcript of the original) provides: the names of the testator, the plaintiff and the defendant; the year of case, place and TNA reference covering the period 1543 to 1714.

The index includes over 26,000 cases concerning wills, bequests, grants of administration, descent of property, identity claims and other testamentary disputes tried in the Chancery Court, with cases typically involving several members of the same family. This is based on the pleadings found in series C 6, 7, 8, and 10

Local record repositories

Very occasionally Chancery records have survived in local record repositories as part of a private family archive. If you cannot easily get to London to look at the main collection, it is always worth looking locally. The means of getting at these will depend on the quality of the local catalogue.

Chancery court records are one of my favourite resources for researching family and house history, particularly prior to the 19th century. They are not the easiest records to manage due to their size but can be well worth it. One tip, they are also very dirty so wear dark clothes when examining them!

Below are the details of a set of proceedings, amongt several, I recently examined for a client research project, which illustrates the family relationships which can be uncovered from these records.

C 8/143/2 Atfield v Atfield (James Atfield, Robert Atfield, George Rempant, Rice Justice, John Roake and Richard Roake (infants) are all co-defendants) (Pleadings) (1659)

These records comprise of five documents (all about A2 in size) all of which have damaged and have much missing text. It appears to be a complaint brought by Elizabeth Atfield through her guardians (she being under the age of twenty one years, against John Roake, Richard Roake the younger and Ryce Justice, in respect of property in Bagshot.

First document

This document, which is undated, concerns is an appointment of guardians for John Roake and Richard Roake who were also both infants, being under the age of twenty years and thus unable to answer the complaint themselves. Five people are named John Kensington, John Wise the elder, John Wise the younger, Edward Willis and Anthony Thomas who are given the authority to appoint a guardian for them as they see fit and such guardian is given authority to answer on behalf of John and Richard Roake and to examine Elizabeth Atfield, through her guardians.

Second document

This is dated 12 June 1659 and appears to be the Bill of Complaint brought by Elizabeth Atfield through her guardian, however a combination of the damage to the document and the handwriting make it difficult to determine its specific contents.

Third document

This document being dated (missing day) April 1660 is the answer of Rice Justice and provides some background into the Atfield family, confirm that John Atfield was the great grandfather of Elizabeth Atfield and a younger John Atfield was her grandfather who conveyed to Rice Justice a messuage, tenement, barns, garden and outhouses in which Rice Justice was living. Unfortunately, the date of the conveyance is missing from the damaged section of the document.

Fourth document

This document, dated 2nd May 1660, is the “several answers of Henry Edwards” did not know of any deeds or settlement between John Atfield (Snr), John Martin and Edward Rempant that John Atfield (Snr) did leave premises to his son John Atfield (Jnr) who occupied the premises without any interruption. It appears there were marriage settlement made by John Atfield (Snr) and Henry Edwards on the marriage of John Atfield (Snr’s) daughter, but not having the money to pay he sell to Henry Edwards and his wife Lydia, a messuage in Bagshott, Surrey which was occupied by John Kensington and a piece of parcel of land called Jackmans Meade and land in the Common Field called Hull Fields in Windlesham, subject to payment of £215 by James Atfield, upon payment of which the said properties would be transferred to James Atfield.

He did not know of any other deeds or conveyances that John Atfield (Snr) had made to John Roake, Richard Roake and Rice Justice but does know that James Atfield did enter the premises in question following his grandfather’s death and still remained there at the time of the answer being made.

Fifth document

This answer dated 20th April 1660, is the “several answers of Richard Roake the younger and John Roake infants” by their father Richard Roake, in which it is confirmed that Richard Roake the younger and John Roake were the grandchildren of John Atfield (Jnr) and great grandchildren of John Atfield (Snr). John Atfield, the grandfather, who held the premises detailed in the Bill of Complaint, did on a date in 1655, convey property in Bagshott, Windlesham and Wellingcroft (leased to Humphrey Street) to himself for his life (subject to the lease to Humphrey Street) and then to Richard Roake the younger. Further he settled and conveyed a property called Quart Pott by deed also dated in the year 1655 to John Roake (whilst this part of the answer is missing, it is assumed this is the meaning given it says “not settled on the other Defendant Richard Roake). They have no knowledge of any other conveyances, deeds, settlements etc which John Atfield made.

My next blog will demonstrate the resources available and how they may be used to research an ancestor in the Chancery Courts.

Chancery Courts are of course, not the only equity court records available. I will provide an overview of the other central law courts in which you may find records of your ancestors which may be found at the TNA in my next but one blog.

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How can title deeds help my family history research?

What are title deeds?

This might seem like a simple question with a simple answer – a legal document that is signed and delivered, most commonly transferring the ownership of freehold property or legal right which have been in use for centuries although before the Statute of Frauds Act 1677 written documents or deeds were not necessary to transfer land.

Before the 14th century deeds may exist which simply record the ‘ceremony’ of the transfer of land. The ‘ceremony’ known as ‘Feoffment with livery [delivery] of seizin [possession]” was all that was necessary and entailed the feoffer (vendor) and feoffee (purchaser) attending the land with witnesses and the feoffer gave the feoffee a handful of earth from the land (or a blade of grass, twig, oral declaration) to symbolise the transfer of the property. Because this was a public act everyone knew who now owned the property.

Other ‘deeds or legal documents concerning the transfer of property in existence before 1677,

include Final Concords (or Fines), Common Recoveries, Quitclaims,  Leases and even marriage settlements.

However much or little they tell us about the actual buildings, deeds are prime sources for the history of owners and occupiers. The occupation or status of each party is usually given and family relationships are frequently set out in some detail. Since property was often inherited rather than purchased, other records such as wills that were not proved were often bundled together with the deeds.

Descriptions of buildings on deeds are rarely precise although descriptions of land in the same deeds can be more specific, down to giving the names of individual fields, which may sometimes be identified on maps and thus assist in locating the house.

The most common title deeds, usually found in local archives, are discussed further below. This is however not an exhaustive list and other forms of title deeds may be found.

Final Concords of Fines

Dating from the 12th century to 1833 when they were abolished by the Fines and Recoveries Act, a Final Concord involved a fictitious common law dispute being brought by the purchaser against the vendor with the parties entering into an agreement which settled the action by way of a final concord (agreement), the court giving permission for the property to pass to the purchaser. They were used for conveying both freehold and copyhold land.

Final Concords in the Feet of Fines enrolled with the Court of Common Pleas, Court of King’s Bench and the roving General Eyre and Assize courts are held at TNA.


Surrey History Centre Ref: G165/277/4/1&2 dated June 1739/40

Quitclaims were used both to help to secure transactions and on their own to convey land. They enabled the purchaser to ensure no other person who may have a potential interest in the property, such as relatives, beneficiary, creditors etc of the vendor, would be able to overturn the transfer by requesting they sign a quitclaim waiving all their potential rights and agreeing not to bring any legal action.

They can be found between the 12th and 19th centuries, sometimes being referred to as ‘Releases’, or ‘Releases of claims’ from the seventeenth century .

Quitclaims were often used to transfer of intangible property, such as payment of legacies or annuities. When the legacy or annuity (or similar) was paid, a quitclaim would be signed by the recipient relinquishing any  rights to the land from which the money was raised.

Common Recoveries

Common Recoveries date from the 15th century until their abolition under the Fines and Recoveries Act  1833. A Common Recovery was simpler than that a Final Concord, in that the purchaser simply brought proceedings claiming the property from the vendor which the vendor did not defend although would appoint a ‘vouchee’ to confirm the vendors title to the property. The ‘vouchee’ would leave the court and not return leaving the court to grant the property to the ‘purchaser’ in default.

Common Recoveries recorded in Plea Rolls and Recovery Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas are held at TNA.

Bargain and Sale

These developed after the Statute of Uses 1535/6 and meant that the property had been bargained and sold from one person to another. The purchaser paid the vendor a sum that corresponded with the value of the land and was considered the legal owner. Technically, it transferred the use without seisin (possession) taking place but to all intents and purposes, it was a sale of the property and the deed recorded the agreement. This was typically used in families who wanted to provide for the next generation.

Technically this required no legal document until the Statute of Enrolments was passed in 1535/6 requiring such transfers to be made by deed which had to be enrolled within 6 months at the courts of Westminster (Close Rolls held at TNA) or with the Clerk of the Peace (found at local record offices). A separate deed of feoffment was also often prepared in lieu of livery of seisin to confirm the same, as the courts judged the ‘bargain and sale’ deed did not enfeoff the land.

Usually, the deed recorded the parties’ names, the date, the price paid and details of the property.

Bargain and sale
Surrey History Centre Ref: Ref: 212/114/1 Date: 1/8/1601

Lease and Release

Lease and Releases can be found from the 16th century to the 19th century, gradually replacing ‘bargain and sale’. The wording of a Lease and Release is similar to and can be confused with a Bargain and Sale, however, if the term is limited to 6 months or 1 year, and the consideration is of 5 shillings with a rent of one peppercorn per year, then it is most likely the ‘lease’ part of a Lease and Release.

The Lease and Release were two separate but linked documents. The ‘vendor’ would lease the property to the ‘purchaser’ usually for a period of one year for a nominal rent and the following day the ‘vendor’, would release his right to have the property returned to him at the end of the lease in return for the ‘purchaser’ making a payment to the property value.

Because the ‘purchaser’ was already in possession all that was required was the transfer of the incorporeal hereditaments which only required a deed for their transfer, such a deed did not require enrolment.

This method became the most popular method of conveying land and ‘A Statute for rendering a Release as effectual for the conveyance of a freehold estate as a Lease and Release’ was passed on 18th May 1841 no longer requiring the lease part provided the transfer was stated to be made in pursuance of the Act.

Trusts and Settlements

From the 17th Century the practice of Settlements developed in the Court of Chancery. The Settlement was (and remains) a deed by which the owner (settlor) set outs how the property is to pass down through future generations. Such settlements would usually operate behind a trust, with the settlor being one of the trustees (there would usually be at least two trustees), although a trust was not necessary until the Settled Land Act 1925. The effect was that a beneficiary had no right to sell the property or leave by Will.

The Settled Land Acts 1882 to 1890 changed this allowing a tenant for life the power to sell the fee simple interest in the land attaching the interests of the beneficiaries to the proceeds of sale instead.

The most common type of settlement was the marriage settlement. These were usually “strict settlements” whereby strict terms of how the property was to be owned and who could inherit were set out. In terms of a marriage settlement the terms were usually for the lives of the husband and wife (tenants for life) and then to their children and the property could not be sold without the consent of the various heirs and trustees. Marriage settlements usually have the wording “…in consideration of the marriage agreed upon by Gods permission and shortly intended to be had and solemnised between…” or may be post marriage.

These can be used for both freehold and copyhold property.

Marriage settlement
Surrey History Centre Ref: G96/10/9 dated 15th December 1746

Whilst these are usually found in local archives, amongst family papers, they may also be found amongst Chancery records (which protects rights of beneficiaries) at The National Archives.


Other documents relating to the title of property which may be found in local archives include Mortgages; Bonds; Letters patent which granted land directly to an individual directly from the Crown; Grants or Conveyances (1845-1925); Leases; Abstracts of Title.

Abstracts of Title are particularly useful for tracing house history and the inheritance of property through a family. An Abstract of Title is a chronological account of transfers, mortgages, settlements, wills, and other transactions relating to the property over a period of time, usually prepared by solicitors when the property was being sold as proof of the sellers’ title to the property.

They include the main information provided by each deed and can be exceptionally long documents which are most likely to be found from the start of the 18th century. Where found can avoid the need to trawl through bundles/boxes of deeds.

Transcript of Abstract of title

A vast number of Titles deeds survive and are often amongst the oldest records to survive, in their various guises, can provide several generations of a family and document how families were connected as well as providing a history of the property itself. Land registration did not begin until 1862 when a voluntary system was introduced and it was not until 1899 when compulsory registration began for certain types of land when it changed hands with an increasing number of property transactions gradually being made compulsory over the next 90 years until compulsory registration for all land transactions was introduced in 1990.

Being amongst the oldest surviving records, title deeds can be particularly useful before the start of parish registers (or where early registers have not survived) because not only were landowners named but trustees, tenants, occupiers, mortgagees and owners of adjoining land (when describing its location). For later years, when used alongside other contemporary records, such as manorial records, parish records, wills and probate records, court records, and the vast array of other records available they can provide a good insight into lives of our ancestors.

Ne usefuel resource for find out more about title deeds is the University of Nottingham’s Manuscript and Special Collections research guide:

where you can also find a useful glossary, document identification flowchart, table explaining the different deeds and documents

My next blog will look at how deeds can turn into disputes which dealt with in the Chancery Courts, another rich source of information for tracing both family and house history.

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Where there’s a Will…..

Wills and Administration records can be another great source of information for family historians. A Will, will often name family members and their relationships along with property both real and personal. Such records can be used for research from today in the 21st century and can survive back many centuries.

Where to find Wills and Administration records and what you will find depends on the period in which you are researching, in particular whether before or after 1858 when the jurisdiction for the probate changed from Ecclesiastical jurisdiction to the civil jurisdiction of the newly created Court of Probate, the Principal Probate Registry.

National Probate Calendar

Basic details of Wills and Administrations since 12th January 1858 can be found in the National Probate Calendar (NPC). This is a central calendar (or index) compiled annually of all Wills and Letters of Administrations since 1858 when the Principal Probate Registry (PPR) was introduced, the PPR holds the national annual Calendar indexes from Probate Registries in England and Wales. It is therefore a central record and it is no longer necessary to search individual probate courts. 

Page and Extract from the NPC for my maternal Great Grandfather

The NPC can be searched online at and can also be found at commercial websites such as and

The calendar will provide the name of the deceased, occupation, date of death, place of death, date of probate, the registry in which the probate was granted, the value of their estate and who probate was granted to.

They can be searched where a death record cannot be found, although of course not everyone made a will and a grant of administration may not have been required in all cases (such where the estate was limited to jointly owned property or only had no real property). 

Copies of Wills or Administrations can be obtained from the probate service website “Find a Will” for a small fee of £1.50.

Before the National Probate Calendar

As stated above, before 1858, Wills and Administrations were the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts, most commonly either the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York; the Bishop’s Consistory/Commissary Court; or the Archdeacon’s Archdeaconry Court. But they could also be proved in Deaneries presided over by the Rural Dean or in Peculiars (a parish or groups of parishes which were outside the usual ecclesiastical jurisdiction such as a Lord of the Manor, Abbeys and Monasteries and anyone who had acquired ecclesiastical jurisdiction when they purchased land from the Abbeys and Monasteries following their dissolution.

The court in which Wills were proved depended on the value and location of land held by the deceased.

In theory a will should have been proven in the lowest court however, over time, as the value of property increased[i] and the bona notabilia £5 rule (which was set in 1604) remained the same, it became increasingly common for wills to be proven in the PCC or PCY. It was also the case that the PCC and PCY were often more efficient, discreet and looked after their records with more care.  Probate therefore may not have been granted in the expected lower court! Searching for an ancestor’s will may not therefore be straight forward!

During the civil war and interregnum between 1650 and 1660 the lower ecclesiastical courts ceased to operate. The PCC was replaced in 1653 by the “Court for the Probate of Wills and the Granting of Administrations” (CPWGA). This court ceased in 1659 and in 1660 the PCC and ecclesiastical court system were restored. The records of the CPWGA were then merged with the PCC records

Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held at the National Archives (TNA) and can be found online at, and other commercial websites. Wills provide in the Bishops or Archdeaconry courts are usually held in local archives, many of which may be available online at sites such as and

Who could make a Will?

Before 1882 only males, spinsters and widows over the age of 21 years could make a will, married women could only make a will with the consent of her husband. Wills can provide family relationships often naming wives, children, siblings, aunts, uncles amongst other relations. They also provide an insight into the wealth of the family and location of a property they held.

Will and Testament

Today we use the term Last Will and Testament referring to one document which more commonly is simply referred to as a Will in which an individual can leave both real and personal property on their death. However, originally these were two separate documents dealing with different types of property. A Will dealt with real property (realty) such as houses (tenements and hereditaments) and any land or buildings etc was associated with it. It also included rivers, hedges and woodland. A Testament dealt with personal property (personalty), often referred to as “goods and chattels”, which could include personal goods, clothing, bedding, furniture, crockery, plate, jewellery, livestock, grain, tools etc.

Before the Statute of Uses of 1535, only land which had been “purchased” could be left be Will, land which had been inherited could not, inherited land had to pass under the laws of inheritance. Purchased land would also pass under the laws of inheritance if no Will had been made, i.e., the owner had died intestate. If there was no heir, the land would revert to the Lord of the Manor. It must however be remembered that at this time all land was owned by the Crown and those who “purchased” property held the freehold tenure to the property that is that they held it free from any services to the Lord of the Manor or Crown, other than an annual rent.

