1. Book Review: Our Village Ancestors


    A review by Karen Cummings

    I was sent a review copy of Helen Osborn’s latest book, Our Village Ancestors – A Genealogist’s Guide to Understanding the English Rural Past, by her publisher and, given that Helen used to own Pharos Tutors, it seemed only right that such a review should be published on the Pharos Blog.

    Helen Osborn’s latest is very different to her previous book, Genealogy: Essential Research Methods. This is not a “how to research your family tree” book as such. Instead it encourages the reader to expand their family history research horizons beyond the study of the people in the family tree towards a study of the places in which their ancestors lived.

    As Helen says, you will often see this described as “putting the flesh on the bones of the family-history skeleton”, you might also say this kind of study adds context to your family history, it also makes it a far more fulfilling journey. It’s not just about your ancestors in isolation, within their place of residence, but using a study of the whole community to get a greater understanding of how your ancestors lived.

    We are taken on a journey through the looking glass over a 400 year period of life in rural villages, from the mid-sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and the development of those villages over that time. Your ancestors came from a town or city? In the majority of cases, families living in towns and cities had migrated in from the rural villages in earlier generations. By the time you get back to 1600, over 80% of the population lived in the countryside. In other words, there is most likely something relevant to all family historians here.

    When you begin to research a place you are, of course, taking steps away from the traditional outlook of the family historian into other branches of history “…there is much crossover between local history and genealogy, because in order to gather truly the evidence that we need to reconstruct families into genealogical trees, we should understand both the historical and local context as well as have a good under- standing of the documents used. Thus, local history and family history come together over questions of place and community”.

    We are told there is no such thing as a “typical” village as there were so many differences resulting from e.g. location, climate, types of farming, manorial customs and local history. Our journey through time therefore is based around a number of general themes that can be considered for any village:

    • The Rural Past
    • Parish and Family
    • The Land and the Farmer
    • The Church and the Tithe
    • Supporting the Poor
    • Work and School in the Countryside
    • The Whole Community: Lists of Villagers and the Victorian Census
    • Leaving the Village


    You will find that many of the sources used, as we consider our village, are those we would already use for family history, but using a slightly different approach. You ancestor not included in the Churchwardens’ Accounts? Use them instead to build up a picture of the village, the type of people who lived there, the people who would have interacted with your ancestors on a daily basis. The same with wills and probate, the items left by members of the community can add to your picture of the types of farming and the wealth of some of those who lived there. Some of the records that you will encounter are poor law records, glebe terriers, probate records, maps, tithe records, enclosure records, manorial records, court records, title deeds, taxation records and early military lists but this is not a complete list. You will also fine some records you may not have come across before, such as the King’s Book and the 1873 Return of Owner of Land.

    Even the humble census record is given a new lease of life. One of my favourite sections of the book considers the annual Registrar General census reports, using them to not only gain an understanding of the growth of the village in terms of population and houses lost or gained in a ten year period, but also migration patterns and occupation changes. You can find these at the ‘Histpop’ website.

    At every turn records are examined through case studies, comparing three different villages: Bredhurst in Kent, Datchworth in Hertfordshire and High Abbotside, a township in the parish of Aysgarth, Yorkshire.

    In each chapter a wealth of information is provided, looking at each theme in detail and building a picture of how our ancestors lived, through records in which they may be named, the history of the village in question, and records giving more general context. Each chapter ends with a useful “Starting Points for the Researcher” section.

    There are also some really interesting case studies, pieced together with a variety of records, such at the Eaves family of Datchworth, and a really interesting insight into the brewing process too!

    “Adding a deep sense of geographic place to the analysis of records, as is the practice of good genealogists, takes family history into a whole new realm. It is often slow research, with an emphasis on acquiring knowledge through a deep understanding of place and context, yet it is deeply satisfying as mysteries and problems are solved or at the very least made a whole lot clearer.” Helen Osborn

    I couldn’t agree more! This is a worthy book for the bookshelf of any discerning genealogist, and I can thoroughly recommend it to all of our students.

    If you are interested learning more about some of these themes, we have a number of courses looking at the partnership between family history and local history in the Pharos course list, including:


  2. Trilogies

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    This post is by Pharos Tutor, Stuart Raymond, author, teacher and genealogist
    I had a very curious experience last year. I asked Pen & Sword if they would be interested in publishing a book on Nonconformist Ancestors. To which the response was, well, why not expand it to include the Church of England as well? To which my response was, the nonconformist sources would be swamped. Well, in that case, why not two books, one on Nonconformity, one on the Church of England. Oh, and throw in another on Roman Catholic records as well. To which I responded, Help!!!
    But my publisher was right. There were few up to date books which provided comprehensive coverage of sources relating to the various different denominations. Yes, there are many which cover aspects of those sources, such as my own on Parish Registers, or some of the Society of Genealogists’ My ancestors were … series on specific denominations. But there was little recent work which covered the whole range of sources in detail. So I set to work.
    Earlier this year, the first of the trilogy appeared. Tracing Your Nonconformist Ancestors: a guide for family and local historians aims to provide an overview of nonconformist records. It begins with an outline history of nonconformity, which explains the context in which records were created. Those records are held in many different record offices, which are discussed in some detail.  Many records are common to all nonconformist denominations, for example, state and ecclesiastical records of late seventeenth-century persecution, and the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials deposited with the Registrar General in 1841 and 1856 (and now available at www.bmdregisters.co.uk). The structures of the various nonconformist denominations are sometimes very different, and it is important to know that the record keeping activities of Quakers are very centralised, whereas most Baptist or Congregationalist records do not go beyond the local church. The sheer diversity of nonconformist denominations must also be taken into account. The first denomination mentioned in my index is the Apostolic Church, and the last the Wesleyan Reform Union.

    Tracing your Church of England Ancestors: a Guide for Family and Local Historians is currently on the point of publications; indeed, attendees at WDYTYA have already had the opportunity to see copies. As one would expect, this includes chapters on parish registers and associated sources of baptisms, marriages and burials, and also on probate records (which were a church responsibility). But it also deals with a wide range of other sources created by the Church of England at both diocesan and parish level. These range from churchwardens’ accounts to midwives’ licences, from incumbents’ visiting books to excommunication record. There is also a chapter on the records of Anglican organizations such as the Church Missionary Society, and the Waifs and Strays Society. I wonder how many genealogists have used the records of charities such as these?
    The third book in the trilogy, Tracing your Roman Catholic Ancestors, is not due to appear until early next year. It will of course look at records of Roman Catholic baptisms, marriages and burials, which can be found in both Anglican parish registers, and in Catholic mission registers. But Catholics were subject to severe persecution for over 250 years after 1558, much more so than the nonconformists. So I will be looking in detail at the records of persecution by both state and church. Attention will also be given to the numerous seminaries, monasteries, convents and schools founded by English exiles on the continent during the penal years – and to the many institutions founded in England when the French Revolution forced their return to England. How many of our ancestors attended the Catholic schools they founded?
    Now, what was I doing before I started all this? Ah yes, conducting my Pharos courses on apprentices and the seventeenth century.
    Stuart A. Raymond
    31st May 2017
    Buy Stuart’s books from Genfair:  https://www.genfair.co.uk/search.php
    Pen & Sword website: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/