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Diary of a Genealogist

Diary of a Genealogist

Part One: London 1820-1950

Anthony J. Camp

The founder of modern critical genealogy, Horace Round (1854-1928), wrote that, 'Love of genealogical study is an inborn quality. Many who style themselves genealogists are absolutely indifferent to any genealogical evidence that does not bear upon their own pedigrees; but there will always be some, like my own teacher, that eminent historian Stubbs, who have possessed that rare quality, a love of genealogy for its own sake' [1]. I had no inspirational teacher like Stubbs and yet I have never known a time when I was not interested in the subject.

I was not yet seven when Georgiena Cotton Browne, our local landowner, died at Walkern Hall leaving her estate and personal property to a young cousin whose parents organised an auction sale of many of her effects. My mother, who occasionally worked at the Hall, brought home a few unwanted books including A school history of England; with a copious chronology, tables of contemporary sovereigns, and questions for examination (1841). The tables of contemporary sovereigns at the head of each chapter fascinated me. They were for Great Britain, France, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain and the Papal States, and ended, of course, with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. They cried out to be brought up to date. I think that that is where it all began.

My father, an agricultural carpenter and builder well known to Hertfordshire farmers for his construction of corn-drying silos, was the son of the estate carpenter at Walkern Hall who had married the daughter of a bailiff on one of the estate's farms. My mother, who knew almost nothing about her father who had died when she was two years old, had first come from London to work at the Hall in 1914 and we lived in a Lodge situated on a private road crossing part of the wooded estate with fine views of the surrounding countryside and of the village of Walkern down in the Beane valley. My father had been given the use of the Lodge and 'some responsibility for the integrity of this end of the estate' [2]. The death of 'Miss C. B.' whose family had been at the Hall since 1827, and the many changes that followed, not to mention the not so distant echoes of the War which was ending, caused much anxiety for the future. A few years later the growing New Town of Stevenage, the box-like houses of which were beginning to appear on the distant horizon, threatened to destroy the peace and tranquillity of the valley and magnified our fears.

These feelings of insecurity undoubtedly had a lasting effect and when, after my mother's death in 1973, I gave up the Lodge and moved to London, I frequently had nightmares, imagining houses built on the surrounding fields and frantically recalling the Lodge’s rooms, going from one to another and positioning every piece of furniture, picture, ornament and book, in attempts to recreate the past and not let any part of it slip from my memory. By recording something of it I thought that I might begin to do just that. Like many others and in the same way, after leaving his Russian homeland in 1930, the dancer Igor Schwezoff described in graphic detail his former life there and his need to write things down and the 'overwhelming desire to be able to snatch back a little of the past and to undo something that could never be undone - or could it, perhaps?’ [3].

After I went to the Grammar School at Stevenage in 1949, I developed these interests and thoughts in earnest. There was a little covered alleyway down the side of Jeffries' antiques shop in the High Street where cheaper furniture was displayed. A table there with second-hand books was one of my regular haunts after school and whenever I visited the town on Saturdays. There in 1953 I bought a book about the history of Russia which had a lasting effect on my interests, though they never developed in quite the way that I hoped at that time.

Nearby was a branch of Burgess Booksellers and Stationers and upstairs new books were occasionally bought and school prizes chosen. There not long before my father died, he bought for me Chambers's Biographical Dictionary (1950) for twenty-five shillings, a book that I cherished greatly, superior to its more recent editions. I remember him exclaiming in surprise, 'It's all about people!' and my not knowing what to say. Not long afterwards on a bus trip to London my mother bought for me in Charing Cross Road the two volumes of Mark Noble's History of the Protectoral House of Cromwell (1788) for the large sum of two pounds. It kept me busy for many happy hours, compiling vast pedigrees across the floor. My eldest brother had been an agent for National Savings but the large posters that he was asked to display were useless, our house being a mile or more from the village, and so their backs came in very handy for pedigree work and indeed for covering books!

Cheap second-hand biographies could be found in Stevenage's only other bookshop, The Book Nook, further down the High Street and run by Mrs Warren, where at a shilling or so a time, my collection grew. From them and from the biographies borrowed from the public library in Orchard Road I constructed pedigrees of all manner of people. Delving into autobiographies I began to write to the authors of those that took my fancy, asking them to confirm and/or expand the pedigrees that I had compiled. The Russian ones fascinated me and an early correspondent was Baroness Agnes de Stoeckle who had been at the Russian Court before the Revolution and had met Rasputin. Count Constantine Benckendorff, the son of the last Imperial ambassador in London, took an interest in my tables, loaned me a collection of pedigrees of his relatives and provided me with my first copy of the Almanach de Gotha which he had used as a door-stop.

Another place that my kind of books could be found was upstairs at the Book House in Hitchin's Market Square where Eric Moore would sometimes buy from me books that I and my mother had bought across the road at auction sales at the Corn Exchange. Its monthly furniture sales usually included one or two lots of books and my mother would call in after her ordinary shopping and bid a few shillings, bringing home in her bag those that she thought of greatest interest, old maps, engravings and county directories. One day she brought home the fourteen volumes of the leather bound Historians' History of the World, but sadly was obliged to leave the indexes behind! The rarer books that were of little interest, including a nicely bound Breeches Bible of 1560 and a large collection of 19th century engraved bill heads, I traded in at the Book House, buying other books with the proceeds.

Whilst at the Grammar School at Stevenage in the mid-1950s I was encouraged by the history master Charles Jones (1908-1986) to start a project on the history of the town and I borrowed from Miss Grosvenor the notes on its history by the late Edward Vincent Methold (1846-1926) and then explored the many cupboards of documents in the tower at St Nicholas’s church, transcribing large parts of the parish registers, copying many churchyard inscriptions and rubbing the brasses. At the same time I developed an interest in my own family by pestering the local clergy for access to their registers at Walkern, Cottered, Ardley and Shephall, again copying inscriptions and rubbing brasses in these and other local churches. I saw then the unsatisfactory conditions in which the records were often kept, though those at Stevenage had benefited from careful cataloguing in the 1930s. I could take the bus to Hertford and the county record office and there learned about bishops transcripts, wills and other local sources but my early pedigrees were not very satisfactory, the purchase of costly birth, marriage and death certificates from the General Register Office in London being quite out of the question. At Stevenage Museum, however, I was fortunate to get to know Dr John Morris (1913-1977), the brilliant historian and archaeologist who later wrote The age of Arthur (1973), who took me digging at Watton-at-Stone and St Albans, and later facilitated my entrance into University College London to take a degree in Ancient and Medieval History.

It was as a result of reading biographies and writing to people who might add to the pedigrees extracted from them that in 1954 I had first contacted Sir Anthony Wagner (1908-1995), then Richmond Herald at the College of Arms, about a pedigree of Adolf Hitler and an unlikely relationship to Queen Victoria that I fancied I had found. It was Wagner who encouraged the idea of my working either for him or at the Society of Genealogists and I first wrote to the Society, then in a fine old house in South Kensington, on 23 August 1957, wondering if there were any opportunities there before going to university the following year. I suppose the fact that I had already done genealogical work locally in Hertfordshire, including the transcription of some parish registers, as well as projects in archaeology and local history, and been school librarian for three years, all spoke in my favour. As recounted below, and with Wagner's endorsement, I was offered temporary employment and commenced work as a research assistant at the Society a month later.


Sources and Practitioners before 1911

It is not my intention to write a detailed account of the origins of the study of genealogy in England  but I hope to sketch out the developments in the nineteenth century that led to the foundation of the Society of Genealogists in 1911 and then to give some account of the people who, for good or ill, were involved in its organisation and with the subject over the next hundred years.

When in 1911 the founders of the Society looked back over the previous century they saw the beginnings of a remarkable change in attitudes to genealogy but they were all too clearly aware that there was still much room for improvement in the work carried out. George Sherwood, in whose office the Society first took shape, called the division 'old and new' genealogy and in the 'old' world there were several things of which he strongly disapproved.

When discussing the possible formation of a society, Sherwood had written, 'Someday perhaps someone will arise with the gift of creating the proper atmosphere. At present we think the study suffers from its association in the public mind with, for example, the heraldic stationery trade, the trade in 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' [4]. The following year he wrote that 'Old Genealogy became a byeword for no other reason than that it was neither Literature nor Science' [5].

Early Pedigrees and the Heralds

The first textbook on genealogical research had been published in England in 1828 and the author, the peerage lawyer Stacey Grimaldi, of whom more will be said later, reckoned that the first printed book to contain a genealogy (in England that is) had come out in 1547. Compiled by a versifier Arthur Kelton and entitled A chronycle, with a genealogie declarying that the Britons and Welshemen are lineallye dyscended from Brute, newly and very wittely compiled in Meter, it showed the descent of the new boy-king Edward the Sixth from one Brutus, supposedly a grandson of the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas (son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite) who had fled from the destruction of Troy and the arms of Dido, Queen of Carthage, to found Rome in Italy in 753 B.C.[6] and who married there Lavinia the daughter of the local king, Latinus [7]. This Brutus, it was said, had come to England via Spain and had given Britain its name.

This fable was already circulating in Wales about 769 A.D. when the Historia Britonum associated with the name of Nennius was put together [8] and it was much elaborated about 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his fictional but influential and widely read Historia Regum Britanniae which was first printed in 1508 [9]. The Historia Britonum, not content with a merely classical origin for the royal family, had given Brutus a descent through the Kings of Troy to Jupiter and Saturn, and then to Javan, mentioned in the Bible as a son of Japhet the son of Noah [10].

Early in the Anglo-Saxon period a king’s genealogy had been regarded as one of his most important possessions [11]. Copies were widespread and the ancestries of the various Anglo Saxon dynasties were traced back to the gods, seven to the storm-spirit Woden and one (that of the kings of Essex) to the god-spirit Saxnot. The welding of these traditional British genealogies of pagan origin to people in classical antiquity or named in the Bible followed the arrival of Christianity, time and the ingenuity of later antiquarians carrying the pedigrees back through Noah to Adam. These later accretions may be easily identified but it is much more difficult to tell how far the original Germanic elements are historical and when the ancestry becomes fictitious. The three or four generations provided by Bede for most monarchs named in his Ecclesiastical History (finished in 731) may be taken as authentic, but the further nine generations to Woden given for Cerdic (died 534), the first King of the West Saxons, and Woden’s fifteen further generations to Sceaf (who was later said to have been born in the Ark) are to be regarded as ‘either fiction or error’. That, at least, was the conviction of the late Kenneth Sisam (1887-1971) who had made a minute study and comparison of the pedigrees [12].

Apart from the pedigrees of their ruling families the Saxons seem to have had little interest in genealogy but after the Norman Conquest lengthy statements in the courts regarding claims to inherited rights and property became frequent. This legal aspect in which pedigrees were referenced on particular points became of increasing importance and dominated the subject for many centuries. Such statements of descent and relationship, of which there are many from the early thirteenth century on the plea rolls (the records of pleas heard before judges) of the courts of Curia Regis, Coram Rege and de Banco,[13] seem largely to have been based on orally transmitted information, though some of the longer genealogies may have been compiled from written sources, as in the Scrope versus Grosvenor case of 1378 when charters were produced in evidence. All were naturally subject to bias and error.

It was not until the fifteenth century with the development of other antiquarian and topographical studies that collections of pedigrees began to be made, the oldest books dating from about 1480. The involvement of the heralds in genealogy also began in the mid-fifteenth century but became of paramount importance with the Visitations which they made following a Royal Commission in 1530, they touring the country and recording short pedigrees based on family information of those who claimed a right to arms. The heralds were not then normally chosen for their skill in genealogy and some had little critical ability. This coupled with the rise in the sixteenth century of many new families to prominence in a society where the prestige of old blood was great, resulted, as it did in the nineteenth century, in some genuine research but also in much concoction.

As a consequence the heralds’ visitations of the 1560s recorded many lengthy but doubtful pedigrees as well as some fabrications and Horace Round frequently warned against their use as evidence of events beyond the personal knowledge of the informants [14]. It was not until the visitations made in the northern counties in the 1580s that Robert Glover (died 1588), Somerset Herald, began to illustrate the principle that pedigrees should, if possible, be founded on record evidence. Glover made his entries in the form of drop-line, tabular or rectilinear pedigrees, as used by Sir Thomas Wriothesley (died 1534), Garter King of Arms, earlier in the century. By 1618 such drop-line pedigrees had completely superseded the old narrative and crane’s foot forms, the latter with its radiating lines reminiscent of a crane’s foot (or pied de gru) from which the word ‘pedigree’ derived.

A working knowledge of the public records was first brought to genealogical research in the College of Arms by the industrious Augustine Vincent (died 1626), a former clerk at the Tower Record Office and a pupil of the great antiquary William Camden (1551-1623), who was made a Pursuivant Extraordinary in 1616. An apprenticeship system was, into my day, considered important in the practices of professional genealogists who thus had many advantages over the amateur working alone.

One of the first family histories to be compiled seems to have been that of the Berkeley family in Gloucestershire by their steward, John Smyth of Nibley (died 1640) using both public records and the family’s papers and charters in Berkeley Castle [15]. The first to be published, unless we count the fine work of the herald Francis Sandford (1630-1694), A genealogical history of the Kings of England (1677; enlarged by Samuel Stebbing in 1707), was Henry Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough’s Succinct genealogies of the noble and ancient houses of Alno, or de Alneto, Broc of Shephale … and Mordaunt of Turvey (1685), written under the name ‘Robert Halstead’ but unfortunately containing forged charters and fictitious pedigrees.

Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686), Garter King of Arms, showed his superiority in the field in the skill with which he marshalled his various evidences for the descents of manors in his Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656) and for the descents of baronies and peerage dignities in his Baronage of England (1675-6), he citing contemporary record evidence for every statement made. When he was occasionally deceived by spurious documents, as with those on which rested the claim of the Feildings, Earls of Denbigh, to descend from a thirteenth century Hapsburg, one knows exactly what these were [16].

The pedigrees of knights compiled by the herald Peter le Neve (1661-1729) when Rouge Croix, show that by the end of the seventeenth century the pedigrees of newcomers to this class needed something more than knowledge of land tenure and he began to use the evidence of parish registers. In 1699 Sir Comport Fitch, whose father had been a carpenter, registered a  pedigree at the College of Arms which had apparently been worked out for him by a herald Samuel Stebbing (died 1719). Stebbing had set about it by copying wills, making extracts from parish registers, noting monumental inscriptions, interviewing members of the family, and fitting all this evidence together as best he could. It is an early and elementary instance, as Sir Anthony Wagner says, of what has since become ‘a commonplace of genealogical method’ [17]. Church monuments had long been used but half a century later the importance of those in the churchyard for humbler families came also to be recognised.

In this brief overview of the subject prior to 1828 I have drawn on Wagner’s essay ‘The study and literature of genealogy’ in his English Genealogy (1960), which was based on thirty years’ experience in the records and collections created by earlier heralds at the College of Arms. Outside the College there was by the early 1600’s a network of antiquaries spread across the country with, in Wagner’s words, ‘a scholarly approach to documents, helped by legal training and an ardour for genealogies in relation at once to local history, family history and the safeguarding of rights of property’ [18].

The discontinuance of heraldic visitations after 1686 coupled with the rapid decline in the fashion for heraldic display at funerals about 1690 was followed by a breakdown in heraldic authority which lasted until the third quarter of the eighteenth century. This low ebb in the heralds’ activities did not revive until George III’s reign produced men of the calibre of Stephen Martin Leake (1702-1773), Garter, and his successors Ralph Bigland (1711-1784) and Sir Isaac Heard (1730-1822). It was the view of Sir William Blackstone, writing in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-9), that ‘The failure of inquisitions post mortem by the abolition of military tenures, combined with the neglect of the heralds omitting their usual progresses, has rendered the proof of a modern descent for the recovery of an estate, or succession to a title of honour, more difficult than that of an ancient’, and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield wrote that ‘The proof of pedigrees has become so much more difficult since inquisitiones post mortem have been disused, that it is easier to establish one for 500 years before the time of Charles II than for 100 years since his reign’ [19].

