The Poignancy of Parish Registers

Now that so many English parish registers have been digitised, it has never been easier to access these precious records, which provide a window into everyday life in England from the sixteenth century onwards.

Relying on indexes and transcripts for parish register searches is never ideal, because these will always contain errors and omissions. However, there are other reasons for plunging into a line-by-line search of an old parish register. Before long, you will almost certainly come upon something that leaps out at you for its poignancy or oddity. You might find a mysterious doodle in the margin or an empty page. More often it will be a record of a baptism or burial that goes beyond the bare facts.

Doodle from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, parish register
Doodle from Trowbridge parish register (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre/Ancestry)

This is particularly true of baptisms and burials recorded before 1813 and marriages before 1754. After those dates, it was a legal requirement to make entries in a set format in standardised register books. This legislation certainly benefited future historians and genealogists. In the cases of baptisms, learning the occupation of the child’s parent and the ‘abode’ of each family is more than welcome. Even more valuable in burial registers is an age at death, however approximate. However, in earlier times, when clergymen had more freedom to record events as they chose, some chose to include details about their parishioners that would otherwise have been lost for ever. Thus the hazards and hardships faced by our ancestors are fleetingly lit up; but the picture illuminated is rarely a happy one.

Some distinctive hatches and dispatches

The early parish registers of Horsham, Sussex, are notably full of such details. For example, we learn that in May 1592 John Rowe al[ia]s Sparrowe was killed wth ye fall of a May pole as it was a setting up.

In the same parish, in 1596 the register records the burial of a premature illegitimate child:

A man Child unbaptized & not full growen w[hi]ch cam from the body of Alce Herrot begotten by Edw. Wilson a butcher of Bansted.

In January 1581 (according to the modern calendar) the Horsham parish registers recorded a rare triplet birth. Sadly, none of the three babies survived. The author omitted to name the unfortunate mother:

The 4 day bapt & buried Mathew John & Mary the three twynes of Willm Slater at one burden

Extract from Horsham parish register (West Sussex Record Office/Ancestry)

The registers of St Peter, Wolverhampton, strike a more hopeful note when the parish takes in an abandoned child. In September 1612 Fortune a child whom her mother unnaturally left in a Barne in Wolverhampton and ranne awaye from ytt was baptized.

The parish gave Fortune no surname and her life was probably short. In May 1632 the same register records the burial of Fortune a maidservant of Issabel Chartwright .

These are not our ancestors: but we can spare them a few moments of compassion as we pass them by.

Sources

Digitised Parish Registers of St Peter, Wolverhampton (Staffordshire Archives/Findmypast)

Digitised Parish Registers of St James, Trowbridge (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre/Ancestry)

Digitised Parish Registers of St Mary, Horsham (West Sussex Record Office/Ancestry)

The Northamptonshire Earthquake of 1750

English parish registers were sometimes used to record momentous events as well as baptisms, marriages and burials.  In 1750 the Reverend Thomas Barnett, Vicar of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, wrote a dramatic account of the earthquake which struck his church just as he was in the act of administering Holy Communion:

On Sunday Septr 30th 1750. We were terribly alarmed with a violent Shock of an Earthquake.  It was felt at this Town about half an hour past twelve at Noon.  I was at that time administering the Holy Sacrament, and was with the whole Congregation in the greatest Surprize.  Its first Approach was heard like a mighty Wind or rather the driving of many Coaches.  The Motion was from S.W. to N.E.  Its Continuance was as near as I could judge about half a Minute, and was very dreadful and awful. 

The Earth was sensibly perceived to heave under our Feet.  The Church totter’d from its Foundation, and the East Window shook most violently, as if all was coming down, and from the Roof, which we thought was falling on us, we heard dreadful Crackings three or four Times, as if great prodigious Weights were flung upon it.  In Fear and Trembling we expected instant Death, either by being crush’d under the Ruins of the Church or else that we should have been swallowed up alive; but as Almighty God directed, no Harm happen’d unto us.  They who were in the Churches or Houses were more sensibly affected and felt it most, than those who were walking.  It was felt in all the Neighbouring Towns of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

Rothwell, Northamptonshire

A more phlegmatic and secular account of the same event was provided by the steward to the Earl of Cardigan (whose seat was Deene Park, Northamptonshire). Like the Vicar of Rothwell, the steward compared the sound to the rumble of a heavy coach:

