Fifty years ago when walking one day through the entrance hall at University College, London, with the archaeologist Bruce Eagles, he pointed out to me an elderly lady coming in the other direction. It was the Egyptologist, Dr Margaret Murray, well known for her controversial views on the origins of witchcraft. She was finishing her book, My first one hundred years, and had been born in 1863. Sometimes I think that 1863, the date that we are commemorating today, is not so very long ago.
When I went to work at the Society of Genealogists in 1957 (and my brother first asked when I was going to take ‘a proper job’), the Chairman was Lawrence Tanner. He was the son of a master at Westminster School and remembered seeing as a boy in the cloisters there, Lady Augusta Thynne carried in a sedan-chair when returning from one of Queen Victoria’s afternoon drawing rooms. His Vice-Chairman, Cregoe Nicholson, used to boast that his father had been at Victoria’s coronation in 1837 and I remember his deflation when one day Joan Evans laughed and said, ‘That’s nothing, my father was at the coronation of William the Fourth’ (in 1831).
The founder of the Society, George Sherwood, had himself been born in 1867 and although now very old we were able to send queries to him through his third wife who still worked for us. Back in 1909 a much younger George Sherwood had written that the study of genealogy suffered from its association in the public mind with the trades in heraldic stationery, spurious antiques, manufactured ancestors and the ‘business of the shady character who ekes out a precarious existence on the reluctant half-crowns of deluded seekers after phantom fortunes’. Sherwood called this ‘Old Genealogy’ and there is little doubt that to many in the newly educated general public who were becoming interested in genealogy at that time, these aspects of the subject predominated.
For generations there had been a slow development in the use of original sources for genealogy and this was followed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century by a major increase (amongst the educated middle and upper classes) in interest in things medieval, particularly in heraldry and genealogy, and a wider concern to rescue and preserve relics of the past, its buildings, artefacts, documents and traditions. The 1820s and 1830s had been halcyon days for a group of lawyer-genealogists in London who specialised in promoting claims to ancient baronies for those with sufficient money. As the standard of proof required by the House of Lords in the examination of their claims was high, the system produced some fine genealogical work. One of the most prominent of these peerage lawyers was Stacey Grimaldi, who died in 1863, but who thirty-five years earlier had published the first genealogical text-book, the expensive (three guineas a copy) Origines Genealogicae, written as he said, ‘expressly for the assistance of claimants to hereditary titles, honours or estates’. Its contents’ list reads like a modern manual, with references, not only to medieval sources, but to the professions, and directories and poll books. Some of his forthright comments are interesting. He wrote, for instance, that undertakers are ‘seldom very careful or very learned’ and so inscriptions are ‘very infrequently erroneous in dates and sometimes even in names’, a situation made worse, he thought, by ‘the imbecility of mind of many aged persons, who disguise their ages when living’.
Another positive development from the 1840s onwards had been the founding of the national and county archaeological societies, which brought together gentry, clergy and professional men, and which set out to contribute to the knowledge of the history of their counties. Their journals became the principal places for reporting all forms of new antiquarian research, including that by genealogists. The first such society, intending to publish material for the area of the old kingdom of Northumbria, had been founded in 1834 and named after Robert Surtees the historian of county Durham who died that year. In Yorkshire it was not until 1863 that the society that became the Yorkshire Archaeological Society was formed at Huddersfield. The foundation of similar local societies, but purely for the study of genealogy and heraldry, had in fact actually been suggested by an enthusiastic anonymous writer in the Chester Chronicle in 1851 but it was an idea long before its time.
By the 1850s there had been a great increase in social mobility and a rising middle class was beginning to get interested in family history. A young man, Richard Sims, working in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum, saw that they were receiving an increasing number of genealogical enquiries from this rising middle class, and in 1856 he compiled A Manual for the Genealogist, the ‘Mark Herber’ of its time, which went to a second edition in over 500 pages for fifteen shillings in 1861.
However, a cloud was passing over the genealogical scene. That cloud sadly owed much to John Burke, an Irish printer who in 1826 had copied someone else’s bright idea and produced a one-volume peerage in which all the entries for ease of reference were in alphabetical order. The volume being a surprising success, he had produced in rapid succession in the 1830s and 1840s books on the extinct and dormant peerage, the baronetage, the commoners (later re-named the landed gentry), a general armory, and many other works, taking much of his information from the older peerage and county histories, but unlike the best of them, rarely providing any indication of his sources. John’s son, Sir Bernard Burke, a ‘concealed’ Catholic educated in France, continued his father’s works. He accepted what he was told. He was no scholar and he lacked both knowledge as a medievalist and a critical mind. Absurd ancestries were accepted for publication and anything unpleasing was carefully cut out. During a debate in the House of Commons in 1886 it was said that ‘for a fee’ he would provide anyone, if they were distinguished enough, with a pedigree back to the Norman Conquest. It was no secret amongst antiquaries that, as the Revd Thomas Whitaker had written in his History of Craven (1812), ‘in the genealogies if old families there are many vestiges of error, and some of fraud, which time and vanity have rendered sacred’. Now all were copied by Burke and given a renewed but spurious authority by the use of his title and badge of office as Ulster King of Arms, stamped lavishly on everything he did (as it was a hundred years later by his fraudulent successor Harold Brooks-Baker). Burke died in 1892 but he had done immense harm to the standing of the subject. Sherwood wrote of his productions that they were ‘neither literature not science’.
