Finding English Ancestors Not Recorded in the Common Records of Civil Registration, Parish Registers, or Probate Records
Article by V. Ben Bloxham in the World Conference on Records, 1980
The original intent of this lecture was to demonstrate the informational impact of a variety of records that relate to one English parish on the genealogy and family history of the people who lived there. Ashchurch in Gloucestershire was to be the parish and the records in the study were to include church, state, and private records.1 In addition, published works such as histories, directories, guides, family histories and genealogies, national record series (where indexed), and special local collections (i.e., the Hockaday Collection) were also to be included. Such a study, even of one parish (to be followed, hopefully, by others), would lead to a better understanding of the relative value of different records to the aggregate of genealogical and family history information on particular individuals and family resident or doing business in that parish. Upon identifying the contribution of each record to the total available knowledge of the individuals and families in the parish, it would then be possible to show what the expected loss might be when a particular record is not included in a search, whether because of the inaccessibility or lack of survival of the record, or because of the ignorance or vacuity of the researcher. Thus, when for whatever the reason, “the common records of civil registration, parish registers, or probate records” are not available or helpful, the resultant loss of anticipated information can be partially compensated for by the intelligent use of the surviving records. Moreover, records could then be intelligently ranked according to their anticipated yield of genealogical and family history information, and this ranking, in addition to being useful to genealogists and family historians, could affect the acquisition policies of libraries by providing sound evidence upon which to base them.
Although much of the research required to give such a lecture has been accomplished, much remains to be done, due to the demands of completing my doctoral studies in England. Therefore, while the Ashchurch project will be completed and the results thereof made available in the not-too-distant future, it is necessary here to take a quite different tack to the lecture title than originally envisaged, one which is hypothetical rather than empirical.
Success in the pursuit of genealogy and family history is dependent on many factors, but especially four, according to Sir Anthony Wagner. These are status, record, name, and continuity.2 Accordingly, the ease or difficulty with which ancestors are found is determined by, everything else being equal, social status, survival of records, rare and uncommon names, and continuance over time in place of abode and occupation. While all four of these are seldom fully in our favor, those occasions when all four are disadvantageous to us are equally rare, and the absence or weakness of one is often compensated for by the presence or strength of the others. The concern of this paper is with records, however, so we must resist the temptation to dwell on the other three, other than to remind us of their importance and interdependence.
There is a noticeable pattern or syndrome among genealogists which has worked to both their advantage and their disadvantage. This syndrome is characterized by an over-reliance on the use of those records which are highlighted in the title of this lecture, that is, civil registration (of births, marriages, and deaths), parish registers, and the probate records. (I think we might just as well add as a fourth overworked record the census and make the indictment complete.) A syndrome is not inherently good or bad: It is simply a phenomenon which is recognizable by certain characteristics. This civil registration – parish registers – probate records – census records syndrome is an observable pattern among enough genealogists to merit its being classified as a natural feature of the genealogical and family history landscape. One would have to be blind not to see it. What is good or bad about this particular syndrome? A good feature of it is that it charts a proven course. To ignore its well-beaten path is to court disaster in your family tree.
Civil registration in England began in 1837, the first year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and the resultant records provide genealogists with very good documentary evidence of births, marriages, and deaths for the past 143 years. While these records may not include everyone who was born, married, or who died in England during this period (although in theory they do), they handily surpass any other vital records in the English past. These records have not been microfilmed, although the national indexes at St. Catherine’s House have been from 1837 to 1904.
