Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionaries

In a previous blog (June 2013) we wrote of our affection for the Victorian encyclopedia Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates Another well-worn favourite on the Debrett bookshelves (although it is now available online) is Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England (5th edition, 4 vols, 1842), to which family historians turn for descriptions of the parishes, towns and hamlets of the nation in the early days of Victoria’s reign: for population figures and administrative identities; and for an account of their soil, their industries, their places of worship and their schools.  Lewis’s style is elegantly succinct, and while smaller parishes and villages have modest and business-like entries, there are little dashes of colour.  We learn for example of the parish of Betley, Staffordshire, that:

the village is remarkably cheerful and pleasant, and contains several respectable houses.

Large towns and significant parishes are given much more space: the entry for Carlisle, for example, runs to three and a half pages.

Lewis

The first edition was published in four volumes in May 1831 and included county maps, a national map, and a plan of the London area.  The scale of the project was daunting: there had been no topographical work on this scale since Camden’s Vision of Britain Through Time, which was first published (in Latin) in 1586, and the availability of local histories was patchy.  Lewis explains in his Preface that he first engaged ‘several gentlemen’:

to procure, by personal examination and enquiry, the fullest information upon the various subjects contemplated in the plan of the work.

He had originally conceived the dictionary as purely topographical, but then decided to include historical information, and so ‘other gentlemen’ were employed to sift out ‘notices of the most important occurrences connected with each spot’.

Nineteenth century data collection was a cumbersome business.  The project began in 1825 and the initial survey, using a printed questionnaire, took place over three years.  The raw material also included some 3,000 documents donated by ‘a clergyman residing in the neighbourhood of Ashby de la Zouch’ who had attempted a similar project by sending questionnaires to every parish priest in the kingdom.  Not all had complied; not all the questionnaires had been fully completed, and it may be imagined that the unnamed clergyman relinquished his mountain of paperwork with some relief to the publishers. Scholars from the British Museum, the London Institution and elsewhere provided additional information.  Members of the local nobility and gentry also contributed, some donating material that had not previously been published.  The maps were engraved on steel plates from drawings made ‘from the best authorities’.  In the copies circulating today, these maps have too often been plucked from the books and resold.

The work of compilation and editing took a further three years and Lewis estimated the entire cost of producing the first edition at nearly £48,000.  Inevitably, the work attracted plagiarists, and Lewis successfully took Archibald Fullarton to the Court of Chancery in 1839 for his New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, which was published in Glasgow hard on the heels of Lewis’s work, and which was judged by the court to be ‘to a very considerable extent a piracy of the plaintiff’s copyright’.

In the early stages of the project Lewis had a business partner, George Pringle, who was still involved in 1836 when Pringle and Lewis were named as principal creditors of a bankrupt printer of Andover, Benjamin Bensley.  By 1846, Pringle was referred to as his ‘late partner’.  His only son, Samuel Lewis the younger (1821–1862), joined in the enterprise as a draughtsman, and also published two works on the history and topography of Islington, but died, of pneumonia, at the age of only 42.

In response to the early editions, Lewis received thousands of letters with corrections and additions with which he revised the text, and so the later editions are more reliable.  By 1849 there had been seven editions, and similar volumes for Scotland, Wales and Ireland had also been published.  Presumably in gratitude to the many clergymen who supported and contributed the work, in 1848 Lewis donated 100 guineas to the Society for the Sons of the Clergy of the Church of Scotland.