Meanwhile, outside the College, an industrious Fleet Street bookseller Arthur Collins (1682-1760), the son of a gentleman-usher to Queen Catherine of Braganza, and a partner of Abel Roper, one of the publishers of Dugdale’s Baronage in 1675-6, produced in 1709 the first edition of a Peerage of England which brought Dugdale up to date and gave the pedigrees of newly created peers. It was an extraordinary success and new editions, regularly expanded, appeared in 1710, 1714 and 1717. Having acquired Dugdale’s manuscript revisions for his Baronage, Collins compiled a much fuller Peerage in three volumes in 1735, followed by further editions in 1741 and 1756, this last, assisted by a pension from George II, in six volumes. After his death, further editions appeared in 1763, in 1779 and finally, edited by Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges (1762-1837) and with a useful index of stray names, in 1812. Collins’s Peerage dominated the eighteenth century and was hugely important as the basis for the pedigrees subsequently adopted by Burke’s Peerage, but, although valuable for the period after Dugdale, its various editions contained much highly inaccurate and mythical early material taken from the old heraldic pedigrees possessed by the various families which, for the favour of a subscription, they insisted should be included. Consequently, of the 294 peers listed by Brydges, thirty-five laid claim to ancestries dating to before the Norman Conquest [20].

The same was often true of the work of the local and county historians, mostly country parson antiquaries, who followed in Dugdale’s footsteps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The industry of those who completed whole counties was quite remarkable but many embody fabulous material, their compilers not only being insufficiently critical but also coming under great financial pressure from the subscribers and patrons where their genealogies were concerned. As with the peerage families and the published Peerages, the gentry endeavoured to see their pedigrees published in these county histories and similarly these pedigrees found their way, fables, faults and all, into the coming editions of Burke’s Landed Gentry.

The traditional interests of these county historians were the established church and its buildings and the pedigrees and houses of the gentry and the descent of their lands. Their sources were chiefly, apart from family muniments and pedigrees, the basic parish registers, monumental inscriptions, wills and inquisitions, with only occasional forays into other public records. It is not difficult to understand why.

Parish Registers

The first order that registers of baptisms, marriages and burials be kept in the parish churches throughout England and Wales had been made in 1538, but as every genealogist knows that does not mean that they necessarily survive from that date or have been regularly and carefully maintained. Their value as a source of information for relationships in those families that did not own land had been realized by the end of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century concerns for their proper keeping and preservation were already being expressed. Ralph Bigland (1711-1784), then Somerset Herald, an active and competent professional genealogist perhaps better known for his interest in tombstone inscriptions, in 1764 put out for five shillings a 96-page work, Observations on Marriages, Baptisms and Burials as Preserved in Parochial Registers [21], stressing the need for the registers to be accurately kept 'for the benefit of society'. His plea for fuller entries, a national marriage register, and for each parish to keep a record of its tombstone inscriptions, fell on deaf ears but would, it has been suggested, have made him the 'patron saint of modern genealogists' [22]. Bigland had, in early life, been a cheesemonger and his interest in genealogy was roused, it is said, by his family's successful claim to an inheritance. 

At the end of the eighteenth century a very few copies of registers were then made by local antiquaries. The Society of Genealogists has a neat transcript of the Ixworth, Suffolk, registers, made by Simon Boldero, who apparently commenced work in May 1675 [23], and a copy of some part of the early Leeds, Yorkshire registers from 1572 onwards, was held by a local surgeon, James Lucas, in 1791 [24]. However, the historian of parish registers, Edmond Waters, believed that in general, 'the negligence of the eighteenth century was more destructive than the civil wars of the seventeenth' [25] and it has been rightly said that registers posed and, of course, still pose serious problems for the unwary researcher, for 'They tantalized by being at once sufficiently complete and seemingly comprehensive to encourage the belief that a full genealogy could be constructed, yet they had too many gaps and omissions for it to be done' [26].

Rose's Act of 1812 required that the registers be kept in iron safes in the parish church but said nothing about a fee to be paid for searches in them; indeed it was generally assumed that the public had no right of access except by favour of the clergyman and churchwardens. Indeed the Chief Justice, Lord Tenterden (1762-1832), 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' [27]. The Civil Registration Act of 1836, however, which brought in the centralised civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837, ordered that those having in their keeping 'any register book of births, deaths, or marriages, shall at all reasonable times allow searches to be made ... on payment of one shilling for a search of one year, and of sixpence for every additional year', and 2s 6d for every certified copy. No provision was made for the extraction or listing of uncertified information.

Some clergy were quick to point out that register books of births and deaths did not include register books of baptisms and burials and that all extracted entries should be treated as certified copies but as a result of a test case in the Court of Exchequer in May 1853 it was ruled that registers of baptisms and burials were covered by the 1836 Act and that anyone who paid the search fees was entitled to make such extracts as he or she chose [28]. The Court’s important ruling, little publicised and frequently overlooked, resulted from a case brought by an attorney whose clerk had been charged the extortionate fee of £4 7s 6d for twenty-five baptismal entries in the surname Taylor which he had seen and noted in four years, 1827-30, at St Mary Newington, the parish clerk working on the basis that each entry should be charged at 3s 6d.[29]

Anyone needing to search the registers of several parishes might consult the annual transcripts of the registers which the clergy were supposed to send to their bishops, if he (or she, though women were practically non-existent in this field at the time) was aware of their existence, the transcripts survived and access to them could be obtained on payment of heavy unregulated fees at the diocesan registry, but otherwise separate visits to the various churches would need to be arranged with attendant delay and expense, coupled with the unknown obstacles and fees which might need to be faced at each church. The fees were widely regarded as the perquisites of the clergy and as there was no clear guidance as to how they should be calculated, unscrupulous clergy resorted to various subterfuges to inflate them, particularly when applications for searches were made by post (the fees being for personal inspection of the registers by the enquirer). Many clergy, although not willing to admit it, did not have the skill to read the early registers in their care and blamed their inability to read the writing on the 'bad writing' of the originals.

For the next 130 years genealogists and local historians, increasingly horrified at the dreadful conditions in which many parish registers were kept, their steady deterioration, the ease with which they might be falsified, and the annual disappearance of some through fire or theft, saw centralised deposit and the removal of the registers from the hands of the clergy as the only possible answer to the years of neglect that they had suffered, though with the passage of time, deposit in the Public Record Office rather than in the British Museum was more frequently urged, there being no viable local alternatives. The importance of the registers to the legal fraternity in London in their inheritance and peerage cases is amply demonstrated by their involvement throughout the century in moves to secure their future safety.

In the 1820s the great antiquary and bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) advocated that all the registers prior to 1700 should be deposited in the British Museum and that modern copies should be made at the expense of the parishes concerned.[30] He had personally witnessed the destruction of parchment by the many gold-beaters, glue-makers and tailors active in his time. A census of the surviving registers in England and Wales had been intended by Rose's Act in 1812 but was not carried out. However, the statistician John Rickman (1771-1840), Clerk of the House of Commons, after consultation with the solicitor John Southerden Burn (1798-1870), author of a recent work on parish registers, Registrum Ecclesiae Parochialis (1829), persuaded the authorities that a survey be undertaken as part of the 1831 census.[31] It revealed, when compared with a few earlier county surveys, enormous recent losses, though some registers previously thought to have been lost had since been found. Burn was then employed by the Government in the preparation of the Civil Registration Bill of 1837 and as secretary to the two Royal Commissions on non-parochial registers.

A case in 1844 which involved parish registers and attracted widespread publicity seems typical of much that was happening in the first half of the nineteenth century. A notorious adventurer from Cardigan, John Bowen, who dabbled in local records and genealogy, had for some time been obtaining money from poor local people by pretending that they had claims to the Whaddon Hall Estate in Buckinghamshire long occupied by the Selby Lowndes family.[32] Following the death of the celebrated miserly banker James Wood (1756-1836) of Gloucester (his face well-known from caricatures and toby jugs), Bowen took an interest in Wood’s disputed will and worked on behalf of John Wood of Brierley Hill who claimed, without a shadow of real evidence, to be one of his heirs at law. In July 1843 Bowen went to Pirton in Worcestershire and was caught in the act of tearing a page from the marriage register of Croome d’Abitot in order to remove evidence of a marriage in 1741, a false alternative entry for which he had already managed to insert in the bishops transcripts of Croome at the diocesan registry.[33]

At his trial at Gloucester Assizes in 1844 Bowen was described in the calendar as a labourer but ‘had the appearance of a man of 50 years of age occupying a respectable station in society’. Newspapers of the day said that he was sometimes called ‘Captain Bowen’ and had been in the Merchant Service but at the time of the 1841 census he gave his occupation as ‘Army’.[34] He was sentenced to be transported for seven years, but at the end of his trial William Selby Lowndes (1807-1886), a Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant for Buckinghamshire, applied to see the papers found on Bowen at his arrest and it was widely reported that the two had some secret financial arrangement. In any event following Selby Lowndes’s intervention John Bowen was ‘on account of ill health’ not transported. Well publicised claims to both the Wood and Selby estates continued until late in the century.[35] William Selby Lowndes had a major interest in other antiquarian matters and was a claimant to the ancient Baronies of Monthermer, Montacute and Grandison.

Between 1841 and 1847 John Southerden Burn had been in partnership at 1 Copthal Court, Throgmorton Street, with the prominent peerage lawyer Stacey Grimaldi (1790-1863), himself well known as the author of our first genealogical textbook Origines Genealogicae, or the sources whence English genealogies may be traced (1828). Both would have been distressed at the stories of further loss and neglect of registers that continually appeared in the periodical Notes and Queries which had commenced publication in 1849. A second edition of Burn's book, entitled History of Parish Registers, appeared in 1862.

In 1863 the Government brought in a Bill to extend civil registration in Ireland which would have excluded catholic marriages from its provisions and this exclusion was attacked by the barrister Robert 'Edmond' (Chester) Waters (1828-1898) in an article, hurriedly written in February 1863, for The Home and Foreign Review.[36] Waters (who had adopted the surname Chester Waters) believed that a complete system of registration without regard to religious belief was absolutely necessary and to him the omission of catholic marriages was a 'grievous error'. He pointed out that following the introduction of the centralised registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales in 1837, two Royal Commissions in 1838 and 1857 had resulted in the authentication and centralisation of over 3,000 non-parochial registers. The Scottish Act of 1854 had not only introduced a centralised registration of events in Scotland but had made provision for the preservation and centralised custody of the existing registers. Chester Waters was not alone in condemning the deficiencies of the Irish Bill and before the end of the Parliamentary Session a further Bill was introduced to cover Catholic marriages, both coming into force on 1 January 1864, but unlike in Scotland no provision was made for the preservation and custody of the earlier registers.

Chester Waters' article was revised and enlarged into a 47-page booklet, Parish Registers, in 1870. In it he described Burns' book as 'a pleasant and intelligent guide' but after Burns' death in June that year, he made it clear that although he acknowledged Burns' pioneering work, he had not been impressed by Burns' 'frequent inaccuracy of quotation' and 'want of power to grasp his subject' and he, although a bedridden invalid, consequently further revised and extended his own booklet as Parish Registers in England: their history and contents: with suggestions for securing their better custody and preservation (1883).

The impetus for this latter work, compiled in such painful circumstances, had been another case involving parish registers in which this time the clergy were also involved and which consequently gained additional publicity. Early in 1881 a former naval officer, the Revd William Henry Edward Ricketts Jervis (1843-1914), then living at Lexden in Essex, announced that he was claiming the title and estate of Viscount St Vincent. He was the grandson of Captain William Henry Ricketts Jervis, RN (1764-1805), the eldest nephew and heir of the first Viscount, but he was not able to prove that the Captain had married his grandmother Cecilia Jane Vinet. In 1880 he therefore advertised for evidence of the marriage, offering a reward of £500. A former naval seaman originally from Ireland, the Revd Patrick Morrison Flinn (c.1844-1928), Rector of Holy Trinity, Shaftesbury, produced an entry which he said he had found in his register for 1802 and claimed the reward. However, the bishops’ transcripts proved conclusively that the entry had been substituted for the real marriage of a couple named John Peacock and Ruth Day. By very curious coincidence the peerage claimant had earlier been a curate in that same Shaftesbury parish with, of course, access to the registers. The Bishop of Salisbury had the matter investigated but it was said that there was not sufficient evidence against either man to ensure a conviction and the inquiry was dropped. By then the page of the register which had been tampered with had been torn out and had disappeared.[37] The case again illustrated the great importance of the duplicate bishops’ transcripts and was used to lobby for their universal deposit with the Registrar General. Searches revealed that Miss Vinet had subsequently shown that she was not married to Captain Jervis by later marrying as a spinster at Kensington in 1807 and Mr Flinn, who for a while was later Rector of Mawgan in Cornwall, got into financial difficulties, went bankrupt in 1891 (when he showed himself a wholly unreliable witness),[38] and migrated to Australia where he died at Mosman in 1928.

Meanwhile Chester Waters’ revision of his book had also been spurred on by the introduction into the House of Commons on 19 April 1882 by William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899), Liberal M.P. for East Cornwall, of a Parochial Registers Preservation Bill 'to make provision for the better preservation of the ancient Parochial Registers on England and Wales'. Borlase, a wealthy antiquary and archaeologist, had been much influenced by the constitutional lawyer Thomas Pitt Taswell-Langmead (1840-1882) who had, when only eighteen, written to Notes and Queries urging the centralised deposit of all original registers,[39] and who subsequently published a pamphlet, The Preservation of Parish Registers (1882). Taswell-Langmead in fact drafted the Bill and Borlase wrote a preface to the pamphlet.

However, there was considerable opposition from other antiquaries to the Bill’s centralising provisions. It would have placed all registers and bishops transcripts (the copies which the clergy were supposed to send annually to their bishops) prior to 1837 under the Master of the Rolls for eventual removal to the Public Record Office, though the registers from 1813 onwards would remain in the parishes for twenty years from the passing of the Act before being centralised. Indexes were to be made and searches allowed at a rate of 20s for a general search, 1s for a particular search and 2s 6d for a certificate.[40] The archdeacons and rural deans of Lincoln sent out circulars to their clergy with a view to opposing the Bill but the solicitor-antiquary Walter Rye (1844-1929) wrote later that 'no sane man' accustomed to searching registers before 1754 could doubt that the proper place for them should either be the Public Record Office or a diocesan fire-proof registry as Burn had suggested.[41]

Borlase's Bill never went to a Second Reading and was withdrawn on 5 July 1882.[42] Chester Waters, who had meanwhile published a much respected history of his family,[43] wrote that 'the exigencies of public business prevented the subject being discussed during the late session' but that 'there is little doubt that a similar Bill with some modifications will sooner or later receive the sanction of Parliament'.[44] He was overly optimistic. Apart from the opposition of the clergy, many believed that the removal of the registers to distant London would be a great discouragement to local research, arguing that many county histories could never have been written if the registers had not been available for local consultation. It was a view taken by Sir John Maclean, the author of The Parochial and Family History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor (3 vols. 1872-9). Chester Waters, in his Parish Registers in England (1883), argued forcefully that transcription of the registers, with a second copy deposited locally, was the only answer. He wrote that those parishes that wished to retain a copy should pay for it from the local rates and he quite wrongly believed that, 'the growing taste for antiquarian studies and an increased sense of responsibility amongst the clergy has arrested the course of destruction'.[45] However, he now had a major disagreement with Horace Round who thought him a poor medieval scholar and a plagiarist and henceforth, as Raymond Powell says, ‘assailed him mercilessly’, not least it seems because as a result of his work he had received a pension on the Civil List.[46]

The vulnerability of the registers was graphically shown in a trial at Liverpool in May 1886 when it was found that following the death of Richard Harrison at Warrington in 1863, his relatives had fought over his property and that two claimants (deceased by 1886) had inserted more than fifty fictitious entries in the parish registers in at least four churches (Preston, Kirkham, Poulton and Lytham), altering and erasing others, and similarly, in the diocesan registry, altering or ruthlessly destroying the bishop's transcripts as well as forging marriage licence bonds. The Cheshire antiquary John Parsons Earwaker (1847-1895) wrote a detailed account of the trial and although he lived in distant Abergele in North Wales he strongly supported Borlase’s Bill and concluded that ‘the sooner Mr Borlase’s Bill for the removal of all the Parish Registers to Somerset House becomes law the better’.[47]

However, the involvement of William Borlase with the abortive 1882 Bill proved unfortunate for a few months after Earwaker’s warm endorsement Borlase was ruined by bankruptcy and a well-publicised scandal in which his Portuguese mistress played a large part.[48] Ostracised by his family, he went to Ireland for a time and died in 1899. Taswell-Langmead, who had just been appointed Professor of Constitutional Law at University College, died at Hove in December 1882, aged 42.

