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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2003 Contents

Berkshire Family Historian
December 2003

FAQs — Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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 different places.

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.

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?

Churchyards remained 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.

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?

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 ancestor.

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 gap?

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 likely spelling.

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.

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created 13th March 2004