TRACING YOUR ANCESTORS’ PARISH RECORDS: a guide for family and local historians by Stuart A. Raymond (Pen & Sword 2015 186pp ISBN 978 1 78303 044 6) £12.99
According to the ‘blurb’ on the back of this book, it ‘is the first thoroughgoing survey of these resources to be published for over three decades’. As the author states in his preface, his work is based almost solely on local history publications which, due to the comprehensiveness of the sources covered, is not unrealistic. In ten chapters, arranged thematically, he describes where different types of document can be found and how they can be used. The emphasis is on understanding their original purpose—which is something to be applauded—and how relevant they are for researchers today. Raymond clearly distinguishes between ‘parish registers’ (of baptisms, marriages and burials) and ‘parish records’, to avoid any confusion between the two terms. In fact, the chapter on parish registers is one of the shortest, as this source has been comprehensively dealt with in many other books.
There are some obvious inclusions, such as poor law documents, the accounts of parish officers (churchwardens, constables, and so forth), but many which will be less familiar to a lot of local researchers. Quite a number will be of interest mainly to local historians—indeed, family historians coming to this book might be disappointed. Some records which are included are not necessarily very numerous or survive for every parish in England and Wales; for example, vestry minutes are by no means to be found as a matter of course and there are many parishes which have very little material from the vestry. Similarly, chapter 5 [‘Records relating to the church’] describes some esoteric sources which very few researchers will ever wish to use, even if they can find them.
Although Raymond is to be applauded for shedding light on these more unusual records, there are a few quibbles. His most recent source for tithe records is dated 1976 but The National Archives’ research guide on the topic gives a number of more recent ones, including one from 2000. There is no mention of the important Parochial Registers and Records Measure, brought in by the Church of England to safeguard its records. Although there is some reference to select vestries, the important distinction between ‘open’ and ‘select’ vestries is not explained, nor its relevance to the records. Chapter 2 [‘The English parish and its government’] is one of the longer ones and it is not obvious what purpose is served by the wealth of detail.
There are reading lists at the end of each chapter or at the end of a section within a chapter, but it is clear that they are not comprehensive and sometimes inaccurate: the Leicestershire village of Wymeswold is incorrectly spelled and there is no indication of the source. There are some endnotes but they do not cover every source quoted; a reader wishing to follow one up will be left frustrated. There are three indexes, to subject, person and place. The photographs are not very inspiring and the reason for their inclusion is not always clear.
Kate Thompson was successively county archivist of Leicestershire and of Hertfordshire and is a Vice President of the British Association of Local History.
BENEATH THE SURFACE vol.2 Essays from the Cheshire townships of Lea-by-Backford, Backford, Caughall, Chorlton, Mollington edited by J. Hess, M. Richardson and B. Webster (Backford. Mollington and District Local History Society 2014) 272pp ISBN: 9781909817166) £16 from Keepers Cottage, Townfield Lane, Mollington, Chester CH1 6LB
As the title of this collection of essays makes clear, this is a book not only about the townships listed but from them, being largely written by members of the Local History Society. It follows on from a previous volume published in 2008 and is very well presented, with a high proportion of the photographs in colour. There are 19 papers in all, plus two appendices, and most of them add significantly to our knowledge of the places under review and of some of the people who inhabited them in the past.
That said, two essays which will attract wider interest are actually written by specialists from outside. One is an authoritative study by David Shotter of the University of Lancaster of a very rare Roman coin, issued by the Emperor Nerva in AD 97 and found by a local metal-detectorist in Mollington in 2012. The other is an excellent survey of ‘The historic designed landscape of Backford Hall’ by Barbara Moth of Cheshire Gardens Trust, which will serve as an important work of reference as a depiction of the grounds prior to sale in 2011 by Cheshire West and Chester Council, with inevitable redevelopment to follow. This paper is a model of how to approach the study of an historic garden even where there are no detailed descriptions in sales particulars or commissioned plans. Sources such as the tithe and large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, old photographs, collections of letters, newspaper reports and personal reminiscences have all been utilised, alongside keen observation through fieldwork, to reconstruct—and thus in a sense to preserve for posterity—the history and archaeology of the grounds.
Among the contributions by local Society members, it is perhaps invidious to single any out since all of them have something worthwhile to say, on topics ranging in time from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first and in subject-matter from road- and field-names, the identity of those named on the church’s war memorials, prominent families and the halls in which they lived, and the easily-forgotten work of the Lea and Mollington Residents’ Association (which started life in 1972 as a protest against road-building). However, two which might appeal beyond the locality are studies of the family connections of the influential nonconformist minister Matthew Henry (1662-1714) and of the RAF’s first celebrity fighter ace of the Second World War, Edgar Kain (killed at the age of 21 in 1940), both of whom had links with Mollington.
Obviously there are wide differences of style but most of the papers in this collection are the product of insightful research and are meticulous in referencing their sources at the end. There is also a very useful index. It is a fine example of what a Local History Society can produce and should serve as an inspiration to others.
Graeme White is Emeritus Professor of Local History at the University of Chester and honorary editor of Cheshire History, the journal of the Cheshire Local History Association