Almhouses, Annotations and Murder: Spending Time with Parish Registers

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

The parish register – the list made in a church of the people who have been baptised, married or buried there – is one of the most useful tools for family history, especially for the period prior to the arrival of the civil registration process in 1837.

They’re usually used to identify specific individuals in a person’s ancestry and, with the advent of digital search, that process only requires the searcher to key in the required name and wait for the computer to scan millions of pages from a thousand different registers, before throwing up the (hoped-for) details. Such a search takes, at most, seconds. Sometimes you don’t even need to view images of the original registers, so accurate are the transcriptions on the major genealogical sites.

Searching Parish Registers - digital style

Searching Parish Registers – digital style

That wasn’t always the case, however. Prior to the ‘computer age’, family historians would spend hours, days, even weeks, laboriously searching through microfilms or printed copies of the registers for the places an ancestor might have been born, married, or buried in.

Sometimes, such searches wouldn’t yield the expected results – but that process of looking through page after page could, on occasions, reveal some surprising details – detail that the user of the modern digital searches can miss when going straight to their desired individual. That the Parish Registers were completed by the clergy themselves only doubles that affect: though largely a compendium of names, certain traces of individuality and personality, of unexpected detail, could be found by those willing to look hard enough. Some people cannot resist making their own mark of character on the blank page of history.

Two examples should illustrate this point. Between 1730 and 1748, Thomas Wilson, the noted antiquary and Master of the Leeds Charity School, made copious annotations to entries in the Parish Registers for St. Peter’s Church (Wilson, incidentally, was also responsible for the fascinating annotations made to a copy of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis). One particularly noteworthy case was Wilson’s comments on the shocking murder of one Thomas Grave by Josiah Fearn, owner of Nether Mills and part-owner of the Manor of Leeds.

josiah fearn

Wilson writes of Fearn that his “Temper was extremely rigid to the poor and his dependents, that he was dreaded by all and beloved by none.” That’s about as close as you can get to a contemporaneous account of Fearn and his dastardly deeds; and it’s only a snippet of the Wilson annotations – someone really ought to make a record (an annotation!) of them all.

The second example of those interesting nuggets of detail that can be found through a close examination of Parish Registers comes to us from a recent customer enquiry about the baptism of one Reuben Raper in 1674. The image below shows the relevant Parish register entry for this event:

Baptism of Reuben Raper in 1674 (third entry in the December section)

Baptism of Reuben Raper in 1674 (third entry in the December section)

The interesting thing here (other than the fact that, according to our enquirer, Reuben Raper appears to have been an ancestor of Boris Johnson!) is that the Register gives Reuben’s father as ‘John Raper’, while also stating that John was “of the new Church almhouses”. This was the reason our customer got in touch with us – to see if we could find any information to explain where and what these almhouses were, as he could find no mention of them in any other source. After some thought, we reasoned that “new Church almhouses” must surely refer to what we now know as John Harrison’s almhouses, situated next to the then-new St. John’s Church.

However, no amount of searching through relevant books and other sources revealed any other occasion when Harrison’s almhouses were known by that specific name. So, what we have here, is a little bit of very local detail straight from the pages of History: the everyday name for a particular place. While that detail doesn’t necessarily tell us anything insightful, it does bring us that little bit closer to the past, in a way that might evade us if we hadn’t taken a look at the Parish Register image.

Who knows what else you might find during a detailed search of those Registers? Remember, by visiting the Local and Family History department in the Central Library you can view printed, microfilm and – via free access to – digital copies of most Parish Registers throughout West Yorkshire, as well as a growing number for other parts of the county: click here to see a full list of the available collection.

And do let us know what you find…

The Big Book of Shakespeare

  • Back in April, the Secret Library took a look at some of the most beautiful Shakespearian art books in the library collection. Now we’re sending Polly Clare-Hudson, guest blogger from the University of Leeds, back to the stacks for a closer examination of a particularly gorgeous example…

This enormous book, comprising of two volumes in one, was published in 1805 and contains plates and prints by British artists of the time, including Smirke, Fuseli, Northcote, Reynolds and Opie; the culmination of two decades of commissions, paintings, exhibitions (for which a purpose built gallery was opened in 1789), and engravings. It’s rather magnificent full title is A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare.

