Going back even further…..!

October 12, 20184:14 pmLeave a Comment

My friend and colleague Isabel and I have been very busy writing and presenting a course on using and interpreting legal documents for family history. These include wills, marriage settlements, deeds and manorial records.

Are any of you scared of tackling pre-1800 documents? I know I was! It’s one of those things which takes you way out of your comfort zone and it is all too easy to pretend they don’t exist. Which is a shame because we are missing a great deal of information.
It is a sad fact but the further back we go with our family history research, the less resource we have to draw upon. So why don’t we stop for a moment and think about the type of documents we could use to help us go back another couple of hundred years.

First of all, wills. Now, not everyone wrote a will and some are not the most riveting to read. However, others are simply stuffed full of the most amazing family history information and can often provide clues as to why we can’t find people in our family tree.

For example:

On 26 February 1754 a certain William Faulkner of Runfold, Farnham wrote a will leaving various bequests to his family as follows:

… my freehold messuage and land Holtside, Farnham and Binstead, Hampshire in the occupation of … Mills to my son John Faulkner paying £6 p.a. to my sister Ann Stovold for life per the will of my father; my freehold messuage at Blacknest, Binsted, Hampshire and my copyhold land at Bats Corner, Binsted, Hampshire to my daughter Sarah Faulkner; residue to my son Thomas Faulkner, exec. paying £15 p.a. to my wife Rachel Faulkner for life and £50 to my son John Faulkner in lieu of legacy given by my father, deceased and £50 to my daughter Sarah in lieu of same and £100 to my daughter Ann Daborn and £20 to my grandson William Daborn and £5 to my sister Stovold; son Thomas, exec. and to pay legacies given by my late cousin Judith Cartwright deceased

On the face of it, this seems quite straightforward but just look at all the clues it gives us. To begin with, he mentions lands in Hampshire (well, just over the border) so this might suggest that if we can’t find family in Surrey, perhaps we should look over the border into Hampshire. It lists his sister Ann Stovold (so we know she married someone named Stovold). We can see by the legacies to his children that one daughter had not married when the will was written, another was married to someone named Daborn and that there are Cartwrights in the family somewhere. This would be fun to trace!

Another under-utilised source (in my opinion) are deeds. Yes, they are fairly tedious in some respects (they can be quite repetitive and full of legal jargon) but again, we can get some wonderful clues to where our ancestors lived and what they did for a living.

Here at Surrey History Centre, we have a conveyance in our collection (SHC Ref 1334/4/1-2) which is the lease part of a lease and release. It gives us the date of the deed as 5 February 1751, which lets us know that this was around the time the family were carrying out business transactions in the area. The name of the person transferring the land is James Laning and it tells us that he lives in the parish of St Luke in Middlesex. His occupation is given as silver spinner. Silver spinners conducted fine silver work, including the manufacture of silver thread which was used extensively for embroidery. Reading on, the document states that James is the son and heir of Sarah late wife of James Laning late of Boars Head Court, Grubb Street – also a silver spinner, both deceased.

Isn’t that great? We’ve already got a lovely little family tree, where they lived and their occupations – from just one document!

If we read on a little further, we see the other party in this transaction is a Jeremiah Bowyer of the parish of St Mary in Guildford, wharfinger. A wharfinger (for anyone who doesn’t know!) is someone who owns, keeps or manages a wharf.  The document goes on to describe where the property is located, who lives there and even who lived there before!

And there is the icing on the cake; we often get see our ancestor’s signature on the bottom of the document.

I admit, not all these documents are easy to read but with perseverance, they can yield some wonderful gems about our family history and wouldn’t it be a shame to miss them? Reading old documents is like any skill, it must be acquired. It is not likely that you would pick up an 18th century deed and immediately read it straight through but here at Surrey History Centre we hold a wealth of books on the subject of palaeography (ie the reading of old script) and there are several online sites which give advice and documents you can practise with, such as the National Archives and Nottingham University. Also don’t forget that if you get really flummoxed, you can always ask us here at the History Centre. We won’t transcribe the whole document for you but we can give you a hand if you are stuck on one or two words. So go on, give it a try – you might enjoy it!!

Happy Researching!

PS:  If you are interested in joining any of our family history courses, why not sign up for our newsletter?  In addition to receiving news of all our activities you will also be the first to know about any new courses we are running!

Written by Jane Lewis

2 thoughts on “Going back even further…..!”

  1. Nigel Randall says:

    I always enjoy reading these blogs, thank you. These documents are not only useful for family history but also for property history but I wonder how easy these are to search for. Do these type of documents held by the History Centre have metadata that allows you search a location or property?

    1. Jane Lewis says:

      Hi Nigel – thank you for the nice comments and sorry not to have got back to you sooner – technical issues which frankly are beyond me!

      In answer to your question, our catalogue allows you to search through all the catalogue text, which usually includes references to names and places. In fact, you can sometimes even search by occupation! However, obviously the better catalogued something is, the more information you have to search through. Some catalogues are more extensive than others and sadly some collections have not been fully catalogued as staff constraints mean that they are only partically listed. Thankfully, more have been completed than not. Also, do bear in mind that spellings can vary so it is always a good idea to be fairly flexible with spellings, or try a different search term. For example, search for ‘plan’ rather than ‘map’. One good thing is that many archives around the UK are adopting the same cataloguing system so once you have become familiar with using our catalogue, you will find it easy to use other county record office catalogues, for example, Hampshire.

      Of course, with ALL archive catalogues, if you think you might have missed something in your search, you should always contact us (or the relevant record office) and ask for help. We are always happy to help.

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