The Statute of Uses stopped the practice whereby one person could own the property but another had the right to use it, meaning that anyone who had the right to use property also had the right to hold the freehold tenure and had a right of possession. The Statute paved the way for the development of Trusts.

The Statute of Wills 1540 enabled those who held freehold land to devise all their land by Will and those who held land under military tenure (i.e., they performed military service in return for land) to devise two thirds of their land by Will (military tenure was abolished in 1662). Those who held land by other means, such as copyhold, could not devise the land by Will until 1815 and land held in fee tail (that is to a specific line of heirs) could not be devised by will until 1925 when the manorial system and copyhold tenure was abolished by the Law of Property Act. Copyhold land however could be surrendered to the use of a tenants Will with the agreement of the Lord of the Manor and such entries will frequently be found in Manorial Court records. This meant that a tenant could leave by Will the use of the property usually to themselves and then their heirs.

Types of Will

Sworn Will – this is the more common type of Will which would have been handwritten (typed today) and sworn by the testator (person making the Will) and confirmed by two or more witnesses.

Nuncupative Will – this was an oral will, which up until 1838, could be made for personal property (a Testament) in the presence of reliable witnesses, their wishes would be written down by the witnesses who swore to its contents in a probate court. They were often made by those who believed they were dying and had not previously made a valid Will. This practice is now usually limited to combatants on active service.

Holographic Will –  is a will written entirely by the testator him/herself and not witnessed by others. This kind of will was usually presented to the probate court by witnesses who could swear to its authenticity.

The records

Original Wills made be found at local archives amongst family or estate papers. Many records of Wills and Testaments before 1858 can be found online at commercial websites such as and These Wills are usually not the original Wills but the copies created by the relevant probate court. Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) registered Wills are available in PROB 11 at the National Archives discovery website and can be downloaded for a small fee (currently £3.50 each).

For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices, some of which may have also been made available online such as Wills proved in the Surrey Archdeaconry Court which are held at London Metropolitan Archives but are available at under their “London, England, Wills and Probate, 1507-1858” collection, such as this Will of Henry Roake of Horsell for which probate was dated 17th September 1746: London, England, Wills and Probate, 1507-1858: original data: London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section, Clerkenwell, London, England; Reference Number: DW/PA/5/1746; Will Number: 82

Probate Act Book 1526 – 1858

These are registers of the grants of probate (wills proved in court) with separate Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 8 at TNA also at; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at

For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.

They record each probate granted and include the name of the deceased, occupation, date of grant of probate, and the executor’s name. They can include facts about a deceased which are not given in his will such as his parish, whether he died married, unmarried, widowed etc, his trade, profession or status or that he belonged to one parish but died in another. It may also tell us that an executor died before him. They will include renunciations, when an executor does not wish to act the court would appoint a successor. They will also include details of a successor in the event of an executor’s death.

The books often contain unregistered wills (wills not proved in court) and vital additional information not found in the will itself.

Extract from Vol III. Probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, anno 1641; Abstracts of probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury; Original data: Abstracts of probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. London: unknown, 1902-1926.


From 1529 to 1782 executors and administrators were usually required to prepare a probate inventory, which was a list of the deceased’s personal or moveable goods, assets and chattels, not including real estate or land.

They would include cash (‘money in his purse’) and clothes (‘his wearing apparel’) and then proceeded around the house from room to room listing and valuing the deceased’s movable goods, before moving outside to list the contents of agricultural buildings, livestock and crops growing in the fields. Anything that was not movable was omitted, so even things like cooking utensils and curtains and goods would often be identified by room, thus providing evidence of both rooms and room use. However, it is impossible to tell whether all the rooms in the house have been listed, unless there are internal inconsistencies (e.g., a ‘chamber over the buttery’ but no ‘buttery’). They provide an excellent insight into an ancestor’s life and status.

The objective of the exercise was to ensure that any unpaid debts owing at death could be paid.

They are likely to be found attached to the will at county record offices. Inventories filed with wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are housed at The National Archives and those filed between 1660 and 1782 are searchable online via TNA’s Discovery Catalogue.

Letters of Administration

These were granted, usually to the next of kin, to allow the administration of a deceased’s estate when they died intestate. They provide the deceased’s name, address, occupation and date and place of death, the name address, occupation, relationship to the deceased of the administrator. The value of the estate will also be given. The details of beneficiaries are not provided. They therefore contain less information genealogically than a Will.

Before 1858 they will be found in the records of the relevant ecclesiastical court, usually in local record offices, or the records of the PCC (at TNA) or PYC (at Borthwick Institute, York). Gibson’s guide and Phillimore’s Atlas and Index to Parish Registers should be consulted to find the relevant ecclesiastical court and record office.

Administration (Admon) Act Book

These are registers of the grants of administration (where a person had died without a will) covering the period from 1559 to 1858. There are separate Admon Act Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 6 at TNA also at; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.

Vol. I. Index of acts of administration in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. 1649-1654; Index to administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury; Original data: Index to administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury : and now preserved in the Principal Probate Registry, Somerset House, London. London: British Record Society, 1944-1954.

They record each letter of administration granted and include the name of the deceased, parish of residence, occupation, date of grant, the name of the administrator and their relation to the deceased, and the dates on which the inventory and accounts are to be returned. They will also include renunciations, when an administrator no longer wished to or was able to act (e.g., died) the court would appoint a successor.

Records for Wills and probate can provide details of several generations of a family and relationships between local families. They are particularly useful where real property is being passed through the generations and there are a number of people with the same name. Identifying the property in a Will can identify the correct family members. The contents of the Will can also provide an insight into the relative wealth of the family.

Wills and probate records are one of the documents that really must be examined if they can be found for your family members. They were not restricted to the wealthy land owners as they would be used by those less well off to ensure personal property passed to whom they wished it to be, particularly important if passing property to females (wives, daughters etc) as they were often restricted in their rights to property and inheritance until the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act.

Manorial records and Wills and probate records leads nicely to my next blog topic, that of title deeds.

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What other records of the manor can help me understand more about my manorial tenant ancestor?

In this blog I discuss the other main types of documents which may survive for a manor, however generally their survival rate is lower than for court records.

Custumals, Terriers, Extents and Rentals

These four documents were all different types of land surveys and can provide details of the size of the manor and individual land holdings. They are much less likely to survive that court records and in general prepared less frequently, most commonly being prepared when a new Lord took over a manor.


These recorded each tenant and their holdings along with their customary obligations as set out in “the custom of the manor” or the rules of the manor. These could include the duties or services landholders owed to the Lord of the Manor and vice versa. Tenants may be named along with details of their land holding along with the rent, payment in kind (produce etc) and labour services (work) due by them to the Lord.

They would also include such details as how many cattle each tenant could graze on the common land, how much timber they could take from the woods, what heriot was due on the death of a tenant etc.

The began to exist from the 12th and 13th centuries more commonly for large monastic manors but may survive for smaller manors.

Their content should however be considered alongside other records, particularly as over time labour services were commuted to a cash payment (see quit rent below). The contents provide evidence of the legal and theoretical obligations of the Lord and tenants not necessarily actual ones.


This was a topographical survey of all the land held by the manor along with a list of tenants and a description of their land holdings.


These evolved from custumals from the 13th century as a result of Lords of the Manor becoming increasingly aware of the profits to be made from their land. The extent provided more accurate information.

The Extent was a more detailed list and valuation of every building and piece of land on the demesne (the land retained by the Lord of the Manors), but also included every labour service and rent due from tenants. Many Extents go further and cover all of the manor or large areas of it and not just the demesne (similar to a Terrier).

Extent from the Manor of Gomshall Tower Hill Surrey History Centre Ref: G85/8/21

They follow a set format, with the most valuable property first (most often the Manor house and demesne land), followed by the larger land holdings down to the smallest. The extent provides the yearly amount of rental income expected not a capital value of the land/property.

From the 14th century the Extent became less descriptive with the emergence of the Rental/Rent Roll.

Rentals/Rent rolls/Quit rent

From about the 14th century lists of tenants and the amount of rent in cash and/or produce they paid were recorded in Rentals or Rent rolls.They can set out in detail exactly what was to be demanded of every landholder/occupier on the manor.

They records generally include the names of the landholder and occupier (if different), a description of the land and sometimes details of the previous landholder/occupier. They include the amount each tenant paid and if there is an unbroken run over several years they can provide evidence of when, where and for how long an individual or family (where land was passed through the generations) remained in the manor.

Those listed were usually copyholders but some manors also included leaseholders and freeholders. Where a Lord held more than one manor, the rentals for several manors may be grouped together in one Rental. This can provide evidence of tenants moving between manors held by the same Lord, possibly where there were gaps in the labour market in one manor over another.

Quit rents may also be included in the Rental but may be recorded in a separate document. Quit rents where those rents where labour services had been commuted into a monetary value and a cash payment was made in lieu of labour services.


From the 16th century when large swathes of monastic land were sold following Henry VIII’s break away from the Catholic church, Courts of Survey would be held. Tenants were bound to attend these courts to answer the Articles of Enquiry or questions about their landholdings. Such enquiries or questions would form the Presentments and may include:

  • Details of how a tenant inherited their holding along with future inheritance provisions (was there a custom of the manor for inheritance such as to oldest son/youngest son etc)
  • Entry fines/heriots due and conditions when land was to be forfeited to the Lord of the Manor
  • Relief due by freeholders for alienation (transferred) or inheritance of land
  • How frequent courts were held, their practices and procedures
  • The officials of the manor
  • The rights the Lord retained e.g., fishing, hunting etc
  • Lord’s right to profits of any treasure found on the land/wreckage of ships along their foreshore, and right to minerals
  • Existence of Common land and the rights of the Lord and tenants over such land, such as the right to graze cattle etc
  • Rights of tenants to timber, building materials etc from the land
  • Existence of mills and who held them

Presentments can therefore provide a great deal of information about the size, organisation, customs and life of the manor.

These are not to be confused with presentments which may be found in the court rolls when a tenant was presented to the court for a wrongdoing.

Estreat Rolls and Relief Rolls

The fines or amercements imposed by the courts were also recorded in Estreat rollswhich include the names of the tenants, their offences and the amount paid, whilst the Relief Rolls record a tenant giving up the property and the new tenant relieving him of his obligations.

Extract from an Estreat Roll for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill Surrey History Centre Ref: G85/10/45
For a Heriot       upon the surrender of John Cleese of his Copyhold Cottage in Cranley to Elizabeth his Wife & after to Wm Smith 8d and for a Relief               8d in all.  (0 – 1- 4)      the said Elizabeth & Wm Smith for their ­­­­­___ of admittance to the said Cottage(2 – 10- 0)

Manorial Accounts / Compoti

These provide details of the assets of the manor, along with income and expenditure. They can also provide an insight into the local economy and economic working of the manor. These were carried out annually, usually after Michaelmas, by trained scribes and were audited.

One side recorded monetary receipt and expenses; whilst the other side recorded goods such as grain and livestock. Where accounts are highly detailed other goods such wine, beer, ales, cider, clothing, fabrics etc. These records were often very descriptive. Early records, where they survive, like this one for the manor of Gomshall Towerhill dated 1288, are written in Latin and can be difficult to read.

Surrey History Centre Ref: G85/8/15

Overtime these evolved to much more like the type of financial accounts one would think of today.

Miscellaneous – examples

Searching the archive catalogue for the manor you are researching may uncover a vast array of other records such as Stewards papers – these often include the Stewards hand written notes from court proceedings noting surrender and admissions to land which can be very useful before 1733 because these will most likely be in English whereas the court records will be in Latin.

Legal papers may be found such as these I found amongst the papers for Gomshall Towerhill Manor concerning grazing rights dated between 1789 – 1795 (Surrey History Centre Ref: G85/18/5-6). This contained two files, the first is award granted in the Case of Lynn and Hooker dated 5 May 1789. This is an award made by the Assize court and it my first thought were that it may have been an appeal from the manorial court. However, the second file contains various other papers from the same case and is a case from the court of common pleas. It is a case concerning the grazing of sheep Shere Heath and Combe Bottom. It is held with the manorial records but does not appear to have been a manorial court case.

I also found a bundle of correspondence relating to heriots and quit rents dated between 1850 – 1880 (Surrey History Centre Ref: G85/16/25), comprising of two folders with 77 documents. The first document was a licence to have servants!

The rest of the documents were letters from tenants advising the Lord of the Manor of various matters, inc.:

•     complaints about hedges etc not been cut/ or being damaged/blown down and not been cleared away etc

•     Informing him of deaths of tenants

•     Asking to purchase land/rent land

•     Asking if certain properties fall within the manor and if any rent arrears

•     Letters asking to enfranchise their land

•     Enquiring about quit rents due on properties bought by ‘outsiders’

•     Quit rental of holdings

•     Letters from solicitors regarding enfranchising property/land

•     Letters sending payments for quit rent/heriots

•     Agreements to enclose

•     Loose papers setting out rents received

If your ancestor was amongst such papers then they may provide more of insight into the character of the person, their handwriting and their role/position in the manor.

This is just a selection of the records available for a given manor, there are countless more records available and searching the catalogue for the relevant archive holding the records for the manor you are interested in, not just under the name of the manor by the name of the family/families who held the manor should provide details of what is available.

The above hopefully provides a good sample of what may be available and their use to the genealogist. I would say that all the records I have viewed during various research projects are of use in one way or another and many should be considered together to create a picture of an ancestor’s life on the manor. Where good runs of documents exist, through careful analysis of the various records,  generations of families can be identified and ‘pieced together’.

My next blog will look at Wills and probate records through which many manorial tenants left their property and land, whether copyhold, freehold or leasehold, to the next generation of their family.

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Will I find my ancestor in the Court Records of the Manor?

The main records of a Manor were the court records, recorded in rolls and later in books. There were two main manorial courts – The Court Leet (also known as the View of Frankpledge) and the Court Baron. There was also the Customary Court which convened every few years and was responsible for administering the  Custom of the Manor which was set out in the Custumal: a statement setting out the terms of the relationship, administrative control and mutual responsibilities anciently agreed between the lord and his tenants. They would also assess rents. The Customary Court was often held as part of the Court Baron.

Manorial courts were not held in court rooms as we would think of them today. They could be held in the nave of the parish church, a local inn or in the open air. Some manor houses had a hall or room in which the court would be convened. They were held wherever there was sufficient space to hold a large gathering of people.

The court room of Preston Patrick Hall, Westmorland courtesy of Cumbrian Manorial Records (

The Court Leet or View of Frankpledge (Visus Francplegii)

The Court Leet was essentially the lowest court of royal jurisdiction, not originally associated with the manor by the regulating the vill, which in medieval times was the smallest administrative unit in the feudal system and consisted of several houses and their land similar to a village or parish. In medieval times, law and order was essentially controlled through a system known as Frankpledge (or Tithing). This was a system whereby a group of men (over the age of twelve years and having lived in the vill for a year and a day) usually ten or twelve, were collectively responsible for reporting any wrongdoing and bringing the culprit to Court.

Not all Lords of Manors had the right to hold a Court Leet thus a Court Leet could cover more than one manor and they would have been convened two or three times a year. There would be a jury made up of free tenants.

All types of wrongdoing were to be reported to the Court Leet, however only minor offences could be dealt with by the court; more serious offences such as felonies would be transferred to the upwards to the appropriate court. Those minor offences which could be dealt with at the Court Leet included, public nuisance, breach of the peace, poaching, breach of the assizes of bread and ale (regulation of the price, weight, quality of bread and beer, i.e., trading offences), obstruction of the King’s highway to name a few.

The penalties there were able to impose on wrongdoers including fines, impound property, time in the stock, whippings and some had their own prisons.

From an engraving of Defoe in the pillory in the early eighteenth century, SANT/BEQ/15/4/40. Daniel Defoe was pitied for his charge of seditious libel, and the crowd threw flowers, a vast improvement on their usual weapons of choice (

The “power” of the Court Leet began to decline from the 14th Century. The plague had created a shortage of labour and manorial tenants bargaining position strengthened as did their boldness in refusing to pay fines or dues to the Lord of the Manor. The frankpledge system had also begun to decline. The justice system was developing and expanding with Petty sessions (magistrates) and Quarter sessions taking over much of the work the Court Leet had traditionally dealt with. Court Leets did continue but their records become less frequent and less informative and by the 17th Century most had ceased to operate.

The Court Baron (Curia Baronis) (sometimes referred to as the Manor Court) (Curia Manerii)

The Court Baron was essentially the lowest court of feudal jurisdiction based on the Manor. It largely dealt with landholding, in particular customary/copyhold tenants. (holding land by title of copy of court roll, paying a heriot and other services due  to the Lord of the Manor) Freehold tenants (those who paid rent but held from of any other services due to the Lord of the Manor) and Leaseholders (a tenant to whom land was let out without restriction or governance by the custom of the manor) may be found but the transfer of freehold and leasehold was not usually recorded in the Court Baron.