Lewis front (2)

Subscribers

Purchase was by subscription and by 1846 Lewis calculated that the various editions had sold to 20,000 subscribers in all.  The names of the subscribers to each volume were published as a preface, and included members of the royal family and the aristocracy as well as numerous clergymen and ‘esquires’. There was a sales team of agents, and fulfilment was a slow process: several years could pass between the signing of a prospectus and the delivery of the product.  Female subscribers were few: this was a work undertaken by gentlemen, for gentlemen; and for any who defaulted upon their undertaking, the law had an answer.  In 1846 Lewis took Walker Smith Esq of Brotherton, Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, to the Court of Exchequer for the non-payment of his £13 13s subscription.  The court decided in Lewis’s favour, the tart verdict being that:

 ‘Gentlemen should not put down their names to such a work unless they intended to pay’.[1]

Family of Samuel Lewis

Samuel Lewis married, on 18 November 1816 at St George the Martyr, Southwark, Charlotte, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Tuchin, who had moved from Warwickshire to London.  Samuel’s own parentage has not yet been established but he appears to have been baptised in an Independent Chapel in Abingdon, Berkshire, on 2 June 1782: Abingdon was certainly his place of birth.  His son Samuel was born in Worcester and baptised there on 29 April 1821 (at St Martin’s); he was followed by a daughter Jane, baptised at St James, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, on 22 January 1826; and by Eliza, baptised on 20 February 1828 at St Stephen, Colman Street, London.  Eliza never married and lived at home until her father’s death.

Lewis & Co had business premises at 87 Aldersgate Street (1831); at 87 Hatton Garden (1842); and at 13 Finsbury Place South (1845).  Samuel lived with his family in Myddleton Street, Clerkenwell, in 1826 and at 13 Coleman Street, London, in 1828, but by 1841 he had settled in Islington, where he died, at 19 Compton Terrace, on 28 February 1865.  His estate was valued at under £7,000.  In the census return of 1861 he was described not as a publisher but as a landed proprietor and fund holder; whatever his origins, Lewis at the end of his life had established himself as one of the English gentlemen for whom his great work was created.

 

Published Sources: Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 1st edn, 4 vols (London, 1831); Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 5th edn, 4 vols (London, 1842); Laurence Worms, ‘Lewis, Samuel (1782/3–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; Birmingham Journal, 25 Jul 1836; The Times, 22 Feb 1838; Cork Examiner, 12 Aug 1844; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846; Caledonian Mercury, 29 May 1848.

 

Unpublished Sources: National Archives: Census 1841, 1851, 1861; Principal Probate Registry: National Probate Calendar 1865; Parish Registers of St James, Clerkenwell; St George the Martyr, Southwark; St Stephen, Coleman Street, London (London Metropolitan Archives/Ancestry.co.uk).

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846.

 

Telling the family story

Recollections: A Personal Record

How would you like to be remembered? 

‘I remember, I remember…’ A very frequent lament we hear from our clients is that they never asked their older relatives what they do remember, or the unique story of their lives. Everyone has a story to tell, but many such stories go untold; and even with today’s enhanced means of discovering information, many of them never will be. However, simply asking a relative to write down their memories is sometimes asking too much.

Those of us lucky enough to have a Family Bible in which were recorded events in the family history know how precious the smallest fragments of information can be.

With this in mind, we have designed a new book, which after much deliberation we have entitled Recollections: A Personal Record, as a means of gently teasing out unique family memories and recording them in an enjoyable and satisfying way.

Although aimed at those who have long lives to share, Recollections can be used by anyone who wishes to make a record of their own life.

The book, which is hardbound and designed to be easy to handle (22 x 22 cm) and to write in, contains 46 pages – many of them illustrated – with prompts for memories and information. It includes two blank family trees, one for ‘Father’s Family History’ and one for ‘Mother’s. On the other pages the prompts range from the obvious questions about family names, dates and places, to ‘Historical Facts in my lifetime’ (with suggestions), to less matter-of-fact subjects such as ‘Significant Places’, ‘Work Stories’ and a phrase borrowed from seventeenth century inventories: ‘Things Lost and Forgotten’. There are spaces to paste in photographs, if wished, and a final page asks ‘How would you like to be remembered’?

The book can be ordered from our website for £20 in the UK including postage and packing; for overseas orders please email us for a price.

