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[ glossary ]


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History Hunters glossary

census returns
These can provide much detail about household structure, occupations, stability and migration, and genealogical connections. The first complete census of Britain was taken in 1801, and it has been carried out every ten years since. The only results available for the censuses of 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 are the statistical tables published as parliamentary papers; the original data was destroyed. However, the 'enumerators' returns' -- the books in which the information collected was copied -- for all the censuses between 1841 and 1891 are available for research (there is a 100 years' confidentiality rule for all census records). Microfilm versions can be seen at the Public Record Office Census Rooms in London (for England and Wales) and at the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh.

The enumerators' returns for 1851 and after provide a great deal of information (the ones for 1841 much less so). 'Households' (and institutions such as workhouses and prisons) were counted together. The relationship of each person with the head of the household is noted, as are age and place of birth. From this information, it is often possible to track down other details about an individual. For instance, the age and birthplace can lead to an entry in a baptismal register, and the absence of a person from a census after being present in the one before can provide a 'window' for when he or she may have migrated or died.

convict transportation records
About 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain to Australia between 1787 and 1868. The Public Record Office has records arranged by ships, by contracts for the transportation of named convicts (including places of trial and sentences) and by lists of convicts on particular ships and on particular dates, as well as thousands of petitions for release. Quarter session records are also a major source of information in this regard.

A title deed transfers property or rights from one person or institution to another. Deeds give information about vendors and purchasers, agreed price, descriptions of the properties and (from 1840) plans of properties. In 1925, the Law of Property Act abolished the requirement of proving a title further back than 30 years. As a result, a huge number of title deeds have been deposited at local record offices.

Commercial directories for all parts of Britain -- both local and regional -- are available from Victorian times, and even earlier in certain places. By the 19th century, they had achieved a common style. Each begins with a description of the history and landscape of the town, city or region, an account of recent economic developments and notes on land ownership, tenures and administrative details of the area. Then they list 'principal inhabitants', professionals, businessmen and tradesmen (all but the first in alphabetical order according to occupation). Directories give a good snapshot of the commercial life of a settlement at a particular time, help to locate individuals through names and addresses, and can even be used to date photographs since many photographers (listed in the directories) did not stay in business for very long. Commercial directories can be found in local reference libraries and local record offices.

electoral registers
A list of all the persons eligible to vote in a parish became a requirement after the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832. These lists became increasingly comprehensive as the franchise was extended, so that, by 1928 (when all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote), they included the names and addresses of virtually all adults. Electoral registers can be studied at county and borough record offices and public libraries.

graveyard surveys
The earliest inscribed gravestones date from the 16th century and were placed inside churches by the wealthy residents of a community. In the following century, yeoman and well-off husbandmen and craftsmen began to erect gravestones in the churchyard in imitation of their 'betters'. The earliest gravestones are to be found on the south side of a church -- the north was regarded as the 'Devil's side' and restricted to burials of suicides, the unbaptised and the excommunicated. However, this practice of separation gradually came to an end in the early 18th century.

A graveyard survey -- that is, the recording of all the inscriptions on gravestones in a given cemetery, as well as inside a church -- can produce a great deal of information for family historians.

muster rolls
The government of Henry VIII was becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of invasion and, in 1522, required county lord lieutenants to hold frequent musters of all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60, who were liable for military service, armed (according to income) with their own weapons and armour. The certificates of those present -- called 'muster rolls' -- were sent to central government. They are now kept mainly at the Public Record Office in London. Muster rolls -- and militia records, which are similar lists for the 18th and 19th centuries -- can tell us much about military organisation and the types of weapons used. They can also locate individuals at specific times, as well as give details of occupations, ages and places of residence.

oral history
Also known as folk-life studies and social anthropology, this is an historical approach based on people's reminiscences. It has been established that these do not simply comprise 'hearsay': if the memories of a large enough sample of people are considered and there is a consistency among them, the evidence that oral history can provide can be just as compelling as physical remains. It is a particularly good source of information about the lives of 'ordinary' people, for which there is little documentation.

parish registers
In 1538, every parish in England and Wales was ordered to keep a register of baptisms, marriages and burials. In fact, most began them in 1558, the year of Elizabeth I's ascension to the throne. Initially no standard form of entry was specified. Sometimes only the barest essentials were recorded (e.g. names of bride and groom and the date), but in others, more information was added, such as occupations and places of residence. Rose's Act of 1812 insisted on standard entries for all these events. Baptismal entries henceforth included the name of the child, the date, the names of the parents, their place of residence and the occupation of the father. Marriage entries consisted of the names of both partners, their parishes, the date of the ceremony and the names of witnesses. And burial entries comprised the name and age of the deceased, his or her place of residence and the date of the burial.