Parish registers were instituted in England in 1538, three hundred years prior to civil registration. Despite this early date, however, only some 800 of the approximately 10,000 parishes of the Anglican Church in England have registers dating back to that year. The importance of these registers to genealogical studies, even so, has long been recognized. Wagner observes that “everyone understands that a genealogist is in trouble when a parish register which concerns him happens to be missing.”3 It is probable that 75 percent of all parish registers prior to 1837 that have survived are in the custody of local record repositories, while the remaining 25 percent will almost certainly find their way to record offices during the next five years because of the requirements of the 1979 Parochial Records Measure. By 1975 approximately 60 percent of the parishes had deposited at least some of their registers in record offices, and of that number 30 percent were on microfilm or in print at the Genealogical Society Library in Salt Lake City. Similar in content to the parish registers are the so-called bishops transcripts, which were instituted by Convocation in 1597 as a duplicate record of baptisms, marriages, and burials as reported annually by incumbents to their respective bishops. Although some 60 percent of the bishops transcripts have been microfilmed, it is probable that by comparison to the coverage of the parish registers they are 30 to 40 percent less in space and time.
Probate records survive in England from the fourteenth century onward and most of them have been microfilmed to 1857. Prior to 1858 probate jurisdiction was vested in a rather complex system of ecclesiastical courts and afterwards in a much simpler order of civil courts. The annual national indexes to the civil probate records have been microfilmed to 1955.
Decennial censuses have been taken in England from 1841 to 1971, except for 1941 (because of World War II). In consequence of a 100-year right-of-privacy ruling, these records have been microfilmed only for the years 1841 through 1871.
The value to genealogists and family historians of these records cannot be overstated. For while civil registration and parish registers disclose the names of our ancestors and their families, their births and/or baptisms, marriages, and deaths and/or burials, the occupations of fathers, and their places of abode, census records add the occupations of other members of the family, their places of birth (especially important for those not yet found in the vital records), their servants (if any), and the schooling of their children, and probate records can yield heretofore unknown names of spouses and other relatives and relatives-in-law, the extent of their personal and real property, and their social status. Altogether, they can contribute enormously to a genealogy and family history. Taken singly they cannot be expected to contribute the same as when taken with one, two, or more of the others. The only valid excuse for not using all of these records in a genealogy and family history project is when one or more of them does not exist. Researchers who arbitrarily disregard any one of them do so to the certain detriment of their own work. The uninformed can be excused the first time; the experienced only pitied. This is why the civil registration – probate records – census records syndrome works to the advantage of the researcher: it trains him to use all of these records. I can think of no good reason for omitting any of the above records if they exist and are available. Indeed, many other records should also be used routinely, and because they are not, the syndrome has been working to the advantage of genealogists.
Now, before coming to the main point of this lecture, we must say a word or two about the relationship between genealogy and family history, as well as briefly define the word “record.” Genealogy is the study of pedigrees and family descent, with an emphasis on names, dates, places and relationships. Traditionally, genealogy has not included much in the way of history. That has been one of its major weaknesses. Local history is as essential to a family history as genealogy. A well-balanced combination of genealogy and local history is what makes possible good family history. Unfortunately, in a day when the study of family history is becoming fashionable, there are those who are merely substituting family history for genealogy in name only, the results of which can only be disappointing.
The word “record” as used in this lecture related to original documents which were produced by officials of mainly the church and the state as a function of their normal duties. Such documents are archives in contradistinction to compiled sources usually found in libraries. Moreover, such records or archives represent much better evidence than compiled or literary sources. “For genealogists perhaps even more than for general historians,” writes Wagner, “archive [or record] evidence is superior to other evidence because of its independent, authentic and contemporary character. Thus, the statement of a family or local historian that A was the son of B may be honest and valuable – but we want to know how he knew, what was his authority. The statement of a contemporary document, on the other hand, such as a will, a conveyance or a record of legal proceedings, that B was A’s father, is normally as good evidence as we can expect to have. For this reason the modern critical genealogist goes out of his way to indicate the original record on which his statements rest, therein differing from those of his predecessors who quoted no authorities at all on what was neither original itself nor based on what was.”4
Thus, we are brought to the point where we can now discuss some of those records or archives which genealogists and family historians may find helpful either in lieu of, or in addition to, civil registration, parish registers, probate records, and censuses. What does one do when the records briefly described above do not, for whatever the reason, mention our ancestors at all or to the extent that we would ordinarily expect them to? The answer is clear: We must become as knowledgeable and efficient as possible with regards to all relevant records of the past. Although there have been disappointing losses through neglect and disaster, England need not be ashamed of her archival heritage. There is enough and more to occupy us for years to come without exhausting the whole of it.
