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Family History from Local Sources: A Summary of the Talk delivered at The Guildhall, Leicester, on 26th October 1967, by J. E. O. Wilshere.
Source: [MS] Reprinted from Volume 1, Number 2 (Spring 1968) of "The Leicestershire Historian" (the magazine of the Leicestershire Local History Council). Printed by Garrett & Campbell Ltd, 8/9 Bishops Court, W.C.2. and published by J. E. O. Wilshere, 7 Gullet Lane, Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire. LE9 9BL. 26th October 1967

Natural curiosity will prompt many people to investigate their own ancestry and their prime objective will be to trace their male line as far back as possible. By so doing, they are engaging in what is termed pure (or simple) genealogy. However, certain basic rules must be respected if satisfactory progress is to be made. First, always work backwards from the known to the unknown, one generation at a time, beginning with the earliest direct forbear you can positively identify. Secondly, never attempt to cover up "gaps" Or incomplete or unproved details in your pedigree: vital primary records that might assist you may not survive and you must then turn to the less helpful secondary sources. Finally, never prepare your family tree until you have the details reasonably complete; alternatively, provided the generations are clearly separated, family history may usefully be built up concisely in tabular or narrative form.

Even a relatively uncommon surname may be reasonably common over a restricted area, and you may find a number of families with the same name. You cannot immediately claim relationship with all of them: any connecting link (and there may be none) may be centuries ago. Some old Leicestershire names, such as Astill, Gamble, Herrick and Nutt, derive from Danish settlers more than a thousand years ago, but there could have been more than one settler with a particular name. Knott and Nutt both originated from Cnut, and Tuckey/Tookey also had a common derivative.

A common Leicestershire name, Lewin (probably from the Saxon Leofwin) is found at Littlethorpe in the twelfth century, and the name occurs twice in my collateral ancestry. If there were two original settlers called by the same name, there would be two distinct 'tribes' of Lewin, thus illustrating that Genealogy covers something wider than family history in its narrowest sense. This is apparent from the Greek origins of the word.

The further back you go in your searching, the more difficult will be the problems you will encounter not only does handwriting and spelling become a problem but records become sparser and less accessible. before you surrender in despair, it may be a worthwhile diversion to try tracing you ancestors on all sides, at any rate, for a few generations - two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents. These four generations will take you back to around 1800 and this type of research, of Continental origin, is termed seize quartiers. Few can complete the full picture; of those who file 'Birth Briefs' on this basis with the Society of Genealogists only about one in ten succeed. It is an advantage to have a high proportion of great-great-grandparents born within a small radius, preferably within the same county. Twelve of my sixteen came within this category, but the gain, seemingly, was countered by a large number of non-conformist marriages, which can be a positive curse to the genealogist. One can, of course, progress to more distant generations, the thirty two great-great-great-grandparents is the next step. If you go back ten generations, about three hundred years, you will find yourself confronted and probably confounded by no fewer than one thousand twenty-four of you antecedents: enough to daunt the most assiduous searcher from even entertaining(i) the prospect.

For the sake of simplicity, my remarks will be mainly confined to the tracing of a single family line at something well below the Landed Gentry class: for this reason, it is assumed that no printed Family tree or armorial bearings are in existence. Probably something between a third and a half of those reading this were not born within the confines of Leicester: before they can start their researches, they will first have to trace their county of immediate origin and look for relevant records there. Fortunately, the process of using local records is, thanks to the national network of County, Diocesan and other Archive Offices, basically the same in other counties.

Family sources should naturally be exhausted before turning to other local records. If your surname is one of the commonest, domestic papers will assume considerable importance since they may pinpoint specific names, dates and places, which might otherwise never be identified with certainty. Family Bibles (or usually their fly-leaves), particularly common in the nineteenth century, are the best-known source. Rarely complete for more than two or three generations, the information given should be used with caution, where, from the uniformity of the handwriting, it is suspected entries were written up 'en masse' at a later time. As many details as possible should be proved from other records, though a random check will generally give a fair idea of overall accuracy. Scrapbooks, photograph and post-card albums, visitors, baby and birthday books will all provide some background information and the numerous names of relatives, sometimes with both dates and addresses. However, because your forbears have omitted to identify all those photographs by the simple expedient of writing who they portray on the back, many will remain anonymous. Inscriptions in old books will often mention not only a relative but also a date or event. Letters (sometimes also of interest for early post-marks) and diaries, quite apart from their humorous content, reveal much about the day-to-day living of the writer and the times and environment in which he found himself. Family traditions and relatives' memories may also be useful, though dates and facts become easily distorted by the passage of time: written substantiation is often a reassurance.

Recent generations should be within personal knowledge and the marriage of your grand-parents could be your starting-point.(ii) There is a general assumption that the eldest child was born within eighteen months of marriage (but remember that 'older' children may have died in infancy). A standard five-year search at Somerset House should track down the marriage certificate: this will give the ages of the parties, so that next it will be easy to trace in turn their birth certificates and, assuming it occurred after the commencement of Civil Registration on 1st. July 1837, the marriage of your great grandparents and the certificates should give some indication of their Parish of origin. Somerset House, though not a local source, is by means of postal searches at ten shillings a time, within the use of all. The cost of postal searches was increased to thirteen shillings in October 1968(iii).

For earlier information, it is usual to turn to the Parish Registers, but Census Returns should also be consulted at this stage. Those for 1841-51-61 are the only three at present readily available and of use to the genealogist.

