Many more records relating to deaths, burials and wills have been put online recently.

Memorial to Sarah Cox in Bishopsbourne churchyard, Kent

Deceased online at has increased its Northamptonshire database to 175,000 burial and cremation records with the addition of 118,000 cremation records for Kettering Crematorium.  Entries between May 1940 and April 1990 are available as cremation register scans, and subsequent cremations as computerised records.  Northants parishes now included in their English East Midlands database are:

  • Kettering area: Rothwell Road and London Road Cemeteries in Kettering, and cemeteries in Broughton, Burton Latimer, Cransley, Desborough, Pytchley, and Rothwell
  • Rushden area: Rushden Cemetery
  • Photos of all memorials in Broughton, Cransley and Pytchley cemeteries are included has published 32,220 new City of London Burial Index records; and the Origins network ( has put Bedfordshire probate records 1484-1858 online.  Other new probate datasets in the Origins network are:

  • Consistory Court of Ely Probate Records, 1449-1858
  • Testamentary Records in the Commissary Court of London, Vol IV, Parts I – III 1626-1649 & 1661-1700
  • Index to the Wills proved in the Consistory Court of Carlisle, 1661-1750
  • Index to the Probate Accounts of England and Wales, Vols I & II
  • Buckinghamshire Probate Records, 1483-1660 and Buckinghamshire Peculiars, 1420-1660
  • Probate Records of the Court of the Archdeacon of Sudbury 1800-1858
  • Wills at Salisbury 1464-1858
  • Surrey Wills, Pre-1649 has been busy working with London Metropolitan Archives to put London’s non-conformist registers 1694-1921 online, in a searchable database of 130,000 records.

Ancestry has also put online a searchable database of over 50,000 men who were killed, wounded or captured during the Boer War, and has published the records of over half a million men who served in the British militia, the precursor to the UK’s Territorial Army, 1806 to 1915. The records include height, weight, chest size, complexion, eye colour, hair colour and distinctive marks of each recruit.

In the recent series on all things Norman on BBC television, we were invited to imagine what it was like to live in England before and after 1066. The programmes touched on occupations, wealth, housing, aristocracy, manners, aided by all kinds of graphics to help us visualise the people and get under their skin. What none of the programmes mentioned, though, is something absolutely fundamental: the composition of that society. What sort of people would you have seen around you?

Well, young ones mainly. Here are some facts. The population of the whole of England in the early 1300s was around 5 million. There are now that many people living within just thirty miles of Manchester. After the Black Death it fell to around 4 million. It wasn’t until the 1740s that the population exceeded 5 million, and now it stands at around 60 million. There are people everywhere. Before that, the land was simply less cluttered with people, so it’s hardly surprising that people knew most of their neighbours and townsfolk.

Page from the Domesday book

Figures extrapolated from the Domesday Book of 1086, which can be a rough estimate only, are of a population in England of under 2 million. Even if we allow for a huge error and double it, we have only 4 million at most.  Around five per cent of them were over sixty-five because life expectancy was lower.  Between thirty-five and forty per cent were under fifteen. Compare that with today, when only twenty per cent of our population is under seventeen. One in every three people in Norman England was under 15 whereas today it’s closer to one in every five. There were, quite simply, many more children per adult in Norman England.

Ian Mortimer describes the consequences of this wonderfully in his book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. Societies with youthful populations are more violent than those with a large number of older people, and medieval life was certainly more brutal. Do read his book if you can, it’s fascinating.

Tilehouse St, Hitchin, 1892 (Latchmore)

But I digress: back to those young people. When Who Do You Think You Are? and programmes of early home-made cine films show crowd scenes, have you noticed how many young boys are always in the foreground? When soldiers are marching past, or when it’s carnival day or a royal visit, there are always boys poking their heads into the picture or standing in front of the crowds, or running along beside the procession.

The Anglo-Saxon evacuation (Hastings Observer 1978)

It puts me in mind of the pictures of John Simpson walking into Kabul in Afghanistan accompanied not by local elders or soldiers but by, yes, hordes of boys. Who had the news, the gossip? Who knew where the danger spots were, the location of the enemy? The boys.

So when William of Normandy landed in Kent in 1066, who ran home to the villages to warn people? When the battle of Hastings was in full flow, who was watching from the sidelines and feeding information back to the women in the villages? When William and his vicious mercenaries moved through England destroying as they went, who was watching from the bushes, who were the look-outs who saw the Norman scouts coming, who ran home to warn their families to get out quickly? Surely the boys.

London in Victorian times was swarming with boys running messages; sometimes girls too. No email or telephone: if you wanted to arrange a business meeting at short notice, or pass on or receive news, you sent a boy. If you needed something from a neighbour or a shop you sent a boy or girl.

