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Old Books as Genealogy Sources

All too often, family historians rely on secondary sources of information such as transcripts and indexes (such as the IGI). They are fine as "finding" tools to locate ancestors, but they are subject to errors and omissions. I would always recommend that after finding "data" in secondary sources, that you always seek out the primary source, (that's the place where the information originally came from), and where possible, obtain a copy of it.

In addition to parish baptism, marriage and burial registers and censuses, there are many other primary resources that family historians rarely look to for information, and many really excellent secondary resources that were published in the 1800s.

Illustrated on the bookshelf:

a Pigot's 1841 Directory, with thousands of names, and descriptions of towns & villages

a parish history, written by a vicar in 1898

a county guide book, published in 1912

a county directory of Durham (huge! and with 1,300 pages) published in 1894

three volumes of Phillimore's parish marriage register transcripts, published in 1895 covering every marriage in every parish in each county from the start of registers (1538) to 1812. This set for Leicestershire has 12 volumes.

Deering's History of Nottingham, published in 1751

Yes, we can access old books like these.

Types of books available, and how they can help with your research:

County Directories

This is where we can start to add some serious meat to the bare bones of names and dates in our family history. County directories began in ernest around the 1820s (although there were some at the end of the 1700s) with the publications of Pigot & Co.

A county directory in those early editions, listed people with trades (anyone with a trade, not just businesses though), and important people in each parish, together with short descriptions of each place and its facilities and history. There followed, from about 1830, some more comprehensive directories by other companies, one notable one being White's of Sheffield. These were much thicker books, extending to 600 pages or more, and contained much more detail. They also included some excellent history information, some of them in great detail. These books are very sought after, and can now be very expensive to purchase - assuming that you can even find them!

But they are available on CD!

The latter half of the 19th century saw the introduction of the Kelly's directories. (A few were published in the 1840s). These gradually developed to include more and more information, presented in different ways, and began to include private residents (without trades) too. An average Kelly's directory of the 1800s from a book dealer now costs around £90 to £150 per volume, and those of the 1900s a little less.

The Archive CD Books Project has a huge collection of old directories available on CD.

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Directories of Clergymen

Four of the eight volumes of Alumni Oxonienses.

Available on CD from Archive CD Books

Clergymen are notoriously difficult to track down! They moved about a lot!

But there are a series of books that make your research so much easier:

  • Crockford's Directories
    Published from the mid 1800s onwards, they are alphabetical listings of clergymen, with details about them, where they are at the moment, and other biographical details
  • College Alumni Records
    Wonderful resources! They show the biographical details of clergymen, information about their college degrees, the school that they attended, often fathers' details, and the places that they served, death dates, etc.

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Church Registers

Over the years there has been a concerted effort to transcribe and index parish registers. This work begain in the late 1800s when a plethora of small limited edition books were published. These are now extremely rare, although they do occasionally come onto the private market through book dealers. In more recent years there have been more indexes and transcriptions made by family history societies.

The Archve CD Books Project has a huge collection of such transcriptions on CD as well as original church registers:

  • Original Church Registers
  • Books of transcriptions of registers published in the late 1800s and early 1900s
  • Transcriptions made in more recent times - either by individuals or family history societies.

(If you would like to discuss your own publications on CD then please contact Rod Neep at Archive CD Books)

There is still no substitute for the original registers when it comes to accuracy of information. They are the primary records. But good transcripts, which are secondary sources, are usually very good indeed, and much easier to use by far.

  • Books of Church registers in more detail

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Marriage Licences

Marriage Licences: Vicar General of the Archbishop of Canterbury 1660-1694 (4 vols.) Published by the Harleian Society 1890

Many marriage licences books are available on CD from the Archive CD Books Project

The normal way of marrying was (still is) by the reading of Banns in church for three consecutive weeks before the marriage. However, an alternative way is to obtain a licence to marry immediately, and many people did. Those licences are preserved, and in many cases have been transcribed and published in books, usually around 1890-1920.

Those books are invaluable sources of information, especially as they give us some excellent family history clues, including the home parishes of the couple, ages, occupations, marital status (widow, etc.) and very often a father's name - some things that are not on pre 1837 marriage records. In addition, there was often a "bond" - an agreement to be married - and the bondsman (usually a relative) is also shown.