English records or archives as defined here are commonly divided into the three divisions of church for ecclesiastical), state (or civil, government, public), and private (or family) records. Each of these will now be dealt with separately in as much detail as time and space will permit, both for England in general and for Gloucestershire in particular.
- 1 Church Records
- 2 State Records
- 2.1 Church: Protestation Rolls
- 2.2 Tithe Awards
- 2.3 Assize Court
- 2.4 Chancery Court/Equity Side
- 2.5 Heralds’ Visitations
- 2.6 Land Record/Enclosure Awards
- 2.7 Feet of Fines
- 2.8 Inquisitions Post Mortem
- 2.9 Army Records
- 2.10 Tax Records/Hearth Tax
- 2.11 Local Records/Manors
- 2.12 Justices of the Peace and Quarter Sessions
- 2.13 Apprenticeship
- 3 Private Records
- 4 Conclusion
By church is meant the established church and also the nonconformist churches. The Church of England or Anglican Church was established in 1534, succeeding in England the Roman Catholic Church. The church central archives prior to 1534 were therefore in the Vatican, and between 1894 and 1955 fourteen volumes of papal records relating to Britain were published by the Public Record Office. Medieval Britain, like the rest of Christendom, was oriented to a world dominated by the two powers of church and state. In theory, the lines between the two powers were clear; in practice, they were blurred at best. Clerics in temporal matters were subject to the state and laymen in spiritual affairs were subordinate to the church. Because of this duality, it is no wonder that lay matters are sometimes to be found in the records of the church, while church business is recorded in the archives of the state.
For a general introduction to the church and its records, see W.B. Stephens’ Sources for English Local History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975). The best guide to the parochial records of the Church of England is W.E. Tate’s Parish Chest, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1969), and for extra-parochial records, the most complete guide is two manuscript volumes completed in 1952 by a committee appointed by Pilgrim Trust.
The volumes are available in legal deposit libraries and Lambeth Palace. For extra parochial records see also Dorothy M. Owens’ The Records of the Established Church in England, Excluding Parochial Records (Cambridge: British Records Association, 1970). For the diocese of Gloucester, parochial records are listed in Guide to the Parish Records of the City of Bristol and the County of Gloucester (Bristol: The Bristol and Gloucestershire Archeological Society, 1963), edited by Irvine Gray and Elizabeth Ralph. For Gloucestershire extra-parochial records, see Diocese of Gloucester, A Catalogue of the Records of the Bishop and Archdeacon, and Diocese of Gloucester, A Catalogue of the Records of the Dean and Chapter, Including the Former St. Peter’s Abby (Gloucester: Gloucester City Corporation, 1968, 1967), both by Isabel M. Kirby.
The records of the Church of England in general and the Diocese of Gloucester in particular, are multitudinous as is clearly evident from the above mentioned guides. For the present lecture only the marriage licenses, bishops’ visitations, and monumental inscriptions will be mentioned for the established church.
These pages may have more details and links to help:
Marriage licenses were issued by archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, and in some instances clergy. The records include allegations, bonds, licenses and entries in parish registers and bishops transcripts. The allegations are sworn statements stating the names of the bride and groom, their ages, whether they were a bachelor/widower or spinster/widow, their respective residences, and occupation of the groom. Bonds were assurances by the bondsmen, the grooms if of age, otherwise an older person, usually the father, and the bride’s father. The licenses were given to the parties who married. The original allegations and bonds are either in diocesan registries or local record offices. Two volumes of allegations for the Diocese of Gloucester have been published as follows: Volume 1, Gloucestershire Marriage Allegations 1637-1680(with Surrogate Allegations to 1694), 1954, and Volume 2: Marriage Allegations in the Diocese of Gloucester 1681-1700, 1970 (Gloucester: Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society), edited by Brian Frith.
