1. Your oldest document


    This post is by Wayne Shepheard.
    What is the oldest document you have found for an ancestor? Do you have a picture or image copy of it?
    Church registers are among the most common sources for information. They are also among the most desirable as they are primary sources for birth, marriage and death dates, the building blocks for genealogical research. But many church records don’t reach back even to the 16th century, due to a lack of preservation or, in some instances, because they were never created.
    Vital records appear to have been kept in most regions from the early 16th century onward, with a few local exceptions:

    • England – parish registers mandated in 1538 at the time of the Reformation; only a few Roman Catholic parishes have vital data from before this date, mainly for only prominent families


    • France – civil legislation mandated registers be kept from 1539; oldest have been found in Givry Parish from 1334.


    • Germany – Protestant records from 1524, St. Sebald in Nürnberg; most reform churches kept records from 1650


    • Italy – mandatory from 1563 onward; oldest in Gemona del Friuli from 1379


    • Scotland – requirement for records of baptisms and marriages from 1552; most areas date from much later


    • Sweden – some parish registers date to 1620s; churches were ordered to record detailed books from 1686

    One might well ask why it took that long before authorities across Europe demanded the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Perhaps it was to do with governing bodies wishing to keep new and more accurate lists for tax purposes.
    Genealogists may also find names of their ancestors, not necessarily with correct, or any surnames, hand-written in manorial or property documents. Other sources might be court records, both civil and criminal.
    A tremendous upheaval in European population occurred following outbreaks of the Black Death of the mid-14th century resulting in the displacement or migration of great numbers of people. Connections to their origins may well have been lost with the mass movement of these working class people. Genealogists today would have great difficulty in tracing these families back further than the 15th or 16th centuries.
    So the vast majority of us, who descend from regular people, will find difficulty in tracing our full family history. This may be one reason why so many family histories end up with Charlemagne in their tree.
    In my search for the oldest genealogical-related record, I found a reference to a marriage in 449 BC interpreted from the Elphantine papyri, part of 175 documents found in Egypt in 1893. The record appears to be a formal recognition of the marriage between a Jewish temple officer, Ananiah, and Tamut, an Egyptian slave (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine_papyri#/media/File:Aramaic._Marriage_Document,_July_3,_449_B.C.E..jpg).
    Marriage Document of Ananiah and Tamut, July 3, 449 BCE, Brooklyn Museum
    The oldest record image for family members in my own library does not quite go so far back! It is for the 1603 baptism of an 8th great-grandaunt, Marie Sheppeard, in Plympton St. Mary parish, Devon. At least I am pretty confident she was related. The existing parish register only begins in 1602 so unfortunately just misses the baptism of my 8th great-grandfather, Nicholas Shepheard, which I believe took place in 1601. I do have a copy of the record of his marriage to Margerit Lee in the same parish in 1630, the baptisms of two of their children in 1633 and 1638, and his will, made in 1657.
    It is very important to actually see original or copies of original documents. Too often transcriptions and indexes misstate information. Getting back before 1600 is a challenge, though.
    What is the very oldest record you have found for which you have seen a copy of the actual document? How did you come across it?
    About the Author
    Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in Family History Skills & Strategies (Intermediate). He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian.