Even in his lifetime Burke had some extremely fierce critics. One of them put out a scathing booklet, Popular Genealogists, or the art of pedigree-making, attacking the accuracy of the Peerage and describing the majority of the pedigrees in the Landed Gentry as ‘utterly worthless’. Edward Freeman, the author of the History of the Norman Conquest (1867-76), questioned Burke’s state of mind, asking, ‘Does he know, or does he not know, the manifest falsehood of the tales which he reprints year after year?’ A man in his position, Freeman wrote, should be insisting that anyone publishing a pedigree was subject to a ‘burden of proof’, and was duty bound to establish its authenticity by proving its every stated fact. It is not surprising that Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, the compiler of the great series of Armorial Families should write cynically that he trusted no man’s (and least of all any woman’s) account of their own families, and was much hated by some as a result!
The catholic Sir Bernard Burke lived in Dublin and participated fully in Protestant ceremonials around the Viceroy’s court. In 1863 the UK Government brought in a Bill to extend civil registration to Ireland, but which would have excluded the registration of catholic marriages. The bedridden genealogist Edmond Chester Waters attacked the Bill, saying that a complete system of registration without regard to religious belief was absolutely necessary. Others agreed and another Bill was promoted which resulted in 1864 in the centralised system of Irish registration which existed until 1920, though no provision was made for the custody of the earlier registers as had been done in Scotland ten years earlier.
The debate about Irish registers fed into a continuing debate in England. Here the parish registers remained in the churches, sometimes in the most terrible conditions and open to all kinds of dangers. Almost no transcription was taking place, though it is interesting to note that in Leeds a copy of part of the early registers was, in 1791, held by James Lucas, a local surgeon. Few people were allowed access, for the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Tenterden, had declared that he knew of no rule of law that required the parish officers to show the books ‘in order to gratify the curiosity of a private individual’. It was not until 1836 that the Civil Registration Act ordered that those keeping ‘any register book, of births, deaths, or marriages, shall at all reasonable time allow searches to be made … on payment of one shilling for a search of one year, and of sixpence for every additional year’. The obstructionist clergy were quick to point out that ‘register books of births and deaths’ did not include baptisms and burials, but a test case in 1853 ruled that they did and that anyone who paid the fees was entitled to make such extracts as he or she chose, another contentious point. Access to the rarely used bishops transcripts, when they survived and were available, could however sometimes be obtained on payment of heavy fees at a diocesan registry.
Stacey Grimaldi and a partner in his firm, John Burn (the second edition of whose book on parish registers came out in 1862), had urged in 1812 that, ‘The baptismal certificate should refer to the parent’s marriage church, and the marriage certificate should refer to the parties’ baptismal parishes, and the burial certificate might refer to either’. It was good advice then and it remains good advice two hundred years later, but it has still not been implemented.
The antiquary Sir Thomas Phillipps, the first to print a parish register (that of Durnford in Wiltshire in 1823), advocated that all the old registers should be deposited at the British Museum and that copies should be made for the parishes at their expense, but the invalid Chester Waters supported a Bill brought in by the Cornish MP, William Borlase, proposing that all the registers and bishops transcripts before 1837 should be centralised in the Public Record Office then taking shape in London. However, the 1882 Bill was actively opposed by the clergy and many believed that the removal of the registers to distant London would be a great discouragement to local research. For decades the historians argued as to whether and where the registers should be deposited and the clergy argued about their search and certificate fees. The main problem was that there were no local repositories in which the registers might be deposited. In each diocese the church had its own registry, but these varied greatly in size, convenience and manpower and were generally thought quite unsuitable for further records. The government had agreed in 1850 that town councils might establish free libraries if the rate-payers agreed and although by 1887 some 133 free libraries had been set up (as at Leeds in 1884) there was strong opposition (from the solicitor antiquary William Phillimore and others) to their use as places of deposit for manuscripts. Deposit in the manuscripts section of the British Museum or in the Public Record Office seemed to many a possibility but only if transcripts could be made for the parishes.
Meanwhile registers continued to be lost or destroyed. Their vulnerability was graphically shown in a trial in 1886 which revealed that two claimants to the property of Richard Harrison of Warrington had inserted more than fifty false entries in the registers of four Lancashire churches (mainly at Preston), altering and erasing others, and ruthlessly destroying the bishop’s transcripts. The Shipway forgeries in Gloucestershire exposed by William Phillimore in 1898 gave yet further proof of the ease with which these things could be tampered with.
