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.
(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)
At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?
According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.
I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature:
“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution. ‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.” – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut
To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.
Hello! I’m Louise a long serving volunteer at the History Centre in Chippenham. I have worked on and off in a voluntary capacity since 2005. I first discovered the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR) when it was located within the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge. Dorothy Treasure, who is responsible for the day to day running of the charity, recognised my real passion for old houses and recruited me to her keen band of volunteers. Over the years my contribution has varied due to the needs of my family but I have always been encouraged to continue. Dorothy is also our Principal Building Historian; she is a real expert in her field and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with her.
Volunteers at the History Centre come from all walks of life and work the hours of their choosing. In my case I had worked as an HR professional prior to having a family rather late. Some volunteers are still in paid employment and join us when they can. This is the case with some of our committee members. Some volunteers work with the WBR for a while in order to gain experience to advance their careers in the heritage sector. What we all have in common is an interest in our country’s heritage and a wish to rub shoulders with like-minded people and those working in professional roles. There are four strands to my voluntary work - documentary research into the history of individual buildings, building recording, data entry into the Historic Environment Record (HER) and committee work.
Typically I begin the week with the Archaeology Service, entering data from the WBR archive records onto the HER database. With 18,000 buildings records to work through, I think I’ve gained a job for life! Tom, the HER Manager is always nearby to guide me through the more complex aspects of the system. I am one of four volunteers he manages each week. We all do different things based on our interests and skill sets. I love the challenge of locating buildings particularly when building names have changed, buildings have been altered and only sketchy address details are given!
Tom the HER Manager and I at the History Centre and Martin one of the archaeologists in action at Avebury (photo taken by Terry Waldron)
Working alongside the Archaeology Service has given me a real insight into the challenging work the team undertakes, the county of Wiltshire not only has an important World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury, but also many other important historic assets to protect. I always enjoy listening to the office banter, the team are a lively and adventurous bunch. The team even has its own Morris dancer!
On a Tuesday, I work with Dorothy and spend my time researching the history of individual buildings. It is a day when I am able to catch up with other office-based volunteers over coffee or lunch. As a charity we need to generate an income and we do this mainly through commission work for individual house owners. Each report we produce includes a comprehensive recording of a building and some documentary history. Documentary research is my main area of expertise, built up over a number of years. It did help studying for an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University. All the study was done via the internet which was fantastic. The Archives team has always provided me with great support when I needed it, along with the WBR.
Studying maps in the Archive room to locate a particular cottage in the village of Netheravon. The building I am looking at is identified by No.90 on the 1790 Enclosure Award map for the parish
Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.
On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.
By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject. Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.
Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses
The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof. A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels. Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!
The unfortunate sudden death of widow , Ruth Pierce of Potterne, in Devizes Market Place on 26th January 1753.
This is the original inquisition document as carried out by John Clare, coroner in Devizes on 26th January 1753. It details the circumstances leading to Ruth Pierces’ death and his conclusion to the cause.
‘..a Great Quarrel arose between four women in the Market place in the Bourrough of Devizes. Aforsaid whose names was Elizabeth Slade, Sarah Slade, Mary Parker and the aforesaid Ruth Pierce who joined together and bought one sack of wheat of one ffarmer Nathanial Alexander of the price of seventeen shillings......
After the collection of the money by one of the women gathered, it was noted that Ruth Pierce had not handed over her share of the payment which was four shillings. She was openly accused of withholding the money and the following account of what happened was documented in the inquisition, Ruth Pierce then;
‘called upon the Almighty for witness and wished she might drop down dead that minute if she had not paid it the Rash wish was repeated a second time and immediately from the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God was struck down upon the lane and as no marks of Violence appeared upon View of the Body the aforesaid jurors do propose that the aforesaid Ruth Peirce died asforsaid and not otherwise...’
‘Taken at the Burrough of Devizes on Fryday the 26th day of January Upon View of the Body of Ruth Peirce late of potterne Verdict from the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God in a Great Quarrell was struck dead with a lye in her mouth’