Originally the Court Baron also dealt with enforcing local customs and agricultural practices, settling minor disputes and debts. Disputes between tenants or between the Lord and his tenants would be adjudicated by a jury of tenants. “Presentments” were the presentation of alleged offences at court and if the accused were found guilty, fines could be issued. Free tenants were usually required to attend under the terms of their tenure as well as customary/copyhold tenants.

For family history purposes it is usually records of the Court Baron which are most useful. These proceedings can indicate status, trade or profession, relationships, heirs, and marriages and often name in-laws. Signatures to memoranda, copy and proceedings occur on most originals and these can be evidence of identity, distinguishing one name from another, proving literacy, and indicating that the signatory was alive at the date of the court’s meeting.

The transfer of copyhold land was dealt with through entries of surrender and admissions in the court roll. This was also the case on the death of a copyhold tenant. If a copyhold tenant made a Will, they were required to surrender the property to the use of their Will in order for the property to be devised under the terms of the Will. On death the land was technically surrendered into the hands of the Lord of the Manor and the rightful heir(ess) was required to attend court to claim their right to the property. The rightful heir would be named if known along with their relationship to the deceased.

Rightful heirs were given three “chances” to attend court in the form of “proclamations” by which the court proclaimed the death of the tenant and asked that the rightful heir attended court to make their claim. If no one came, the property would revert to the Lord of the Manor who was free to grant to property to someone else.

A new tenant, be it a rightful heir or other, would then be admitted to the property as copyhold tenant.

The extent and description of the property would be given in both the surrender and admission if they were separate entries. This would include its location and to whose land it abutted to give a precise location (there were no addresses in those days as we have now!) with approximate size in acreage or other land measurement such “Rod”.

Payments were due on these land transactions: a Heriot was paid on the death of a copyhold tenant; a Fine was paid on admission to the copyhold land.

The court records occasionally also include a list of all freehold, leasehold and copyhold tenants. This was often done when there was a new Lord of the Manor, for example when a Lord died and the Manor was inherited by his rightful heir, or also happened, the Manor was sold.

The best way to demonstrate the use of these records is through a case study I undertook for my IHGS diploma.

The Shurlock family

William Shurlock lived in the village of Shere, within the manor of Shere Vachery, and appeared to have owned property in Shere, Albury and Wonersh, both being neighbouring villages/parishes.

Manorial records for the Manors of Shere

The Manorial court records comprise both rolls and books with the courts for the various manors held on consecutive days and largely recorded in the same documents. From 1688 to the end of the 18th century there is an almost continuous run with a combination of rolls and books. The missing years are 1700, 1701, 1707 to 1710, 1738 and 1753 to 1757. Prior to 1688 they are largely for the first quarter of the 17th century with a gap from 1630 to 1663 and then from 1663 to 1688.

Members of the homage/jury

John, William snr and William jnr are named as members of the homage and/or jury of both the court leet and court baron at various times throughout the century, the first entry found being for John at the court leet and court baron for the manor of Shere Vachery held in October 1714.

Lists of Tenant

These were not recorded regularly in the court records however the following entries were found for the manor of Shere Vachery. William (snr) was found listed as a tenant in October 1748/9, April 1750/51, October 1751/2 and 1752 (two years following his death because William (Jnr) had not yet been admitted as tenant to his properties (see below)). William (Jnr) was listed as a freeholder in October 1767 and 1777, with a Robert Shurlock listed as a copyholder in October 1777.

Admissions, surrenders and deaths recorded in the Manorial court baron records

These events are recorded in the minutes of the court baron with all courts being held in or about the 26 October each year save where special court barons were held as necessary.

John Sherlock

In the court rolls for Shere Vachery in 1729/30 the death of John Sherlock, customary tenant, was recorded with William his son and heir being admitted to his copyhold land at West Cotterells for a yearly rent of 13 pence. This entry being a short one, is the first found written in Latin.

John acquired the copyhold land at West Cotterells in 1700 when it was alienated to him at the court held for the manor of Shere Vachery on 2 October 1700 by John Risbridger.

The property was described as land and barnyard known as West Cottells in Shere for a rent of 14d per year. His fealty to the Lord of the Manor in respect of this was reserved until the court hearing in October 1702.

William Shurlock (Snr) and family

The next records was found at a Special Court Baron held on 1 Nov 1736/37 for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill when William Shurlock (Snr), jointly with John Luck, loaned money to two other copyhold tenants. A conditional surrender was entered into between (1) John Borer and John Dibble and (2) William Shurlock and John Luck in respect of a cottage and garden situate in Peaslake bottom containing by estimation one and a half acres of land in the occupation of John Borer, for the sum of £40 such sum to be repaid “together with lawful interest” to Will Sherlock and John Luck on the 1 May 1737/38 when, if paid, the surrender would be void otherwise the surrender remained in full force and William Shurlock and John Luck could be admitted as copyhold tenants.

Payment in full was made by John Borer in full discharge and satisfaction of conditional surrender which was recognised by William Shurlock at the court held in 1738/39 .

It is yet three years before the next record is found for this family, this time in the court roll for Shere Vachery when William Shurlock (Snr) is found loaning money to another copyhold tenant and is wife. A conditional surrender dated 1 November 1741/42 was entered into between Ralph and Sarah Mitchell and William Shurlock under which Ralph and Sarah Mitchell would surrender their cottage and garden in Shere and Cottage and garden in Ewhurst should they fail to repay William £17 plus interest of £5 in every £100 within a year [thus by 1 November 1742/43]. If the debt was paid the surrender would be void, if they failed to pay the surrender would remain in full force and William would be admitted as copyhold tenant.

In 1744/45 William (Snr) was admitted as copyhold tenant to a cottage and garden in Shere and a cottage and garden in Ewhurst following Ralph and Sarah Mitchell’s failure to repay him £17 plus interest of £5 in every £100 within a year as per the conditional surrender they had entered into in 1741/42.

Whilst these two conditional surrenders do not add anything to the family lineage, they demonstrate the comparative wealth of William (Snr). £40 in 1736 would be the equivalent of £4,711.70 in 2017 whilst £17 in 1741 would be the equivalent of £2,009.69 in 2017. Bearing in mind the yearly rents for many of the properties detailed so far was a few pence rather than pounds, with 240 pence to the pound. William was able to lend quite significant sums of money for the period and demonstrates the family would have enjoyed a comfortable living.

The next entry found was William’s (Snr) death being noted in the court for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill. Two entries were found, the first in 1750/51 being the death of William (Snr) and the first proclamation for his son William to attend court to be admitted to a moiety of two customary messuages or tenements and two gardens, one in Shere the other in Ewhurst, by the yearly rent of [left blank] heriot for which a horse had been seized and sold to the Executors for £3 10ds, but he failed to attend.

The second proclamation for William (Jnr) to attend and be admitted was made at court in 1752 but again he failed to attend. Court records for 1753 when the third and final proclamation would have been made, are amongst those missing and therefore it is not cannot be said where William did then attend to be admitted but no later record for William (Jnr) was found in the court records for Towerhill.

In the court rolls for the manor of Shere Vachery it was not until 1752 when a record of the death of William (Snr) was found. William’s son and “next heir” (William (Jnr)) was admitted to lands called Parkland by a yearly rent of 13 pence for which a horse had been seized to for the heriot and sold for £5 19s. William was aged 18 year so his fealty was respited until he is 21 years old.

William Shurlock (Jnr) and family

The next entries found in the manor of Shere Vachery were three connected entries in respect of the death of “Elizabeth wife of William Shurlock (late Eliz(abeth) Parkhurst Spinster)” (most likely the wife of William (Jnr)) being a customary tenant of “Messuage or Tenem(en)t Barns Outhouse and One Acre and an half of land called Smyths lying in the lower Street of Shere by the yearly Rent of Eight pence heriot Suit of Court and other Services therefore due and of eight accustomed” and whose heir is her only infant son, Robert aged about 5 years. The first entry is in 1761 noting her death (since the last court in 1760) and being the first proclamation for someone to come forward to claim her land and premises. The second proclamation was found in 1762 and in 1763 Robert Shurlock was admitted as customary tenant to her land and premises. The next entries found are three connected entries in respect of the death of “Elizabeth wife of William Shurlock (late Eliz(abeth) Parkhurst Spinster)” being a customary tenant of “Messuage or Tenem(en)t Barns Outhouse and One Acre and an half of land called Smyths lying in the lower Street of Shere by the yearly Rent of Eight pence heriot Suit of Court and other Services therefore due and of eight accustomed” and whose heir is her only infant son, Robert aged about 5 years. The first entry is in 1761 noting her death (since the last court in 1760) and being the first proclamation for someone to come forward to claim her land and premises. The second proclamation was found in 1762 and in 1763 Robert Shurlock was admitted as customary tenant to her land and premises.

Robert was described as an infant and was admitted by William his father and next friend who was also admitted as Robert’s guardian until Robert should attain the age of 21 years, with William paying the fine for the admittance of £9 9s.

In 1779 William is acknowledge as having erecting, with the permission of the Lord of the Manor for the manor of Shere Vachery, a gate across a lane leading from Shere Heath to Ewhurst Windmill, near Shere Heath, to protect his cattle. Directly above his entry is a similar entry naming Catherine the wife of John Shurlock. Whilst the land of William Shurlock is not named it identifies the ‘rough’ location of some of his property.

The next entry was not found until nine years earlier in 1785 when the death of Robert Shurlock was recorded (having died since the last court in 1784) along with the admission to his copyhold land of his sister Catherine, the wife of John Hicks. His property was described as a tenement garden and an acre and half of land held at Shere called Smiths by the yearly rent of Eight pence heriot suit of court and other services and customs.  At a court baron held on 30th April 1787 Catherine and John Hicks surrendered this property with George Francis (who had also been an undertenant of William Shurlock) being simultaneously admitted as tenant.

Comparing the names and property details confirms Robert is the son of William Shurlock whose wife was Elizabeth nee Parkhurst the mother of Robert and most likely the mother of Catherine, thus extending the family tree further.

In 1794 the death of William Shurlock is recorded  having died since the last court was held (1793), his daughter and Catherine being admitted as tenant, to his freehold messuage and lands called Cottells, a wood part of Staple lands and a messuage and lands called Dilton. The heriot due on William’s death was not paid because his Cattle were seized by other Lords but the relief to be admitted by attorney as tenant to the property

was paid by his daughter Catherine. Her fealty was respited because she had not appeared in person to take the oath of loyalty to the Lord of the Manor, her husband, John Hicks, having appeared on her behalf as next friend.

The total yearly rents for the properties amounted to 13 shilling 6 pence. The fact other Lords of manors had already taken his cattle suggests William also held in other manors.

From the above records alone, a family tree can be drawn.

All records referred to are held at Surrey History Centre under references: G85/6/43, G85/6/44, G85/10/16, G85/108/24, G85/10/20, and G85/10/23.

In my case study I then used parish registers and Wills to take the family further with the complete family tree being:

This is a relatively simple case study but manorial records can provide details of the interrelationships of several families. One research project I have recently undertaken on behalf of a client explored the four interconnecting families around Woking Surrey and help my client to determine which generations were which from the parish register entries she had found and untangle the various interfamily marriages where names were passed down the generations. It also demonstrated just how land holdings also connected the families.

My next blog will explore some of the other records of the Manor such as Estreat Rolls, Rentals/Rent rolls, Customals, Extents and Presentments.

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WillI find my ancestors in Manorial Records?

Following on from my last blog in which I introduced the Manor, in this blog I will start to look at the records they kept which can be of use to family history research.

Firstly, I would like to bust a few myths around Manorial records. I think it is fair to say that many people shy away from them because they are thought of as difficult to read. It is true that manorial court records are written in Latin before 1733 (which can be highly abbreviated), as were all legal documents, however not all manorial records before this date are in Latin and those that are, in particular the court records, are formulaic in nature and therefore if you look at later records in English you should be able to, with a few Latin phrases, work out what the Latin records are telling you. Often , you will not need to read every word to be able to understand an entry.

Entry from the Manor of Woking Court Baron October 1704 SCH Ref: G97/5/2

The handwriting can often be difficult to read, especially the further back in time you go, however, again the formulaic nature and practice will help with this. Palaeography is a useful skill for the family historian, which is only helped with practice, not just reading manorial records but all sorts of records in the various old styles of handwriting. Reading Wills is often good for practice and there is a vast number of Wills provide in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury available at the various commercial websites. The National archives has a free online tutorial ( as does Cambridge University ( There are also many books available, a selection of which I will list at the end of the blog.  

Entry from the Manor of Pyrford Court Leet 21st April 1658; SHC Ref: G97/4/2

As with any resource, these should not but used in isolation but can be used to fill in gaps, identify generations where the same name appears in several generations of a family, provide an insight into how our ancestors lived, identify other family connections and interrelationships between families and identify land our ancestors held and how that may have changed over time. Thus, not only are they helpful for family history but also for house and land history.

Where can they be found?

These records are usually located in County or local records offices thus a search of their online catalogue may identify their holdings. However, as was suggested in my earlier blog, it is not always clear which Manor held what land and encompassed what villages and areas. Also, as several manors across different locations may be held by one Lord, the record office in which the records may have been lodged may not always obvious.

The Manorial Document Register (MDR) which is searchable online in the National Archives (TNA)  Discovery website ( provides the location of known manorial records. Some may still be held in private hands, particularly where the residual estate still exists today, such as the Manor of Arundel in West Sussex whose record are held at the Archives in Arundel Castle.

The number of manors which existed in England was vast. According to the MDR, there were 454 Manors in Surrey, of which about a third have no known surviving records, possibly because they were smaller Manors which became amalgamated with larger neighbouring Manors and the records were lost. It is possible that records are still held in private hands and have not been identified as such records or made public for some reason. They may be hidden away amongst old family papers somewhere. Some Manors only have a smally selection of records surviving whilst others have a vast number of records which survive.

The records which do survive are largely held at Surrey History Centre (SHC), although some are held at other archives and some Manors have records held across more than one archive. Other archives include, but are not limited to: the British Library, London Metropolitan Archives, TNA, Lambeth Palace Library, Guildhall Library. For example, the records for Merstham Manor in East Surrey, are held across four archives – Canterbury Cathedral (which holds the vast majority), Somerset Heritage Centre, TNA and SHC.

What date do records cover?

The dates covered by manorial records various depending on their survival. It could be said the records begin with the Doomsday book of 1086 although that only lists landowners and the status of those paying taxes. In 1198 a list of feudal landholdings was made, known as the Liber Feodorum which is available online at the Internet Archive website ( and in print. The list is of course in Latin.

Liber Feodorum

It was after this when administrative records of Manors/estates began, with widespread use by the end of the 13th century. Where records survive for the Manors of Surrey, the MDR generally gives a starting date of 1186 although very few survive from that date. Indeed, few survive from the 13th Century, many survive from the early 16th century but in some instances, records are from later periods. Further, where records do survive there is not always a continuous run of records.

Whilst the “power” of the Manors declined from the 14th Century, their records of landholding can continue until 1925. Copyhold land, which was a unique landholding feature of the Manors, continued in many areas until the Law of Property Act 1922, which came into effect on 1st January 1925, finally abolished copyhold land converting it to freehold. Thus, manorial records can be useful in tracing the lives of our ancestors into the 20th century.

Who will I find in Manorial Records?

Broadly speaking, anyone living on land owned by the Manor could be found in one or more of the various types of records. More specifically, The name of the Lord of the Manor, the name of the Steward (the estate administrator), Leaseholders, Freeholders, Copyholders (tenants) and occupiers (subtenants), and their wives and heirs. Everyone had to live somewhere, however if your family were transient workers or vagrants, it is unlikely you would find them in manorial records.

What types of records exist which may be useful to the Family historian?

Court Rolls

The court rolls (originally rolls but later books) are perhaps the most important records from a genealogical view point as they can be used to trace an ancestor from their first tenancy through their heirs to the last of their descendants to hold the tenancy, including where ancestors moved and/or died.

Court roll for Shere Vachery 26 April 1750 SHC Ref: G85/10/16

The rolls (originally in rolls of parchment but often later in books) are the records of the business of the courts, essentially the minutes. The records can include status, trade or profession, livery, relationships, heirs and marriages and often name in-laws of ancestors. Signatures may be found in originals rolls or associated records and can be used to as evidence of literacy and existence at the date of the court’s meeting.

The rolls of the Court Leet or View of Frankpledge recorded minor criminal offences within the Manor, such as assaults, obstructions of the highway, breaking the assize of bread and ale etc.