Taswell-Langmead's wording of the 1882 Bill was criticised by Arthur John Jewers (1848-1921), a practising surgeon dentist in Plymouth who was also an antiquary and had himself transcribed and printed the registers of St Columb Major in Cornwall.[49] Ironically, when congratulating Jewers on his publication, Borlase had written, 'In it some Borlases do not appear to advantage. I hope they were of another family'.[50] Jewers had written to Borlase about his Bill in 1882 but in 1884 he published a pamphlet, Parish Registers and their preservation, in which he said that the Bill showed 'considerable ignorance of the actual necessities of the case'. He then set out a formidable and most expensive scheme by which the Civil Service Commission would appoint a 'Parish Register Preservation Department' consisting of an inspector-general, four inspectors, twelve clerks or writers, a secretary, an accountant and keeper of books and records, and an index compiler, all of whom were to be experienced palaeographers. These persons were to transcribe the nation's registers and bishops' transcripts, initially prior to 1799, and, being provided with the services of one or more printing presses, were to print fifty copies of each register, thirty copies being strongly bound in leather and certified. The original registers and one copy would remain in each church, the bishops' transcripts being sent to the Public Record Office and the other copies distributed to various libraries and repositories or sold. The total costs of the department, Jewers estimated, would be £15,000 a year.

It appears that Jewers caught, at this time, something from William Borlase, for he now left his wife and children at Plymouth and, describing himself as a bachelor, married (without the convenience of a previous divorce) a much younger woman, Gertrude Shilton, in Islington in 1887.[51] He worked as a dentist at Wells for a while[52] and then moved to London, his abandoned wife running a lodging house in Plymouth.[53] Arthur Jewers's new young sister-in-law, Dorothy Shilton (1884-1962), lived with the couple [54] and was infected by his enthusiasms, she becoming a well-known record agent and very much later, marrying in 1934 her partner the archivist Richard Holworthy, an active early member of the Society of Genealogists whose first wife had died in 1933.

Jewers's approaches to various Members of Parliament soon revealed their doubts as to the funding of the project that he had outlined. The writer Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) wrote immediately and realistically about the Bill, 'I fear it will be difficult to get it passed' and said, 'In the meantime could not a society do something of the sort, with such registers as the clergy will consent to have printed'.[55] Lord Salisbury wrote that he had 'no influence whatever with the Treasury, with whom such a decision would lie'.[56] The genealogist George W. Marshall wrote that he was in favour of the removal of the registers to London but that, 'What is most wanted is a Royal Commission to enquire into their present condition ... not more than one parish register in ten is safe from destruction now ... The idea of getting registers transcribed and printed is good, but impossible to put into practice'.[57] Jewers thus turned his attention to the possibility of a Royal Commission and concluded, along with the active Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), then M.P. for London University, and William Borlase himself, that a Royal Commission might indeed be the answer.[58]

To achieve this he conceived the idea of presenting a memorial or Petition to the Queen, signed by the Archbishops and Bishops of the Kingdom, that a Royal Commission be appointed which would name up to six commissioners to inspect and report on the extent and condition of the registers in their districts, and print fifty copies or 'a complete abstract' of any register found to be in decay. In 1891 Jewers, who was also a fine heraldic artist and was working on a complete record of the monuments and inscriptions in Wells Cathedral,[59] persuaded the Bishops of Bath and Wells and of Ely to take the initiative and write to the others.[60] The Bishop of London wrote that although willing to sign, 'it cannot be acted upon without Parliament', but Jewers continued to collect signatures from various individuals and societies into 1892 when, at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Edward White Benson), the idea was abandoned.[61] The Archbishop had apparently given the impression that he would personally put the plan to the Privy Council but in July 1894 wrote to say that he could not recall agreeing to make any such proposition.[62] The archbishop died suddenly in October 1896 but Jewers persevered and immediately renewed his assault on the new archbishop, whom the Bishop of Ely saw about the scheme in February 1897, but with little headway, the Bishop of Ely writing realistically, 'I think there may be a great difficulty in getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to agree to start this new office & staff'.[63]

Meanwhile the passing of the Local Government Act in 1894, with its enabling powers to create local record offices, had given some hope of reform and during its passage the barrister John Cumming Macdona (1836-1907), M.P. for Rotherhithe and formerly Rector of Cheadle, who was very aware of the conditions in which many registers were kept, expressed the opinion that all the records in parish churches should be removed.[64] Registers were, however, specifically excluded from this Act’s provisions.

Early in 1897 Jewers heard that Macdona intended to introduce a Bill that would apparently place the registers in the diocesan registries in each cathedral city. Although advised by the antiquary Sir Henry Howorth (1842-1923) who was M.P. for Salford (and latterly a Vice-President of the Society of Genealogists), Macdona seems to have had little idea of what his Bill would mean in reality,[65] but it was first read on 26 January 1897 and had its second reading on 17 March 1897.[66] It then sank without trace.

Two days after the first reading the genealogist Edward Alexander Fry, of Birmingham, Secretary of the newly formed Parish Register Society and an active member and secretary of the British Record Society, wrote very firmly to Jewers about Macdona's Bill saying that he was 'entirely against the removal of either Parish Registers or Records of any class to central depots either in London or elsewhere' and that 'Mr Macdona would do well to bear in mind that the Registrar General prohibits the searching of such Registers as are now collected at Somerset House under the 1837 Act & if that is done now the same could undoubtedly occur again to any fresh additions ... He certainly will have the most strenuous opposition from the clergy themselves or the bulk of them. The yearly Diocesan Conference would warmly take the matter up, I feel sure adversely to his opinions'.[67] Seemingly in no way discouraged Jewers continued until at least 1904 to promote his scheme for a Royal Commission, writing letters and interviewing bishops and archbishops, but all without effect.

The problems continued to be discussed in the pages of Notes and Queries and to be raised at the Congress of Archaeological Societies which published two Reports on the Transcription and Publication of Parish Registers in 1892 and 1896. Its important resolutions in 1900 following the revelations of the Shipway forgeries case are discussed below. In his book on the case William Phillimore, like Fry, had expressed himself strongly opposed to any idea of centralised deposit.

The situation continued to be argued at length by Joint Committees of Convocation which produced four reports on The collection and custody of local ecclesiastical records between 1905 and 1916. But it was only after the creation of the network of county record offices in the second half of the twentieth century that suitable places for deposit became available locally in each county and, after the legislation in 1978 described below, that the majority of the older registers were deposited and removed from the uneven care of the clergy.

By the turn of the century there was no shortage of books and pamphlets on the subject, they including Edward J. Boyce's History of Parochial Registers (1895), the Revd Nigel W. Gresley's pamphlet The history and custody of parish registers (1889) and, as we shall see, William Bradbrook's The Parish Register (1910) for Bernau's Pocket Library and J. Charles Cox, The parish registers of England (1910) for the series of Antiquary's Books.

Arthur Jewers left a more lasting monument in the work that he did for the City of London’s Library Committee between 1910 and 1919 when he and his second ‘wife’ copied the surviving inscriptions and arms in the whole of the churches in the City, in five beautifully indexed volumes.[68] Probably in recognition of this work he was granted a pension from the Civil List in 1918.[69] He died at Hampstead in 1921, aged 73. Twenty years earlier Jewers had given a short account of his family to Fox-Davies's Armorial Families in which he omitted to mention his second wife but claimed that a male-line ancestor had changed his name from Eure to Ewers in the seventeenth century and that he was rightfully 'fourteenth Lord Eure, Baron of Wilton',[70] a claim not elsewhere recognised.

Sir Thomas Phillips had printed parts of a few early registers, the first apparently being Durnford, Wiltshire (1574-1650 only), in 1823. Various people unrealistically suggested that all the surviving registers should be transcribed and printed but, in view of the magnitude of the task, J. S. Burn urged in 1856 that only those before 1700 be tackled and later in 1868, when F. Fitz Henry proposed through the pages of Notes and Queries the formation of a Society to print registers, Burn quickly wrote that the ‘printing of a vast number of uninteresting registers … would be an enormous expense without a corresponding benefit to the public’.[71]

However, later in the nineteenth century some genealogists began to transcribe and publish registers in a systematic way. The Harleian Society, which had been founded in 1869 to print 'the Heraldic Visitations of Counties and any manuscripts relating to genealogy, family history and heraldry', subscribers paying one guinea a year, in 1876 published the whole of the registers of Westminster Abbey from their commencement in 1607 to 1875 in a remarkably detailed edition by Colonel J. L. Chester [72] (of whom more will be said later) and the following year that Society established a Register Section with the intention of printing as many of the more important parish registers as the members' subscriptions would allow, in the event mainly limiting its work to the London area, but including the registers of Canterbury Cathedral edited by Robert Hovenden,[73] St Paul's Cathedral edited by John W. Clay,[74] and Bath Abbey edited by Arthur Jewers.[75]

Granville W. G. Leveson Gower (1838-1895), of Titsey Place, Surrey, who edited the first register for the Harleian Society, that of St Peter Cornhill in two volumes in 1877-9, had considerable doubts about the value of printing these registers in full and was concerned at the cost involved. He wrote that it would 'encumber' the volumes 'with a large mass of useless and uninteresting matter' and he argued that the society's business was 'only with the record of those who at the time the entry was made were persons of recognised social position'. It was a view shared by Chester Waters who wrote 'to print the whole mass [of registers] in extenso, is practically out of the question on the ground of expense' and 'it must be acknowledged that a very small proportion of the whole number of registers has any interest whatever for the general public'.[76] Leveson Gower copied no further registers for the Harleian Society, but his whole family were interested in genealogy. His grandson Richard Leveson Gower (1894-1982), a regular supporter of the Society of Genealogists, whom I knew well, was for a time a professional genealogist with the well-known firm of Hardy and Page, and Granville's brother Arthur (1851-1922), who was in the diplomatic service, copied and published vast numbers of tombstone inscriptions on his missions abroad. I also knew Arthur's daughter Victoria (1887-1977), a god daughter of the Empress Frederick, and helped her to identify some of those named in the diaries of her brother William, a clerk in the House of Lords but killed in action in 1918. I remember one day her pouring out on my desk from her knapsack for identification a pile of the most beautiful Victorian seals which had belonged to her grandmother Viscountess Milton.

In 1889 the Congress of Archaeological Societies and the Society of Antiquaries appointed a joint-committee to consider the best means of assisting transcription and publication, but unfortunately although many registers were subsequently copied, the committee’s recommendations, published in 1892, were that the registers be copied to the year 1812 only. A vigorous correspondence in Notes and Queries followed and in 1895 Edward Alexander Fry revived the idea of a general ‘Parish Register Society’ as Sabine Baring Gould had suggested in 1884. This time, largely through the efforts of George William Marshall, a society was formed in 1896 and continued to print complete registers until 1935. Local societies for the publication of registers were similarly established in several counties, including Shropshire in 1897, Lancashire in 1898, Yorkshire in 1899, Staffordshire in 1901 and Surrey in 1903. The Huguenot Society of London had begun to publish the Huguenot registers in 1887 and similarly the Catholic Record Society, founded in 1904, began printing the surviving Catholic registers the following year.

Following the above-mentioned recommendations, most printed transcripts covered the registers from their commencements up to the introduction of the 'printed form' registers for baptisms and burials in 1813, but some were taken to 1 July 1837 when the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced at the General Register Office. Despite the initial optimism of the Parish Register Society, it was a slow and haphazard progress, much depending on the work of interested local historians and clergy.

The solicitor-genealogist William Phillimore Watts Phillimore (1853-1913) had argued in Notes and Queries that only the marriage registers should be copied (as they formed one thirteenth or fourteenth of the average register) and these only to 1812, and he did not think that indexing was urgent.[77] Believing also that 'one of the chief obstacles to the completion of a pedigree is the difficulty of obtaining the names of the wives', he therefore began to produce through his firm Phillimore & Co Ltd, founded in 1897, the first of a very long series of volumes containing transcripts of marriage registers only, mostly from the smaller parishes, and by the Second World War had covered about 1,650 parishes in 238 volumes.[78] The first volumes owed much to the work of the Revd James Harvey Bloom (1860-1943) and Arthur Scott Gatty (1847-1918) then York Herald (subsequently Garter), a skilled genealogist and formerly a secretary to Stephen Tucker, Rouge Croix.

As early as 1885 George William Marshall had compiled a list of those registers that had been printed, including in this the manuscript copies that were freely available in public libraries. This was printed in The Genealogist [79] and he later made a similar list for the Parish Register Society, Parish Registers: a list of those printed, or of which MS copies exist in public collections (1900) to which that Society added appendices in 1904 and 1908. In 1908 again G. F. Matthews put together his Contemporary index to printed parish (and non-parochial) registers, showing where copies may be found in some public libraries of London, Leeds, and Manchester and that same year Arthur Meredyth Burke produced his useful Key to the ancient parish registers of England and Wales, listing the dates at which the registers in each parish commenced and noting those that had been printed.

The value and utility of some form of central index to the entries in the available copies of marriage and baptismal registers was, it seems, first recognised by the record agents Ethel Stokes and her friend Mary Louise Cox who in about 1898 set to work to form 'a general index' to 'Parish Registers before 1837' in order, as they later announced, 'to overcome the difficulty of finding records of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, unknown'. Their intention was to compile indexes that might be consulted on similar lines to the centralised indexes of births, marriages and deaths which, from July 1837, were being compiled quarterly to cover all England and Wales at the General Register Office.

Mary Louise Cox (1873-1936) was the daughter of a prosperous law-stationer in Chancery Lane and would have been familiar with the Public Record Office from an early age. In 1901, when 27, she described herself as 'ancient records searcher' working on her own account. Ethel Stokes (1869-1944), born in St Pancras to another prosperous family that afterwards lived in Maida Vale, had similarly been a searcher at the Record Office from the age of eighteen. About 1898 the two friends formed a 'Record Office Agency' and in 1904 as 'Stokes & Cox' took an office at 75 Chancery Lane,[80] though they lived with Ethel's aunts in Castellain Road. In 1911 they jointly described their occupation as 'Hunting up genealogies & other historic records in British Museum & other places'.[81] They retained their office until 1939 when Ethel Stokes gave up her record agency work, her friend Mary Cox, who then lived at Highgate, having died in June 1936.

The couple believed that the period just prior to the introduction of civil registration in 1837 was the most difficult genealogically and they initially concentrated on the London parish registers, attempting to index on slips the years 1790 to 1812 or to 1837 if the registers were easily available. Entries from the surviving Bishops Transcripts of the Diocese of London from 1800 to 1837 seem to have formed the basis of the index, and the years missing from the Transcripts, which only commence in 1800, are also generally missing from their Index. These London Transcripts had previously been little used and were widely thought, as Stacey Grimaldi stated in 1828 and William Phillimore repeated in 1888, not to have commenced until 1813.[82] Richard Sims wrote in 1861 that it had ‘never been the custom for the Clergy in this Diocese to transmit duplicates’.[83]

By 1907 the Index contained three million entries[84] and was being further expanded by the regular addition of marriages from the county volumes of the Phillimore marriage series as they were printed and from other available transcripts and publications. These included entries from the many typescripts of London registers and bishops transcripts that, from about 1929 onwards, were being made by William Harold Challen (1888-1964), of Carshalton, which he gave to the Guildhall Library and partially to the Society of Genealogists (which he had joined in 1920). Ethel Stokes, who herself joined the Society in 1928 and was elected a Fellow the following year, spent many hours on the work, generally extending the index back to 1780 where possible, as is clear from a typescript list of the parishes included that was made after her death.

In the 1930s when Percival Boyd began to produce the typed sections of his marriage index, the Stokes & Cox index contained material that was not 'in Boyd', particularly for London and Middlesex which was one of the first sections that Boyd had typed, but following the typing of his Second Miscellaneous Series in the late 1950s it seems likely that the majority of these additional parishes (many from the Phillimore series) had also been slipped by Boyd. Only the material from the London Bishops Transcripts then remained unique to the Stokes & Cox index.[85]

Following her partnership with Mary Cox, Ethel Stokes had seen a rapid increase in work and she acquired a remarkable knowledge of early sources and, as a tribute in The Times said,[86] a fine scholarship and a technical methodology of the highest order, she being engaged over a long period in peerage claims and in the composition of detailed articles on medieval baronies for The Complete Peerage. In 1912 she had edited an index to the PCC Wills 1605-19 for the British Record Society and followed that with volumes of transcripts of the Liber Ecclesiae Wigorniensis, of inquisitions post mortem for Gloucestershire and Wiltshire and of feet of fines for Warwickshire.

