Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Using Parish and Other Records

WORKING in different archives in the South West I’m often struck by how many people there are using the microfiche readers to trace back their family trees, but how few there are looking at the documents which survive from that parish.

Many family history enthusiasts only look at the parish registers, while some might type their surname into the national archives catalogue A2A. Sometimes that search immediately comes up trumps because, for example, their ancestor claimed parish relief and was interviewed by the parish officials, or because their ancestor’s name is on the lease of a property.

But many people do not realise that the majority of surviving parish and other documents, at least in the record offices I visit, have not been fully catalogued.

Staff at the record offices do not have time to go through the pages of many of these volumes to extract the names they contain.

Therefore they catalogue the name of the volume or set of documents, but not its contents.

So all we see is a dull-sounding description, such as ‘Tiverton St Peter vestry minutes 1744-1779’ or ‘bundle of bills 1823-1837’. But wait until you look inside – vestry minutes are often full of names and bills can tell you more than you might think.

Vestry minutes are hardly ever looked at. You might expect them to be limited to discussions on the state of the church roof, yet they often record in great detail the work of all the parish officials, including the overseers who dealt with the poor.

They, and similar parish volumes, can also include unexpected lists of householders and their properties, made for the purpose of taxing them, as well as of workers employed to repair parish buildings, farmers who sold grain to the parish, and so on.

If you know your ancestor was likely to be living in a certain place at a certain time, it really is worth looking at them.

Bills helped me in researching my own family at the Devon Record Office recently.

One of my ancestors worked for the aristocratic Petre family, and his name appears occasionally in the catalogue of their papers. But in researching him previously I had overlooked the bundles of documents which had not been catalogued in detail.

So the other day I ordered up a set of documents which were boringly described in the catalogue as ‘a bundle of receipts’, but which had a range of dates which fitted his time with the family.

Inside I quickly found a bill paid by my ancestor, which was a nice find, but better than that, it was from an inn-keeper, and listed what my ancestor had eaten, when he had stayed, how his horse was cared for — enough to help me imagine his life in Devon in the early 18th century in more detail.


  1. I've been shaking my family tree for over eight years and I have only recently begun to see some success rates in searching my heritage. The efforts I made was worth it since I have enjoyed every minute of the learning process.

  2. I'm glad you're having some success Jessica. Persistence pays - and new stuff goes online all the time, making it worth checking back regularly. If you have English ancestors, have you tried entering their names into the website Access to Archives (Google A2A and you should find it. It's an online catalogue of all UK archives and always worth a try.

  3. I stumbled upon your blog a while a go and I could not stop reading! I have thought of looking into my ancestry. Thanks for this it was really full of great family tree esources. I will be visiting this site as soon as I can.