When family history becomes a little more complex…

Very few family historians are able to trace their ancestors back through the civil and parish registers without hitting some kind of complication, whether that be a “missing” entry, an “extra” entry making it unclear which is correct, the resettlement of their family elsewhere or other issue.  Often, such cases can be resolved with a bit of extra digging and thinking outside the box as to how to find the correct information.

One such case arose following the transfer in from Chesterfield Library of a collection of poems written by John Cupit – it wasn’t terribly complicated, but did send me down a bit of rabbit warren before I got to the bottom of it.  The collection had been transfered with the following biographical information: John Cupit, of Clay Cross. He was also an inventor, watch repairer and worked at Parkhouse Colliery. The Cupit family lived at Danesmoor and were carpenters and joiners, and John’s mother Sarah was a daughter of William Henry Wilson of Pilsley Hall, a farmer and land surveyor. John was raised by his grandparents, George and Ann Cupit.

I wanted to provide more information in our catalogue, at the very least years of birth and death for John.  Fortunately, amongst the poems and other items in the collection was a letter to the Chesterfield Borough Librarian in 1956 enclosing a short poem that John had written on his 86th birthday which gave his date of birth as 5 June 1871.

Perfect!  Now I have a date of birth and from this I can probably find a year of death using the online civil registration indexes as I know he is still living in Chesterfield, aged 86 because he says so in his letter to the Librarian.  For most searches I tend to use FreeBMD as it gives you a little more control over what you are actually searching.  However, if I have no success with this site, or if I am searching for entries after 1992, I will use Ancestry.com as it contains indexes up to 2007 and as a trade-off for less control over your search terms you get much more flexibility in the results, showing other possible entries when what you were expecting to find doesn’t exist.

In this case I discovered John’s death in Chesterfield (district) in 1963.  But I still wanted to know what else could I find out about John: he had been described as a poet, inventor, watch repairer and miner – what evidence could I find for all this?  Why so varied?  He was raised by his grandparents – why?  What happened to John’s parents? Did this inspire his poetry?

The census returns for 1841-1911 are an absolutely essential tool for family historians searching for ancestors in this period, and later. Unfortunately, it is not possible to access any later census returns due to the 100-year embargo on each, however, some limited access has been provided to the National Register of 1939 which was compiled as part of preparations for a possible war with Germany. Perhaps more out of habit than anything else, I tend to use Ancestry for searching the 1841-1911 census returns and Find My Past for searching the 1939 register (although each is now available via both sites).

I discovered that in 1881 (the first census in which John would appear, having been born two months after the 1871 census), he was indeed living with George and Ann Cupit at Guildford Lane, Danesmoor – but he is described as their son, not their grandson. George is described as a joiner, as is his 26-year old son (also George). Furthermore, although John is described as the son of George and Ann, bearing in mind their ages, 76 and 66 respectively, it is much more likely that he is their grandson.  Did the enumerator recording the information mishear or have stated he is their son in order to cover the true story about his parents?

The next step was to find out more about George and Ann.  In the 1861 and 1871 census returns they are found at Gents Hill (also Hillocks) in Clay Lane (now Clay Cross), variously with children Mary, Henry, John, Joseph, George and Walter. The John recorded in the 1861 census was aged 13 and therefore certainly not John the poet born in 1871.  Although it was quite common for younger children to be named after older siblings who had passed away, it was still much more likely that George and Ann were indeed John the poet’s grandparents – was this older John (aged 23 in 1871) be his father?

Unfortunately, I then came to some difficulty in tracing John the poet in the 1891 census. I was able to find him in 1911 at Market Street, Clay Cross, with his wife Allina, their three children, his widowed mother-in-law (Emily Goodwin) and another Goodwin, aged 11 and therefore perhaps Allina’s nephew.  He is described as Joiner – Colliery, which may explain the references to him being a miner and joiner, as he worked as a joiner at a mine.  He was also fairly easy to find in the 1901 census, this time as an unmarried boarder in Staveley, and again described as joiner; possibly at a colliery as he is boarding with James Potter, a colliery foreman.