Leicester Museum Archives Department have microfilms of the Leicester and Leicestershire Census returns (originals in Public Record Office). In practice, the 1851 Census will generally be of greatest value; each individual's exact age, place of birth, and relationship to the head of the household is given. A practical problem will illustrate the way in which Census information can be linked with other records. William Tyler, son of Jonathan (a carpenter) was born at Queniborough in 1845; it was known, too, that Jonathan, son of John (a bricklayer) was baptised there in 1819. But where was John born? The 1851 Census for Queniborough shows him to be aged 60 and his place of birth as South Croxton. Reference should now be made to the Museum's collection of Bishop's Transcripts (certified copies of the Parish Register entries), which theoretically had to be filed annually, though there are many 'gaps' before 1730. The series for South Croxton includes a complete run from 1732 to 1814, except for the single year 1790, which, as luck has it, is the one year required, since the marriage of William Tyler and Elizabeth Leake of Twyford did not take place until November 1789 and the child baptised in 1791 was not named John. Fortunately, the Parish Registers of South Croxton are deposited in the County Record Office, a few hundred yards further up New Walk, and there you immediately find the baptism of John on 28 February 1790, and one draws the obvious conclusion from the closeness of the even after marriage. Many printed, typed and manuscript transcripts of both Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts are available in the Museum, although the standard of accuracy varies (for example, the Leake marriage mentioned above appears as Teake).

Parish Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials should date from 1538, but only one in twenty of our local Registers do so and few are fully complete, though some deficiencies can be made good by reference to the relevant Bishop's Transcripts where they exist. Some omissions, particularly in the years around the troubled Commonwealth Period (1649-60) can never be filled. More than a quarter of the Leicestershire Registers are now deposited in the Record offices and the number is increasing each year. Enquiry as to the whereabouts of particular Parish Registers should be made at the Country Record Office (or at the Museum for the City parishes).

Once a family has been traced to a parish in pre-Industrial times, it would often remain in that vicinity for generations, though locally, perhaps only one in ten remained in the same place for three centuries. in Leicestershire, a flat compact county with the county town far bigger than the next largest place, there was a tendency not only for gravitation towards Leicester itself, but for less restricted, but for less restricted movement than in larger, hilly counties. For example, the Bradleys, many of them carpenters, reached Belgrave, via Thurmaston, from the Whitwick area during the course of three generations. Conversely, remember that Leicestershire was rich in its number of small land-owners who, for centuries, formed a small nucleus of settled families in many parishes. Reference, particularly after 1750, to non-conformist records may also be necessary, and both the County Record Office and the Museum have micro-films of Registers deposited in the Public Record office, and many other records of the numerous local chapels. Marriage bonds and allegations are housed at the Museum, and a printed index exists for those prior to 1729. There is an annual card index thereafter. The existence of a bond simply means that permission for a marriage by licence was granted, and cannot be taken as proof of a subsequent marriage. Additional information, age, occupation and parish, may nonetheless be usefully extracted from them.

The extensive use of Swithland Slate for gravestones in many Leicestershire churchyards is of practical value for it weathers well and in some cases several 18th. century family series of headstones remain legible and details of relationship and place of birth can be extracted from them. Often details are inaccurate and there are local instances of a burial entry in the Registers occurring before the date of death on the inscription! Remember too, that churches have outside as well as inside walls. At St. Peter's, Belgrave, the South Porch, built by William Bradley in 1826 for 100 over his Family vault, has tablets to members of his family on the outside walls.

A fine series of Wills and Administrations proved in the Leicester Archdeaconry Court and the small Peculiar Courts from the late fifteenth century to 1858 are in the County Record Office, as are copies of later wills proved in the District Registry. Indexes to the wills exist at the County Record Office, printed in 1750, and manuscript for the period 1750-1906. Wills proved at the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York should also not be overlooked, particularly where it is known a person owned land in two places under different Ecclesiastical authorities. The information provided by wills includes occupation and parish, family bequests, land holdings and sometimes field names. Where an inventory of the testator's effects survive, this may provide an interesting insight into his possessions and mode of living. Those for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the most numerous and the best detailed. When considering wills, do not forget that more people probably died intestate than died leaving a will.

Poll Books basically give a list of landowners parish by parish and Leicestershire has eighteenth century books for elections in 1719, 1741 and 1775 that are still accessible. A printed volume, arranged by countries, of a return to Parliament in 1873 of owners of more than one acre of land is in the County Record Office. These may be of use in searching for an elusive ancestor, as may be the series of nineteenth century Commercial Directories, provided they are never regarded as a full list of Householders. For the County, White's series of 1846, 1863 and 1877 are among the earliest; the first reasonably full Leicester directory is Fowler's of 1815, but Street Directories, listing occupiers in house order, street by street, occur only after the 1850s. The sketch-books (in Leicester Museum) for the 1828 Leicester map provide earlier identification, as also may Parish Rate Books, where these survive. Newspapers, to be found in Leicester Reference Library, despite limited local space, are always interesting. After 1850, the Births, Marriages and Deaths column is used more. Details of Coroner's Inquests, subscription lists, trade advertisements and sales of houses in newly-laid out streets can all provide background information. Biographical details can be obtained not only from published Apprenticeship and Freeman lists but from School and University Registers where appropriate.

When your research is well-advanced and you have experienced not only some of the subject's fascination but also some of its frustrations, you may not have a finished story but you should have compiled a succession of completed or part-completed chapters.