Tag Archives: parish registers

Did Jane Austen fake a marriage?

Ahhh, see, I told you that notes left in parish registers are endlessly fascinating!

Not only is it possible (at least I think so) that Charlotte Brontë got the surname of her heroine from the printer who manufactured parish registers, but Jane Austen, another vicar’s daughter, was actually writing in the marriage register.

The BBC has reported this as “‘Mischievous’ Jane Austen faked Steventon marriage records” which makes her sound like Sir Percival Glyde in The Woman in White. And there’s more: “Novelist Jane Austen created fake entries in a marriage register linking herself with two separate men, it has emerged.” Blimey! The strumpet! She’s committed both bigamy and fraud!

Well… no. Had she filled out a form in the parish register like so:

Layer-de-la-Haye marriage register 1754-1812. ERO ref: D/P 255/1/2. Image reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office.

She would have been in rather a lot of trouble. From 1754 and the Hardwicke Act, marriages were far more regulated than they had been. At least one of the couple had to be resident in the parish they were marrying in, and the marriage had to be by banns or by licence. Banns were called on three consecutive Sundays in church, or a licence had to be paid for and would involve a fine if it turned out the marriage was illegal. If you were so rich that you owned half the British Isles, you could of course get a special licence and marry wherever the heck you liked. You’d also need two witnesses and a clergyman to perform the marriage, and then the spouses either signed or marked the register. The example above (the marriage of my 6 x gt-grandparents) shows that they got married by licence (Elizabeth was pregnant at the time, so the licence sped things up without having to wait for banns to be called), and they both marked – although note that Elizabeth signed with an E, which suggests she wasn’t quite as illiterate as it might at first appear.

If you look at the BBC article, you can see one of Jane’s works.

Hampshire Archives, from the BBC website.

She’s written the groom’s name as “Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam” where it says “AB” and added “London” as his abode, and then her own name where it says “CD”, and her home parish as her abode. Would Mr Fitzwilliam, bearer of such a grand name, want to marry by banns, though, one wonders?

Look at that example from 1767, and you’ll notice they’re different forms. On the page that Jane Austen graffitied, you can see the other side of the leaf – the title page of the register – showing through. What she “edited” was the example which was printed at the front of every marriage register, so that clergymen would understand how to follow the new layout. And it’s showing how to lay out the publication of the banns – it’s not a marriage entry.

Perhaps she didn’t expect her father to see it, or perhaps he spotted it and laughed.

It’s certainly a fun thing to find – but it was found, in fact, some time ago (“it has emerged” is rather misleading. This “emerged” years back). It is quite the hyperbolic headline – she falsified a marriage record! Well… she did, but not in quite the way you’d assume from the breaking-news tone.

It does go to show though, what you’ll find in parish registers. Poisonings, death by a bell falling out of a steeple, children born in barns, locals trashing a pulpit, extreme weather, and maybe the graffiti of a vicar’s imaginative teenager daughter.

You’ll be able to see this on display in Winchester from May.

More unfortunate ways to die in parish registers

All Saints church Great Oakley, by Helen Barrell

All Saints church Great Oakley, by Helen Barrell

A while ago I compiled all the unfortunate causes of death to be found in the parish registers for Beaumont-cum-Moze – perhaps the most unfortunate was William Taylor, who was killed by the bell falling out of the belfry. Burial registers aren’t really supposed to include cause of death, so they appear infrequently. But when they do, they give us a view into the lives lived (and the deaths died) in the past. Drowning and burning seems to have been more common than it is now, with people relying on well-water (and with all those rivers and creeks along the coast) and open fires. Of course, these are the deaths which have been described in the register – so they might be unusual, hence why they warrant a mention. And many causes of death not recorded may have been stranger still – it entirely depends on the whim of the minister or clerk entering the burials in the register. “Shall I mention that this poor chap was struck by lightning while harvesting turnips? Hmmm… nope.” It’s worth searching for your ancestors in newspaper databases in case they did have an unfortunate death which required an inquest.