Bishops visited their clergy and laity during their first year in office and subsequently every three or four years. The following were common matters of business during these visitations: nonconformists; puritanical practices; charitable endowments; the fabric of the church and the chancel and the state of the churchyard; the furniture and fittings of the church; the buildings of the glebe, including the parsonage house; the parochial clergy and holders of Episcopal licenses, schoolmasters, surgeons, and midwives; churchwardens and other parish officials; the laity who were alleged to be guilty of immorality, drunkenness, swearing, ribaldry, and usury; schismatics; disturbers of the divine service and those refusing to communicate at Easter; Sabbath breakers and those absent from church. The value of these records to family history and genealogy is obvious. The records are either in diocesan registeries or local record offices.
Monumental inscriptions are not, of course, records in the sense that we have been discussing records, but they are nonetheless useful to our present purpose. Transcriptions have been made of many burial grounds, and an ambitious project to copy all existing monumental inscriptions throughout England is being sponsored by the Federation of Family History Societies. For a unique collection of Gloucestershire monumental inscriptions to the end of the eighteenth century, see Historical, Monumental, and Genealogical Collections Relative to the County of Gloucester; Printed from the Original Papers of the late Ralph Bigland (London: John Nichols, 1791-92). For the monumental inscriptions of the city parishes of Gloucester, see also Thomas Dudley Fosbrooke’s An Original History of the City of Gloucester, Almost Wholly Compiled from New Materials: Supplying the Numerous Deficiencies, and Correcting the Errors of Preceding Accounts; Including the Original Papers of the late Ralph Bigland (London: John Nichols and Son, 1819).
Nonconformist Church Records
Approximately 9,000 registers of nonconformist churches are in the Public Record Office (also on microfilm).4 These registers represent the following churches: Baptist, Bible Christian, Calvinist Methodist, French Protestant and other foreign groups, General Methodist Registry, German Lutheran, Independent (or Congregationalist), Inghamite, Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion, Moravian, New Connexion, Presbyterian (or Unitarian), Primitive Methodist, Scottish Church, Society of Friends, Swedenborgians, Wesleyan, burial records of Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, and London; and records of Greenwich, Chelsea, and Foundling hospitals. Roman Catholics and Jews were allowed to retain their records, and they are publishing them through the Catholic Record Society and the Jewish Historical Society of England, respectively. For a concise account of the history and records of Roman Catholic and Protestant nonconformity, see W.B. Stephens’ Sources for English Local History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975) and D.J. Steel’s National Index of Parish Registers, Vol. 5, South Midlands and Welsh Border (London: Society of Genealogists, 1966).
These are records created by various agencies of the Crown and will be discussed here in terms of national records and local records. In 1838 the Public Record Office was established in Chancery Lane and the records of fifty-six different repositories were transferred to the new facility (eventually including some 50,000,000 individual documents). Six types of records on the national or central level will be discussed: church (protestation rolls and tithe awards), court (assize and chancery), heraldry (visitations), land (enclosure awards, feet and fines, and inquisitions post mortem), military (army and navy), and taxation (hearth tax).
