Book Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Paul Blake

Bankrupt Ancestors, Bankruptcy
Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Paul Blake

Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Paul Blake. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: Casemate Publishers 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $29.95. 2019. 223 pp. Illustrations. Softcover.

This is not a book for the new researcher or beginner. This is an excellent, very detailed deep dive into a voluminous set of records about which little has been written. Debtors’ prisons are infamous – Charles Dickens father was in one, and many of his characters spent time there. Many people were often incarcerated following misfortune or mismanagement rather than criminal intent. The time spent there varied from a few days to years and stories this far back may not have survived within the family.

In reading this detailed book I wondered how one would even know the ancestor was a debtor. The clue came on page 193 where Mr. Blake suggests that “Reports in local or national newspapers can often be the first indication of a debtor or bankrupt ancestor, which can lead to surviving official records” 

Mr. Blake introduces his subject by highlighting the difference between insolvent debt and bankruptcy, the latter prior to 1842 being limited to traders owing more than £100, with the emphasis on traders. This distinction eliminated most skilled craftsmen and farmers.  The Stature of Merchants in 1283 made it possible for creditors to register major debts and use imprisonment to enforce them. In 1351 the use of immediate imprisonment was extended to civil debt in general. The ability to imprison someone for debt did not end until 1869. Thus, there are over 500 years of records for debtors.

After providing some background on insolvent debtors, the book addresses the machinery of justice and the many courts in which debtors can be found, followed by a chapter on charities and the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors. The next five chapters examine different aspects for insolvent debtors: courts and court records; imprisonment; common law, central prisons and their records; London courts and their records; London prisons and their records. The final three chapters examine: county debtors, i.e. those outside London; bankruptcy; and newspapers. Throughout there are mini case studies, with examples of what the records look like, and how to use the finding aids.

The book concludes with a surprising long list of Acts of Parliament in chronological order concerning debtors, imprisonment, sanctuary and bankruptcy in England from 1275 to 1901, plus a list of Regnal years.

If you have found an ancestor, probably in a newspaper, who is identified as an insolvent debtor or bankrupt then this is the book to which you must turn. This is the only book available that guides the reader step-by-step through these voluminous sets of records to find the details of misfortune that family historians so love to find. This book is highly recommended.

Book Review: Tracing Your Church of England Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Stuart Raymond

Tracing Your Church of England Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Stuart Raymond

Tracing Your Church of England Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Stuart A. Raymond. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $29.95. 2017. 232 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

Until the late seventeenth century, every man and woman in England was a member of the Church of England. Legally, that continued to be the case for several centuries, although in practice Non-Conformists and Roman Catholics denied their membership. Even today Anglican priests recognize they have an obligation to serve everyone within their parish. Thus, everyone, at least into the nineteenth century and earlier, can claim Anglican ancestors.

The Church of England is the established church of England and Wales, plus Ireland, but not Scotland. The records of Ireland and Scotland are not included here. This book focusses on the records created within the dioceses and parishes of England and Wales, although other records are mentioned when appropriate.

The first section in the book provides context of the institution. It provides a brief outline of the history of Anglicanism; describes the structure of the church, how clergy and laity operate within it, and why the records that we use were created. There is also a chapter on the preliminaries of research regarding the use of record offices, books, libraries and the internet. This is a good introduction to English research methods and sources.

The following two chapters examine what researchers are most commonly seeking, that is references to the baptism, marriage and burial of their ancestors.  The first looks in detail at the registers themselves, while the second looks at alternative records for the same information such as bishops’ transcripts, banns registers, marriage licence [MELISSA – correct English Spelling for record] records, monumental inscriptions, etc. The next two chapters examine additional records produced by the parish and diocese, such as: churchwarden accounts; vestry minutes; seating plans; tithe records; confirmation registers; visitation records; diocesan courts; records of loyalty; and more, introducing lots of lessor known or utilized records.

The next three chapters take a more in-depth look at specific topics. The church ran the English probate system until 1858, which is explained, along with guidance on how to find what is needed. This is followed by a discussion of Anglican charities, missions and religious orders. Then, for those with Anglican clergy in the family, there is a good chapter on the numerous sources that make tracing these individuals easier than tracing lay family members.

The books final chapter looks at additional sources that might provide clues or information about the clergy or church members, such as: Charles Booth’s interviews; diaries; Compton Census; 1851 ecclesiastical census; Glynne’s church notes; newspapers; Queen Anne churches; school records; and more.