None of this helped in finding him in the 1891 census, and that was just the beginning of the complications. Usually after finding the birth of an ancestor, the next step is to find their parent’s marriage – but searching both FreeBMD and Ancestry I could find no reference to the marriage of a Sarah Wilson to a man with the surname Cupit.  I was fairly confident of John’s mother’s name, as he had recorded this information himself in his letter to the Borough Librarian, also referring to his “grandsire” William Henry Wilson of Pilsley Hall. Perhaps Sarah had been married before and was a widow when she married John’s father, so I also searched for any marriage of a Sarah [surname unknown] to a [forename unknown] Cupit (again much easier on FreeBMD) – but still no luck.

Having hit a bit of a brick wall with the Cupit’s, I tried to find out more about the Wilson’s, John’s maternal ancestors.  At the time of the 1861 census William Henry (born c1798), his wife Urania (born c1823) and four children including a daughter Sarah (born c1850) were living at Upper Pilsley.  William is described as a Farmer, Landowner, etc. Ten years later, the family is still in Pilsley: Sarah is no longer with them, there are two more daughters (twins born c1863), and a granddaughter, Maud M Randle aged 2. A further ten years later, Urania, now widowed, is at Pilsley Hall with three daughters, two sons and Maud whose surname is now given as Wilson. Is this perhaps Sarah’s daughter by a previous relationship?

Success!  Marriage found in 1868 (quarter 4) of a Sarah Wilson to a James Randall, in the Chesterfield district. The civil marriage indexes though do not give sufficient detail to be certain you have found the correct people, but with the Derbyshire Anglican parish registers now available via Ancestry, it is much quicker and easier to search and identify the details: Sarah, daughter of William Henry Wilson, surveyor, married James Randall at Chesterfield on 31 December 1868.

Although Sarah and James had been married in 1868, and Maud born in 1869, by the time of the 1871 census, the two were separated – James lodging in Pilsley and Sarah (described as married, though using the surname Wilson) lodging in Rotherham with a Chesterfield family and was seven months pregnant with John the poet.  Was James John’s father, or was John the result of an extra-marital relationship that was the cause of James and Sarah’s separation?

For me, this is could have been where the story ended because we don’t have access to the birth registers that might have included John’s father’s name – of course anyone else would have been able to order copy certificate from the Register Office.  By now, I really wanted to know the answer.  Perhaps John’s marriage entry would give me a clue because after 1837, the registers include a space for the groom and bride’s fathers’ name – even today their mothers’ names are not recorded.

The 1911 census stated that John and Allina had been married for 6 years, and I found reference to a marriage registration (via FreeBMD) in Chesterfield district, quarter 3 1904.  Unfortunately, there was no corresponding entry on Ancestry in the Derbyshire parish registers, so the couple were either married in a non-conformist church or not married in a church at all.  With more time, I could have manually searched any non-conformist registers for the Chesterfield and Clay Cross area; as above, the most efficient way to see what name John gave as his father’s would have been to order a copy certificate.

Still not quite ready to give up, I then looked again for Sarah (John’s mother), and found her in the census returns 1881-1911 married to a Joseph Cupit, a Carpenter.  Although her first husband was still alive (living with his parents in Pilsley in 1881, and described as unmarried), Sarah Wilson appears to have married Joseph Cupit in 1873 (Belper district).  As John’s birth was registered under the surname Cupit in 1871 two years before this marriage and Joseph was the son of George and Ann (as per the 1871 census found earlier), I was confident I had found his father.

According to the 1911 census, Sarah and Joseph had at least twelve children, and when I found them in the 1891 census, I finally also found John the poet with them, aged 18 and a colliery labourer – I had probably seen this entry the first time round but dismissed it because the date of birth was a few years out, even though I really should have known better.

The question that all this couldn’t answer was whether John was brought up by his grandparents, or whether this was an assumption made purely on the basis that he was at their house on census night in 1881.  However, perhaps this answer is contained within John’s poems and other works in his archive, now held under reference D8251.

John Cupit was interviewed in the Derbyshire Courier on 23 October 1909 (page 8) in relation to his flying model of a monoplane, under the heading ‘A Clay Cross Aeroplane’, with a photograph of the man himself.  According to a note the following week (2 November 1909), the model was put on display at Armistead Bros. of Corporation Street, Chesterfield [cycle agents].

Family History from Newspaper Reports of  Court Proceedings: the Offensiveness of Matthew Goodden

Regular readers of our blog will be familiar with Roger, one of our cataloguing volunteers, here is his latest fascinating contribution.

