The Joy of Chancery

This is the Court of Chancery … there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

Bleak House, Chapter One. Charles Dickens (1852-53)

In 1829, Charles Dickens started work as a court reporter at the Court of Chancery in London. His experiences of the workings of the court – the ‘trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration … [and] false pretences’ witnessed by the young Dickens – gave him the inspiration for the fictional Chancery suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which was to form the background to his legal masterpiece, Bleak House.

Dickens described Jarndyce and Jarndyce as a ‘scarecrow of a suit’ which ‘has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.


The Little Church In The Park, by Phiz (Hablot Browne), published in Bleak House. From The Victorian Web

Bleak House was, of course, an exaggeration, designed to satirise the worst aspects of the ‘darkness of Chancery’ for comic effect, but for family historians today, the prospect of researching a case in Chancery can be every bit as daunting as the experience of the Court of Chancery was for Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, the fictional young wards, introduced to us by Dickens.

But it needn’t be. There are certainly obstacles but none of them are insurmountable if you follow my four-step guide to making the most of Chancery records.

1) Understanding the records

The first stage in any research process is to get to know the records you’re working with. With Chancery records, the best place to start is the National Archives’ research guide, which will give you all the basic information you need about the workings of the Court and the records that it created. For more in-depth coverage, I would recommend two books by Susan Moore: Family Feuds: An Introduction to Chancery Proceedings (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002) and Tracing your Ancestors through the Equity Courts: A Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword, 2017).

Essentially, each Chancery case (or ‘suit’) could generate five main types of record:

  • Pleadings – initial statements made (out of court) by the parties involved in the suit, including Bills of Complaint (by the Plaintiff or ‘Complainant’) and Answers (made by the Defendants)
  • Evidence – depositions, affidavits and exhibits submitted to the court
  • Decrees and orders – recording decisions made by the court
  • Masters’ records – miscellaneous records created by court officials
  • Final decrees and appeals

One of the most important concepts to get to grips with is that the various documents created in the course of each Chancery suit were filed by type of record rather than collectively, on a case-by-case basis. This, naturally presents some significant challenges when it comes to tracking down all of the records relating to a particular suit but as many cases didn’t progress beyond the initial Pleadings, this isn’t perhaps as big an obstacle as it might seem.

2) Accessing the records

Some good news! The National Archives’ Discovery Catalogue acts as an index to all pre-1875 Pleadings in Chancery and provides the full archival reference along with brief, abstracted details of the suit.

Chancery screenshot

Screenshot from the National Archives’ Discovery Catalogue

The ‘short title’ of each suit (which you’ll need to know when it comes to searching for the other documents) comprises the surname of the plaintiff (or one of the plaintiffs) and that of one of the defendants. The National Archives’ research guide (see above) will tell you all you need to know about other finding aids, both physical and online, including the Bernau Index (available at the Society of Genealogists in London) and the Anglo American Legal Tradition website.

To access the other records in the suit (if any) you’re going to have to acquaint yourselves with the mysteries of the Court of Chancery’s unique filing system! You will also need, either to visit Kew yourself or to employ a researcher to do it for you.

3) Reading the records

There’s no doubt that the handwriting, as well as the sheer size and unwieldiness of the documents can present an obstacle. The Pleadings were written on huge sheets of vellum, known as membranes, often over a metre in width. The documents are usually rolled together and untangling a bundle to find the relevant sheets can be an art in itself. I usually say that the best option when confronted with a difficult-to-read document is to get a good photo of it to work on from the peace and quiet of home. With Chancery records this is sometimes easier said than done.

(I can confirm here and now that, while I was employed by the National Archives, I never climbed onto the tables in the Staff Reading Room to get a better shot of a Chancery document. Not once…)

C 8_190_233_004

The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Perhaps the best solution, whether you’re able to visit the National Archives in person or not, is to pay for a digital copy to be emailed to you. It’s not cheap, particularly if the suit ran to a number of documents, but the benefits of this approach will quickly become apparent.

Take the case of Wingfield v Alden, which began with a Bill of Complaint submitted to the Lord Chancellor by Nathan Wingfeild of King’s Langley, Hertfordshire in 1661. The Pleadings consist of the Bill of Complaint, the ‘Joynt and Severall Answeres’ of Thomas Rogers and his wife, Elizabeth (two of the Defendants) and a Writ of Warrant issued to Rogers and his wife, demanding their answers to Wingfeild’s original Bill. There is also another, slightly different version of the Bill of Complaint, filed separately from the other documents. Note that the short title of the suit is Wingfield v Alden although the spelling Wingfeild is consistently used in the documents.

The handwriting is undeniably challenging and, for this reason if for no other, Chancery records are definitely not for beginners. But with a little experience and a lot of patience, the text soon becomes (largely) perfectly legible. I can thoroughly recommend the National Archives’ online Palaeography tutorial and there are a number of published works which might help you, notably (if you can get hold of a copy), the excellent Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting by Lionel Mumby (Phillimore & Co, 1988).

There are several factors which might contribute to the legibility or otherwise of each document. The physical state of the document is of course an issue, both in terms of the membrane itself and of the ink used, which has sometimes faded badly, or been worn away by use over the centuries. The penmanship of the clerks who created the documents was generally excellent – these were masters of their profession – but the occasional emendation and interlineation can make the text particularly difficult to read. This is where a good quality digital image will reap dividends. The ability to ‘zoom in’ on the trickiest bits of the text is an absolute godsend.

C 8_190_233_004_detail

Interlineations can make the text particularly difficult to read.
Detail from The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Every time I approach a Chancery document, with a view to transcribing it, I do so with one emotion: that of utter dread! When you first look at a membrane, complete with all its tightly-packed, monotonous, spidery script, it’s easy to feel that the task in hand is an impossible one and that the best option is to give up there and then, and go and make yourself a nice cup of coffee. A perfectly natural reaction.

So, do just that. Walk away from it, and come back later. Read a few words. Write a few of them down. Read a few more. Write them down. Leave dots or question marks for words that you don’t immediately recognise. And if that’s more than 50% of what you’ve written down, so what? It’s all part of a learning process. The more you read, the more attuned you’ll become to the clerk’s handwriting. And one thing that the clerks always were, is consistent. If they wrote a capital B once, they wrote it exactly the same the next time. So once you know that that’s what that character is, you can start to replace some of those dots and question marks with real letters.

Read back what you’ve written and try to make sense of it; try to think about what type of word the missing one is. Is it likely to be a verb or a noun? It’s like cracking a code. You start with nothing and gradually, over a few hours, a complete document begins to emerge. You’ll almost certainly have a few question marks remaining in your ‘final’ version of the text. Even the most experienced and accomplished transcriber will find that there are occasionally some words that they just can’t work out. Surnames and place names (particularly names of unfamiliar fields or pieces of land) are always going to cause problems but it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is getting the bulk of the document accurately transcribed.

The particular method you use for your transcription is entirely up to you but I would advise you to remember that at this stage, what you’re trying to do is to write down, as faithfully and accurately as you possibly can, what the clerk actually wrote. This is not an editorial process – that’s for later.

Personally, I find that it helps to number each line of the text. If you have the technology or knowhow to do so, you should also add the line numbers to a copy of the digital image itself. If nothing else, this will help you to locate a particular phrase or word if you need to come back to it. Interlineations (the practice of inserting additional text above an exisiting line of text) can provide challenges to transcribers, not just in terms of the readability of the interlineated text, which is by its very nature, going to be limited by its size, but also as a question of how to present such text in your transcript. My preference is to use the ‘caret’ character ^ to indicate where the interlineated text begins and then to write the interlineated text as a superscript. I also use Strikethrough to indicate where text has been written and then ‘removed’.

4) Interpreting the records – and telling the story

You’ll come across a number of unfamiliar words and phrases in the text: the plaintiff refers to him or herself as ‘your Lordship’s Orator’ while the defendants refer to the plaintiff as the ‘Complainant’. If the suit is brought on behalf of an infant (i.e. someone under the age of 21) the person responsible for bringing the suit to Chancery is known as their ‘Next Friend’. This will all make sense if you’ve read up on the workings of the court.

Eventually you should end up with a transcript that you’re at least relatively happy with. But it’s an on-going process; you’ll want to constantly revisit the text and each time you do, you’ll probably find that you’re able to fill in additional gaps.

An exercise which I find particularly useful is to play around with the text and sort it (in a new document!) into meaningful paragraphs. You’ll have noticed that, as with most legal documents of the period, punctuation marks are at a premium – in other words, almost non-existent. However, it should still be possible to identify each individual clause and to add the appropriate punctuation so that you can transform something like this:

19. Said Compl[ainan]ts money or goods as aforesaid And this defendant Elizabeth Rogers for herselfe farther Saith that the Said Rebecca the Compl[ainant]s late wife being her this def[endan]ts
20. Mother ^ came ^^ severall tymes since her intermarriage with the pl[ain]tif ^ to this def[endan]t & Complayned to her for want of moneys & other necessaryes by reason of the said Compl[ainan]ts unkindnes to her whereupon this defendant did without her husbands privity or knowledge & at her the Said Rebeccas earnest request & intreaty lend unto her the Som[m]e of Forty
21. Shillings ^ & sev[er]al tymes furnished her with other necessaryes of p[ro]vision for Supply of her wants And Shee the Said Rebecca afterwards standing in need of more moneys as Shee alleadged did earnestly importune Elizabeth one of this def[endan]ts daughters to furnish her
22. therewith whereupon the said Elizabeth at her the said Rebeccas request did lend unto her the Som[m]e of twenty Shillings more, And this defendant & the Said Elizabeth afterwards

Into something like this:

And this defendant, Elizabeth Rogers, for herself further saith that the said Rebecca, the complainant’s late wife, being her this defendant’s mother, came several times since her intermarriage with the plaintiff to this defendant and complained to her for want of moneys and other necessaries, by reason of the said complainant’s unkindness to her. Whereupon, this defendant did, without her husband’s privity or knowledge, and at her, the said Rebecca’s, earnest request and entreaty, lend unto her the sum of forty shillings, and several times furnished her with other necessaries of provision for supply of her wants.

And she, the said Rebecca, afterwards standing in need of more moneys, as she alleged, did earnestly importune Elizabeth, one of this defendant’s daughters, to furnish her therewith. Whereupon, the said Elizabeth, at her, the said Rebecca’s, request, did lend unto her the sum of twenty shillings more.