In the late 1920s, Ethel Stokes together with Miss Joan Wake (1884-1974) from Northampton was instrumental in expanding the work of the British Record Society into records preservation generally [87] and when the British Records Association was founded in 1932 she was successively its chairman and honorary secretary. On the outbreak of War in September 1939 she gave up much of her record agency work and threw herself into records preservation, setting up an office at the Public Record Office (where she also ran a canteen and would sleep in an improvised air-raid shelter under the Library table [88]) to review material sent for salvage, and remaining extremely active in that field until her tragic death in 1944, she being struck by a taxi in Great Russell Street when leaving the British Library. Harvey Bloom, the expert on medieval deeds, also spent his final years during the War worrying about records sent for salvage. The dreadful 'paper pulping', as his daughter Ursula wrote, became 'the nightmare of his old age, the ever-abiding ghost that walked with him'. Bombed out from his flat in Balham he moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and continued his work calendaring the charters in the Birthplace Library there.[89]

Ethel Stokes had maintained her office in Chancery Lane until 1939 and the exact whereabouts of the great index that she had been instrumental in compiling is not known. It may have been in store somewhere but as a result of enemy action the greater part of the baptismal index was destroyed. Very fortunately the marriage index survived and at some stage it seems to have been acquired by Henry William Sayers (1876-1962), of Thames Ditton, who, as described below, had taken over the extensive next-of-kin business of the De Bernardy Brothers, initially at 25 Bedford Row and then, from at least 1924, at 59-60 Chancery Lane. At the latter address he and his wife Annie Lydia worked with John Herbert Pallot as genealogists and record agents, specialising in Chancery work and intestacy or next-of-kin cases, their telegraphic address being 'Sayersanco'.

John Herbert Pallot, who had been born in Jersey in 1904 and whose wife Elsye was a qualified accountant, lived at 2 Lawn Road, Hampstead [90] but also had an office at 59-60 Chancery Lane, at least from 1933 until the War. His firm Pallot & Co was at 2 New Court, Carey Street, from 1946 until 1960 (he living at Harrow in 1951-5), and Henry and Annie Sayers continued to work with him. Both died in 1962, John Herbert Pallot being their executor.[91] Meanwhile in 1961, Pallot & Co had been succeeded at 2 New Court by another firm of genealogists, Andrew & Co. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies acquired the index, by then known as the Pallot Index, from John Andrew in 1972, the Institute adding slips for marriages in some further London parishes.[92]

Although mentioned in Bernau's International Genealogical Directory in 1907-9, this extremely useful tool had remained almost unknown to working genealogists until this time. It was then said to contain 'several million marriages' in the London area between 1780 and 1837.[93] The index became better known in 1978 following somewhat extravagant claims made for it in a full-page advertisement in The Genealogists’ Magazine,[94] though many professionals considered the minimum search fee of £4 then charged by the Institute too high [95]. Later, when the 'Pallot Index' was published on CD-ROM by in 2001, it was found to contain 1,695,352 records from 2,600 parishes [96].

Monumental Inscriptions

The genealogical value of monumental inscriptions has been recognised for centuries [97]. The first book collecting them was probably the inaccurate Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631) by John Weever (1576-1632). In 1700 the Hertfordshire historian Sir Henry Chauncy, quoting Sir Edward Coke, wrote that inscriptions served four uses or ends but chiefly, ‘They are Evidences to prove Descents and Pedigrees’ [98]. In the eighteenth century Ralph Bigland, already mentioned as the author of the first book on parish registers [99], seems to have been the first to recognize the importance of tombstones as a source for those below the status of gentry and to copy them systematically. He collected local inscriptions in the 1740s whilst selling cheese to the armies in the Low Countries during the War of the Austrian Succession, long before he entered the College of Arms in 1757. In Gloucestershire he noted great numbers of inscriptions in churches and churchyards, many since lost, for his Historical, monumental, and genealogical collections relative to the County of Gloucester (posthumously published in 1791-92) [100].

Bigland was followed in this work by numerous 19th-century antiquaries and local historians, though most copied only a selection of the inscriptions that they found and even these were mainly those inside the churches. The destruction of many church monuments during the nineteenth century ‘restorations’ was a source of great disquiet to some of them and drew an unusual and heartfelt cry from the young antiquary Edward Peacock (1831-1915), of Bottesford Manor, Brigg, about their value for the ancestry of the ‘common people’ which appeared in the Stamford Mercury in 1861. He wrote with passion and foresight that ‘the desire to possess knowledge concerning our ancestors arises from no vulgar pride of ancestry, but from a natural instinct to connect ourselves with the far-off past. This instinct is felt as much by the poor as by the rich; it displays itself as strongly in the yeoman and the peasant as it does in the nobleman. … We most of us … are sprung in many lines from the common people; there are not many, we will hope, who are ashamed of this, or would wish to blot it from their own or other people’s memory. Is it not then a grievous thing that, by the meddling of churchwardens and others, we should be deprived of that which we now value highly, and which future ages will reprobate us for having permitted ignorant people to destroy? Genealogical investigations have always presented great attractions to a free people; as our race becomes more educated it is probable that the pleasure taken in the study of family history will be much more general than it is now. Already, America and Australia look to us to furnish them with materials of their forefathers’ [101]. The damage that had been done in Peacock’s county can be seen from the number of monuments noted between 1828 and 1840 by William John Monson (later 6th Lord Monson of Burton) which had disappeared or been destroyed by the time those notes were published in 1936. In the little church of Tallington, for instance, ten of the eleven monuments and a hatchment had gone [102].

It is thought that a Durham journalist and antiquary, Cuthbert Mills Carlton (1832-1892), was the first to make a complete copy of all the inscriptions in a particular place for his valuable The monumental inscriptions of the cathedral, parish churches and cemeteries of the City of Durham (1880), something that he himself considered important and of which he was proud [103]. In the churches and churchyards of London and Middlesex the work of Frederick Teague Cansick (1855-1918), both printed [104] and manuscript was noteworthy but far from complete. By the turn of the century several genealogists were copying all the stones in their areas, the work of William Gerish in Hertfordshire, mentioned later, being a notable example. On 8 September 1900 the active Revd James Harvey Bloom, Rector of Whitchurch, wrote to The Times regretting the widespread destruction of memorials and urging their transcription, as the earlier ones gave ‘information of relationships, offices held, places of residence and details of age which can be obtained nowhere else’ [105].

In the year that the Society of Genealogists was founded (1911), a few subscribers formed the English Monumental Inscriptions Society, its leading light being the Revd Thomas William Oswald-Hicks (died 1939, aged 77), Honorary Secretary and Editor of the Register of English Monumental Inscriptions, of which two volumes, mostly relating to Suffolk, were published for 1911/12 and 1913/14. He was probably thinking of the long established Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland, founded in 1888, that did so much valuable work there and continued to publish its Journal until 1937. His society was however a casualty of the First World War.

Probate Records

Because proof of pedigree in relation to estates and titles was such an important element in the work of early genealogists the value of the probate records maintained by the church courts throughout the country, was also early recognised. In the seventeenth century Sir William Dugdale had made use of the wills proved in the senior court, the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Baronage of England (1675-6). In the next century the use of wills by historians became frequent and in 1780 the antiquary John Nichols (1745-1826) published all the surviving royal wills prior to 1508 in a volume, the first of its kind, Collection of all the wills now known to be extant of the Kings and Queens of England and every branch of the royal blood. The earliest index or calendar of wills compiled for publication seems to have been that made for Nichols about 1779 by his fellow antiquary Andrew Coltee Ducarel (1713-1785) who indexed the wills at Lambeth Palace, but the scheme to publish it did not materialise as the fees charged for the consultation of the Lambeth index would have been lost to the Palace dignitaries. In 1826 the peerage lawyer Stacey Grimaldi was asked 10s 6d for consulting it [106].

Most of the wills that had been proved in the bishops' consistory and archdeaconry courts were at this time deposited in the diocesan registries around the country. However, there were in addition a large number of small 'peculiar' courts that claimed the right to prove wills, the records of which were frequently held in private hands and not easily accessible, so that, as Stacey Grimaldi wrote in 1828, the persons whose wills were proved in them were often presumed to have died intestate [107]. Altogether there were in England and Wales at this time about 370 courts that had the right to prove wills and grant administrations.

In 1822 the young and aggressively practical antiquary-genealogist and former naval lieutenant Nicholas 'Harris' Nicolas (1799-1848), shocked not only by the number and variety of the courts but by the conditions in which many of their records were allowed to exist, had written to the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that a centralised 'General Registry of Indexes' to wills proved and administrations granted be set up in London. He had mentioned that no list of the courts in the various dioceses then existed, there was no guide to their jurisdictions and much less any guide to their records, so that after a fruitless search in the main court, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, any enquiry for a particular will could be a lengthy process. The Archbishop did not reply.

As a consequence Harris Nicolas had himself compiled such a guide, Notitia historica: containing tables, calendars and miscellaneous information for the use of historians, antiquaries and the legal profession (1824), which, as he later wrote, proved useful 'in exciting attention to the manifest inconveniences which so many courts created'. He reverted to the subject in the preface to his Testamenta vetusta: or abstracts of wills of the royal family, nobility and gentry, from the reign of Henry the Second to the accession of Queen Elizabeth, illustrative of the manners, dresses, household furniture and customs of that period; and of the descents and landed possessions of many distinguished families: with biographical notes (2 vols. 1826), making some characteristically strong comments on the regulations of the Archbishop's Prerogative Court at Doctors' Commons. The publication of further similar collections of wills was urged by Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) in his History of the Deanery of Doncaster (1831) and the oldest local record society, the Surtees Society, produced the first of many such volumes in 1835 [108].

Meanwhile the attention of Edward Protheroe (later Davis-Protheroe; 1798-1852), M.P. for Evesham, having been drawn to the lack of information on the courts and their records, he promoted several parliamentary enquiries that sought to clarify the complicated situation, calling in 1828-32 for details of the probate jurisdictions claimed by the various courts then active, their fees, records, safety and frequency of use. Following the publication of the important Returns respecting the jurisdiction, records, emoluments and fees of ecclesiastical courts (Command Paper 205, 1830), Harris Nicolas poured scorn on the confusion revealed in the registries, their ridiculous number (there were 28 in the Diocese of Bath and Wells and 38 in that of Lichfield alone), the exorbitant fees and the vested rights of the officials, in his Observations on the state of historical literature and on the Society of Antiquaries ... with remarks on record offices, and on the proceedings of the Record Commission (1830). The later Reports ... into the practice and jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in England and Wales (Command Paper 199, 1832) largely agreed with the points made by Harris Nicolas and, as he wrote, 'showed the existence of serious evils in glaring colours'. They recommended that the peculiar courts be abolished and that one centralised registry be formed [109].

However, the numerous officials of the courts for twenty-five years resisted any reform with, as Harris Nicolas said, 'feverish tenacity' and he sadly did not live to see the outcome, but the whole paraphernalia of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in matters testamentary together with the powers of the small temporal courts that claimed the right of probate was eventually abolished by the Court of Probate Act 1857, which created, as from 12 January 1858, the Principal Probate Registry in London and forty District Registries throughout England and Wales (with others in Ireland) which were given specific geographical areas of jurisdiction. In 1875 the Court of Probate was incorporated into the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court (now the Family Division).

The geographical areas of jurisdiction given to the District Registries bore little if any relation to the former boundaries of jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Some Registries were situated in county towns and served whole counties, but in Lancashire, for instance, there were registries at Manchester and Liverpool serving those towns and another at Lancaster for the rest of the county. However, the pre-1858 probate records of the ecclesiastical courts were hurriedly split off from their other records and moved from their ancient homes in the cathedrals and diocesan registries to the nearest available probate registries. Some of these diocesan registries had long traditions of careful records’ preservation but in others, particularly those of the smaller jurisdictions, the records had often been stored in the most appalling conditions. Some had suffered frequent moves and consequent losses. Now their records were to be divided and those relating to probate sent to the probate registries. In the diocese of London, for instance, many records were stored at St Paul's Cathedral in muniment rooms, 'in a turret on the north side of the Cathedral above the Lord Mayor's Vestry'. Officers from the newly created Probate Registry visited the Cathedral in 1861-3 to 'roughly arrange' the records before taking them away, finding it impossible to do more 'in a place so dark and dirty'. All the records of a purely ecclesiastical nature were left upon the shelves but anything of a mixed character was brought away, including some books that contained no probate material at all and which consequently became quite inaccessible to the historian [110].

The records remained at the various probate registries for almost a hundred years, sometimes in conditions that were far from ideal and they were the subject of frequent complaint by genealogists and other historians. There was often 'neither accommodation for searchers nor any inducement to officials to give facilities for search', access only being allowed if it was no 'impediment to the business of the registry'.

In London the Principal Probate Registry was initially located at Doctors' Commons 'one of the queerest old rookeries in London' [111] to the south of St Paul's Cathedral and at the corner of Bennet's Hill and Great Knightrider Street, which, apart from a short period after the Great Fire, had been the home of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury since 1572 [112]. Following the 1857 Act it received also the records of many of the courts relating to the Home Counties as well as those of the dioceses of Sarum (in Wiltshire and Berkshire) and Oxford and of the Archdeaconry of Richmond in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The search room at Doctors' Commons was open every day, February to September, 9 am - 4 pm, and October to January, 9 am to 3 pm [113], but the conditions both as regards the storage of the documents and the facilities for their inspection were, throughout the nineteenth century, cause for complaint. In 1826 Harris Nicolas complained bitterly of the obstruction and rudeness of the officials [114] and in April 1848 Lord Braybrooke, President of the Camden Society and fifteen members of its Council sent a strong memorial to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the monstrous office fees levied for the consultation and copying of wills, no information being available except in the form of office copies and all copies from 1383 to the present day being charged at the same rate. His office was, they wrote, ‘probably the only public office in the kingdom which is shut against literary enquirers’ [115]. The Archbishop (John Bird Sumner) evasively replied that he ‘had no control whatever over the fees taken in that department’ and the Camden Society in January 1853 wrote fiercely to the Commission on ecclesiastical courts saying that the authorities in the Prerogative Office with its ‘offensively enforced’ rules, stood alone as the only depository of historical documents in which there was not only no feeling whatever in favour of literature and historical enquiry but also 'an anxiety to retain extravagant fees' [116].

However, following the abolition of the ecclesiastical courts in 1858, further representations by the Camden Society and the Society of Antiquaries to the newly appointed Judge, Sir Cresswell Cresswell (1794-1863) of the Principal Probate Registry, were rewarded when he agreed to 'literary' searchers (i.e. those not working for lawyers) with suitable references being allowed free access to records prior to 1700. The Camden Society marked this 'era in our literary history' by publishing in 1863 a volume of wills, edited by John Gough Nichols and another industrious antiquary, John Bruce (1802-1869), which had been made without payment of office fees [117].

Daniel Kirwan, writing just three years before the abolition of Doctors' Commons, said that, 'The lawyers who practice here are all well to do, snug, aristocratic old fellows, and enjoy good living and nothing to do as no other disciples of the legal profession can' [118], but a chronic shortage of space there had already been relieved by taking some of the records to Somerset House and in the late autumn of 1874 the whole of the remainder was taken in waggon loads down Ludgate Hill, up Fleet Street and along the Strand to rooms on the south side of that building which had been vacated by the Admiralty on its move to Whitehall [119]. The Principal Probate Registry was formally opened here on 23 October 1874 and this was its home until 1998. The wills were stored in a long gallery under the terrace overlooking the Embankment and produced to the public in a ‘large and handsome apartment’, Room 32, immediately above and on the ground floor. Here the calendars of wills in the various courts were made available. There were three clerks who did indexing and attended to the public and there was one seat for those who had obtained permission to see filed wills and calendars without charge.

In 1862 another room, Room 9, with six tables and chairs had been provided for literary searchers and named the Department for Literary Inquiry. However, this was in the basement facing the quadrangle and although it was a high room and had a wide area outside its windows, it had no artificial lighting and consequently the opening hours were restricted from 11 am to 2.30 pm in the winter and from 10 am to 3.30 pm in the summer. In the summer, to add insult to injury, this cold, dark and unpleasant room, later likened to a 'cellar' by Ethel Stokes, was closed altogether for six weeks. No searcher was admitted on more than two days a week even if he or she had made an appointment in advance. The 'privilege' of working here was frequently hammered home and anyone who complained was threatened with the room's closure or the withdrawal of their literary permit. Following protests and a petition by scholars in 1884, however, a second room was thrown into this room and a total of twelve or fourteen seats provided. That only three had been allowed for in the original regulations was still being argued in 1913.

Room 9 held duplicates of the calendars upstairs where they existed, but this was not usually until after 1660, and the others had to be requisitioned and brought down. As at Doctors' Commons the literary non-legal searchers who had obtained permits from the President of the Probate Division were here allowed to see registered copy wills prior to 1699 without charge [120]. Within three years of moving to Somerset House that date had been moved to 1760 and in 1884 it was further extended to one hundred years from the year of search. In theory, if the required will had not been registered, searchers were supposed to be able to see the original will on payment of a shilling but that became more and more difficult and latterly access to the originals was almost entirely prohibited. No copying by the readers was permitted, all copies being made, sometimes quite incompetently, by the staff and for fees. Two staff alternated in the management of the room and there were two messengers who fetched the heavy books of registered wills and the smaller act books, though only eight books could be seen on any one day.

