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The Life Cycle
Finding Out More
Most family historians look at only a few sources. However, there are plenty of other records that contain important information about individuals that are much less used. Some of the most important are described here.
Wills are valuable for family historians because:
The first surviving wills date from the 14th century. The basic form has changed little since then. At the beginning of the will there is often a religious preamble, followed by a description of any charitable bequests. Then comes a description of what provision, if any, has to be made for the widow and children and how the remainder of the estate should be divided up. Lastly comes the appointment of executors and (female) executrix to oversee the carrying out of will.
From about 1660 to 1782 inventories of property were normally taken and kept with the will. They can offer a fascinating insight into how our ancestors lived and the material goods they possessed.
Until very recently making wills was uncommon because most people had relatively little to bequeath. In addition, it was expensive both to make a will and have it proved. Most wills were made when the individual (in legal terminology a testator or testatrix) was either very old or seriously ill.
Read more about wills and their locations.
Newspapers are another very valuable source for family historians. Most people appear in a newspaper at least once in their lives. At their best they describe in great detail local and national events, often giving names of participants. They feature weddings, christenings and burials. Sporting events are also often described, as are unusual deaths, court cases and accidents.
The first newspapers were published in the late-17th century and quickly spread to the colonies. They were very different to what we are used to today. Perhaps the most interesting part was the advertisements, which often included details of slave auctions and descriptions of runaway slaves.
Modern newspapers, however, really began with The Times in 1784. With the reduction in taxation in the 1850s and increasing literacy there was an explosion in the number of newspapers, particularly those published locally. The heyday of local newspapers was the period between 1880 and 1970 when most events were covered in great detail. They might include:
Read more about How to Locate and Research Newspapers.
Directories are published lists of names, usually arranged by address or by trade or profession. They are really useful for checking whether somebody was living at a certain address or confirming their occupation.
The first directories appeared in the mid-18th century but they really came into their own 100 years later. Pigot's country directories were first published in 1814 and Post Office Directories published by Kelly & Co were available from 1843. Originally they were lists of local gentry and traders, but by the end of the 19th century there were several different types:
In addition there are directories for many different professions, which often include short biographies of members or list promotions and honours awarded. The most famous of these is Crockford's Clerical Directory, which has been published since 1858 listing Church of England clergymen. Other famous directories are the Law List and the Medical List for barristers and doctors respectively.
Read more about the Usefulness of Directories and Where They can be Located.
Electoral registers began in 1832 and show people who were entitled to vote. The franchise, however, was fairly restricted until 1918, when all men over 21 and women over 30 gained the right to vote. All women over 21 could vote from 1928 - the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969. Commonwealth and Irish citizens have always had the right to vote in British elections. They can show groups of adults in a household.
Read more about electoral registers.
There is no legal obligation to register a change of name - provided you do not attempt to deceive others you can call yourself what you like. Indeed many problems faced by the family historian are caused by ancestors who were always known by nicknames or did not use their given names, which may vary from what they are referred to in birth, marriage or death certificates. Many immigrants have also shortened or otherwise changed their surnames to obscure their foreign origins or make it easier for the British to pronounce.
People have always wanted to formally change their name. A common reason in the 19th century was to inherit an estate in accordance with the terms of the will.
During the First World War many German emigrants adopted British surnames in order to avoid persecution.
The National Archives has indexes of these changes, often known as deed polls, from 1851. In addition notices about the intention to change names have been advertised in the London Gazette (the government's official newspaper) since 1914.
Schooling for children between 6 and 10, was not made compulsory until 1880. The school leaving age gradually rose until it reached 14 in 1918. Until after the Second World War it was comparatively rare for children, especially those from poorer backgrounds, to receive secondary education. Very few people, men or women, went on to university until the 1960s. Naturally the position was somewhat different for the upper and middle-classes that sent their children to public schools and university.
School records are held at local and county record offices, but they are far from complete. Read more about education records that are most likely to be of use and their locations.
Creators: Simon Fowler
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