You can even break the text down further and create a ‘modern’ version:

Elizabeth Rogers said that Rebecca Wingfeild (her mother) had visited her on several occasions since her (Rebecca’s) marriage to Nathan Winfgeild, saying that she was in need of money etc., due to Nathan’s unkindness to her. Elizabeth lent Rebecca 40 shillings, without telling her husband.

Rebecca also went to Elizabeth Rogers’ daughter, Elizabeth, and asked her for money. The younger Elizabeth lent Rebecca (her grandmother) a further 20 shillings.

Naturally, you’ll want to sort the documents into chronological order and once you’ve done that, you can really begin to understand the whole story, from start to finish.

The case of Wingfield v Alden is a relatively simple one which, as far as I can tell, never reached the Court of Chancery itself. The whole suit appears to comprise two versions of Nathan Wingfeild’s Bill of Complaint, the Writ of Warrant and the resultant ‘Joynt and Severall Answeres’ of two of the defendants, Thomas Rogers and Elizabeth his wife. Once I’m able to do so (I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown) I’ll take a trip to Kew and see if I can find anything in the Decrees and Orders or even a Final Decree.

The story can be summarised as follows:

Sometime around 1656, Nathan had entrusted his wife, Rebecca, to give certain friends, neighbours and relatives, £100 and some of his goods and ‘household stuff’ on the understanding that they would dispose of the money and goods to Nathan’s benefit. Rebecca had died in May 1661 and now Nathan wanted to know what had happened to the money and goods and wanted the friends, neighbours and relatives to repay the money (with interest) and to return the goods to him. He had evidently approached each of them and asked them to do so but they had denied that they’d ever received anything from Rebecca. Unfortunately, Nathan had no witnesses who could prove that Rebecca had done what he claimed and his only course of action now was to sue them in Chancery.

We only have the ‘answer’ of two of the defendants, Thomas and Elizabeth Rogers. Elizabeth, as we’ve seen from the extracts above, was Nathan’s step-daughter and this is the sort of genealogical detail which can make Chancery documents so rewarding. Thomas and Elizabeth denied receiving anything from Rebecca and went on to claim that they had in fact given her money. Their ‘answer’ culminates in the wonderful statement that:

… they have more reason to sue the said Complainant then hee hath to exhibite this causeles & vexatious Bill of Complaint in this honourable Court against these defendants …

C 8_190_233_004_detail 2

‘… this causeles & vexatious Bill of Complaint’
Detail from The Joynt & Severall Answeres of Thomas Rogers & Elizabeth his wife. The National Archives reference: C 8/190/233 Wingfield v Alden

Chancery suits are all about the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes those people can find themselves buried by the workings of the court which, in Charles Dickens’ own words, ‘so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart’. But more often than not, in amongst it all, the voices of our ancestors can be heard and it’s our job as family historians to ensure that their stories are rediscovered, re-told and preserved for posterity.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 29 March 2020

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A very convincing theory

This is the third and final part of the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research. Read Part One and Part Two first…

My search for the origins of my great great grandfather, Thomas Port, had come to a shuddering halt when I failed to find a record of his birth. I knew from the census returns[1] that he was born around 1820 in St Pancras, London, but there was a big question about his parentage, with his two marriage certificates suggesting that he was almost certainly illegitimate.

Over the next fifteen years or so, I was able to build up a fairly full picture of Thomas’s life, but nothing in the documents that I found gave me any further clues about his origins. I made a breakthrough of sorts a few years ago when I discovered that Thomas had been buried at Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham[2] and I made an emotional trip to see the gravestone. What I found seemed almost to satirise my prospects of finding anything useful; the stone had fallen over some years ago and now lay on the ground in shattered pieces. Much of the fragmented text had been lost but I could read enough to tell that there was nothing there that was going to help me with my quest. I stood next to the grave and made my feelings quietly known. Thomas, it seemed, wasn’t about to give up his secrets that easily…


Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham. Thomas Port’s gravestone lies, broken, on its back, in the foreground. Photograph by the author, June 2017.

Most of my research had been focussed on the family of Mary Ann Port, the woman who had died in Buckingham in 1846, the year before my Thomas had married for the first time. Having been born in 1788, Mary Ann was certainly of a suitable age to have been Thomas’s mother (she would have been about 31 at the time) and I hoped that, by comprehensively reconstructing her family, I might find a clue that would connect her and her family to Thomas.

I made some great discoveries. It turned out that Mary Ann was the woman that I’d found living as an inmate in the Northampton County Asylum in the 1841 census.[3] She had worked as a governess in Buckingham for the family of the wonderfully-named Reverend James Long Long (he’d changed his name from James Long Hutton for inheritance purposes and must have cursed his parents for giving him that middle name!) and the Long family had paid her asylum fees until her discharge in April 1845.[4]


Engraving of Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum from Wetton’s guide-book to Northampton and its vicinity by Edward Petty (

Mary Ann was named as a beneficiary in the will of Henrietta Long (James Long Long’s wife) written in 1834.[5] I knew that she had been in the care of the Long family since December 1804 thanks to a remarkable document (or rather, a remarkable series of documents) uncovered in the course of my research.[6] When Mary Ann’s father, Samuel Port, the wine merchant of Savage Gardens in the City of London wrote his will on 13 February 1799, rather than simply leaving everything to his wife and children, he appointed three of his friends (Richard Hovil, Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull) to act as his executors, also appointing them as guardians of his children.[7] Samuel died on 4 April 1799 and we can only assume that he felt that he’d left his affairs in safe hands. This, however, was not the case.

The executors hadn’t quite fulfilled the trust placed in them by Samuel. At least, not according to the Bill of Complaint lodged at the Court of Chancery on 5 June 1806 by Elizabeth (Samuel’s widow) and the three surviving children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas and their ‘next friend’, James Lawson.[8] James Lawson was married to Mary Ann’s cousin, Mary Ann Truman. The case, in true Jarndyce v. Jarndyce style, ground on for at least 11 years, before collapsing following Elizabeth’s death in April 1816. As far as I’m aware, Mary Ann and her siblings never got what they felt was owed to them.


Extract from an ‘Entry Book of Orders and Decrees’ in Chancery, including a reference to Mary Ann Port residing ‘at Buckingham … with Mrs Hutton a friend of the said Plaintiff Elizabeth Port‘ The National Archives reference C 33/601 ff.1003r-1005v

Her sister, Ann, was a mystery to me for a long time until I found a record of letters of administration being granted to her brother Thomas in 1823.[9] Ann, it seemed, had died in Germany, where she had been working as a governess.

Thomas proved to be a fascinating character. He was a grocer and he lived in St Pancras – precisely the details given by my Thomas for his father at the time of his second marriage! For years, this was the strongest evidence I had in favour of a link between my family and Mary Ann’s but it didn’t constitute proof. Thomas was in business with a man called John Garthwaite (who was married to another Truman cousin) and I found a record of their partnership being dissolved in 1817.[10]

1817-London Gazette 2 August 1817 - Issue 17273 Page 1690

London Gazette, 2 August 1817 Issue 17273 Page 1690

Thomas was involved (as the victim) in a case of theft, tried at the Old Bailey in 1823 and he later moved from St Pancras to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where he died in 1841.[11] Thomas had three illegitimate children (James, Charles Thomas and William – all by the same woman) born between 1827 and 1835,[12] but for a number of reasons I didn’t (and still don’t) think that he was the father of my Thomas. His use of the name Thomas as a middle name for his second son, for example, would be quite unusual if he already had a son called Thomas.

Samuel Truman, Mary Ann’s ‘Cousin German’ and one of the administrators of her estate turned out to have worked as a clerk at the Legacy Duty Office in Somerset House – one of those responsible for producing the wonderful Death Duty Registers which I had become so interested in while working for the National Archives. Samuel’s wife, Ann Hamley,[13] was connected to William Hamley, the founder of the famous London toy shop. I had hours of fun following up these and other equally fascinating leads.

But the most interesting relative of Mary Ann’s that I found was John Joseph Lawson, the son of their ‘next friend’ from the Chancery case, James Lawson. James was the printer of The Times (yes, The Times) and a 1/16th shareholder in the newspaper. He died in 1817[14] and passed the business on to his son. John Joseph was to become a cause célèbre in the world of journalism after being imprisoned in 1839 for printing an article which was found to be libellous. It was, at that time, the printer and not the publisher who was held liable for the publication of the piece, and therefore, was guilty of libel![15]

1817-Times Obituary of James Lawson - 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e

Obituary of James Lawson, The Times, 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e

Mary Ann’s father, Samuel, offered me all sorts of opportunities to explore English records. He became a Freeman of the City of London after serving an apprenticeship to Jonathan Granger, Citizen and Draper.[16] Jonathan’s will gave me lots of leads to follow up – he turned out to have married Samuel’s great aunt, Mary Port and there’s a memorial to him in the floor of the Abbey Church in Dorchester, Oxfordshire.[17] In fact it was Samuel’s apprenticeship indenture which allowed me to trace the family back to Oxfordshire; he was described as the ‘son of Thomas Port of Shirburn in the County of Oxford Farmer’. I later discovered that Samuel was the son of Thomas and Jane (née Franklin) and that they had married at Shirburn in 1749.[18]


Detail from the apprenticeship indenture of Samuel Port to Jonathan Granger, 25 October 1769. London Metropolitan Archives reference COL/CHD/FR/2/1046/13

The Port line eventually led me back to the beautiful Oxfordshire village of Dorchester, incongruously the home to a former Saxon cathedral, later a medieval abbey and now the parish church to a relatively small rural village. I discovered that the Port family had owned the Fleur de Lys,[19] then, as now, one of the principal inns in the village and that my direct ancestor, John Port, along with his brother Thomas, had attended Dorchester Grammar School in the 1660s.[20]

I had got to know the family so well and had fallen so deeply in love with Dorchester and everything about it that, to be perfectly honest, I would have been devastated if I’d ever found anything which proved that these weren’t my ancestors after all. But for 15 years or so, my connection remained no more than a (very convincing) theory. Then, in 2019, I took a DNA test.