A licence may be issued in a different county from that of the couple, and this is very often the case. For example licences issued in the Diocese of London will include couples from all over Great Britain.

  • More details about marriage licence books

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History & Topography Books

Deering's History of Nottingham - 1751

Camden's Britannia - 1588

Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland - Cassell 1898.
Descriptions of every town, village and hamlet in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. Excellent maps.

What some people consider to be "dry" books. But how wrong they are!

Records of a town are the really juicy ones! They usually have a title something like "Annals of ...." or "Records of the Borough of........". They contain fascinating stories, anecdotes, and records of ordinary events relating to ordinary people.

History books, especially those for a county, are full of really useful information about places at the time our ancestors lived, and give a tremendous insight into what was happening at the time. What were the events that influenced the way that your ancestors lived, and led to their decision making? This stuff is very much a part of your family's history!

Topography books - descriptions of a county or a place - similarly give so much useful information. Everything from the way that the geology influences the soil types and hence the agriculture, to natural resources that influence early industries. The lie of the land, descriptions of the sites and situations of places, and of the settlements.

Some people are satisfied by just collecting names and dates - a family tree - but without adding any meat to the bare bones of their research. History and topography books do that.

  • More details about history books and how they can help with your research

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Abstracts of PCC Wills 1620 "Soame"

Abstracts of all of the wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury for 1620. Each entry lists the names of the beneficiaries and their relationship to the deceased, plus some other details. Provides the necessary information to order copies of the original wills easily. Covers the whole of England.

Testamenta Vetusta - A collection of 803 wills from the 12th to 16th centuries

Testimenta Vetusta was collected and edited by Nicholas Harris Nicholas and published by Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, London in 1826.

He took his wills from the British Museum, private collections, Dugdale's Baronage, Collins' Peerage, County histories, Memoirs of Families, etc (his preface, p. 14). He was not able to access the originals then held in Doctors' Commons because of the difficulties imposed by the staff of those premises (preface, page 13). Some of the wills are abstracts for genealogical purposes where only the people and their relationships are written. He acknowledged his debt to John Nichols' "Collection of Royal Wills".

Nicholas' prime purpose was to illustrate from those wills the manners and customs of their times; additionally he wished to include the descents and possessions of families. For every will he gives some footnotes to determine the person and other relevant information.

For anyone with an interest in medieval times, it is enthralling as an illustration of the manners and customs of their times. These wills describe what those persons held dear: what better introduction to their lifestyles can you imagine? For genealogists there is priceless information given in the wills about their families.

All of the above books (and over a thousand more) are available on CD from the Archive CD Books Project

Everybody knows of them. Few people use them in their research.

They are probably the most under used, and yet most useful source of family history information.

They tell us so much! A will normally gives us a whole family, and tells us about what the person owned. Everything from houses and land to spoons and bedding.

We can get access to the actual wills, but first we need to locate them. That's where books come in useful. There are two types of books on wills:

  • Calendars of Wills
    Names, with dates and places. Arranged yearly for a court where they were proved. Not a lot of detail, but invaluable for tracing if a will exists and where to find it.
  • Abstracts of Wills
    A transcript of the main points from wills. All of the beneficiaries and their relationships. Wonderful stuff, as it saves you having to extract the information from old awkward to read hand-written documents. Abstracts are usually published for one court for one year's worth of wills. It doesn't matter if your ancestor didn't die in that particular year - it is the information that they contain about the living people that is important!

Either way, use them to locate copies of the actual originals, and write off to order them. Copies are cheap!

Whole family trees can be built up from the information contained in wills!

  • More about books of wills

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The Peerage of England 1741 & 1750
On CD from Archive CD Books

Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage 1881

This well known Burkes Peerage is comprehensive and well indexed. Published in 1881 it follows a time when many changes occurred in the peerage. It contains lists of Peers and Baronets, Family Surnames, Courtesy Titles, Daughters of Peers and Baronets married to commoners, Archbishops and Bishops, Foreign titles held by British subjects, Privy Councillors, Knights of various orders and those who received the Victoria Cross. Also listed are the person's genealogy and where applicable an illustration of their coat of arms.