Church: Protestation Rolls
Useful but seldom-used records of the English Civil War period having some application to both religious nonconformity and migration to America are the Protestation Rolls of 1642. By an order of the House of Commons, dated January 19, 1641-42, the following oath was required of all males of eighteen years and upwards living in England and Wales:
I, A.B., do in the Presence of Almighty God, promise, vow, and protest to maintain to defend, as far as lawfully I may, with my Life, Power, and Estate, the true Reformed Protestant Religion, expressed in the Doctrine of the Church of England, against all Popery and Popish Innovations, within this realm, contrary to the same Doctrine and according to the Duty of my Allegiance, His majesty’s Royal Person, Honour and Estate, as also the Power and Privileges of parliament, the lawful Rights and Liberties of the subjects, and every person that maketh this Protestation in whatsoever he shall do in the lawful pursuance of the same; and to my power, and as far as lawfully I may, I will oppose and by all good Ways and Means endeavour to bring to condign Punishment all such as shall, either by Force, Practice, counsels, Plots, Consipiracies or otherwise, do any Thing to the contrary of any Thing in this present Protestation contained; and further, and I shall, in all just and honourable ways, endeavour to preserve the Union and peace betwixt the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland; and neither for Hope, Fear, nor other Respect, shall relinquish this Promise, Vow and Protestation.6
Upon receipt of the order, the high sheriff and justices of the peace of each county were required to take the oath and then call together the minister, constables, churchwardens, and overseers of the poor of each parish and require them to take it. In turn, these parish officials had to call together their parishioners in order that they might administer the Protestation oath to them. Every male of eighteen and over was to be accounted for, either as having taken the oath or as having refused. Both lists were apparently wanted by Parliament and are obviously useful to genealogists and family historians.
Unfortunately, the Protestation Rolls do not survive for all of the population. The following counties are represented in the extant rolls (an asterisk indicates which ones have been published): Berkshire, Buckingham, Cambridge*, Cornwall*, Cumberland*, Denbigh, Devon*, Dorset*, Durham*, Essex, Hampshire, Hertford, Huntingdon*, Kent, Lancaster, Lincoln, Middlesex*, Northumberland*, Nottingham, Oxford*, Salop, Somerset*, Safford, Surrey*, Sussex*, Warwick, Westmorland*, Wiltshire, Worcester, York*, (Halifax Township). The extant rolls are deposited in the library of the House of Lords, and microfilm copies have been ordered by Family and Local History Studies, Brigham Young University. Students are currently indexing them for the counties which have not already been published.
The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 provided for the conversion of a set money amount in place of tithe-in-kind. The resultant records for each parish include the following eight columns: (1) names of the landowners in alphabetical order; (2) the names of the occupiers, either the landowner as “himself” or a named tenant; (3) reference number(s) identifying the particular parcels of land on an accompanying map; (4) name and description of the property; (5) state of cultivation (without naming the particular crops); (6) the acreage in acres, roods, and perches (40 perches = 1 rood, 4 roods = 1 acre); (7) the rent-charge in lieu of tithe; and (8) “Remarks.” Three copies of the documents were made and deposited as follows: one to the incumbent (now probably in the county record office), one to the diocesan registrar (perhaps also in the county record office), and one in the Public Record Office (Ashridge, Hertfordshire).7
A court which before 1876 was divided into six circuits as follows: Midland (Northampton, Rutland, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and Warwick), Norfolk (Buckingham, Bedford, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Norfolk, and Suffolk), Home (Hertford, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Surrey), Oxford (Berkshire, Oxford, Hereford, Salop, Gloucester, Monmouth, Stafford, and Worcester), Western (Southampton, Wiltshire, Dorset, Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset), and Northern (York, Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancaster).
The Justices of Assize have five commissions as follows: peace, oyer and terminer, general goal delivery, assize and nisi prius. The records consist of rolls or files, original indictments with the verdicts, coroners’ inquisitions, minute books, goal books or calendars, special cases and proceedings.
Gloucestershire is in the Oxford circuit and the following records are in the Public Record Office for this circuit and the following records are in the Public Record Office for this circuit: minute books (1803-1888, 68 volumes), crown books (1656-1889, 44 volumes), crown books (1847-1888, 3 volumes), miscellaneous books (1660-1888, 45 volumes), indictments (1650-1941, 283 bundles), dispositions in criminal cases (1719-1936, 71 bundles), pleadings (1854-1890, 4 bundles), estreats (1746-1890, 1 bundle) and returns as to cases tried, fees, etc., and appointments to offices (1732-1890, 1 bundle).8
Chancery Court/Equity Side
These records cover the period 1386-1875 and include 1.25 million suits. They have not been microfilmed. Access to these records is normally through the published calendars and the indexes prepared by Sherwood and Bernau. The calendars are listed by plaintiffs in alphabetical order with the names of the defendants, cause of the suit, and the county included. The records are in the Public Record Office and they are written in Latin. The Sherwood and Bernau collections are on microfilm and should be searched first. Researchers who are qualified to read the Latin documents are available for hire in the Public Record Office.9
Heralds visited the various counties of England between 1530 and 1687 to see that the armigerous gentry were properly registered with the College of Arms. Many of the visitation pedigrees have been printed and are an invaluable source of genealogical information. The list of English counties in Table 1 at the end of this paper indicates the years when visitations were made in each of them.
