Finding sound and video recordings on Essex Archives Online

Archive catalogues can be difficult to use. There are differences between structured archive catalogues describing archival records that comply with the international cataloguing standard (ISAD-G) and a free-text Internet search box. While the homepage of Essex Archives Online looks like a basic text search box, using it like an Internet search engine will not give the best results.

Part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, involves cataloguing some of the thousands of unique sound and video recordings in the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). Cataloguing the records makes it easier for users to locate relevant material, but only if the catalogue descriptions can be found. We try to catalogue with discoverability in mind, but we thought it might be useful to share some tips on how to find sound and video archives in particular through Essex Archives Online.

As reported in an earlier blog entry, we updated Essex Archives Online to allow you to play sound and video recordings directly through the catalogue. To find these recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type terms that interest you into the main text box. You will need to create an account and log before you can play the recordings, but you do not need to subscribe.

Screenshot showing option to find a-v material on Essex Archives Online

Tip: To browse all the sound recordings currently uploaded to the catalogue, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, then type ‘sa’ in the main search box. To browse all the video recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search box’, then type ‘va’ in the main search box. We can explain why this works if you are interested, but otherwise just trust us that it (mostly) works!

However, we can only gradually upload digitised recordings to the catalogue. Also, copyright on some of the recordings prohibits us from making them available online. This means that we have many, many more sound and video recordings which cannot be played through the catalogue, but only by ordering them to play in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office (or by purchasing a copy). These recordings won’t show up if you refine your search only to ‘Audio Visual’ records. So how do you find something in the ESVA that might be of interest to you?

When we catalogue material, we give each document or recording a Reference Number. This helps to uniquely identify the recording. It’s not a random collection of letters and numbers (though it might seem like it!): each part gives clues about the document and how it fits with other material.

The Reference Numbers for all sound recordings start with ‘SA’, for ‘Sound Archive’. So the easiest way to narrow your search to find sound recordings is to include ‘sa’ as one of your search terms.

Similarly, the Reference Numbers for all video recordings start with ‘VA’, for ‘Video Archive’. To find video recordings, include ‘va’ as one of your search terms.

Tip: You will still get some results that are not sound or video recordings. Change the sort by box at the top-right to ‘Reference’. This will display your results in alphabetical order by Reference Number. Scroll down to the Reference Numbers that begin with ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.

So far so good, but how do you know what to search for? Unlike the majority of the documents in the Essex Record Office, you might find some ESVA recordings by searching for an individual’s name. If the individual has been recorded in an oral history interview, or featured in a local radio piece, then his or her name should be included in the catalogue entry.

But you will probably find more results by searching for a place or subject. For example, perhaps you want to learn more about how Willingale has changed over time. If you type in ‘Willingale’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes, you will find eleven sound recordings, mostly oral history interviews with long-standing residents.

These might reveal information about local businesses, notable local families, services in the village – and especially people’s memories of the American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War.

Tip: Our search engine is not case sensitive. This means it does not matter whether you type ‘Willingale’, ‘willingale’, ‘WILLINGALE’, or ‘WiLliNGalE’: it will come up with the same results.

Or maybe you want to find out what people were eating in the early twentieth century. Try typing ‘meals’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes. You should find oral history recordings that include memories of what the interviewees ate as children (bread, dripping, and fresh fruit and vegetables – acquired legally or otherwise – feature heavily). This clip from an interview with Rosemary Pitts of Great Waltham gives an example of what children ate in the 1920s-1930s (SA 55/4/1).

You can run an Advanced Search to better refine the results that you get. Click ‘Advanced Search’ at the top of the page. To search for a specific phrase, type this in the second box – and don’t forget to add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the top box. For example, try typing ‘sa’ in the top box and ‘First World War’ in the second box.

If you are searching for multiple words that might not appear as an exact phrase in the catalogue description, type your words into the top box. For example, if you are looking for information about Clacton Pier, this might be described as ‘Clacton-on-Sea Pier’, ‘Clacton Pier’, or ‘the Pier at Clacton’. To find all of these matches, type ‘Clacton’ and ‘pier’ in the top box – and add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the second box.