The rolls of the Court Baron, recorded property transactions, details of any fines paid and any relationship between the old and new tenant along with their ages (if under twenty one), were recorded.

I will discuss the different courts and their records in more detail in my next blog.

Estreat Rolls

The fines or amercements imposed by the courts were also recorded in Estreat rollswhich include the names of the tenants, their offences and the amount paid.

Manor of Gomshall Towerhill, 8th October 1649 SHC Ref: G85/10/45

Rentals/Rent rolls

From about the 14th century lists of tenants and the amount of rent in cash and/or produce they paid were recorded in Rentals or Rent rolls.They set out in detail exactly what was to be demanded of every landholder/occupier on the manor.


These recorded each tenant and their holdings along with their customary obligations as set out in “the custom of the manor”.


An extent was a list of every building and piece of land on the demesne (the land retained by the Lord of the Manors), but also included every labour service and rent due from tenants. Many Extents go further and cover all of the manor or large areas of it and not just the demesne.


Presentments are the steward’s contemporaneous written record he made as the court proceedings took place courts which were then written up in the court rolls or books as a fair copy. In many cases these contemporaneous records can include petitions by those claiming the right to be admitted to tenure along with their signatures or marks and signatures of witnesses which can yet be a further aid to identification or confirmation of existence of an ancestor.

These latter five records will be discussed in more detail in a later blog.

You may also be lucky enough to find manorial maps such as these from SHC

Manor of Woking; SHC Ref: G97/5/63/1-2
Manor of Pirbright SHC Ref: 7675

Discover more about these wonderful rich records over the coming couple of weeks. Next time – Manorial Court Records.

A small selection of suggested reading

“Reading Old Handwriting” by Eve McLaughlin (published by the Federation of Family History Societies in 1987 and later editions)

“A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians” by Janet Morris (published by the Family History Partnership 1989 and later editions)

“Palaeography for Family and Local Historians” by Hilary Marshall (published by Phillimore 2004, reprinted 2010)

“Latin for Local and Family Historians” by Denis Stuart (published by Phillimore 1995 and later editions)

“Manorial Records” by Denis Stuart (published by Phillimore 1992 and later editions)

“Using Manorial Records” by Mary Ellis (published by TNA 2001)

“The English Manor c.1200 – c.1500” by Mark Bailey (published by Manchester University Press 2002

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My ancestors lived on land belonging to a Manor – what does that mean?

One source for researching our ancestors beyond the 19th Century, which I particularly like, are the records of the Manorial Courts. You would be forgiven for thinking that only landowners may appear in such records however this is not the case! How land was owned and held was different under the Manorial system than it is today.

From the time of the development of the manorial (or feudal) system by William the Conqueror to, in some cases, the 20th Century, Manorial Court records can provide a significant insight into our ancestors and how they lived their lives.

The Manorial System

The Manorial system developed from the Anglo-Saxon system of “Hundreds” (akin to districts). Several homesteads (or family settlements) were built around a large house called a “Hall” where the chief, known as the “Thegn” lived. Below the “Thegn” were peasants who were either free landowners or serfs who were tied to the lord and the land. Below the peasants were slaves, either captured or bought. Several villages together would form a “hundred”, a division of a shire for administrative, military and judicial purposes under the common law. Originally introduced by the Saxons, the hundred was so called as it would have enough land to sustain approximately one hundred households headed by a hundred-man or hundred Ealdorman (a local man of high importance). The local court being the “Hundred Court” dealt with local small matters and was presided over by the King’s Reeve with judgements being made by the local peasants.

Several “hundreds” together formed a Shire (akin to county), where matters were dealt with at the Shire Moot or Court presided over by the Sheriff. Above the Shire Court as the Royal Council or “Witenagemot” presided over by noblemen and landowners and who advised the crown on matters of both national and local significance.

Following the Norman conquest this system developed into the perhaps more familiar manorial system with all land being owned by the crown; Lords of the Manor, being direct tenants or tenants-in-chief, were personally granted land in return for services and their fealty or loyalty to the crown. Lords of the Manor could also be either mesne lords (had the right to the profits from the land) themselves or could grant tenure to another under subinfeudation (the splitting up and selling of the rights or portions of the rights in a Manor but being held from the Lord of the Manor not directly from the crown) until 1290 when subinfeudation was abolished.

The Lord of the Manor could then grant land holdings to tenants (peasants in the medieval period), subject to dues and services owed to the Lord. Until the 14th century, these tenants were either unfree (known more commonly as villeins, surfs or bondsmen) or free (in the minority). Unfree tenants largely worked on the Lord’s demesne (the land he retained for his own use), in return for their tenancy on his land and were bound to the Lord of the Manor; free tenants were granted their own land to farm in return for less restrictive services to the lord, and payment of dues. A free tenant might also work in other trades such as carpentry, pottery, weaving or as a blacksmith.  

Manorial land broadly fell into two types, either demesne land, that being the land farmed directly on behalf of the lord himself as a ‘home farm’; or, tenant land which would be granted to tenants who farmed it on their own behalf, paying rents and services to the lord in return for their use of the land.  Tenants were of two broad classes; freeholders and those holding by ‘bond’ or unfree tenures, the villeins of the middle ages, who came to be known as customary tenants, so called because they held the land subject to the obligations set out in the “custom of the manor” which was largely unwritten until the second half of the 13th century when many began setting out the custom of the manor in writing and thus customary tenure began to emerge. These later became known as copyhold tenants, because they held by copy of the manorial court roll in which their holding would be recorded (see below).

Following the black death in the 14th century and the shortage of labour the unfree tenants bargaining position strengthened. The ability to obtain better terms elsewhere and the increase in labour services being commuted into rental payments, meant Lords became increasingly willing to grant their villeins freedom with villeinage disappearing by the turn of start of the 17th century.

Manorial Courts

The Manorial Courts were essentially the ‘local government’ for their area, both in terms of what we would think of today as civil law and administration and in terms of minor criminal offences. Of course, what were criminal offences in those days may no longer be deemed as criminal offences today.

The ‘heyday’ of Manorial Courts was from around the 12th/13th Century to the 16th Century when much of their local government functions were taken over by the parish, however the manorial system remained in place until the 20th Century with regard to ownership and occupation of property, generating a great number of records with much genealogical value.

Land holding under the Manorial System from the 16th century onwards

The most common manner in which manorial land was held from the Lord of the Manor was through the custom of the manor, known as customary tenure. This led to a form of land holding unique to the manorial system called Copyhold tenure, i.e., land was held by copy of the manorial court roll and permission was required from the Lord of the Manor, through his manorial court, for such land to be inherited, sold, sublet, bought (alienated) or mortgaged (collectively known as surrenders and admissions in the court rolls). Copyhold itself could either be heritable, i.e., could be inherited by the copyholders heir(s) subject to the agreement of the manorial court, or for lives, i.e., the life of the tenant or a specified number of lives such as the tenant, his wife and his heir, following which it would be surrendered to the Lord.

Land could also be held as freehold, by which the tenant paid a fixed rent (quit-rent) and its descent to heirs was not governed by the Manor or recorded in the court roll. Land could also be held under a lease for a fixed term for a life or a number of lives, in return for a market rent with no obligations to the Lord of the Manor.

Towerhill Manor, as portrayed by Lewis Pinhorn Wood in 1880, was bought by Sir Edward Bray of Vachery in 1550 and remained in the Bray family until 1972.

It is often thought that a Manor comprised of a grand Manorial house and a country estate but not all manors were such. The size of Manors varied widely. Whilst a typical Manor may consist of a village and its surrounding land, one single village may in fact contain two or more Manors. Similarly, a Lord of the Manor may own one Manor or several Manors which may either neighbour each other or could be in different places across England.

The Manor and the Manorial courts created various records, many of which survive today. Many of these will be covered in my next couple of blogs, before moving on to other pre-19th century source.

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Beyond the parish chest – an overview of pre-19th century resources

When I tell people what I do for a living, I often get the response “Well it’s easy isn’t it now, everything’s online!” but actually there is only about 15% to 20% of records which can help research our ancestors available online. Of course, this is growing all the time.

My real passion is researching family history before the 19th century. And whilst this can include the limited records available online there is vast array of resources available to the family historian both in local and national archives and for me there is nothing more thrilling than getting your hands on a document that has been around for a few hundred years.

Many of the records available in local and national archives are unlikely to ever make it online, save in an indexed and/or transcribed format, because of the very nature, age and delicacy of such records.

This therefore is the first in a series of blogs examining some of the records to be found in local and national archives taking our research beyond the parish registers and and the records of the parish discussed in earlier blogs, some of which continue into the 19th and 20th century.

In this blog, I am simply going to provide an alphabetical list of records and approximate dates they cover. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and all manner of records can be found in your local archives and the National Archives. The best way to find out what they have available is to search the online catalogue for your local archives and the National Archives discovery catalogue ( Or contact your local archives to see how they can help.

The records include:

Apprenticeship Records 1563 to 1811

Chancery Court records 14th Century onwards

Deeds 12th century onwards

Ecclesiastical Court records (Ecclesiastical courts were created in 1072 but survival of records varies)

Education records 1500 onwards

Hearth Tax 1662 to 1666; 1669 to 1674

Inquisitions Post Mortem 13th century to 1661

Land Tax records 1693 to 1963

Lay subsidy rolls 13th century to 1624

Manorial records 13th to 20th Century

Militia Lists 1757 to 1831

Monumental Inscriptions

Newspapers 18th century onwards

Occupation records mid-17th century inwards

Pipe Rolls 1581 – 1591

Poll books (electoral roll) 1696 onwards (1832 onwards)

Poll Tax specific years from 1377

Protestation Oath Returns 1641

Quarter Session Records 1361 to 1971

Solemn League and Covenant 1644

Trade directories mid-17th century onwards

Tudor and Stuart Muster rolls 16th and 17th century

Wills and Probate records 1384 to 1858; 1858 to date

Window tax 1696 to 1834

Some of the above topics will cover several record sources and not all these sources will be covered in an individual block, similar records will be discussed in a single blog.

If you would like to know more about these records, why not subscribe to my blog and receive an email notification when a new blog is available.

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Parish Chest – Miscellaneous records

Constable accounts

The Constable is the oldest parochial officer originating as an officer of the manor appointed by the manorial court possibly from the 13th Century or earlier. The Constable was appointed annually with the approval of a local Justice of the Peace. His role was to maintain law and order in the parish until County Police Forces were established from 1839.

Their responsibilities could be numerous but their main ones included:

  • Arresting anyone committing a crime and bringing them before the court;
  • Bringing parishioners who persistently failed to attend church before the clergyman;
  • Removal of vagrants and the poor (see settlement and removal below);
  • Supervising alehouses;
  • Collecting the appointment Militia men and taking them to the muster with the parish arms and armour and providing the amount stipulated for their maintenance at the muster;
  • Collecting various rates, levies and fines;
  • Administering whippings;
  • Serving warrants

A Constable was obliged to keep accounts of his expenditure incurred in serving warrants, transporting offenders to court, attending court hearings, transporting those to be removed out of the parish, collecting and transporting the militia men and collecting the various rates, levies and fines. These accounts can be useful to the genealogist. They can be quite detailed, including details of who, what and where which can help in the overall ‘picture’ of an ancestors life and provide clues to other documents.

Constables records may also include warrants which will provide the person’s name and often their occupation along with the reason the warrant has been issued.

Militia Relief records

The parish had a responsibility to maintain the wives and families of those men called up for militia service, especially in the case of agricultural workers and similar low paid workers. Any surviving records will provide:

  • Name of serviceman
  • Rank
  • Regiment
  • Names and ages of family members

Charitable funds

These were usually established by a parishioner leaving a gift of money, shares or land in their Wills and typically to be used to assist the poor whereby a charitable fund would be set up and the income used to supply clothing, fuel or cash payments.

The funds were also to be used for the upkeep of the church, provide schools and almhouses, or pay Masters to take on Apprentices.

Until 1812 these charitable bequests were administered by overseers and/or churchwarden and therefore parish records may include the original deed or will setting up the charity and its aims. There may also be letters, accounts and lists of those who benefitted. They may also be detailed in Vestry Minutes.

Glebe Terriers

These contain details of the land, parsonage house, tithes, offerings and any other privileges forming part of the clergyman’s benefice. Copies of original terriers may be found amongst parish records however they do not provide any value to the genealogists in terms of compiling a family tree unless an ancestor occupied or farmed an area of glebe land in which case they may be mentioned. They may however provide details of the social and economic situation in the parish and therefore a more general picture of an ancestor’s life.

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Parish Chest – Settlement, Removal and Bastardy Bonds

Under the Act of Settlement and Removal 1662 the poor could only claim poor relief from the parish in which they were legally settled. Settlement was obtained by:

  • Renting property in the parish to the value of £10 per year or more
  • Working in the parish for a year (if unmarried)
  • Being a woman marrying a man of the parish
  • Being a legitimate child of under 7 years whose father lived in the parish
  • Being an illegitimate child born in the parish (after 1743 this changed and the child took the settlement of the mother)
  • Being a child or person apprenticed to a master in the parish (after 40 days)
  • Being a person who has moved to the parish and lived there for 40 day after giving the parish authorities written notice of his intention to do so
  • Holding public office (from 1691)

The effect was to restrict the poor moving around to find work. In 1697 settlement certificates were introduced, allowing people to move between parishes to obtain work, provided they had a certificate from their ‘home’ parish confirming that parish would accept them back should they require poor relief. Settlement certificates provide valuable genealogical details:

  • Names of all family members
  • Ages of family members
  • Details of their parish of settlement
  • Names of the Churchwardens and Overseers of the parish issuing the certificate

People/families moving to a different parish to find work were required to file their certificates with the Overseer in the ‘new’ parish as ‘proof’. There are therefore often two copies of settlement certificates to be found amongst the parish records: one in the originating parish and one in the new parish.

Records with regard to settlement may also be found in Overseers accounts/records by way of:

  • Detailed notes of expenses incurred in ascertaining a person’s/family’s legal settlement;
  • correspondence with the parish officers (usually the Overseers) of other parishes;


Where a person/family’s legal settlement was in doubt, they could be examined by a Justice of the Peace on oath as to their legal settlement. Where examination records exist they may be found amongst the parish records3 and can essentially provide a short biography of the person or family’s life over a long period of time. It is therefore likely to contain valuable information for the genealogist and clues as to where other records for the person/family may be found. Information contained in them can include:

  • Place of birth
  • Age
  • Parentage
  • Employment history
  • Apprenticeships
  • Places in which they have previously lived
  • Marriage
  • Children’s names and ages

Where the Justices were satisfied the person or family had no right to settle in the parish and they required poor relief, they would issue a Removal Order, ordering the person/family to be removed to their place of legal settlement. Removal Orders may also appear amongst the parish records.

If they do not survive, there may be other records pertaining to the removal of a person/family, in particular in the Constables accounts (by way of the detailed expenses in connection with the removal) who would be required to escort those being removed to the parish boundary. Sometimes those being removed would have to pass through a number of parishes to arrive in the parish of their legal settlement, in which case there will likely be reference to that removal in the Constables accounts of each parish they had to pass through.

Again there are therefore often two copies of removal orders to be found amongst the parish records: one in the parish issuing the order and one in the parish they had been returned to.

Bastardy records and bonds

During the 17th and the 18th century illegitimate/bastardy birth rate increased and numerous Acts were passed concerning bastard children and their parents. These Acts provided for:

  • The parents of bastard children being imprisoned for up to one year
  • A woman having a second bastard child being sent to prison unless she could provide security for good behaviour, this lead to an increase in abortions and infanticide
  • Making killing a bastard murder
  • Overseers, on the order of two Justices of the Peace, being able to seize goods of parents who abandoned their bastard children7
  • A pregnant woman to declare to the overseer if the baby was a bastard and to name the father in order to stop her concealing the pregnancy and disposing of the child quietly8
  • A bastard children to take the settlement of the mother and for the mother to be punished by public whipping.

Bastardy examinations of mothers were held to establish who the father was. Once identified the father was obliged to pay for the child’s upkeep by way of a bond entered into with the parish, or by the parish obtaining a court order for maintenance payments to be made. Bastard children were also frequently apprenticed at seven years of age.

Parents were ‘encouraged’ to marry so that the child would take the fathers legal settlement, particularly if that was a different parish as they could then be removed. There were often ‘bribes’ or ‘financial incentives’ provided to persuade the parents to marry. These events were often recorded in vestry minutes.