I had of course hoped that the results would throw up links to more distant members of the Port family but other than a few names which appeared to prove that my grandma had been right about Frederick Port being her father, there was nothing. But then, about a week ago, I decided to look a bit closer and to try some of the other names associated with Mary Ann’s family. I looked for Truman links but nothing came up and then I tried the name Franklin.

And the next thing I knew, I was looking at a potential 5th-8th cousin match who was descended from a man called John Franklin. John had been born sometime around 1729 and had married Jane Beckett in Shirburn, Oxfordshire in 1760.[21] Samuel Port’s mother, Jane Franklin had been born around 1723 and had married in Shirburn in 1749. My ‘cousin’ was descended from John Franklin and I had a theory that I was descended from Jane Franklin. Here was the proof I had been looking for.

1804-Jane Franklin burial Shirburn PAR237_1_R1_1_026

Burial of Jane Port (née Franklin) at Shirburn, Oxfordshire, 2 September 1804. Oxfordshire History Centre reference: PAR 237/1/R1/1

I’ve still got to do the research to complete the final piece of the jigsaw but I will be very surprised if John and Jane don’t turn out to be siblings, or at the very least, first cousins. After more than 30 years of searching; after hour upon hour spent following leads that led nowhere; after filling at least five binders with copies of documents that might, one day, prove to be connected to me, I had the proof I needed. The proof that the theory I’d developed all those years ago was correct; that my great great grandfather, Thomas Port, was connected to the Port family of Shirburn and Dorchester and that I could finally claim them as my own.

Dorchester Grammar School - Engraving by J C Buckler Bodleian Library MS Top. Gen. c.103, f.20

Dorchester Grammar School. Engraving by J. C. Buckler, 1827. Bodleian Library MS Top. gen. c.103 f.20

Whether Thomas was the son of Mary Ann or of her sister, Ann, is a detail which I will probably never be able to resolve but the crucial evidence of relationship is there. And this isn’t the end of the story, not by any means. I’m delighted to say that I still have so much to do…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 15 March 2020

[1] 1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick – The National Archives (TNA), RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21
[2] Warwickshire Burials database.
[3] 1841 census, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum – TNA HO 107/814/20 f.14 p.7
[4] Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Day Book and Treasurer’s Account register – Northamptonshire Archives & Heritage
[5] Will, Henrietta Long, 1843, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1990
[6] Chancery : Entry Book of Orders and Decrees – TNA C 33/601 f.1004v
[7] Will, Samuel Port, 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1324
[8] Chancery : Pleadings, Port v Hovill. Bill and two answers – TNA C 13/70/5
[9] Letters of Administration, Ann Port, 1823, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 6/199
[10] London Gazette, 2 August 1817 – Issue 17273 Page 1690
[11] Death certificate of Thomas Port – GRO, SEP 1841 Berkhampstead VI 281
[12] Baptisms of James Port Lambert, Charles Lambert and William Port Lambert, St Peter, Berkhamsted, 12 September 1841 – Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies DP/19/1/8
[13] 1811 Samuel Truman & Ann Hamley marriage, St Marylebone – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) P89/MRY1/182 p.594
[14] Obituary of James Lawson – The Times 8 December 1817 p.3 col.e
[16] Freedom of the City Admission Papers – LMA COL/CHD/FR/02/1046/13
[18] 1749 Thomas Port & Jane Franklin marriage, All Saints, Shirburn – Oxfordshire History Centre (OHC) PAR237/1/R1/2
[19] Will, Richard Port, Dorchester, Court of the Peculiar Parish of Dorchester – OHC Pec.70/4/37
[20] Dorchester-on-Thames Grammar School (Dorchester-on-Thames Archaeology and Local History Group, 1976)
[21] 1749 John Franklin & Jane Beckett marriage, All Saints, Shirburn – OHC PAR237/1/R3/1


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False dawns and first cousins

This is the second of a three-part blog, telling the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research. Read Part One here…

The information that my grandma passed on to me had allowed me to discover a whole new branch of the family. And as someone whose ancestry, according to everything I’d known up until that point, was entirely Scottish, Irish and Manx, it was nice to have an English line to research for a change.

It didn’t take me long to find out more about my new great grandfather. Frederick Thomas Port, to give him his full name, had been born on 7 July 1850 at an address in Church Street, Buckingham.[1] He was the second child and oldest son of Thomas Port (a draper) and his wife Mary (née Layton).


Church Street, Buckingham, postcard, undated

Thomas and Mary had married on 1 June 1847 at the ‘Old Meeting’, an Independent Chapel in Well Street, Buckingham, a few minutes’ walk from Church Street.[2] A daughter, Kate Elizabeth Mary Port was born in Buckingham in 1849 but the family were soon on the move, to Birmingham where two more children were born, and then to Smethwick, where one more arrived. Sadly, Mary, died in 1859,[3] and about 18 months later, Thomas remarried.[4] Thomas and his second wife (Mary Ann Berrill) went on to have eight more children. Six of Thomas’s thirteen children died young but the other seven all survived to adulthood, four of them having children of their own.

I got to know the family quite well. There were some interesting characters in there, including Annie who worked for many years as a ‘Ladies Companion’, Percival who became a teacher and Nellie who was the head mistress of an Elementary school.

Thomas had clearly done quite well for himself. He retired from business sometime in the 1870s and later moved to the Worcestershire village of Chaddesley Corbett where he died in January 1900.[5] His will, intriguingly, mentioned his ‘portrait in oils’ and his ‘family bible’. This was not the sort of ancestor I was used to dealing with!

But there was a problem regarding Thomas’s birth. Each of the censuses from 1851 to 1881 gave his place of birth, somewhat unhelpfully, as ‘London, Middlesex’. It’s not until 1891 that we get the crucial additional detail telling us that he was born in St Pancras.[6] However, no trace of his birth/baptism could be found in St Pancras or anywhere else in London for that matter, and to complicate things further, there was some confusion regarding the identity of his father.

1891 census Smethwick

1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick. Thomas Port’s place of birth is given as London St Pancras. The National Archives reference: RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21

When Thomas married for the second time in 1861 he gave his father’s name as Thomas Port (deceased), a grocer, yet on his first marriage certificate, there was a big blank space where his father’s details ought to be.

I’ve seen enough cases like this over the years to recognise an attempt to cover up illegitimacy when I see one. This looked to me like a classic example of the relative impact of motive and opportunity when it comes to the lies that our illegitimate ancestors tell and I felt certain that Thomas was illegitimate.

Thomas Port Marriages

Thomas Port’s two marriage certificates, General Register Office

When he married for the first time in Buckingham he was doing so in the place where he had grown up (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s where he grew up) and he would have been well known in the town. He may have had the motive to lie about his father but he didn’t have the opportunity. Fourteen years later, living in Smethwick, many miles from his childhood home, and with a reputation to maintain as a successful young businessman, he now had the motive and the opportunity. And the result? An invented father, conveniently deceased to explain his absence from the wedding ceremony.

Of course, this theory didn’t emerge overnight. It was developed over many years, during which I continued to search for evidence of Thomas’s origins. As more material became available online my chances of discovering something that would break down my brick wall would surely increase; yet, the launch of each new database left me frustrated. The release of the London parish registers database on Ancestry was just one of several false dawns; my hopes that I would find a record of Thomas’s baptism were consistently dashed.

I’m a strong believer in the idea that if we’re struggling to find a record of someone’s birth, we need, instead, to look for evidence of their birth. Could I find a family that Thomas might have belonged to? The search began in Buckingham, where we know that Thomas was living in the mid-to-late 1840s.

One the most exciting developments in family history research in the early part of the 21st century was the establishment of the FreeBMD database (an online version of the GRO’s index to births, marriages and deaths) and once this was sufficiently populated I was able to start doing some creative searches. I soon discovered that only four events relating to the surname Port had ever been registered in Buckingham: Thomas’s marriage in 1847, the births of his two children in 1849 and 1850 and the death of a Mary Ann Port in 1846.[7]

FreeBMD screen shot

Screenshot from FreeBMD website, showing the only entries for the surname Port in the Buckingham registration district

Of course, I had to order Mary Ann’s death certificate but when I had it in my hands I quickly saw that there wasn’t a lot to work with. Mary Ann died on 19 May 1846 and she was evidently a single woman (at least no former or current husband was mentioned) and she was described as a Gentlewoman. She was 57 years old and she died of Icterus (i.e. jaundice). The informant was Martha Pipkin, the wife of an agricultural labourer, with no apparent relationship to Mary Ann.

Who, then, was Mary Ann? I couldn’t find a promising record of her baptism (of course I had no idea where she was born) and there was no trace of her in the 1841 census (but then, I’d never found Thomas either). A Mary Ann Port of the right age was an inmate in the Northampton County asylum[8] but was that her? A death notice published in the Bucks Herald described her as ‘Miss Port, formerly of Missenden’[9] and I found a record of her burial in the parish church of Buckingham[10] but, again, this didn’t get me anywhere. I looked for a will and I couldn’t find one but I did find that letters of administration of her ‘Goods Chattels and Credits’ were granted at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 9 June 1846 to her ‘Cousins German’ (i.e. first cousins), Samuel Truman and Mary Stevens.[11]

The equivalent entry in the Estate Duty Register[12] confirmed this while providing me with additional information by describing the two administrators as Samuel Truman of the Legacy Duty Department, Somerset House, Gentleman, and Mary Stevens of Kingston in the parish of Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, Widow. Two other names were also mentioned; William George Moulting of Holloway and John Osbertus Truman of Wandsworth, both Gentlemen.

There were plenty of clues to follow up here but the big breakthrough didn’t come until I stumbled upon (through the simple but effective process of looking at all the Port wills I could find) the will of Samuel Port, a wine merchant of Savage Gardens in the City of London.[13] Samuel wrote his will on 13 February 1799 and evidently died shortly after adding a codicil on 1 April 1799, as the will was proved on 21 May the same year.

Savage Gardens Horwoods Map

Detail from Horwood’s Map of London etc., showing Savage Gardens

It’s quite a long and complex will, and a connection to Mary Ann wasn’t immediately apparent. Samuel mentions his wife and children but doesn’t actually name them; he does however leave bequests to a number of other named relatives – various in-laws, nephews and nieces – including his nephew Samuel Truman, the son of his wife’s brother Joseph, and ‘the Children of my Brother James Port of Kingston Blount in the County of Oxford’.

