The census records from 1841-1911 are one of the first sources we turn to in the quest to find out more about our ancestors and where they lived. The censuses are a wonderful source, presenting us with a complete family, their ages, relationships, occupation and place of birth. But what happens when you want to go further back in time? What sources are there, and will they survive for your parish? In fact, there are lots of documents you can try. Some will only provide a small piece in a very large jigsaw, but they will all help to build up a bigger picture of your family, town or village. Here are ten sources you can try….
Wills and Inventories. These are fascinating, particularly if you are researching a parish. They may mention relatives, the name of the property occupied by the deceased and their occupation. The opening phrases of the will may suggest which religious denomination they followed. Inventories often describe each room in a house and the goods found in them. The History Centre’s collection of wills proved in Salisbury dates back to 1530 and is available on Ancestry.
Overseers of the Poor. Before 1834 people who fell on hard times were supported in their own parish by the ratepayers. Account books will give details of the payments made and to whom. The overseers would only pay for people they believed to be legally settled in the parish. Any family who had recently arrived and were unable to find regular employment would be sent back to their home parish. Surviving poor law documents may include removal orders, settlement certificates and settlement examinations. These will indicate a family’s movements, or, in terms of a whole parish, will give an idea as to the number of families moving in or out and the economic conditions. These documents have been transcribed and indexed by the Wiltshire Family History Society and are available at the History Centre.
Tax Lists. The first official census was taken in 1801, but 1841 was the first census where every individual was named. There are a few surviving earlier censuses produced privately which are available at the History Centre. Tax records will give an indication as to the number of people in a parish and their names, but bear in mind that the poor did not always pay tax. Taxes paid in 1334 and 1377 are recorded in volume 4 of the Victoria County History of Wiltshire. The Wiltshire Record Society has published lists for 1332, 1545 and 1576. Land Tax records survive from approximately 1780-1830 for most parishes in Wiltshire.
Churchwardens’ Accounts. The churchwardens were usually leading members of the community and were named in the accounts. Some accounts name the rate payers and the amount each person paid. The payments made will show the maintenance work carried out on the church and the name of the man who was paid. Payment for wine will indicate how many times a year communion services were held. There may be a mention of bells, both for maintenance and the special occasions for which the ringers were paid to ring.
Churchwardens’ Presentments. It was the duty of the churchwardens to make annual ‘presentments’ which were documents sent to the Bishop or Dean of the Diocese. They were expected to report on the fabric of the church, the conduct of the minister, the morals and religious inclinations of the inhabitants. The collection for the Salisbury Diocese goes back to 1720 (with just a few surviving 17th century examples) and can be consulted at the History Centre. The early presentments are the most detailed and interesting; by the mid 18th century the wardens often contented themselves with reporting ‘omnia bene’ – all well. They are, however, worth searching, as they might mention a serious repair needed to the church, a rector who neglected to preach sufficient sermons, fathers of illegitimate children who were ‘named and shamed’, parishioners who did not follow the Church of England, schoolmasters teaching without a licence.
Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.
It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.
We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day.
In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.
Prime Minister William Pitt the younger was under pressure to raise taxation to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars with France, which proved to be very expensive, costing the country £831 million, £49 billion in today’s money. The government had to come up with ever more ingenious ways to pay for the wars, which included taxes on bricks, clocks, watches, hats, medicine, playing cards, soap, newspapers, gloves, perfume, hired horses and hair powder before resorting to Income Tax from 1799.
The Hair Powder Tax was introduced in 1795 by "Independent Whig" William Pitt. The Whig party (no connection to the wearing of wigs) was a political party from 1680’s to the 1850’s and a rival to the Tory party.
Anyone who wished to use hair powder had to obtain an annual certificate from their local Justice of the Peace and to pay a stamp duty of one guinea (£1.05) per annum, which in today’s money is £127! The use of wigs was in the decline by this stage in favour of more natural hairstyles and this only hastened its demise. In 1812 46,664 people paid the tax, but by 1855 only 997 paid. By the time the tax was repealed in June 1869 it only yielded £1,000 per annum.
There were certain exceptions to paying the tax: - The Royal Family and their servants - Clergymen with an income of under £100 a year - Non-commissioned officers, privates in the army, artillery, militia, mariners, engineers, fencibles (were a type of home guard set up to defend the United Kingdom and the colonies during the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th centuries), subalterns (a British military term for a junior officer), officers in the navy below commander, yeomanry and volunteers. - The master of a household could buy a certificate for a servant which would be valid for their successors within that year. - A father with more than one unmarried daughters could buy two certificates which would be valid for all his daughters. - One payment could be made for a group of servants in one household.
A list of who had paid was sent to the Quarter Session court, with a copy fixed to the door of the parish church. These now form part of the Quarter Session records held by us, with the reference number WSA A1/395. Fines were imposed for those who did not pay the tax.
The wearing of periwigs – wig for short, became very fashionable during the 17th and 18th Century. But as with a lot fashion, one has to contend with some hardship: nits, plague, robbers and tax!
Wiltshire joins other counties on Discovery in providing up-to-date information on where the county’s manorial records are kept. These are key historical sources on the lives of our ancestors for family and local historians, for planning and rights of way enquiries and for students and scholars of all ages. Most, but not all, of Wiltshire’s manorial records are kept at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, but the online Manorial Documents Register within Discovery makes it possible to search one database for the County’s records held in all British and overseas archives.
The revision and online publication of the Wiltshire and Swindon MDR has been made possible by generous grants from The National Archives and the Federation of Family History Societies. Claire Skinner, principal archivist, has managed the project and the work has been done by project officer Dr Virginia Bainbridge and a team of 20 volunteers, assisted by Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre staff. The launch took place at a buffet lunch to thank all the volunteers!
In 1086, Domesday Book recorded information on all the landed estates of England. Many of these estates developed into the manors which controlled their tenants’ lives for over eight more centuries. Manorial officials began writing records in the decades around 1200 when record-keeping became more common.
It is suggested that these records are one of only two complete sets of such records to survive as the tribunal papers were supposed to have been destroyed after the war. So we thought our blog readers might be interested to know that the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre also hold a series of tribunal papers.