Numerous bibliographic and web link references are included throughout the book, to take the researcher to more in-depth resources. Multiple indexes arranged by place, name and subject also simplify the location of material. This book is up to Mr. Raymond’s usual high standards of a practical, comprehensive, clearly written research guide. It is highly recommended.

Book Review: Tracing Your Ancestors Through the Equity Courts by Susan T. Moore

Tracing Your Ancestors Through the Equity Courts
Tracing Your Ancestors Through the Equity Courts by Susan T. Moore

Tracing Your Ancestors Through the Equity Courts: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Susan T. Moore. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $26.95. 2017. 211 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

These voluminous records of the equity courts contain a wealth of family details, both in terms of relationships and character. Was your ancestor kind, compassionate, giving or rather cruel, belligerent and miserly? What was their day-to-day life like? The equity court records often reveal the answers to questions like these.  They are also valuable for the local historian seeking information on the social networks, land ownership and the economics of a given locality.

The numerous courts of equity include: Chancery; Star Chamber; Requests; Exchequer; Duchy Chamber for Duchy of Lancaster; Palatinate of Durham; Exchequer of Chester; and Welsh Courts of Equity. “The principal difference between the common law courts and the equity courts was that the equity courts were based on what is right morally, whereas the common law courts relied on the law” (p.3).  From the researcher’s perspective, the principal difference is that the equity court records are all in one location at The National Archives (except the Welsh courts); and are in English rather than Latin as for criminal records until 1733.

The Court of Chancery is the most voluminous record collection originating in 1377 and running through 1876. It is from this court that the bulk of the examples originate. Lots of cases here refer to the possession or the occupation of land, rather than legal ownership as would be in under common law, because so much land was held in trust or mortgaged. The other equity courts are explained and illustrated to a lessor extent. Furthermore, the book provides additional background on items that will be useful to the researcher, such as paleography, understanding of wills, deeds and legal terms. It also provides a broad overview of the types of documents to be found and where they come in the process, but these are more fully described later.

The second chapter answers the question, “Why look at the courts of equity?” It provides examples of: the type of information to be found in bills and answers, explains relationships in detail, often across multiple generations, tells  how and why women and children can be parties to a case, quotes other records such as wills, deeds, leases, and mortgages, and  details where and how a family may have lived even in terms of details of the house or land, and finally, details business transactions. The records can also be of value in proving immigrant origins or business ties.

Chapter three starts by examining the paleography of records. and continues by describing what the various types of documents are likely to contain. In this context, it covers records such as: pleadings, bills and answers; interrogatories and depositions; decrees and orders; Chancery masters’ reports; Chancery masters’ exhibitions; masters’ documents; cause books; affidavits; petitions; and account books. The chapter concludes by looking at the key phrases that will help identify specific types of documents.

Chapter four addressing indexes is important as so much has changed and continues to change regarding what is online, in print, or only available through calendars at TNA. There are tables for each of the courts explaining what indexes are available where, and in some cases digital images of the records themselves. The up-to-date tables alone make the edition worth buying, even for researchers who may have an earlier edition.

Throughout these first four chapters, extensive use is made of transcripts and case summaries to highlight the value of the records. Chapter five uses sample cases to go into more depth, illustrating the more common reasons for using the records. , Even, so these samples still only provide a snapshot of the detail that can be found for: loans and debts; probate disputes; marriage settlements and annuities; management of property from afar; merchants and mariners; trades and tradesmen; American connections; field names; and former monastic lands. The final chapter is an interesting though voluminous case study of the Lefroy family and its connections with Jane Austen’s family. The book concludes with a glossary and bibliography.

Chancery records are an underutilized record group which can be very valuable for reconstructing families and their characters. This book provides a clear guide into how to access and use these records. It is thus highly recommended for any English/Welsh researcher and all types of genealogical collections.

Book Review: Tracing History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Nat Alcock

History THrough Title Deeds
History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family and Local Historians by Nat Alcock

Tracing History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Nat Alcock. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $26.95. 2017. 217 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

Dr. Nat Alcock is an emeritus reader at the University of Warwick and is one of the most knowledgeable people on title deeds in England. I have his 1986 first edition book on the subject, so I was immediately interested in how this edition compared. The opening paragraph of the preface explains, “this book has a new title and a new publisher, but it otherwise a direct successor to my previous book, Old Title Deeds. It has the same intention: to explain the significance of title deeds for the study of local and family history, and more generally for wider aspects of history. The period since the second edition of Old Title Deeds [2001] has seen an explosion in the use of personal computers, laptops and tablets, and of digital photography. With this has come important developments in the availability of online catalogues at many record offices. All these changes are mentioned where appropriate. However, the essentials of the study of title deeds – like the deeds themselves – are unchanged, so this book tells the same story as its predecessor, though with changes of emphasis and detail.” (p.xi)