In this case the clue is very much in the title.

Macbeth, Act I Scene III, painted by Fuseli

This is one of my favourite of the many images, showing the dramatic moment in “The Scottish Play” (so-called because superstitious actors believed Macbeth to bring bad luck), where three witches deliver a prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo, which sets them on a path to tragedy, murder and death.
This scene was painted by Henry Fuseli (1741-1821), one of the more high-profile contributors to the collection, a prolific painter and writer on the subject of art, who influenced many English artists, including the poet-engraver William Blake.

Many of the scenes captured by the artists are fraught with danger or tragedy (for example, one shows the infamous stage direction in A Winter’s Tale, “exit, pursued by a bear”). However, not all of the scenes are so tragic. Here is the comic scene in Twelfth Night, where the infatuated Malvolio has been tricked into ridiculing himself in front of the object of his affection, Olivia, by wearing cross garters (the ribbons crossed up his legs), and yellow tights.

Malvolio, cross-gartered in yellow tights, presents himself to Olivia, painted by Johann Heinrich Ramberg

Malvolio, cross-gartered in yellow tights, presents himself to Olivia, painted by Johann Heinrich Ramberg

This remains a hugely popular play to this day, and is still regularly performed.  In 2013, it was performed at The Globe in London with an all-male cast, with Stephen Fry as Malvolio, and Mark Rylance as Olivia.

Another fantastic image is this one of the storm-at-sea which opens The Tempest. This scene still poses a challenge for directors, as neither storms nor ships are easy to create in a theatre. However, in art, the scene is more easily brought to life, as can be seen here:

The Tempest, Act I Scene I

The Tempest, Act I Scene I

Prospero, the wronged sorcerer (often cited as the character closest to a self-portrait from Shakespeare) can be seen on the right with his daughter Miranda, and in the clouds are the spirits he commands, including the loyal Ariel. The detail on the terrified sailors’ faces is very moving here, as is the movement of waves and winds.

Quite apart from the magnificent artwork it contains, this book is an interesting window into its own time period. At the time it was created and published, Europe was being shaken first by the French Revolution of 1793, and then by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The disgust felt by the English upper classes towards these events is encapsulated in the introduction, where Josiah Boydell writes of the “unhappy revolution” as “the convulsion that has disjointed and ruined the whole continent”. Indeed, concern with the French seems to have driven the entire creation of the collection, as it was motivated by concern over London’s printmaking being inferior to continental printmaking.

Finally, here is the scene where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. It’s clear which figure Juliet is (she’s even glowing!) but which of the men do you think is Romeo?

romeo and juliet

I really would recommend going to Central Library and having a look at this unique book for yourself. The prints cannot be done justice by these photos, and just turning the pages successfully almost feels like an achievement.

  • A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare is kept in the Oversize Folio Stong Room at shelf mark 822.3 BOY. Please contact us in advance if you’d like to come and look at it!

Leeds Through The Ages

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Most readers of this blog will already be very familiar with Leodis – our historical archive of photos from Leeds and its surrounding area. But what few people will be aware is just how many other places that Leodis collection is used. We regularly take requests for images from a wide range of sources, including media organisations like the Yorkshire Evening Post and the BBC; academics; local history societies; marketing agencies working with retail clients in Leeds – and many more. 

One particularly interesting such usage of the Leodis collection was by Park Lane Properties, who recently commissioned a fascinating web app that allows the viewer to browse images of specific Leeds locations and landmarks – images from the past; the present; or both mixed together in a seamless integration of ‘then’ and ‘now’. You can see Leeds Through The Ages by clicking on this link, or scroll below to read more about the motivation behind the creation of the app and its celebration of Leeds’ rich heritage.

“Established as a city in 1893, Leeds is now the largest city in Yorkshire with a population of 750,000 people. It holds a unique history itself, producing the first moving picture which was filmed in Leeds in 1888 by Louis Le Prince and inventing the well-loved board game Cluedo.

Over the years the city has taken huge steps to modernising the landscape and the way that the city runs. From introducing new shopping centres, to working on transport for the future, Leeds keeps up with the fast pace environment and demands that city life has.