This post arises from my continuing curiosity about a man named Matthew Goodden.  I first learned of him in 2017 while working on documents from the Thornsett Turnpike Trust (ref: D535).  An invoice had survived for payment to be made to Matthew Goodden of Abergavenny for items supplied to a toll house in New Mills.  Why, I wondered, would a man in Abergavenny be supplying items to a toll house in New Mills?  As explained in a post in 2017 I found that Matthew Goodden made a living from securing leases to collect tolls at locations across the country.  This work involved a substantial amount of travel: Matthew Goodden frequently travelled by train; he used tickets which he forged or altered,  a practice which landed him in prison on more than one occasion.  In the 2017 post I made only passing reference to Matthew Goodden’s family circumstances. Recently I’ve discovered more about his family and began to draft this post.  At a late stage I uncovered stark evidence of Matthew Goodden’s abusive behaviour which made me question whether to abandon this post.  But history cannot be limited to pleasant stories.  And I take into account that this is a victim’s story too and she spoke in detail in open court about her experience.

Matthew Goodden’s family story demonstrates the value for family historians of local newspaper reports of court proceedings; particularly in relation to individuals who find themselves in court frequently for one reason or another.  Matthew Goodden found himself facing criminal charges on several occasions: he was also a man who chose to initiate court proceedings in order to settle grievances; and people with a grievance against him took him to court.  Furthermore, after his death the financial arrangements he made for his family generated a dispute that ended in court.  Census records available every ten years from 1841 to 1911 are also an important resource for family historians.  But Matthew Goodden’s family story illustrates that even with the modern facility for digital searching there are challenges about using census records as a source of information about women.  The practice of women taking the surname of their husband or of the man they live with can make it difficult to follow the sequence of a woman’s life.

Matthew Goodden: toll collector, husband and widower

Matthew Goodden’s progress into adulthood is easily followed.  He was born in Yeovil, Somerset, in the early 1820s, the son of toll collector.  By 1841 he was living separately from his family, working at a toll gate in Castle Cary, Somerset.  Matthew Goodden was married at Southleigh, Devon, in 1846. In 1851 he, his wife and two sons were at a toll house near Cam, Gloucestershire.  The accumulation of money was a major objective: Matthew Goodden leased the right to collect tolls at locations across the country.  It becomes clear from a long sequence of court cases, from 1846 onwards, that a traveller who appeared to avoid paying Matthew Goodden or his employee the proper toll was at risk of being taken to court.  Conversely, on a number of occasions Matthew Goodden found himself in court, having demanded too high a toll or come to blows during an argument about payment.

Perhaps his money-making determination led him to overreach himself: for a short period in 1855 he was insolvent and spent time in prison in Taunton.  In order to save money he, in collaboration with his brothers, became accomplished in altering and forging railway tickets: for which he appeared at Gloucester Assizes in 1859 in what would be the first of several such court appearances.  I have found neither Matthew Goodden nor his wife and sons in the 1861 census.  But we can locate him through a newspaper court report: in September 1861 he  took a grievance to the Cheltenham County Court and from the report in the Cheltenham Examiner we can learn that he was at the toll house in Dowdeswell, Gloucestershire.  His wife died there in 1862.

Ann Williams: exploited employee?

At this point a young woman named Ann Williams enters the story.  Born in 1846, her roots were in the three neighbouring Gloucestershire villages of  Whittington, Foxcote and Dowdeswell.  She worked as a servant in the Goodden household in Dowdeswell.  Soon after his wife’s death Matthew Goodden moved to the toll house at Shavers End, Dudley, then in Worcestershire. He persuaded Ann Williams to join him there.  The evidence suggests that she should be regarded as an exploited employee rather than an unmarried wife.  At one point she was briefly remanded in police custody when Matthew Goodden claimed that she had stolen money from him.  She became pregnant:  her mother met Matthew Goodden and then arranged for her to be accommodated with Edwin and Sarah Penrose in Cheltenham; Matthew Goodden undertook to pay all expenses and visited her there after the birth of their daughter, Clara.  But payment was not forthcoming and Edwin Penrose went to court to recover the expense incurred in the care and maintenance of Ann Williams during her pregnancy and confinement. The case was heard in Cheltenham County Court in February 1866 and reported in Cheltenham and Birmingham newspapers.  As well as giving evidence about the arrangements for her confinement Ann Williams alleged that Matthew Goodden had “seduced” her in the toll house at Dowdeswell: this had happened immediately after his wife’s death.  (Ann Williams’ account indicates that what she endured would have been more appropriately defined as rape rather than seduction.  From a twenty-first century viewpoint it is starkly ironic that her evidence was being given in a civil action for recovery of a debt rather than in a criminal court for prosecution of a crime).