Family tree page

Family tree pages

Childhood Memories pages

Childhood Memories pages

Sir William Betham, ‘great Irish genealogist’

The adjective ‘great’ is not one frequently applied to genealogists, but a notable exception is Sir William Betham (1779–1853), often described as a ‘great Irish genealogist’.  Sir William was not however Irish by birth, and probably would not have described himself as a genealogist: his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography defines him as an antiquary and his abiding interest was in ancient Irish history.

Arms of the Ulster King of Arms

Arms of the Ulster King of Arms

Sir William inherited his antiquarian interests from his father, William Betham senior (1749–1839), a clergyman and schoolmaster from Westmorland.  After his marriage in 1775 to Mary Planque, a widow of Suffolk, Betham settled in that county and had fifteen children.   He served as headmaster at Stonham Aspal, Suffolk, for nearly half a century; by 1829, by which time he was 80 years old, the church commissioners declared that the school had declined from its earlier ‘considerable repute’.  Betham nevertheless remained in post until 1833 when he became Rector of Stoke Lacy in Herefordshire.

Betham senior published two genealogical works, neither of which was greeted with much acclaim: Genealogical Tables of the Sovereigns of the World came out in 1795 and a Baronetage followed, in five volumes, from 1801 to 1805.  The title page of the first volume quotes the 18th century orientalist John Richardson:

It is hardly necessary to observe, that Genealogy is so intimately connected with Historical Knowledge, that it is impossible to arrive at any proficiency in the one, without being minutely versed in the other.

True to this observation, Betham senior was also a local historian; like many such projects, his intended county history never came to full fruition, but a single volume of a History of Suffolk was published in 1814, based on his findings, and his papers now form part of the Fitch collection in the Suffolk Record Office.

William Betham junior’s education was presumably provided by his father; neither appears to have  attended university.  His connection with Ireland was accidental; as a young man in 1805, he visited the Record Tower at Dublin Castle (then the repository of state records) to search for some documents for a law case on which he was employed.  The disarray in which these records were kept so struck him that he asked to be appointed deputy keeper of the records.  This application was successful, and Betham moved to Dublin and set about restoring order to archival chaos, becoming also deputy Ulster King of Arms.  A knighthood followed in 1812 and eventually, in 1820, Sir William Betham was appointed Ulster King of Arms, a post he held until his death (he was succeeded by another publisher-antiquarian, Sir John Bernard Burke).

In Dublin Betham acquired a passion for ancient Irish manuscripts and history, and also a large collection of early Irish manuscripts, which he sold to the Irish Academy at the end of his life.  He published his first slim volume, Irish Antiquarian Researches, in 1827, shortly after his admission to the Royal Irish Academy.   Further publications on English and Irish history followed, and at the end of his life Betham acquired an interest in Etruscan literature and language and its relevance to ancient Irish.  In the introduction to Irish Antiquarian Researches Betham wrote:

In the course of those investigations and arrangements, which my official duties have from time to time rendered necessary, I could not fail to observe, how little is known of the true history of Ireland. Notwithstanding the irreparable losses, by fire and other destructive casualties, of many ancient, valuable, and important documents, there still remain many consecutive series of rolls and other evidences sufficient to preserve the chain of history unbroken…

Ashfield_Gales_Betham_Pedigree

Sketch pedigree from one of Betham’s notebooks (1800)

Betham was not to know of the still greater ‘irreparable losses’ which were to come, when the Public Record Office was set alight in 1922 and so many documents  –  wills, parish registers and early census returns  –  were lost for ever.  He was thus unaware that the greatest of his legacies to the historian and genealogist would be, not his published works, but his private notebooks, for while supervising the indexing of the Prerogative Wills[1]  in his keeping, he had made genealogical abstracts of them (up to 1800 for wills, up to 1802 for administrations), from which he created sketch pedigrees which contain later additions and amendments.  The notebooks ran to 34 folio volumes and were accompanied by a meticulous ‘index of alliances and aliases’.  These abstracts, known as Betham’s Abstracts,  are now in the National Archives, Dublin and go some way to mitigating the enormous loss of the original wills and administrations.