  2. Rejected Apprentices – a little known source

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    This is a guest post by Stuart A. Raymond
    What did you have to do in order to have your application to become a freeman of the City of Exeter to be rejected? For the period 1780-1802, the answer is to be found in a small alphabetical notebook held amongst Exeter City Archives in Devon Heritage Centre[1]. One applicant, Captain John Tren, claimed the freedom by paternity, but could not prove that his brother, who had inherited the right to claim, was actually dead. Apart from him, all of those whose rejections were recorded claimed by right of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship (as those who have completed Pharos’s apprenticeship course will know) imposed numerous requirements on the apprentice. They had to be totally obedient to their master, and had to serve their full term of seven years under his instruction. Marriage was forbidden, as was any absence.
    Several of those rejected were described as ‘disorderly apprentices’. In addition to being ‘disorderly’, Richard Milford ‘married before his time was out’. Others ran away; John Gray was accused of ‘entering on board a man of war’. Problems might be caused by a master going out of business; Philip Gove’s master ‘gave up trade and went abroad 2 years and upwards’; he therefore could not serve out his term. Indentures had to be indented; William Baker’s indentures were not, so he suffered rejection.
    The freedom in Exeter at this date was important primarily because it conferred the right to vote. It may be suspected that, in some cases, the mayoral court actively looked for a reason to reject applicants whose politics were not their liking. Was William Baker one of their victims?
    Some 52 applicants are listed in this notebook, which throws an interesting side light on life in Exeter at this time. The Society of Genealogists’ Genealogists’ magazine (vol. 32(2), 2016) has just published my transcript of this volume under the title ‘Rejected Applicants for the Freedom in Exeter, 1780-1802’.
    [1] Book 227.

    [Pharos adds:  As well as Stuart’s article, this quarter’s Genealogists’ Magazine also has a very interesting article about Rose’s Act.  If you are a member of the Society of Genealogists you can now opt to read the magazine online at their website, and all past editions as well.]

  3. A Love Match or Simply Good Business?


    Like anyone else, I have a lot of puzzles to work on in my family tree. One that had been nagging at me for some time was the precise blood relationship between a Joseph Beachcroft who married a Mary Beachcroft.

    Mary’s father was Samuel Beachcroft, and in his will of 1732 he mentions his ‘son in law’ Joseph Beachcroft. But nowhere was there a Joseph of Mary’s generation in the immediate family. I have never found any baptisms for any of Samuel’s children, so I didn’t know how old Mary was in 1732, although her parents were married in 1701, which was a starting point and I knew she was under 21 in 1729 as her mother’s will states.

    Meanwhile, there was a Joseph Beachcroft who was a first cousin of Mary’s father. On Joseph’s memorial inscription, there was a second wife called Mary Fuller mentioned. I had assumed Fuller to be her maiden name.

    My spur to getting this sorted out finally as I searched back and forth on the internet, was the discovery of the marriage entry between a Joseph Beachcroft and Mary Beachcroft in Bermondsey in 1731. I had scoured the LMA collections on Ancestry for some time in relation to anything Beachcroft, but I hadn’t found this marriage before because it was indexed as Beackcroft.

    The entry read; “Joseph Beachcroft of Battersea in the County of Surrey, Widower and Mary Beachcroft of Wandsworth, Licence first being obtained.”

    This was intriguing.

    It seemed to be Mary daughter of Samuel – they lived in Wandsworth. But why would she get married down the river away from friends and neighbours? Was this an entirely new couple, previously unknown to me, or was something else going on?

    I needed to revisit everything and gather all the evidence to finally prove who Mary and Joseph were. I focused on the Joseph who was first cousin to Samuel. The son of a London Citizen and Haberdasher Joseph was christened 31 May 1678 at St Mary le Bow. He was apprenticed to his own father and became free of the Haberdashers in 1701 at the age of 23. He married Frances Pooley in 1705, aged 26, when she was aged around 20. No children seem to have been born to this couple and she died aged only 27 in 1711.

    Between 1705 and 1721 he owned premises at Cheapside and traded as a Goldsmith. Although never a member of the Goldsmith’s company he was mentioned in their court minutes in 1705, 1707 and 1712 in connection with the selling of sub-standard goods and also in 1708 when he took on an apprentice of the Goldsmith’s company. Crucially, among the papers I had accumulated on Joseph there was evidence that he had indeed lived in York Place, Battersea in 1729, (not a very long walk away from Wandsworth). I had not put these two bits of geographical evidence together before and thought about how these first cousins Joseph and Samuel, lived so near to each other.

    Finding the marriage bond or allegation would give the final corroborating information. Yet despite the London & Surrey Marriage Bonds and Allegations collection from the London Metropolitan Archives, being available on Ancestry, I could find nothing there. I later tracked it down in the Vicar General Marriage Allegations. This collection is at the Society of Genealogists (indexed at Findmypast just by surname), on microfilm, so I recently went to look at what the original said. It confirmed that Mary was just 19 and from Wandsworth, the daughter of Samuel. Therefore, as Joseph was 53 there was a 34 year age gap between them. In those days of shorter life-expectancy, Joseph must have seemed an old man to the young Mary.

    Was this a love match or a simple piece of family ‘engineering’ cooked up by Samuel and Joseph in an arrangement going back years? A last ditch attempt by Joseph for a son before he died, and for Samuel to marry off his daughter to a rich cousin whom he liked or did business with?  Or did Joseph and Mary have genuine feelings for each other? What did Mary really feel about marrying a much older man, albeit a rich one? Unfortunately for Joseph there were to be no children, but his marriage to his young first cousin once-removed, lasted for 26 years until his death in 1757, age 79. Mary remarried in 1760, to a Mr Fuller, (hence the name on the memorial stone) but died herself just 18 months aged around 48.

    I do so hope that Joseph was kind to his young bride, but I can’t help wondering what her life was really like.

  4. The next big thing?


    The recent announcement that Findmypast and The National Archives http://www.findmypast.co.uk/1939register
    are making available the National Registration Act 1939 ‘census’ is very exciting.  This Act led to the population of Britain being issued with identity cards as the second World War got underway. A little bird tells us that we could see some of it happen before the end of 2015, and make no mistake, it is going to be huge. There are 40 million entries and 7,000 volumes to digitize. Many 20th century research brickwalls will come tumbling down as a result.
    As there was no census in 1941 due to the war, and the 1931 England & Wales census returns were sadly lost to fire, the 1939 Registration Act census will be the most recent year genealogists will be able to combine information from both census and civil registration in order to locate people for a long time to come. The 1921 UK census will be released in 2022 after 100 years as has been the normal practice, (another 7 years to wait) but then there might be no major record sets from the 20th century until the 1951 census is made available in 2052, unless (possibly, maybe) we get access to searchable civil registration certificates online. The 1939 data is being released earlier than 100 years as the legislation which brought it into being is different from that used to carry out the normal 10 year census, regulated by the 1920 Census Act.
    We have all seen how quickly the big data websites have rushed to provide us online access to all the available England & Wales census returns, the surviving Ireland census returns, as well as transcriptions from the Scottish census. Many other records, most of them partial or parts of bigger series, have come online as well. But which types of records are going to keep the big data websites growing over the coming decades do you think?
    What would provide the biggest break-through for your own research? Should there be a concerted effort to get all remaining parish registers indexed? How about all English probate material pre 1858 in one place? Military muster rolls?
    What will be the next big thing?

  5. Why genealogists love general elections

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    This post is by Stuart Raymond, Pharos Tutor and prolific genealogy author

    As another general election approaches, it is time for genealogists to think about what is in it for them. Answer: a great deal of evidence! The records of elections include many lists of names, beloved of genealogists. Parliamentary elections in the counties were conducted by sheriffs in their county courts. Between 1696 and 1872, they had to compile lists of those who had voted, showing how they had cast their votes. Many of these poll-books survive, some in manuscript, some printed. From 1832, registers of those entitled to vote had to be compiled and published annually, a practice that continues to this day (although information may be withheld from the modern published registers due to privacy concerns). These lists of names are invaluable sources for tracing the homes of family names across wide areas.
    Poll-books and electoral registers are valuable sources of information for family and local historians. In those constituencies where the franchise was wide they may list thousands of our ancestors, telling us where they lived, and perhaps their occupation or status. The Westminster poll-book of 1774, for example, lists over 7,000 voters, with their residences and occupations.
    The arrangement of poll-books was not uniform. Some grouped voters by parish, ward, or even street; others provided a straightforward alphabetical listing; a few listed them by trade. I have even seen a poll-book arranged in the order in which the electors cast their votes! Electoral registers are more uniform; the Somerset Western Division volume for 1832 is arranged alphabetically by hundred and parish.
    In county constituencies before 1832, the franchise was held by freeholders who held land valued at forty shillings per annum. That qualification dated from 1429. In the succeeding half a millennia, the value of forty shillings declined considerably, and the numbers of those eligible to vote consequently greatly increased.
    In the boroughs, there was no uniform franchise. It was frequently restricted to freemen, with the result that borough court records are often full of admittances to the freedom immediately before elections took place. In the City of London, the franchise was held by liverymen who were also freemen of the City. The 1768 London poll-book has a peculiar semi-alphabetic arrangement, whereby surnames are listed alphabetically by livery company. Elsewhere the franchise might be restricted to the burgesses – those who held land in the borough. At Old Sarum only those who held a ploughed field by burgage tenure could vote. There were very few voters!
    The widening of the franchise came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as successive Representation of the People acts gradually extended the right to vote to all adults other than prisoners and peers. An interesting account of the ‘History of the Parliamentary Franchise’ is available for download at www.parliament.uk/topics/Electoral-franchise.htm.  London electoral registers, 1832-1965 can be searched at http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid=1795. They are also available on a number of other sites. Of particular interest are the ‘absent voters lists’, which record the names of servicemen at the Front during the First World War. The information provided included regiment, number, and rank. For the Leeds absent voters list of 1918, visit www.leeds.gov.uk/leisure/Pages/Absent-war-voters.aspx
    Poll-books and electoral registers can generally be found in local studies libraries and record offices for the areas they cover. There are also good collections at the Institute of Historical Research at London University, the Guildhall Library, and the British Library. Full lists of surviving poll-books and electoral registers are given in:
    • Gibson, Jeremy, & Rogers, Colin. Poll books 1696-1872: a directory to holdings in Great Britain. 4th ed. Family History Partnership, 2008.
    • Gibson, Jeremy. Electoral Registers and Burgess Rolls 1832-1948; . Family History Partnership, 2008.
    A number of poll-books and electoral registers for Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, and Yorkshire have been reprinted, and are available from the Internet Genealogical Bookshop at www.genfair.co.uk.
    Stuart says:  I work as a genealogical bookman. That is, I am not only an author publisher, but I am also a trained librarian and a genealogical bookseller in a small way. My ambition is to ensure that local and family historians receive the guidance they need to undertake effective research. Principally, I do that through my writing, but I also lecture, and run on-line courses through Pharos. Most of my books are now published through the Family History Partnership www.thefamilyhistorypartnership.com of which I am a member.

  6. I wish I knew when they were born!


    Have you ever wondered how long the gap was between a date of birth and a baptism? When you are used to knowing a date of birth from working with civil registration records, moving into parish registers and having only a baptismal date can be frustrating, particularly in the absence of other good quality information about a person. Sometimes in questions of multiple identity we really do need a precise date of birth, or at the very least a definite year and probable month. Sometimes we have a date of birth perhaps from a family record, but no baptism date. How far along should we search? What was the common interval between a birth and a baptism?
    Until the 17th century, the Church in England & Wales required that no longer than 7 days should elapse between birth and baptism. Indeed some baptisms in the mid-16th century (when parish registers begin) are known to have taken place on the same day as the birth (Chislet, Kent) and it is thought that medieval practice was also for baptism on the same day as the birth. The Book of Common Prayer held that a child should be baptised on the next Sunday after birth, or failing that the following Sunday. But did people obey this ‘rule’?
    Yes and No.
    One of the interesting but highly frustrating things about doing family history, is that each family is unique, and of course some parts of any family are going to be more awkward and less conforming than others. After all, if everybody did exactly the same thing, then it would be easy to find them and easy to predict them, and genealogy would not be full of all those ‘But why?’ type questions, and all the duller for it. Historians can satisfy themselves with what was the ‘norm’ by looking at all the births and baptisms from those rare parish registers where both are recorded, (the well-known ‘Dade and Barrington’ registers of Yorkshire and Durham have both) and draw some general conclusions, but unless we family historians have the specific facts in front of us, there is no way of knowing how much our own family conformed to the rest of society. It seems very likely that different districts had different ‘norms’; thus it would be foolish to presume that birth/baptism intervals in both Kent and North Yorkshire would be the same. Many factors are likely to have come into play; how far the church or chapel and baptising Minister was from the family home, the time of year, whether the family were Dissenting or not, what the neighbours did, how strict the Minister was, indeed how strict the diocese was, and whether the community was rural or urban.
    Nevertheless, we can apply a rule of thumb to the period when the Church tended to have a tighter grip on things, say prior to the 1640s. If you have a baptism but no way of knowing the date of a birth, then it should be within a 14 day period, and in the 16th century probably more like 7 days, unless something very unusual had happened. That is the good news. The bad news is that most of us don’t have our ancestors back as far as this, or at least only have a few ancestors back as far as this. Over the next 200 years, the interval between birth and baptism tends to get longer, particularly growing in the second part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. The work of historians and demographers tend to tell us things like ‘75 % of children in X parish were baptised within 14 days of birth in 1750’. This does not help a genealogist work out a likely gap in 1830, in Y parish, although it might be helpful to know that you should consider a gradually increasing interval as being normal. In a regular church going family it is highly likely that any child would be baptised between one and six months old. But then, not all families were regular church goers, as the Victorians were shocked to discover from the 1851 Religious census. http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/building-on-history-project/resource-guide/source-guides/religious-censuses.htm
    I have been building a big tree for a client, and one family has 14 children born in the period 1800 – 1820 in various locations, including in India and one even at sea. The family were good church attenders with the father being a churchwarden at one point. We have dates of birth for all of them from family records, so we can be sure that we have a fairly accurate picture. The eldest children were all baptised within 28 days. With the younger children it becomes much more flexible, with the biggest interval stretching to six months, but most of them being baptised at four or five months. In the previous generation of the same family, (1760s to 1780s) the birth baptism interval (where known) is always about one month.
    Looking at my own family at the start of the 19th century, where the information on both birth and baptism is known, some children are baptised at one month, but there are also others at around five months. Perhaps a conclusion to be tentatively drawn from this is that the more children you have, the more lax you tend to become, suffering less pressure from others to do the ‘right’ thing.
    Historians and demographers have only done studies on a very few parishes, because it was hard for them to locate registers where both birth date and baptism dates were known; Pevensey in Sussex is one. However, now that so many registers are online it is hopefully not going to be too long until studies based on more registers which show both birth dates and baptism dates are made.
    Where there are really long intervals, as with adult baptisms, it does beg a lot of questions. I have an interesting example in my own family, with four children baptised on the same day in 1815 in a chapel far from where they were living in central London. The father was an Attorney at Law, and although of foreign extraction (his father being an Italian-French migrant to London); I have no evidence for him being anything other than Church of England. He was educated and well to do, so why did two of his children get baptised in London (the two boys), and then all four children (boys and girls) get baptised or in the boys case, re-baptised (one of them within 2 months of their first baptism) at Aldborough Hatch, a little chapel of ease for Barking?
    I don’t know when the two middle children, the girls, were born, but I think they were about 8 and 5 years old in 1815. Naturally it is one of the girls I particularly want a more accurate date of birth for. They definitely lived in the parish of St Anne’s Soho in London, so this little chapel was obviously chosen as an out-of-the way place to avoid any nosey neighbours, but why? Were the parents not legally married, which was then rectified just prior to this set of baptisms in June 1815? It was obviously originally considered more important to baptise the boys rather than the girls, so were the 1815 baptisms a change of heart, in which case why include the boys?
    If anyone has any ideas, or similar stories from their own family, please share them!
    What are the birth and baptism intervals in your family?
    Read more from Stuart Basten
    Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