At some point Ann Williams returned to Dudley with her daughter and resumed* a relationship with Matthew Goodden (*MG went to Dudley soon after his wife’s death in 1862 and AW went with him. She was apart from him in Cheltenham for confinement and birth in 1865 and by the time of the Cheltenham court case in 1866 she was already back with him in Dudley, so resumed is the correct way to describe their relationship).  But in March 1871 Matthew Goodden was sent to prison for fraudulent use of railway tickets.  The census taken a few weeks later shows him in Nottingham prison.  At a toll house in Tipton were Ann Williams, listed with the surname Goodden, her daughter and her mother.  At a toll house a few miles away at Upper Gornal lived a toll collector named John Hill and his wife Harriet.  What happened next was related thirty years later in a court room in Monmouthshire, (for more see below), and reported in several newspapers.  While Matthew Goodden was in prison Ann Williams and her daughter went to live with John and Harriet Hill.  After some time John Hill “ran away” with Ann Williams: they settled in Manchester where a son was born in 1875 and a daughter in 1882.  In 1895, presumably after the death of John Hill, Ann Williams was married in Manchester to Charles Nolan, a widowed shoe maker.  When the census was taken in 1901 they were living in the Deansgate area of Manchester.  Thus in the six censuses between 1851 and 1901 Ann Williams is recorded under her birth surname and also under the surnames Goodden, Hill and finally Nolan

Sisters Harriet Hill and Mary Brettel

At some point after Matthew Goodden’s release from Nottingham prison Harriet Hill became his “wife” and stepmother to Clara Goodden (born Williams).  He employed Harriet’s sister, Mary Brettel as a toll collector.  A newspaper report in 1875 records a court case in which Matthew Goodden asserted a financial claim. In the Worcestershire County Court he sought to recover the sum of some £5 collected in tolls which he accused Mary Brettel of withholding. She disputed the claim and the court found in her favour.  The court was told that she had given birth to a child by Matthew Goodden and that the money she retained was to cover the costs of her confinement.  Three years later, when Mary Brettel was married in Wolverhampton, not only was Matthew Goodden present at the ceremony: he signed the register as a witness to the marriage.  This episode did not prevent Mary’s sister, Harriet Hill, living as Matthew Goodden’s “wife” for the last thirty years of his life.

Harriet, Clara and Matthew Goodden: settled in Abergavenny

After a failed bid in 1874 Matthew Goodden obtained in 1879 the lease of tolls in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, and the census taken in 1881 shows him settled there with Harriett and Clara.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century the practice of providing for road construction and maintenance through tolls was discontinued. But some bridges remained subject to tolls and Matthew Goodden was able to continue as a toll collector at the Llangrwyney bridge over the River Usk between Crickhowell and Abergavenny.  In 1888 Matthew Goodden witnessed the marriage of his daughter Clara to James Gwatkin; someone made sure that the local newspaper knew to report that his wedding present to the couple was a cheque for £1,000.  In 1890 Matthew Goodden was convicted at Hereford Assizes of forging railway tickets: when the census was taken in 1891 he was in Hereford prison and Harriet was at the Bridge toll house with a young niece.  This toll house remained Matthew and Harriet Goodden’s home: they are recorded there in the census of 1901.

A disputed bank account

During his life Matthew Goodden sought to make financial provision for  his family. He was regarded as a man who “saved money in every possible way” and was reported to have accumulated between £7,000 and £8,000.   He did not make a will but sought to avoid death duties by depositing money in the names of his two surviving sons, Edwin and Robert, his daughter Clara, and his “wife” Harriet.  After his death in 1903 the money in one bank account, about £750, was a matter of dispute between Harriett Goodden and Clara Gwatkin, a dispute given added force by Clara Gwatkin’s objection to Harriet Goodden’s intention to marry Matthew Goodden’s brother Robert Goodden.  This marriage did take place about ten weeks after Matthew Goodden‘s death. The dispute about the deposited money was contested at a hearing at Monmouthshire Assizes in 1904. The evidence given in court, reported in several newspapers, included much detail about the sequence of events of Matthew Goodden’s life, detail which has informed this post.

