Jonathan Scott returns to the city of dreaming spires to investigate resources for genealogists in Oxfordshire
Find your Oxfordshire forebears
The ongoing Oxfordshire DNA project aims to create a repository for DNA haplotypes from the county
Aburial took place in Sandford-on-Thames in 1591. The man had drowned while swimming and washing at Sandford Ferry with other “vagrant persons”. Since no local knew who he was or where he came from, the jury at the coroner’s inquest gave him what they thought was an appropriate name – John Mutchwater.
This is just one of countless stories and events preserved in the parish registers, which reside at the Oxfordshire History Centre.
Since our last visit to the county at the end of 2013, digital images of the centre’s baptism, marriage and burial registers have launched on Ancestry, in a project funded by Oxfordshire Family History Society. This involved the scanning of records from about 300 parishes, and the resulting Oxfordshire Collection currently consists of nearly two million pre-1812 registers, plus a further 1.25 million births and baptisms up to 1915, marriages and banns to 1930 and deaths/burials as far as 1965 ( bit.ly/anc-oxfordshire).
The society plays an important role in the county’s heritage services. Not only does it continue to lead and provide volunteers for all kinds of projects and publications, but members also answer queries at library helpdesks.
Last year the society launched a two-year research project examining surnames recorded in county registers from 1538 onwards. The aim is to build a comprehensive database of Oxfordshire surnames, to trace their whereabouts in different parishes over time, and to plot origins and hotspots.
This dovetails with the ongoing Oxfordshire DNA project ( familytreedna.com/ public/oxfordshire), which encourages people with proven Oxfordshire ancestry to have a DNA test. The ultimate goals are to create a repository for DNA haplotypes from the county; to find further clues about the origins of surnames associated with Oxfordshire; to help verify documentary research; and perhaps to break down brick walls that have been caused by illegitimacy or adoption.
The main county repository, the Oxfordshire History Centre, opened its doors in Oxford in July 2011. It is home to both the county archival collections, and the vast local studies and photographic collections that were once stored at Oxford Central Library. The practical upshot is that today a researcher might be able to find a relation in the General Register Office indexes or parish
registers, then look for references in coroner’s inquests or newspaper reports without ever having to leave the building.
A wealth of resources
Alongside parish material, the centre houses wills, council records, school and Poor Law material, electoral registers and court records. The latter includes both church courts (dating from between c1542 and 1860) and quarter sessions, which cover all kinds of criminal and administrative business. Catalogues of some quarter sessions material can be searched via the Heritage Search catalogue available at oxfordshire.gov.uk/ heritagesearch.
Printed or microform sources include newspapers, journals and magazines, trade and street directories, transcripts of parish registers and local censuses, plus books and pamphlets on Oxfordshire. These sit alongside oral history recordings and a photographic archive.
The centre has material relating to local businesses and firms, such as Morris Motors, Morrell’s Brewery of Oxford and Morland Brewery of Abingdon – Morland’s surviving records include title deeds and tenancy agreements, plans of pubs, minute books and financial records.
Mark Priddey, the manager of the History Centre, explains that since our last visit the centre has continued to take in a variety of official, organisational and individual collections from throughout Oxfordshire.
“We have received almost 500 deposits in the past five years,”
Tithe maps from more than 150 parishes between 1838 and 1865, representing the first detailed mapping of some towns and villages, have been digitised
he says. “Among these are regular deposits of parish registers, some from parishes that have not lodged material with us for many years, and Methodist Circuit and Quaker Meeting records.”
Other significant collections with potential for researching individuals include records of Early’s Blanket Company of Witney, the Oxfordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, Oxford Playhouse, Kiddington Hall Estate, Neptune Rowing Club (City of Oxford), and log books, admission registers and governors’ minutes from many schools including City of Oxford High School.
The Oxfordshire History Centre website ( oxfordshire. gov.uk/oxfordshirehistory) has also been given a major overhaul since 2013. You can find details of all major collections, often with downloadable fact sheets and handlists (such as those for tithe and enclosure records), as well as some indexes (including for school records). Meanwhile the vast photographic collections – more than 400,000 images from c1850 to the present day – are searchable via a separate website, pictureoxon.com.
Mark says that much of the staff ’s time over the past five years has been spent “consolidating and rationalising the archive, photographic and printed collections” in order to improve things for visitors on the ground and remote researchers who are accessing the collections online.
The centre’s district valuation records for example – maps and survey books covering 1910– 1915 – have been digitised, and are searchable by parish on the main website.
“These records cover individual and property holdings in pre-1974 Oxfordshire. The books give the names of owners and occupiers of every building and parcel of land surveyed in the county.” An interactive map and images of the individual survey forms are available for family historians to view in the public searchroom.
Meanwhile tithe maps from more than 150 parishes between 1838 and 1865, representing the first detailed mapping of some of these towns and villages, have also been digitised: “At present these are available to view in our searchroom, but ultimately we are aiming to make these accessible and searchable online as part of a wider project for a portal to Oxfordshire’s historic and current maps.”
There is also a secondment arrangement with Oxford City Council, with one of the county archivists cataloguing and providing access to the city’s archives. “Some of these are housed here at the History Centre, but the rest are at the Town Hall,” Mark explains. “By the time the project finishes in 2021, the city’s core archives will be available via online catalogues, and researchers will be able to view material previously not open to general access.”
On the ground the centre’s facilities include a reception café, 10 computers for public use, two large-screen PCs for accessing map collections (tithe, district valuation, Ordnance Survey and other printed maps), microfilm readers for local newspapers, and desk-spots for researchers to consult documents only accessible in their original or printed form.
The centre has also recently been given grant funding by The National Archives (TNA) to update the Oxfordshire section of the Manorial Documents Register – in other words to review the existing register, locate manorial documents not already included, and upload this information to TNA’s website.
“The initial stages of this work have highlighted the range of places and repositories that might contain court rolls and other manorial records,” says Mark. “For example, manorial documents for the village of Adderbury are held at the Bodleian Library, the British Museum, an Oxford college, in Wiltshire, in Hampshire and in private hands in Scotland.”
Remember too that some parishes in modern Oxfordshire were formerly part of Berkshire, so useful material will reside at Berkshire Record Office in Reading. Also Oxford colleges maintained their own archives, containing records of students, property and tenants (find out more at the Oxford Archivists’ Consortium’s website: oac.web.ox.ac.uk). Blenheim Palace also keeps a large archive stored in rooms with controlled temperature and humidity ( blenheimpalace.com).
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