… The Noise that preceded the Earthquake was, for a few Seconds, like the rumbling of a Coach upon a Bridge … The Force of the Shock was chiefly, if not entirely lateral; and so considerable, as that several People, who were sitting in Chairs, catched at the Walls, Tables, and such things as stood next them, expecting they should be thrown down: Buildings of all Kinds were shaken greatly; and the Beds, Chairs, and such things as stood above-stairs were displaced, and rocked about very much: Windows were shaken as if they would have been broken; and in several Places Pewter upon Shelves in Kitchens thrown upon the Floor…. I have not heard of any Damage being done by it more than some Chimnies thrown down, but nobody hurt by them.

The Northamptonshire Earthquake followed the London Earthquakes of 8 February and 8 March 1750. These similarly caused little damage and no fatalities, but many people thought they were a sign of divine wrath.  

‘Like the sound of heavy carriages’

Five years later, English parish registers show parishioners donating money to the survivors of the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, which struck on All Saints Day 1755 and led to more than 10,000 deaths, destroying a third of the city.  According to a British merchant who survived it, the Lisbon earthquake too began with ‘a rushing noise, like the Sound of heavy Carriages, driving hard at some Distance’.


Sources

Parish Registers of Rothwell, Northamptonshire: frontispiece to ‘Rothwell Register 1708–96’ (Northamptonshire Archives, digitised by Ancestry).

Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Lisbon 1755: The First ‘Modern’ Disaster (but if modern, how is it so?); University of Oxford, https://public.mml.ox.ac.uk/files/windsor/5_maxwell.pdf.

‘Roads, and those in Tring’, Tringlocalhistory.org.uk.

‘An Account of the Earthquake Which Happen’d about a quarter before One O’Clock, on Sunday, September 30, 1750, by Mr. – Steward to the Earl of Cardigan’, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 46, pages 721–23. JSTOR. Accessed 6 May 2024.

Old Occupations: Glossaries for Ancestry Research

One of the chief interests in researching your ancestors is finding out what they did for a living. But many occupations have changed over the years, and so has the vocabulary. So what exactly was a Sagger Bottom Knocker? a Throstle Doffer?  Here, in no particular order, are some useful free glossaries and other resources that may help to find out what your English ancestors were up to.

Engraving from 19th century Book of Trades
‘Mechanical Powers’, from The Book of Trades

Pottery Jobs Index

An A-Z of jobs in the Potteries, this is part of thepotteries.org, an excellent local history resource for Stoke-on-Trent.  Many entries have links to an entire page of information and illustrations. (This is where you will find the Sagger Bottom Knocker, hanging out with the Blunger Operator and the Bank Odd Man.)

Mining Occupations

Provided by the Durham Mining Museum, this is an authoritative glossary extracted from four 19th-century sources, largely (but not entirely) relating to the Durham and Northumberland coalfields.  Detailed explanations are provided for some occupations. Sadly, the list includes many references to children, such as the wailer (the boy who picked out the impurities from the coal) and the foal, a small child who assisted a slightly bigger youth (headsman or putter) in dragging coal from the workings to the larger passages. If the foal and the headsman were of equal strength they were known as half-marrows.

Obscure Old English Census Occupations

A general alphabetical index of terms found in UK census returns, some of which are obvious but others that are less so.  Rather oddly, part of a stock photography website.

Female textile workers

Victorian Occupations (1891)

An alphabetical listing of occupations found in the 1891 census of London.  Again, a mixture of the obvious and the obsolete, including some one or two startling anachronisms (Armiger, ‘Squire who carried the armour of a knight’).  But one mustn’t be a Quarrel Picker (glazier: one who fitted quarrels, the small panes of glass used in lattice windows).

Occupational Codes

A bit later in date than most of the lists, but still highly useful, this is a digital edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Terms Based on the Classification of Occupations used in the Census of Population, 1921, originally compiled by the Ministry of Labour.  Arranged within categories, but also including a dictionary of occupations, it covers nearly 30,000 terms, a good many of them now obsolete, such as the disturbing decomposing pan man who ‘charges shallow iron pans with salt and sulphuric acid…’ in the paint-making (etc) industry.