There are a great number of documents relating to bastards which may be of value to the genealogy to differing extents. Those held in parish records include:

  • Bastard examination records
  • Bastardy Bonds
  • Maintenance Orders
  • Overseers accounts and/or Churchwardens accounts and/or Vestry Minutes may record voluntary payments made by a father
  • Settlement examinations, settlement certificates and removal orders
  • Constable accounts
  • Apprenticeship records

Along with the records of the overseers of the poor rate (see the previous blog) these records are arguable some of the records of greatest value to the family historian. These are the records which should provide the most information on individual parishioners.

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Parish Chest – Overseer of the poor an overview

Overseers of the Poor were created by the Poor Law Act of 1572 and were responsible for the ‘management’ of the poor. This included collecting the ‘poor rate’; paying poor relief in its various guises and removing those ‘unwanted’ persons from the parish.

Overseers accounts can provide a great deal of information valuable to the genealogist, particularly those from poor backgrounds. Agricultural labourers and their families will often appear at some time or other in the overseers accounts. Agricultural labourers were amongst the lowest paid earners and in years when crops failed or prices were through the floor, it was often these workers who suffered the most and required poor relief in order to survive.

Poor rates and relief

By an Act of 1551 parishes were required to register their poor and the clergy were to ‘gently ask and demand of every man and woman what they of their charity would be content to give weekly towards the relief of the lame, impotent and aged’. Following the appointment of Overseers, parishioners were ‘ordered’ to assist with supporting the poor but it was not until 1598 and the Great Poor Law Act of 1601 that the poor rate was introduced and remained in force until the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Under the 1601 Act parishes were to tax ‘every inhabitant, parson, vicar and other and every occupier of lands, houses, tithe impropriate and proprietors of tithes, coalmines or saleable underwood’.

The poor rate assessment was carried out by the Overseer although the Vestry had the overriding decision including who would be excluded from paying the rate. The rate was assessed based on the value of a parishioner’s property, irrespective of whether they owned it or just occupied it. The income was recorded in either the Overseers accounts (in smaller parishes) or separate Poor Rate books (in larger parishes) and will include the names and the amount paid so this could provide an indication of an ancestor’s wealth.

Further, because the rate was levied annually, an ancestor’s appearance or disappearance from the poor rate records may indicate their death, movement between parishes or their financial demise. Those who failed to pay their prescribed poor rate, could be set to gaol and details of those ancestors may be found in the Constables accounts (see below).

Poor relief was available to the sick, unemployment or old age; those simply unwillingness to work would not receive poor relief. The records include a recipients name, details of any family members; amount given and the purpose of the payment, usually made for a specific purpose such as rent, food, coffins and funeral expenses. Clothing would be provided and medical treatment paid for by the parish. Work may also be provide, e.g. women would often be paid to care for the sick or undertook laundry work; men would be set to work repairing parish roads and bridges.

Parish Apprenticeships

Under the Poor Law Act 1601, children of the poor, including orphans and foundlings were apprenticed from the age of seven, often without the agreement of the parent(s) although the agreement should have been executed by the child, his/her parents, their master and the parish officers and enforced by the execution of a bond.

Details of children apprenticed will be found in the Overseers accounts and Vestry minutes1, when separate apprenticeship register were to be kept. This register may be found amongst the parish records as will any surviving indentures.

Indentures will provide the following information:

  • Date of Agreement
  • Name of the child being apprenticed
  • Name of the Master
  • Names of the Churchwarden(s), Overseer(s) and Justices of the Peace endorsing the apprenticeship
  • The trade in which the child is to be apprenticed
  • Terms of apprenticeship

They are therefore a useful source of information to the genealogist, both in determining whether an ancestor was an apprentice and in determining whether an ancestors held a parish or legal office.

The later apprenticeship registers include the following details:

  • Date of Agreement
  • Name of apprentice
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Parents names (especially the father)
  • Residence of the parents
  • Name and address of the Master
  • Masters trade
  • Term of apprenticeship and fee paid
  • Names of Overseer(s) and magistrates endorsing the apprenticeship

They are therefore of greater value than indentures, providing additional useful information for the tracing of ancestors.

Poor Law Acts of 1576 and 1609-10 encouraged ‘houses of correction’ for those described as ‘idle’ and/or ‘disorderly’ where, as a form of punishment, they were set to work. By the Workhouse Act 1722 these became houses of industry or workhouses and smaller parishes could ‘unite’ to establish a ‘joint’ workhouse.

Overseers kept records of the possessions of those entering such houses. There may also be records of what work was undertaken whilst in the poorhouse. Anyone refusing to enter the workhouse would lose their poor relief and this may be apparent from the poor relief accounts.

The overseers accounts (including poor rate records and apprenticeship records) are arguable some of the records of greatest value to the family historian. These are the records which should provide the most information on individual parishioners.

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Parish Records – Churchwarden an overview

The certain origins of the Churchwardens are largely unknown but can be traced back to the 14th century and earlier although few records of their accounts exist from that time. It is perhaps the most ancient office of the church and parish defined as “the proper guardians or keepers of the parish church”.

The role was originally one of upkeep and maintenance of the church building and everything in it. However, over time as government became increasing interested in the population and at the latest from the 16th century (with the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII and the increasingly important role of the church and parish akin to local government) the role of the Churchwarden widened to include certain civil duties.

Two churchwardens were usually appointed to each parish, although there could be as many as four in larger parishes. They were elected from the male parishioners and appointed annually at a vestry meeting, generally at Easter but each parish varied.

Male parishioners were generally expected to serve as a parish officer of one sort or another at some point during the time they lived in the parish, although each parish may have had their own customs for election of parish officers. W E Tate in his book (page 85) “The Parish Chest” states “Service by rotation amongst all householders, or among the proprietors of specified houses or lands, is quite common, as indeed it is for the other offices in the parochial hierarchy”. Nominations for the role (as with others) may have been put forward by the incumbent, the Lord of the Manor, or the outgoing Churchwarden.

Again, as with other parish officer roles, the Churchwarden was generally unpaid although very occasionally it carried a salary, but even then, some nominees attempted to decline the position which would lead to a heavy fine and “until 1921 or, arguably, until 1964, common law compelled any parishioner chosen as warden to serve the office” (Tate, page 87).

As well as the upkeep and maintenance of the church building and everything in it, their civil responsibilities included, amongst other things:

  • Bringing ‘offenders’ before the archdeacon’s court at his parish visitation

That is ‘offenders’ of ecclesiastical law which included such things as:

  • Failing to attend church
  • Adultery
  • Clandestine marriages
  • Clergy failing in his duty

These were reported to the Bishop by the Churchwarden completing “Articles of Enquiry”.   On such record from Bishops Visitation to Winchester in 1764 was a pre-printed list of 13 questions: the first 10 concerned the church property, services, registers and essentially the business and fabric of the church; only the last three concern the parishioners, benefactions, and misconduct of church officials. In a Churchwarden’s presentment from Ewhurst dated 1729, written in English, to the Bishop’s court held at Basingstoke, the Churchwarden reported that the Minister “Does his duty as usual being presented for neglect several visitations past” and that in terms of Parishioners “None presentable as known”

(These will be looked at in a later blog discussing Ecclesiastical Court records more generally)

  • The administration of church funds (church rate/parish rate)

Churchwarden accounts

These are the main records of the Churchwarden to be found amongst parish chest records. They were required to keep proper accounts of the receipts and expenditure with their accounts being produced annually to the parishioners.

Churchwarden accounts can be quite detailed, with a mixture of lists and narrative descriptions depending on the expense. Parishioners are named where they have provided a service or goods, for example (From the Parish of Cranleigh, Surrey History Centre (SHC) reference CRA/7/3):

“Pd Harvey Best as ? bill for Refreshments for Ringers …….1 4 0”

“P Wm Stanton as ? bill for coal for the Church……. – 18 9”

“Churchwardens attending visitation………- 14 -”

Each page has the balance in hand total at the bottom. There are details where the accounts have been audited and are complete from 1840 to 1868. Names of ancestors may appear in the accounts if they contributed to the ‘church rate’ but it is unlikely there would be sufficient information to determine family members. However, they can provide an overview of family life. There may be reference to ancestors who worked for and were paid by the parish, such as tradesmen who carried out maintenance and repair of the church: masons, carpenters, glaziers (and their respective labourers), bakers who provided bread and shopkeepers who provided wine and candles.

A Church Rate book for the Parish of Cranleigh (Surrey History Centre reference CRA/7/4) covering a period of 12 years from 1850 to 1862. This is a bound book of lists of those parishioners who were assessed annually to pay the church rate. There are no details as to the exact expenditure of the church rate. Each year begins:

“A Rate and Assessment for the necessary repairs of the Church of Cranley in the County of Surrey and for other purposes mentioned in the several Acts of Parliament relating to the Rates and Ceremonies of the said Church made and assessed on the Inhabitants and occupiers of Land and Estates in the said Parish this fifth day of May 1859 after the rate of four in the pound”

The lists include the assessment of the value of the property, the name of the land owner or occupier, the “residence or situation of property” and the rate amount due, for example:

“Assessment          Names                    Residence or situation of Property                   Rate

15 10               Austen Sir Henry Bowles Woodland                                                  – 5 2

78 6               Street Thomas               Manning Hill                                               1 6 0

184 5             Tickner Jn              House and Land                                          3 1 5”

For the period these records are available, they are complete and in good condition.

There may also be record containing lists of the Churchwardens, overseers, and other parish officers which were maintained by the Churchwarden, for example, for the parish of Cranleigh, SHC Reference CRA/7/1 is a  book containing lists of overseers, churchwardens and waywardens, and churchwardens accounts [Repaired and rebound in 1930, with cover incorrectly titled ‘Cranleigh Parish Register’] (1648-1737).

Churchwarden accounts and other records per se may be of little value to the genealogist in terms of tracing family members and preparing a family tree.

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The Parish Chest – Vestry Minutes and overview

What was/is a Vestry?

The Vestry was the governing body of the parish, akin in some ways to the parish council of today. They had both an ecclesiastical role and civil role. Vestries do of course still exist in todays Churches, albeit their function are now ecclesiastical only.

The vestry was made up of solely male members of parish. In the early years, every male parishioner was in theory required to undertake a role in the vestry. Over time however, increasingly the roles became concentrated amongst the more prominent members of the parish, these became known as select vestries.

The Vestry meeting

Vestry meetings dealt with every aspect of parish life and the community. These may have been established as early as the fourteenth century (certainly by the time church/parish officers had been established – see later blogs), but became increasingly important from the sixteenth century, with the decline of the manorial courts. Manorial courts continued to exist (at least to some extent) alongside vestries for several centuries to come in respect of land holding in particular.

The vestry discharged may duties such as the management of the church and related ecclesiastical matters but also managed parish matters such as the upkeep of the fabric of the Church, local highways and bridges, law and order, the poor rate etc, appointing (annually) and supervising parish officers such as the Churchwarden, Waywarden, Constable and the Overseer of the Poor (these will be looked at in more detail in later blogs). The incumbent would of course be a member of the Vestry.

The Vestry had overall control of the church rate, parish rate and poor rates and payments of poor relief and essentially dealt with anything which may touch upon the church, the parish and its parishioners.

What are their records and why should family historians use them?

When vestry meetings were held vestry minutes would record the details of the meetings.

They list all those who attended the meeting, the parish officers and their roles.

They can contain details of almost anything which may touch upon the parish and its parishioners. Agreements maybe recorded as to almost anything which touched upon the church, the parish and its parishioners and can include things such as:

  • when and in what manner the sacrament should be administered
  • not to hold meetings on sabbath days
  • who and where the dead can be buried (or not buried) within the church/churchyard.
Extract from Vestry Minute for the Parish of Cranleigh 1821 (Surrey History Centre Reference P58/1/1

The parish officers reported back to the vestry. However they also created their own records (particularly the Churchwarden, Constable and Overseer) which will be discussed in later blogs in this series.

The minutes can contain such details as the names of:

  • Those assessed as eligible to pay the poor rate and the amount they had to pay
  • Those who would be excluded from paying the rate
  • Those who had failing to pay the poor rate
  • Those who were to be paid poor relief, provided with clothing, medical expense etc. (where the parish was too small to require a separate overseer the vestry minutes may contain similar details as would be found in the overseers accounts (see above))
  • Emigrants and any provision made for their passage through the parish
  • Apprenticed children
  • Illegitimate children, particularly if there was concern that they may become a burden on the parish
Extract from Vestry Minute for the Parish of Cranleigh 1839 (Surrey History Centre Reference P58/1/2

Vestry minutes can be an important source where they have survived. Not only can they name ancestors but they can also provide a picture of the day to day life of the parish. Relationships between parishioners may also be deduced from information recorded in these minutes.

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The Parish Chest

The Parish Chest

Long before the establishment of the Church of England and the parish as it was established by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Incumbents were required to store their important records (e.g., accounts) and wealth of riches contained in their churches (silverware, parish alms etc) in a secure place. Often used for this purpose was a chest, “ark”, “coffer”, or “hutch”. At various times statutory requirements were introduced as to the properties of these chests which can still be found today in some churches.

In terms of family history, the importance of the parish chest must not be overlooked. Parish records became increasingly important with the developing of the parish as an autonomous local government entity from the start of the 16th century following the demise of the manorial and feudal systems in the 15th century. The existence, varieties and styles of the parish chest can help understand the survival (or not) of many of the parish records which can be so important to researching our ancestors before the start of civil registration.

Most of these records concern the upkeep of the poor of the parish under the ‘old’ poor laws with many coming to an end in or about 1836 following the introduction of the ‘new’ poor laws. The old poor law system introduced in 1552, required every parish, at the expense of the parishioners, to be provided with a strong chest and three keys to hold the alms of the poor. The chest was required to have a hole in the upper part. This requirement which was reinforced by Elizabethan legislation and confirmed in canons of 1603. It was not always the case that new chests were provided, but the old medieval ones adapted to serve the purpose.

In his book “The Parish Chest” (Phillimore 1983) W.E. Tate describes the varieties and styles of chests used. The oldest chests dating from pre 13th century with the “dug-out” which comprised “of a substantial log, having its center hollowed out, and its sides roughly squared with the axe”. The wood would often be oak, but examples of chests made from elm (in Eckington, Worcestershire) and cedar and cypress (Swaffham Bulbeck and Cheveley, Cambridgeshire) have been found.

From about the early 13th century chests were more commonly like a box “made of substantial boards fastened with great wrought-iron nails” generally made from thicker material at the ends than the back and front “and the bottom is grooved into the ends and sides”. As carpentry improved through the 13th century, so do the parish chest, with late 13th century chests having fronts made “of a great solid slab of wood” and they were “sometimes fitted with plain iron bands, or chains were fixed round them” presumably to strengthen the chest.

Decorations also began to be introduced. Some 14th century chests boasted carvings of figures “generally of a military or chivalrous nature” on the large front panels. A 14th century chest from York Minster boasts a carving of St George and the dragon.

As carpentry techniques improved so did parish chests. Chests from Tudor times onwards are “more or less characteristic of their time” often boasting carvings of the Tudor rose for decoration. They are more likely to be dated and if a new chest was purchased the name of the churchwarden purchasing it may be inscribed.

Over the centuries since Tudor times chest became increasing ornate, with classical and semi-classical details, such as rosettes and even plump cherubs. Oak was traditionally the wood of choice, however increasingly the use of other woods began to be used as inlays, overlays and decorations, such as walnut, mahogany (after the removal of the mahogany duty in 1753).

Given the lack of heating in these old churches, these wooden chests would have been affected by weather, neglect, vermin attack, and pilfering over the course of time.

More common in our parish churches today are iron boxes, following the requirements of Rose’s Act 1812.

So, what records, which may be of interest and use to the family historian, could be found in the parish chest? Essentially the records of the parish officers and other records relating to the local administration of the parish:

  • Parish registers
  • Vestry minutes
  • Churchwarden accounts
  • Overseers accounts inc. poor rate and relief records
  • Parish apprenticeship records
  • Constable accounts
  • Settlement and removal records
  • Bastardy records and bonds
  • Militia relief records
  • Charitable funds
  • Glebe terrier records
  • Records of the surveyor of highways

These records will be explored in more detail in my forthcoming weekly blogs.

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Parish Registers of Burials

Early burial registers again often just stated the name of the deceased. This was especially the case in small towns and villages or remote settlement where the clergyman may have known all his parishioners and did not feel the need to include any other detail to distinguish between those with the same name.

Burial register showimg just names and dates c.1700 Baptism; Marriage and Burial Register; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1697-1764; Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

Sometimes in parish registers, clergymen may have written personal comments about parishioners, particularly if the deceased was a prominent parishioner; had reached a grand old age; had died in unusual circumstances; or possibly if the deceased was a person the clergyman particularly liked or disliked! There may be comments as to what happened to the deceased and would often comment if the deceased was a baby/child.

