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: