I wrote an article for TheGenealogist website about some of the fascinating things that I learnt from taking a camera and recording for posterity the sometimes decaying headstones in my local area before they become even more unreadable.
I am not kidding, when I say that it opened my eyes to the life and death of our ancestors. To find out what I discovered take a look here: The Hidden Treasures of Gravestones
You will see that I get a bit of a thrill when I come across a churchyard or cemetery. If you read my piece, then you’ll understand just why to me it is a fabulous repository of genealogical information and all of which is just waiting to be revealed.
Armed with a camera, a bottle of water and a soft paint brush (I explain about these in the article), I recently set off to record as much as was still legible on stones in my home and beyond.
I’ve been dipping back into Mark Herber’s book “Ancestral Trails” published by The History Press 2005, looking at the subject of researching back before Parish records started in the mid-16th century. He warns his readers to expect difficulties tracing their ancestors in that time. It seems that before then, you are only likely to come across sporadic references to your ancestors – or perhaps more properly people who could be your ancestors – in wills, tax records or court documents. Herber writes that “… you are unlikely to be able to trace a line of descent in this period (and in particular find documents that evidence that one man was related to another) unless you find your ancestors in property records.”
Now property records can be found for people from various classes, those who were substantial land owners and also yeoman, tenant farmers and labourers. This is why it is said that English manorial documents are perhaps one of the few types of records in which genealogical information about the common man, as opposed to those from the upper classes, is likely to survive from medieval times.
So what was the manorial system?
In the England of the Middle Ages, land was held from the English monarch by a lord and on his land the peasants worked and received his protection in return. Anglo-Saxon society was, as in most of the other European countries, rigidly hierarchical. Social status depended on birth and family relationships. Power was gained through the ownership of land, as this was the principal source of wealth at this time.
After the Norman conquest of England all the land of England was deemed to be owned by the monarch. The king would then grant use of it by means of a transaction known as “enfeoffment”, where land grants or “fiefs” were awarded to the earls, barons, bishops and others, in return for them providing him with some type of service.
There were two sorts of tenure, according to the type of service rendered by the tenant to the lord, free and unfree. Free tenure can then be broken down into different forms again. A tenure in chivalry, for example “tenure of knight service”, would be where the tenant was charged to provide his lord with a number of armed horsemen. Mark Heber in Ancestral Trails points out that this type of tenure was soon commuted to a money payment (or “scutage”). He also explains that among the types of “free tenure” was to be found “spiritual tenure” where divine services, or “frankelmoign” by which a clergyman, holding land from the lord of the manor, would pay his due in prayers said for the lord and his family.”Socage tenures” existed where the tenant provided his lord with agricultural services such as ploughing the lord’s retained land for 20 days a year.
“Villein tenure” or unfree tenure applied to those men known as villeins, serfs or bondmen. This class of tenant was not free to leave the manor without obtaining the permission of the lord. They would be subject to many obligations, some of which were onerous and these individuals held their land in exchange for providing the lord a number of days work in return. This could be, for example, four days work a week -Â but the nature of the work could vary depending on what was required.
Manorial Documents are fascinating for family historians, as are will documents that were not the exclusive preserve of the rich. I shall explore this area again in other posts.
That great institution, The British Library, is joining up with family history website findmypast.co.uk in a project that I find exciting, as some of my Scots ancestors went out to British India to find their fortunes in the 1860s, while others stayed put in the UK.
What has been announced, by these organisations, is their intention to digitise a veritable treasure trove of family history resources held by the British Library and so making them available to us online and fully searchable for the first time.
To be scanned are the United Kingdom electoral registers that span the century which followed on from the Reform Act of 1832, along with records of baptisms, marriages and burials that have been drawn from the archives of the India Office.
These collections are going to allow us the possibility of tracking down details of our forebears from our computers instead of making a trip to London and the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms.
The British Library houses the national collection of electoral registers covering the whole of the United Kingdom and contain a vast range of names, addresses and other genealogical information, so you can see their importance.
â€œDigitisation of the electoral registers will transform the work of people wishing to use them for family history research,â€ said Jennie Grimshaw, the Libraryâ€™s curator for Social Policy and Official Publications. â€œPrinted electoral registers are arranged by polling district within constituency and names are not indexed, so the process of finding an address to confirm names of residents is currently incredibly laborious. Digitisation represents a huge breakthrough as users will be able to search for names and addresses, thereby pinpointing the individuals and ancestors theyâ€™re looking for.â€
Also to look forward to, in this large-scale digitisation, are records taken from the archives of the East India Company and the India Office and thus my excitement as so many of my Scottish ancestors were employed in the H.E.I.C.S. The data that we are promised relate to Britons who lived and worked in the Indian sub-continent during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to Independence in 1948. Including over 1,000 volumes of births, marriages and burials, together with applications for civil and military service, and details of pension payments to individuals.
Antonia Moon, curator of post-1858 India Office Records said, â€œThese records are an outstanding resource for researchers whose ancestors had connections with British India, whether as servants of the administration or as private inhabitants.â€
We can expect to see five million pages of UK electoral registers and India Office records digitised over the next year. The resources will become available via findmypast.co.uk and in the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms from early 2012; online access will be available to findmypast.co.uk subscribers and pay-as-you-go customers â€“ access to users in the British Library Reading Rooms will be free.
Simon Bell, the British Libraryâ€™s Head of Licensing and Product Development, said: â€œWe are delighted to announce this exciting new partnership between the British Library and findmypast.co.uk , which will deliver an online and fully searchable resource that will prove immensely valuable to family history researchers in unlocking a treasure trove of content that up to now has only been available either on microfilm or within the pages of bound volumes. The Library will receive copies of the digitised images created for this project, so as well as transforming access for current researchers, we will also retain digital versions of these collections in perpetuity, for the benefit of future researchers.â€
Elaine Collins, Commercial Director at findmypast.co.uk, said: â€œWeâ€™re very excited to be involved with this fascinating project. The electoral rolls are the great missing link for family historians: after censuses and civil registration indexes, they provide the widest coverage of the whole population. To have Irish and Scottish records alongside England and Wales is also a huge advantage. These records will join the 1911 Census, Chelsea Pensioner Service Records and many more datasets available online at findmypast.co.uk, which enable people to make fantastic discoveries day after day.â€