Parklane Properties are keen to honour Leeds’ history by combining past and present day photos of iconic locations all over the city. The slider, named Leeds Through The Ages, gives you a chance to learn about the history of Leeds and see what the streets and buildings were like up to 100 years ago.

Lydia Eustace, Marketing Manager at Parklane Properties said, “Here at Parklane Properties, we are proud to be one of the longest established property companies in the area. Leeds’ heritage walks hand in hand with our own and we are delighted to be able to showcase the city then and now.”

Lewis’s Department store on Headrow, which features in the slider, first opened its doors to the public on the 17th September 1932 and was 40ft higher than any other retail building in Leeds.  Now 84 years later the department store has been divided and is home to T.K Maxx, Argos and Sainsbury’s.

The locations included in the piece are:

  • Kirkgate Market
  • Kirkgate Tram Stop
  • Albion Street
  • Victoria Arcade
  • Brudenell Road
  • 02 Academy
  • The Arndale Centre
  • Corn Exchange
  • Headrow
  • Parklane Properties

Many of Leeds developments throughout the years have been focused on improving the shopping quality within the city and attracting people from all over the country to join a unique retail experience.

This had become particularly prevalent in Leeds, with developments like Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre and the new Victoria Gate shopping centre. Victoria Gate, which is set to open its doors on 20th October, will feature the John Lewis flagship store as well as other high end luxury brands and will continue to centre the city as a commercial hub.

The Arndale Centre chain were the first shopping malls of their kind in England which included an 18 lane bowling alley, however ‘The Bowl’ closed in the 60’s and today you can find a wide range of shops and restaurants in its place.

A notable feature that hasn’t changed in The Arndale Centre over the past 50 years is the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, featuring in both the 1967 photo and today’s.

Lydia added: “Some people may be able to look at some of the past photos and remember the buildings looking like that and give them not only a sense of nostalgia but also some information they never knew about the buildings”.

(For all media enquiries, please contact or call 0113 234 3300)

John Ogilby: Road Maps & Measuring Wheels

  • by Karen Downham, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Ogilby 1

Among the many maps in Leeds Libraries’ collection is John Ogilby’s Britannia Depicta, published in 1675, a landmark in the mapping of England and Wales, and the first national road atlas of any country in Western Europe. It was a publication that would bring about a change in the character and use of maps, and bringing to prominence the ‘”road books” intended for use by the traveller. A few had been published previously, but Britannia was the first to give such a degree of detail on the countryside through which the roads passed.

Ogilby 2

“Being an actual survey of all the direct and principal cross roads in England and Wales shewing all the cities, towns, villages, churches and Gentleman’s seats, situated on or near any of the roads.”

John Ogilby (November 1600–4 September 1676) was born in Killemeare (Kirriemuir), near Edinburgh, the son of a wealthy Scottish gentleman, and the family moved to London when Ogilby was still a child. However, when his father was imprisoned for debt, Ogilby had to go out selling trinkets to make a living. He invested his savings in a lottery, had the good luck to win a minor prize, and paid off his father’s debts. He spent some time as a dancing master and theatre owner before becoming a bookseller and printer. He was also a successful translator, noted for publishing his work in handsome illustrated editions.

By 1674 Ogilby was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer”, and was one of four men appointed to prepare a detailed plan of the area destroyed by the Great Fire of London, published in 1677, a year after Ogilby’s death.

Ogilby 3

Ogilby had the idea to create a road book in pictorial form, with measurements of all distances, notes of branch roads and junctions, together with features of interest along the road. His scheme was approved by Charles II, and in preparation for the publication, seventy-three roads were surveyed and accurately measured. All the measurements were carried out with a road wheel, (also sometimes called a way-wiser, or ‘Wheel Dimensurator’), a device resembling the front wheel of a bicycle in its’ forks, with the wheel geared to a comptometer – a type of mechanical calculator – so as the surveyor pushed the wheel in front of him, the distances were displayed on a dial. The illustration below is an example of type of instrument Ogilby’s surveyors would have used, and modern versions are still used today. The symbol of the measuring wheel features throughout the maps, and several of the illustrations on the titles depict surveyors at work with the measuring wheel:

Example of Old Road Wheel

    Example of Old Road Wheel

Ogilby used the Statute Mile (5280ft/ 1760 yards), introduced by Act of Parliament in 1593, but not generally used until much later, with the old English Customary Mile still being used on milestones. Another innovation was Ogilby’s scale of one inch to the mile (1/63360). These are marked and numbered on each map, the miles further being divided into furlongs. The information was set out in strip maps and engraved on 100 folio plates, accompanied by a double-sided page of text giving additional advice for the map’s use.