Kindly provided by Peter Christian (2016).

Cotton Industry Jobs

A list of selected occupations in the Lancashire cotton mills, compiled by Andy Alston from family knowledge and ancestry research.  Includes some illustrations.

The Book of English Trades and Library of the Useful Arts: with Seventy Engravings (1818)

Slightly less convenient to use than the modern glossaries, this is available through Hathitrust, Google Books and elsewhere.  It provides a detailed contemporary account of many early 19th-century trades, with some atmospheric engravings.  Some comments may jar upon the modern ear (The journeymans earnings are good; but we fear, as in numerous other trades, that his habits are not calculated to induce him to make the most of them). The level of detail is fascinating: who knew, for example, that in the hat-making trade:   

… beer-grounds are applied in the inside of the crown, to prevent the glue from coming through to the face, and also to give the requisite firmness at a less expence than could be produced by the glue alone …. In France, however, they use wine…

and finally….

The Oxford English Dictionary

The magnificent OED has to have the last word as the definer of the obsolete and the obscure. However, many occupational terms were just too obscure or localised to find their way in. Accessible free if you are lucky enough to have a local library or other institution that subscribes to this essential reference work. 

Unexpectedly Royal Ancestors

Family legends are fascinating, and many contain at least a grain of truth.  Have you heard the one about the humble labourer who married high above his station? Or the apparently ordinary family who had noble or even royal ancestors? This is the story of a family in which both those stories happen to be absolutely true.

Disinherited

On 24 January 1824, Richard Leigh Spencer, a wealthy London solicitor, sat down to write a codicil to his will in which he disinherited his eldest daughter:

Whereas my daughter Anne has married to William Humphreys now I do hereby revoke the bequest or trust mentioned in my Will to the said Anne … as if the said Anne had died a single woman and intestate during my life …

Four years earlier, Anne had married William Humphreys at St Botolph, Aldersgate, London.  What had caused her father such distress was that William was a farm labourer. However, he might not have realised himself just how illustrious his ancestry was.

The young couple settled in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, where they raised nine children, and William continued to work as a farm labourer and cowman. The children too had humble careers, but two of them bore distinctive names that were traditional in Anne’s family: Oliph and Leigh.  It was these names, together with an unusually verbose tombstone in Broxbourne churchyard, which led one of William’s descendants to discover the truth about his ancestry.

From gentry to the aristocracy

After many years of research, we now know that Anne descended not just from gentry but from royalty.  Her great-grandfather had married Ann Leigh, whose family owned land in three counties. In 1578 Ann’s great-great-great-grandfather Sir Oliph Leigh had married Jane Browne.  This innocuous surname concealed an illustrious ancestry: Jane’s great-great-grandmother was Eleanor Fitzalan, descendant of the medieval Earls of Arundel.

From gentry to royalty

Eleanor Fitzalan was the ancestral gateway to royalty. Her family married into the Holland family, who descended from Edward I; and into the Neville family, who descended from Edward III.   The Fitzalan family also connects to Queen Adeliza, wife of Henry I, who descended (twice) from Charlemagne.

Coronation of Charlemagne

The Humphreys family tree now included numerous kings, queens and emperors of Europe as well as English and Scottish monarchs.  Incidentally, it included connexions to Geoffrey Chaucer and the author Henry Fielding.  What William Humphreys’ own ancestors – who were Quakers in Reigate – would have made of all this, we cannot imagine.

Who did she think she was?

Debrett Ancestry Research has made a selection of Anne Spencer’s ancestral lines available in the volume Who Did She Think She Was? (in paperback from Amazon).  This describes Anne’s royal descents in thirteen chapters of illustrated narrative, complete with references. These set out the genealogies of the Spencer, Leigh, Carew, Browne, Fitzalan (Arundel), Despenser, De Clare, Mautravers, De Warenne and D’Aubigny families, as well as three descents from Charlemagne.

The book includes a family tree for each of the families discussed. These may help some readers to negotiate their own passage through the complex web of aristocratic family connections.

Tracing Your Ancestors (in England): Top Tips

Here at Debrett Ancestry Research we have researched more than 7,500 families over the years. Tracing your ancestors is a fascinating and absorbing occupation and we all learn endlessly from what we do. But here are a few pointers for those just starting out.