Sources:

The major newspaper reports cited are:

(available via The British Newspaper Archive)

  • ‘Heartless Case of Seduction’ Cheltenham Examiner, 28 February 1866 (with similar text in: ‘Extraordinary Revelations in a County Court’ Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26 February 1866)
  • ‘Astounding Claim: Goodden v Brettell’ County Advertiser & Herald for Staffordshire and Worcestershire, 21 August 1875

(available the Welsh Newspapers website of the National Library of Wales)

  • ‘Old Man and His Money Abergavenny Family Dispute Remarkable Case Recalled Strange Story at Monmouth Assizes’ Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News, 27 February 1904

See also

A family historian has included a photograph of Matthew Goodden in their family tree on Geni.com, taken from Elizabeth Jack’s CD Victorian Prisoners of Gloucester Gaol: A Rogue’s Gallery (Gloucestershire Family History Society).

 

 

Census Returns

A guide to the census returns for England and Wales, 1841-1911; with invaluable information for family and social historians, especially when used with other resources like maps and directories.

Historical background

By the late 18th century the Industrial Revolution had resulted in great changes in employment and population movement. Governments wanted greater knowledge of their populations for military, economic and social planning. The first UK census was taken in 1801, though along with the censuses of 1811, 1821 and 1831 this contained mainly statistical information. Most of these returns were destroyed, and only a few local copies have survived in archives (including a few Derbyshire parishes) or in newspaper reports. Most of these early censuses are of limited value to the family historian, being without names of inhabitants. The England and Wales census has continued to be taken every 10 years. The 100-year rule applies with regards to access, meaning the 1921 census cannot be viewed until 2022.

Dates taken

It’s important to remember that the census only gives a snapshot of a given place on a given Sunday evening in spring, once every ten years (see dates below). People were expected to be mainly at home, but remember that your ancestor could be away from home that night, visiting or working elsewhere.

  • 1841: 7 June
  • 1851: 30 March
  • 1861: 7 April
  • 1871: 2 April
  • 1881: 3 April
  • 1891: 5 April
  • 1901: 31 March
  • 1911: 2 April
What you can expect to find

Names, ages and relationships of family members; addresses in some cases; occupations; birthplaces. Sometimes the wife’s maiden name can be inferred. Human error is there at every stage of the process: what the householder told the enumerator; what he heard; what was copied into the books; and importantly, the indexing: there are many mistakes in the online indexes. Keep an open mind and use lateral thinking and alternative spellings. Full addresses are often not given, especially in smaller places or in earlier censuses, but there is a description of the parts of the parish covered at the start of each section. The Schedule Number in the first column should not be read as a house number; it is a rolling enumeration household by household. Street indexes are available for larger towns, plus some locally-compiled name indexes.

The 1841 census gives much less information than the others and does not include the relationship to head of household (this has to be inferred) or the birthplace (only a yes/no answer to the question “born in same county?”).  Ages over 15 tend to be approximate; and it contains many people born in the 18th century.  From 1851, in addition to the relationship to head of household and birthplace, the census also includes a note about any disabilities.  More detailed addresses tend to be included from 1901 depending on the size of the town/village in question.

From 1911, there is one page per household (plus a cover page) and the householder themselves usually completed the form so you can now see your ancestor’s handwriting.  The return also now gives number of years married, number of children born, including those who have died. Note: some women abstained in protest over lack of the vote.

How to access the returns online

All public computers in Derbyshire Libraries and the Record Office have free access to Ancestry and Find My Past, which both provide access to the England and Wales census returns 1841-1911, including a digital copy of the original page. The emphasis is on searching by surname, though Ancestry also has a county/civil parish browsing option and for some years Find My Past has an address search facility. For Scotland only a transcript is included, there are no images. Ancestry also includes census returns for the USA and Canada; Find My Past for Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Derbyshire returns for 1841-1901 can also be accessed on microfilm. The place name card index to help you find the right reel. It is advisable to book a microfilm reader in advance as space is limited. For social historians wanting an overview of a locality, its employment, population and so on, microfilm can be a quicker option than waiting for each page to download online, and internet sites tend to assume you want to search by name.