The book, following an introduction to deeds as history, is divided into three sections – Why, Where and How. The Why chapter is divided into three sections according to subject: first using deeds as evidence for people, especially for the family historian with some excellent examples of multigenerational family trees generated from deeds; second as evidence for places, houses and buildings, likely of more interest to the local and house historian; third looking briefly at how large groups of deeds can be analyzed by computer to discover their historical evidence.

The section on where the deeds may be found is designed to get one thinking about where they might be but also how to find them. Collections of deeds for a given piece of property, family or estate could be nicely found in one obvious record office, or The National Archives, but in reality, they could be anywhere the owners may have chosen to deposit them. The worse situation is when the deed collection has been broken and sold individually thus loosing the linkage desired across time and space. The tables in this chapter, identifying the classes containing deeds at The National Archives, are especially good at identifying which have been indexed in Discovery, the online catalog.

The How chapter explains how to recognize the important types of deed and how to extract their historical significance from the legal jargon. The links between the various types of deeds are examined but the purely legal aspects of how conveyancing was undertaken and how it changed over the centuries is not overly emphasized. The key sections of a deed type are extracted and explained, making it easier for the reader to compare their deeds to the examples provided. Deeds become much easier to understand towards the end of the medieval period (around 1550), when the deeds generally change to being written in English rather than Latin. The chapter is thus divided into Post-Medieval and Medieval deeds.

The book contains four appendices. The first is a very practical flowchart to help identify the type of deed you may be looking at based on date, shape, size, phraseology, etc. A second appendix provides a template form for extracting the valuable information contained in the deed. A third appendix provides a sample page of various post-medieval letter forms that may be encountered. The final appendix provides the full text of typical deeds that have been explained. The chapter footnotes, resources, bibliography and glossary have all been expanded and updated.

For those new to the topic and for genealogy libraries this is a must for dealing with English or Welsh deeds. For those individuals who own one of the author’s earlier volumes, a comparison should be made depending upon one’s personal experience and recent knowledge on the subject.

Book Review: A Dictionary of Family History: The Genealogists’ ABC by Jonathan Scott

A Dictionary of Family History: The Genealogists’ ABC by Jonathan Scott

A Dictionary of Family History: The Genealogists’ ABC. By Jonathan Scott. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $24.95. 2017. 247 pp. Softcover.

Who would have thought it would be so delightful to read a dictionary? But this one is fun to read and is a great learning experience.

This book has thousands of A-Z entries, that are definitions, timelines and terminologies, providing details on archives and websites along with advice on research methodology and problem subjects. The book is a mixture between an encyclopedia, dictionary and almanac. The book is valuable for English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh research.

The book contains the expected descriptions for the major genealogical records, national and county archives with links to their catalogues and research guides. But there are also definitions for: obscure terms; old occupations; important government acts; cultural events; museums and much more. Scattered throughout the book are addresses for familiar and obscure but well-developed websites.

In the age of the internet why have a dictionary? In this case, it’s because the author has done the work explaining terms, defining topic making them all relevant to the family historian. He has separated the wheat from the chaff for you saving you time and effort. In the process he provides guidance on where to go for the best websites and believe me he has found some great obscure sites as well as the familiar.

As I was reading this book I was marking the margins for entries and websites to follow up with for personal research but also to include in lectures. This is a reference book that is now within arm’s reach of my computer, joining my other favorite reference books. It will be used in the future I am sure.


Book Review: Manorial Records for Family Historians by Geoffrey Barber

Manorial Records for Family Historians by Geoffrey Barber

Manorial Records for family historians. By Geoffrey Barber. Published by UnlockThePast Publications, PO Box 119, St Agnes SA 5097, Australia. AUS $15.31. Available as an e-book from, AUS$9.95. 2017. 80 pp. Index. Softcover.

The manorial system introduced into England and Wales by the Normans, following their conquest in 1066, lasted until 1926. For family historians the primary period of interest will be the 16th through the 18th centuries, with coverage before and after depending upon the what records have survived and how long the manor and its courts continued to function. These records when combined with all the church records, including those in the parish chest, can bring the lives of our ancestors to life.