Borlase, the promoter of the 1882 Bill, was shortly afterwards ruined by bankruptcy and a well-publicised scandal in which his Portuguese mistress played a large part. Arthur Jewers, a dentist in Plymouth, who had done some transcription of registers (and privately printed one), now arrived on the scene and in 1884 published a pamphlet proposing a most expensive scheme under which a large staff of palaeographers would transcribe all parish registers up to 1799, check them against the bishops transcripts, and print fifty copies of each, the registers remaining in the churches. Jewers, a bigamist but a fine heraldic artist, estimated that his little idea would cost £15,000 a year, and the MPs that he approached were not impressed. The writer Sabine Baring-Gould wrote that it would be impossible to get the Bill passed and suggested that a society be set up to do the work, and to get the registers printed where permissions could be obtained. George Marshall, who wanted all the registers sent to London, suggested that a Royal Commission inquire into their condition, and to this end Jewers started a petition to the Queen. He got the Bishops of Bath and Wells and of Ely, where he was copying the inscriptions, to write to the other bishops for signatures and continued approaching people until in 1897 he heard that another MP was intending to introduce a Bill to transfer all the registers to the diocesan registries. This Bill sank without trace when the Secretary of the newly formed Parish Register Society (1896) and of the British Record Society made it clear that they were firmly opposed to the removal of the registers from the churches, as it would be impossible to get the agreement of the clergy. It was said then, as it was in the 1970s, that if compulsion were used, the clergy would hide their registers away rather than give them up. The arguments continued, but meanwhile the Harleian Society had been formed in 1869 to print ‘manuscripts relating to genealogy, family history and heraldry’ and produced its first register (of Westminster Abbey, edited by an American, Joseph Chester) in 1876. There was some opposition to the printing of all the entries and Chester Waters argued that only ‘a very small proportion of the whole number of registers has any interest whatever for the general public’, but the general public thought otherwise and by the 1900s societies for the printing of registers had been established in Lancashire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Yorkshire (1899) and Surrey (1903). The Huguenot Society had begun printing Huguenot registers in 1887 and the Catholics followed in 1905.
Meanwhile William Phillimore who had written the popular How to write the history of a family in 1887, founded in 1889 the British Record Society (to provide not transcripts but indexes to records) and was the first person to propose the creation of county record offices. In 1897 Phillimore, who believed that ‘one of the chief obstacles to the completion of a pedigree is the difficulty of obtaining the names of the wives’, printed the first of 233 volumes of marriage registers covering some 1,650 parishes. At almost the same time two bright young record searchers in London, Ethel Stokes and Mary Cox, had started a general index to entries in the London registers and bishops transcripts, concentrating on the marriages after 1780, now called the Pallot Index. By 1907 it contained some three million entries.
The early interest of these two ladies had been to compile an index to assist the more reputable of the next-of-kin legal cases that were so famously part of nineteenth century Britain. Unlikely inheritances and the sudden loss of ‘expectations’ were the central themes of many novels. Claims showing a striking proof of the depths of human credulity filled the popular press. Many a ‘shady character’ or so-called genealogist took advantage of the situation. George Sherwood, who railed against them from his office near Temple Bar, knew Frederick Dougal who also had an office in The Strand and published Dougal’s Index Register of Next of Kin, heirs at law, and cases of Unclaimed Money Advertisements. Dougal asked 1s 6d for the book and then £1 for a full copy of the advertisement mentioned. There were many similar productions and there were many men, like James Coleman, a former toolmaker who became a major trader in original documents, regularly publishing a catalogue of those for sale, who were happy to hype up phantom fortunes. The News of the World published a 214-page Missing Heirs and Next of Kin in 1911. From 1858 Constantine De Bernardy and his sons were also well known in the trade. Their firm passed to Henry and Annie Sayers in 1909 and from them to Pallot & Co, the purchasers of the Stokes & Cox marriage index, in the 1960s. A small group of similar firms became very active between the two World Wars and some, of course, continue to this day, the whole thing having become very big business worldwide. Some firms originally charged a ten per cent commission, a figure now usually forty per cent or more, though the more reputable, like Title Research, do similar work on an hourly fee basis. Mention of the disreputable James Coleman reminds me of his contemporary John Camden Hotten, the son of a carpenter and undertaker, who is best known for his publication of early passenger lists to America, but who in the 1860s acquired a fortune and an unpleasant reputation as a purveyor of pornography as well as dealing in genealogical books and manuscripts.