Here’s some more, this time from Brightlingsea and Elmstead. The date is the burial date.

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Mistley and the Witchfinder

796px-Matthew_Hopkins

I knew I would come across the burial of Matthew Hopkins, “witchfinder general”, when I came to transcribe Mistley‘s earliest parish register. It was still a strange feeling, to add his name to the database along with all the other residents. But along with Matthew, there was one other Hopkins in the register, and his burial seems to explain just what Hopkins was doing in Mistley in the first place, and perhaps how his campaign took hold.

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Georgian “Cluedo” in Manningtree’s parish register

house-plan

Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office

Well this is a very odd thing… a plan for the ground floor of a house, from Manningtree‘s register covering 1695-1775. It looks bizarrely like a board from the game “Cluedo”, not least because it even includes a billiard room. From the top, there’s the drawing room, something-or-other room, Ante? room, breakfast room and dining room. Some hastily added stairs, and bay windows.

But who sketched this? A vicar dreaming of his perfect house? Is there a house somewhere in Manningtree which was built to this plan?

Double women in Weeley

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Along with the notes in Weeley’s register showing that people having civil marriages during the Commonwealth were sometimes backing it up with a church wedding afterwards, there’s something else intriguing about the register at that period.

We’re used to seeing marital statuses for women such as single woman, spinster, widow or maiden (How sure they were of that…? Ahem), but Weeley’s earliest register throws a new one into the mix: the double woman.

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Black History Month – Harwich and Boreham

portrait-sailor

Portrait of a late 18th century sailor (from Wikipedia Commons)

It’s time for some parish register finds which show black people living in Essex hundreds of years ago. Last year, it was coincidentally in October that I spotted William Essex, “a black native of Madagascar” in Wivenhoe’s baptism register – so these are the people I’ve found since, in Harwich and Boreham.

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Was your ancestor married by a witchfinder?

"The Puritan Wedding Interrupted" by George Henry Boughton. Yale University Art Gallery.

“The Puritan Wedding Interrupted” by George Henry Boughton. Yale University Art Gallery.

Well… sort of….

During the Commonwealth, from the time of the 1653 Marriage Act to the Restoration in 1660, marriages weren’t performed by clergy but by the local Justice of the Peace.1)See Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists for more information. In the Tendring Hundred, these Justices – amongst them Harbottle Grimstone (who sounds like a Dickens character) and Sir Thomas Bowes (a relative of mine – sorry everyone) would have performed the marriages. And these were the very same men who aided Matthew Hopkins in his crusade against “witches” – they were responsible for committing the women (and sometimes men) for trial.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. See Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists for more information.

Talk: Wivenhoe’s epidemics

plague

Just a quick note – I’m giving a talk for the Wivenhoe History Group at the William Loveless Hall in Wivenhoe on Wednesday 8th July at 7.30pm.

All are welcome and it’s free.

I’ll be taking you through Wivenhoe’s burial registers, which show that the village was visited by plague, small pox and possibly cholera, from 1603 to 1849.

Caught by surprise in Little Bromley

Swaddled Tudor baby.

Swaddled Tudor baby.

As you might have noticed, notes in parish registers fascinate me. One I came across the other day seemed to pack quite a story into just one sentence.

In the earliest register for Little Bromley in Essex, there’s a baptism on 8th April 1593 for a child called Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Myller “of Bryghtwell in Suffolk, mattmaker, borne in Staceys? grounds as his wyf travayld from Manytry towards Wevenho.”

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Video: You say Austin, I say Alston – Essex and Suffolk accents

An interesting note from 1745 in West Bergholt‘s parish register shows us that the vicar got muddled up with some of his parishioners’ surnames. Understanding the accent of your ancestor’s region can be really helpful if you want to trace them back further. In this video I talk about certain features of the accent(s) found in the north of Essex and the south of Suffolk, delivered in my authentic north-east Essex twang.

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