We have fewer young people per adult in our society today, and those we have don’t run messages, pass on news or keep watch on what’s happening beyond our village or town. We don’t rely on them any more.

This is a huge change which none of the programmes mention, and it seems such a difference that we cannot imagine what life was truly like for people in Norman England. Boys too young to fight had an important part to play in their communities. It was a very different society from ours, and not just because of the language, large moustaches  and bad haircuts.

Not good news. The General Register Office (GRO) is altering its charges for certificates of birth, death and marriage from 6th April 2010.  There will now be only two charges, one for standard service and one for priority.  If you order a certificate online it will cost you £9.25, up from the present £7, and this applies whether or not you have the GRO reference.  The priority overnight service will fall to a flat fee of £23.40.

Marriage certificate Louis Grant to Fanny Cox, Challock, Kent 1891

In effect, this means that anyone who provides the certificate reference (which means GRO staff don’t have to look for it) will be subsidising not only all those who haven’t bothered to provide one  or who have several possibilities which need checking, but also those requiring priority service.  Am I missing something here?  Are those who use the service which is the least-demanding to  GRO staff being penalised?

If these changes are implemented I can see no reason for paying to view the indexes online to provide a GRO reference any more.  I may as well  send the name and a rough date and request GRO staff do the searching instead.  Hang on, is this then GOOD NEWS because  I can save myself  the online GRO index  fee to Ancestry  or Origins or wherever, and save myself the search time to boot? Hmm, I don’t think that’s what the GRO intended somehow.

I rather think this plan will raise hackles  (although probably not among those who will be gaining – are there fewer of them? There must be).   I’ll keep you posted on how this evolves. Meanwhile if you’ve been wanting to order a certificate and just haven’t got around to it, now might be a good time to send off your request.

If you have ancestors in and around the city of London in the 17th century you’ll be pleased to learn that a transcription of the Association Oath Rolls of 1696 have been added to the Origins Network’s online database. It contains the names of over 21,000 members of 77 Livery Companies.

King William III of England

Oath Rolls are registers recording the names of the adult men who swore allegiance to the Crown, which in practice meant most men (and many women) because the consequence of not swearing allegiance was likely to be arrest and custody. The 1696 Roll was inspired by a discovery of a plot to assassinate King William III and required oath-takers to acknowledge William III as the rightful and lawful king of England. Because it includes the names of most adult males it is can serve as a sort of late 17th century census – very useful.

The original Oaths of Allegiance for 1696 are mainly held at the National Archives at Kew, although some are at local archives. As the Rolls do not survive for all areas, check that your area’s rolls exist before going to the relevant archive office. Of course, if your area of interest is the City of London you won’t have to see the originals now.

If so, you’ll be interested to know Medway Council has published Medway’s original parish registers online. The parishes covered lie in the Rochester Archdeaconry area which extends from Dartford and Gravesend in the west to Rainham in the east, and focuses on the Medway Towns.  The earliest registers date from 1558, and the collection continues in one form or another into the 20th century. Viewing and copying images is free. The project, known as Medway Ancestors, was made possible by a grant of £49,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the images are hosted on the Medway Archives website CityArk. You can see them at

The ScotlandsPeople website has put the  Catholic Parish Register births and baptisms online. These include details of “French Royal post revolution refugees” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s family tree.

Searching the indexes on this site’s database is generally free, but to view an original document you’ll need to pay anything between £5 and £13 (approx. 7 to 13 Euros or $9 to 18).

However, the Old Parish Register, Statutory Register and Census indexes are not free and you need to buy credits.  See the ScotlandsPeople website for details at

If you have ancestors from Dorset here’s a new resource you’ll find useful. The ‘Origins’ network has just put all Dorset marriages 1538-1856 online, a database of around 150,000 records searchable by name, including witnesses. The marriages have been transcribed by Somerset & Dorset Family History Society from parish registers, Bishops Transcripts and non-conformist circuit registers, so a pretty comprehensive database. You have to be an ‘Origins’ subscriber to see them, of course, either for 3 days, a month or a year (see

The Origins network has a peculiar set-up: you can subscribe to British Origins, Irish Origins or Scots Origins to view the records for each country; or for a higher fee you can have ‘Total Access’ to all three. Take note though that Scotland makes its public records freely available online, so there’s really no need to subscribe to Scots Origins unless you want to use their ‘enhanced’ search facilities.

What a hoard! I was mesmerised by the beauty of the gold and silver artefacts when they were shown on the TV news this week. Easy to believe this hoard is the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects ever found in England.