Tip 1: Cherish living memories

Woodcut: medieval young and old women embracing

Family memories are a precious and fragile resource.  So if you can, before setting out to trace your ancestors, ask other family members what they remember. Keep the answers safe and organised. 

We have designed a special book for this, as described in a previous blog: Recollections.

Tip 2: Treat online family trees with caution

Woodcut: medieval man holding branch

They can be helpful, but a lot of the family trees posted on sites like Ancestry are just plain wrong. Beyond living memory, you want every link in your family tree to be supported by hard evidence. That means a historical document, or an image of one. An index entry isn’t enough.  Someone else’s guesswork certainly isn’t. 

However, the best online family trees include multiple original documents, either uploaded or provided as links. If so, look at the evidence for yourself, and check that it makes sense.

Tip 3: Get birth & marriage certificates

Woodcut: medieval scribe with quill

Census returns are a wonderful resource in tracing your ancestors, but don’t rely on them alone. For the period from 1837 onwards, aim to obtain a full birth and marriage record for each ancestor. The birth certificate gives an address and occupation and the maiden name of the mother. The marriage certificate shows the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom.  This is crucial evidence linking one generation to the next. 

However, your ancestors might have married in a parish church whose registers have been filmed by Ancestry or Findmypast.  In that case, the image of the full record can replace a marriage certificate.  Similarly, a baptism record might provide a full date of birth and address (and the General Register Office birth indexes show the mother’s maiden name).

Tip 4: But remember some events were not registered

Although it was a legal requirement to register births in England and Wales from 1 July 1837, not everyone complied. It was only after the Birth and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 that a fine for non-registration was introduced. Similarly, many couples did not marry formally.

Tip 5: Use original records

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

We all make mistakes, and that includes indexers. Besides, the original records are much more interesting than a transcript. Beyond 1837, use Ancestry and Findmypast to search parish registers and a whole host of other records.  But be aware that they don’t cover everything.  Your ancestors might have lived in a county whose parish registers have not been filmed. If so, use an index like FamilySearch in the first instance, but you will then have to seek out the full details, or employ a professional genealogist to look for them.

Tip 6: Keep detailed notes

Woodcut: medieval scribe

Even if you are using a computer program to lay out your family tree, keep a full written record of everything you have looked at.  Every time you record a fact about an ancestor, make a note of where you found it.  If you save an record to your computer, give it a meaningful name so you can find it easily.

Tip 7: Look at maps and gazetteers

Old maps, in particular.  The National Library of Scotland provides an excellent online collection of old Ordnance Survey maps. Old gazetteers (eg Samuel Lewis) and county histories will provide potted descriptions of a parish or village. The more you find out about where and how your ancestors lived, the more interesting your family tree becomes.

Tip 8: Think about the historical context

It really helps to understand the bigger picture.  Read up on the background. Explore the literature of the time.  Wars, bad harvests, industrial change, all affected how and where your ancestors lived. 

Tip 9: Consider different spellings of the name

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

The spelling of surnames was very flexible until relatively recently.  It’s usually a good idea to use the ‘variant’ option when using an online index. If you draw a blank, try lateral thinking. Indexers sometimes have a hard time reading old records and might have misread something. Some capital letters (eg K/R/P) will have been indexed incorrectly.

 

Tip 10: Take your time

Woodcut: medieval figure with scroll

Genealogy is a time-consuming, painstaking process. It can be very challenging and it’s easy to make mistakes. So, don’t rush or guess.

Look at each record carefully, giving yourself time to get used to the old handwriting if need be. Double-check any detail you have copied.

In tracing your ancestors you are taking a journey back in time. Enjoy the travel as well as the destination!

Season of Misrule

Have we replaced the twelve days of Christmas by a long festive glut through Advent (formerly a time of fasting)? Just as our ancestors’ celebration of the festive season would have been in full swing, for many of us Christmas is already over. So, while they were still passing round the wassail bowl, we trudge wearily round supermarkets eyeing up half-price decorations. Time perhaps to consider the ancient traditions of Misrule, which drove festivities through to a riotous Twelfth Night.