Tip: To search for sound and video recordings at the same time, type ‘sa’ and ‘va’ in the third box before clicking ‘SEARCH’.

You can also use our index search boxes from the ‘Advanced Search’ screen. Choose ‘People’, ‘Places’, or ‘Subjects’ from the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type in the key words or names that interest you. This will only find results where your search term is a major part of the recording, and not just mentioned in passing. You will not be able to limit this search to just sound or video recordings, but if you sort the results by Reference, you can find the Reference Numbers that begin ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.

Video demonstrating how to find sound and video recordings using index searches.

There are other finding aids that might help you locate relevant material. We have subject guides to sound and video recordings that cover: agriculture, Christmas, education, Essex dialect and accents, folk song and music, health, housing, shops and shopping, traditional English dance, transport, the First World War, and the Second World War. These are available in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, or from our website.

You can also read general user guides to Essex Archives Online on the catalogue: click ‘USER GUIDES’ at the top of the page.

Now that you can find material in the Archive, please come and listen! That is what it is here for. And do get in touch if you’re having trouble finding recordings. We would be happy to help.

But first here’s a little test for you to try. The result will be worth it, we promise.

  1. Click ‘Advanced Search’ from the top of the page.
  2. Make sure the ‘Refine your search’ box is set to ‘Everything’.
  3. In the top box, type ‘cucumber’ and ‘halstead’.
  4. In the second box, type ‘SA’.
  5. Click on the result.
  6. Enjoy.

Essex Archives Online digital images: Parish Registers – what will you find?

While the Essex Record Office might be closed to physical researchers it is still open for remote users via our Essex Archives Online (EAO) service that contains over three-quarters of a million digital images of parish registers, wills and some other records. This service has been up and running since 2011 and in that time researchers from across the globe have made use of the service. And it is a dynamic service as new images are added as and when relevant documents have been deposited and digitized.

In this Blog post EAO user Ian Beckwith has kindly shared some of his research that he has undertaken whilst using our parish register digital images. Ian is a seasoned user of the service and has been using it for several years but if you are new to research and are thinking of possibly taking out a subscription then it is worth considering the wonderful breadth of what is available. So, to begin with Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen discusses how to get started.

During the 20 years that I have worked at ERO I have been advising researchers on how to start making use of the digital images that are on EAO and here are some of my tips.

Firstly, I would strongly recommend that before you take out a subscription you familiarize yourself with the EAO catalogue. It is completely free to search the catalogue as much as you wish. There are several ‘User Guides’ which are located at the bottom of the home page (https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/) so scroll down and have a read of these.

The cover of the Gt Burstead Parish Register – D/P 139/1/0

Secondly, have a go at searching the catalogue by trying out a simple search – try typing in the wide white text box (which contains ‘search the archive’) the name of the parish you are interested in and ‘church register’ and click ‘Search’. This will bring up instances of all sorts of registers, not just church, or parish, registers, for a certain place. Some of these won’t have digitized images associated with them so this is why it is essential to check that what you want to look at has digital images before taking out a subscription. It will, however, give you an idea of the range of documents that the ERO looks after. All the Church of England parish registers deposited in the ERO, except for a few of the most recent ones, have been digitized, so you should find that they all have the a picture frame icon at the end of their entry in the search results.

By clicking on the ‘Reference’ or ‘Description’ you will be taken to the full catalogue entry for a document which might well give you further information. You might find that it isn’t really what you’re looking for. But if it is, remember to check for the photo frame icon to find out whether there is a digital image associated with the document .

A quick way to search for parish registers in particular is to look at the ‘Parish Register’ section of EAO (top right-hand corner). Here you will be able to refine your search to the parish you are interested in. If what you are looking for isn’t there (or if it is there but doesn’t have ‘Digital images’ next to it) then don’t take out a subscription. It is worth remembering that not every parish will have records going back to 1538 so do check the catalogue before subscribing to avoid disappointment.