The book begins with how to use the Manorial Documents Register to identify which manorial records have survived for a given location. These are, now online for most counties, with the remainder expected soon. The example used, Rotherfield in East Sussex, highlights that multiple manors, in this case six, can exist within one parish. The following three chapters provide: an overview of the manor; a description of the social structure (free and unfree tenants); and explanations of  how the manor is administered identifying the officials and their roles that are likely to be found running the manor.

The manorial system is the origin of the present land system in England and Wales. It is at the heart of manorial studies, and of great relevance to family historians. Mr. Barber thus explains the differences between: demesne land; copyhold or customary tenure; freehold land; and leasehold land, identifying how each can be recognized in the records and what it meant for the people themselves.

The most voluminous records of the manor are likely to be the those of the Court Baron and Court Leet, with the other courts being mentioned briefly. These court records give us “details on changes in property ownership, lists of people attending court, appointments to community positions, names of people fined for minor infringements and in some cases even deaths and details of oral wills witnessed by manorial officials (p.46).”

The addition of three case studies showing how to use manorial records to physically locate properties on the ground enhances the value of this book. All examples are from Rotherfield in East Sussex. The first is a straightforward copyhold example showing a widow taking possession in 1691, following the ownership succession until it leaves the family in 1801, and locating the property using the tithe maps of the 1840s. The second example is a named and described piece of freehold property, owned by the family from before 1580 until 1781, located through a manorial survey, though the property name was still being used in 1911 census. The third more complicated example involves a specific copyhold house in the village of Rotherfield, occupied by the family between 1530 and 1650, and being eventually sold in 1677, yet its description was used to identify its location on the tithe maps from the 1840s.

The book concludes with a helpful glossary and bibliography.

This can be a complicated subject, but Mr. Barber has succeeded in explaining the operations of the manor succinctly. Few of these records will have been digitized, some have been published, and some have been transcribed and translated from the original Latin, but the examples and case studies highlight their value for family historians.

Review: How Our Ancestors Died: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills.

How Our Ancestors Died: A Guide For Family Historians by Simon WIlls

How Our Ancestors Died: A Guide for Family Historians. By Simon Wills. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $29.95. 2013. 214 pp. Softcover. Illustrations, index.

Mr. Wills, is a genealogist, journalist and regular contributor to genealogy magazines. Professionally he works as an information specialist, writer and advisor to the National Health Service and healthcare organizations. That experience in the healthcare industry clearly shows in this excellent guide to how our ancestors died.

The book is divided into 27 chapters with the opening chapters addressing the causes, diagnosis and treatment of illness and how that has evolved over time. For the family historian the places where a cause of death might be found is helpful to get one thinking of where to look – death certificates; registers of deaths abroad and at sea; obituaries; coroner’s inquests and legal proceedings; registers of parish burials; memorials and gravestones; newspapers; hospitals, workhouses and asylums; military records; employment records; specific medical problems; and epidemic statistics. Attention is given to records of accidents and disasters.

The remaining chapters in the book examine, in alphabetical order, major causes of death, such as: alcoholism; cancer; chest conditions; cholera; dysentery and bowel infections; execution and murder; influenza; plague; pregnancy and childbirth; scurvy; smallpox; tuberculosis; typhoid; venereal diseases; and more. For each of the medical problems there is a description of the symptoms, and how it was treated over time, bloodletting and purgatives being common for all sorts of ailments.  The true cause of a medical problem might take years to discover, or it may be discovered and the medical profession because of vested interests or disbelief may ignore the cure (e.g scurvy, cholera).

When appropriate if there are specific locations or time periods when deaths occurred in significant numbers these are noted, so we learn about famines, plagues, and epidemics. This is helpful if you want to know, for example, if your ancestor’s cholera death was an isolated incident or part of a larger outbreak. The book also helpfully highlights some geographical specific medical issues such as: Devonshire colic resulting from drinking cider made in lead containers – died out by the end of the eighteenth century; or “Derbyshire Neck” from a lack of iodine in the soil, with a lack of iodine stopping the human thyroid gland from working resulting in a large swelling under the chin (goiter) – resulting in adults often being slow in movement and thought.

This is an excellent resource for putting your ancestor’s ailments into perspective, understanding the symptoms, how it was treated, whether it was contagious creating fear in the family and community, and when and how the ailment was eventually treatable or cured through modern medicines. This is a guide you will use, rather than doing online searches which give you all the modern treatments for an ancestor’s ailment.