Research revealed that Mary Stevens was the (married) daughter of Samuel’s brother, James and it didn’t take me long to work out that if Samuel Truman and Mary Stevens were the nephew and niece of Samuel Port and the first cousins of Mary Ann, it made sense that Samuel Port must be Mary Ann’s father.

Armed with an address in London (Savage Gardens was in the parish of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower) I was able to confirm this by finding the baptism of Mary Ann, the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth Port at Allhallows church on 7 September 1788.[14]

I had developed a theory that my Thomas was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Port. All that remained now was to test that theory by building up as full a picture of Mary Ann’s family as I could. And it only took me about 15 more years…

Read Part Three here

[1] Birth certificate of Frederick Thomas Port – General Register Office (GRO), SEP 1850 Buckingham VI 356

[2] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Layton – GRO, JUN 1847 Buckingham VI 495

[3] Death certificate of Mary Port – GRO, DEC 1851 Birmingham XVI 228

[4] Marriage certificate of Thomas Port and Mary Ann Berrill – GRO, SEP 1861 Kings Norton 6c 615

[5] Death certificate of Thomas Port – GRO, MAR 1900 Kidderminster 6c 151

[6] 1891 census, 4 Windmill Lane, Smethwick – The National Archives (TNA), RG 12/2364 f.41 p.21

[7] Death certificate of Mary Ann Port. GRO – JUN 1846 Buckingham VI 236

[8] 1841 census, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton – TNA HO 107/814/20 f.14 p.17

[9] Bucks Herald, 23 May 1846, p.4 col.b – British Library Newspaper Collection

[10] Burial of Mary Ann Port, St Peter & St Paul, Buckingham – Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies PR 29/1/14 p.261

[11] Letters of Administration, Mary Ann Port, 1846, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 6/222 ff.307v-308r

[12] Estate Duty Register (Administrations), Mary Ann Port, 1846 – TNA IR 26/264 f.262

[13] Will, Samuel Port, 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – TNA PROB 11/1324

[14] Baptism of Mary Ann Port, Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower – London Metropolitan Archives P69/ALH1/A/01/004

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 12 March 2020

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Did you know that I knew my father?

This is the first of a three-part blog, telling the story of how I broke down a 30-year old brick wall in my research.

“Did you know that I knew my father?”

We were in Saughton Cemetery in Edinburgh sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, looking for some family graves, when, completely out of the blue, my grandma asked me this. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. I had known for some time that she was illegitimate but it wasn’t something that we talked about. I had always felt that it wasn’t right to ask her about an aspect of her life that she might have felt embarrassed about and I had assumed that this part of the family history would be permanently closed to me. But suddenly it was all opening up.

My grandma, Margaret Howland, was born in Edinburgh in 1906. She must have been in her early 80s at the time but she was still the wonderful, strong, positive woman that I’d known all my life and I understood how difficult this must have been for her. Had she ever spoken to anyone about it before? I found out later that she had never told my dad – her son. Perhaps it was easier to tell someone a bit more detached; someone who she knew had a passionate interest in the family’s stories.

It all came pouring out. Her father had been a man called Frederick Porter. He was English but he’d worked in Edinburgh for Cadbury’s. His wife was, apparently, disabled and my grandma’s mum (also Margaret Howland) had worked for the family as a domestic servant. I don’t remember how much detail my grandma went into on this particular point but it wasn’t too hard for me to fill in the gaps. My great grandma had become pregnant by Frederick and my grandma was the result.

It’s impossible to know the details of what happened next but Frederick evidently acknowledged his parentage and seems to have provided my great grandma and her young daughter with financial assistance. My grandma even remembers going to his house (she later took me to the address in Davdison’s Mains) and playing tennis in the courts at the back.

Life must have been a struggle at times for the two Margarets but, thanks to Frederick’s refreshingly responsible approach, they were at least financially comfortable.


Margaret Howland senior and junior, ca.1912

Of course, I wanted to know more but all my efforts over the next few years to track down Frederick Porter were frustrated. By now my grandma was in a home, suffering from Alzheimer’s so I couldn’t go back and ask her any more questions.

I hadn’t made any progress with the research for several years when I found myself in the library of the Society of Genealogists one day and noticed an Edinburgh Post Office directory dating from the early 1900s. Of course I had to look for Frederick Porter and, of course, I didn’t find him. But I did find something that grabbed my attention; an entry for Cadbury Brothers Ltd, which stated that they were ‘represented by F. Port and G. Pickering’. This, surely, was my man – Frederick Port, not Frederick Porter.

1906-Edinburgh Post Office directory

Edinburgh Post Office Directory, 1905-1906, National Library of Scotland

Armed with this vital new piece of information I was soon able to piece together the details of Frederick’s life. He had been born in Buckingham in 1850, the son of Thomas and Mary Port and had married Edith Bushnell in 1872. He and Edith didn’t have any children (my grandma had told me that Frederick’s wife was unable to have children so this rang true) and they’d arrived in Edinburgh sometime in the 1880s.


1911 census, 68 Comely Bank Avenue, Edinburgh, National Records of Scotland, 685/1 39/9

Frederick came to an unfortunate end in 1917 when he was run over by an omnibus while on a business trip to Brighton. He apparently lingered in hospital for a week or two before succumbing to his injuries.

My grandma would have been aged just 11 at the time and while they didn’t perhaps have the traditional grandfather/granddaughter relationship it must nevertheless have been a traumatic event in her young life. Apart from anything else, it signalled the end of the financial support that Frederick had been providing for her and her mother.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from this but it seems that Frederick’s wife also took an interest in my grandma and in one of the most fascinating documents it’s ever been my pleasure (?) to read we get an idea of the complex inter-relationships that were at play here. Two months after Frederick died, on 24 December 1917, Edith wrote her will. She left her entire estate to John Walter Stammers and his wife (Stammers had lived with Frederick and Edith since their arrival in Edinburgh – I really need to find out more about him) and she also named them as her sole executors:

And I nominate and appoint the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers to be my sole Executors. But declaring always that the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers shall be bound out of my said means and estate (First) to pay all my just and lawful debts, deathbed and funeral expenses and (Second) To maintain, clothe and educate my adopted daughter Margaret Howland until she attain the age of Eighteen years and is able to earn a livelihood for herself: Declaring always as it is hereby specially proved and declared that should the Mother of the said Margaret Howland take her from the Guardianship of the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers before reaching the age of Eighteen years, the said parent shall have no monetary claim against them, him or her, or my estate and the said obligation on the said John Walter Stammers and Emily Stammers to maintain, clothe and educate the said Margaret Howland shall immediately cease:


Testament of Edith Port or Bushnell, 1917, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh Sheriff Court Wills, SC70/4/511

The description of my grandma as Edith’s ‘adopted daughter’ is intriguing and I can only imagine my great grandma’s reaction to all this. While there might have been a financial incentive here, the emotional ties between mother and daughter were surely far stronger. Her response to the idea that she should give up her daughter was, I suspect, probably quite short and succinct!

This was presumably the last contact that my grandma and her mother had with the Port family so it’s hardly surprising that all memory of them was lost over the years and that when my grandma tried to recall what she could some seventy years later she mis-remembered some of the details.

If nothing else, this whole episode serves as a reminder to us all that we should do whatever we can – with an appropriate degree of tact and sensitivity – to tease out these stories from our elderly relatives. If my grandma hadn’t asked me that question in the Edinburgh grave yard all those years ago, the story of her father’s identity would have died with her. And while I didn’t do anything proactive to get her talking, perhaps it was my quiet enthusiasm for the subject that encouraged her to talk…

Read Part Two here

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 9 March 2020

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You really can’t do it all online…

Yesterday, I made a flying visit to the library of the Society of Genealogists in London. The main purpose of my visit was to view some parish registers which I had identified as being part of their collection, thanks to their excellent online catalogue.

The volumes in question were typed, indexed transcripts of the registers of a number of Bedfordshire parishes. Bedfordshire is that rarity these days; an English county which hasn’t got into bed with one of the commercial genealogical websites.[1] Both the county record office Bedfordshire Archives and Record Service and the Bedfordshire Family History Society can sell you transcribed, indexed copies of the county’s collection of parish registers, either in hard copy, or on CD, but you won’t find digital images of the registers online. The Archives’ website tells us that Bedfordshire is ‘the first English county for which all the pre-1812 parish registers have been transcribed, indexed and published.’[2]

This is both frustrating, as the instant access to information that we’re used to with other counties is unavailable to us, and yet somehow quaintly re-assuring. It’s an old-fashioned approach, but you can pretty much guarantee that the quality of the transcription will comfortably outstrip what we’re used to from the commercial websites, and therefore that we are far more likely to (eventually) find the information we want.

And it’s not just the quality of the indexing; it’s the confidence you get from knowing exactly what you’re looking at. It’s all about having intellectual control. The Archives and the FHS between them know exactly what they’ve got and when you purchase one of their books or CDs, they’ll tell you exactly what they’re providing you with. This is something you rarely get from the commercial websites, who like to provide county-wide databases without, apparently, any concern about whether the collection is complete and without any genuine commitment to correcting any deficiencies once the database has been launched. It’s fair to say that some are better than others in this area…

Having said all this, I’m a 21st century researcher and I need instant gratification so rather than wait however long it would take to receive the relevant CDs in the post, I decided to look elsewhere for alternatives.

My quest was to locate a birth/baptismal record of a man who should have been born sometime in the late 1760s: his age was given as 65 at the time of his burial in September 1833. His surname (which, to protect client confidentiality, I won’t give here) is highly localised and, although it has spread over the centuries into London and south-west Essex, it is most commonly found in a small group of parishes on either side of the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border. The surname has, to use a term which I learned from the late, great George Redmonds, ‘ramified’ in this area, making tracing individuals, particularly those whose families didn’t tend to own land or to leave wills, somewhat challenging to say the least.


Surnames And Genealogy: A New Approach by George Redmonds
New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1997

Despite the lack of anything approaching a comprehensive, county-wide database of Bedfordshire registers (Hertfordshire is, in theory at least, fully covered by Findmypast, although there are in fact significant gaps in the collection) there is some decent online coverage of baptisms, marriages and even some burials for the county, on each of the major sites. Principal among these is the collection on FamilySearch – the records which were formerly part of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and can now also be found on Ancestry and Findmypast.

