Beyond the Internet Week 10: Church records – the life and times of a parish and its parishioners

This is Week 10 in my Beyond the Internet series of topics in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your own posts on this week’s topic which is Church Records.

Please join in with your blog posts on this topic, and if possible provide the link on this page.

Last week’s topic was church registers: the records of baptisms, marriages and burials kept by parishes in the important era prior to civil registration, taking you back into the 17th and 18th centuries of earlier if you’re lucky. They remain relevant, although less critical, for the modern day.

This week looks at the other records kept by the churches which may provide invaluable clues to your family’s history, as well as that of the local parish where they live. In earlier days the parish was responsible for many of the day-to-day functions of the area, for example, the state of the roads; care of the poor, sick or destitute; foundling children; collection of tithes etc. The potential for finding snippets or nuggets of information about your family is pretty good. You may even find a signature for a distant ancestor who fulfilled ones of the parish responsibilities. The records were kept in a locked chest hence the name “parish chest”.

The parish chest in the village church at Hook Norton, Oxfordshire.

In this topic I’ll highlight a few of the parish records sources I’ve found useful in my own research. I’ve mainly looked at these records for Scotland and England but first let me mention an invaluable resource for German research.

FAMILIENBÜCHER (family books) (Germany)

You will find the standard baptisms and marriages (and sometimes burials) in the church registers but the familienbücher are especially worth seeking out, if you can access them. In essence they document each family as an entity. So when a married couple starts out their children are progressively added to the entry, sometimes with comments about emigration or relocation. Each son’s entry is cross-referenced to his new family once he marries, and each daughter’s entry refers to her husband’s name and her new family. Excellent value.

My hint: Don’t forget that there’s more than one religion in the old German states so do check place information for what churches were in your family’s area. It’s worth remembering that much of the southern areas of Germany are Catholic.

How to find them: The Familienbücher may be microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), so try the Family Search catalogue. If not, they should be with the local parish or with the regional church archives.

The Kunkel familienbuch extracted from the parish records of Dorfprozelten, Bavaria.

KIRK SESSIONS (Scotland)

My 2011 posts here and here referred to these wonderful records in some detail so I won’t repeat it here. They provide a unique insight into the day-to-day life in your family’s parish.

My hint is: don’t just search for your family’s name. In my experience reading the sessions for Inishail parish, each entry makes reference to families or individuals who may have no genealogical link to the key person and you may find yours among them.

How to find them: Essentially only available at (some) Scottish archives, most particularly Edinburgh.  Still it would be worth checking the Family Search catalogue to see if your parish’s records have been microfilmed. I’m longing for the day when ScotlandsPeople makes them available on line. I just hope it’s a full-subscription site because I don’t just want to look at odd pages with my family’s name.

OVERSEERS OF THE POOR (England)

If your family had some land and/or parish status, you may well find them taking on the responsibilities of overseer of the poor. The parish records may reveal their signature, how often they served and other extant information. I learnt that one strand of my ancestry served in parish roles for over 100 years – it was interesting to see how this had carried down the years. Genetics or training? If the family was poor, you may find references to them in the parish minutes.

How to find them: Search the Family Search catalogue for your parish and see what church records they have other than parish registers.

Hint: click on each entry to see what it includes. If you think it might be helpful give it a whirl. All you stand to lose is a few dollars and some time offset by the potential of finding something quite different about your families.

The local parishioners chosen to be Surveyors of the Poor may also be in the parish chest/church records and again give you insight into your family’s responsibilities and engagement.

ENCLOSURE AND TITHE RECORDS

The parish chest records may provide information on tithe and enclosure within your parish. This may list the amounts payable by each individual in the parish and their land and property name. Obviously this is invaluable information for your family’s story. This post elaborates on the impact this information had on my own family history. In other urban parishes I’ve found entries where the relevant parish official has gone door-to-door finding out who lives there and listing their liability.

How to find them: Again try the Family Search catalogue for your parish or the relevant archives for that area.

UNOFFICIAL PARISH CENSUSES

Some parishes have wonderful informal parish censuses in their records. You will give thanks if you find one of these. I’ve seen one (sadly not my parish, and also sadly I’ve forgotten which Northumberland parish it was) which said the woman “was very clean for a Catholic” and other equally acerbic comments.

HINT: If you would like to learn more about these wonderful records you might like to enrol in the Pharos course on the Parish chest.

FINAL HINT: Not everything has been microfilmed, digitised or indexed. Sometimes you need to dig deeper by approaching the local parish (offering them a donation to thank them for their time) or be visiting or contacting the relevant archives. Sometimes you’ll draw a blank but if you get lucky you’ll be delighted with how it enriches your story.