Betham died in his adopted city of Dublin in 1853 and was buried at Monkstown, County Dublin.

J. T. Gilbert, ‘Betham, Sir William (1779–1853)’, rev. Michael Erben, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

J. T. Gilbert, ‘Betham, William (1749–1839)’, rev. Colin Lee, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005.

Sir Arthur Vicars, Index to the Prerogative Wills of Ireland, 1536–1810 (Dublin, 1897).



[1] The Prerogative Court dealt with estates in more than one diocese; before 1816 its records were fragmented since hearings were usually in the judge’s residence.

Bishop Shute Barrington and the English Parish Register

We have previously hailed Thomas Cromwell, father of the English parish register, and the 18th century priest and antiquary, William Dade (1741-1790), who strove to make the register a more detailed genealogical record.   Contemporary with Dade, and more widely known, was a fellow priest of a very different order, Bishop Shute Barrington of Durham.

Shute Barrington was born in 1734, son of John Shute Barrington (1678–1734), barrister, MP and ardent Protestant, educated at the University of Utrecht and a friend of John Locke.  He was instrumental in reconciling the Scottish Presbyterian church to the union of Scotland and England:  Jonathan Swift wrote in 1708 that he was ‘reckoned the shrewdest head in England’.[1]  He was elevated to the peerage in 1720 as Baron Barrington of Newcastle, Co Limerick, and Viscount Barrington of Ardglass, Co Down.

Lord Barrington was born a Shute, but changed the family surname to Barrington when he inherited an estate in Essex from the husband of a cousin.  His wife was Anne Daines, whose father, Sir William Daines, was MP for Bristol and a prominent local Whig.

Bishop Shute Barrington (1786) via Wikimedia Commons

Shute Barrington was thus born into the Whig intelligentsia as well as the aristocracy; but he was the sixth of six sons (and three daughters).  He was six months old when his father was flung from a carriage and died and so his eldest brother, William Wildman Barrington, 2nd Viscount, assumed a parental role.   Educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, he followed the traditional path of younger sons and was ordained in 1756.  He gained the favour of George III and became his chaplain soon after ordination and thence began a rapid climb up the ecclesiastical career ladder, becoming Bishop of Llandaff at the age of 35.

A man known for his sincere piety, Barrington was no passive acceptor of the privilege and wealth that fell in his path.  He caused a stir in 1772 in the debate surrounding the 39 Articles in which he went against his father’s principles and opposed the abolitionists.  After losing his first wife in childbirth at a young age, he followed the inclinations of his second wife, the heiress Jane Guise, by standing down from a lucrative post at St Paul’s because Jane disliked living in the residence there.  After becoming Bishop of Salisbury in 1782, he was renowned for his generosity and concern to be ‘the general friend of all’, while retaining friends in the highest places: the story goes that ‘gentleman from Berkshire’ inspected the Bishop’s ambitious restoration works at the Cathedral, paid for by public subscription, and added a contribution of £1,000 to the fund – the anonymous gentleman being George III.  Barrington was an important patron of William Wilberforce and supported the abolition of slavery.

In 1791 Barrington became Prince Bishop of Durham and here he continued energetically in charitable and educational projects, supported by his wife, who once presented every villager in a Durham village with a hive of bees.  He was an influential church reformer, with fingers in many ecclesiastical pies, across a wide political and theological spectrum, from the evangelicals to the Catholic French exiles who settled near Durham during the French Revolution.