However, searches had failed to turn up a record of my man, so I was left with a number of possibilities:

  • he wasn’t baptised
  • he was baptised under a different name
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism hasn’t survived
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism has been mistranscribed
  • he was baptised but the record of his baptism isn’t available online

I don’t have time to go into each of these here but suffice it to say that I considered each of them before concluding that the last option was the most likely.

I needed, therefore, to find out what was and what wasn’t available online. My two go-to websites for a task such as this are FamilySearch’s indispensable English Jurisdictions 1851 and the associated FamilySearch Research Wiki.

On the first of these, I began by using the Radius place search feature to identify all of the parishes within ten miles of the place where I knew that my target lived for most of his life, namely, Meppershall in Bedfordshire.


Screenshot from FamilySearch English Jurisdictions 1851, showing results of a ‘Radius place search’ centred on Meppershall (accessed 19 February 2020)

I then checked the Wiki for each of the parishes on the list to see what coverage there was of the baptismal registers for the period I was interested in. It didn’t take me too long to establish that coverage on a combination of FamilySearch, Findmypast and FreeReg was, apparently, comprehensive.

So, had I been wrong in concluding that the most likely solution was that the record of his baptism simply wasn’t available online? Well, no…

You see, we really need to understand that the dates shown in the FamilySearch Wiki alongside the various websites are merely the earliest and the latest years covered on that website. For example, it tells me that the FamilySearch website includes records for the parish of Clifton, Bedfordshire for the years 1602 to 1875, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have records for every year.


Screenshot from FamilySearch Research Wiki, showing entry for Clifton, Bedfordshire (accessed 19 February 2020)

It’s wholly possible that somewhere in the help sections on the FamilySearch Wiki it explains this, and I understand the necessity behind presenting the information in this way,  but I feel that it might perhaps be useful to make the limitations more explicit. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that when a website tells you that “parish registers of christenings, marriages and burials are available online for the following years”, it might actually mean just that…

I had noticed that there was a family with the surname I was looking for having children baptised in Clifton at around the right time and, given its proximity to Meppershall, I decided to focus on that parish. And when I looked at all the baptismal records for Clifton that were available online, it was clear that there were some serious gaps in the 1750s and 1760s; certain years for which there were no entries at all. Although this isn’t specified, it looked like what we were dealing with here were Bishop’s Transcripts with limited survival. So, could my man be a child of this Clifton family? Could he simply have been baptised in a year for which no Bishop’s Transcripts survive?

It looked promising so I decided to visit the Society of Genealogists where I knew I would be able to look at their copies of the Bedfordshire parish register transcripts and also, should I wish to, to view their copy of the ‘original’ Clifton parish registers on microfilm.


The Society of Genealogists, London

And guess what? There, in the transcript of the Clifton parish register, I found the baptism, in February 1769 of someone with the name I was looking for. He was one of nine children of the same family, baptised at Clifton between 1750 and 1769, yet only two of them appear on FamilySearch. I don’t know yet whether this is my man or not but it’s a very promising find and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it is him. As I said, Clifton is only a mile from Meppershall and the names of six of the children in the Clifton family were used by my man for his own children.

It’s worth noting that I would have had the same success if I’d visited Bedfordshire Archives – but they probably couldn’t have helped me with my Northumberland case…

The lesson here is that we mustn’t assume that everything’s online. Despite the astonishing range of material available online there’s still a huge amount that can only be accessed by visiting an archive or a library.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 February 2020

[1] I notice that in 2017 Ancestry added some Bedfordshire records ‘in association with Bedfordshire Archives’ so perhaps there’s more in the pipeline.

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A mystery wedding photo

Every now and then, I dig out some old family photos and see if I can work out who’s who. I usually vow, then and there, to sort them all out, scan them and begin the process of identifying as many faces as I can and making useful, meaningful notes on them. 24 hours later, the box goes back in the attic and I forget about them until the next time I want to find a particular photo to answer a family query or to illustrate something I’m writing about.

This morning, I was looking for something in my Granny’s Treasure Chest* and I came across this wedding photo which I had seen many times before, without ever thinking about whose wedding it was and why my Granny might have had a copy of it.

1942 wedding photo

I only recognised two of the people in it; the tall man on the right was my great grandfather, David John Davidson (1873-1953) while the natty gentleman in the middle was my uncle Tom Carlin (1900-1979). He wasn’t actually my uncle, he was my Granny’s first cousin, but in a large Roman Catholic Edinburgh family like mine, relationships were quite flexible and terms like ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ were often used in this honorific sense.

I asked my cousin Norah, Tom’s daughter, but she wasn’t able to add any names or provide any further clues. She only recognised her father, so I had to conclude that the connection to the photo came through my side of the family rather than hers and I went back to it, to see what else I could come up with. Perhaps the biggest clue was the fact that Tom was in his RAF uniform which, together with the evidence from the clothes worn by the others in the picture, placed it in the first half of the 1940s. Tom was a conscript during World War Two rather than an RAF ‘regular’.

A quick scan of the family tree looking for a marriage in the 1940s with connections to both David and Tom turned up an interesting candidate. My Granny’s brother, John Davidson (1896-1969), married in Aberdeen in 1942. Could this be his wedding?

I never met my great uncle John, or his wife, Marjory, and I only knew him at all from a few photos, taken when he was a child. But there was enough in the photos to encourage me – the ears, I felt, looked particularly convincing!

David John and John Davidson WW1 era

John Davidson and his father, David John Davidson, ca.1906

If it was John in the photo, he would have been 45 at the time and the bride would have been 36, both of which, again, were quite believable. The clincher came when I checked the 1942 marriage certificate and saw, in the column headed, ‘Signatures and Addresses of Witnesses’, the name T. Carlin, 3 Gladstone Place, Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My uncle Tom had evidently been a witness at the marriage of his cousin in Aberdeen in 1942 and this was surely, therefore, a photo of that wedding.


Marriage certificate of John Davidson and Marjory Cormack or Sherriffs – National Records of Scotland, Marriages, Southern District of Aberdeen 1942, 168/2 292

The others in the photo then started to fall into place. That’s probably the bride’s parents at the back on the left, her mother in view and her father hidden by the groom. Then we have the groom, John Davidson, the bride, Marjory Cormack or Sherriffs (she was a widow) and Thomas ‘Tom’ Carlin, John’s cousin. The bridesmaid is surely Mary Cormack (Marjory’s sister?), the other witness from the marriage certificate. Next is David John Davidson, the groom’s father (his mother had died in 1940), and the young girl on the right is probably Marjory’s daughter from her first marriage; a Marjory Marion Sherriffs was born in Aberdeen in 1929.

I feel confident that this photo was taken on 4 April 1942, outside St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Aberdeen but I always like to find absolute proof and I was delighted to find it, thanks to Google Map’s Street View function.

There’s not a lot in the way of architectural features in the photo to help us but it seems to have been taken in a corner of the churchyard with, what I initially thought was a gravestone on the extreme left of the picture. I navigated myself to Huntly Street, Aberdeen and quickly found the Cathedral. It’s often not easy to get good close-up views of churches on Google Maps as they’re usually set back from the road or, in urban areas like this, hemmed in by neighbouring buildings – and St Mary’s was no exception.


Huntly Street, Aberdeen, view from Google Maps, accessed 2 February 2020

I couldn’t make out the corner of the churchyard and I couldn’t see any gravestones but then I noticed the statue outside the front of the church and when I looked at the plinth I could see straight away that it was the same one as the one in the photo.


Views of the plinth – left from the 1942 wedding photo, right from Google Maps, accessed 2 February 2020

The statue must have been relocated sometime in the past 78 years as the part of the building behind it in the modern Google Street View doesn’t match what we can see in the 1942 photo but there can be no doubt that it’s the same piece of masonry.

So that’s one photo sorted. Now I just need to get to work on the other few hundred…

* It’s actually a cardboard box, but it’s full of family photos and documents that I inherited when my Granny died in 1991, so it’s a treasure chest to me.

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The Joy of Tithes

When it comes to the 1841 census, one of the greatest disappointments for family historians is that the addresses given, particularly in rural areas, tend to be frustratingly imprecise. More often than not, we just get the name of the village or hamlet.

Earlier records such as parish registers are unlikely to provide us with any detailed information about where our working-class, agrarian ancestors were living, and the ‘addresses’ given in the 1841 census seem like they’re just there to tantalise us!


Wroxton, Nr. Banbury, postcard pre-1914 (Pinterest)

Fortunately, there’s another source we can use, roughly contemporary with the 1841 census, which can help us to pinpoint the actual building in which our mid-nineteenth century ancestors lived.

The 1836 Tithe Commutation Act brought an end to the out-moded and highly unpopular system of paying tithes to the Church of England. The Tithe Commission was set up to assess the value of the individual pieces of land which were then liable to payments of tithes. The work of the Commission took about 15 years but was largely complete by the early 1840s. The records don’t cover land which had been subject to Inclosure Acts, nor most land and properties in urban areas (roughly 25% of the country) but for our rural ancestors, the Tithe records are a fantastic resource.

Add MS 15537 f93

Old tithe barn at Abbotsbury, Dorset, British Library (Add. MS 15537, f.93)

Details of each piece of land were entered on pre-printed schedules, known as apportionments, and arranged by parish. They record the names of the various landowners, the occupiers or tenants, the name or description of the land or property, the state of cultivation (i.e. arable, pasture, meadow, wood etc.), the area (in acres, rods and perches) and the value assessed. Each piece of land or property also has a number attached to it which acts as a cross-reference to the associated map.

The maps were created specifically to support the work of the Tithe Commission. Every building is recorded, with the boundaries of the various pieces of land clearly marked. Rivers, bridges, lakes, ponds and other significant features are also shown. They’re basically works of art!

The original records are held by the National Archives (available online at with copies for most counties in the relevant county or local record office. Many of these are also now available online, for example, those for Cheshire can be found at Cheshire Tithe Maps Online.

Cheshire Tithe Map Macclesfield 1840 (detail) - Cheshire Archives & Local Studies EDT 254-2

Cheshire Tithe Map Macclesfield 1840 (detail), Cheshire Archives & Local Studies (EDT 254/2)

It’s not difficult to see how we can use the Tithe maps and apportionments in conjunction with the 1841 census to pinpoint our ancestral residences – and this is how it works in practice.