Misrule in Church

The medieval custom of appointing a choirboy to lead processions on Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) or St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) was especially popular in British cathedrals. In Winchester the chosen ‘Boy Bishop’ even celebrated Mass. What began as a special honour to commemorate a horrific event (infants slaughtered by King Herod) evolved into a gleeful reversal of the usual hierarchy. It was a parody that was both reverent and irreverent.

This sort of role reversal was rarely enjoyed by girls. Although similar practices were customary in nunneries by the 13th century, John Pec(k)ham, the Franciscan Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1292) denounced them. There were limits as to just how unruly Misrule should be.

Misrule in schools

The festive role-reversal of Misrule found its way into another social hierarchy. The custom of schoolboys arming themselves and seizing control of their schoolroom by ‘barring out’ their masters was already old in the 1550s.

Misrule at court

By the reign of King Edward III (d. 1377) the ‘Bean King’ was a courtly institution. The recipe was simple. Bake a bean into a cake and the man (it always was a man) in whose slice it fell became King for a day.

The Lord of Misrule
‘The Frolic of My Lord of Misrule’ from Cassell’s History of England (1900)

Henry VII regularly appointed a Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason, who presided over boisterous celebrations and entertainments. Henry VIII embraced the tradition of Lord of Misrule so much that he wrote it into the statutes of St John’s College, Cambridge. (The college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had her own Lord of Misrule).

The Elizabethan commentator John Stubbs (d.1591) described the Lord of Misrule festivities in London as a glorious rabble of ‘lusty guts’ dressed in green, yellow ‘or some other wanton colour’, with:

‘hobby-horses, dragons, and other antics, together with their pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal; then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen …

An allowed foolery

All this in an era in which it was illegal for certain classes to wear a particular colour. For Misrule was not anarchy but an ‘allowed’ foolery, celebrated in many a pantomime. Its supreme expression is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which artfully sets hierarchies and identities upside down, back to front and inside out. Festivities may have sometimes got out of hand, but damages could be made good and there was never any doubt that order would be restored. In the cold light of the morning after, the trappings of artificial power went back into the coffers. Life went on as usual. The rain it raineth every day.

Acknowledgements

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996)

The Century Edition of Cassell’s History of England (1900), vol II

Prince Harry, Baron Kilkeel

The town of Kilkeel, in County Down, Northern Ireland, is an ancient settlement famous for its granite, its fishing fleet, the natural beauty of its mountains of Mourne that ‘sweep down to the sea’, and as from the 19th May 2018, its royal connection, as Prince Harry became on his wedding day HRH The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel.

Albert Bridge / Departure from Kilkeel harbour

A trawler leaves Kilkeel harbour

Perhaps less well known is Kilkeel’s Prawn Festival, which began in 1963 and featured its own royals: not King Prawn, as might be hoped for, but the King of Mourne, and King Neptune who arrived, trident in hand, on a trawler. British Pathe shows some wonderful footage of the event in 1963. The event has been replaced in modern times by the Kilkeel Seafood Festival.

For more information and archive photographs of Kilkeel’s Prawn Festival see tracingyourmourneroots.com.

Although the new Baron and his wife, HRH The Duchess of Sussex, have yet to make a trip there, royal visitors are no novelty for Kilkeel. The Queen has made a visit, and in 2011 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Kilkeel High School.

The parish of Kilkeel also boasts an estate designed for entertaining on a royal scale, although it is currently out of commission. Mourne Park, seat of the Earls of Kilmorey, is one of Northern Ireland’s grandest estates, built originally on 800 acres of land that was granted by Edward VI in 1552 to Sir Nicholas Bagnall, Marshall General of the Army in Ireland. It was rebuilt, in local granite, in 1806 by the 12th Viscount Kilmorey, Francis Jack Needham, who in reward for military service to the crown in America, and in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, was created Viscount Newry and Morne and Earl of Kilmorey in 1822.

On the death of the 1st Earl in 1832, his son, also named Francis Jack Needham, succeeded, and saw the estate through the famine years of the 1840s; the ‘famine wall’ on the estate was his means of providing extra employment. There is some evidence that the poor of the parish suffered less during those desperate times than elsewhere. A workhouse had been built in Newry Street, Kilkeel, in 1841, with a fever house added on soon afterwards, but the minutes of the Board of Guardians suggest that there was less starvation and fever than in other parts of Ireland.