Modern census and the 1939 Register

The UK census continued to be taken every ten years; unfortunately the 1931 returns were accidentally destroyed by fire in the 1940s and no return was made in 1941 due to World War II (see 1939 below). Personal information cannot be viewed until 100 years have elapsed. However, the Local Studies Library has some statistical information for Derbyshire from 1921 to 2001 (2001 has individual printouts for each parish), and statistics for 2011 can be viewed online at http://observatory.derbyshire.gov.uk; this site also includes mid-year population projections.

The 1939 National Register was taken as an emergency measure at the outbreak of World War II. It is available online via Find My Past and Ancestry, though records of people younger than 100 and still alive, or who died after 1991 are officially closed.

Other sources similar to the census

Published transcripts for the Domesday Book, 1086; Derbyshire Feet of Fines, 1323-1546 and Hearth Tax Returns, 1662-1670 are available in Local Studies, as is the 1851 Religious Census (on microfilm for Derbyshire only). Original muster rolls for the militia, 18th-19th centuries, and the “Domesday” Valuation Office Survey of 1911 are available via the archive search room.

Further Reading: a few books to help you
  • Christian, Peter (2014) Census: the expert guide
  • Jolly, Emma (2013) Tracing your ancestors using the census
  • Levitan, Katherine (2011) A cultural history of the British census

See also The National Archives guides to the census and 1939 register.

Building History – Getting Started

An introductory guide to the sources available for researching property in Derbyshire

There are a large number of different sources available for researching the history of Derbyshire buildings, but the survival and availability of sources varies significantly between different places.

Most records do not relate to specific properties and it is very rare to be able to identify records based on the house number (and almost never using a postcode) as these are relatively recent inventions in comparison to the dates of the records.  Therefore, it is often best to search just by place name rather than house number or street name.

When was the property built?

For many properties finding the specific year it was built is often not possible, but it is usually possible to narrow it down to with a few decades or years.  Search the Land Registry website to see if the property has been registered.

  • Title Deeds should be the starting point and ought to be in the custody of the current owner (or their solicitor) if the property hasn’t been registered.  If the property has been registered then the deeds may have been kept by the owner at the time the property was registered, transferred to Derbyshire Record Office, or (more often) destroyed.
  • Maps  are the key source used for working out approximately when a property was built.

Update (Jul 2020): we have just been advised of the Bricks and Brass website that includes a Dating Tool asking you questions about the architecture of your house to estimate an approximate date of construction.  We haven’t tested the tool ourselves though, so can’t offer a recommendation either way.

Who owned and/or lived in the property

  • Census Returns are particularly useful for identifying who lived in a property, the returns were made every ten years, and currently available to search and browse online between 1841 and 1911 (particularly via Ancestry and Find My Past).
  • Electoral Registers (available from 1832-1999) list voters at a particular property, although the descriptions are usually too vague to identify specific properties for most places before 1918.  Search the online catalogue using Reference ER* and entering the place name in the AnyText field.  No registers were made in 1833-1834, 1916-1917, and 1940-1944
  • Where they survive Rate Books record information about each property, owner, occupier and the rates payable.  You will need to know which pre-1974 local authority covered the area you are interested in and consult the catalogue for the appropriate archive collection.
  • Various Maps are available may have been created with schedules detailing owners and/or occupiers.

 Other useful sources

  • Search Picture the Past to see if any photographs are available for the property or street.
  • Sale catalogues are published accounts of properties at the point they are put up for sale.  Catalogues from the 1970s are available in the local studies library (indexed on site); earlier catalogues in the archives collections can be searched in the online catalogue, though rarely by property name/number.
  • Building regulation plans survive for a small number of pre-1974 rural and urban district councils and those that do are rarely individually listed in our catalogue.  Sometimes registers are available that can help identify a specific plan.  See our catalogue for a list of pre-1974 authorities where building regulation registers and/or plans have survived.  If the authority is not listed, unfortunately this means no plans or registers have been deposited at Derbyshire Record Office.
  • Local newspapers can often give detailed descriptions of properties, especially relating to sales.
  • Never discount that someone may already have undertaken some relevant research relating a specific property, street or town/village.  Search the onsite indexes and online library catalogue for details of relevant publications and articles.

