Who Do You Think You Are?
Off The Record
Alan Crosby uncovers some intriguing scrawls in the margins of parish registers
The notes written in the margins of parish registers
There’s a great book by Steven Hobbs, Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers, which I’m finding fascinating. It’s an anthology of the tremendously varied notes, memoranda and jottings made in registers – usually by the vicar, or rector – in the period 1538–1812. Many are about parish business and administration, but the really intriguing ones are comments made about the people of the parish and their foibles, sins and virtues.
Over the years, I’ve copied out many such jottings myself, as I searched parish registers in different parts of the country, although I never did this systematically. They reveal a rich social history. At Redenhall on the southern edge of Norfolk, in the freezing January of 1804, the vicar recorded the burial of “an East India Black, Name unknown, a travelling Pauper taken ill at Harleston & died in the Workhouse aged between 40 & 50”. What story lies behind this? Why was a middle-aged Indian man living as a vagrant in East Anglia in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars? We will never know, but we surely think with compassion of his personal tragedy.
Almost any burial register is likely to include pitiful records of the lonely deaths of people lost in the snow, drowned in rivers, afflicted by fevers, or starving far from home and very often unknown and anonymous. At Swaffham in mid-Norfolk in May 1791 there died “Adam Owen, a vagrant… he belonged to Dolgotha [ Dolgellau] in Merionethshire as far as cou’d be collected from his broken English, aged about 30”. Multiplied across the kingdom, and over the centuries, these sad and forlorn entries are the only markers of the fate of many of our ancestors, the ones who disappear without trace.
But the clergy were also anxious to record prodigious feats of longevity and strength. The vicar of Shipdham in Norfolk wrote a memorandum in the register, clearly astonished by the amazing achievement of William Bower, who “was 95 years old in 1726 and dyed at 102 by a fall from his cart after he had loaded it with barley in August 1733. He all along did his own work in all kinds of husbandry.” Such virtue – hard work and long living – was thought well worth recording, as was upright and godly behaviour among the young who, as usual, were generally assumed to be feckless and easily led astray. Falling from grace might take strange forms: “Dorothy, daughter of James & Dorothy Pitts, a sober, well disposed young woman aged 17, who kept clear from the Taint of Methodism amidst contagion” (Hempnall, Norfolk, 1790). If only Methodism was the only temptation!
The genealogical value of the comments can be great. At Burgh St Peter in Norfolk, in May 1808, William Barnard and Mary Young, both of that parish and single, were married, and made their marks “X” on the register entry. In the corner of the form, in thick black writing, William Boycatt, the rector, scrawled: “PS, soon after the ceremony, I was told that this Wm. Barnard had a wife that was thought to be yet alive & after a little time heard that he told the Parish Clerk that he had a wife alive.”
These are Norfolk examples, but everywhere has comparable material. The range of subjects is remarkable. Incumbents often recorded unusual or particularly extreme weather events, and they noted royal visits and political sensations, such as the death of Oliver Cromwell, or the Jacobite risings. Parish activities, details of sermons they themselves preached, complaints against the squire, theft of goods from the church and juicy scandal… all these and much else may be there. Here’s a Wiltshire example to finish (from Hilmarton): “Baptised, 2 Feb 1806, Aaron son of Olivia Draper of Goatacre, who was sold by William Draper her husband in Calne market to James Harper her brother-in-law with whom she now shamefully cohabits.” Brilliant – who wouldn’t want that story in their family history?
‘Dorothy Pitts kept clear from the Taint of Methodism’