Edward VII is said to have been a frequent visitor to Mourne Park, and other notable guests have included the Queen Mother and Errol Flynn. During the Second World War it was used as a planning base for the Normandy landings. However, the modern history of the house is one of sad decline. The subject of family dispute in the late 20th/ 21st centuries, the estate was put up for sale in 2008, at which point it had 17 bedrooms, 8 reception rooms, and a footprint of some 25,000 square feet, set in an estate of 140 acres. The house was still for sale when it suffered a catastrophic fire in 2013, which caused the main roof to collapse. It currently awaits a new future, which perhaps will dawn the more quickly now that Kilkeel has become such a focus of interest.

The new Earl of Dumbarton

In bestowing upon Prince Harry the subsidiary title of Earl of Dumbarton, the Crown has made an unusual choice. The earldom, which has been extinct for nearly 270 years, was held for two generations by a junior branch of the aristocratic Scottish family of Douglas between 1675 and 1749. Both the previous Earls of Dumbarton spent much of their lives in France or abroad, and were both tainted with Roman Catholicism and Jacobite sympathies.

The first Earl of Dumbarton was George Douglas; born in about 1636, he was a younger son of the first Marquess of Douglas. From about the age of seventeen he was a soldier in the service of King Louis XIV of France, serving in and then commanding the Scottish Regiment of France for nearly 25 years, and rising to be a Lieutenant-General in the French army. He was a great favourite of Louis XIV who opposed his return to England when King Charles II summoned him home to raise the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot (the Royal Scots). King Charles secretly sympathised with his Catholicism, even to the extent of paying off over £1,500 in fines imposed upon for his religious non-conformity. As a reward for his military service George Douglas was created Earl of Dumbarton in 1675, with the subsidiary title of Lord Ettrick.

Louis XIV of France

Louis XIV of France

The Earl of Dumbarton was entirely comfortable serving our last Catholic king, James II, who appointed him Commander in Chief of Forces in Scotland. He was a great favourite of King James II and chose to go into exile with him in 1688. Dumbarton lived with the royal Stuart household in France until he died at St Germain-en-Laye in 1692. No doubt Prince Harry would admire his military prowess and ability as a soldier, but possibly less so his devotion to the Pope and his admiration of Louis XIV of France.

The second Earl of Dumbarton was also called George Douglas. Born in about 1687, his first ambition was to become a monk, but he was dissuaded from this by James II’s widow, Mary of Modena, in 1704. He decided there was no future for the house of Stuart, and he returned to England having been pardoned for high treason as a Jacobite. He too had a distinguished military career, but in the British Army. In 1716 he went to Moscow as an envoy to the Czar of Muscovy. When he died at Douay in north France in January 1749, the title became extinct.

Prince Harry’s future career will undoubtedly take a very different path from his predecessors as Earls of Dumbarton. We can be entirely confident that he will never test his vocation to be a monk, nor will he rise to the most senior rank in the French army.

Spotting Fake Genealogy

In a world where fake news has become as significant as the real thing, it’s time to shine a light into another dark corner: fake genealogy.

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in 'Pretty Peculiar'

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in ‘Pretty Peculiar’

Why fake it?

From ancient times, genealogy has been a powerful tool in reinforcing identity, whether personal or political. From the ‘begat’ lists of the Bible, to the often tortuous descents of privilege documented in Burke’s and our own Debrett’s peerage, ancestors have been invoked to demonstrate status through membership of a particular tribe. This is not a universal motive nowadays; many ancestor-seekers are simply curious, and find that identifying their forbears helps them to understand history. For some, however, the desire to be connected to a famous, titled or wealthy family is a driving force.

Inevitably, this has led to false claims and to exploitation.  These fall into two categories:

The accidental ancestor

Tracing ancestry is not always easy, even with all the modern finding tools, and the pages of websites such as Ancestry are teeming with inaccurate family trees. Moreover, oral history tends to value dramatic effect over accuracy. We humans like to arrange things into patterns, and to fill in any gaps in the facts with borrowed ones. Granny (or indeed Grandad) might not have been consciously fibbing with that story of a fine lady who ran off with the gardener; but the chances are, she didn’t. (Interestingly, plod through the documentation and you might find a grain of truth in the story: there might have been a professional gardener in the family, or the family might have relocated for reasons that appear illogical to their descendants.)