The early part of the nineteenth century had seen the publication of a remarkable number of county histories, the majority of them printed by John Bowyer Nichols who died in 1863. His son, John Gough Nichols, contributed more to genealogy through the various periodicals he produced and through the pages of which genealogists, for the first time, began to come together. He was long involved with the Gentleman’s Magazine, providing many papers on genealogical and heraldic topics and preparing detailed obituary notices, but in 1834 he had branched out to produce, at £1 a volume, eight volumes of Collectanea Topographica et Genealogica, containing documentary material and extracts and some pedigrees. After a short break, he continued with three volumes of The Topographer and Genealogist and then (when the Gentleman’s Magazine stopped publishing antiquarian material in 1863) he started the eight volumes of The Herald and Genealogist, which also contained book reviews and critical essays. From 1866 Nichols had a rival in Joseph Jackson Howard’s quarterly Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica (popularly known as ‘Misc Gen’), slightly larger in format with many printed pedigrees. It was a shilling an issue and so successful that, after the demise of The Herald and Genealogist in 1874, he produced it monthly for sixpence. It is often said that it was through these periodicals that Nichols, who died in 1873, founded the modern critical and historical school of genealogy. Misc Gen continued until 1938 but had a rival from 1877 in The Genealogist edited by George Marshal, which also survived the First World War and received important critical contributions from the medieval scholar Horace Round and the best genealogists of the time. A year after Sir Bernard Burke’s death it was Horace Round, a pupil of the Oxford historian William Stubbs, who took up earlier themes critical of Burke’s Peerage and in an important article in the Quarterly Review drew attention to Burke’s ‘errors, miss-statements and absurdities’. Round continued his attacks in many articles and in his books Studies in Peerage and Family History (1901) and Peerage and Pedigree (1910), dissecting the bogus pedigrees (as the herald Anthony Wagner later wrote) with ‘cruel skill’, for Round had a most caustic and unpleasant side to his character. However, it was to his austerely disciplined approach and the earlier journals that we must give credit for raising genealogy from mythology to the position of an exact and scientific department of history, in which narratives are based solely on citations to primary sources.
In the 1880s and 1890s there was a spate of popular antiquarian periodicals, many short lived. These included The Genealogical Magazine which flourished for seven years, followed by yet another quarterly, The Ancestor, which in 1902-5 eclipsed the others in production, illustration and content, having the wealthy genealogist Arthur Doubleday as its printer and the brilliant Oswald Barron, a journalist for the Evening News but a fine medieval historian, as its editor. Doubleday went on to become the chief editor of the ten volumes of the Victoria County History, and played a major role in the fund-raising and production of the new edition of The Complete Peerage. The employment on the Victoria County History and on the Peerage of a new class of unmarried women graduates is particularly striking, though their number and consequential seating problems caused some alarm at the Public Record Office and British Library.
These nineteenth century periodicals set high standards but, largely for economic reasons, their like has not been seen in England again, though journals printing detailed genealogies in a well-defined format continue in America. English genealogists may have come together to a limited extent through the periodicals, but their attempts to do so physically at meetings or in a building that might house a library were thwarted throughout the century by the College of Arms, concerned at its likely loss of fees. The College, whose existence depended on fees for research, the registration of pedigrees and the granting or arms, was in the min-nineteenth century supported by its gentry clientele (as it was when Lord Teviot introduced a Bill to ‘nationalise’ it in 1973). That clientele had become extremely suspicious of the claims of the many arms vendors and so-called professional genealogists who had sprung up in the 1850s and 1860s (as indeed it was again in the 1970s of the activities of firms like Halbert’s and Macaulay Mann which sold ‘arms for the name’). In 1867 John Gough Nichols had himself carried out an attack on ‘the tribe of advertising hacks who endeavour to intercept the business which ought to come to the Heralds’. Much later when the Society of Genealogists was founded and even into the 1960s, some heralds continued to take a dim view of its research activities.
In America the New England Historic Genealogical Society had been founded in 1847. In England a year earlier one Edward Worall from Ellesmere in Shropshire had collected a few guineas from historians in the provinces, including two guineas from John Walker Ord of Cleveland, for fellowship of the London Genealogical Society, which sadly did not exist. Worall, who later used the name de Wyrell, then went bankrupt and married bigamously a young French teacher, thirty years his junior. Although Anthony Wagner once wrote that English genealogists are individualists who show no wish to be organised, in 1853 a group of people in London did form the Genealogical and Historical Society of Great Britain, with Rycroft Reeve as Secretary. It had the patronage of the Earl of Ellesmere and one meeting in the picture gallery of Bridgewater House attracted over four hundred people, but it suffered by the early death of its president in 1863 and there was at least one court case involving fraud, and it soon disappeared.
Of course as the century wore on the gentry, clergy and professional men continued to play an active part in antiquarian studies but many of the newcomers were far from being the ‘gentlemen genealogists’ that they have recently been called. Sherwood’s father ran a café in Fulham and his father-in-law, with whom he lived for a while, was a stonemason. Sherwood, indeed, knew well that a fair number of the newcomers to family history, were, in a phrase that he remembered George Marshal using, ‘dug up out of the mud between 1800 and 1830’. Amongst them was a fair sprinkling of persons who were far from being gentlemen in any sense of the word.
