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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - HE­LEN OS­BORN runs Pharos Tu­tors and is au­thor of Ge­neal­ogy: Es­sen­tial Re­search Meth­ods

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. na­tion­­chive).

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 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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