In 1872 the able scholar John 'Challenor' Covington Smith (1845-1928), whose father had also been in the Civil Service, was appointed Superintendent of 'the Literary', as Room 9 was often called, and from then until 1892 he played an active part in the work and development of his small section. In 1882 he had greatly assisted the philologist Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910) with his Fifty earliest English wills in the Court of Probate, London for the Early English Text Society and Walter Rye says that 'he was ever ready to offer valuable suggestions and assistance to all who are earnest students and not mere triflers' but that he was removed to another department 'apparently to prevent the Search-room from becoming too popular' [121]. Earlier Rye had said that without Challenor Smith 'matters would indeed go badly with any enquirer' and that his 'special knowledge of his subject and unfailing courtesy especially fitted him for the place' but that he had 'for some inscrutable reason been removed from it' [122]. Immediately on leaving 'the Literary', and the two events are probably not unconnected, Challenor Smith compiled for the British Record Society in 1893-5 two volumes of an index to the earliest wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1383-1558, 'the finest privately compiled calendar ever printed' [123]. Challenor Smith had lived for some years at Richmond in Surrey and in 1903-5 the local Parish Register Society published two volumes of his transcripts of the Richmond parish registers. In 1919 he compiled an index to the wills recorded in the archbishops' registers at Lambeth Palace and he produced a number of articles for genealogical periodicals.

When the records were first transferred to Somerset House there were plans to print calendars of them, but a pilot scheme to index those of the Court of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster proved too laborious and that volume alone was printed in 1864 (but not distributed) [124]. The two Record Keepers involved in its compilation, John Smith and Joseph Frederick Coleman [125], had found, as they wrote in the introduction, that every piece of paper had to be examined and properly arranged first of all and that where, as in London, different courts used a common registry, the records had often been 'mixed or misfiled'.

However, in January 1882 George Hook Rodman (1836-1910), the son of a bottle merchant in Chelsea, was appointed Assistant to the Record Keeper. He had worked in the Probate Registry from an early age and had been responsible for collecting the London records from St Paul's Cathedral in 1861-3 [126]. He was now given the task of superintending the indexing and arranging of the ancient records at Somerset House which at this time held the records of some 76 courts, plus another 27 from the diocese of Salisbury [127]. For more than twenty years he laboured at their repairing, sorting and calendaring. Under his direction a small group prepared many of the parchment manuscript indexes or calendars in fine Victorian handwriting which are still in use today as the standard means of reference to the records of the courts in the London area, though some have been superseded by modern printed indexes prepared by private record societies. When reviewing his work in the 1960s the archivist Ida Darlington wrote that he had 'a fund of industry and patience', taking 'particular pains to note down everything he did either in investigating the provenance of the wills or in repairs or other alteration to their format' [128]. Walter Rye speaks of Rodman as 'a gentleman of long experience ... ably assisted by Messrs Cheyne and Rouse' [129].

The first of these assistants, Ernest Cheyne (1853-1903), was the son of a surgeon in Marylebone. He came to the Probate Registry with a university degree in the late 1870s to work with Rodman and is also remembered for his work on the indexes. He died in harness in 1903. In those years Dr Samuel Anderson Smith (died 1915) had written 14,000 index slips to the wills proved in the Prerogative Court, 1558-83, and these Cheyne checked against the Act Books whilst Challenor Smith prepared an index to the places, the whole being edited by Leland L. Duncan for publication by the Index Library in 1898. Ernest Cheyne spent most of his working life in the Registry and his two beautifully written indexes to the Oxfordshire wills 1516-1732, completed in 1902, which form the basis of the British Record Society volumes published in 1981, have been described as 'exceptionally accurate' [130]. It was perhaps significant that Challenor Smith had retired before his index was published and Ethel Stokes later told the story of the registrar at Nottingham who had, in his sparer moments, made a calendar of the wills there with the idea that it should be printed, but the authorities at Somerset House had refused him leave to do so, saying that it was the property of the office [131].

Apart from the official returns made in 1828-32, the various courts and their records still lacked any form of basic manual but in 1895 the barrister George William Marshall, then Rouge Croix Pursuivant of Arms, compiled A handbook to the ancient courts of probate and depositories of wills. I have the copy that George Sherwood bought for 6s 8d and began to annotate and index by county in 1898. It remained the standard reference work until Bethell Bouwens produced his Wills and their whereabouts in 1939.

One might think that in spite of its underground location and restricted hours that all was well in the Literary Department but that was far from the case, many of the later clerks there being quite unsuited to the work. Differing interpretations of the rules found William Henry Benbow Bird (1857-1934), the editor of the Close Rolls, being turned away when Room 9 was half empty because, he was told, the messengers could not be expected to work after 12 a.m. if prior to that time they had done 'all that was required of them' [132]. Herbert Chitty (1863-1949), the Bursar of Winchester College, not having a literary ticket, had been refused a chair to sit on although many were available and he was obliged to stand in a dark corner away from the window, as he said, 'like a naughty boy' [133], though following a petition in 1900 reflectors were installed to improve the light [134]. Herbert Chitty was particularly disgusted at the prohibition on note taking and the need to memorize facts from the wills and then to go outside to write them down [135]. It is said that the antiquary Lord Monson (1796-1862) was fortunately blessed with a peculiarly retentive memory and after reading a will a few times could commit its substance to writing, for the slightest attempt to take notes of its contents would at once be stopped by the vigilant officials [136].

These petty restrictions on note taking (still technically in force into the 1960s) and the seating problems annoyed a growing number of people. Prominent amongst them was a genealogist, Gerald Fothergill (1870-1926) [137], who later played an important role in the early years of the Society of Genealogists. He lived at Wandsworth and had become a record agent when a teenager at Willesden in 1887 [138]. The son of a prosperous railway signal engineer, Fothergill was a friend of the librarian Henry Robert Plomer (1857-1928) who also lived at Willesden and was well known for his books and articles on the biographies of booksellers and printers, the research on which had taken him regularly to the Literary Department.

As a record agent Fothergill specialised in the English origins of migrants to America, charging $125 for a month's work [139]. Interested in 'Hidden Relationships' he too made regular visits to 'The Literary', where he made indexes to the stray names mentioned in the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in the years 1660, 1700 and 1770 [140]. Already in the 1890s he was in correspondence with his local Member of Parliament about access to records generally and for thirty years he waged a long war with various authorities about freedom of access.

Gerald Fothergill was particularly active in 1903. In March that year he and Henry Plomer sent out a circular calling a meeting at 30 Little Russell Street to discuss the possible formation of a 'British Records Preservation Society' with the stated aim of abolishing restrictions and fees for the inspection and copying of records and compelling custodians to observe their legal obligations [141]. That proposed society, however, did not get off the ground. Henry Plomer, who had agreed to be the Secretary, withdrew in May because of the very small response that they had received and because his main aim was to reform the Literary Search Department [142].

However, on 30 May 1903 the periodical The Athenaeum published a strongly worded article, 'Somerset House and its management', signed 'Archivist' but written by Henry Plomer, drawing attention to the many grievances of the regular searchers, and in June, Vicary Gibbs (1853-1932), M.P. for St Albans and later editor of The Complete Peerage, followed this up by asking the Secretary to the Treasury, Arthur Elliot (1846-1923), ‘in view of the lack of facilities offered for research in their present situation’ to consider the transfer of the ‘ancient wills which possess only a literary interest’ to the Public Record Office. Gibbs was firmly told that under Section 66 of the Probate Act 1857 legislation would be necessary and that the President of the Probate Division 'does not think that any serious inconvenience is caused to literary searchers by the present arrangements' [143].

The article in The Athenaeum had, however, caused something of a stir, Plomer writing to Fothergill, 'The fat is in the fire at Somerset House with a vengeance'. Everyone suspected Fothergill of having written the article and George Rodman, the superintendent of the room, was particularly indignant at the article's comment that 'one of the two attendants should have been placed on the retired list long ago' and was going about saying that several noted Americans had made presents to him for his attention to them! [144] The giving of gratuities was another matter of concern that continued throughout the Department's history; at the British Museum, as the Royal Commission reminded a witness, attendants who took gratuities were dismissed [145]. However, mainly as a result of this rumpus, the 'elderly attendant' was retired, the hours were very slightly extended, the seats were allocated more fairly, and the fourteenth seat, about which there had been unseemly squabbles until the President, Sir Francis Jeune, personally intervened, was made permanently available [146].

On 22 April 1905 The Athenaeum published a further letter complaining about the illegible state of many of the probate calendars, which meant that the attendants had to bring down the duplicate volumes from Room 32. There was still no electric light in Room 9 which was lit only from the area, although lighting had been installed in Room 32 which overlooked the Embankment and had good natural lighting. The number of will volumes that might be produced to any searcher on one day was still limited to eight. In 1910 Fothergill organised a petition, worded along the lines of the article, to the President of the Probate Court and although signed by many readers, its only result was to end the annual closure of the room in the summer, though even that took another year to implement. In 1912 the newly formed Society of Genealogists announced that the President of the Probate Division (Sir Samuel Evans) in compliance with the petition had ordered the Literary Research Department to remain open during the Long Vacation (except for ten days for cleaning), from 11 am to 3 pm and from 10 am to 1pm on Saturdays, and that an attempt would be made to obtain for public use there copies of any printed calendars and lists taken from its records [147].

Public Records

In 1807 a Record Commission had reported that the condition of the country’s national records in their various repositories was a growing scandal, ‘unarranged, undescribed and unascertained … exposed to erasure, alienation and embezzlement … lodged in buildings uncommodious and insecure’, and in 1836 a Select Committee of the House of Commons had proposed that they all be brought together in one repository and in the care of one man. Consequently, in 1838 an Act of Parliament had placed the ‘custody, charge and superintendence’ of the records in the hands of the Master of the Rolls (then Lord Langdale) who was to be assisted by a Deputy Keeper of the Records with a staff of Assistant Record Keepers and other workmen. Until the records could be centralised the various offfices were to continue to operate as branches and the Act required the Treasury to fill all the posts in the new office from staff already employed in the branches who might otherwise be entitled to compensation.

The majority of the older ‘public’ records which were derived from the courts of law, the departments of state and the other agencies of central government, were described by Stacey Grimaldi in 1828 and were then either in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey or in the Tower of London. It was to the keepers of these two repositories that he gave particular acknowledgment in his Preface.

At Westminster Abbey the fine thirteenth-century polygonal Chapter House had in medieval times been the meeting place of the House of Commons but in 1547 the Commons moved to the Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster and the Chapter House, its tall windows blocked and with galleries and an upper storey replacing the original vaulting (taken down as ruinous in 1740), was converted into a government record office, mainly for the Exchequer records which included Domesday Book, the medieval tiling being covered with a wooden floor.

In Grimaldi’s time the Keeper there was the antiquary John Caley (died 1834, aged 71). Although Caley drew two salaries as Keeper of the records, he was also secretary to the Record Commission, 1801-31, and responsible for many of the financial and administrative scandals with which it was surrounded. He afterwards received an additional £500 a year to superintend the arranging, repairing and binding of the records, something which, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography, he did ‘in a most disgraceful manner, the lettering and dates being inaccurate in almost every instance’. His office was ‘dirty and dark’ and as its contents were in the utmost disorder the public were rigidly excluded and he kept the few lists and keys to the records at his house in Exmouth Street, Spa Fields. Applicants for documents had firstly to apply there and the records were then brought up in bags from Westminster by his footman. As the wrong documents were frequently brought, it was said that a search which at the end of the century might take two days without charge, could be prolonged through two weeks, the fees involved depending entirely on Caley’s pleasure [148].

Caley died in April 1834 and the story is told that a few months later, on 16 October 1834, when the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire, the wind began to drive the flames towards Westminster Hall and the Chapter House, just across the road. Thousands watching that night saw two figures on the Chapter House roof, surveying the scene: Francis Palgrave (1788-1861) the Keeper of Records and John Ireland (died 1842), the conservative Dean. Before the wind changed, Palgrave suggested that they go down and carry the most valued treasures into the Abbey for safety. Dean Ireland ‘with the caution belonging at once to his office and his character’, as Dean Stanley wrote later, replied that he could not think of doing so without applying to Lord Melbourne, the First Lord of the Treasury, for the Chapter House was Government property! [149] However, only a few years later the new Public Record Office in Chancery Lane began to receive the Chapter House’s contents. Only then, in 1865, was the building restored to its former glory [150].

The Tower of London had been the main repository for Chancery records throughout the Middle Ages and in the time of Charles II a Record Office was formed from the Chapel of St John the Evangelist and a large neighbouring room under the roof of the White Tower. However, it suffered a long decline and transfers of records were ‘limited and spasmodic’ [151]. The antiquary Samuel Lysons (1763-1819) was appointed Keeper there in 1803 and increased the staff from one to six. Amongst the newcomers were two young nephews of his brother Daniel Lyson’s first wife, Sarah Hardy (died 1808). They were the sons of Major Thomas B. P. Hardy, R.A., who had died in the West Indies in 1814. The eldest, Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy (1804-1878), who commenced work as a junior clerk at the Tower in 1819 and rose to be Deputy Keeper at the new Record Office in succession to Sir Francis Palgrave in 1861, is considered the father of the Historical Manuscripts Commission . His younger brother, Sir William Hardy (1807-1887), came to the Tower in 1823 and also rose to be Deputy Keeper, specialising in peerage claims.

These two boys were trained by Lysons’s successor, another antiquary Henry Petrie (1768-1842), who had a reputation for remitting fees for literary searches [152]. However, in 1828 Grimaldi expressed his best thanks for assistance to John Bayley (died 1869), who had worked there from an early age but, like Caley, was notorious for his exorbitant charges. He was a better scholar than Caley, as evidenced by his History and antiquities of the Tower of London (2 parts, 1821-5), but owing to his long absence from business his office at the Tower was declared vacant in 1834 and he moved to Cheltenham. However, irregular deposits of records continued to be made here until 1842 and for some decades had overflowed into much of the Wakefield Tower, but in 1857 everything was removed to Chancery Lane.

As well as these two major record repositories there were also fifty or so smaller repositories dotted about London. On the Rolls Estate in Chancery Lane, the Rolls Office and its Chapel, which had effectively been occupied by the Master of the Rolls and his predecessors since the thirteenth century, had received from the Tudor period many rolls and records of Chancery and other official records. Other records, removed in 1830 from sheds at the end of Westminster Hall, were sent to the Royal Mews at Charing Cross (demolished to make room for the National Gallery in 1835) and ended up in a large repository in Waterloo Place adapted from the former stables of Carlton House and called ‘Carlton Ride’. Here the testy antiquary and historian Joseph Hunter, formerly a Presbyterian minister and mentioned above for his interest in probate records, was nominally in charge. Yet another large repository, housing the records of the former Secretaries of State from the seventeenth century, was the State Paper Office in Duke Street, Westminster, near St James’s Park, but these papers were placed under the Master of the Rolls in 1855 and the building pulled down in 1862.

Prior to the 1860s, access to the records in these many repositories, as Jane Cox wrote, ‘was restricted in a rather haphazard way; there were as many record keepers as there were repositories, and each guarded his charges jealously. Only the tenacious and the relentlessly inquisitive could get to see them and use them for historical or legal purposes’ [153]. However, following the 1838 Act it was agreed in 1840 that the various offices would be open from ten until four except on Sundays. Searchers were to write their particulars in a day book and were allowed to make pencil extracts or copies from the records. A fee of a shilling was payable for a general search in all the available calendars or indexes and another shilling was charged for each inspection. Thee fees could be commuted at five shillings a week, provided the search was limited to one family or place, or to a single object of inquiry, but the £1,100 taken in 1842 in fact came mainly from charges for 1,250 office copies. The officers themselves could no longer take fees or gratuities from the searchers or act as record agents other than in discharge of their official duties. It is thought that in 1842 the total number of searchers could not have exceeded twenty a day, the Chancery records at the Rolls Chapel being the most frequently consulted. Lack of adequate indexes resulted in many unnecessary productions. Someone like the industrious and highly critical Nicholas Harris Nicolas, working on his life of Chaucer, might ask for 20 to 50 documents a day [154].

Palgrave had hoped to remit fees to all historical searchers and wrote in 1843 that they came ‘from all professions and various conditions’, not only lawyers but others ‘searching for information for historical purposes, for evidence of title, or for matters connected with arts and manufactures’. Many of the latter were ‘common workmen’ whose searches were prosecuted ‘with great patience, intelligence, and perseverance’. It was perhaps fortunate that there were not more of them for the search room at Carlton Ride was only eleven feet by twelve and had to accommodate two clerks as well as up to five or six searchers at any one time.