The increase in the number of Non-conformists in the late 18th and 19th centuries affected the comprehensiveness of these Anglican parish registers. To overcome this, civil registration was begun in England and Wales in 1837. Parish registers are now mainly kept at the appropriate local record office.

prisoner records
In the 16th century, justices of the peace began to send offenders to 'houses of correction' such as London's Bridewell. Debtors' prisons -- in particular, the Fleet in London -- were supervised by sheriffs. In 1877, responsibility for prisons was transferred to the Home Secretary. Prisoner records from 1770 to 1894 can be seen at the Public Record Office in London, and include registers, photographs and minute and visitors' books. Quarterly prison returns dating from 1824 to 1876 give such details as offence, date, place of conviction and length of sentence, and there are also registers for the Fleet and King's Bench prisons and Newgate Gaol. A card index of people in debtors' prisons in London from 1775 can be consulted at the Corporation of London Record Office. Finally, some county gaol records (up to 1877) can be found with quarter sessions papers in county record offices.

probate inventories
From the early 16th to the mid-18th century (and longer in some places), before wills could be proved in England and Wales there had to be a 'true and perfect inventory' attached to them, listing all furniture, utensils, livestock, crops, equipment, tools and finished goods - in fact, everything that was movable and was not real estate. Unfortunately, it is often not possible to identify exactly where all these things were kept -- that is, the deceased's 'address' -- from the probate inventory.

The information contained in inventories can be used in a variety of ways. Those investigating the history of a family will sometimes find that an inventory lists, room by room, the personal estate of an ancestor. In the study of agricultural history, they can be used to discover what kind of farming was being carried out - mixed husbandry or dairying, for example - and information on stock yields and the introduction of new crops. Even though the location of the items on the inventory may not be specified, buildings can sometimes be identified from the contents, which can then tell us something about the activities carried out in each room at a particular time, or how a building has been altered over time.

quarter session records
In 1361, a system of quarterly meetings of justices of the peace (JPs) for each county and county borough was instituted. At first, the JPs were only responsible for enforcing law and order, but under the Tudors, their brief was considerably widened to include: trying crimes that were not capital offences, regulating wages, enforcing apprenticeship regulations, licensing Non-conformist meeting-houses, ordering the repair and rebuilding of bridges, forcing parishes to maintain their highways and overseeing the operation of the Poor Law.

Quarter session records -- now located at county record offices -- comprise: indictment and order books, in which was recorded the cases heard and the sentences passed; informal papers such as petitions and depositions; and associated documents such as jurors' lists, prison records, lists of licensed 'brewsters' (keepers of inns and alehouses) and bodgers, drovers and other itinerant traders, and land tax assessments.

tithe maps
The biblical injunction to give one-tenth -- a tithe -- of all the produce of the land to God's work became law in England in the 8th century. Initially the rector of a parish would collect from each farm the tenth cow, the tenth pail of milk and so on, but gradually the tithes became money payments. Later still, tithe payments were changed to one-time transfers of land to tithe owners; those who had once paid tithes now had to pay rent for the use of the land. Between 1836 and 1852, a Tithe Commission appointed surveyors to make large-scale maps of 11,395 districts (parishes or smaller townships), covering about 79% of England and Wales, with accompanying schedules or 'apportionments'. The latter note the extent and use of all the arable land that was liable to tithe, the names of all the tithe owners and all the customary payments made in lieu of tithe. They then list all landowners and tenants and their fields, as well as the land use of each field. The rent charges were finally abolished in 1996.

For researchers, tithe maps and their apportionments provide a great deal of information on land ownership, land use and field names. These very large maps and documents can usually be found in the appropriate county or diocesan record office.

Wills have been made by the wealthy since Anglo-Saxon times, and the custom was taken up by the well-off in the late Middle Ages; however, farmers and urban craftsmen did not adopt the practice until the 16th century. At no time was will-making universal; studies have shown that only one in every three or four adult males made a will. The ancient responsibility for proving wills lay with the church, and therefore very old wills are kept in the record offices of the ancient dioceses. The state took over this responsibility in 1858, and wills proved since that date are kept at Somerset House in London.

Wills can provide a variety of information, from the religion of an individual (for instance, 'Our Lady and all the Holy Company' in the preamble indicates a Roman Catholic) to the network of relationships pertaining to a particular person.