Every parish has its own unique number assigned to it. Great Burstead, for example, is D/P 139 and registers of baptisms, marriages and burials come under D/P 139/1. The first register, which covers 1559 to 1654, is then catalogued as D/P 139/1/0. Take time to familiarize yourself with the catalogue before taking out a subscription.

And do bear in mind that even if a parish register survives then early registers have baptisms, marriages and burial scattered throughout them so you will probably need to go hunting through the register for the entry that might be there – or might not . In the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian period it was very much down to the individual incumbent, or his deputy, as to how much effort was put into keeping the registers up to date. Not every vicar, rector or church clerk was as assiduous a record keeper as we might have liked him to have been. Fortunately, if you have a subscription to Ancestry, we have worked together with them to create a name index, which can take a lot of the leg work out your research. You can even buy digital images of what you find directly from Ancestry.

Handwriting can also be difficult to read, although some incumbents like Rev Thomas Cox in Broomfield and the famous Essex historian Rev Philip Morant, have beautifully clear handwriting. Sometimes the writing is faint or illegible and the register itself might be damaged. Remember these were working documents that have spent several centuries in damp and cold churches before being deposited at ERO.

One last thing, if you have identified that there are parish registers that you want to look though that have digital images associated with them, and you take out a subscription, then make sure that you take down the reference of what you have looked at and what you have found as you work your way through them. This will save time in the long-term and if you share your research with others you can tell others in what document you found the information.

I hope I haven’t put you off after all that but I do have one last warning: historical research can be addictive. You might start out looking for one thing but get distracted by something else. After 20 years of working at ERO I know there’s always another new topic of interest just lurking over the page!

Neil Wiffen – Archive Assistant.

If you require any assistance, having taken out a subscription, then you can contact the Duty Archivist at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk. While the Record Office is shut, emails are being monitored remotely during the present crisis. Please bear with us though.


Parish Registers – Researching Remotely

I, like many others of my age and with underlying health conditions, am in self-isolation.  But this doesn’t mean that I can’t get on with research.  Thanks to the digital age there’s so much available on-line for the local historian to work on, e.g. Essex parish registers, which, thanks to the wonders of the ERO, are at my finger-tips on my laptop.  There’s a subscription to pay, but once you’re registered., you can log-in, click on ‘Parish Registers’ in the top bar, scroll down the page until you find ‘Choose a letter’, then ‘Choose a parish’ and finally ‘Choose a church’.  Up will come a table, telling you when your chosen registers begin, click on ‘View’ in the right hand column, and the register will appear.  You need to know that in the case of the earliest registers, the baptism, marriage and burial entries were written up in one book, sometimes in different sections of the book, sometimes together as they occurred through the year.  Later registers record baptisms, marriages and burials in dedicated volumes.  When the image of your selected register appears, click on the rubric ‘To enhance this image… ’ and the image will expand to fill the screen.  Away you go!

D/P 139/1/0

In September 1538, King Henry VIII’s Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction to every parish priest in England requiring him to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages, and burials in his parish.  In Essex at least seventy-five parishes have registers beginning in about 1538.  Most of these survivals are copies made in the reign of Elizabeth I, either by the incumbent or the parish clerk, from the old book, which was then apparently discarded.[i]   Many other registers begin in the reign of Elizabeth I.  Apart from the marriages, baptisms and burials that are the building blocks of family reconstitution, what else can we learn from scrutinising parish registers?