Land Record/Enclosure Awards
Enclosure of open fields, moorland, or meadow, considered common land until more recent times, has long been a feature of the English economy. Enclosure means the transfer of title of the common lands to private persons on the basis of previous property ownership in the parish. Land owners were entitled to the common lands on a percentage basis according to how much they already owned in the parish.
The records include a map and an award. The maps usually cover the whole parish along with the names of owners and occupiers. It is estimated that half of all English parishes experienced enclosures. The records, in triplicate, are in the county record offices, the parish churches, and in London. Affected parishes are listed in Return of Enclosure Acts in House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1914. See also Index of Local and Personal Acts 1801-1947. Documents which are likely to be of most use date from about 1740. Each enclosure document whether rolled or in book form consists of an award that sets out exactly the disposition of all affected common land. Not only farmers and freeholders but the poor and the parson obtained portions. For an annotated list of Gloucestershire enclosure acts and awards, see the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archeological Society, vol. 65 (1943).
Further information may be found in:
- England Land and Property
- Ireland Land and Property
- Scotland Land and Property
- Wales Land and Property
Feet of Fines
The antiquity of Fines predates the Norman Conquest although the surviving records commence with the reign of Henry II (1154-89). A House of Commons Committee of Public Records, speaking of fines, states, “The utility of these records to all persons desirous of tracing property and pedigree, is unquestionable.”10 These records contain the proceedings which have been adopted to convey estates, and to free them from their entailment to issue and from the lower of wives. The details include the name of the freeholder levying the fine, and if he is married, that of his wife, occasionally the name of his eldest child or other members of his family, and the situation and quantity of his estate. The documents themselves originally consisted of large parchment sheets divided into three sections, each of which recorded identical information. The court retained the bottom or foot of the document, which in Latin was called Pedes Finium (feet of Fines). The other two sections were given to the plaintiff and the deforciant, respectively.
Inquisitions Post Mortem
Upon the death of landowners who owned property directly of the king, known as tenants-in-chief, an inquest was held to determine the date, place, and cause of death of the tenant, the name and age of his heir(s), details of real property, and assignment of dower. These records date from 1216 to 1660 (very few after 1642). There are calendars (1216-1509) and indexes (1509-1660) to these records. Abstracts of the Inquisitions Gloucestershire have been published for the years 1236-1413 and 1625-42 by the Index Library (Volumes 9, 13, 21, 30, 40, and 47).
The first standing army was founded in 1745 by Oliver Cromwell. The commissioned officers came usually from the gentry and nobility and, before 1872, commissions were purchased. The ranks were as follows: general officers (field marshall, general, lieutenant-general, major-general, regimental officers (brigadier or colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major), company officers (captain, lieutenant, ensign or cornet). Other appointments often filled by commissioned officers: paymaster, adjutant, quartermaster, surgeon, assistant surgeon, and chaplain. Enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were usually recruited from the poorer classes, sometimes forcibly prior to 1780 and voluntarily between 1780 and 1914. Enlistment was usually for life except for limited enlistments permitted between Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and 1829. Beginning in 1847, infantry recruits enlisted for ten years. A soldier could sometimes buy his way out of the army. Ranks of non-commissioned officers were sergeant and corporal.