There may be details in the parish register of the time of day of burial, particularly if the burial was at night. Burials by torch light were reserved for distinguished members of society and/or a family tradition. However non-conformists were also often buried at night without any formal ceremony or torch light). If the deceased had been excommunicated (for reason of religion, moral offences, none payment of tithes, or other ecclesiastical offences) they are likely to have been buried without formal ceremony and there may be details of this in the parish register.

Example of entries for burials in woollen 1730’s; Baptism, Marriage and Burial Register; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1697-1764; Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

The first big change to appear in burial registers however occured after the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666 and 1678. During this period there was a surplus of wool in Britain and these acts ordered that all deceased had to be buried in a shroud made from wool, in order to help reduce this surplus.

There was need for a second act in 1678 in order to strengthen the regulations, now requiring an affidavit signed by a magistrate (or in some circumstances the minister) confirming these regulations had been complied with. 

There was a £5 fine for those failing to produce an affidavit, the proceeds of which, half went to the poor and half to the informer. The informer was usually a member of the family and there sometimes collusive agreements to essentially reduce the fine. The burial registers would, during this period, annotated with “aff” or “A” to indicate whether an affidavit had been produced, or the clergy may had written “buried in woollen” or described how the deceased was buried.

Whilst those too poor to afford the woollen shroud could be exempted this requirement, wealthy people who could afford to pay the fine and wanted to show their prosperity, would often ignore the regulation.

The practice of burial in woollen lasted over 100 years, dying out in the late 1700’s, rarely being enforced after 1770, although the Acts were themselves not repealed until 1814.

The main persons omitted from the burial registers, particularly in the early years, were the unbaptised, sailors, soldiers and others who died abroad, papists and dissenters who were buried privately.

A further change which was “attempted” in this period was the imposition of a duty of 3d on each entry in a register, baptism, marriage and death under the Stamp Act 1783 and was extended to non-conformist registers in 1785.

This act was extremely unpopular.

The flat rate was seen as very unfair, with the rich paying the same amount as the poor although those in receipt of poor relief were exempt as were burials in workhouses. The act was repealed in 1794.

The ‘effect’ on the parish registers of the imposition of this duty was similar to under the earlier Tax on Marriages, Births and Burials of 1694:

  • registers would record the fact the sum had been paid (or not);
  • fewer baptisms (in particular) save for amongst the poor followed by an increase in adult and older children being baptised after the act was repealed.

It must also be remembered that in 1752 dates in parish registers were affected by the change from the Julian calendar (when the year ran from the 25th March to the 24th March) to the Gregorian calendar which is still in use today (with a year running from 1st January to the 31st December). This must be remembered when looking at parish registers prior to 1752.

There were no universal changes to baptism or burial registers during this period however from about 1765 Dade Registers, as they became known, began to be used in some parishes in the northern counties of East Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Durham. These were the result of a growing recognition that parish register entries were inadequate and William Dade began more comprehensive parish registers for baptisms and burials.

Burial registers included:

  • Age
  • Cause of death
  • Occupation
  • Details of the parents if the deceased was a child
  • For married women, the name of their husband

In 1777 the Archbishop of York ordered that Dade-style registers should be used across his diocese, however with no penalty imposed for failing to us such registers, not all parishes adopted the such registers, others did adopt the format but with less detail whilst others adopted the format but did not persevere.

The next significant change to parish registers came in 1812 when Rose’s Act was introduced. From 1813 separate parish registers where to be printed and bound in a standard form for baptisms, marriages and burials. Of course separate marriage registers were already in existence and the Act concentrated on baptism and burial registers.

Bishops’ transcripts continued, with the Act ordering that copies of the entries be sent to the registrars of each diocese each year with existing ‘old style’ parish registers to be sent to the Bishop of each diocese.

Rose’s original proposals were more detailed than the final Act which was ‘watered down’ by “the more conservative elements of Parliament”. Rose had included allowing non-conformists to send their registers to clergymen.

The Act was badly drafted, particularly in relation to penalties for those making false entries or altering or damaging or destroying registers. The Act states that anyone who informed of such acts should receive half of the fine or penalty imposed (with the poor of the parish or other charitable purpose as the Bishop chose, receiving the other half), yet the Act did not provide for any fine being imposed, the only penalty was fourteen years transportation!

Burial register exampled from 1840’s; Knottingley, St Botolph, Yorkshire, England; West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; New Reference Number: WDP134/1/4/2

Because the registers were now in standard form providing sections for the information required, there was little or no space for extra information which may previously have been found in parish registers (as discussed earlier). However the standard form has the advantage that in many parishes more information (particularly that which is of use to the genealogist) had to be provided than had previously been the case.

Burial registers now required the following information:

  • Name of the deceased
  • Age of the deceased (as accurately as was known)
  • Where the deceased lived (again, usually only the village in rural areas whereas the street name may be provided in a town)
  • Name of the officiating clergy

Parish registers did not ‘die out’ with the introduction of civil registration in 1836, and Rose-style registers are still used today for baptism and burial registers although are no longer the “official” records of a person’s existence, those now being the birth and death records introduced by the General Registration Act 1836 and maintained by the Registrar General. Bburial records have therefore largely remained unchanged since 1812.

As a consequence of this, Bishops Transcripts ceased with the introduction of civil registration, in that clergy were no longer required to send copies of parish records to the bishop of the diocese, although some did continue until into the 20th century.

Where are parish registers now? Under the Parochial Register and Records Act 1978 (which came into force in 1979) clergy were encouraged to transfer their parish registers to the county records office for safe storage. Where clergy did not wish to do so, strict conditions were set for their safe storage.

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Parish registers of Marriage

Early marriage registers usually just named of the bride and groom and sometimes just the grooms name! Occasionally there may be a reference to the marital status of the parties (bachelor/spinster etc) but more usually additional information and detailed entries were reserved for marriages amongst the nobility.

The early registers of the 16th and early 17th century were written in Latin and therefore can be more expressional than the later English versions.

Example of a marriage register from the 1620’s St James, Shere, Surrey Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Surrey Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SHER/1/1

During this period the age at which persons could marry was 12 for females and 14 for males with parental consent. This did not change until 1753. Marriage of ‘children’ can often be detected in the marriage registers by the entry including the fact that the marriage was with the consent of the parents. They may also include details of any disability or ‘deformity’ of one of the parties to the marriage, for example “Feb 15/ Thomas Tilsye and Ursula Russel were maryed; and because the sayde Thomas was and is naturally deafe, and also dumbe. …….the said Thomas, for the expressing of his mind instead of words, of his own accord used these signs…..

The early entries do not record whether the marriage was by banns or licence, although during the commonwealth gap (1654 to 1660) it must be remembered that all marriages had to be by banns.

An early 18th century marriage register in English from St Osyth, St Peter And St Paul, Essex, England, Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

It did become more common practice in the 17th century for some further details to be included in the marriage register, in particular, whether the marriage was performed following the calling of banns or by licence.

Marriage could, in this period, be entered into without the need for banns or licence; provided both parties consented the marriage would still be valid. In the early 18th century there was a growth in clandestine and scandalous marriages. Most notorious of these were those referred to as “Fleet marriages”, that is those marriages which increasingly took place in and around Fleet Prison in London by clergymen who were disreputable, often due to bankruptcy. Such marriages took place both in the prison chapel and surrounding taverns. They were not limited to the criminal fraternity but such weddings provided a venue for nobility to marry ‘undesirable’ persons or for the young to marry without parental consent. It is therefore wrong to assume that a those who entered into ‘Fleet marriages’ were involved in criminal activity.

Example Fleet marriage entry from the 1740’s; Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel. Records of the General Register Office, Government Social Survey Department, and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Registrar General (RG) series 7. The National Archives, Kew, England. Piece 215: 1744 Feb – 1745 Feb

These ‘Fleet Registers’ often contain more information than other marriage registers. For example, in the marriage register for Dukes Place in Aldgate records a ‘third party’ after 1678. For example, the contraction “Fr” may be appended, which probably means “father” and indicated that the individual if not actually the father was acting in loco parentis.

Fleet registers can also include descriptions of “disgraceful scenes” as the disreputable clergy conducting such marriages would keep note books of the marriages which “seem to have been generally copied into the larger Fleet registers”.

In order to combat the practice of clandestine and scandalous marriages, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was introduced in 1753 which was the first major change in marriage registers.

The Act about wide spread noticeable change to parish registers when it came into force on 25 March 1754. This was the first time a standard form was introduced for any parish records. This Act, as its name suggests, dealt only with marriage registers and following its introduction marriage could only be:

  • by banns or licence
  • take place in the parish in which one of the parties to marry lived
  • entered into a special printed register
Marriage Register entry following Hardwick’s Marriage Act; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1754-1812; Essex Church of England Parish Registers, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, Essex, England.

It introduced a separate register for marriages being paper or velum books in two parts, the first part being the forms for the publication of banns, the second for entering the marriage details. The pages had to be numbered and many parishes decided to number each entry. The Act made the following legal requirements for a marriage to be valid:

  • Banns had to be read for three Sundays in the church where those to be married were parishioners, if they lived in different parishes the banns had to be read in the church of both parishes
  • Raised the legal age of marriage, without parental consent, to 21 years
  • The ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican clergyman (Jews and Quakers were exempt, marriages under any other faiths were not recognised in the eyes of the law, however this does not mean they were illegal)

The information to be recorded in the in the marriage register was:

  • The place of residence, before the marriage, of both parties
  • The status of the bride and groom (single/widowed etc)
  • Whether the marriage too place following banns or by licence
  • Signature of the parties (or their mark if they could not write)
  • Signature of at least two witnesses
  • Name of the officiating clergy

It was often the case that dissenters, gentry and yeomen would marry by licence to avoid the public calling of banns and licences which could be issued for more than one church. The Act did not prevent irregular marriages, those wanting to ‘avoid’ the regulations for whatever reason, often travelled further afield to places such as the villages of Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton in Scotland where the Act did not apply.

This change is the most significant for marriage registers until the introduction of civil registration and provide invaluable information for genealogists.

Marriage registers are no longer parochial records but civil records, issued by and the responsibility of the General Registration Office (GRO) following the General Registration Act 1836. These marriage records are sent quarterly to the District Registrar, who in turn sends them to the Registrar General.

Parish register entry of a post civil registration marriage certificate; London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P91/ALL/021

19th and occasionally early 20th century parish register copies of the Marriage certificate, for those marrying in church, are frequently available on subscription websites (e.g. Ancestry/FMP etc), having been digitised as part of the wider parish register collections for a given church.

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Etymology of surnames in England

Authorities on the etymology of surnames agree that few, if any, surnames of a hereditary nature were evident in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Second names can be found but they are in the form of bynames and nicknames which were not inherited by the next generation. Bynames and nicknames probably developed to differentiate between people living in the same place who had the same first name.

Bynames and nicknames may have identified a person in many ways such as by their occupation, location, topography, personal names (e.g., patronymic/matronymic), other family relationships (e.g., son), physical appearance, physical characteristics and mental and moral characteristics. I will come back to these later.

The development of the English language

There were three main foreign influences on the English language over the centuries prior to the Norman Conquest:

  • Danish, particularly in the east and north east of England between 793AD and the Norman Conquest, with the influence of the Vikings who brought Danish to the English shores;
  • German, particularly in southern England with the influence of the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century until the Norman Conquest, who had a Germanic vocabulary and is often referred to an “Old English” being the earliest form of the English language;
  • Latin which of course was the official written language until into the 17th century, and in legal documents until 1733

The Normans and surnames

By the time of the Norman Conquest, although not universal, surnames were in use in some European countries. When the Norman Barons became landowners following the Norman Conquest, there were only a few who possessed surnames which had been inherited (often however from only one or two generations back) e.g. de Tosny, Warenes, Mortimer and Vernons.

Norman Barons who did not have hereditary surnames soon began to adopt them. More commonly they adopted locative type surnames by reference to their family’s chief residence, which was often still in Normandy, rather than the name of their English manor. Some Norman Barons were content with adopting patronymics (e.g. if their father still lived at their family’s chief resident in France), nicknames and occupational names.

It is however, still with some uncertainty as to which, why and how these Norman “newcomers” adopted their surnames. There are no records from the time of the actual invasion to confirm which Barons came over at the time of the conquest and which came over in the immediate aftermath. The first record available is the Doomsday book of 1086, some twenty years after the invasion. It should also be noted that by the 12th and 13th centuries many junior members of the Baronial families began to adopt new surnames!

The Doomsday Book

From the Doomsday book it can be seen that many of the minor Lords and Knights  who came over with the Barons and were rewarded with landholding by way of “tenant-in-chief”, had not yet adopted surnames, at least not hereditary surnames. It is worth noting that the Doomsday book only provides details of those landowners and tenants of land who the King was able to tax, thus the “ordinary” person does not feature and records for those of the lower classes of society do not really begin until the 13th century, such as the Assize Rolls which do include all classes although most are landowners.

Development of Hereditary surnames

The adoption of hereditary surnames was slow; given our fast pace of life today, it could almost be described as “snail pace!” Research conducted indicates that some wealthy English London families had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 12th century, with the majority of the Norman tenants-in-chief in southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia and wealthy English families living in the leading provincial towns, such as Winchester, York, Norwich, Lincoln, having adopted hereditary surnames by the early to mid-13th century. It should be noted however this distinction between the Normans and English families becomes clouded in this period when the English began to adopt first names of Norman origin.

Norman tenants-in-chief elsewhere in the country had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 13th to early 14th century as had Burgesses, families from urban areas and the foot soldiers of the Norman Conquest (and later immigrants) whose ancestors became farmers, craftsmen, servants etc.

Genealogical sources which provide the evidence for early surnames include 14th century Inquisitions post mortem, feet of fines, close rolls and Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. From the 16th century onwards the more usual genealogical sources such as parish records, registers, manorial records and Quarter session records provide evidence the development of surnames and in particular how spelling variants developed.

The Black Death hit the lower classes of society in much greater numbers than the higher classes perhaps because they were more able to avoid or escape infected areas or because they have better access to what health care there was at the time. This resulted in a shortage of farmers and farmer labourers with many farms being left vacant. These were often taken over by families moving in from other parts of the country, spreading both their own surname and possibly the “trend” of adopting surnames into the northern areas.

However, with the development of surnames being so slow and varying in different areas of the country, where surnames are first recorded in lay subsidy rolls and poll taxes in the 14th century it is without any certainly that they can all in fact be described as hereditary surnames without the supporting genealogical evidence; some may have simply been bynames which were not passed to their children. One reason for this could be that the “surname” was given to them by an official who drew up the rolls of tax payers.

As already stated, it is not until the 15th century that it is thought most people of English origin had a fixed hereditary surname, even then, perhaps because of the recovering population after devastation of the Black Death, there are new surnames appearing in the Tudor subsidy rolls. It can however be said that the number of new surnames did not grow at the same rate as the growth in population because of the practice of hereditary surnames. There were of course always exceptions to this and families could still be found in the 16th and 17th centuries without a surname, particularly in the northern city of York and isolated areas of South Lancashire.

Essentially new surnames were being created throughout the centuries following their introduction until the 16th and 17th century when the written records of people became much more prevalent (parish registers, parish records, the array of non-conformist records, legal records, government and official records etc.).

But how were surnames adopted? In a variety of ways.

Many names brought over by the Normans (both at the time of the Conquest and by later immigrants) were anglicised through the centuries. For example “-ville” would be replaced with “-field” so Grenville became Greenfield, Semerville became Somerfield. Some names such as Beauchamp and Guillaume (amongst many) were altered for ease of spelling and pronunciation by the English, again being spelt phonetically. So Beauchamp became Beecham and Guillaume became various forms of William.

French-Norman personal names began to be adopted by English families and this was to the decline of earlier Anglo-Saxon personal names. It is interesting therefore to note that many surnames in the 14th century were formed from Anglo-Saxon personal names which were no longer in use suggesting these were adopted initially as bynames and eventually hereditary names as their use as personal names declined. Reaney states “A number of personal names which are not recorded in Old English after the eighth or ninth centuries reappear in Middle English. Some of these names are evidence only by their occurrence as surnames, others by their first record in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century”. He goes on to set out three pages of Anglo-Saxon personal names which survive in modern surnames, e.g. Grente (Grant), Eadweard (Edward), Ealdrœd (Aldred, Allred), Herewearld (Harold). This demonstrates one way in which names have come and gone and been adapted/anglicised through the centuries.

Patronymic/Matronymic surnames

Bynames and resulting hereditary surnames adopted from personal names are usually patronymic, that is, they are from the personal names usually of the father. A much smaller number were matronymic, that is, they are from the personal names of the mother.