Family History – Getting Started

A guide to where to start with your family history and the main types of record to help you.

The first thing to do, is to gather together as much information as you can from present day family members and any family documents you have at home.  Record what you already know such as names, dates and place of birth, marriage and death, then use this to work backwards and fill in any gaps.

Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths: A national system of registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837.  Search the indexes online, e.g. www.gro.gov.uk or www.freebmd.org.uk. Order copy certificates from www.gro.gov.uk or the local register office.

Church registers: as far back as 1538 (and up to the present day), church records that provide information about when people were alive through baptism, marriage and burial registers.  Registers for Anglican churches in Derbyshire can be consulted via Ancestry up to 1916 for baptisms, 1932 for marriages and 1991 for burials.  Free access to this site is available from all Derbyshire libraries.  See guide to Parish Registers Online. Before 1733, almost all of the entries in the church registers are recorded in Latin.

Similar registers are also available for a large number of non-conformist churches. Some are available via Find My Past (also be accessible for free in Derbyshire libraries), with others available on microfilm or as original documents in the archive search room.

Consult the Parish Register List and Non-Conformist Register List for details of the records available.  For more recent registers added to the church collections, please search the online catalogue using the reference number given in the summary guides (Parish Guide and Non-Conformist Guide) or by searching in the Title field as follows:

  • Church of England: place name and the word parish, e.g. Alfreton Parish
  • Non-conformist: place name and the word church (or chapel if applicable), e.g. Gresley church.

For some churchyards and civil cemeteries, local groups have produced Memorial Inscriptions, recording the details of memorials and gravestones in and outside churches, these are often useful for identifying family relationships.

Censusa national census has been taken every ten years since 1801, and from 1841 detailed returns listing individuals have survived.  The returns are available online (for example on Ancestry and Find My Past) up to 1911, and microfilm copies are available to 1901 at the record office.  From 1851, the returns include place of birth, and more detail is added over time making them very useful for helping to trace ancestors who may have moved around.  Depending on the date and place of residence, for some ancestors you may be able to identify the house they lived in, but house numbers and even street names are quite uncommon in most rural and semi-rural towns.

Bishops’ Transcripts: in 1598, parishes were ordered to send an annual copy of all baptisms, marriages and burials for the year to the church authorities.  For some parishes, the ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’, or BTs were made until the late 19th century and can be very useful when the original registers are hard to read or if a register is missing.  Both BTs and parish registers can contain entries not found in the other.  Derbyshire was part of the Diocese of Lichfield until the mid-19th century, so the BTs are held at Staffordshire Record Office.

Cemetery records: copies of cemetery records from 1855 to the 1990s are available on microfilm and DVD.  The registers tend to include more information and there is usually a grave register to help identify the location of the grave itself.

Consult the Cemetery Records Guide on our website for a full list of the records available.

Wills and Probate: by at least the 13th century the Church had succeeded in establishing a jurisdiction in testamentary matters, which it retained until the Court of Probate Act 1857.  Most early Derbyshire wills are to be found amongst the records of the Diocese of Lichfield held at Staffordshire Record Office and can be accessed online via Find My Past. One exception was Dale Abbey manorial court which exercised its own probate jurisdiction until 1858.  Wills of persons holding property in more than one diocese were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), see The National Archives guide to Wills or Administrations before 1858 Guide for more information.

Between 1858 and 1928 wills (and letters of administration to 1875) for many Derbyshire residents were proved by the Derby Probate Registry and copies are available on microfilm or DVD – search the catalogue using the person’s name and reference D96/*.

Wills after 1928 can be ordered online from the Probate Service.

There are also thousands of wills amongst family and estate collections, particularly where they form part of a bundle or series of deeds to prove the title to property.  The best way to search for such records is to search for the individual’s name in the ‘Any Text’ field in the online catalogue.

Guides to doing family history:  there is a lot of information online about how to research your family history, and we have lots of general and specific guides (for example relating to ancestors in particular trades, those who broke the law and those who emigrated) in the local studies library to help as well.

Find out more about your ancestors using records for digging deeper.