At the end of 1843 the various repositories had a total of 78 staff of whom 48 were workmen, thirty-six of the latter being at Carlton Ride which had a total of 47 staff. There were 9 staff at the Rolls Chapel and 7 at Rolls House, 11 at the Tower and 4 at the Chapter House. Entry to the record service, where family relationships (as with the Watsons and Bradleys) were frequent, had long been dependent on patronage and influence but personal jealousies and animosities were rife and continued to be so until the end of the second half of the century in spite of the slow introduction of the new Civil Service examinations and internal requirements which laid stress on a knowledge of French and Latin as well as of palaeography. In addition to their salaries many officers derived considerable incomes from editorial and record agency work. For some years the two Hardy brothers supplemented their income by making transcripts for the historian Francis Palgrave and there was a long-running dispute about their rates of pay. In one altercation in 1832 the excitable and impulsive Thomas Hardy had knocked Palgrave down [155]. When the latter, a strict disciplinarian, was appointed the first Deputy Keeper in 1838 he continued to meet considerable animosity from the staff and other officers and his relationship with the ever-attentive Lord Langdale was sometimes extremely poor. Langdale had wisely concluded that ‘men admirable for antiquarian learning if they have not early learnt to be men of business cannot (at a certain time of life) become such & no business or Office can prosper under their guidance’ [156]. If the Assistant Keepers took time to be equally attentive to the public their output in editorial work (and their income) was naturally decreased. Some of those who acted as record agents then sought to safeguard their income by discrediting the validity of the office copies.

The question of fees for historical research was further argued in 1851 when Palgrave said that the fees charged to lawyers were moderate and equitable but he considered it ‘almost an act of charity to discourage misguided persons, generally in humble circumstances, from pursuing imaginary claims to property or titles because such endeavours frequently led to insanity or beggary’ [157]. However, as the result of a campaign and petition organised by the Camden Society which gained the support of Sir John Romilly, the new Master of the Rolls, it was agreed that year that no fees should be payable by those engaged in making searches prior to 1760 for ‘strictly literary purposes’. Some twelve thousand documents were produced for public inspection in 1861 and the yearly total rose steadily to 52,000 at the end of the century, but then quickly to 95,000 in 1908 when the 1760 limit was moved on to 1800.

The 1838 Act had initially been interpreted to refer only to the records of the administrative, financial and judicial functions of the old Curia Regis or King’s Court - the Chancery, the Exchequer and the courts of common law and equity, together with those of Palatinate and other special jurisdictions - but in 1852 an Order in Council extended its scope to include the records in government departments, some of which at their own discretion were already depositing non-current administrative records. Francis Sheppard Thomas’s pioneering Handbook to the public records, though later described by Walford Selby as ‘heavy as suet pudding, and just as indigestible’, was published in 1853 [158], and followed in 1856 by the more user-friendly general book by Richard Sims mentioned below. It should perhaps be noted that also in 1851 the Registrar General inquired about the need to keep the records of the 1841 and 1851 Census Returns and was told by Palgrave that they were ‘of great national importance and fit to be preserved’ and ‘will hereafter be invaluable for Historical and Legal purposes’. The Registrar General’s main concern at the time was to find the space, not only for the Census but also to store his birth, marriage and death registers, and he hoped that space for them might be found in the proposed new Records repository [159]. Thomas Hardy, who had succeeded Palgrave as Deputy Keeper in 1861, would have taken in assize records and bishops’ transcripts of parish registers, though neither were mentioned in the 1838 Act. That did not stop the Duchy of Lancaster records from being presented by the Queen and acknowledged as a ‘gracious and priceless gift’ [160].

Meanwhile there had been much argument as to the funding and possible location of the proposed new repository which was to provide safe and fireproof custody for an enormous and ever-growing array of material. The House of Commons had agreed back in 1846 that a new office should be built without delay. Some argued that it should be in Westminster, where the records would be more likely to stimulate public interest, but proposals to use the Victoria Tower or the roof space in the new Houses of Parliament, or that Westminster Prison be adapted and extended, found little favour other than with the Treasury, and the Treasury eventually agreed to expenditure on a new building to be sited on the Rolls Estate between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane.

Work began there in November 1850 and the first, eastern, section of a massive mock-Tudor ‘Public Record Office’, designed by James Pennethorne in iron and stone with slate shelving, was completed in 1858 and became fully operational in 1860, having received its first deposits from the Chapter House, Carlton Ride and the Tower. As precautions against the possibility of fire the building was divided into a large number of separate rooms without central heating. There was no heating either in the old houses requisitioned in Chancery Lane and strengthened to take the records of the Admiralty and War Office.

Following the union of the State Paper Office and Public Record Office, Palgrave argued strongly for the resumption of publication by the PRO, believing that ‘a quiet hour spent by a student at his own desk was worth a day in any public library’, and in 1855 Mrs Mary Anne Everett Green (1818-1895), with the permission of her husband, was appointed the first external editor for work on the domestic state papers, she being paid ten or later eight guineas for each sheet of sixteen pages passed to the printer. From 1873 she was paid £200 a year plus £5 5s per printed sheet and she lived to complete some 41 volumes. Others appointed to do similar work but at different rates included Revd John Sherren Brewer (1810-1879) who was asked in 1856 to prepare a calendar of the vast series of Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII and spent the remainder of his life on the project. Brewer was also involved in the important Rolls Series of ‘Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages’ which had been launched by Sir John Romilly in 1858 [161]. The Series firmly established an academic tradition within the PRO but it should be noted that £3,000 was allowed annually for the small number of its part-time editors and a further £1,500 for those calendaring the State Papers, whereas a sum of £3,500 was expected to cover the annual wages of the service’s 55 workmen and seven charwomen [162].

Meanwhile all was far from honey and light for the readers. The original plan had envisaged thirty seats for them but it is doubtful that that number was ever reached, at least in the 1850s, in the separate rooms for literary and legal searchers. They were brought together into one room in 1858 and by 1860 the number of literary searchers was about 150 a year, each making about 15 visits [163]. Walter Rye made his first dispiriting visit to the new Record Office in July 1864 (having been turned away from the British Museum by a change of rule because he was under twenty-one) and in May 1865 found that he was twice unable to get a seat after lunch, because only nine were now provided [164]. A few of the older staff ‘who had been drafted in with the records, formed rather an eccentric group, some of them affecting the dress of an earlier generation’ and Rye remembered ‘a long unpleasant room, with low tables and high backless forms, which cramped the searcher’s legs if he were anything above a dwarf in stature’ [165]. Some of the assistant keepers, notably Joseph Hunter and Henry James Sharpe, undoubtedly saw themselves as a select band of qualified professionals and had little patience with readers such as those working on their pedigrees whom they regarded as mere amateurs, the literary use of the records being in their view entirely subordinate to the legal, but others, who had themselves been record agents possessed a general knowledge of the records which later keepers found hard to acquire [166]. Hunter himself wrote to Palgrave in 1853 about Americans ‘entertaining it is well known extravagant notions of obstructed rights to property and even hereditary honours in England’ and he had a very low opinion of the agents, like the unstable William Henry Hart and the American Horatio Gates Somerby (both mentioned below), who acted for them and might masquerade as literary searchers in order to avoid fees [167]. However, that local and family history, biography and genealogy formed an important part of the work of the literary searchers was revealed in Hardy’s second Report as Deputy Keeper in 1862 with its summary of work undertaken since fees were lifted in 1852 [168]. In those years a total of 1,081 literary searchers had made 13,123 searches and consulted 104,746 documents.

Domesday Book had remained at the Chapter House until brought over to the new repository in July 1859. Shortly afterwards the book’s section on Cornwall was reproduced by the Ordnance Survey at Southampton by Sir Henry James’s new photozincographic process, the copying of the whole book being completed in 1864 when a series of Facsimiles of National Manuscripts was commenced at the suggestion of Prime Minister Gladstone and continued until 1885.

Restrictions on funding meant that the two main public search rooms planned for the eastern end of the building by Pennethorne in the 1850s were not completed until 1869. These rooms remained familiar to searchers for a century: the impressive ‘Round room’ (or Literary Search Room) which rose through the height of the building and was top-lit by a glass roof, and the ‘Long Room’ (or Legal Search Room) facing Fetter Lane. Rye was not the only one to find the Round Room ‘a veritable rheumatism trap in winter’ but search fees, as long desired by Thomas Hardy and John Brewer, were now abolished and a lady recruited to superintend the ladies’ cloakroom. These improvement owed much to Lord Romilly, who had been raised to the peerage in 1865, but accommodation for the records remained critical and in 1877 the large first-floor copying room above the Long Room was converted to receive the rolls of Chancery, it retaining its new name of ‘Rolls Room’ when again converted into another room for searchers in 1961 [169]. A small refreshment room for the staff was opened in the basement in 1867 [170].

Fourteen workmen were on duty to bring documents to the searchers from the 103 record rooms. The latter were fifteen feet high and divided by galleries reached by iron staircases. Each room had two high windows designed to throw light into both divisions and twenty-five feet down the passages between the records. However, by the early afternoon on cloudy or foggy days the work of production, even when aided with lanterns was often extremely difficult if not impossible. There was gas lighting at intervals in the corridors (sufficient, it was said, to play cards by) but none in the small slip-rooms on each floor in which the men were based, numbering, flattening, stamping and packing documents for use. Consequently work in the dark and chilly repository was far from popular. There was, of course, no lighting in the search rooms but the keepers and clerks used oil lamps in the winter as well as candles, though the latter were forbidden in 1876 [171]. The installation of electricity in 1889 was, as Rye said, a vast improvement [172].

The Historical Mauscripts Commission was established in 1869, owing much to the work of Hardy (who was knighted that year) and Romilly, and was given space in Rolls House, its inspectors being paid two guineas a day plus travelling expenses. One of the latter was Alfred Horwood (1821-1881), Hardy’s son-in-law, who was also an active editor. In 1870 The Earl Cawdor placed in the Commission’s care the four volumes of the early eighteenth century Golden Grove Book of (Welsh) Pedigrees and this was passed to the Record Office [173].

In one quarter in 1874 a troublesome individual applied to see 46,360 Treasury papers. There were always critics and one, the combative and litigious John Pym Yeatman (1830-1910), a disappointed barrister, proved particularly unpleasant. Both in his Introduction to the study of early English history (1874) and in a pamphlet An exposure of the mismanagement of the Public Record Office (1875) he criticised the editorial system by which public money was distributed ‘amongst a party of clergymen and ladies who amuse themselves at the Record Office’ and referred to the Oxford school of historians (the followers of Freeman and Stubbs, later despised by Horace Round) as fastening ‘on to the sugar cask of the Record Office like wasps and flies’, deploring the enormous disparity between the small salaries of the workmen and the payments and ‘hereditary corruption’ of the editors, comparing Thomas Hardy in particular to the covetous John Caley and complaining about the general inadequacy of the calendars, the delays in document production and the poor facilities for searchers. In all of which there were, of course, quite large elements of truth. Yeatman’s unpleasant tirade was completely ignored but he then took a request for access to land tax material as far as the Court of Appeal and was firmly told that nobody had a general right of access to records in the PRO, all searches being subject to such rules as the Master of the Rolls might impose [174]. In contrast he had found remarkable ease of access to many records in New York [175]. Yeatman was later a critic of the Victoria County History and although twice declared bankrupt he found time and money to compile a vast Feudal history of the county of Derby (10 vols. 1886-1912).[176]

Another issue which had become increasingly contentious was that of the disposal of documents considered valueless, some already in the PRO but others being passed to it in growing numbers by government departments as if the PRO were an extension of the departments themselves. By an Act of Parliament in 1877 the Master of the Rolls was given new powers to dispose of any such material created after 1715 (a date moved back to 1660 in 1898), but the departments had to make sure that their schedules of papers to be destroyed did not include anything ‘of legal, historical, genealogical or antiquarian use or interest, or which give any important information not to be obtained elsewhere’. Disposal meant destruction unless the Master of the Rolls decided that the documents should be handed to a library. There was little opposition in Parliament but the chapter of the College of Arms had passed a resolution of protest against the Bill’s proposed new powers. The resulting system whereby destruction schedules were first compiled by the departments, examined by a Committee of Inspecting Officers, laid before Parliament, and then put into action by the departments, continued until 1958 when it was considered hopelessly inadequate, the application of the important historical criteria having been left to persons appointed in the departments themselves [177].

Apart from the 1877 Act little of moment had occurred during the last ten years and when Sir Thomas Hardy died in June 1878, his brother William Hardy, though already aged seventy-one, was appointed Deputy Keeper in his place. The latter, ‘a man of lesser energy and talent’ [178], had carried on a lucrative practice as a record agent whilst keeper of the duchy of Lancaster records but had done no work of note there. Yeatman would not have been pleased when Hardy’s young son, William John Hardy (died 1919), already undertaking private work, was found a place at the Record Office in 1879, but he fortunately resigned in 1885 after the Treasury had become concerned. The Master of the Rolls moved from the Rolls House to the new Law Courts in the Strand in 1882 and from that date his authority as head of the PRO began to decline [179].

An officer who had entered the service in 1867 and made a mark assisting the public in the Literary Room was formally recognised as its superintendent in 1882. This was the popular and much respected Walford Daking Selby (1845-1889), a friend of Walter Rye and Horace Round, who with James Greenstreet founded the Pipe Roll Society in 1883 and was editor of The Genealogist from 1884 to 1889. However, Selby shot himself in a bout of depression after being seriously ill with typhoid fever brought on, Edward Walford said, by the insanitary conditions in his room off the Round Room [180]. Many complained of the unlit and draughty search rooms, there was an unpleasant down draught from the dome of the Round Room through which rain occasionally came, and noise from the heavy traffic and black smoke from the printers’ chimneys in Fetter Lane was a growing problem, as indeed was the smell of manure and the yelling of boys from the neighbouring London Parcels Delivery Company on the Office’s north side [181]. Two other assistant keepers who came into prominence at this time were Hubert Hall (1857-1944), of whom below, and Charles Trice Martin (1841-1914) the compiler of the indispensable Record Interpreter (1898, 1910).

The showing of Domesday Book to a party of fourteen girls from a Board School in 1882 did not find favour with William Hardy and some must have wondered why he was knighted in 1883, for his reports (as the Royal Commission in 1912 noted) were ‘meagre and uninteresting’.  He resigned in 1886 [182] and one of those who had earlier complained about the conditions in the search rooms, Henry Maxwell Lyte (1848-1940), was appointed to succeed him. Lyte had no previous experience in the administration of the Office. He was thirty-seven (all the assistant keepers had been in office since before he was born) and the first graduate to enter the PRO’s service, having recently been an inspector for the Historical Manuscripts Commission and written histories of Eton College and of pre-1530 Oxford University. However, he quickly showed considerable administrative ability and, after William Hardy’s laxness, was an autocrat where staff discipline was concerned. His interests included genealogy and his appointment marked a clear watershed in the Office’s development. As Geoffrey Martin said in 1988 he gave it, ‘a character and sense of purpose that lasted into our own time, and is by no means yet a spent force’ [183]. A practical man who wanted to promote the scholarly use of the records Lyte drove forward the work of their classification and arrangement. He had electric lighting installed in the three search rooms in 1889 and later the Office’s first lift next to the Round Room, but his prohibition of the use of ink (in which he was supported by the College of Arms) caused much protest. Amongst the many complainants was a regular visitor, the genealogist and author Theophilus Charles Noble (1840-1890) who in 1886 had published the list of subscribers towards the defence of the country at the time of the Spanish Armada [184]. The Long Room had in 1885-86 become quite crowded with solicitors and those seeking unclaimed money in Chancery and as a result fees for searches in legal documents after 1760 were re-introduced (1s for a legal document and 2s 6d  for a search for a particular suit).

A group from the Library Association was welcomed in 1886 and Lyte was amongst those who organised the celebrations for the Domesday anniversary that year when some 300 visitors came to hear Hubert Hall speak about Domesday Book from the gallery of the Round Room. In 1887 the Office put on an Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition. The old and indigestible PRO Handbook (1853) by Thomas was replaced with a new Guide (3 editions, 1891-1908) by Samuel Robert Scargill-Bird (1847-1923) which remained the standard work until the more user-friendly two volume Guide (1923-24) by Montague Giuseppi who was in charge of the Search Department. By 1892 some forty to fifty people were using the search rooms daily and the number of documents produed had increased to 42,000 annually. However, although the 1888 Local Government Act had created the possibility of a co-ordinated approach to local records, Lyte and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Esher, were strongly opposed to the idea, having enough to deal with in terms of the growing deposit of departmental records and the official searches which had to be made therein.