On CD from Archive CD Books

These fall into three main types:

  • Genealogy research pedigrees
    Where someone has researched the family tree of a surname and has published it. There were lots of them done in the late 1800s. Good stuff, although be a little wary of accepting them without proving it for yourself with reference to actual records, as some of the Victorian pedigree researchers were sometimes a little over zealous in "proving" links to important people.
  • Peerages
    The well-known ones are the Burke's Peerages, although there were many others.
  • Visitations
    Usiually carried out in the 1500s and 1600s - essentially to prove the right to coats of arms. Excellent, and often extremely useful, in that they go way back into ancestors in Norman times in the 1100s and 1200s.
  • More about books of pedigrees

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The Emigrant's Guide to South Africa
Available from Archive CD Books

This delightful book contains just about all that there is to know about emigration from England to South Africa in the 1880s. From the booking of ships and the journey, to what to expect in the colony, with detail right down to what to grow in your kitchen garden in each month of the year.

During the 1800s and early 1900s there were lots of books written about emigration from the British Isles to various locations in the world. They are invaluable sources of background information for family history researchers, as in most cases they contain an immense amount of information about shipping, costs, conditions, employment, descriptions and lifestyle and facilities of the places concerned.

  • More about books on emigration

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Evidence on the Employment of Children - 1842

This huge volume of 1842, reproduced as a facsimile copy on CD, is a government publication containing evidence on the employment of children. Evidence is stated by means of interviews with the employers, adult workers and children, relating to the work and life style conditions of the children.

Almost 900 pages of testimonies and interviews, covering various types of factories and work in a wide variety of places in Britain.

An amazing and fascinating insight into conditions of work and peoples' lifestyle in 1842 in their own words.

Available on CD from Archive CD Books.

We are finding more and more books that are of a general nature, such as first hand descriptions of country life, employment and industries in towns, etc. in the 1800s.

These provide an invaluable source of excellent background information for historians and genealogists. The real meat to how our ancestors lived at the time.

Happy Homes and How To Make Them

  • More about old lifestyle books

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War Records

The Magazine of The Great War

A weekly magazine in 272 volumes. "A standard history of the World-Wide Conflict, including eye-witnesses' stories of striking incidents throughout the field of operations". Available on CD from Archive CD Books

Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches - T Carlyle 1846

There are many books relating to wars. Some of these contain more detail than others.

For service personnel in the early 1800s and 1700s it is always well worth looking at Almanacs, (even the Irish Almanacs have records of British Army and Navy personnel) especially if you are looking for people with ranks.

National Roll of the Great War, a series of books publsihed in 1921 which list not only servicemen and details of their records, but also civilians who gave their services, such as nurses, etc.

Magazines and newspapers published at the time, especially of the Boer War and World War I can be fascinating, and often give graphic detail and photographs of the campaigns and battles in which your ancestors were involved.

Much has also been written in great detail about earlier wars, such at the civil war, the Napoleonic wars, etc. Not modern books, but old books written during or just after the events. Fascinating stuff, and many with anecdotal stories of ordinary people.

  • War books in more detail

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Ogilby's Road Maps - 1675

Maps are one of the most valuable tools for historians and genealogists. Some of the CDs that we produce are of maps only, or are gazeteers and atlases that contain maps.

One of the most fascinating aspects of family history is to look at the spheres of influence of market towns and which villages in the surrounding areas they served. Those things had an influence on the ways that our ancestors behaved, just as they do today in fact.

Sometimes we are fortunate to find street maps of towns, and some of those in the collection of CD books date back as early as the 1600s... right through to street maps of towns of the 20th century. These are a "must" to include in your family history file.

Another really interesting series of maps are the old road maps. What was the route taken by your ancestors when they moved or travelled to another place. Old road maps are available in book form from as early as 1675!

  • Maps in more detail

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Genealogy "how to" books

The Genealogists Guide - Marshall 1903

The subject of how to go about genealogy research is not a modern phenomenon. The Victorians were particularly intrigued by family history much as we are today. Some of the authors were undoubted experts on the subject, and, the methods, records and sources that they describe are just as applicable today as they were in the 1800s. They include a great number of resources described in great detail, many of which we tend to ignore today. Perhaps we just didn't know that they existed?

Books such as these widen your scope for research very considerably indeed!

  • More about "how to" books

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Copyright ©2000, 2003 Rodney K P Neep. All rights reserved.

You may not make copies of the data. You may not publish or sell any portion of the data in printed, electronic or any other format without prior written consent. However, this is not intended to restrict your personal use. You may print, photocopy or download portions of data for private research and study, or to include in your personal family history publication.