Sandon, Hertfordshire enclosure and the Kent family

Sometimes with family history it’s one small fact that is the key to opening a door. Such was the case with the enclosure documents I’d photographed while visiting the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) last year.  Despite having the information for nearly a year I hadn’t got round to looking at it in detail until I took the Pharos  course on Enclosure Maps and Records for Family Historians.[i]

I won’t attempt to go into the details of enclosure here except to say that it was the process, put simply, whereby formerly common lands were enclosed for private use usually by the bigger landowners of a parish. Also during this process the landowners may have “swapped” their land plots with others in order to consolidate their properties in a more rational and productive way. The National Archives has this informative guide to Enclosure Records.

Roe Green a hamlet in Sandon parish, Herts, but no sign to my Kent family’s former home.

Sandon parish in Hertfordshire, where one branch of my ancestors lived, commenced this process in 1840 and the award was enrolled in 1842. [ii] At the conclusion of the enclosure process a detailed map was produced and all land adjustments recorded. This comprehensive map is available through HALS.[iii]

At the commencement of the enclosure process, a community meeting was held to discuss the ramifications and proposals around the enclosure. The meeting was advertised in advance by notices on the church door and also in the local newspaper, The Reformer. However it was the location of the meeting that was to be my gold key. It was held at the public house of Richard Kent known by the sign of the Anchor at Roe Green, a hamlet in the parish.

While I’d known from the 1841 and 1851 census enumerations that Richard Kent (and indeed his father) was a publican I had never known the name of the pub. This snippet giving its name was indeed the key to learning more about his life before he, his wife and adult family emigrated in 1854.

The next strategy I applied was to ascertain whether the pub was one of the UK’s listed buildings. I figured if it had been around for a couple of centuries, this might be possible.

Believe it or not, Roe Green really was this green! But which of these heritage houses might have been where my ancestor lived? © Pauleen Cass

There were two pathways to this information:

1. The first, through British Heritage, enables a search of a locality http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/. I used the advanced search to locate Sandon in Hertfordshire and not others.

2. The second provides the same information but you go directly through the Listed Buildings site at http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/england/hertfordshire which let me then choose the parish and the building.

Both provided me with a listing for The Old Anchor as it was also known in subsequent years. Both also provided me with detailed descriptions, but overall I think I prefer the first option as a search tool. So what did I learn about the building? The full description is subject to Crown Copyright but you can read it here. In essence, it is a former public house dating from the 17thcentury and is grade II listed. It also provides its grid reference and a local map. It must be said though that the location of the building on the map can be a little imprecise.

The (Old) Anchor on Roe Green, Sandon, Herts in 2010. © Pauleen Cass

Armed with this additional information, and the alternative title, I googled the name for more information, using various search combinations. This turned up a range of information ranging from real estate sales to renovation approvals, hiking/walking trails and general information. All of which are grist for the family history mill.[iv] One site in particular deals with the common lands, remaining after enclosure, in Sandon parish and specifically in the locality of Roe Green.

Google images provided me with a great photo of the house taken by Mark Jordan for Panoramio. It was so evident it was the Anchor, that I went back to my own photos, taken on a scattergun approach before I learned the name of the family’s public house and knew its location.  Lo and behold I had taken a photo which did show the anchor over the front door but it is nowhere near as obvious as on Panoramio. I’m indebted to Mark and his photo for giving me the “tipoff”. (Rhetorical question: why do you always learn pivotal information after you’ve visited the place??)

Another useful site I came across shows images of listed buildings circa 2001, at the turn of the 20thcentury.  Images of England is linked to the National Monuments Record website. The Old Anchor is photographed on this site and the copyrighted image can be seen here.

There are also a couple of sites which deal with old pubs or inns in Hertfordshire and mention this public house. They are a Flickr discussion site and Dead Pubs though both discuss later periods. Previous to learning the pub’s name I hadn’t had enough detail to know in which property at Roe Green the Kent family had lived. Now I could go back and trace it through all the decennial census records from 1841 through to 1911 using Findmypast UK: while not every census gives the actual name of the building, a couple do, which makes it possible to link them up. Historical Directories also provide useful information on the inhabitants over time.

What becomes apparent is that while Richard Kent classed himself in 1851 as a publican, as well as a farmer of 40 acres, presumably through a lease agreement. This was not the case with subsequent owners/tenants of The Anchor. Why was this so? Had his land lease been taken away? Was this one of the reasons the family left for Australia in 1854? Did the next tenant simply not want to take on the farming lease given they already had a trade? So many questions which only further research both in reading and in the archives might address.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to learning more about the background by reading Behind the plough: agrarian society in nineteenth-century Hertfordshire by Nigel E Agar and Brewers in Hertfordshire – A historical gazetteer by Alan Whittaker.

This research is © P Cass September 2011.

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[i] These courses provide historical context for family history research and are excellent.

[ii] The Award is also available from The National Archives at Kew at CP 40/4003.

[iii] HALS reference QS/E/85. Sandon parish is also fortunate to have the Tithe map from 1840 as well. DSA4/90/2