While in modern times it is usual to hold
weddings on Saturdays (and sometimes during the week) for my
grandparents, and before, it often happened that weddings were held on
Sundays. Why was this practice changed?
In the middle ages the Church
had a relaxed attitude towards weddings. Often clergy were not present
at the time of the betrothal, handfastings were very popular, with the
couple exchanging vows with the words, ‘Would you marry me?’ These
ceremonies would sometimes be held in the open or sometimes in a public
house or inn, while the couple would merely go to the church door to
have the marriage blessed.
I am looking for a memorial
to my great-grandparents. They died in the mid-nineteenth century so
should I look in a churchyard or a public cemetery?
During the Renaissance decrees were issued that only marriages
performed with a church official present were valid. These Nuptial
Masses made Sunday the traditional wedding day. The newlyweds were led
into the church where women would sit on the left and men on the right.
This practice lasted until recent times and is the main reason why
wedding ceremonies were held on Sundays, although nowadays, with recent
changes in the law, weddings can be held on any day, in and many
The monthly seasonality of marriages changed between the sixteenth and
nineteenth centuries. In its overall shape it remained the same with
peaks in the early summer and autumn separated by a late summer trough
and a lull in March. In the sixteenth century the pattern was
particularly sharp although the early summer peak in June and the
trough in August were modest, the autumn peak was immense, with the
highest number in October and November.
As a relative newcomer to
family history I have been told that in the
past rural communities were fairly stable, yet in my own family they
seem to have moved around a great deal. Am I just unlucky or is the
fact that people remained static just one of those myths?
traditional places of burial for centuries. Most cover about an acre so
during the nineteenth century public cemeteries were established
particularly in towns and cities to avoid disease. In one early cartoon
the bones of recently buried corpses can be seen piled against the
church window. Typically council cemeteries cover about ten acres, and
most of them were
established between 1850 and 1880. Some cemeteries are privately owned,
like Highgate in London and Brookwood in Surrey. According to a recent
survey most cemeteries are still in use. In the year 2000 eight out of
ten are still open, but most burials are where the original plot has
been reopened. Only 28 per cent of deaths are followed by burial while
the remainder are cremations although many of those who are cremated
have a plaque as a memorial. Searching for a memorial, even one erected
during the past 150 years, is fraught with difficulty as many
churchyards and public cemeteries have been damaged by vandalism, or
council officials under pressure to keep cemeteries open. Many
churchyard memorials have been destroyed when stones have been stacked
against walls, or used as footpaths and some local authority cemeteries
have undergone wholesale clearance with bulldozers. Sometimes you will
find a burial register giving information on an individual plot. See P
5 Wolfson, Greater London Cemeteries and Crematoria for a full list of
registers in London. Many family history societies have also published
lists of memorials. See our article in this issue on Researching cemetaries
Many studies of population
mobility have tended to concentrate on the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Peter Laslett found that as many
as 61.8 per cent of the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire parish of
Clayworth who were listed in 1676 were not there 12 years later, and
that in another parish half the residents disappeared to be replaced by
others in the space of ten years. It is difficult to say how far they
travelled and it may be they moved short distances, but moving from a
native parish to establish a household elsewhere seems to have been
common. Most migrants did not travel more than 20 miles, often within a
district marked by the market town. Another analysis of Carsington,
Bedfordshire, in 1782 suggests that this level of mobility continued
even in the late eighteenth century.
A study of the rural parish of
Laxton in Nottinghamshire between 1851 and 1861 found that of the
population of 500 in 1861 only
247 remained from a decade earlier. Of the 128 newcomers in 1861 65
were males and 63 were females. The majority were local
people, including 23 who had been born in the village, and 88 who had
been born in Nottinghamshire. A further 13 had crossed the border from
Lincolnshire, one wife had come from Derbyshire, and the only other
newcomers were the vicar and his servants all of whom came from Devon.
Many of the newcomers were females who had married into the village.
In rural communities farm servants often moved to another place when
their yearly contract ended. This tended to take place in the spring in
pastoral areas and autumn in arable districts. One study shows that
farm servants often moved from one farm to another not far from home,
returning when they were married. However, greater upheaval did
certainly occur during the nineteenth century when tens of thousands
flocked to industrial towns like Manchester or Birmingham and for those
living in Berkshire, to London. To test the case for migration in
Berkshire it would be interesting to carry out a study of how far
bridegrooms went to find their brides.
I have been lucky enough to find a gravestone for one of my
great-great-grandparents which gives his age at death. He was 90 when
he died, but I have been unable to find his baptism. Is there a way
around this problem?
Old age is considered an honour
for many people, and was especially so
in the past. This does tend to encourage people to overstate their age,
and when this is done often enough it’s often believed by the
individuals themselves and by their families. One study of centenarians
found that in the majority of cases the physical signs after death
indicated they were much younger than they claimed. Every parish
register contains entries for those who were 80, 90 and sometimes over
100 years old. So the answer to your question is to look for an
individual who is much younger and try to identify him with your
I have managed to trace my family back to 1674 but then there’s a gap
of about 100 years before the name occurs again. How do I bridge the
There is no way of bridging a
gap in a family line without recourse to
documentary evidence — parish registers, or land and tax documents.
Many families have stories of ancestors who came over with Huguenots,
or even with William the Conqueror. You have only
to examine Burke’s peerage to see the fairy stories of family origins.
One family, according to Burke, derived its surname from the town of
Stourton in Wiltshire. They could trace a family line back to
Anglo-Saxon times, with one outstanding soldier named Botolph Stourton.
It’s said fought gallantly against William and he presented such a
threat to the Normans that William was compelled to grant whatever he
demanded. Then there appears a long line of descendents until we reach
a John de Stourton who lived in the time of Edward III. Clearly there
was no one of that name before the Conqueror and there’s no reference
to Botolph Stourton, or any other Botolph in Domesday Book. Like so
many of these families they are pure fiction from beginning to end.
I have spent the past year trying to find the birth of my great
grandfather on the GRO indexes, so far without luck. Can you suggest a
way around what seems an intractable problem?
An entry not found
because you are tired, or simply overlook a reference is a common
occurance. Double check each quarter with a thorough check of every
The most common reason why a certificate is not found is that the basic
information is incorrect. Hearsay from relatives, dates, places, names
can all be wrong. So never assume it’s not there, it’s possibly hiding
from you in another place. Variants of Christian names are very common.
Misleading dates from the census or death, or marriage certificates can
be another reason for a failure to find a certificate. Gravestones can
also be wrong. Always remember that the birth may have taken place
overseas and that there are separate indexes at the GRO. Finally there
are alternatives to certificates: military records, educational
records, and health records. Some missing birth records may be found in
the workhouse records during the nineteenth century.