Americans seeking their roots and ‘lost fortunes’ had been a commonplace of the genealogical scene in London for some years. Wilford Woodruff, a miller by trade and later President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did research on his family whilst on missions in London in the 1840s, spurred on by the Prophet Joseph Smith’s declaration that seeking for the dead was the most important thing that he could do. In 1845 a searcher from New England, Horatio Somerby came and spent many years trying to trace the origins of early American settlers, but he sometimes provided an ancestry for a generous client that later research has failed to confirm. He was followed by the industrious Colonel Lemuel Chester, the only genealogist to have a memorial in Westminster Abbey, and by a series of others sent from New England, notably Henry Water and James Henry Lea, they all concentrating on probate records. Lothrop Withington who came on the Lusitania to do work for the Virginia Society was killed in that ship in 1915. A Mormon, James Walkley, came in 1892 and charged $1.50 a day for searches in the GRO indexes (probably to localise surnames rather than to search for specific entries), and Susa Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young and the first to be baptised for the dead in the Temple at St George (1877) in 1915 chartered a train in Salt Lake City and took 250 church members to the International Congress of Genealogy at the San Francisco World Fair. She was probably the first Mormon to join the new Society of Genealogists in London, founded in 1911 by George Sherwood and Charles Bernau.
Sherwood had for some years been publishing lists of the interests and queries of his clients as well as a quarterly magazine The Pedigree Register. He seems also to have been one of the first persons to carry out a one-name search at the General Register Office in order to fix the geographical distribution of a surname (Boddington). Sherwood’s friend Charles Bernau (whose family came originally from Dantzig) had produced several editions of an International Directory with details of people’s interests. In 1911 they were persuaded to launch a society from Sherwood’s little office in The Strand. Bernau, quite unrealistically, wanted to start an international society, but members were very slow in coming forward and although ‘The Society of Genealogists of London’, as it was initially called, began with all the right ideas it was weakened by rivalries amongst the professionals involved. However, led by Gerald Fothergill it started a campaign for access to various records. In its first year it campaigned for the deposit of all parish registers in the Public Record Office and it helped to obtain the release of the 1841 and 1851 census returns in 1912. It continued a long campaign for better conditions and hours for the use of the PCC and other probate records in the dreadful underground ‘cellar’ at Somerset House, where nothing had changed since 1863 when the Camden Society published the first volume of wills for which the editors had not been charged copying fees.
At the Society itself efforts were concentrated on compiling a vast slip index that was intended to contain every birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial in England, as well as other biographical material arranged both by name and place. The filing of slips and, indeed, the keeping of them in order, became a major pre-occupation until 1939, though in the 1920s Gerald Fothergill unearthed the Tax on Apprenticeships at Somerset House and the obsessive and wealthy Percival Boyd began to organise the vast marriage index that bears his name, he himself employing the necessary typists. During the First War the unpredictable Charles Bernau ran a Co-operative Research Club and paid a bevy of young ladies at the PRO to write index slips for a great index to Chancery Records but he then moved to Cornwall. Money was always a problem, but the conservative Sherwood, although Treasurer of the new Society had little interest in matters financial and there were few attempts to publicise the growing library and to bolster membership. Moreover, under the bizarre constitution adopted in 1911, the subscriptions of existing members could never be increased. It was not until the 1950s that the membership rose above a thousand.
At the turn of the century many genealogists, like William Phillimore, had been interested in eugenics. A Eugenics Society was formed in 1908 and a group led by Ernest Lidbetter started to collect pedigrees of paupers in the East End of London, hoping to prove that most ‘undesirables’ (i.e. paupers, the feeble-minded, alcoholics, and certain types of criminals) were related. The group made no attempt to differentiate between conditions that were truly genetic and those that were environmental, but Charles Bernau the author of The Genealogy of the Submerged (1908), wrote more realistically that the middle classes ‘should expect to find some of their direct ancestors were poverty-stricken and lived amid squalid surroundings’. Lidbetter was largely discredited in the 1920s but some prominent members of the Society of Genealogists (notably William Gun the author of Studies in Hereditary Ability and Byrom Bramwell) continued to have a lively interest in the inheritance of so-called ‘positive’ traits, if not in the negative ones. George Sherwood, far from convinced, nicely wrote that these people ‘held the inheritance factor more important than the infection factor’.
Just before the First World War a retired professor of zoology from University College London, Herbert Fowler, who had bought a house in Bedfordshire and become interested in its history, created the first county record office at Bedford. The idea was copied at Bristol in 1924 and with the passing of the Act to abolish manorial tenures that year the need for such offices in which to deposit redundant manorial records became more and more apparent. The widespread destruction and sale of parchment deeds led to the foundation of the British Records Association in the 1930s and to this Ethel Stokes now devoted her life. In 1929 the Church Commissioners gave powers to the bishops to establish diocesan record offices for the receipt of registers and as a result some libraries (e.g. the Bodleian, Gloucester City) began to take them in. Following the loss of two registers in Devon, letters to The Times advocated a centralised ‘fire proof room or building’ in each county. However, the increase in inquiries led the Church Commissioners in 1938 to increase the fees for access to baptismal and burial registers, and this they did, not overall, but for many individual parishes, and much confusion consequently resulted.