Gold eagle's head

Gold eagle's head from zoomorphic mount, courtesy of the Staffordshire hoard website

 It consists of over 1,500 trophies of war – sword-hilt fittings, decorated helmets, pommel caps and the like, most gold but some silver. The swords themselves have been removed and, possibly, re-used. Many items are decorated with precious stones like dashing red garnets, and the quality of the craftsmanship is exquisite, indicating possible royal ownership.

 It seems unimaginable these items can have been buried in the ground for 1,400 years. Now much of the dirt has been cleaned off, the gold, silver and garnets gleam and impress almost as they must have when new. What breathtaking design and workmanship!

 The field in Staffordshire where these war trophies were found lay in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the early 8th century, which seems to be when these artefacts were made, Mercia was a growing kingdom lying at the westernmost limit of Anglo-Saxon influence in the English Midlands. It bordered Wales, which was held by the Britons.Indeed, the name Mercia derives from the Anglo-Saxon word mierce, meaning frontier or march. Mercia’s influence would soon reach the whole of middle England from the Welsh border to the River Humber in the north and the River Thames in the south.

Logo from Offa coin (OFFA REX) as displayed on Offa's Dyke Path Centre at Prestatyn, Wales

Logo from Offa coin (OFFA REX) as displayed on Offa's Dyke Path Centre at Prestatyn, Wales

 This may all seem a long way from North Hertfordshire, where I live, but my area was part of Mercia under King Offa in the mid-8th century. So this hoard must have belonged to one of three previous Kings in Mercia during the late 7th and early 8th centuries: Penda, Wulfhere or Aethelred.

 Offa came to the kingship of Mercia after the death of King Aethelbald (who was a disreputable and somewhat depraved chap in his old age, by all accounts, so we won’t go into his doings here). Offa rose to become Bretwalda, the most senior king in England, so he certainly built on the successes of his predecessors. These trophies represent steps along the way to his kingship and status.

 There is a credible but as yet unproven story that Offa founded a Benedictine monastery at Hitchin, my neighbouring town, in the late 8th century, near what is believed to be his Royal Manor at nearby Offley. Legend has it he died at this manor. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us merely that he was buried by the river in Bedford in August 796, so he certainly spent time in this area in his old age. 

 Recent excavations and radar surveys in Hitchin’s town and St Mary’s Church revealed there was continuity of Christianity from pre-Saxon times through the Dark Ages. The archaeologists say this strongly suggests there was an early Christian church in Hitchin and gives credence to the story of the monastery. There may well be a Norman, even a Saxon, building under the present church, and Offa’s association with Hitchin looks ever more likely. St Mary’s may indeed stand on the site of Offa’s religious house.

 So the foundations of this important site were laid as the result of Offa’s success, and that success rested on the results of battles fought by previous Mercian kings against neighbouring kingdoms. This treasure from a field in Staffordshire may represent an important step in the train of events that led from Mercia to the founding of Hitchin’s Benedictine monastery and, indeed, the importance of the Hitchin itself.

 Funny old world, isn’t it?, which at present is the only source for viewing the 1911 census, is making the census available on a subscription basis on its sister website, from 21st October 2009. The final records were completed in June 2009 and from October we will be able to search the records “at your leisure”, as they put it, at findmypast.

Findmypast will offer a free search facility, but to view original pages you’ll need to take out a subscription. Whether having to spend a great deal of money in order to see public records which used to be free can be described as “leisure” is debatable: it pushes my blood pressure right up even thinking about it. That’s not what usually happens when I’m “at my leisure”.

Anyway, if you’re already a subscriber to your sign-in details will work at findmypast and you can spend any unused 1911Census credits on findmypast too. 1911Census will still work on a pay-as-you-go basis.  Details of the various subscription packages and prices are at  Keep calm, and don’t blame me for your soaring blood pressure: I’m just the messenger.

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) have released a vast online resource of documents from their manorial records at

This Hertfordshire Manorial Records Database is not original images or transcriptions, but an index of documents for more than 2000 Hertfordshire manors whose records are held by HALS and other repositories throughout the country. The database now forms part of the main index to the national manorial records of England and Wales maintained by The National Archives at Kew, which provides brief descriptions of surviving documents for various counties in England and Wales, along with details of their locations.

See my Sources for Research page (on the right) for a description of Manor Court Rolls and what you can expect to find in them. They’re fascinating but tricky little (and not so little) things – but bite the bullet and give them a go. You don’t need to know Latin to read the later ones and they have such detailed content, you sometimes almost feel you are in the court (the local inn, most likely) with them, with all the accents, smells, glasses of ale, spectacles perched on noses and farm workers in their smartest clothes . Good luck!

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