In rural Essex as elsewhere in the sixteenth century it was taken as a given that God existed.  No one’s head was bothered by whether the earth was the centre of the universe (it obviously was) or whether God was in his heaven up above while hell was down below (they undoubtedly were).[ii]  The only issue was whether God was Protestant or Catholic.  The wrong choice could cost you your life in this world and your salvation in the next.   When it came to making this choice, parishioners in England had been on something of a roller-coaster ride since 1538.   Four years before Cromwell issued his injunction introducing parish registers the Pope’s authority over the English Church had been abolished and the King had made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.  Between 1536 and 1541 the Dissolution of the Monasteries had seen the closure of over 900 monastic foundations, the dispersal of the monks and nuns who occupied them, and the sale of their vast landed estates.  Yet the parish registers that survive from this period show that, while these upheavals were taking place, baptisms, marriages and burials carried on as normal.  The services of the Church continued to be said in Latin, in the form in which they had been since time immemorial.  It was not until 1549, two years after the death of Henry VIII, that the mass was first said in English.  Four years later the Protestant Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister the Catholic Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, and during the next five years England returned to obedience to Rome, the services in the parish churches reverted to Latin, the traditional rites and ceremonies were restored, and images and treasures that had been hidden were brought out again, only for all this to be reversed in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne: again the Pope’s authority over the English Church was abolished and the Queen was proclaimed Supreme Governor of the Church.[iii]   On May 8th 1559 the Act of Uniformity, authorising the use of the new Book of Common Prayer, received the Royal approval.  The new prayer book, which replaced all other service books, came into use on 24th June 1559.

Occasionally, however, in the midst of the routine recording of rites of passage, the registers provide glimpses of the impact of these changes at parish level.  In July 1599 the Great Burstead register recorded that

Elizabeth Wattes Widdow sume tyme the wife of Thomas Wattes the blessed
marter of god who for his treuth suffered his merterdom in the fyre at
Chelmesford the xxij day of may in A[nn]o D[o]m[ini] 1555 in the Reigne of
queen mary was buryed the 10 day 1599 so she liued a widow after his death
xlviij yeres & fro[m] the 22 of may to the 10 july & made a good end like a
good Christian woman in gods name.[iv]

D/P 139/1/0

Thomas Watts was one of almost eighty Essex men and women who were burned at the stake in the reign of Mary Tudor for refusing to recant their Protestant beliefs.[v]  A full account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is provided in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, more correctly titled Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563 and greatly expanded in 1570.[vi]    Described as a linen draper of Billericay, then part of the parish of Great Burstead, Thomas Watts had, according to Foxe ‘daily expected to be taken by God’s adversaries’.  Accordingly he had assigned his property to his wife and children and donated his stock of cloth to the poor.  He was arrested on April 26th 1555 and brought before Lord Rich at Chelmsford, accused of not attending church, i.e. hearing mass.   Interrogated by Sir Anthony Browne, who, with Rich, had been appointed to purge Essex of heretics, as to why he had embraced his heretical views, Watts replied that

You taught me and no one more than you.  For, in King Edward’s days
in open sessions you said the mass was abominable trumpery, earnestly
exhorting that none should believe therein, but that our belief should be
only in Christ.[vii]

It seems that Watts had also spoken treasonable words against the Queen’s husband, King Philip.[viii]  Unable to persuade Thomas Watts to recant, he was sent to Bishop Bonner, ‘the bloody bishop,  …’.[ix] Essex was then within the diocese of London and Edmund Bonner was its bishop, first under Henry VIII and again under Mary.  He remained staunchly Catholic during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth.  Although usually depicted as sadistic and merciless, it is worth noting that even Foxe acknowledges that Bonner made several attempts to persuade Watts (and others) to recant, ‘gave him several hearings, and, as usual, many arguments with much entreaty, … but his preaching availed not, and he resorted to his last revenge – that of condemnation’.  ‘I am weary to live in such idolatry as you would have me live in’, Watts is alleged to have said, and signed the confession of heresy.  Faced by his refusal, Bishop Bonner had little choice but to consign Thomas Watts to the secular arm, the Church not being allowed to take life, to suffer the penalty prescribed by the Statute De Heretico Comburando (Concerning the Burning of Heretics) of 1401, originally intended to deal with Lollards.[x]