It was said in the 1930s that one of the most useful functions of the Society of Genealogists was the setting of standards for printed family histories through reviews in its Magazine, and several fine histories were produced (e.g. Higgs, Bax, Underhill), but such reviews hardly ever now appear except in America. In 1926 Hugh Beaver of Walton on Thames, a Society member, suggested that very small local groups might be a way of organising co-operative searches in records, and in 1935 another member, William Carter of Bromsgrove, suggested that local groups might hold meetings and discuss (and record) local genealogies, but both suggestions sank without trace. There was, indeed, strong opposition to such ideas from Lord Farrer the Society’s elderly but influential President, who thought the existing ‘loose decentralization’ of local record societies and the free libraries sufficient.
The outbreak of war in 1939 found the Society borrowing and copying many parish registers, a major aim being the compilation of a National Index of Parish Registers (not an index but a finding aid) to record the location of copies and avoid duplication. It was the genesis of ideas that the Society should form a clearing-house of information about all copies of registers and later of monumental inscriptions. The National Index was the pet project of the then secretary, the efficient but unwelcoming Kathleen Blomfield and her friend Kendall Percy-Smith. Their interest turned into a scheme during the War, funded by the Pilgrim Trust and a few private donors, and assisted by Unilevers, to microfilm parish registers before 1812, but it was badly organised and led to great dissention within the Society, though typescript copies of many registers were generated. The need for their work was again shown when the un-copied registers of Coventry were destroyed by bombing, as indeed were the probate records at Exeter. Publicity for the Society’s work had another side, and one day a lady arrived at the library with an original register from Filey in Yorkshire that had been missing for many years, wrapped in her shopping bag.
The Society’s library near Senate House remained open throughout the War but survived more by luck than by judgment. Its lease ended in 1954 and it decided to raise loans and take a lease on a large house in Kensington with three flats upstairs and one in the basement for a house-keeper. It was an imaginative gamble, carried through by Sir William Elderton who had replaced Sherwood as Treasurer. A long struggle to make ends meet followed but the financial problems remained and although the freehold was purchased in 1968 we still had an overdraft of £12,000 in 1975. Salaries were minimal and it was almost impossible to recruit and retain competent staff. Coming into the Society in 1957 I saw a desperate need for a period of stability. Lord Mountbatten’s election as President earlier that year had a steadying effect, though even he found that dividing up the Indian Empire was nothing compared to conciliating the factions within the Society. The facilities could clearly only be improved by increasing the membership but many older members wanted to retain the club atmosphere of a small society at all costs. Genealogists living in the provinces laboured under many difficulties as can be seen from Arthur Willis’s ground-breaking Genealogy for Beginners published in 1955. The 1861 census became freely available in 1962 but only, of course, in London, and without name indexes. Anthony Wagner’s suggestion that it be indexed was met by The Guardian with ‘feelings ranging from amusement to outright distaste’. Not everyone thought that genealogy was a healthy pre-occupation. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies was founded at Canterbury in 1961 but had little support and an embryo Birmingham and Midland Society, founded in 1963, did not become really active until the early 1970s.
Meanwhile there was a slow but growing increase in interest amongst the general public. I took the first weekend course in genealogy at an Education College at Missenden Abbey in 1965 and had my first experience of the book selling that became such an important feature of family history meetings in the future. Running a research department in London I saw an urgent need for a list of recommended searchers and was much involved in the creation of the Association of Genealogists and Record Agents which we founded in 1968.
In the early 1970s embryo local societies sprang up in many counties, a development given greater impetus by the creation of the Federation of Family History Societies in 1974 and its involvement two years later in an International Congress in London proposed by the Institute at Canterbury, but in which the Society of Genealogists and College of Arms were initially reluctant to be involved, the Society because of the duplication of effort that was taking place and its large overdraft (the earlier Congress at Edinburgh had made a loss), and the College of Arms because of its reservations about the Institute. The restless Donald Steel represented the new Federation, about which the Society of Genealogists was ambivalent to say the least, and preached ‘family history’ as the successor to ‘genealogy’, at the same time enraging everyone by daily changing his mind about everything he did. I had grave doubts then, as I do still, that the majority of family historians have the slightest interest in the ‘history of the family’ (with its implications of relative fertility, nuptiality and mortality, correlated with weather fluctuations, harvest yields and epidemics) that the academics thought this implied. I worried then as I do now, that many genealogists do not even know how to prove a pedigree (or even to think in those terms) let alone have an interest in all these additional subjects.
