Author Archives: Susan Morris

Dr Susan Morris is Director of Research at Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd.

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.