At the time of the 1841 census, William and Harriet Harwood were living in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot Green, in the parish of Ayot St Peter. Their entry in the 1841 census is less than informative, giving their address simply as Ayott [sic] Green. William was an agricultural labourer, as were most of his neighbours; there are no obvious landmarks such as pubs or churches listed in the census to help us locate exactly where the family were living so all we can say from this is that they were living somewhere in Ayot Green.

1841-William & Harriet Harwood census Ayott Green, Ayot St Peter - TNA HO107-436-3 f.5 p.5

William & Harriet Harwood 1841 census Ayott Green, Ayot St Peter, The National Archives (HO107/436/3 f.5 p.5) (

Thankfully, the Tithe records come to our rescue. The index throws up two hits for William Harwood in Ayot St Peter, further identified, once you click on the links to view the apportionment itself, as William Harwood senior and William Harwood junior. Given that our man was aged just 30 in 1841, and that the Tithe records for Ayot St Peter date from 1838, it seems most likely that we’re looking for William Harwood junior but we can do some more checking, just to be certain.


Tithe Apportionment, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, The National Archives (IR29/15/13 p.5) (

Both men were tenants of Viscount Melbourne (the then-Prime Minister) and appear on the same page of the apportionment; William Harwood senior is recorded as the occupier of a cottage and garden (plot number 109) while William Harwood junior is at plot number 146. A quick check of the occupants of the neighbouring properties in each case reveals that our man is indeed William Harwood junior. Joseph Clarke (plot number 145) and Charles Stiles (147) appear as his neighbours in the 1841 census.

We can then turn to the associated Tithe map and quickly locate plot number 146. The image is quite blurred but we can see that the property is one of two adjoined cottages – the left-hand one – and that there’s another cottage to the right, with a row of buildings on the west side of the lane leading northwards from the Green.


Tithe Map, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, The National Archives (IR30/15/13 detail) (

The 1898 Ordnance Survey map of the area shows that not much had changed in 60 years or so – the same two adjoined cottages are clearly marked with the separate cottage to the north, set back from the road and the long row of buildings to the north of that.

1898-Ordnance Survey 25 inch map Hertfordshire XXVIII.7 (detail)

Ordnance Survey 25 inch map, 1898 Hertfordshire XXVIII.7 (detail) (National Library of Scotland)

And this is where an online search can really help to bring your research to life. A search for ‘Ayot Green Postcard’ (without the quotation marks) leads us to a fantastic site on the history of the parish of Ayot St Peter and a page full of old photos of Ayot Green. Of particular interest to us is this one, which clearly shows William & Harriet Harwood’s cottage, on the extreme left, with the apparently much older cottage on the right, and the row of buildings to the right of that.

ayot-green-ashby w1024

Ayot Green, postcard ca.1905 (Ayot St Peter website)

And guess what? The cottage is still there, as this recent view from Google maps shows. The old cottage to the right has evidently been pulled down and replaced by a modern mock-Tudor building, but the Harwoods’ cottage is still standing, and looking good for its age!

Ayot Green Google Maps - accessed 12 January 2020

Ayot Green, view from Google Maps, accessed 20 January 2020

Of course, the old postcard is a bonus and we’re lucky that the cottage is still there today but you can see how we were able to go from a vague address in the 1841 census to viewing an ancestral property as it looks today – and all thanks to the work of the Tithe Commission!

Accessing the records

The Tithe Commission produced two sets of records; a national collection held centrally in London and local copies held … well … locally! The national collection of records is now held by the National Archives and has been fully digitised and indexed by

The following local collections are known to be accessible online:

Additionally, the KnowYourPlace website provides access to maps (including Tithe maps) for Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Devon, Gloucestershire, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Maps for Devon can also be accessed here.

Several counties (e.g. Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Wiltshire) have digitised their collections of Tithe Maps and made them available electronically onsite and in some cases the images are available for sale.

If you know of any other online collections, please let me know.

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A census release with a difference

In a previous life, when I worked for The National Archives, I was actively involved in planning and delivering the launch of the 1901 and 1911 censuses for England & Wales. Now, I’m delighted to announce my involvement in the release of a brand new online census resource. OK, it’s probably not going to have as big an impact as the forthcoming release of the 1921 census for England and Wales (due on 2 January 2022) but this one’s 100 years older, so it’s clearly 100 years better…

This is the story of how, against the odds, a copy of the 1821 census returns for the Orkney parish of South Ronaldsay & Burray survived and, after lying in my distant cousin’s kitchen drawer for over 50 years, was eventually deposited in the Orkney Library & Archive. The whole of the census, listing the names, ages, addresses and, in many cases, the occupations of the 2227 inhabitants of South Ronaldsay & Burray can now be searched and viewed (free of charge) on the Findmypast website.

At the time of the 1821 census, Peter Nicholson McLaren, was the Parochial Schoolmaster of South Ronaldsay, Orkney’s southernmost island parish. As the enumerator, it was his responsibility to make an accurate count of the number of people living in South Ronaldsay, Burray, Swona and the Pentland Skerries on the night of 28 May 1821 – just as hundreds of enumerators the length and breadth of Great Britain were doing for their own districts.

This was the third decennial census to have been taken in the United Kingdom, following those in 1801 and 1811. Each successive census asked more detailed questions, as the government sought to gather information about the UK’s growing population but there was no requirement to list the names of the inhabitants in this census and there wouldn’t be for another twenty years.

However, for one reason or another, a number of conscientious enumerators decided to make full lists of the names, ages and occupations of the people living in their districts and we are fortunate not only that South Ronaldsay’s schoolmaster was one of these, but also that the fruits of his labours have survived to the present day.

I first saw South Ronaldsay’s 1821 census document in the early 1980s when I visited Orkney and met my cousin Sandy (Alexander Taylor Annal). I say “cousin” but it is a distant relationship, our common ancestor William Annal having been born around 1750. I only got a fleeting glance at the document on that visit but Sandy was kind enough to supply me with a photocopy of the whole census which I then spent hours poring over, transcribing and indexing after returning to England.

Although I consulted the census frequently over the next twenty years and found much useful information in it about my South Ronaldsay ancestors, I didn’t really give a great deal of thought to the origins of the document itself, or to the story of how it had survived for over a hundred and sixty years and now came to be in Sandy’s possession.

There was, however, one problem to overcome. My photocopy of the census had a page missing and since my dad (Eric Annal) was due to visit Orkney in July 2004 and would be paying a visit to Sandy, I asked if he could somehow get me a copy of the missing page. One evening, a few days after my dad’s arrival in Kirkwall, I got a phone call to say that his mission had been accomplished – not only had he been able to get a good photocopy of the page but Sandy had actually allowed him to borrow the document. And this was where the story of the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay took an unexpected twist.

As far as I am aware, my dad was the first person for years, probably decades, to have been given unrestricted access to the document. And it was this freedom to peruse the volume at leisure that enabled him to consider it in a critical light. I had known from my own photocopy that the original was written on what appeared to be an accountant’s ledger. Indeed, the first three pages of my copy consisted of accounts dating from the 1860’s and 1870’s and Sandy had annotated it with the words, “This cover page is a shop keeper’s credit notes (using spare pages in our census book).”

As my dad looked closer at the document he began to develop a theory that the census had in fact been written onto spare pages in the shop keeper’s book and not the other way round. He also noticed that the handwriting on the accounts pages and the census pages appeared to be identical! He then came across a note on the ‘History of the Manuscript’ written by Sandy at the end of the census, which reads as follows:

This copy of the 1821 census was in the Post Office at Quoys shop kept by Mr Thomson from 1821 until 1923[1] when William Thomson his Grandson[2] died app age 57 leaving his widow and one daughter. Alex T Annal of Stensigarth retrieved this book from a bonfire – it is the only record of its kind in existence. Signed by his son – Alexander Taylor Annal – 1997 at the age of 90 years.

This was clearly something that required further research; who was Mr Thomson and how did the census come to be in the possession of a shop keeper?

A few days later my dad was in St Margaret’s Hope talking to a local historian, George Esson, when George showed him a copy of ‘Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray’ by Rev. J B Craven[3]. As he looked at the dedication in the book, the following words jumped out at him;


So, was this our Mr Thomson? If so, he was obviously a bit more than just a shopkeeper.

Research into various South Ronaldsay sources provided some basic information about this James Thomson. He was born at Quoys in the South Parish of South Ronaldsay, the son of Donald Thomson, a farmer, and his wife Ann (née Gray) who were married in South Ronaldsay on 22 February 1809. James was baptised on 10 October 1819 and is found in the census returns for 1821 aged 1.

Later censuses provided the following details about James Thomson:

1841 Quoys 20* Shopkeeper * ages were rounded down to the nearest 5
1851 Quoys 31 Merchant
1861 Quoys No.3 41 Grocer
1871 West Quoys 51 Merchant
1881 Quoys 61 Merchant
1891 Quoys 71 General Merchant

This is clear evidence that James Thomson was working as a merchant/shop keeper at the time the accounts in the ‘census book’ were written. Sandy’s story places the document in the possession of this family. The logical conclusion must therefore be that the account book belonged to James. The evidence of the handwriting suggests that James was also the ‘author’ of the census returns themselves – not that he compiled the original data (he was, after all, some five months short of his second birthday at the time!) but rather that at some time, probably in the 1880’s, he copied the details of the census from a document which probably no longer exists into his old account book.

Before we move on to look at why James Thomson might have done such a thing there are a few more important pieces of evidence to consider. We know that the original enumeration was carried out by the schoolmaster, Peter Nicholson McLaren. As we have already seen, the government did not require official returns of names, ages and occupations so there were no pre-printed forms available for McLaren to enter all the details on. He evidently decided that he wanted to record these details and as a schoolmaster he would presumably have had access to a large selection of notebooks – so why would he choose to use a shop keeper’s account book? Most important of all why would he start writing some distance into the book – the first census page is numbered 23! It’s clear to me that what we’re dealing with is not the 1821 original but a transcription in a shop keeper’s account book which was no longer required for its original purpose and that the handwriting is that of Thomson and not McLaren.