Returned from the Bishop of London’s prison to Chelmsford, Thomas Watts was lodged at ‘Mr Scott’s, an inn in Chelmsford where were Mr Haukes and the rest that came down to their burning, who all prayed together’.  Watts then withdrew to pray by himself, after which he met his wife and children for the last time, exhorting them to have no regrets but to glory in the sacrifice he was making for the sake of Jesus.  So powerful were his words that, it is said, two of his children offered to go to the stake with him.  At the stake, after he had kissed it, he called out to Lord Rich, who was supervising the execution: “beware, for you do against your own conscience herein, and without you repent, the Lord will revenge it”. ‘Thus did this good martyr offer his body to the fire, in defence of the true gospel of the Saviour’.[xi]

It seems unlikely that Rich, a man whose name is a byword for cruelty, sadism, dishonesty, ruthlessness and treachery, possessed a conscience.  Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas 1st Baron Audley of Walden,, who assisted Rich to become MP for Colchester.[xii]  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he presented himself as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner. Yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those like Thomas Watts of Billericay who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage. Richard Rich died on 11th of June 1558 at Rochford and was buried at Felsted on the 8th of July.  The entry in the Felsted register gives only the bare facts. For those at Felstead who had dealings with him, Richard Rich, first baron Rich, must have been terrifying.[xiii]

In Elizabeth’s reign, others submitted to the Religious Settlement but made their resistance covertly, like the parson of Great Baddow who recorded the burial of Joan Smythe on May 1st 1572 ‘being the purificacion even of o[ur] lady St Mary’ (i.e. the evening preceding the feastday).

Ian Beckwith


[i] It is not necessarily clear by whom the registers were kept.  Although the entries for the preceding week were supposed to be read to the congregation at the principal service on Sunday, there are indications that some were written up at the year’s end (24th March), possibly from notes on slips of paper.  The penmanship of the entries remains generally of a very high standard until the last decade of the sixteenth century, when it often becomes slapdash and much less legible. 

[ii] The realisation that the world was not flat, as the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan and Drake demonstrated, did not shake the belief in this three-decker image of the universe.  

[iii] The change from Supreme Head as Henry VIII was designated, to Supreme Governor, it has been claimed, reflects the opinion that a woman could not be ‘Head’ of the Church.  However, when Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the title ‘Governor’ was retained and continued to be used by every subsequent monarch, male and female.     

[iv] ERO, D/P 139/1/0, Image 49. However, the length of her widowhood seems to have been miscalculated.

[v] J E Oxley, The Reformation in Essex to the Death of Mary, Manchester University Press, 1965, pp.210-237.  Coincidentally, my copy was withdrawn from Billericay Public Library in about 2013.

[vi] I have drawn upon an edition of 1860, published in Philadelphia.  The account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is on p.367. The Book of Martyrs has been blamed for inciting anti-Catholic sentiment in England.

[vii] Foxe, p.367

[viii] Mary had married Philip on 25th July 1554

[ix] Foxe, p.367

[x] Several Essex Lollards were burned at the stake in Henry VIII’s reign.  The purpose of burning was to act not just as a deterrent but also as a purgative, to rid the realm of disease.  See David Nicholls, The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation, Past & Present, Vol 121, Issue 1, November 1988, pp 49-73.

[xi] Foxe p.367. 

[xii] Thomas Audley (1488-1544), formerly MP for Colchester, a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, Speaker of the Commons during the Reformation Parliament and Lord Chancellor of England from 1533-1544

[xiii] Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas Audley, who assisted him to become MP for Colchester.  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he appeared as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner, yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage.

Time for an Index: Essex Record Office in partnership with Ancestry.com

After a lot of work we are finally able to announce that the Essex Record Office, working alongside Ancestry.com have launched a new searchable index of the Essex parish registers. Searching for your Essex ancestors is now easier than ever!

In celebration of our new partnership with Ancestry.com, Edward Harris, Customer Service Team Lead, takes a look at some of the stories found in the pages of our parish registers. Read on for more information about what we have been working on with Ancestry.com.

D/P 94/1/1 – Parish register for St Mary the Virgin, Chelmsford.