These pages may have more detail about this subject:
- British Military Records
- England Military Records
- Scotland Military Records
- Ireland Military Records
- Wales Military Records
More information may be found at:
- Forces War Records-British Army Records British Armed Forces personnel exclusively cross matched with over 4000 units of the British Armed Forces going back to before 1630.
Tax Records/Hearth Tax
This was a tax of 2 shillings on every hearth on property worth 20 shillings per annum, imposed from 1662 to 1689. The records consist of lists of heads of families by parish. They are useful to family history and genealogy for the light they shed on the economic circumstances of our ancestral families. They are also useful for finding particular families and for conducting surname distribution studies. The records are in the Public Record Office and they have been microfilmed.
A manor was a small geographical area consisting of a village the manor house where the lord of the manor lived, and the lands which were formed by the tenants and the serfs. Manor courts were held at regular intervals, the records of which are called accounts, custumals, and extents. These records contain details of tenancy, penalties, appointment of officials, fines for succession of property at death, etc. Some manorial courts exercised probate jurisdiction. Useful family history information includes persons’ names, place names, and details of disputes. See Nathaniel J. Hone, The Manor and Manorial Records (London, 1906). Lists and Indexes, No. 1 (London: Public Record Office, 1896), is a list of manorial records held in the Public Record Office. This list has been revised and indexed by the Genealogical Society of Utah (see “Location of Manor Court Rolls,” 5 volumes).
Justices of the Peace and Quarter Sessions
Before the creation of county councils by the Local Government Act of 1888, local administration was largely in the hands of the justices of the peace or under their supervision. Originally commissioned in the Middle Ages as “keepers of the king’s peace” in the counties, the justices had been given certain administrative functions in addition to their purely judicial work as early as the fourteenth century. The Tudor sovereigns, with an eye to economy as well as practical convenience, employed the unpaid county justice increasingly in carrying out their system of government and enforcing their numerous statutes. In particular, justices of the peace were charged with the superintendence of the parish officers established by sixteenth-century legislation, the overseers of the poor and the surveyors of the highways. They were also commonly called upon to appoint and supervise that ancient manorial officer, the petty constable or tithing man. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new statutes were continually adding to the justices’ duties, though reforms in poor law and highway administration in 1834 and 1862 transferred some of their burdens to new bodies, the Guardians of the Poor and the Highway Boards, and in 1877 the state relieved them of responsibility for prisons.
Their judicial work, the hearing and judgment of local felonies and trespasses, has continued without substantial modification to the present day. After about 1600 they usually referred capital offenses to the assizes, but on the other hand the gradual decay of manorial courts in the seventeenth century meant that eventually all minor crimes and misdemeanors had to come before justices of the peace. The justices used their powers individually (so far as they were allowed), or jointly with one or more colleagues as Petty Sessions. There were also, as time went on, special sessions for the licensing of alehouses and other purposes. Their most important functions, however, were exercised, as they still are, at the General Sessions of the peace, held four times a year (at Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, and Michaelmas), since about 1350 or earlier. At these courts, known as Quarter Sessions, those justices who attended – never more than a minority – sat as a court to hear and determine cases, both criminal and civil, which were outside the scope of a single justice’s authority. Procedure resembled that of the assizes. The high sheriff was responsible for summoning a grand jury (which decided whether the initial evidence justified a trial), and also for summoning qualified persons to provide the petty juries for trying issues of fact in criminal cases. All authority of the justices was of a judicial nature, and much business which we should now regard as purely administrative had to be handled by judicial procedure (e.g., highway in disrepair was “presented” as such in court, and a fine imposed on the inhabitants of the parish responsible to enable repairs to be carried out.
In some towns Quarter Sessions were held regularly in a town which was conveniently situated in the county. In other towns it became the custom to hold the Session at several different towns in turn. Gloucestershire records of 1595-1609 show the meetings being held generally at Gloucester and only once at Cirencester. Other towns were Tetbury, Painswick, and Wotton-under-Edge.
