Online historical research is an almost expected feature of our digital age. In recent years the Essex Record Office, in its role as Diocesan archivist, has made available by subscription the collection of Essex parish registers. No longer is it necessary to go to the search room to view microfilm copies. Technology moves along as does the availability of these records.
When the Essex Archaeological Society was formed in 1852, one of its earliest projects was to establish the extent of registers in individual parishes. In a letter to clergymen dated 25 October 1858, Edward Cutts, Honorary Secretary, circulated “a paper of Queries, drawn up by members to indicate the points of interest … [which] will not only be carefully indexed and treasured among the Society’s papers … but … digested by him into a general paper on the Parish Registers of the County.” Twenty three questions were asked.
Within tightly wrapped brown paper tied firmly with string I found what our Archives Catalogue describes as, “Collection of returned forms for the Society's parish register survey 1858: Short returns from Chingford, Colchester St Peter, White Colne, Fairstead, Frating (and Thorrington), Castle Hedingham, Herongate, Hutton, Latchingdon, Manningtree, White Notley, Purleigh, Southminster, Stifford, Tendring, Wendon Lofts (and Elmdon), Wicken Bonhunt, Wickham Bishops and Wickham St Pauls. Fuller returns from Bardfield Saling, Barking, Belchamp Otten, Birdbrook, Little Burstead, Chadwell St Mary, Colchester St Leonard, Cold Norton, Faulkbourne, East Hanningfield, Little Horkesley, Lawford, Messing, Navestock, Roxwell, Thaxted, Theydon Garnon and Great Warley. Also included: copy of a letter from Morant to the Lord of the Manor of Aldham on the history of the estate, 19 Apr 1763. 2 pages from the St James's Gazette 5 Jan 1887 regarding the refusal of the tithe payers of Hatfield Broad Oak to pay their tithes to Trinity College Cambridge. Rubbing of a brass at Kirby-le-Soken to Rebekah Crease, died 1619, now (presumably) lost.” The latter items have recently been published on our blog (S/SEC/4/1).
The opening question to clergymen was the year in which Parish Registers commenced. I compared the returns to ‘The Atlas and Index of Parish Registers’ (2003) by Humphrey-Smith. All the earliest dates corresponded which indicated that the Society is not sitting on a unique record of lost ledgers. That is not to suggest that these documents are obsolete. The returns give insight into the study of such things as baptism of Puritan children, proclamation of marriages in Market-places, “interments specially described as with a coffin, without a coffin; with a sermon …”, Certificates of Burial in woollen (the topic of a recent article in Essex Journal), notes of Inductions to supplement “Newcourt’s Repertorium is often incomplete, especially about the period of the Great Rebellion, “extracts of events relating to local or general history”. The great storm of 26 November 1703 is recorded at Purleigh which “layd naked most peoples dwelling houses, Barns, Stables & all other houses“. A two-month long frost in 1683 is recorded at Cold Norton “so violent that several people for several days went backwards and forwards over Fambridge Ferry upon the ice”. The Register at Messing records the “Provisions and other accomodations for the Army under his Excellency the Lord Fairfax” during the siege of Colchester in 1648. Other than notes on the registers of Barking (published in the Transactions, Old Series, Volume II) a general digest was not produced. Perhaps the survey did not produce a sufficiently comprehensive record of the county.
At the turn of the twentieth century we see the efforts of local historians in gaining access to records in church safes. C F D Sperling included some parish register transcripts in his manuscript books (S/LIB/9/1-7) and a note book dedicated to the topic (S/LIB/9/15). J L Glasscock’s manuscript notebook ‘Notes and gleanings from various places in Herts and Essex’ (S/LIB/9/28) mentions in 1903 that at Little Dunmow, “My friend Mr Hastings Worrin of Priory Lodge Little Dunmow kindly invited me … & shewed me the Parish Reg. from which I made … extracts.” There are many other examples. “Revd J Monk [Henham, 1906] allowed me to inspect the 1st Vol of Register which contains Bap. Mar. Bur. 1539 to 1741.” Glasscock also mentions the “Sheering Book of Rates and Accounts 1680. This old book was offered for sale to me (May 1914) & I was instrumental in getting its returned (by a payment from the Rector of Sheering to the owner) to its proper place the Church Chest of Sheering.” He then goes on to describe its content. It is now preserved in the Essex Record Office.