In 1891 the inspecting officers intervened to save the muster rolls and crew lists of merchant seamen which might otherwise have been destroyed and they joined with the Registrar General in opposing the destruction of the 1851 and 1861 census returns which were then in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament, but lack of space was partly responsible for the destruction in 1897 of the marked-up electoral poll books, 1843-70, in the Lord Chancellor’s Office. The port books for London, 1696-1795, important for economic historians, were also destroyed as a result of the schedules agreed in 1896 and 1899 [185]. However, it was the Board of Trade in 1900 which irregularly ordered the destruction of the outward and many of the inward passenger lists prior to 1890 and was soundly rebuked by the Master of the Rolls in 1917 for doing so [186].

The old Rolls Series was abandoned after the publication of Hubert Hall’s controversial edition of The red book of the Exchequer (3 vols. 1896-97) and the Office’s publishing resources were concentrated on improving the finding aids, commencing in 1891 with calendars of the patent rolls, followed by the close rolls (with an external editor) in 1892, the inquisitions post mortem (edited by a skilled genealogist Anthony St John Story-Maskelyne) in 1898, and other major series. By 1899 some 72 calendars had appeared. To complement these a new series of ‘Lists and Indexes’, designed mainly to assist those in the search rooms, was initiated with an index of ancient petitions in 1892 [187].

The PRO staff remained almost totally a male preserve, the only women being the part-time cleaners and the ladies’ attendant, though the editor Mrs Green had been succeeded by her niece, Mrs Sophia Crawford Lomas (died 1929). By 1900 a typewriter was being used for outgoing correspondence, other typing being sent to the Civil Service Commission. Of the searchers, however, many more (as discussed below) were now women and the US Government Despatch Agency and the Canadian record authorities employed a number of women in London for work on the American Loyalists’ and other papers [188].

Maxwell Lyte’s interest in the PRO’s publications and its staffing was coupled with a desire to increase the office accommodation and preparations went ahead to demolish the twenty rickety eighteenth century houses which surrounded Rolls Yard at the west end of the Rolls Estate and fronted Chancery Lane. They were used for storage and offices but two had resident staff; all were fire risks, access often needing candles or a lamp. After protracted negotiations the houses were demolished in 1891, some 124 van-loads of records being temporarily moved to the late Barge Dock at Somerset House, and the block now facing Chancery Lane with a tower over its gateway was built in 1892-95. The new offices had electric lighting and were a vast improvement and Maxwell Lyte was knighted at the Jubilee in 1897. However, the proposed destruction of the old Rolls Chapel and the Rolls House which now stood between the new block and the original Pennethorne block raised considerable opposition and did not take place until 1899-1900 when the latter block was extended westward and the Rolls Chapel replaced by a museum with a wide variety of records in a permanent display that incorporated the Chapel’s monuments. Twenty-seven large sacks of documents were found above the Chapel’s vaulting [189].

Power to present unwanted or duplicate material to other repositories had been given in the 1877 Act but it was not until 1890 that rules for the administration of the Act were drawn up whereby such material might be presented to libraries in Great Britain or Ireland. By an Order of Council in 1908 certain colonial office documents could also be transferred to those colonial governments interested in their contents. By 1912 only eight such transfers had taken place and the Royal Commission that year thought that much more could have been done ‘with advantage to local students’. However, the PRO’s policy remained largely unchanged until the Act in 1958 [190].

The genealogist George Sherwood, commenting on the Deputy Keeper’s Annual Report in 1909, paid tribute to the courtesy of the staff but worried about these new powers to transmit records to the relevant colonies and the ‘weeding-out’ of unwanted material which he thought should be roughly sorted and dispersed to the free libraries around the country. He believed that all public records over a hundred years old should be transferred to the Office but he noted that the handling of records there was ‘tending to become a less dusty affair altogether’ [191].

Many State Papers had remained in private hands and in the eighteenth century large collections of these had found their way into the British Museum. Here, as at the Public Record Office, admission was obtained by making written application, ‘stating the name, rank in life, and residence of the applicant’, and the request had to be accompanied by a recommendation from some gentleman ‘whose position in society, reputation, or public appointment, may serve as a guarantee of the respectability of the applicant’. When Richard Sims wrote this in 1856 the wonderful new Reading Room was springing up ‘as if by magic’ in the Museum’s quadrangle and the great Antonio Panizzi (1797-1879), who had designed it to seat 500 readers, was the Principal Librarian. When, in the 1870s, the young Kate Norgate (1853-1935), the daughter of a Norwich bookseller, was inspired by John Richard Green’s Short History of the English People (1874) to try her hand at writing history, her mother is said to have accompanied her to the British Museum to chaperon and sit by her in the Reading Room [192].

Genealogical Periodicals

In the nineteenth century genealogists came together only through the pages of the many periodicals that flourished and it was through them, Horace Round thought, that John Gough Nichols (1806-1873) first founded the modern critical and historical school of genealogy [193].

John Gough Nichols’s interests and influences stemmed directly from his grandfather John Nichols (1745-1826) the industrious proprietor and editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine and the author or editor of some sixty biographical, literary and historical works, including a noted History and antiquities of the county of Leicester (4 vols. 1795-1815). John Nichols’s son, John Bowyer Nichols (1779-1863), continued his father’s work and published practically all the great county histories of his day including Lipscomb’s Buckinghamshire, Ormerod’s Cheshire, Surtees’ Durham, Raine’s North Durham, Clutterbuck’s Hertfordshire, Baker’s Northamptonshire, Hoare’s Wiltshire, Hunter’s South Yorkshire and Whitaker’s Whalley and Craven.

John Gough Nichols (1806-1873), the son of John Bowyer Nichols, had followed his grandfather as joint editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine and was sole editor 1851-56, contributing as his grandfather had done many papers on genealogical and heraldic topics and adding the detailed obituary notices. George Sherwood later wrote that this and other popular magazines of the period were to be found on the tables of every coffee room and club and that the ‘victualing’ fraternity was strongly represented in their pages [194]. In 1834 J. G. Nichols branched out to edit and publish a separate periodical at £1 per indexed volume, Collectanea Topographica et Genealogica (8 vols. 1834-43), containing documentary material and some pedigrees. After a short break he continued with a similar The Topographer and Genealogist (3 vols. 1846-58) and then, when the Gentleman’s Magazine stopped publishing antiquarian material, he produced The Herald and Genealogist (8 vols. 1863-74), again on similar lines but containing also book reviews and critical essays. The Hertfordshire historian John Edwin Cussans described the influential Nichols (whose quotation for the printing of his history he had rejected as ‘absurdly extravagant’) ‘as narrow minded as he was strong, and as vindictive as he was bigoted, he was feared by some, hated by others, and respected by none … the very embodiment, the acme, the apotheosis of meanness, in great and little matters alike’ [195].

In 1866, Dr Joseph Jackson Howard (1827-1902), of Mayfield, Blackheath, who had worked in the Postmaster General’s Department and was a pioneer of the Civil Service Co-operative Stores, founding the Civil Service Supply Association, started a quarterly journal, Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica, which was very similar in content to John Gough Nichols’s first two periodicals but slightly larger in format, with many nicely printed pedigrees and heraldic engravings, in the quality of which he was particularly interested. It was two shillings and sixpence an issue and so successful that, after the demise of The Herald and Genealogist and adding occasional critical articles and reviews, he produced it for a shilling and then in a New Series for six pence. His journal, affectionately known as ‘Misc Gen’ and edited by him until his death in 1902 [196], reverted to quarterly publication in 1894 and continued until 1938.

Between 1887 and 1895 Joseph Howard had also printed six large and fully annotated pedigrees illustrating the History of Roman Catholic Families in England, but he is perhaps better known for his collaboration with the wealthy genealogical enthusiast Frederick Arthur Crisp (1851-1922) and the latter’s private printing press, the Grove Park Press, in a beautifully produced series of twenty-one volumes of tabular pedigrees, A Visitation of England and Wales (1893-1921) with fourteen additional volumes of Notes, and A Visitation of Ireland in six further volumes (1897-1918).

Also following the demise of The Herald and Genealogist in 1874, George William Marshal started in 1877 another very similar periodical, The Genealogist, which also survived the First World War and continued production until 1922, receiving important critical contributions from Horace Round and the best genealogists of the time. These periodicals together set high standards in the pedigrees published which, largely because of economic reasons, have not been seen again in English genealogical periodicals though the tradition continues in the United States of America.

Yet another periodical, Collectanea Genealogica et Heraldica, was started in 1881 by the hard-working genealogist and transcriber Joseph Foster (1844-1905), the son of a woollen draper at Bishop Wearmouth and the grandson of the founder of a large London bottling firm, M. B. Foster & Sons, who was also interested in genealogy. His periodical (128 pages monthly for three guineas a year) was intended to provide ‘handy working indices for the genealogist’ and he began to print annotated instalments of indexes to the marriages in the Gentleman’s Magazine, to Musgrave’s Obituary and to other works, as well as providing with the help of Horace Round, as the Dictionary of National Biography says, ‘much trenchant criticism and exposure of current genealogical myths’. Unfortunately, although enthusiastically reviewed his work received little public support and with the labour involved in this and his other projects the periodical became irregular and ceased publication in 1888, many of the projected indexes sadly not being completed.

Joseph Foster, in collaboration with Edward Bellasis (1852-1922), Bluemantle and then Lancaster Herald, had in 1879 produced a remarkable Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, aiming at a greater level of accuracy than achieved by Burke, and they completed four extremely fine editions to 1883, the work being subsequently amalgamated with Lodge’s Peerage which George Burnett had considered ‘the best and most trustworthy’ of the older peerages [197]. Foster’s Peerage, which the Morning Post described as ‘a virtual impeachment of other authorities’, was noteworthy for its stringent attitude to those who had assumed baronetcies (who were mercilessly relegated to a section boldly called ‘Chaos’) and for its lively heraldic designs by John Forbes Nixon and Dom Anselm Baker of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. Anthony Wagner thought that Foster ‘deserved more credit than he has had for his industry and his concern to get at the truth’ [198]. He had projected a series of Pedigrees of the County Families of England but only saw those for Lancashire (1873) and Yorkshire (3 vols. 1874) in print. He had transcribed with ‘heroic labour’, as the Dictionary of National Biography says, the registers of admissions to the various Inns of Court and the Clergy Institution Books 1556-1838, and he had edited for publication Joseph Chester’s copy of the matriculation registers of Oxford University 1500-1886 and the latter’s extensive extracts of London marriage licences 1521-1869.

In April 1897 the Morning Post announced the forthcoming appearance in May of a monthly journal priced at a shilling and edited by the controversial Arthur Fox-Davies (mentioned below) for the publisher Elliot Stock: The Genealogical Magazine: a journal of family history, heraldry and pedigrees [199].The Derby Mercury said that it attempted, ‘to combine interesting family histories with the accurate and detailed eviencies which are the real value of genealogical writers’ [200], having lengthy contemporary extracts from the London Gazette. The first issue even contained one article by Fox-Davies’ later adversary Horace Round. It completed eight volumes, but closed in 1904 after a series of controversial articles on corporate heraldry that moved Round to fierce ridicule.[201]

The short-lived quarterly The Ancestor, published in twelve lordly volumes 1902-5, had the sub-title A quarterly review of county and family history, heraldry and antiquities and for a while it eclipsed all the others in production, illustration and content, each issue having 300 pages and being cloth-bound for five shillings. It had the wealthy genealogist Herbert ‘Arthur’ Doubleday (1867-1941) as its printer and Arthur ‘Oswald’ Barron (1868-1939), Evening News journalist and medieval scholar, as its editor, but was discontinued in 1905 when Doubleday left the printing firm, Archibald Constable & Co, which he had helped to create. Doubleday was then enlisted by G. L. (later Sir Laurence) Gomme, clerk to London County Council, who had conceived as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee the idea of the Victoria History of the Counties of England, and was its chief editor for the first ten volumes, 1901-3, when he was succeeded by his joint-editor, William Page (died 1934), who carried it forward in the face of great difficulties for the next thirty years. Doubleday, having founded the St Catherine Press in 1908, then played a major role in the fund-raising and production of the new edition of The Complete Peerage initially edited by Vicary Gibbs (1853-1932) and printed and published by the Press, Doubleday becoming its assistant editor in 1916 and editor from 1920 until his death in 1941.

Practitioners of ‘New Genealogy’

Whilst paying tribute to the editors of the various periodicals in the development of critical genealogy, Round had drawn particular attention to the Shropshire antiquary Robert William Eyton (1815-1881) and to the retired Major-General the Hon. George Wrottesley (1827-1909) for their contributions to the field. Eyton’s work for his Antiquities of Shropshire (1853-61) had a particular appeal to Round ‘in its single-minded concentration – in a style some found repulsively dry – on the genealogies, properties, and public lives of the feudal landowners’ between 1066 and 1327. Sir William Hardy, Deputy Keeper, thought his work placed Eyton far ahead of ‘all our County Historians ancient or modern’ and the Dictionary of National Biography says that ‘his memoirs of the families of Le Strange, Mortimer, and De Lacy, in which nothing is admitted without strict proof, placed him at the head of contemporary genealogists’. His other works, partly in conjunction with Wrottesley, all related to the same early period [202]. The pair founded the William Salt Society in 1879 and Wrottesley as Secretary of that Society contributed vastly to its thirty-four volumes of Staffordshire Collections. Round thought Wrottesley’s critical sense more developed than that of Eyton in that he placed truth foremost and the Dictionary of National Biography says of his four published family histories (Giffard, Wrottesley, Okeover and Bagot) that they ‘had, too, that other virtue of the new school, the power of tacking on public history to private events in such a way as to give to the narration its reality and significance’. His invaluable abstracts of Pedigrees from the Plea Rolls, 1200-1500 (1906) were laboriously extracted at the Record Office between 1880 and 1904 [203]. Round called Major-General Wrottesley the ‘Nestor of genealogists’, presumably meaning, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary says of Nestor in the Iliad, that he was ‘fond of long narratives of his early successes in war’ and/or ‘full of advice generally either platitudinous or unsuccessful’!

When William Page wrote in 1930 of Horace Round’s contributions to the new critical school of genealogy, he recalled the situation in the late 1870s and 1880s when Round first began to use the Public Record Office regularly [204]. Page said that in the 1880s the searchers in the Literary Search or Round Room at the Public Record Office were mainly genealogists, the regular visitors including George Wrottesley, James Greenstreet and John Vincent. Those historians with wider interest made only occasional visits.

James Harris Greenstreet (1846-1891) was born in Brixton the son of a traveller in the wine trade and started life as a clerk in an insurance office but by 1881 when living at Camberwell was describing himself as a record agent. In 1883 he helped Walford Selby to form the Pipe Roll Society. In 1888 at Catford he was recommended by Walter Rye and by 1891 when at Lewisham was a literary agent. He wrote a number of articles for Archaeologia Cantiana, was editor of the The Lincolnshire Survey (1884) and author of Memorials of the ancient Kent family of Greenstreet (1891). He did not marry until 1887 and had no children. At his early death in 1891 he left only £290.

John Amyatt Chaundy Vincent (1826-1905) was born at Barrackpore in Bengal, the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel in the East India Company Service who died at Bath in 1865 with an estate ‘Under £200’. Lodging with working families in Bloomsbury, John Vincent published Notes on the Elton Family in 1861 but was described as an architect and fundholder in the 1861 census, an annuitant in 1871, an antiquary in 1881, an historical antiquary in 1891, and a record searcher on his own account in 1901. With an office at 61 Lincoln’s Inn Fields he was listed as one of the best-known record agents by Walter Rye in 1897. At his death in 1905 his effects were valued at £366-10-5. His diaries from 1861 to 1871 are in Wigan Archives and show a later focus on genealogy and from 1873 he was transcribing deeds at the Public Record Office.

The record agents who had taken over the work of officials who in earlier times had prepared the evidence for legal cases, were found next door in the Legal Search or Long Room. Amongst this group William Page mentions Stuart Archibald Moore (1842-1907), formerly the secretary to Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy, who acted as a record agent. He was also a proficient yachtsman and rather late in life was called to the bar and gained distinction as an authority on the law relating to fisheries and the foreshore. He was highly successful in promoting claims against the crown by the lords of those manors bounded by the sea, writing the standard History of the Foreshore (1888).