The justices were not a corporate body, and for centuries their only permanent official was the Clerk of the Peace who advised them on legal questions, drew up indictments and other formal documents, maintained the routine of the court, and had charge of its archives between sessions. This officer, mentioned as early as 1285, was until 1888 appointed by the Custos Rotulorum, who was originally a senior justice nominally responsible for the custody of the rolls of Quarter Sessions; since the seventeenth century, however, the office has by custom been held by the Lord Lieutenant. Now the office of Clerk of the Peace is held jointly with that of Clerk of the County Council. The clerk was often of good family (i.e., gentry), and if not legally qualified could treat the post as a sinecure, employing a deputy to carry out the work. The active clerk or deputy clerk would have a private legal practice in addition to his official duties. His remuneration until 1853 was by fees, not salary, and out of it he had, of course, to pay his staff.
The word Apprenticeship means learning of a trade. This was mainly done with a young person who was placed with and formally bound to a master. Apprenticeships have roots going back into medieval times. By the 16th century it was generally accepted as a means of providing technical training to boys and a very few girls in a wide range of occupations. Apprentices usually served indentureships of either five or seven years. A document called an indenture was signed by the master and the apprentice’s parents or other legal guardian. A national register was established in 1710 for the purpose of registering all apprentices except those apprenticed by the overseers of the parish and those who were paid less than a shilling for their indenture (which usually meant those who were apprenticed to a relative for a token amount of kindness). The national registers are in the Public Records Office, but an index covering the years 1710 to 1774 is in the Society of Genealogists and a microfilm copy is in the Genealogical Society of Utah Library. The registers in the Public Record Office continue to 1810. Apprenticeship records prior to 1710 exist for many provincial towns, and records also exist for the two missing categories of apprentices in the national registers. They are in the custody of parishes and local record offices.
We have been discussing state records, both national and local as though they eare clearly distinguishable. They are not, and either are private records clearly distinguishable from public records. Wagner wrote that “the frontier between public records and private is as ill defined as between central and local. The baron or knight exercising a delegated authority in his barony or manor slowly turns into a mere landowner, great or small, whose manorial records deal mainly if not solely with the administration of private property. The archive may be continuous but its character slowly changes.” Some families maintained muniment rooms or chests in which they kept important legal records, dealing usually with land ownership. In an attempt to locate and encourage preservation of and access to such collections, the Historical Manuscript Commission was established in 1869. This commission has published many volumes listing and describing collections of private records. Since 1945 the National Register of Archives has continued the work of the earlier commission to locate and list important personal record collections.
So-called semiprivate or semipublic businesses and bodies, such as professional organizations, trading corporations, private clubs, etc., all have created records which are useful to genealogists and family historians. It is simply a matter of finding out where the records of relevant bodies are and gaining access to them.
The only time genealogists and family historians are in trouble is when they run out of places to look. This lecture has touched on only a few of the almost endless records available for the pursuit of English genealogy and family history. The syndrome described above should not exist, but until researchers become better informed and set higher standards, it will continue to survive. This conference, perhaps more than anything else, should provide the enthusiasm, insights, and knowledge (through the lectures given at the conference and the published proceedings made available afterwards) to truly make of genealogy family history.
*Visitation in print.
+Visitation not in print and manuscript not in British Museum.
1 This study is still in progress and should be finished in 1981.
2 Anthony Richard Wagner, English Genealogy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 411.
5 List and Index Society, Vol. 42, “General Register Office List of Non-Parochial Registers, Man Series and Society of Friends Series.”
6 The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Fifth Report (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1876), Part I, Report and Appendix, pp. 3, 120-34.
7 Eric J. Evans, Tithes and the Tithe Commutation Act 1836 (London: Bedford Square Press, 1978).
8 Guide to the Contents of the Public Record Office (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1963), Vol. I, pp. 127-31.
9 Central Search Room Public Record Office, Chancery Lane, London.
10 Richard Sims, A Manual for the Genealogist, Topographer, Antiquary, and Legal Professor (London: John Russell Smith, 1861), p. 132.