However, several things united to give greater prominence to genealogy. Its growing importance in relation to genetic problems was now widely recognised and, for example, I became genealogical adviser to the Association to Combat Huntington’s Chorea in 1974, and took part in the successful campaign to allow adopted children to see their original birth certificates in 1975. Many years later I was less successful in the arguments over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (1990) and the marking of the birth certificates of those so conceived. In the 1960s we had spent a good deal of time lobbying about tombstones and clearance of churchyards, a problem that became really urgent with the many church redundancies at that time, and in 1975 the Society of Genealogists was able to gain formal prior notice of all schemes affecting churchyards so that we could pass them to the local societies.
One thing we all agreed upon was that the older parish registers should be got out of the hands of the clergy. In 1969 an original register of West Heslerton here in Yorkshire had been put up for sale in America. When told, the vicar said that he was not interested as he already had a copy! With the assistance of the demographers at Cambridge and Alan Rogers in the Synod (and with Lord Teviot in the House of Lords and Mountbatten in the background) we got the Parochial Registers and Records Measure passed in 1978. It required the deposit in diocesan record offices of all registers more than a hundred years old unless proper (and expensive) safes were provided in the churches. Of course an argument then developed as to whether mere genealogists should pay for searches whereas those engaged in ‘serious historical research’ should not, a division that was, very fortunately, successfully resisted, The rapid deposit of registers that then followed gave a great impetus to the local societies which were already undertaking projects to transcribe registers and churchyard inscriptions. I had always been worried that once a register was deposited and was easily available, as was the case in Scotland, there was little incentive to copy it, but, of course, the work of the Mormons, who had been filming registers since 1938, now became a great deal easier. In Utah they had already indexed great numbers of registers into a forerunner (the Computer File Index) of the International Genealogical Index, which first became available here on microfiche in 1977. That year also saw the publication here of Alex Haley’s Roots, which was followed two years later, when the industrious Donald Steel, working for the BBC at Bristol, was responsible for a popular series of TV programmes and an excellent book (1979-80) in which the ancestry of Gordon Honeycombe was traced, which together encouraged thousands to try their hand at family history. Of course Donald annoyed Gordon by including mention of his family prostitutes and the editors annoyed Donald by reducing his text to manageable size, but both are standard problems that many genealogists have to learn to deal with, if contemplating publication.
The Society of Genealogists had first begun a programme of meetings as a means of keeping members informed and together during the War in 1915, but in the 1960s we greatly developed this, not only to promote the Society but the subject generally, with beginners’ classes, weekend courses at local centres, day conferences in London and then weekends in the provinces. WEA and extra-mural courses developed in the 1970s and the local societies also developed similar courses of their own, the Federation starting a popular annual series of spring and autumn weekend conferences around the country. Later the Society gave support to the four, week-long English Genealogical Conferences, held at Cambridge 1975-8 and York 1981-4, and then to the Society’s 75th Anniversary Conference at Oxford in 1986 when three Colleges were taken over for a week by 470 attendees at a cost of £42,529 and still made a profit. By then I was external examiner for the courses in genealogy and the history of the family held at Birkbeck College, but in which the College’s insistence on the statistical demographic side of ‘the history of the family’ drove everyone up the wall. We then gave support to the First Irish Genealogical Congress at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1991, a much more pleasant task!
The Society’s move to Charterhouse Buildings in 1984 and the publicity provided by the commercial and very successful Family Tree Magazine, which was first published that year, gave an enormous impetus to our work. The membership passed the 8,000 mark in 1986 with an average of a hundred visitors every day. A nostalgia boom was sweeping the country. Its most memorable manifestation for me was Terry Lambley’s purchase from Cambridge Prison of a gallows on which a relative had been executed and which, to the amused annoyance of his wife and perhaps the greater annoyance of his neighbours, he erected on his patio.
This rapid development in many aspects of the subject had been greatly aided by the advent of home computers. The Society’s first main seminar about them was held in 1982 with Conway Berners-Lee (the father of Tim, the founder of the World Wide Web) as a speaker. The periodical Computers in Genealogy edited by David Hawgood started later that year. Within a further year the journal had 1,000 subscribers. It was altogether a time of great enthusiasm when many grave freely of their time and expertise without thought of expenses or fees for speaking at or attending meetings.
Meanwhile in America a World Conference on Records had attracted some 7,000 people to Salt Lake City in 1969 and from 1981 onwards I spoke at a long series of ‘Conferences in the States’ organised by the National Genealogical Society at various places around America, the first at Atlanta attracting 600 people, at the time the largest gathering of genealogists outside Salt Lake City. At Salt Lake in 1985 Chris Watts and I met Elder Boyd Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and arising from that meeting we formed with the representatives of the Federation and other organisations, the British Genealogical Record Users Committee which led to the sponsorship of the 1881 Census Project, using volunteers here and in America to transcribe and index the whole of the surviving returns.