  7. Pursuing Probates

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    This is a guest post by Andrew Millard who maintains a very useful webpage listing probate records

    Probate records are a gold mine of information for genealogists, but the records can be hard to find. Prior to the creation of national civil probate courts (1858 in England, Wales and Ireland, 1876 in Scotland) one has to search the records of local, regional and national jurisdictions depending on where one’s ancestor owned property, and that means searching multiple indexes or calendars and accessing records from various archives.
    For over 30 years I have been conducting a one-name study of the name Bodimeade, and ten years ago I had reached a point where I decided that a systematic check of every probate index was the next logical step. I also had some other surnames where I regularly collected all references in pre-1850 or pre-1800 records as I found them (in case you are interested: Brooksby, Littlechild, Redington, Spriddle), and intended to collect all the index entries for them as well. So how did I go about it?
    I started with the book Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills by Jeremy Gibson and Else Churchill which describes the area cover by each court and lists all known indexes (and their deficiencies). Although it was last updated in 2002 this book is invaluable as a concise guide to the courts, the printed indexes and the locations of the original records. My copy is very well thumbed!
    As I have easy access to a major research library, I started by systematically working through all the probate indexes published by the British Record Society. Then I went to Probate Jurisdictions to identify other indexes and checked as many of them as were in the library. I made slow but steady progress in lunchtime sessions in the library, but after a while it became obvious that there were new indexes appearing that weren’t in Probate Jurisdictions, so I started annotating my copy and checking them as well.
    It’s all very well writing ‘see BRS 102, 108, 111’ in the margin of book to denote a new set of indexes for the London Commissary Court but I soon started finding online indexes, and added notes like ‘online index bristol.gov.uk/ccm/content/Leisure-Culture/records-and-archives/bristol-wills-index-1793-1858.en’ for the Bristol Consistory Court. When I revisited an index that had to be typed out again, and I decided that I’d be better off creating a webpage with the links in. So my page Recent Indexes to English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Probate Records was born, initially just for my own use. As it developed I made it public because it seemed others could benefit from my efforts in compiling it.
    Since then it has growed like Topsy. Although I have tried not to duplicate material from Probate Jurisdictions, I have included older indexes that have been scanned and placed online. I periodically search sites with major collections of scanned books, like archive.org and books.familysearch.org for newly scanned indexes. In doing this I’ve found a handful that were omitted from Probate Jurisdictions. That might be because they are superseded by a later index, but in some cases I know of no other index.
    New indexes are coming out frequently, and existing ones move to new web addresses, so it is a never-ending task to keep my list up-to-date. Even if it is up-to-date it is not comprehensive, as many indexes published in the 20th century are in copyright and not digitised. So please do use my list to find indexes to pursue probates relating to your ancestors, but don’t forget to refer to Probate Jurisdictions to find indexes only available in print. Inevitably you will want to look at original documents not just an index, and if images of the originals are not online, then Probate Jurisdictions: where to look for wills will tell you where to find them.
    About Andrew:  Apart from his full-time day job teaching at Durham University, Andrew somehow finds time to act in the following capacities;
    Chair, Trustees of Genuki: www.genuki.org.uk
    Maintainer, Genuki Middx + London: www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/MDX/ + ../LND/
    Academic Co-ordinator, Guild of One-Name Studies: www.one-name.org
    Bodimeade one-name study: community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/Bodimeade/
    My genealogy: community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/

  8. Natural Disasters and Their Effect on the Lives of our Ancestors


    This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard

    The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.

    Every generation has stories about living through the worst weather or natural disaster to befall mankind! And yet each generation only repeats similar stories told by previous generations. Today, through instant, world-wide communication technologies, we can see the results of major natural disasters and how they affect people locally, regionally and globally. Reports of the devastation caused by these events are readily available on television, in newspapers and, especially, on the internet, almost as they happen.