Further research revealed that James Thomson died on 21 October 1900 leaving a substantial will[4]. However, the most crucial discovery was that of a letter written by Thomson to John Gray of Roeberry on 20 May 1870[5]. I am enormously grateful for the assistance of Sarah Jane Grieve and Alison Fraser of the Orkney Library and Archive who were able to uncover this vital document as well as offering my dad support and advice. The letter, which is signed by James Thomson of Quoys confirmed two things; first of all that James Thomson had an interest in the people and history of South Ronaldsay and secondly that the handwriting in the 1821 census was undoubtedly Thomson’s. A comparison of the two documents leaves little room for doubt on this matter.

Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry, 20 May 1870. Orkney Archives ref: D33/1/22/29
Detail from the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay, showing the Gray family of Roeberry

The final proof that we were on to something significant was the discovery of a lengthy obituary in The Orcadian, covering nearly two whole columns of the broadsheet newspaper[6]. The obituary concentrates on James’s spiritual life and in particular, his involvement with the Free Church in South Ronaldsay which was clearly a very significant part of his life. The ‘obituary’ is in fact a transcript of the sermon preached by the Reverend Alex Goodfellow, minister of the United Free Church in South Ronaldsay, at James Thomson’s funeral service. In it he stated that;

He has been with us from the beginning – since the Free Church was started in 1870. And but for him there might have been no Free Church in this island. He undoubtedly was the main mover…

In ‘The Soul of an Orkney Parish’ there is a short section about the Free Church which includes the following paragraph:

In the official records of the Free Church, reference is made to Mr. James Thomson of Quoys, who assisted the Church early in his life, and continued to collect for its Sustentation Fund until he was well into his eightieth year[7].

Interesting as this may be, it didn’t give us any further clues about Thomson’s possible involvement with the census. However, the ‘obituary’ also provides a fascinating insight into areas of his life which are of more concern to us here;

Let me tell you something more about the life and history of this remarkable and memorable man of God, for undoubtedly he was “above many” if not above all in this island. He has not left his life behind him. His figure and personality were outstanding, for in bodily presence he was neither weak nor contemptible, while his mind was active and vigorous, and his memory was prodigious. His general knowledge was very great, for from his youth up, he was a devourer of books and papers, and all kinds of information. Many, after meeting with him, have declared that he was a “walking encyclopaedia.” All who wished to know about the antiquities of these islands, about the ministers of past and present generations, about the old family histories, and curious stories of bye-gone days, would apply to Mr Thomson. A self-taught man, and one who did not seek after great things, for he was contented to stand behind the counter and to be familiarly known as “the merchant.” He has not written a book, but he has spoken volumes. His shop for long was like a public reading room, and then he was in his element, pouring forth all the news of the political, religious and social world.

Now this was more like it! Surely ‘the merchant’ is a very likely character to have been responsible for transcribing the 1821 census and surely this is as close to absolute proof as we will ever get that Sandy Annal was the proud owner of a document written by James Thomson of Quoys in the 1880’s and not the 1821 original.

I am personally convinced that this is the case. It does nothing to devalue the document in any way. If anything it makes it more interesting, giving it a human touch which is normally lacking in documents like this. Nor is there any reason to believe that it is anything other than an accurate transcript of the original – and remember that this has probably long since disappeared. Without the efforts of James Thomson, his son William Alexander Thomson and two generations of the Annal family, the information would have been lost forever and those of us with an interest in the history of South Ronaldsay would have been robbed of one the most important documents the island has ever produced.

Following Sandy Annal’s death in January 2007, his copy of the 1821 Census of South Ronaldsay was deposited in the Orkney Library & Archiveon permanent loan, in Memory of Sandy Annal and on condition that the manuscript remains in Orkney.”

The 1821 census returns for South Ronaldsay, along with an enormous amount of useful genealogical data relating to the parish and its inhabitants can also be found online on

© David Annal, 26 July 2019


[1] William Thomson died on 19 May 1922 (Death Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland Ref. 1922, South Ronaldsay 29/21)
[2] William was the son of James Thomson not his grandson (Birth Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland, Ref. 1863, South Ronaldsay 29/30)
[3] Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray by Rev J B Craven, D.D. (Kirkwall, 1911)
[4] Testament of James Thomson of Quoys, Kirkwall 29 December 1900. Orkney Library and Archive ref. SC11/38/16
[5] Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry (20 May 1870). Orkney Library and Archive ref. D33/1/22/29
[6] The Orcadian, Saturday November 3 1900, p.5 columns 4 & 5
[7] The Soul of an Orkney Parish by Stuart D B Picken (Kirkwall, 1972), p.102

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Oma and the Rosenstrasse Protests

My younger daughter, Isabel, completed an MA in Archaeology last year. She’s currently waiting to start her PhD in October and has been spending some time helping me with my research. She’s always shown an interest in family history and over the past few months she’s become particularly captivated by the story of her maternal grandmother’s experiences as a ‘Mischling’ in wartime Berlin. She’s really thrown herself into it and now plans to write a book about it all.

In this guest blog, Isabel outlines the remarkable story of her Oma’s life.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Isabel’s work, please visit her new website.

My Oma (my mum’s mum) kept diaries for most of her life and we recently found a whole box of them in our attic. Her diaries are the type I’ve always wanted to be able to keep up – notes of what she did each day, with a couple of lines about more personal things. Unfortunately, the oldest surviving diary dates from 1943 when she was 16 years old; earlier ones may have been destroyed when a bomb hit their home in Berlin on 23 August 1943. But in later life, and with her husband’s encouragement, she also wrote a memoir, covering in detail her childhood, and her experiences in Nazi Germany. Together, the diaries and the memoir represent a fascinating account of her life, which is in parts a deeply depressing story to read, but I think important for people to hear.

D1Yix-TXcAA34eA.jpg large

My Oma’s diaries

Susanne Schwarz was born in Bad Dürkheim (Rheinland-Pfalz) in 1926 to an ‘Aryan’ mother and a Jewish father. The family moved to Berlin in 1935, after her father (like all Jewish people working for the state) lost his teaching job. They hoped that the relative anonymity of a large city might protect them from the increasingly antisemitic sentiments of their fellow Germans. I often wonder whether this was the right call – although it would have been much more difficult to keep their Jewish identity quiet in a small community, it was Berlin, as the capital of the Reich, that Goebbels was most obsessed with completely ridding of Jews. It seems wrong to describe Susanne’s family’s survival of the war as ‘lucky’, because there isn’t much in her childhood that can be considered lucky. But, the more I learn about her precarious status, the more amazed I am that she did survive.

Oma and Hermann_e

Susanne and her brother, Bad Dürkheim, c.1932

In January 1933, Susanne and her younger brother had been baptised. This was not uncommon for children of Jewish-Aryan intermarriages. Indeed, her mother was a Protestant, and the Church played a large part in my Oma’s youth, but there’s something about their baptisms that doesn’t seem routine to me. The two children were baptised, not at their local church, but while they were visiting their mother’s friend in Pforzheim, and Susanne notes in her memoir that “as we were both ill in bed at the time the pastor had to come and visit us”. This seems to me like her mother was very keen to get the baptisms done quickly, and I wonder if there was a particular law or event which triggered her decision to do so. I haven’t yet identified what spurred her on, and I’d love to find out more about Susanne’s baptism, because it may well have been instrumental in saving her life over the next twelve years. The copy certificate that we have was issued on 6 October 1943 – presumably the original had been destroyed in the air raid two months earlier.


Susanne’s baptismal certificate

The 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour (commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Laws) classified Susanne as a Mischling (half-breed, or mongrel). Under the terms of these laws, Mischlinge who had been baptised fared a lot better than those belonging to the Jewish religious community, who were subject by law to the same mistreatment as ‘fully Jewish’ people. Her father, married to an ‘Aryan’ woman and with baptised children, was classed as a ‘Privileged Jew’. His citizenship was taken from him, and he lost almost all of his rights, but he was initially left out of the deportation plans.


Die Nürnberger Gesetze (The Nuremberg Laws), 1935

Susanne wrote in her memoir that their life after the Nuremberg Laws was “a very insecure existence”. Susanne’s father was forced into hiding several times during pogroms, and the family were often not sure where he was, or whether he was safe. The Gestapo turned up at their apartment on more than one occasion, and they lived in constant fear of deportation. At school (while the children were still permitted to attend) they were forced to engage with the very propaganda which explicitly classified them as “monstrosities halfway between man and ape” (Mein Kampf). Susanne’s parents constantly reminded the children not to do anything which would draw attention to themselves, so they kept quiet and obedient, performing the Hitler Gruss (salute) to adults, and giving nobody reason to denounce them. Like most of Berlin their family was desperately hungry. They spent many sleepless nights in the bomb shelter (except for her father, who wasn’t allowed in) simultaneously terrified of the bombs, and yet desperately wanting those dropping them to win the war and save them from the Nazi persecution.

Perhaps the closest call for the family was ‘The Final Roundup’ carried out in Berlin at the end of February 1943. The mission’s goal was to leave Berlin completely free of Jews. The only Jewish people still living in Berlin by this point were those in intermarriages (and the Mischling children of those intermarriages) and those working in armaments factories. I’ve always known that my family were caught up in the infamous ‘Rosenstrasse protests’ sparked by this roundup, but I hadn’t known how lucky Susanne and her brother were to have avoided being inside the building with their father, rather than outside protesting with their mother. Workplaces and households with Jewish members were raided. Anybody with a ‘J’ on their identity card was taken to be temporarily held before deportation. I don’t know why my Oma and her brother weren’t taken by the SS at this time and held at Rosenstrasse, as many other Mischlinge were.

Phillip ID group

Susanne’s father’s ‘Kennkarte’ (ID Card), marked with a J

Ever reluctant to lose the support of the people, Nazi officials were worried about the backlash Aryan citizens might cause if their Jewish spouses and Mischling children were deported. That’s why, during The Final Roundup, Adolf Eichmann (the deportation executive) directed Mischlinge and the Jewish men and women in intermarriages to be held separately at a building on Rosenstrasse. The aim was to create the illusion that these individuals (between 1700-2000) were headed for a different, non-fatal, destination. The Nazis had succeeded in deporting so many Jewish people without popular resistance, because they had first segregated them socially from the Aryan population. But this was not the case for those in intermarriages, who had previously been guaranteed protection because their spouses were citizens. Within hours of Berlin’s remaining Jewish population being rounded up, a crowd of distressed spouses (primarily wives) had gathered outside the building on Rosenstrasse demanding the release of their loved ones. Over the next week or so, these women formed the largest, and perhaps the only, full-scale protest against the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.