There are a variety of patronymic surnames:

  • Those which are taken exactly from the personal name such as Thomas, Owen, Duncan, and usually formed prior to the 13th century;
  • Those where a personal name has been suffixed, most commonly with “-son” as in my maiden name of Richardson. These type of surnames were mostly commonly found in northern regions of England (such as Yorkshire (my native county)) and could also be formed from hypocoristic personal names, that is short forms of names such as Dick (for Richard) becoming Dickson or Dixon. It is said they were formed between the late 13th and mid-14th century largely amongst small free tenants or unfree tenants who were in the greater numbers in the norther regions;
  • Those where a possessive “-s” was added to a personal name such as Richards. These type of surnames were most commonly found in southern regions of England (such as the South East Midlands, East Anglia, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire) and their history and growth parallels that of “-son” in the northern regions. Kinley goes so far as to suggest “There was in fact something in the nature of a boundary running across the north Midlands, to the north of which surnames ending in ‘-son’ became numerous, and to the south of which surnames in ‘-s’ became common”;
  • From those with a possessive “-s” we also get names ending in “-x” when such names have become written, e.g. Dix, Rix;
  • Those where personal names such as Ellis and Henry, Will and Adam with the suffixes “-cock” and “-kin” added to hypocoristic version of them i.e. Elcock and Hancock, Wilcock, Wilkin, and Adcock, Atkin. Such suffixes were found in all regions from the mid-13th century usually in those of the lower classes as with the cases of “-son” and “-s” above;
  • Those where a personal name has been prefixed with “Fitz-” (from the French fils de) “Mac-”/”Mc-” (Ireland (prefixed to father’s name), Gaelic parts of Scotland, Isle of Man) , “O-” (Ireland prefixed to grandfather’s name);
  • Those personal names originating in Wales, although having now spread throughout Britain, which were originally prefixed with “Ap-” (where the name began with a consonant) or “Ab-” (were the name began with a vowel) meaning “son of” e.g. Ap Roger (son of Roger), Ab Adam (son of Adam). Such names were common in Wales until the 16th century after which many ‘dropped’ the “A” leaving surnames beginning with “P” or “B” such as Price/Pryce/Pryse from Ap Rhys and Bowen from Ab Owen;

Patronymic surnames, in the early years as I have stated above were more likely to be bynames not inherited thus John may have been known as Richardson because he was the son of Richard, but his own sons were more likely to have been known as Johnson, son of John. Clearly this poses some difficulty for the genealogist in trying to trace this family back beyond the first ancestor with the known hereditary surname. Unfortunately, as yet I have not traced my Richardson ancestors beyond the mid-19th century, although not through the lack of records, through the lack of time to conduct my own family research! Interestingly though the Richardson ancestors I have traced to date are in the northern counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where it appears the surnames is most likely to have originated.

The way in which patronymic surnames evolved does mean that when studying the origins of such names, there is highly unlikely to be one origin and it is almost certain that not all families with the same patronymic surname will be related no matter how far the surname can be traced back even where the families were from the same area. This is largely the result of the decreasing number of personal names in the early years of the development of bynames into hereditary names as discussed above.

Matronymic names should also be mentioned, albeit they were adopted as bynames and surnames in much fewer numbers and most likely where the mother was an heiress; or possibly where the child was illegitimate (although until the 18th century it was more likely that fathers would acknowledge such children with the child taking the father’s name). Matronymics were also ‘adapted’ by the addition of suffixes and prefixes in the same was as patronymics, e.g. “Emmot” from Emma, “Fitzmeriet” from Meriet and “Margisson” from Margery.

Place name surnames

Anglo-Saxon Place Names

Bynames and Surnames also developed from place-names (locative surnames), most of which have developed since the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the most obvious names in this category are those ending in “-ham”, “-ton”, “-by”, “-thorpe”, “-ford”, “-holme”, “-mouth” etc which are frequently endings of place-names. However not all are so obvious:

  • Spelling of place-names themselves have changed, in much the same way as language and surnames have changed through pronunciation and spelling particularly given many of these types of surnames were adopted from place-names in the 12th to the 14th centuries;
  • Place-names have come and gone – many locative name originate from villages, hamlets and small homesteads which no longer exists, particularly following “the conversion of arable to pasture and the enclosure of open fields, mostly in the period from about 1450 to 1550”
  • There maybe/may have been more than one place with the same name.

Care therefore needs to be taken when researching locative surnames, in particular consulting old maps from as close to the period in which the earliest form of the surname is known. Locative surnames do not appear to have been more popular in one area or another, although different areas may have had their own characteristics. For example, the ending “-thwaite”  is most often found in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District (of Norwegian influence) whilst “-thorpe” is most often found in areas to the East of the Pennines (of Danish influence).

Further, some names which appear to be locative may come from a different origin altogether i.e. origins from a personal name or an occupational name (see later). Kinley refers to the surname Arnold which could be from Arnold in Nottinghamshire, Arnold in North Yorkshire or indeed from a personal name; also the surname Stirrop which could be from Styrrup in Nottinghamshire or could be an occupational name.

It must also be remembered that locative names may derive from French place-names, particularly where their origins are in the first century or so following the Norman Conquest as discussed earlier.

Topographical surnames

Did your ‘Wood’ ancestors live near a wood?

Related to locative names are those which originate from topography, that is, from a feature of the land where a person lives, both natural and man-made e.g. hill, bridge, wood etc. Many of these type of names were formed in a similar way to patronymic names, by the use of suffixes. The most common suffixes included“-er” as in “Bridger” and “-man” as in “Bridgeman” both of which could be also be of occupational origin i.e. someone who worked on bridges. Other examples include Brooker/Brookman, Churcher/Churchman, Forder and Hilman etc.

Topographical bynames and surnames may also have the possessive “-s” or the suffix “-son” added again similar to patronymic names. Such variations are more commonly found from the beginning of the 16th century although a small number can be found in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is often the case that earlier versions of the surname for the same family are without the “-s” adding to the complication for genealogists of tracing the earlier ancestors. Such plural endings on names often arose where there were a number of the topographical feature in one area, i.e. more than one bridge close to where a person lived, possibly they lived between two bridges etc.

Prepositions were also often used with topographical names, more so than with any other type of surname, although they could be found with locative names too. The most common prepositions is thought to be “atte” as in “atte Bridge” and “atte” Wood. But other examples include “under”, “over”, “by”, “beneath” and “above”. They were often, in the early days, particularly before the 15th century, in the French equivalent, such as “de”, “de la”, “de le” and “del”. Most of these prepositions began to be ‘dropped’ or ‘merged’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, thus producing modern versions such as Atbridge/Attbridge and Attwood/Atwood.

Occupational surnames

Occupations also gave rise to an array of bynames and surnames, including those holding certain state or church office such as Abbot, Constable, Bishop, Sheriff etc. and ranks or status in society such as Freeman, Burgess, Knight, Mayor, Lord etc. Occupational bynames and surnames are perhaps amongst the earliest to become established, an obvious way to distinguish people with the same name if they had different occupations, this is particularly so for the most popular occupations such as smiths (locksmith, blacksmith etc), butchers, bakers, taylors, cooks, turners, millers etc. As Kinley states “In most villages there would be only one or two smiths, one or two tailors, and so forth, so that the occupations in question were sufficiently distinctive to mark out a man from his fellow villagers, hence were suitable for use as surnames”.

Occupation names however are often not that obvious:

  • Regional variations – different names were often used for the same occupation in different parts of the country. For example, “Brewer and Brewster, Deemer and Dempster (‘judge’), Dyer and Dyster or Dexter, Fuller and Folster, Kember, Kemster or Kempster (a ‘comber’ of wool or flax), Hollier and Hollister, Lister and Litster, Palliser and Pallister (maker of palings), Sanger and Sangster (‘singer’), Shaper and Shapster (‘tailor’ or ‘seamstress’), or Webber and Webster”;
  • Arising from different languages – Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, French;
  • They can be confused with topographical names as in Bridger discussed above, oher examples given by Kinley include “Bedster” more likely to be from a Sussex village now lost, and “Docker” more likely to be from Docker in Cumbria;
  • One could be forgiven for thinking my married name of “Pettyfer” is from the French  “Petit Four”, I must admit this was my first thought, deriving from someone who made them, how wrong I was! It is in fact from the French pied de fer (iron foot) so from a nickname (see below) or occupation (a foot soldier);
  • They could be names of “tools” of a trade rather than the occupation itself. Reaney uses the examples of a metal worker who “could be called both Seintier or Bellyeter” from the type of bells he made and “William le Pinour ‘maker of combs’ was also called le Horner from the horn he used”. Also included are names such as “Kitchen”, “Kitchener”, “Buttery” and “Hallman”.

Nickname surnames

Bynames and surnames were also ‘created’ from “nicknames” or “pet names”. These are generally said to be amongst the fewest in surnames today as many of the medieval nicknames ‘died out’. Amongst them today are:

  • Those deriving from physical appearance include surnames today such as Little, Short, Small, Little and colours such as Brown, Black, White, Grey, Gray and Reed, Reid and Read (from red) (colours of hair or complexion) but not Green which is more likely of a locative or topographical origin;
  • Those deriving from personal habits, mental and moral characteristics, e.g. “Blessed”, “Curtis” (from Courteous), “Good”, “Goodchild”, “Treadwell” and “Proud”. Many such names are originally derived from their French counterpart such as “Bonifant” (bon enfant – good infant).

Amongst nicknames are also those deriving from:

  • nature i.e. from mammals, birds and fish such as “Lamb”, “Finch” and “Gurnard”;
  • Seasons and festivals i.e. “Summer”, “Christmas”
  • “oaths, greetings, or similar expressions”

With an increasingly widespread use of hereditary surnames, one would be forgiven to think that tracing a family would be made easier. But this may not the case. Why? Because surnames were adopted and changed in a variety of ways over time, many of which have already been discussed above. However the tracing of surnames becomes even more complicated if we consider the impact of pronunciation and the spelling of surnames before spelling became standardised. 

Two other reasons why names changed or varied also need to be considered by the genealogist:

Families themselves may have changed the spelling and pronunciation to either distinguish them amongst others with a popular name (Smith/Smythe, Taylor/Tayleure) or in the lower classes to make them sound a more distinguished family.

It may also be the case that families chose to change their own surname completely choosing a pleasanter name, this is particularly so if the origins of the surname was as a nickname. For example, Charles Bardsley provides an array of examples under the heading “Nicknames from Peculiarities of Disposition— Objectionable”, including:

“‘ribaldry’ …. that which is foul- mouthed in expression….. A ‘ribaud’ or ‘ribaut’ belonged to the very scum of society. He was a man who hung on to the skirts of the nobility by doing all their more infamous work for them”;

“‘Robert le Lewed,’ or ‘William le Lewed,’ is also lost to our directories, and certainly would be an unpleasant appellation in the nineteenth century”;

“‘Robert le Sot,’ or ‘Maurice Drun-card,’ or ‘Jakes Drynk-ale,’ or ‘Geoffrey Dringke- dregges,’ or ‘Thomas Sourale’.

A more unorthodox reason but not unknown was for an individual in a Will to make it a condition of inheritance that the legatee take on the testator’s surname. This may often be the case if the testator has no direct descendants to carry on the family name and a more distant relative is to inherit. John Titford refers to two well-known families:

“Florence Nightingale’s father, William Edward Shore, who abandoned his own surname and became Nightingale in 1815 on inheriting the Derbyshire estates of his mother’s uncle, Peter Nightingale, and that of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who took the surname of Knight by Royal Licence in 1812 when he inherited and estate from his father’s cousin, Thomas Knight.”

Alias surnames

Lastly surname aliases can cause much confusion and could result in the individual being recorded under different surnames. For example, Smith alias Jones could be recorded as Smith or Jones or Smith-Jones with any one of the three names being used in different documents/records to identify the same person. This was often the case where a landowner held land in more than one location, he may be named after one of the locations alias the other and vice versa in the second location e.g. James York alias Pickering/John Pickering alias York.

An alias may also result from different spellings of the surname, e.g. “James Roides alias Rodes; Simon Woodhouse alias Wydis, and John Clegge otherwise Clagge”.

It is clear from the above discussion that the origins and evolution of surnames is far from straight forward and the genealogist should always bear in mind how a surname may have changed through the centuries. The further back in time the research the more variants the Genealogists needs to be aware there may be and be prepared to search all known/possible variables in an attempt to continue the ancestral line, including potential alternative surnames bearing in mind any other history of the family. It is also important to remember that where a surname has varied particular care will need to be taken to ensure it is the correct family line and not another family with a similar/same name. The more and varied records which are researched, checked and compared, the more accurate the research will be.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what variants there may be and useful resources to help are Dialect dictionaries and in particular Surname dictionaries such as:

P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005)

J. S. Titford The Penguin Dictionary of British Surnames (Penguin Books 2009)

C.W. Bardsley A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames with American Instances (Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co. 1967) (available on the Internet Archive website)

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Starting your family history

Are you thinking about starting your family history but not sure where to begin?

One of things I most regret is not recording the stories my grandfather used to tell us when my brother and I were children. But as is often the case as children we do not think about our family history and it is often once it is too late that our interest is sparked. I would therefore suggest the best place to start is with what you know or think you know about your family members and ancestors and what other members of your family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc – know.

  • Ask them about their life and their parents and grandparent.
  • Ask them if they hold any family records and photos and get copies from them.
  • Have they conducted any research – if so, you should check it for accuracy!

What is the best way to record your family history?

  • Ask questions!
  • Use a Dictaphone/mobile recording app/etc to record their stories as they are telling you them so that you can transcribe them verbatim
  • Write their stories as soon as possible
  • Use timelines, topics, time periods etc
  • Incorporate local, country, world events to put their life in context e.g., wars, inventions, political events, discoveries etc
  • Research the area/properties in which they lived, neighbours, any friends mentioned, schooling etc
  • Photographs, records, memorabilia, heirlooms are all helpful in telling their stories and may themselves create a mini story of their own. Photos can usually be dated (by experts!) through the style, clothing etc in photos of those in military uniforms can be useful for identifying regiments etc

Once you have some basic information, you might want to think about organising your research – yes before you start:

  • decide who you are going to start with
  • how you are going to research the family – per generation, surname, blood line, siblings etc,
  • what do you want to know?

It is amazingly easy to get distracted and taking your research off on a tangent!

Family history is very addictive!

Most people are likely to start with a subscription website largely because you can search a variety of record sets in one place e.g., BMD/census etc.

Which one to use?

Ancestry is perhaps the best-known website because of its sponsorship of tv programmes and tv advertising

however, there are several other sites available such as:

with differing subscription levels (UK based, worldwide etc) and costs (monthly/annual).

With most sites you can try before you buy with a free trial period (usually 14 days) which gives limited access to the essential records such as BMD and census. This may help you decide which site you prefer.

There is also the free site Family Search which is a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and can provide a good starting point for family research although, in my opinion is a bit more ‘clunky’ to use than the subscription websites but still a great source for records.

All these websites have the ability to build your family tree which can be made public (so that other people can view the information in it) or private (either searchable or not) but beware the online tree:

  • the information may not always be correct!
  • check where they have taken information from, is it corroborated with documents?

It is usually better to conduct your own research, but they can be useful for cross checking!

Also be aware of using “hints” – they may need to be sifted through to find your ancestors and may not in fact be the correct people! DO not automatically accept them

Be openminded because you never know what you might find!

So, you have spoken to your relatives and recorded what they know about your ancestors. Now you want to take it further. So, what are the basic records to start your family history research assuming you are starting in the 19th or 20th century?

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Census returns

What are birth, marriage and death certificates?

  • Formal certificates obtained from the General Register Office (GRO) (may also be available from local offices and churches (for marriages))
  • Provide evidence of the date the event took place for an individual
  • Often provide other extremely useful information such as parentage, occupations, spouses, witnesses, children (deaths registered by an adult child), locations, ages etc
  • Provide the names and other useful information of the earlier generations which may help identify a member of a family particularly where there is more than one person in a location with the same name
  • Can also identify the correct generation where the same name is used across several generations of a family
  • Cost is £11 for paper copies
  • For births 1837 – 1913 and deaths 1837 – 1957 PDF copies are available for £7 (cannot be used for legal purposes such as confirming family members for inheritance purposes)
  • They can be search using the GRO indexes for each type of records available on:
    • GRO website – births and deaths searchable only and can be searched +/- 2 years
    • Free BMD – births, marriages ad deaths can be search and a much wider search period can be used
    • Can be searched by county and registration district – check the registration district as boundaries have moved over time
    • If no entry found check neighbouring districts particularly if they lived on a near a border, they could be registered in a neighbouring area
    • Also, check districts where parents were born/grandparents lived if different – mother may have gone home to have child and may have registered it there
    • Index entries on the GRO website give mother’s maiden name – if you have details of any siblings, it can be worth checking for their record in the indexes to cross check the mother’s maiden name.

REMEMBER whilst civil registration was introduced in 1837 registration of births was not compulsory until 1874 and therefore a birth may not have been registered before this!

