Su­san Moore, who ap­peared in Sir Derek Ja­cobi’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, re­veals how you too can un­cover your an­ces­tors’ se­crets through Chancery Court records

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Su­san Moore

There are few bet­ter sources for pro­vid­ing de­tailed ge­nealog­i­cal in­for­ma­tion than the Chancery Court

Look­ing at Chancery Court pro­ceed­ings is like shin­ing a torch onto peo­ple’s lives in past cen­turies. No other source gives such a per­sonal in­sight, ex­cept per­haps let­ters. Like­wise, no other source can pro­vide so much ge­nealog­i­cal in­for­ma­tion – of­ten sev­eral gen­er­a­tions in one doc­u­ment – with names, re­la­tion­ships and some­times even ex­act dates. The rich and the poor used the Chancery Court, al­though as a rule of thumb it is gen­er­ally the type of fam­ily who might leave a will who tended to use it.

The Chancery Court was one of the courts of equity that came into be­ing in the late 14th cen­tury. The courts of equity were used by or­di­nary peo­ple to bring a case against an­other ci­ti­zen. They were courts where “the first ob­ject in en­quiry in Equity is the de­fen­dant’s con­science rather than the plain­tiff ’s right”.

The judge­ments aimed to be what a good and moral per­son would do, which, as to­day, is not nec­es­sar­ily the same as what is ‘right’ in a strict le­gal sense.

In ad­di­tion to the Chancery Court, there were three main other courts of equity. Cases brought in the Court of the Star Cham­ber (1485-1641), which in­cluded cases al­leg­ing

acts of vi­o­lence, which al­though of­ten fic­ti­tious, make for grip­ping read­ing; the Court of Re­quests (1483-1642) was known as ‘the poor man’s court’ and in­volved cases worth less than £10 or land worth less than 40 shillings a year; the Court of the Ex­che­quer in­volved cases where there was a debt (real or fic­ti­tious) to the Crown. The palati­nate courts of Ch­ester, Durham, Lan­caster and Durham also each had equity ju­ris­dic­tions.

Re­source gold­mine

Al­though there are Chancery Court records from the late 14th cen­tury, the pe­riod for which they are a gold­mine is from the mid-16th to the mid-19th cen­turies. The joy of th­ese records for fam­ily his­to­ri­ans is that, un­like those of most other le­gal courts, the records of the courts of equity are writ­ten in English.

Dis­putes tend to fall into two very broad cat­e­gories: un­paid debts and the pos­ses­sion of prop­erty, the lat­ter gen­er­ally be­ing more in­for­ma­tive and in­ter­est­ing par­tic­u­larly when there is a dis­pute over a will or a mar­riage set­tle­ment. The case starts with the plain­tiff set­ting out his griev­ance, usu­ally with a long back­ground his­tory that will in­clude a great deal of in­for­ma­tion that can help a fam­ily his­to­rian. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple of the same name are de­scribed so that you can be sure that one John Smith is the un­cle/father/cousin of an­other one, thus help­ing with one of the great­est prob­lems that ge­neal­o­gists face.

In some cases there may even be five gen­er­a­tions de­scribed, with nu­mer­ous chil­dren listed at each level, names of wives, dates of mar­riage and death, and of­ten with the same name oc­cur­ring many times for dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

Once the back­ground has been es­tab­lished, the body of the case is in­tro­duced with the words “Now so it is may it please your lord­ship...” lead­ing at the end of the doc­u­ment to the names of the de­fen­dants with the words “May it there­fore please your lord­ship the premises con­sid­ered to grant unto your ora­tor his Majesty’s most gra­cious writ of subpoena to be di­rected unto...”

When read­ing the Bill of Com­plaint it is easy to be very sym­pa­thetic to the plain­tiff, be­liev­ing that they have been se­ri­ously wronged by the de­fen­dant. The next doc­u­ment is the An­swer by the de­fen­dant and this of­ten brings a feel­ing to the reader that there is more to the case than first meets the eye. In the An­swer, the de­fen­dant will work through the points raised by the plain­tiff, of­ten adding new in­for­ma­tion about the fam­ily and its back­ground. The lan­guage in the Bill and An­swer is not quite col­lo­quial as it is writ­ten by lawyers, but there is a real feel­ing of hear­ing the par­ties speak­ing, and in­deed in many cases they will quote ac­tual words of who said what and when.

The ‘in­ter­roga­to­ries’

The plain­tiff and de­fen­dant can then each com­pile a list of ques­tions, known as ‘in­ter­roga­to­ries’, to be put to cho­sen wit­nesses. The wit­nesses, known as de­po­nents, then give their an­swers or de­po­si­tions to the ques­tions that are rel­e­vant to them. For those out­side Lon­don, the an­swers to th­ese ques­tions are usu­ally taken down in the lo­cal pub and writ­ten out al­most ver­ba­tim. The value of th­ese records is that each wit­ness is named with his or her oc­cu­pa­tion

Dis­putes at Chancery Courts tend to fall into two very broad cat­e­gories: un­paid debts and the pos­ses­sion of prop­erty

and age. Whereas the par­ties in a case usu­ally are of a cer­tain so­cial stand­ing, wit­nesses can of­ten be agri­cul­tural labour­ers. The first ques­tion they are usu­ally asked is how long they have known the par­ties. An an­swer such as “10 years when I moved to this parish from the parish of...” can be an in­valu­able in­di­ca­tion as to where peo­ple came from and how long they have lived in an area.

With Chancery records there is no ver­bal hear­ing in court, no cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, no ver­bal judge­ment – all the records

are writ­ten down, and most sur­vive for us to look at now. Writ­ten judge­ment is given by the Lord Chan­cel­lor, af­ter read­ing the sum­mary of the case pre­pared by the Mas­ter.

Hav­ing said this, it must be pointed out that many cases do not get this far. The ma­jor­ity do not get be­yond the Bill and An­swer stage, lead­ing no doubt to a set­tle­ment out of court.

The Mas­ter could also ask for ex­hibits such as deeds, mar­riage set­tle­ments, wills and ac­counts, to be brought to court, and oc­ca­sion­ally th­ese were left be­hind af­ter the end of the case and now form the won­der­ful col­lec­tion of Masters’ Ex­hibits.

In ad­di­tion to the ba­sic ge­nealog­i­cal help given by th­ese doc­u­ments, they give a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the way of life of your an­ces­tors. The cases in­volv­ing debt of­ten re­fer to mer­chants and trades­men and can show how far afield they traded, in some cases over­seas, in­clud­ing Amer­ica. All the cases show how friend­ship and trust can soon de­te­ri­o­rate into con­flict and en­mity.

A Chancery Court in ses­sion at Lin­coln’s Inn, Hol­born, Lon­don, in 1808

Sir Derek Ja­cobi dis­cusses

Chancery Court records con­cern­ing his an­ces­tor Joseph de la Plaigne with Su­san Moore dur­ing his episode of WDYTYA?

Lord Chan­cel­lor Mac­cles­field pre­sides over a Chancery Court in Lon­don dur­ing the reign of Ge­orge I

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