For the genealogist, demographer and historian, however, the memorable gift of Bishop Shute Barrington was his introduction of a detailed format for parish registers, along the lines of the pioneer work of William Dade in the neighbouring diocese of York, but in a more manageable format.  From 1798 until the national introduction of printed register books in 1812, baptism registers in the diocese of Durham were required to include the child’s date of birth, the mother’s maiden name and the parishes in which both parents were born as well, as the number of the child in the family.  Details of fathers of illegitimate children were recorded with similar zeal. Imagine the genealogist’s joy to discover a ‘stray’ entry such as this from the Bishop’s Transcripts of St Nicholas, Durham City:

Sarah Parkin, born 28 March 1812, baptised 12 May, daughter of William Parkin, Private Soldier in the 1 Regt of Lancashire Militia & Sarah his wife late Weeks of Surrey

St Nicholas, Durham: Bishop's Transcript (image from FamilySearch)

St Nicholas, Durham: Bishop’s Transcript (image from FamilySearch)

Bishop Shute Barrington lived into his nineties, finally suffering a fatal stroke in 1826.  Wilberforce had described him in his prime as ‘a very sun, the centre of an entire system’.  That system has long since fallen away; what remains, for those of us who care, is the legacy of those meticulous and generous records of the very humblest members of his flock.

 

 

Principal Source: E. A. Varley, ‘Barrington, Shute (1734–1826)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009.



[1] Swift, Works, 1824, 15.318, cited in Arthur H. Grant, ‘Barrington, John Shute, first Viscount Barrington (1678–1734)’, rev. Philip Carter,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

William Dade and the English Parish Register

In a previous blog (July 2013) we lauded Thomas Cromwell, the formidable father of the English parish register.  We turn now to a lesser known pioneer, the 18th century priest and antiquary, William Dade.

Before Rose’s Act of 1812, there was no standardised form in which parish records were to be kept.  Pre-1813 registers manifest a wide variety of skills and enthusiasm in record-keeping, from the barely literate to the garrulous.

Anyone who works in 18th century Yorkshire records will at some point come upon a ‘Dade Register’, in which an unexpected wealth of genealogical information is embedded in a single record.

William Dade, whose own baptism was recorded in the registers of Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 26 January 1741, came from a clerical family.  His father was vicar of Burton Agnes; his grandfather had also been a priest.  Dade was a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1759 to 1762, although there is no record of him having obtained a degree.  From university he went into the priesthood, serving as curate in a series of York churches before securing his own parish of St Olave, Marygate, York, in 1771. Like many eighteenth century clerics he was a pluralist, being also the incumbent of St Mary, Castlegate, and St Michael, Spurriergate; and by the end of the decade he had also acquired the livings of Barmston and Ulrome in Holderness (East Riding of Yorkshire).

Unlike the modern hard-pressed clergyman who rushes from one church to another on a Sunday morning, the 18th century pluralist was not over-burdened by parish affairs, which would largely be delegated to curates.  Dade found time to develop the skills of the antiquary, that wonderfully dated term which the Oxford English Dictionary defined (in 1885: the entry has not been fully updated since):

A student (usually a professed student), or collector, of antiquities. (Formerly used, in a wide sense, of a student of early history; now tending to be restricted to one who investigates the relics and monuments of the more recent past.)

Dade’s close involvement with parish registers made him see their potential as a precious source of historical data.  He instituted a form of record-keeping in his parishes which asked for additional information to be added to register entries for the benefit of ‘the researches of posterity’.  Each record of baptism, for example, was to include not only the father’s profession and ‘abode’ but also those of the father’s parents; the entry was also to state where the infant was placed in the family (whether first or second son, etc).  Burial entries were to include the cause of death, the age of the deceased, and family details which made them superior to the Victorian death certificate that was to be introduced in 1837.

Dade’s scheme was approved by Archbishop William Markham and introduced in the whole diocese from 1777.  However, the concept of obedient and copious form-filling had yet to be imprinted in the national psyche.  The extra work that it generated meant that it was short-lived and not all incumbents complied; those in densely-populated industrial parishes found it particularly arduous.  It was discontinued after 1812 when the new standardised parish register books came in.

Dade made Barmston his home and there embarked upon a history of Holderness which, like many a similar project, was never published, although it reached proof stage in 1784 and some fragments survive in the British Library.  The author’s health had already begun to deteriorate and he died in 1790 at the age of 50.