If no register entry can be found, try searching for a baptism record – not everyone was baptised though!

If still nothing is found it could be there simply is no contemporaneous record for a birth date, whoever, depending on when they were born, they may be found in the 1939 Register which provide a date of birth (although not also accurate so should be used with caution) (see my blog/podcast on the 1939 Register)

Sometimes a birth certificate does not include the father’s name. How can he be identified?

  • Marriage certificate for the ancestor’s mother – the mother may have later married the father
  • Marriage certificate for the ancestor in question – is a father named? However, this could be fictitious though or a stepfather
  • Children, particularly boys, were often given the fathers name/surname as a middle name – particularly useful if the mother later had that name as a married name or can be identified in census returns living with someone with the surname (as happened in the case of my maternal great grandfather!)
  • Census records – who was the mother living with before the birth and who is the mother and child recorded with in the first census following the birth
  • Parish records/workhouse records often identify paternity (depending on the year(s) concerned)
  • DNA
  • Baptism records
  • Birth records for siblings who may have the same father

What are census returns?

The National Archives website describes census returns as “ a head count of everyone in the country on a given day”

  • Taken every ten years in England and Wales, and separately for Scotland, since 1801, with the exception of 1941, during the second world war
  • Take to provide information about the population as a whole
  • In theory they list everyone by name, wherever they happened to be on census night

But not every can be found (or at least found where expected)! Why they might not be there:

  • they may have moved away from the area so try neighbouring areas or whole county/country searches
  • They may be away on business – think about their occupation and where that may take them
    • e.g., an agricultural labourer may be working away on a farm
    • travelling salesman may be away selling his goods etc
    • soldiers and sailors often missing if they were not at home on the night of the census
  • look at the wider search results on subscription sites
  • They may have gone abroad – search passenger lists (depending on period – post 1890 available at TNA)
  • search more than one website if you can
  • Does the census exist? Check on the National Archives website what census returns are missing
    • e.g., many census returns for 1861 are missing – in a research project for a client recently I could not find any of their ancestors who were living in various parts of London in the 1861 census and when I checked they were parts of the census returns which were missing
  • Transcription errors (see more below)!
    • They could have been missed when the returns were indexed online
    • Their name could be mis-transcribed – always check the original document (online image)

See my blog/podcasts on census returns for more information on census returns.

Consider other ways of spelling the name:

  • Spelling did not become standardised until the later 19th century when education became more widespread, and even then, variants of spelling can still be found – even today!
  • A variant is an alternative of a surname. When researching, think about how a name sounds and unusual ways it could therefore be spelled
  • Common spelling variants can include, e.g., W or V; G, J and Y, T and D, interchangeable vowels o/u a/e/i etc; also, i/y
  • Names were often spelled differently in different documents, within the same document were written by different individuals often due to location/accent/mishearing/mis-transcribing – could even result in the wrong name being recorded
  • Many surnames had common roots often based on a family’s location, a person’s occupation, nickname, and many names were passed down through the generations i.e., eldest son – paternal grandfather; second, maternal grandfather; third by paternal great grandfather and so on
  • If you would like to know more about surname development and variants, my next blog will be on just that subject!

There are some common errors made by beginners – yes, we have all made them! But how can they be avoided?

  • Be aware of online family trees, the information may not always be correct!
  • Check where they have taken information from, it is corroborated with documents
  • It is usually better to conduct your own research but they can be useful for cross checking!
  • But be aware that if using websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past etc, you may need to sift through numerous records they “hint” at to find the correct ones for your ancestors!
  • Do not automatically accept “hints”
  • Do not assume what you have been told by family members and family stories are correct
  • Be prepared to find information which may not be comfortable to accept or may not ‘fit’ the ‘known’ history
  • Be aware that researching your family history is not as easy as it may appear from the popular television programmes and that brick walls are more common that one might think!
  • Not all our ancestors complied with the paperwork and not all may be found where we think they should be!  
  • Organise your research – paper records can be organised in many ways but however you do it keep it consistent! Could be by surname, family group, couples etc
  • You could use online trees – Ancestry/Find My Past/My Heritage/Family Search
  • Tree Vault – The genealogist
  • Purchase Specialist software:
    • Family Historian – links to FMP and My Heritage
    • Family Tree Maker – links to Ancestry and Family Search
    • RootsMagic
    • Legacy

Struggling? When is it time to commissioning a professional Genealogist to add to your ancestral research?

  • Time – It is our job so we have the time to concentrate on your research rather than you are spending endless hours of your precious spare time – but of course it is some people’s hobby!
    • Professionals understand unforeseen circumstances/complications which can occur during research and should have the ‘toolbox’ to resolve those
      • Cost saving – probably have subscriptions to numerous search sites saving you the cost of subscribing – this may mean they have access to a larger range of records than you do if you are only subscribing to one site
      • You may not want to subscribe
      • Costs of travel to archives – use a local professional who knows the archives and has easy access to them
      • Specialist knowledge of areas / records which can help identify local or specialised records to help your research
      • Break down brick walls using skills which can often only be developed by education (academic and practical use)

Contact me to see how I can help you research your family history

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1939 Register

The 1939 register was taken on 29th September 1939, just three weeks after war had been declared on the 3rd September. It was taken because the government needed to carry out an emergency register for the purposes of creating a wartime register and issuing both identity and ration cards. It would have also be useful in identifying those eligible for conscription which did not begin in earnest until 1940.

The register was prepared, organised and conducted much like the census returns. They were the creation of the general register office with the administration being the responsibility of each registration district which, as with census returns, we’re divided into sub districts and enumeration districts. The register was to be taken throughout the UK including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands although it is only the records for England and Wales which have been digitised. Unfortunately, the records for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have not survived whilst records for Scotland can be requested from the national records of Scotland and records for Northern Ireland can be requested from the public record office of Northern Ireland.

Everyone was to be included with the exception of those already in the armed services. Those who had already been conscripted would have been registered along with the regular armed forces who have their own system of identity cards and rationing however given that conscription didn’t we didn’t begin in earnest until 1940 many of our ancestors who served in the Second World War would still have been civilians when the register was taken.

The schedules were delivered to each household or institution and before the 29th September And were completed by the house by householders or institutions on that night.

When the registers were collected the enumerators would issue each person with their identity card which would be completed by hand. The numerators would I need to return as many times as it took to collect the completed schedules and deliver the identity cards. In theory this meant that every person should be included on the register, including shift workers itinerant workers, people living in caravans or barges etc or anyone who might be moving around the country for some reason. Those who deliberately avoided the enumerator or avoided completing the register were in the minority and were most likely trying to avoid conscription. In most cases failure to register was due to misunderstanding or force of circumstances And when people realised that this meant they were they would not receive an identity card or a ration book people working to sign up, but only those who were registered on the 29th of September 1939 will be found in the online register.

The enumerators would then copy the household schedules into transcription books and it is these transcription books which are available online. They were initially released on the Find My Past website but are now also available on other commercial websites such as Ancestry.

The completed transcription books were sent to the national registration headquarters at Southport in Lancashire whilst the household schedules were sent to local food offices to prepare ration books and then to the local national registration office where an index card would be created for each person in that borough or district.

Because the 1939 register became the foundation of a National Register details were continually updated with additional books being compiled listing newly born and newly arrived and anyone who had been omitted from the initial enumeration. This National Register was used by the NHS when it was newly formed in 1948 and after national registration ended on February 9 1952 the register continued to be used as the central register for the NHS.

Below is the extract from the register for my maternal grandparents with my aunt, their eldest child, redacted as she is still living.

So what information do they contain?

  • full names
  • sex
  • full dates of birth
  • marital status
  • occupations

Where people were recorded in institutions the register will show whether they were an officer, a visitor, a servant, a patient or an inmate.

Because of its alternative uses and its continued updating, for women who married after the register had been created it has been annotated with their married name.

The 1939 register therefore does provide an invaluable source to the family historian in finding details of their ancestors at the start of the Second World War Not least because it provides full days of birth but also a female ancestors married name. However, dates are not always accurate. I have certainly found in my own from history not the day a month may be correct but the year is incorrect. This may of course be due to transcription errors, a simple error by the person completing the schedule recording the incorrect year of birth, and in some cases may have been to avoid conscription. Making knowingly false statements was a serious office: there was one case where a man was sentenced to three months imprisonment for falsely claiming he was born in 1895 (making him 44 years of age) when in fact he was born in 1902 (making him 37 years of age), the upper age limit for conscription being 41 years. Also, in institutions housing mainly elderly people it was not unusual to see only the year of birth being recorded rather than the full date of birth.

When viewing the online records, you may note the transcription books extended over a double page for each entry but only the left hand page and the first column of the right hand page are available as a digitised entry. This is because the remainder of the right hand page may contain sensitive medical information added by the NHS and is therefore redacted indefinitely.  

Can’t find you ancestor? Due to confidentiality rulings people still alive after 1991 are redacted however those records can be unlocked upon the submission of proof of death of the individual on either the Find My Past website or to the National Archives.

If you are struggling to find your ancestors, would like to know more about your ancestors, or don’t know where to start and would like some help simply visit my website or email me:

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The 1841 Census and common early census problems

The 1841 census was the first census which is of use in family history research being the first to provide actual details of households rather than statistical information. It was also the first census to be the responsibility of the General Register Office and the Registrar General rather than the Home Office, following the creation of the General Register Office in 1836.

When considering how useful this census is for family history research, the first thing to consider is how it was prepared, organised and conducted.

The household schedules were prepared rather hastily by the Registrar General, Thomas Lister. The Population Act 1840 which enabled the census to be conducted was only given Royal Assent on 6 April 1841, the census was then conducted only two months later on the 7 June.

The administration of the census was the responsibility of each registration district, which were divided into sub-districts then enumeration districts which varied in size depending on the location (rural/urban/number of properties etc). The enumerators distributed a household schedule to each house in their district during the week leading up to the 7 June which the head of each household then had to complete. The enumerators then collected the completed schedules on the 7 June.

This method of distribution and collection had its drawbacks. Particularly in larger enumeration districts, it would have been easy for enumerators to miss houses, both in distributing and collecting. In fact enumerators often had to return to some houses on a number of occasions to find someone in to collect the schedule.

What was a house in itself was not straight forward. In 1841 the definition was a “dwelling house”, which included every building where someone was sleeping. The difficulty was where families were living in outhouses, barns etc. due to their poor circumstances. Were these to be included as houses? They wouldn’t normally be described as dwelling houses. This caused some confusion with enumerators.

There was another problem – there may have been more than one household living in a house. It was not uncommon for more than one family to live in a property, with each family living in perhaps only one room of the property. Did each room therefore class as a “dwelling house”? Enumerators were given instructions on how to separate different households living in the same property (// separated a house or property; / separated households living in the same property) but these were not always used correctly or at all.

In the 1841 census no addresses were provided, only street names, with the occasional house name. In smaller places, it may even only be the village or parish name that is provided. This was largely because it was not until the early 1850’s when systems for street numbering were introduced following the Town Improvement Clauses Act 1847 resulting from a rapid expansion of towns and sub-dividing of properties in the early 19th century which left addresses in chaos. By the 1851 census enumerators were instructed to provide house numbers but this still depended on the existence of a proper address for a property.

Who was included in the household? This was a source of much confusion. Many households included members of the family who were not actually present in the house on census night, such as children staying with grandparents or unborn children. On the contrary there are others who did not include members of the household who should have been included, for example, a household member who ordinarily lived there but was working away that night and would be returning the next morning. In 1841, census night was a harvest night with fine weather which meant it was a good time for hay making. This meant many agricultural workers were missed because they were sleeping outside or possibly recorded twice because they were working in a neighbouring village. It was also Ascot races which meant there were more people in the Ascot area than usual. ‘Lodgers’ or ‘boarders’ were often either missed recorded twice depending on the interpretation of “household”

Due to low literacy levels in some areas, many returns were in fact completed by enumerators when they returned to collect them. For this reason, each enumerator carried a desk and ink when collecting them!

Other reasons for inaccuracy include:

  • Illiterate households not been able to check the details entered by the enumerator were correct;
  • They would not be able to spell their name and/or surname and therefore the enumerator would spell the name phonetically leading to different spellings in later censuses and other official documents;
  • If the householder providing the information had a strong accent the enumerator may have had difficulty understanding what was being said which could lead to completely wrong information being recorded!;
  • Also those who were sick may have been difficult to understand;
  • The enumerator’s handwriting is often illegible.

As this was the first census of its kind, many householders were very suspicious and sceptical about the census, believing it to be a vehicle for government to impose more taxes and “trace” people who were otherwise perhaps “avoiding” the authorities. This resulted in inaccurate, false and incomplete information, in particular place of birth, children of the family, children’s ages.

The old Poor Laws meant that some feared they may be “removed” to their legal place of settlement if they provided their correct place of birth. In the 1841 census householders were not asked to detail their place of birth but simply to answer yes or no whether they were born in the county in which they were living, or in Scotland, Ireland or abroad. This is therefore not helpful to the genealogist; if the answer is “no” the census does not provide any further assistance as to where they were born to help trace birth/baptism records.

One essential piece of information which was not provided in the 1841 census was the relationship of each individual to the head of the household. Assumptions should therefore not be made as to what the relationship is. Later censuses however should clarify this as they were provided from 1851 onwards (I will come back to this later).

If a daughter had an illegitimate child, that child may be passed off as a child of its grandparents either by mistake in completing the information or in order to avoid a scandal and shame on the daughter.

A child’s age may be increased. In the poor working class families, children were often passed off as older in order that they could go out and work to help the family’s income. This would be reflected in the household schedule to avoid the possibility the employer may find out.

Further on ages, in the 1841 census, if older than the age of 15, ages should have been rounded down, so a person aged 33 should have been recorded as 30. This means that when trying to calculate when someone was born a period of five to ten years would need to be searched as the age is unlikely to be accurate. However as the instructions were lacking, actual ages were sometimes recorded and the ages of children may have been rounded down. For the elderly, ages were sometimes rounded to the nearest ten years rather than five.

Only one occupation could be provided in the 1841 census, however many, especially amongst the working class, may have had two or three or more jobs in order to meet the family’s financial needs so this does not provide a full picture of the family’s life and different occupations may appear on later censuses and other civil registration documents, which could cause some confusion. Women’s occupations were rarely recorded in 1841. In later censuses all occupations could be provided and women’s occupations were better recorded.

I have stated above that names may be misspelled by the enumerators. Forenames may not necessarily be there given first name. Only first names were recorded in the 1841 census and it is possible that householders gave the name they were commonly known by rather than their given first name; that could be a nickname, a middle name or even an assumed name.

There were no schedules completed by “problem groups” such as those working off shore in the merchant navy and on fishing vessels, those living on inland navigable water and those in the armed forces but outside of the UK. The enumerators were however required to complete a summary table setting out the number of males and/or females:

  • On vessels on inland navigable water, in mines or pits, in barns or sheds, in tents or in the open air or otherwise not enumerated for in a dwelling house;
  • Temporarily present or absent from the district and the reason why;
  • Emigrated to the colonies or a foreign country since 31 December 1840.

This of course does not help in terms of family history as no names are provided. Neither were there for the Royal Navy, only a head count of those on board vessels was carried out. Those onshore should be enumerated in household schedules or the institution returns which would have been completed by the Royal Navy barracks.

Enumerators to this census were required to be more than just transcribers, transcribing the household schedules into the Enumerator schedules which we have access to today (as they did in all censuses until 1911), they were also expected to edit the household schedules so as to “comply” with the instructions. Many of the drawbacks detailed above are a result of this transcribing and editing. For example the rounding down of ages, reducing forenames to one name, abbreviating or even changing occupations to more “standard” terms or reducing to one occupation, and changing the order of family members into birth order (which may not be accurate given the rounding down of ages).

In all censuses there are missing schedules and damage caused by lack of care and maintenance of the records over time but the 1841 census has perhaps been the worst damage. There are some districts where only small parts of pages survive and the returns for Paddington and Kensington have been lost. A list of missing censuses can be found on The National Archive website or on the findmypast website.

Despite these drawbacks, these early censuses provide invaluable information in researching family history in “bridging the gap” between parish records and civil registration records and as a cross reference to civil registration records.

They provide invaluable information for those ancestors born and married before civil registration to help trace ancestors in the parish records although as has been demonstrated above, the information should be used with caution and alternative names, age ranges, occupations for example should be considered in any searches, especially if they only appear in one or both of these early censuses.

The information in these early census should also be cross referenced with later censuses. As many censuses as were conducted during an ancestors life should be checked (up to the 1911 at present) to get the most accurate and detailed information from them. Together with later censuses they provide a “picture” of ancestors’ lives, their movements, neighbours and neighbourhood.

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