The Parish Registers of England, containing as they do the records of baptisms, marriages and burials made by the Church of England are frequently the start and the backbone of a genealogist’s journey into family history. Prior to 1837 and the start of civil registration, they are essential for family history. Unfortunately they are all too often the end of that journey. When the next link cannot be made or one elusive great, great, great, great grandparent fails to materialise, it is usually normally the pages of a parish register that we are gazing at.

Despite the frustrations so many of us hardy researchers are well aware of, it cannot have escaped our notice that within this great national collection there are a countless stories. These stories provide snippets of the joys and sorrows of everyone, whether normal or extraordinary. They can be better than any soap opera but always tantalising because of what they often don’t tell us and the questions they can’t answer for us. We decided to take a retrospective look at some of the stories we have unearthed over the years at the Essex Record Office where a helpful curate or vicar has decided to provide us with a few extra snippits of information.

The parish burial register for St Mary the Virgin in Hatfield Broad Oak includes in its pages the sad and untimely death of 5 year old Betsy Rogers burnt to death, and two extraordinary marginal notes on that page give a clue as to how:

D/P 4/1/26 – The burial register for St Mary the Virgin, Hatfield Broad Oak showing the burial of Betsey Rogers.

Feb.y 7. A frost of 7 weeks broke up today. Temperature 12° below freezing point! Many persons frozen to death. One at Gt Canfield, one at Sawbridgeworth.

The seat of Lord Rendlesham (Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk) burnt to the ground, damage = 100,000£; The seat of Lord Sandwich (Hinchinbroke, Huntingdonshire) also destroyed by fire with title deeds, fine pictures, etc.; The Argyle Rooms, Regent St, London also destroyed by fire. Lyceam also…All in Jan.y in Feb.y arising from the unusual heating of flues etc. in consequence of the uncommon severity of the season.

The register for Little Clacton contains a very sad and somewhat mysterious story dating from 1592, when a bride, Prudence Lambert, hanged herself the morning after her wedding to Clement Fenn.

D/P 80/1/1 – Marriage register for Little Clacton showing the marriage of Clement Fenn and Prudence Lambert.

Clement Fenn singleman, and Prudence the late wife of Nycholas Lambert, wch dwelt in Little Clacton Lodge; were maryed uppon Teusdaye [six], the xvth day of August; but the (most accursed creature), did the verye next morning, desperatelie hang her selfe, to the intolerable grieffe of her new maryed husband, and the dreadfull horror and astonishment of all the countrye.

Prudence’s burial is recorded two days later in the same register.

D/P 80/1/1 – Burial register for Little Clacton showing the burial of Prudence Fenn.

Prudence Fen, now the wife of Clem[e]nt Fen, and late the wife of the above named Nicholas Lambert; was buried out of the compas of Christian burial; in ye furthest syde of the churchyard northward; uppon the xviith daye of August; for that shee most accursedlie hanged her selfe.

A slightly happier story is found in the parish register from Ugley (one of Essex’s more esoteric place names) in 1759 which records the baptism of:

Anne daughter of John Grimshaw, a Sailor in the Dreadnought Man of War, & Jane his wife found in Labour in the Road, & taken care of by the Parish, was born June 27th & baptized July 7th

D/P 373/1/2 – baptism register for Ugley including Anne’s birth.

From these stories of life and death, to the sort of story that leaves family historians pulling out their hair in frustration.

In 1862 the baptism register for St Mary Magdalene in Harlow recorded the reason for its early closure. The registers had been removed from the church by the curate Revd William Raymond Scott who took them to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands). The curate had travelled to accompany the new Bishop of Honolulu to the island, but also to chaperone 70 young women destined for a life in Australia.

The registers would survive a mutiny, make a brief stop at the Falkland islands and Australia before reaching Hawaii. Fortunately the registers did return to the church 2 years after leaving these shores and so are still available to researchers.

D/P 533/1/1 – parish register for Harlow with note explaining closure of registers.

Fortunately, provided the register in question isn’t on a voyage around the world, searching the Essex parish registers is now easier than ever!