The large conferences organised in America always had attached to them great areas of booths to promote the various organisations attending and for the sale of books and computer programs, and it seemed obvious to me that something similar would work in England. Although some committee members were strongly opposed to the idea, the Society of Genealogists put on the first annual Family History Fair in 1993 (attracting 4,000 people) and after I retired this was taken over and greatly commercialised by ‘Why Do You Think You Are?’ Meanwhile, of course, many similar fairs had sprung up and were taking place across the country and indeed around the world.
One effect of the 1881 Census Project was to show what might be accomplished with cheap labour and a race then started between various commercial organisations, with varying degrees of competence, to index the other census returns and to make them available by subscription on the Internet. Within just a few years genealogy had become big business and the societies worldwide hardly knew whether to join them, attempt to compete with them, or to ignore them. With genealogy becoming ’socially acceptable’ a succession of people who thought that they had business expertise but had little sympathy with the charitable ideals of the societies (and indeed little knowledge of the subject or of how to promote it), was attracted to their administration and sometimes, one has to be frank, they made a terrible hash of it. Some used and continue to use the societies and committees as a means of self-promotion and they clearly have little intention of contributing as their predecessors would have done.
In this process the older genealogists who are not experienced with computers, and there are still a good number of them around, have sometimes unfortunately been ignored and, indeed, alienated. At the same time the value, use and limitations of the chief genealogical databases needs to be explained to those in academic fields who are not familiar with them and may be overwhelmed by their number and complexity. Even such a basic source as a parish register, for example, has always been a trap for the unwary. It may appear to be comprehensive and may thus give false expectations (if there is only one entry, they say, it must be the right one) but even the best kept registers will have gaps and omissions. It may be important to know what a database covers, but it is equally important in any database to know what is not covered. The International Genealogical Index has been so manipulated and altered over time that one cannot now be sure that it covers anything. If you find what you want, all right (perhaps), but if not then you have searched nothing. In addition the Mormon’s reliance on computer enthusiasts to the exclusion of genealogists is now a very serious problem. Their insularity has been taken to extreme lengths in Salt Lake City, where in the last few years and under the influence of the computer enthusiasts, as well as under great pressure to get all the films digitised and indexed, there has been a very marked decline in the quality of the work done.
Looking ahead one wonders if other sources will continue to be scanned and indexed. I presume that the firms will only do so, so long as they continue to attract new subscribers. Indeed, will interest in the subject continue and be maintained at the same level? The stories told in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have, I think, shown that in this fractured world the recovery of one precious fact about a parent or grandparent is far more important to the inquirer than any detail about some remote and unknown ancestor in the distant past. Research for many has become a mechanical process in which knowledge of computer programs is more important than knowledge of the relevant sources and the information they contain. As a result the placing of the ancestors in a geographical, let alone an historical, context has for many become less likely and there is a danger that all the searcher’s preconceptions about the past will be confirmed. The availability of information online has dealt a blow to the communities of genealogists that formed the local and national societies, not only in the UK but worldwide, and it is doubtful that any form of substitute communities will be generated by the commercial firms. Membership of the Society of Genealogists which peaked at 14,000 has fallen steadily over the last ten years and is now down to 10,000.
Genealogy may have become socially acceptable to some parts of the media (if that is in any way important!) but the local historian Alan Rogers (who once described genealogists as the metal detector wielders in the field of local history, because all they did was collect very limited data) has written that for the majority ‘family history’ .. ‘still remains highly selective, and in practice .. is no different from old-style genealogy’. As a result there is, I fear, still a vast amount of prejudice about where genealogy and genealogists are concerned. The Professor of Modern History at St Andrews (Bruce Lenman) wrote very recently of family history as ‘notoriously’ the ‘haunt of the pseudo-scholar and the obsessive, mentally unbalanced enthusiast’. Yes, there is still a long way to go.
Whether this story (which I admit leaves many aspects unexplored, and may be unduly pessimistic) could have developed in any other way I do not know. One looks back on years of controversy, argument and unproductive meetings. Jan Gow reminded me in May that I once said that I would have on my gravestone, ‘There being no further business the meeting then closed’.
Although many individuals have done sterling work as volunteers in the organisation of societies and more have assisted in their project work, there is little sign that such collective altruism will ever be found again. The majority of genealogists still pursue their own selective interests with little regard to others. In spite of all the genealogical activity that there has been in this country, no public body of well-referenced and proven pedigrees has been built up for reference to which others may add. I had hoped to see the older registration records got out of the hands of the Registrar General, believing that that would unleash another increase in interest in the subject, and I spent a considerable amount of time in later years lobbying to that effect, but genealogists continue to disagree as to how it should be done, and the basic aim itself has now fallen by the wayside.
As for the future I will not attempt comment. I remember the late Professor Geoffrey Martin once saying that he would not even trust a historian to tell him the time of the next train. And so (remembering Jan Gow) I shall only say that, although there was still much unfinished business, the meeting then closed.