This month, expert genealogist Helen Osborn finds a way to overcome those pre-1837 barriers to research with a visit to the local record office
Discover pre-1837 sources at county record offices
Do you feel that you’ve exhausted all of the possible online avenues in your family history research and become stuck? Don’t worry, what you need to break down your brick wall is still likely to be available – just not on the internet.
In reality, less than half of the records that exist are online. In fact, you have an exciting time ahead of you planning a trip to the county record office in the area where your kin lived to begin the fascinating task of poring over original documents and finding your ancestors’ names in them.
An archive or record office for each county was gradually established after the county councils came into being at the end of the 19th century. Other local authority archive offices also exist – for example, most London boroughs maintain an archive, and other areas of local government may do so, too. All county record offices now have a website and most boast an online catalogue. You can search for any archive in the UK, including the county record offices, via The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue (discovery. nationalarchives.gov.uk/find-an-archive).
County archive material
Records held by the county archives cover a very wide range of topics, and are being added to all the time. Pre-1837 records fall broadly into several categories. Parish records are the most well-known. These include registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which may go as far back as 1538, and other records of parish administration known as parish chest records, including records of the tithe and Poor Law administration such as settlement examinations and payments made to the poor. Rate books contain ning the monies paid by parishioners and minutes of the vestry are also in these collections, most of which are rich in names and vital to genealogical research.
Then there are documents generated by loca al solicitors and businesses, including many deeds and la and transfer records, which are important for tracing property history. Deeds are often indexed by surname.
Individuals and local families – often large land-owning ones – may have deposited records at local archives. These can include documents relating to other geographical areas. For example, the records of the estates in Surrey belonging to Princess Diana’s family are at Northamptonshire Record Office, not Surrey History Centre. There are often manorial records among these collections, too.
Records of local governance are to be found at local archives. These will relate to a particular borough, city or port, and can contain useful lists of names, such as burgess or freemen rolls; documents from local courts; quarrter sessions and petty sessionss; prison calendars; and papeers from the council, inccluding education and scchool records.
Finally, there are special ccollections, for example, ddiaries, that describe cconditions from the point off view of local people, or other records of particular local iinterest. In adddition, a county record office may also be ‘a place of deposit’, and hold records for the relevant Church of England diocese.
The most important of these for family historians are probate records, which can exist from the 15th century up to 1858. There will also be Bishop’s Transcripts and records from the church courts, which are known as the ‘bawdy courts’.
How to add context
County record offices usually have a useful collection of maps – sometimes very old examples, as well as Ordnance Survey and tithe maps – to help you locate places and put your ancestors in a geographical context.
Most record offices also have a library collection of printed material relating to the county. These will include village and parish histories, county histories and information about important families and businesses.
Published records in book format make up another useful research shortcut. County record societies often publish useful sets of records, such as settlement examinations, or documents from quarter sessions in a printed version, with a name index.
There may be books about local industry and historical features of the landscape, such as
mills or mines. On the open shelves, you may also find trade directories and local gazetteers.
In all cases, it is a good idea to find out how to search the record office catalogues in order to make the most of what is there. Most archives have guides and indexes in paper format available for visitors, some of which may not be online.
When looking for people prior to 1837, there are three major record groups to try. Initially, check the information you have already found from online indexes and transcriptions of parish registers by looking at the originals. Also seek out any parish baptism, marriage or burial material you have not already been able to look at. Burials are often not online, so be sure to check them.
Secondly, look for parish chest material from the parishes where ancestors were living. Records relating to administration of the Poor Law are often extremely useful. You may find people being listed receiving ‘out-relief ’, which was paid from the rates, or charity monies. Churchwardens’ and overseers’ accounts can provide much useful detail, too.
Thirdly, look for original probate documents. There is often an index to probate material held by the archives, and if you cannot find one, make sure to ask for it.
Bequests in a will can give you more information about a family than any other source. Look for administrations and probate inventories as well as wills. If the record office is not the diocesan record office, normally there are still indexes and microfilm copies of more heavily used items, such as wills and probate registers, which can provide clues to follow up elsewhere.
In your search for further information, don’t forget to build up a complete picture of the locality, so make use of maps and don’t forget to browse the library collections.
Record offices are adding material all the time, therefore if you are searching for particular information relating to a place or well-known family, it is worth looking through accessions (records coming into the archives each year) in case the items you need have not yet been catalogued. Most record offices have a backlog of cataloguing, so this isn’t uncommon. If it is impossible for you to visit an archive in person, consider hiring a professional researcher to help you identify likely records and act as a remote pair of eyes. A professional will also be very familiar with the record office and be able to work quickly and efficiently. There is a list of researchers at agra.org.uk. This can be just as effective as making your own visit, and save you time – and even money – if you have to factor in an overnight stay after a long journey. And, as many family historians agree, it can be just as satisfying as doing the research yourself!
Published records in book format make up a useful research shortcut
This Poor Law indenture for a boy entering the shoemaking trade is just one of the many document types found in a county record office
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