Since 2011, the Record Office’s service Essex Archives Online (www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk) has been making Church of England parish registers – and some other documents – available as digital images. Off-site, this works as a subscription scheme, offering various lengths of subscription between 1 day and 1 year. Some documents on the system, such as wills, come with their own name indexes, but the parish registers do not. Subscribers looking for a particular baptism, marriage or burial have often had to work through a whole parish year by year.

The ERO has now teamed up with Ancestry, the world’s largest online commercial family history website, to offer a new way to access the data. Ancestry have created a name index to the parish register images, and Ancestry users can click straight through from the index to Essex Archives Online in order to buy a copy of the indexed image. Images are emailed out automatically on payment; each one costs £2.99 including VAT.

Essex Archives Online expands as new registers are deposited, but currently it holds about 600,000 images of Anglican parish registers deposited either in the ERO itself or in Waltham Forest Archives. The registers cover the whole of the present county of Essex, including Southend and Thurrock – and also including parts of north-east London that used to be in Essex. Depending on the parish and the event in question, they cover the whole period from 1538 almost up to the present day. Ancestry’s new index covers all the baptisms up to 100 years ago; all the marriages up to 84 years ago; and all deposited burial registers, whatever their date.

For those with large family trees to discover the subscription option is still available, but for anyone who needs an image now and again the new system is easier, quicker and cheaper!

Essex Archives Online update – digitising our electoral registers

We have just begun the next big expansion of digitised records available through our subscription service on Essex Archives Online, with the beginning of our project to provide digital images of our electoral registers.

There are some 850 volumes in our collection of Essex electoral registers

There are some 850 volumes in our collection of Essex electoral registers

Ultimately we will be making available images of all the registers we hold from 1833-1974. The first phase of the project has just been completed, with digital images of our electoral registers from 1833-1868 now all available online. We will be releasing the images in batches, with a target completion date for the whole project of January 2018.

(There is a little caveat to this – the registers for 1918 and 1929 have been online for some time, and they will of course remain.)

While our set of Essex electoral registers is not 100% complete, it is the best surviving set of these records, and for some registers ours is the only surviving copy. This collection of some 850 volumes provides vital evidence of Essex people’s lives and locations over almost 150 years.

As with the images of Essex parish registers and wills already available online, the images of the electoral registers can be viewed free of charge in the ERO Searchroom, or as part of our online subscription packages. Information about how to find the records and how to subscribe can be found on our subscription home page.

Electoral register page for Bardfield Saling, 1851 (Q/RPr 1/10)

Electoral register page for Bardfield Saling, 1851 (Q/RPr 1/10)

 

Why digitise electoral registers?

There are two key drivers for digitising these records: 1, to make them more widely available, and 2, to preserve the originals. Electoral registers were not designed to have a long lifespan and can be somewhat fragile. As popular records they are frequently in demand, and digitisation allows us to make the information available while protecting the original documents.

 

How will the records be indexed?

As with the parish registers already available in Essex Archives Online, we are not publishing a name index, but all of the registers in this batch are arranged alphabetically – that is, electors appear in each parish in alphabetical order of surname.  This makes tracing individuals fairly easy.  In addition, each register is indexed by parish or place, and they offer great opportunities not just for family historians but also for studies of local society and urban development.  An annual list of the main property owners and occupiers in each place is a valuable addition to the online record, particularly where the local rate books (the ultimate source of much of this information) fail to survive.

 

Why do the records start in 1833?

Modern electoral registers came into being with the Great Reform Act of 1832.  The Act did not hugely increase the electorate, but for the first time it required the Clerk of the Peace – the head of the county administration – to have the annual parish lists of electors’ names ‘fairly and truly copied … in a book to be by him provided’, and to give to each elector’s name ‘its proper number, beginning the numbers from the first name’.  That book would be the electoral register for the following year. The Clerk was not required to print the registers, or to preserve them once the year was out, and before the mid-1840s only two survive in Essex. After that matters steadily improve, and from the early 1860s until 2001 the Record Office’s collection is fairly complete.

 

Who will be included in these registers?