A page from Oma’s diary covering the period of the Rosentrasse protests

My Oma went to the Rosenstrasse protests several times herself. Like many other wives, her mother attempted every day for over a week to hand some food to a guard to pass on to her father. On one occasion a guard agreed to take the small package from her, but they later found out that her father had never received it. Susanne’s diary from the time, and her memoir, unfortunately don’t go into much detail about her experiences at the protests, and this is one of the main areas my research has focussed on so far. It’s very difficult to read about the conditions in the Rosenstrasse building, even knowing that the men like Susanne’s father, who were eventually allowed to return to their homes, were relatively ‘lucky’, compared with the fates of millions of other Jews in Europe. There was a huge air raid one night, and the Jewish prisoners in the Rosenstrasse building must have been terrified that a bomb would fall on them. Perhaps some would have welcomed that death, over the one they feared they were soon to be sent to. Some men held at Rosenstrasse committed suicide to escape deportation.

Eventually those held in the Rosenstrasse building were released, as Goebbels couldn’t risk these protests spreading and undermining the idea that Jewish deportations were what German citizens wanted. The other 7,978 individuals who had been rounded up in the same operation were deported, and more than 50% of them sent straight to the gas chambers. When her father was freed, after being held for eight days, Susanne didn’t even recognise the man who turned up at their door at 6am. In her memoir she wrote:

My father had had a nervous breakdown in the Rosenstrasse and had been lying on a stretcher in the cellar for the last few days. The conditions had been intolerable, with about 60 men sharing a small room night and day, without being able to sit down. The hallucinations he had there, while lying on the stretcher, left a deep impression on him for many years.

There’s still a lot more I need to find out about The Final Roundup and Rosenstrasse, and this is just one of the major events I plan to include in my Oma’s life story; her diaries and memoir are full of incredible stories. And I’m still getting used to working with these sorts of sources. As an archaeologist, I’ve become slightly wary of using historical accounts, because I’ve seen how often the idealised written source contradicts the reality preserved in the ground. Whether consciously or subconsciously, people lie and omit things from the histories they record – I’ve heard several stories of things my family experienced during this time that my Oma didn’t write down. I’ve also found details in my research on Mischlinge of things that she never mentioned at all. I know that there is a difference, for example, between decrees being passed and laws being effectively enforced, but sometimes I’m not sure whether my Oma really didn’t suffer as a result of a certain law, or whether she just chose not to write about it.

This book isn’t going to be an easy one to write. I still have so much to learn about the lives of Mischlinge in Nazi Germany, and there are boxes of documents my Oma kept which I need to understand. It’s all quite emotionally draining, and some days I can’t face thinking about it at all. But I do think it’s an interesting story, and a very important one for people to hear.

Further reading: Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, Nathan Stoltzfus (London, 1996)

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Death, taxes and the voices of our ancestors

The inspiration behind this post is twofold; firstly, the ongoing work of Dr Laura King, Dr Nick Barratt, Jackie Depelle and many others to encourage closer co-operation between academic historians and genealogists, but more immediately, a tweet by Hallie Rubenhold, the author of The Five, a recently-published and fascinating book which puts the victims of Jack the Ripper centre stage and allows us to hear their voices and understand their lives. On 14 March 2019, Hallie tweeted:

I do feel that what our culture recognises as ‘history’ needs some recalibrating. For too long its focus has been ‘the great deeds of great men’ – monarchs, Generals, politicians, wars, Acts passed by governments. By these standards, the lives of ordinary people are disregarded.


This struck a chord with me as, on the same day and at almost exactly the same time, I had tweeted this:

Lord Denning’s 1966 Committee on Legal Records concluded that “legal records should not be kept for purely genealogical uses.” His report resulted in the wholesale destruction of 1000s of records which would have made our work today more productive.

Feel free to boo and hiss…


Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls (1962-1982). Feel free to boo and hiss…

My background is in family history and I was fortunate enough to work for the National Archives for many years. During my time at the Family Records Centre I was able to gain some in-depth knowledge of the key sources for family historians. One of the areas which I was most interested in was the Inland Revenue’s collection of records relating to the collection of death duties and I developed a good understanding of how the records worked and how they might be best used by family historians.

Briefly, the surviving records comprise:

  • a series of registers, dating from 1796 to 1903, in which the payments of death duties (i.e. Legacy Duty, Succession Duty and Estate Duty) are recorded
  • a series of contemporary indexes (or ‘alphabets’) which, in the pre-digital world provided the means of access to the registers[1]
  • a collection of correspondence for the years 1812-1836 only
  • a sample of case files (residuary accounts) also dating from 1796 to 1903

The registers are a treasure trove for family historians and my talk about them – Death & Taxes; understanding the Death Duty registers – is one of my most popular. I did the talk for a family history group earlier this week and it was while preparing for it that I started to ponder a theme which I felt that these documents illustrated particularly well; namely the way in which the voices of our ordinary ancestors have been silenced. Or, to put it another way, the way in which our ability to retell the stories of the lives of our ancestors has been ‘culturally suppressed’ through the selective preservation of records. So, when I saw Hallie’s tweet, I knew I had to get my thoughts in to some sort of order.

The residuary account files (TNA record series IR 19) provide a perfect example of this. As a direct result of Lord Denning’s 1966 report, the decision was made to destroy the files but, in line with Denning’s conclusion that “historians wanted records which illustrated the workings of the courts”[2], a ‘specimen sample’ of the files was preserved. The sample comprises 25 randomly selected files from each year between 1796 and 1811 and 50 files per year thereafter, up to 1903 (25 files relating to administrations and 25 relating to wills from each year). It looks as if they literally walked along the shelves and pulled bundles of 25 files at a time; the rest were incinerated.

It’s difficult to say precisely how many files were destroyed. There are over 3 million entries in the contemporary ‘alphabets’ and if only 50% of the entries related to cases which had residuary accounts we would be looking at 1.5 million files[3]. Even if it was only 10% we would still be dealing with a substantial collection of records. Instead we are left with 233 bundles comprising, by estimation, no more than 5000 files.

1854-Arthur Scollay death duty IR26-528 f.495 (2)

Death Duty register from 1854, showing references to the now-destroyed residuary accounts.
The National Archives reference: IR26/528 f.495

And access to this surviving ‘sample specimen’ is anything but straightforward; in fact I would argue that a speculative search is almost certainly going to be a waste of time, as your chances of finding a surviving file is so low. However, this is a collection of records crying out for a cataloguing project; if your ancestor’s file happens to have survived, believe me, you would want to know about it.

Each of the files (from 1812 onwards) includes a pre-printed form which summarises the value of the deceased’s estate, “subdividing the estate under broad headings”. This quote is taken from the National Archives’ description of the IR 19 series[4] but what the catalogue doesn’t tell us is that virtually every file (at least all the ones that I’ve seen) also includes an inventory of the deceased’s property. As the probate courts stopped asking for inventories to be taken in 1782, the value of these records, not just to genealogists, but also to local, social, political and economic historians is surely obvious. I seriously believe that these records, had they not been wantonly destroyed, would now be recognised as one of the most important sources for nineteenth century family history research, alongside our census returns, wills and birth, marriage and death records.

IR 19-55 part of inventory

Inventory of Stephen Turner of Westfield, Sussex from residuary account file (1829).
The National Archives reference: IR19/55

It would be easy to defend Lord Denning on the grounds that perhaps people weren’t so aware of the potential importance of such documents fifty years ago but that argument can quickly be addressed by reference to a letter written to the Home Office in 1891 by the then-Registrar General, Brydges Henniker. It had been suggested that the returns from the 1851 and 1861 census should be disposed of as they were taking up valuable space in the Houses of Parliament. Henniker’s response is music to the ears:

…in my humble opinion it would be very unwise to destroy National records, the value of which will probably be hereafter very great to those persons who wish to investigate the condition of this country in past times. It is doubtlessly true that these documents have not been hitherto consulted. Not only, however, is it within my knowledge that they would already have been examined, had not the difficulty of access to them been so great as to be practically insuperable to a private enquirer, but I would point out that the value and utility of such records depends to a great extent upon their antiquity, and that documents which are as yet only forty years old have not yet reached their stage of full utility[5].

But it’s not just the lack of forethought on Denning’s part which I find so infuriating; there’s another side to the selection process which brings us right back to Hallie Rubenhold’s comment about history’s focus being on “the great deeds of great men – monarchs, Generals, politicians…” Because in addition to the ‘specimen sample’ which we’ve already looked at, a separate collection (in record series IR 59) was made of files relating to, what the National Archives’ catalogue describes as the accounts of ‘well-known persons’.

The series currently comprises 1398 files (it’s still accruing, although the most recent addition appears to be from 2003). And guess what? The files relate almost exclusively to those in the upper echelons of society and, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear that fewer than 100 of them relate to women – and many of the women included are members of the royal family or of the nobility.

There are, of course, some worthy names on the list; it includes some of our greatest writers, artists and scientists but a quick glance confirms my suspicion that members of the nobility and gentry are, shall we say, over represented…?

I always used to feel that it was a good thing that these files had been retained; that in some respects, having them was better than having none. And, as any destruction of archives necessarily carries with it some serious questions, I can understand why I felt that way. But now I’m not so sure.

The preservation of these accounts of ‘well-known persons’ just serves to reinforce the idea that the lives of these people are of more historical importance than the lives of those whose files went up in flames fifty or so years ago. Here’s that ‘cultural suppression’ in action and it goes right to the heart of the debate about the silencing of the voices of the ‘ordinary’ citizen.


[1] The alphabets are available on the Findmypast website at:
[2] Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England by Elizabeth Shepherd (2016) p.46
[3] I realise that I need to research this question more thoroughly but my experience of using these records in my own research suggests that the majority of the entries in the registers are annotated with the tell-tale R.A. reference.
[5] TNA HO 45/10147/b19513 quoted in Census: The Expert Guide by Peter Christian and David Annal (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). With thanks to Audrey Collins for bringing the quote to my attention.

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