An informative discussion of Dade registers by Roger Bellingham, published in 2004 in Local Population Studies, emphasises the value of these records, not only for genealogists but for those with wider interests whom we might describe as local or social historians, or demographers: to William Dade, without a doubt, they would be antiquaries.

References:

William Joseph Sheils, ‘Dade, William (bap. 1741, d. 1790)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 .

http://www.localpopulationstudies.org.uk/PDF/LPS73/Article_3_Bellingham_pp51-60.pdf

 

The Victorian spinster: celebrating the non-celebrity

Putting flesh on the bones of history – and of our genealogies – is something of a modern quest: in former times most ancestor-seekers were more concerned with clocking up generations, and if you could collect the odd title or historical celebrity along the way, so much the better.  Today the celebrities are at the other end of the telescope: the enormously successful BBC series Who do you think you are? shines the sparkling light of modern celebrity into dry and dusty corners; who would have thought that archivists would make prime-time television?  But now we no longer think just of extending that family tree as far back as possible: we want to understand more of the lives of our ancestors, however humble, and empathise with them.

Novels – not historical novels but those written in a different age– can significantly increase our understanding of our own historic families.  The men, women and children whose names we squint at on our computer screens all had their story.  The census return permits us to peer at a household through the window; the novelist opens the door and lets us in.

That is not to say that the novelist’s view is unbiased: reality must be bent to the writer’s will.  Some will create monsters, caricatures, or lofty heroes and heroines who could never have survived a day in the real world; but there are others who paint the humdrum with painstaking skill and make it fascinating.

Flora McDonald Mayor (1872–1932) is rightly celebrated for her masterpiece The Rector’s Daughter (1924); but an earlier work, The Third Miss Symons, written exactly a century ago,[1] tells the story of another unfulfilled, unmarried late Victorian woman, one of the many ageing daughters we see hanging on at home from one census return to the next.  Henrietta Symons is no heroine – emotional deprivation has soured her, and having lost one near-promise of marriage through the vanity of a prettier sister, bad temper blights any further chances.  At forty she realises with a jolt that since completing her education she

had not merely lost all the qualities she had had as a child, but had gained none from age and experience to take their place.

With no need to earn a living, in her latter years Henrietta drifts joylessly around Europe before dying at 63, ‘quietly and dully’, not quite deserted by her family but not much valued by them either.  So convincing is the portrayal that at the end of the novel one almost reaches for the census indexes to look her up – and of course she is there, under a thousand different names.

F M Mayor is a vocal narrator, often comparing her Victorian subjects with her own modern world of 1913.  Henrietta Symons is not a self-portrait, although the author lost her fiancé to typhoid in 1903 and never married.   Her own life was devoid of all glamour (she had tried unsuccessfully to be an actress when young) and her skills were not recognised during her lifetime.   Nevertheless, like today’s celebrities, she shines her strong light upon the past, not only on the generation of which she writes but on her own times, and for this we must thank her.



[1] F M Mayor, The Third Miss Symons (1913: reprinted, Virago Press, 1980).

English Parish Registers

The recording of what the Americans call ‘vital statistics’ – the bare events of birth, marriage and death or, in the case of parish registers, baptism, marriage and burial – is something we now take for granted. We fret if our ancestors – through negligence, non-conformity, or being in the wrong parish at the wrong time –evaded that official with the quill pen. We might sometimes spare a thought for the men who invented, designed and developed these crucial records, which in themselves are an expression of the close and sometimes bitter relationship between church and state in English history.

Those of us with English ancestry – or whose livelihoods depend upon the discovery of it – have the formidable Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell (ca 1485 to 1540) to thank for the establishment of parish record-keeping so early in our history.

Cromwell’s own family history was startling; he rose to high office from inauspicious origins. His father Walter Cromwell, a clothier and blacksmith of Putney, was a heavy drinker who owned his own brewery and inn. Walter was frequently summoned to the manorial court for misdemeanours and he was eventually evicted from his property after being convicted of fraudulently altering tenancy documents.