The 1832 Reform Act expanded the electorate to some extent, but it was still limited to men aged over 21 who owned a certain amount of property. In 1851 just 11,500 county electors spoke for an Essex population of almost 370,000.

By no means all the electors for a particular parish actually lived there, or even close by, and their actual places of residence can be revealing. In 1851 the divided freehold of the King’s Head Inn at Gosfield, in the northern division of Essex, provided the qualification for 6 of the parish’s 13 electors. One lived in Chelmsford, one in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, one in London and three in Surrey.

At Braintree, three brothers from the Buxton brewing family each held a vote in respect of Hyde Farm, the farm’s ownership being split between them. According to the register, however, Sir Edward North Buxton Bt. – who was in fact the MP for South Essex – lived in Upper Grosvenor Street, Mayfair; Charles Buxton lived near the brewery in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, Middlesex; and Thomas Fowell Buxton lived in Leytonstone (Leyton), which was at least in Essex at the time, although far away in the southern division.

At Leyton, the pattern was repeated and each of the brothers qualified once more, this time through the freehold of the Three Blackbirds inn – although Thomas Fowell Buxton had apparently forgotten that he lived in the parish and gave the Spitalfields address as his place of residence.  For researchers into Victorian society, and especially the connections between land and politics, electoral registers are a mine of information.

For family historians, the names of the electors will naturally be the focus of interest, although the electors themselves are not the only people named.  For example, William Wing of Bloomsbury in London had a vote in 1851 for his house in Braintree on ‘corner of square, Miss Wing, tenant’.  She, of course, had no vote at all – but the naming of such voteless tenants increases the registers’ value to historians.  Miss Wing is known from the 1851 census as Sarah Wing, a silversmith and watchmaker living and working in Great Square, and census users might well have wondered about a possible connection with William Wing, born in Braintree but working as a watchmaker in New Bond Street in London.  Despite the gap between New Bond Street and Braintree, the electoral register evidence makes their connection almost certain, and suggests something of Sarah and William’s family arrangements.  Linking the electoral registers to other sources makes the whole data set much more powerful.

 

How did elections take place in this period?

The process of electing MPs in the 1830s-1860s was quite different to today. There were two different kinds of constituencies – counties and boroughs. The theory was that county MPs would represent landholding interests, and borough MPs the interests of the mercantile and trading classes. Before 1832 Essex sent 8 MPs to Parliament – 2 from the county seat of Chelmsford, and 2 each from the ancient boroughs of Colchester, Maldon and Harwich.

Before 1832 there was enormous variety in the size of constituencies and in voting qualifications. Polling could last up to 40 days, and there was no secret ballot. The whole system was liable to corruption and domination by local elites.

The 1832 Reform Act went some way towards resolving some of these issues. Most rotten boroughs (boroughs with tiny electorates controlled by a wealthy patron) were abolished, and seats were redistributed to growing industrial towns. Polling was limited to two days, and the qualifications for the franchise were standardised.

Essex gained two more MPs as part of the changes as the county constituency was split into two divisions, north and south, each returning two MPs, in addition to the two each still returned from the three ancient boroughs.

Flyer by John Gurdon Rebow of Wivenhoe Park, who stood as an independent candidate for North Essex in the 1847 general election. The policies he outlines here include the protection of agriculture, and of the Church of England and individual liberty. He was not successful on this occasion, but was MP for Colchester between 1857 and 1859, and again from 1865 until his death in 1870. (T/P 68/38/9)

Flyer by John Gurdon Rebow of Wivenhoe Park, who stood as an independent candidate for North Essex in the 1847 general election. The policies he outlines here include the protection of agriculture, and of the Church of England and individual liberty. He was not successful on this occasion, but was MP for Colchester between 1857 and 1859, and again from 1865 until his death in 1870. (T/P 68/38/9)

Looking to the future…

Further reforms were, of course, to come, and successive electoral registers include more and more people, until finally all men and women over 21 were granted the vote in 1928. We will continue to post updates on the blog as the electoral register project progresses, and we hope you enjoy exploring the new images.