The unscrupulous genealogist

Intent to deceive is much rarer, but there have been some notable examples. American genealogy – with the uncertainties of emigrant origins, a vast country, and a lack of early documentation – was particularly ripe for exploitation. The American ‘genealogist’ Gustav Anjou (1863–1952) delighted hundreds of clients by selling them (for very high fees) spurious pedigrees connecting them to glamorous or illustrious emigrant families. This went far beyond the sort of carelessness that we see now online: Anjou provided false or fabricated references to documentation, providing the illusion that scholarly research had been carried out.

To avoid fakes pushing their way into your own ancestry, there are some simple rules to follow. Don’t adopt anyone else’s family tree without checking each connection. Was it is based on guesswork, wishful thinking, idly clicking buttons on a wet afternoon, or on careful research using original records (which includes digitised images of original records)? Are there obvious howlers, such as people having children at an impossibly young age, or simultaneously being in three different parts of the country? Look at each generation carefully, and in full: siblings are important.  Occupations are important.  If there is a marriage or birth certificate to be had, get a copy.  And be wary of those innocent-looking little green leaves or links that the website waves at you. It is not thinking, it is only shuffling its data and showing you a few of its cards.

For further information on fake genealogy:

Gustav Anjou – Fraudulent Genealogist: lists the family names affected by Anjou’s misdemeanours, but contains broken internet links.

Fraudulent Genealogies: FamilySearch’s overview of the subject, with several useful links.

Baronage: sets out a number of errors, and the background thereof, in the 1970 edition of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage.

Maidenhead spoons in old wills and inventories

One of the most fascinating genealogical tasks is reading old wills and inventories.  For a start, there is the humbling recognition that the goods and chattels of even a well-to-do householder, right up to the eighteenth centuryy, could be listed on a single page.  The will owill-fragmentr inventory of a Tudor or Stuart yeoman (or his widow) often takes us room by room around his house and outbuildings, enabling us to peer through the windows and see what kind of bed he slept on, what he wore, what he ate his food with, and even into the corners of the lumber rooms where miscellaneous and unnamed ‘thinges’ lurked.

Silver utensils, being of special value, were often described in some detail.  A wealthy Cornish yeoman of the parish of Saltash in 1581 left his wife, among other things, a dozen silver spoons ‘called by the name of the mayden head’; after her death, they were to be passed on to her daughters.

Maidenhead spoons 1580

Maidenhead spoons 1580

 

 

Maidenhead spoons – that is, spoons with a filial in the form of a female head –  feature in inventories from the fourteenth century.  The examples that survive – both in the documents and in reality – are usually silver, but no doubt there were wooden spoons that were similarly carved.  It has been suggested that they might have been wedding gifts.

 

The expression ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ reflects the importance of the silver spoon as a mark of status and in particular of inherited wealth.

Precious as they were, it might have come as a surprise to the yeoman in question that a few centuries later, his maidenhead spoons would have fetched thousands of pounds.  A pair of Elizabeth maidenhead spoons, made ca 1580, was valued at between £5,000 and £7,000 in 2016.

The minute size of a spoon filial was a challenge to the craftsman.  Similar images, in wood and stone, are found in abundance in medieval church decoration, where the larger size allowed for a greater breadth of treatment.

Maidenhead spoon filial 1607

Maidenhead  filial 1607

Like other traditional forms of decoration, the maiden’s head had a symbolic meaning.  An inventory from Durham Priory (1446) makes it clear that two of its spoons (which were perhaps used liturgically for incense) had ‘the image of the Holy Mary at their ends’.  Over time, as with other emblems, generations of craftsmen adapted the image as they chose, so that some of the female heads on the ends of spoons were not obviously maidenly.

Small wonder that, come the revolution, a new fashion for Puritan spoons emerged, with plain lines and no decoration.

 

Sources & Further reading:

T Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and Their Makers, 1550-1750 (J H  Bourdon-Smith Limited, 1992).

C M Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England, 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016).

Roberta Gilchrist, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Boydell Press, 2012)..

Online catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury: www.woolleyandwallis.co.uk.

J H Bourdon-Smith, London: www.bourdonsmith.co.uk.