By the 1930s many members of the Society had been engaged in making transcripts of Parish Registers.
Our archives include an envelope containing the work of C F D Sperling and C Partridge in obtaining transcription of Parish Registers (S/LIB/9/50/9). This contains: (1) Church Registers Marriages. Alphabetical list compiled by Sperling; (2) Letter from Henry, Bishop of Chelmsford, Bishopscourt, Chelmsford, dated 2.3.1932: “I am quite willing to give you permission to borrow the Registers of any parish in this Diocese, and I authorise the Incumbent to lend them to you for the purpose of copying them”; (3) Letter from Bishop of Barking, dated 26.9.1931; (4) Letter from A J Parry from St Peter’s Vicarage, Upton Cross, E7 to the Bishop, dated 7.7.1931; (5) Letter from Wanstead Rectory to the Bishop, 1.7.1931; (6) Letter from Little Yeldham Rectory to Revd Alfred Young, dated 2.7.1931; (7) Letter from Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich to Sperling, dated 14.2.1931: “As requested by Mr Charles Partridge I hereby authorise you to borrow the registers of any parish in this Diocese”; (8) Notes on Parish Registers transcribed by C Partridge including a list of 12 refusals by clergy. This includes Great Bentley: “Bentley Magna. After correspondence, & after calling several times, I at last found the Vicar at home – Rev G Colley. He has a transcript from 1558 to (I think) 1717, made by a former vicar. He showed it to me, but refused to lend it on the ground that our work is “utterly useless”. He said “You would be better using your time in digging potatoes, or in working as I do – preaching the Gospel”! He is quite impossible, an awful bounder, & was so impertinent that I walked out of the vicarage. I wouldn’t go again should he beg me to go. I leave him to you and the Bishop!”
In the 1950s there was a surge in enquiries to the Society from family historians. The Society has a large number of in-letters to our Secretary. The Essex Record Office noticed this too and commented in one of their letters (S/SEC/7/4).
These transcripts became a matter of controversy when forty years later the Essex Record Office was granted permission to make microfilm copies. A Mr Whitehead, one the transcribers, objected strongly to copies of his work being undertaken (S/LIB/7/2). In the late 1970s Hon Librarian Peter Boyden produced a catalogue of transcripts held in the Society’s Library (S/ARC/1/1). The documents have since been deposited at the Essex Record Office.
Parish Registers are the bedrock for research. One such example is the essay written for the Third Series, Volume 4, of Transactions (1972): ‘The Plague in Colchester 1579-1666’ by I G Doolittle. “On the basis of an analysis of the parish registers of St Leonards, St Marys, and St Peters and borough records, mortality of epidemic proportions seems to have occurred in the following years: 1579, 1586:, 1597, 1603, 1626, 1631, 1644, and 1665-6.” The volume has recently been digitised by the Society making retrieval very simple.
The Victorian Parish Register return to the Society for St Leonards Colchester is silent regarding the plague. At Barking, “periods of great mortality” were “1593, 1603, 1625, 1665, 1666, 1729. In these years the mortality was double the average, or thereabouts: except 1603 by far the most fatal year, & in which there was more than 3 times the average.” This illustrates the inconsistent reporting and perhaps why a digest was never produced. However the exercise was probably the first ever attempt to capture data on the subject.
Our long history reflects changes in local history and genealogical research. Today facsimile copies of registers are available online through Essex Ancestors and some have been cheeky enough to transcribe them and make them freely available on the Internet. This represents a democratisation of archives which would make the Rector of Great Bentley revolve in his grave. But as an amateur, under no pressure to create databases and meet dissertation deadlines, I quite like these brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favourite things.