    In past centuries, there is no doubt that similar disasters caused significant death and destruction, often over wide geographic areas and across broad socio-economic groups of people:

    • Storms, floods, earthquakes and disease all had immediate impacts on people and communities.
    • Volcanic activity, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, drought and famine all affected living conditions and economies lasting from several months to several years.
    • Gradual changes related to climate change occurred over hundreds of years and had much longer-term effects on the environment and human habitats.

    In the study of the history of families and the communities in which they lived, it is instructive to consider how people were affected by, or reacted to conditions we have witnessed in more recent situations. Would your great-great-grandparents have been forced to give up their farm if they were flooded out? Would your carpenter ancestor have moved to a location where there was a great deal of work available to repair the damage caused by a major windstorm? Did any of your ancestors lose their lives when tragedy struck in the form of a natural disaster?

    Major storms – one example of natural events – have inevitably resulted in significant mayhem. As a maritime nation, Britain has had its share of such events coming ashore from both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

    A much-written about storm, called The Great Storm, struck the south of England and parts of Europe bordering the English Channel on 26 November 1703 (7 December 1703 on the Gregorian calendar, already in use in continental Europe but not introduced to Britain until 1752). The Great Storm occurred during the height (or depth) of the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), a period of much cooler global temperatures and extremes of weather conditions.

    Picture used with permission, copyright British Library

    The storm was part of a massive counter-clockwise, very deep, low pressure trough that moved across the region, from west to east, affecting areas as far north as Birmingham and Norwich. Some of the devastation dealt to the country over the space of just a few hours included the following:

    • Wind gusts possibly topping 120 mph at the peak of the storm, levelling almost everything in its path
    • Over 700 ships wrecked while docked or at anchor in harbours around southern England and while still at sea, with an estimated death toll of up to 10,000 sailors
    • Thirteen Royal Navy warships sunk, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; many others severely damaged
    • Over 120 lives lost, and hundreds more injured on land across England and Wales
    • Significant damage in towns and cities – in London over 2,000 chimney stacks blown down, demolishing parts of the houses to which they had been attached
    • Tens of thousands of head of cattle and sheep lost on farms along the storm’s path
    • Major parts of forests levelled
    • Areas around major estuaries impacted by floods from storm surges, in many cases more dangerous than the accompanying winds
    • Severe disruption to local economies just emerging from decades of recession, the effects of which felt for years afterward
    • Mercantile shipping, involving fleets serving major cities like London and the export markets, disrupted for many years until replacement ships could be put to sea
    • Immediate inflation of prices in foodstuffs and other goods – building materials in particular
    • On the plus side, work multiplied for tradesmen such as carpenters, masons and plumbers, the latter being expert in the installation of lead sheet roofing

    Losses during the storm have been estimated at about £6 million, representing about 5% of the total value of the building stock in England and Wales at the time – a very significant proportion! The potential loss for such a storm if it were to strike today might be well in excess of £10 billion.

    Could it happen again? There have been other, major storms which battered Britain, causing significant property loss and numerous deaths – in October 1987 as an example. Modern improvements to sea defenses around harbours and estuaries, beach stabilization methods, inland flood control measures, early storm warning systems and rapid response of disaster teams all have aided in preventing the same levels of devastation as occurred during The Great Storm of 1703, however.
    Was your family impacted by The Great Storm of 1703 or from other types of events? I am compiling examples of natural disasters and their impact on people and communities in past centuries. If any readers have such stories of events that affected their own ancestors, I would very much like to hear about them.

    Brayne, Martin. (2002). The Greatest Storm. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.
    Defoe, Daniel. (1704). The Storm or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. Downloaded through University of Adelaide website 30 March 2014 under Creative Commons License from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/defoe/daniel/storm/complete.html
    Lamb, Hubert & Knud Frydendaho. (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    About the Author
    Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.