Today’s post comes from a half-remembered conversation (I can’t remember who with) where the other person made the point that sometimes people can forget that there is so much more to find than the records that are online. Any genealogists and researchers reading this will already know this (so bear with me), but local archives are such valuable resources that I wanted share this with people, to let them know that they could be missing so much by not utilising them too.
I am lucky enough to live within about an hour of at least four major archives: the Somerset Heritage Centre, the Devon Heritage Centre, the Dorset History Centre and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, not forgetting the various local libraries and museums. It is certainly true that a good chunk of the records that you might need for your family history research (Victorian ones especially) are now online and can be accessed through various websites; things like census records, births, marriages and deaths indexes, certain probate calendars and wills, some newspapers, certain military records, some passenger lists, as well as baptism, marriage and burial records for some UK counties. But this is by no means the whole story.
So, now you may ask, if there are all of these things already online, why would someone need to go to a local archive? The first thing to remember, is that some collections that are online may not yet be complete. I recently did some work for a client from Australia, who had Devon ancestors. Some of the Devon parish registers are on FindMyPast, but some have not been added, whether due to permission issues or other considerations. If I had only searched the online records, I could have come away with the impression that the people I was searching for were not baptised, married or buried in Devon at all because they didn’t appear in the online search. The parish registers they did appear in were only accessible at the Devon Heritage Centre. FindMyPast did however, list the parishes that are covered, so it is always a good idea to look at what each online collection contains before searching.
The next thing to remember is that some collections are not online at all, although that can vary from county to county. If you had a Victorian ancestor who had any sort of land, whether as an owner or a tenant, a useful source could be Tithe records. The thing with Tithe records, is that they fall into the category of being partly online and partly not. The Genealogist website does have a collection of all the tithe records that are kept by The National Archives at Kew which is exceptionally helpful, but if you don’t have a subscription to the website, then you cannot view them. For someone like me who already subscribes to other websites, it might not be practical or financially viable to take out a third, especially since Tithe Records can be found elsewhere. An exception to this would be Welsh Tithe Records, which have been published on the National Library of Wales website- see my previous blogpost Tithes in Wales (https://shersca-genealogy.co.uk/2019/05/13/tithes-in-wales/) for more information.
The ‘elsewhere’ that you can find tithe maps is…… at your local archive. All four archives near me keep Tithe records for their county. The Somerset Heritage Centre has also digitised their Tithe Maps and uploaded them to computers at the heritage centre, so that anyone can search them without having to get the documents out all the time. You can then print copies of the maps, which actually makes it easier to match things up with the apportionment part of the document (it is kept separately and not digitised).
But it is not just Tithe records that archives keep. When looking into my Rowsell family (please do see its One Name Study page- https://one-name.org/name_profile/rowsell/), I found that there is a concentration of the surname in Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset and that the parish Churchwarden’s accounts contained many references to the family. Where burial records are missing, or there are many Rowsells with the same forename, they can help to narrow down a possible date of death (usually by when a name stops appearing). The Churchwarden’s accounts also tell you how much a person paid to the churchwardens (as a parish rate for those who held property over a certain amount) and may tell you the name of the property.
These are just a couple of the record sets that a local archive can hold. They could also hold court records, newspaper records that are not online yet, property deeds, papers from the estates of local families, records from local non-conformist groups, photographs relating to local places or perhaps events, local maps, as well as many other records and items, some of which are quite surprising! The Somerset Heritage Centre has been running an online social media quiz throughout July (#SomersetCatalogueQuiz – getting people to use its online catalogue) through which I discovered that they have a pressed frog in their collection!
If you do go to a record office, do have a look at their website first, to see opening times and any rules you may need to follow. Also have a look at their online catalogue first so that you have some idea of the documents you would like to see. If you get stuck the staff are very helpful and you can find contact details on their websites.
Here are the websites I have mentioned in this post:
Somerset Heritage Centre: https://swheritage.org.uk/somerset-archives/visit/somerset-heritage-centre/
Devon Heritage Centre: https://swheritage.org.uk/devon-archives/visit/devon-heritage-centre/
Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre: http://www.wshc.eu/
The Genealogist (Tithes dataset): https://www.thegenealogist.co.uk/coverage/tithe-records/#includes
I always find that going to a local record office is like going on a new journey of discovery every time. Records you find can really help to fill out your knowledge of an ancestor too, much more than just your basic census and births, marriages and deaths. Ok, like online records, you may not find exactly who you are looking for all of the time, but isn’t it worth trying?