By the 1530s, self-educated, well-travelled and full of religious zeal, his son Thomas Cromwell had established himself first as right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey and then to King Henry VIII himself. The story of his extraordinary career has enjoyed a recent revival through the award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the trilogy will be completed by the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light) and he is soon to take the stage in a double Royal Shakespeare production based on Mantel’s novels, which will run concurrently with a BBC drama series in which Mark Rylance plays the great statesman.

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1535, having engineered the King’s position as supreme head of the English church, of which he was now Vicar-General, Cromwell turned upon the church his unique combination of religious and administrative zeal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, a national census of church lands and wealth, was completed within a year, a bureaucratic masterpiece. At the same time he was determined that every parish church in the land should have a copy of the Bible in English, and this was for the good of the soul, not the royal powerhouse or coffers. Indeed, Cromwell contributed handsomely from his own purse towards the publication of Coverdale’s English Bible.

Those on the receiving end of Cromwell’s enthusiasm found it difficult to separate the religious from the bureaucratic. When his order went out, in September 1538, that every parish priest should keep a weekly record of ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’, many parishes ignored it, risking the fine of 3s 4d; they suspected, with traditional English cynicism, that something more sinister than historical record-keeping was afoot. Anger at the suppression of the monasteries was mingled with fear that the state might have similar designs on parish churches. At the very least, it seemed more than likely that this amassing of personal data was the prelude for some new tax.

The original order, which was to create for England an unprecedented wealth of information about families from the humblest to the highest, was to:

‘Keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening, and burying, made within your parish for your time.’

The book was to be kept secure in the parish chest with keys held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.

geograph-550586-by-Bob-Embleton parish chest

16th century parish chest at St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire: © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Such was the lack of clerical enthusiasm that a second decree had to be passed in 1547, this time adding the stipulation that the fine should benefit the poor, for Cromwell was also concerned with social reform, and his Poor Relief legislation of 1536 was the first attempt of the state to address poverty on a parochial basis.

On 18 April 1540 Cromwell, who had already been elevated to the peerage, was created Earl of Essex; but his fortunes were already on a grim and downward path.  His reforming zeal had far overtaken that of his King; his involvement in the fiasco of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves had lost him the monarch’s trust; and in Tudor politics there were few exits from such high public office that were not bloody and brutal.  On 28 July 1540 the newly created Earl walked to the scaffold, charged with heresy and treason, and suffered a particularly gruelling execution.[1]  He left his King and country many legacies; but for the genealogist, those yellowing register books in the parish chest were among the most precious.



[1] Howard Leithead, ‘Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.

 

 

 

Female Ancestry: Following the Maternal Path

The vast majority of our clients want us to concentrate on their paternal ancestry, which is understandable as this is the traditional way in which we view our family history in Britain. Looking from the child to its father, and then to its father’s father, is deeply engrained in our sense of self. The transfer of material wealth and reputation has followed the same paths through the ages, tagged with the father’s name alone. Many early parish register entries do not even bother to record the name of the mother of a child at baptism. (Some of our clients follow the same tradition with their starting information…)

Very occasionally, however – perhaps once among a thousand clients – someone wants to look at their ancestry from a different angle: to follow the thread back not from son to father but from daughter to mother, and this matrilineal approach makes a refreshing change. If we are interested from a biological point of view in how we became what we are, researching our female ancestry is no less logical than chasing a surname through the ages.

In traditional English families, maternal surnames are quite often preserved as middle names: we find this in all classes, but particularly where money or property entered the family via a wife. These are of course helpful clues for the genealogist. In extreme cases – among the wealthy – this gratitude was expressed (or demanded) by abandoning one’s paternal surname in favour of that of a generous female relative; or by hitching the two names together with a hyphen.

The Scottish tradition among women of never quite abandoning their maiden name after marriage, but preserving it as an alternative or middle name, is always a welcome sight. It reflects traditional practice in societies such as Iceland, where identity focuses on the given name, although surnames still refer to the father, not the mother. (An Icelandic surname is likely to refer to the father’s given name, as in early Welsh naming patterns.) Icelandic telephone directories are arranged not by surname but by given name.

In general (but few generalities in genealogy are safe), following the female line is more challenging. When concentrating on a single surname we can make blanket searches of records, sifting out all possible references to a family; and if we hit a difficulty, there are fewer clues to guide us out of it. If a marriage was not recorded, or perhaps just did not take place, we can get completely stuck.

On the positive side, however, as a client recently pointed out, the genealogy is likely to be more watertight: it is difficult to wrongly identify the mother of a newborn baby, but how many birth certificates or baptismal records do not accurately name the true father? Now that DNA tests have become more accessible, we may be about to find out.

Following the female path is the more adventurous option: a female line is more likely to take you farther afield, to a new area or even a new country. Genealogy is always full of surprises, but by leaping at each step to a new surname, who knows what you may find?

Click on the link to see one we did earlier:
A matrilineal pedigree

In praise of books

Like many other areas of life, genealogy has become heavily internet-dependent, which on the whole has been a welcome boost for both the professional and the amateur genealogist.

Here at Debrett we are still nevertheless surrounded by walls full of books, many of which inspire our affection as well as our respect.

We are therefore flying our small flag here for the printed word, and will be highlighting volumes that might be of interest to others in the field.

First in the list is an old favourite:


Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates (16th edition, 1878)

Haydn on shelf compressed

The full title of this magnificent volume describes itself with full-blown Victorian confidence as a Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information relating to all ages and nations, containing the history of the world to the autumn of 1878.  Running to 870 closely-printed pages, this was the Google of the day, whose articles range from lengthy potted histories of nations to brief one-liners explaining an obscure term or announcing a scientific discovery.

Handling this volume is a pleasure in itself; our office edition of 1878 (bought for 10 shillings by the late genealogist Frank Leeson, whose library we acquired in 1986) is quarter-leather bound, much used but still perfectly serviceable.

Many articles are still valuable to the researcher: for example, Theatres in England presents a calendar of theatre history from 1574 onwards, not just in London but (straying a little from its title) also in Dublin and Edinburgh.  The death dates of writers, managers and actors are noted, as were notable incidents: the 18 persons trampled to death at Sadler’s Wells in 1807 on a false alarm of fire; the man killed by a lion at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1861; the appearance of a Japanese troupe at the Lyceum in 1868.

There are many legal articles of value to the genealogist; as well as pithy definitions of obsolete legal terms and explanations of specific Acts, we peer into numerous dark corners such as the Hanaper Office, the Tubman and the Postman of the ancient court of Chancery.

Politically correct it is not: an alarming number of beliefs are consigned to the article Imposters and in the section on Mormonites the author notes that ‘Missionaries are propagating these doctrines in Europe with more success than would be expected’.  As the very first page of the book announces, this is a dictionary of ‘remarkable occurrences, ancient and modern…. PARTICULARLY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE’.

The real charm of this book, however, is how the eye will stray from the sought article to unexpected  nuggets: where else would we (accidentally) learn that ‘Bibliomania (or book madness) very much prevailed in 1811’ or that the word stationer derives from the early practice of booksellers of having stalls at the corners of street and in markets?  All this while seeking an article on Mortality rates (see Bills of)…

So who was Haydn?  The author of the 16th edition was actually Benjamin Vincent, librarian of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.   Joseph Haydn (died 1856) was the compiler of the first edition, published in 1841, and we must let him have the last word:

The design of the Author has been to attempt the compression of the greatest body of general information that has ever appeared in a single volume, and to produce a Book of Reference whose extensive usefulness may render its possession material to every individual…

(Preface, 1st edition: London, May 1841)

Quite so: every home should have one.