Moore’s partner, Richard Edward Gent Kirk (1844-1908), had earlier been an assistant to Revd John Sherren Brewer in his work on the letters and papers of Henry VIII. Richard Kirk, had been born in the Tower of London where his father, also called Richard Kirk (died 1866), had been a messenger in the Record Office at least since his marriage in 1842. Richard Kirk and his wife Sarah (nee Gent) were given the place and house of caretaker at the Office in March 1843 but four years later ‘Mrs Kirk was discovered using Lucifer matches to light the office fires in contravention of strict orders’. She resigned in order to avoid dismissal but he continued as a Messenger, living in Islington. Their son Richard E. G. Kirk was also a Messenger in the Record Office, aged 17 in 1861, but later worked as a record agent on his own account with an office at 27 Chancery Lane, being recommended by Walter Rye in 1888 and 1897. He and his son, Ernest Frederick Kirk (c.1880-1956), also a record agent, edited the four volumes of Returns of Aliens in … London, 1523-1625 (1900-8) for the Huguenot Society. He was an early member of the Society of Genealogists and as an agent was still supporting his disgraced grandmother, aged 90, at Upper Tooting in 1911, but he had resigned his membership by 1919.

Two other record agents mentioned by Page and recommended by Walter Rye were the solicitors Henry Gay Hewlett (1832-1897), keeper of the Land Revenue Records, who undertook searches for the Crown, and his son Maurice Henry Hewlett (1861-1923) who practised at 2 Raymond Buildings in partnership with his cousin, William Oxenham Hewlett (1845-1912), the author of a work on Scottish peerage law and an editor for the Historical Manuscripts Commission who also transcribed the early parish registers of Harrow, and was later a master in chancery. Maurice Henry Hewlett succeeded his father as Keeper of Land Revenue Records but quickly abandoned record searching to become a poet and essayist, best known perhaps for his The Song of the Plow. His resignation in 1901 was followed by the absorbtion of his Land Revenue work and its records into the Public Record Office [205].

William Page (1861-1934) was himself the son of a merchant and had been articled to a civil engineer before taking up a post in Australia, but he returned to England in 1884 to find that his eldest sister Margaret was ‘going with’ the above-named record agent and antiquary William John Hardy after his brief time at the PRO. Page joined him as a record agent and, when Hardy married in 1886 they went into partnership as Hardy & Page with an office in Lincoln’s Inn. Walter Rye thought them (with the Hewletts and William Phillimore) ‘as au fait at fighting a “record” case as getting the material together’ [206]. The range of inquiry received by the partners was almost unlimited, Page developed an expert knowledge of the records and the partners received much commissioned work, including calendaring and editing from the Historical Manuscripts Commission and various record societies. Page was drawn into the work of the Victoria County History by Horace Round and in 1902 was appointed its general editor, withdrawing from the partnership, but Hardy continued as a record agent until his death in 1919. He and his son, Colonel William Le Hardy, appointed in 1946 the first County Archivist for Hertfordshire, dominated research and publishing in the county for many years [207].

Plantagenet Harrison

Genealogy and the Public Record Office have always attracted a share of eccentrics and the other searchers who favoured the Long Room in the 1880s, according to Page, included ‘two strange Welsh gentlemen who periodically retired to worship on the Welsh mountains and returned in unsavoury sheepskins’ [208]. They may be the ‘unsavoury and unclean persons’ about whom there had been complaints in 1881 when a hall porter was recruited to control admittance to the search rooms [209].

The chief of the eccentrics was undoubtedly General Plantagenet Harrison (1817-1890) of the Peruvian Army, ‘a giant, wearing a cowboy hat’. This extraordinary man, who claimed ‘against many impediments’ to be Earl of Lancaster, was called the ‘prince of genealogical cranks’ by Aleyn Lyell Reade (the authority on Samuel Johnson) who had heard all about him from his correspondent William Paley Baildon (1859-1924) in London [210] and he was described by Walter Rye as ‘a pedigree forger of the worst and most unscrupulous type’ [211].

Plantagenet Harrison later often used the name James Phillippe but he was born at Whashton and baptised George Henry Harrison at Kirby Ravensworth in Yorkshire, one of several children of Marley Harrison (died 1822) and Margaret his wife, nee Hutchinson. Harrison had taken an early interest in his ancestry and in November 1843 whilst in the Mexican province of Yucatan as a ‘General officer’, had assumed the names ‘De Strabolgie Neville Plantagenet’ claiming to be the direct representative of those families and descended from Elizabeth the sister of Henry IV. He claimed the descent through Margaret a daughter of Charles (Nevill), 6th Earl of Westmoreland (died 1584), who married Sir Nicholas Pudsey [212] but George Frederick Beltz in his Memorials of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1841) had already noted that Margaret and Nicholas did not appear to have had children [213]. The descent was considered at some length and rejected by the Marquis de Ruvigny in his Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal (1905-11) [214] and noted by The Complete Peerage (1959) with the same conclusion [215]. Harrison almost certainly had no such descent, but in 1858 he petitioned the House of Lords for a summons to the House of Lords as Duke of Lancaster and published a Petition to the House of Lords touching the Duchy of Lancaster and the Forfeited Estates (1858) which was completely ignored. He told the Court of Bankruptcy that year that he was ‘de jure sovereign of these realms, but the Act of Settlement barred his claim’. The fact that he had an elder brother, Francis Harrison (1811-1894), a solicitor in Gray’s Inn and later at Great Sampford in Essex and Bristol, who survived him, he dismissed with a comment to Paley Baildon that ‘he was a damned fool!’ [216]. Sadly his published pedigrees often show as little regard for the facts.

Harrison, who had never been in the British army, travelled extensively in South and North America, sometimes with local military appointments amongst the groups of wild gaucho horsemen, but apparently often relying on gambling, plunder and fraud for his income, taking his chances in the unrest of the times. In that he was assisted by his unusual height, a uniform heavy with gold braid and his display of the adopted Orders of the Garter and of St George. He was by his own highly coloured and exaggerated account with Abd-el-Kader against the French in Algeria and with Emir Becker in Syria before going to Yucatan and fighting against the Mexican Federal Government in 1843 as General of Brigade. In Guatemala in 1844 he fought against the Indians before going to Peru, where in July 1844 he helped to defend Lima. Later that year he was in Uruguay and, entering Corrientes, was in January 1845 made Grand Marshall of the Army of Liberty in the Argentine Republic. As a delegate from Corrientes to Brazil he was expelled and went from there in June 1846 to the Domincan Republic, was again expelled and went to Venezuela, but was again expelled and after trying to persuade Hayti to invade Dominica in November, he returned to England. That, at least, is the outline of an account he gave in his pedigree published about 1848-50 but little of the detail can be taken seriously [217].

In London in July 1847 he carried out a vicious attack on Major Richard Leslie Dundas (a friend of William Downing Bruce the genealogist mentioned below) who brought an action for assault in the Queen’s Bench in February 1848 which resulted in Harrison being sentenced to imprisonment for six months, but he jumped bail and went abroad; he was then ‘stated to hold the rank of Brigadier-General in the Mexican army’ [218]. In February 1849 the Morning Post, describing him as General of Cavalry, said that he had arrived on the French frontier on route for Madrid [219] and in May 1849 the London Daily News recounted his frauds there [220], but later that month published a letter from him at Gibraltar denying the account and saying that he had been in Denmark in July 1848 with the Danish Cavalry. He said then that as Prince of Plantagenet he had a ‘lineage more illustrious than that of any other prince in Christendom’ [221], but he was later obliged to admit that he held no formal commission in the Danish army [222]. According to later accounts he was imprisoned in Gibraltar for ten months for debt [223] and in April 1850 the newspapers were saying that the walls of Gibraltar were covered with placards in which he challenged to fight in single combat three Spanish generals and the English consul at Cadiz, but ‘in such gross and insulting language that we refrain from publishing it’ [224].

Back in London in 1850 he was apparently excluded from the Library at the British Museum by Sir Henry Ellis because he applied as ‘Duke of Lancaster’ [225] but in February 1851 it was reported from Berlin that he had been brought prisoner there for alleged frauds at Stralsund in 1848, having been arrested near Altona [226]. Whatever the truth of this he was certainly arrested in London on 24 December 1851 and returned to the Queen’s Bench Prison to serve his original term, though he immediately unsuccessfully petitioned for discharge [227].

Following his release he was imprisoned as an insolvent debtor, July-September 1852, following a fraud with guns bought in August 1847 and pawned the next day. In court he recounted his early travels in America and Europe but he was now ‘of no employ or occupation’. His only assets were £3,000 said to be owed to him as ambassador to Brazil from the Republic of Corrientes. He claimed to have been appointed a Lieutenant-General in the army of the Germanic Confederation by Archduke John but only ‘in time of war’ and he attributed his present insolvency to the peaceful state of Europe. He had received about £2,000 in military pay in the years 1843-4 and had after 1847 received about £1,200 from friends, winning at play another £1,300. It was ordered that he be discharged after he had been in custody at the suit of any of the creditors for three months, and at the suit of one of them for eight months from the vesting order [228].

In September 1853 it was reported that Harrison was at Constantinople offering his services to the Turks [229] and in May 1854 (just after the Crimean War had broken out) he denied from London any knowledge of conspiracies against Turkey [230]. At Hull in June 1855, having been apprehended on board a steamer at Grimsby about to depart for Hamburg, he was unsuccessfully charged with defrauding three banks. Described as ‘a fashionably-dressed, moustachioed and bearded Englishman’, his luggage and uniform were said to be ‘worth nearly £2,000’ [231]. He told the local newspaper that he was ‘entitled to seven millions of money, left to him, which he will shortly receive’ [232].

In November 1857 he was arrested for debt whilst at Marylebone Police Court on another matter and although surrounded by many people whom he had cheated he, being a crown witness, was discharged [233]. In February 1858 he was charged with assaulting two waiters at the Hotel de Paris, Haymarket, and fined 20s. On this occasion the money was paid [234]. In July 1858, in a case of property fraud, Meek v. Carter, he was described as ‘a mere adventurer’ [235].

In October-December 1858 he was again before the Insolvent Debtors’ Court ‘late a General Officer, now out of employment’, in prison and asking to be discharged. He claimed that his insolvency was due to the British Ambassador at Constantinople and Lord Palmerston on behalf of the Government not allowing him to serve in the Turkish army after his offer of service had been accepted by the Sultan and to his subsequent losses and imprisonment by the Prussian government. He had debts of £8,075 (for furniture, wine, fishing tackle, rent of a house for three servants, etc) of which £3,833 was without consideration. He said that his pay in the South American army had been plunder, his share being £150,000 in cattle, horses, etc. Counsel for the complainants said that after two previous insolvencies and a bankruptcy the incurring of debts without expectation of payment was fraud. The case was adjourned to complete further services upon his creditors. The lengthy notice in the London Gazette said that prior to being at Stralsund he had had offices in the Levant House, London, endeavouring to establish  a mercantile and banking house in the name Skioldunger, Harrison & Company. He had later been a genealogist at 14 Clement’s Inn and among the items on his balance sheet was, ‘Received for making out Mr Wright’s pedigree 10 bonds of £1,000 each, the loss by sale of which was £9,750’ [236].

In August and September 1859 he placed a succession of advertisements in the Morning Post for a work The Golden Book of Westminster which he said would be ‘a correct history of the lineage of the various dynasties of the sovereigns of England, Scotland, &c, and of the ancient and modern nobility and gentry, with a description of the personal appearance of the present representative thereof, with his (the General’s) opinion as to the probability of each individual being descended of the blood he professes to represent. Also, a list of all gentleman of blood entitled to bear coat armour, together with a list of such individuals as profess to be gentlemen, and who bear coat armour without being entitled thereto’, adding ‘Pedigrees compiled and published’  [237]. The book, which seems to have been an exercise in mass blackmail, did not appear.

In 1861 as ‘George Henry Harrison’ he was staying at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington, unmarried, aged 43, ‘gentleman’, but he apparently married shortly thereafter and by a wife Maria had a daughter Blanche Plantagenet Harrison who was born in April 1863 and baptised at St Pancras in July 1864. In April 1862 he had placed an advertisement in the Morning Post saying that he was ‘in want of a friend who will assist him to obtain justice’ [238] and in December that year had placed another advertisement there saying that he wanted someone to lend him £1,000 ‘for a special purpose’ and required ‘the services of two or three young men, of good blood who are ambitious of military glory’ [239]. The date and place of his marriage have not been found [240].

After apparently living for a while in some style in Kensington Gardens Square, Harrison was on 25 October 1861 again in prison for debt and was again adjudged bankrupt (in forma pauperis) when the extravagant style and title of the ‘pauper’ that appeared in the formal description caused some amusement [241]. He made several unsuccessful applications for discharge but seems to have remained in the Queen’s Bench Prison until 1 January 1863 when he benefited from a change in the law and was discharged. He then told the usher that he was a candidate for the throne of Greece! [242]. It is not surprising that in February 1863 at a meeting of the Exeter Branch of the Trade Protection Society he was described as ‘one of the most extraordinary cheats London ever produced’ [243].

Harrison became a professional genealogist about 1862-3 and was at Bedford Row from about 1865 his principal business being to trace pedigrees which, as he said, was more profitable than translating records, the pay depending on the difficulty in tracing them [244]. He sometimes used the name ‘James Phillippe’ … ‘my grandmother being the heiress of the Phillippes’. However, in October 1867, trading as a genealogist and herald, he was again bankrupt with debts of £265 [245]. In January 1868 he was said to have assets of £262 10s, being owed that amount by Mr Piggott, of The Green, Richmond, for searching for his pedigree. Having insulted a witness, the discharge was adjourned for two months [246]. In June 1869 he took a successful action for libel against the Cornhill Magazine for a story about his time in Spain in which he was described as a ‘notorious swindler’ [247]. He said then that he had been a genealogist for six or seven years, was a linguist and antiquary, and was in attendance daily at the Record Office. Thomas Duffus Hardy, Deputy Keeper, said that he had known Harrison since 1863 and believed him sincere but eccentric; if Harrison were a swindler he would not be permitted to continue visiting the Office. Although the story seems to have had a factual basis, Harrison was awarded £50 damages and he was accordingly allowed to continue his work at the Record Office [248].

In the 1871 census George Harrison appears at 24 Hunter Street, St Pancras, as George Eley, aged 53, translator of records, born at Gilling, Yorkshire, with his wife Maria, aged 36, and daughter Blanche, aged 7 [249]. Eley or, more frequently Eeley, appears to have been his wife’s maiden name [250]. However, on 9 September 1871, styling himself ‘Mr James Phillippe, of 48, Bedford Row, London’, Harrison placed an advertisement in The Field newspaper which was copied and ridiculed for its self-confidence and effrontery in The Herald and Genealogist under the heading ‘A Radical Reformer in Genealogy’ [251]. Mr Phillippe had satisfied himself, he wrote, ‘that nearly the whole of the pedigrees hitherto published are fictitious’. The Visitation pedigrees were all ‘either fictitious inventions or the erroneous result of tradition’. The genealogical manuscripts in the British Museum were ‘simply trash’. Pedigrees could only be compiled from the Common Plea Rolls and having studied them for many years ‘he confidently states that he is the only man who ever lived competent to give a true account of all families of English extraction’. The advertisement concluded, ‘Fictitious pedigrees and family histories examined and reported upon’. An appended note attacked the registering and granting of Arms by the College of Arms saying that it ‘is wonderful that any persons should be such addle-headed donkeys as to to entertain any such humbug’. Readers of The Field may not have known what he was talking about but some may have been attracted by his offer of ‘genuine pedigrees, properly vouched, at half the price at which spurious pedigees are obtained elsewhere’. Wrottesley did not start his work on the Plea Rolls until 1880 and had begun by taking only the Staffordshire entries and so there was little or no over-lap.

Harrison had for some years been planning a six-volume history of Yorkshire which was to include everything of value that he could find in his favoured Plea Rolls and in a series of notices in the York Herald early in 1873 in the name James Phillippe, he drew attention to the first volume of his forthcoming History of the North Riding of the County of York [252]. When the first volume actually appeared in 1879 its coverage was limited to the Wapentake of Gilling West near Richmond. Reviewers of the ‘ponderous tome’ were not impressed. It was prefaced with a copy of the portrait taken in Lima in 1844 and an account of his family in the male line from ‘Odin, King of Ascardia about seventy-six years before the birth of Christ’ who was said to be forty-first in descent from Eric, King of the Goths in the time of Abraham’s great-grandfather. The pedigree’s heading boasted, ‘This pedigree represents the concentrated glory of a world’. Aleyn Lyell Reade thought it ‘a supreme example of fantastic genealogy’ [253]. The history, which cost fifteen guineas, is said to have sold less than twenty copies [254] and no further volumes were produced.