Title from Sheet 100 of Britannia Depicta

     Title from Sheet 100 of Britannia Depicta

Each Sheet covered about seventy miles, and has a title, as shown above, also giving distances between the important towns. The plates were divided into vertical strips, to look like a continuous spiral flattened out. At major changes of direction, there is a compass dial drawn, showing the changing orientation of the map, so North would not necessarily be at the top, as is the custom with most of today’s maps.

Additionally, the compass bearing of major local landmarks such as windmills church towers and large houses was noted, so an out-rider could ride to the landmark and take a triangulation bearing. This is also shown on the title piece above.

Ogilby 6

One of Wainwright’s maps.

The strip map is occasionally used today, a notable example being the hand drawn maps of Alfred Wainwright, in his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.

Ogilby’s plates show towns and villages, bridges, distances, destination of side roads, and some of the larger natural features are named. The surveyors noted if the roads were enclosed by walls of hedges, or open, local landmarks were also noted, along with inns, bridges(even noting the material of construction), fords, and sometimes the cultivation of the fields on either side of the road. Hills were drawn on the maps to show the direction in which they were inclined, and their relative steepness. The extracts below note “a Rill” (a small stream or shallow drainage channel), “a Warren” (network of rabbit borrows), arable fields, and “Moorish ground on both sides”.

The details on the plates were so clear and precise that an engraver could draft any of them onto an existing map.

Ogilby died some time after the map’s publication, in 1676, and was buried at St. Brides, one of Sir Christopher Wren’s new London churches.

Ogilby’s Britannia Depicta  provides an interesting record of the countryside of England at the time, and stands apart from other maps of the time. The maps were printed in relatively large numbers for the time, and prints are still available, with originals held in libraries for consultation.

Editions of Britannia Depicta from 1720, 1753 and 1764 are held by the Information & Research Library, and Local & Family History hold prints of individual sheets covering roads in Yorkshire.

Ogilby 8 Ogilby 7

Secrets of the Palm 3: What to Do on a Wet Thursday Night in Harrogate

  • Leeds Libraries Heritage Volunteer Tony Scaife delves once more into the pages of The Palm, the magazine of the old Leeds Central High School, which is archived in the Local and Family History Library at shelfmark L 373 PAL.

In late August of 1920, four Central High School boys decided to go On a Holiday, leaving a record of their adventure in The Palm (December 1920, p.21). Two of the four have been tentatively identified as J.W.L. Crosfill and D.C. Ramsden, the authors of the article, but history only knows the other two as ‘H’ and ‘M’. Given that Ramsden and Crosfill had joined the ranks of the CHS Old Boys by December 1922, they must have been about 16 years old at the time of the trip.


From Kelly’s Directory of Leeds, 1920, which devotes three pages to bicycle retailers, repairers, wholesalers and equipment suppliers (all offering just the same lists of ‘essential’ kit that fill modern cycling magazines)

The boys cycled from Leeds to somewhere around the Pately Bridge/Harrogate area to take possession of a two-roomed cottage, loaned to them for a week, described as barely furnished and “at least five miles from anywhere”. In fact, they had to make two trips from Leeds to carry all the gear they took with them. But this was no glamping holiday: they washed in the “unsympathetic” horse trough across the green (“a bit chilly a first but we soon got used to it”), cooked on a Primus stove, and slept on uncomfortable beds of heather, which were softened by bracken but still prone, apparently, to stick in your back like a six-inch nail. They said nothing about the toilet facilities. For which we may be fastidiously grateful.

Their equipment list appears quite spartan in comparison to a modern cycle camping trip:

1920 List (deduced from Crosfill and Ramsden’s article) Today’s List (from cycling blog
4 bicycles (makes unspecified) 2 GT Zaskar Expert mountain bikes
4 Acetylene bicycle lamps 24 items of bike and repair kit
Clothing (unspecified) 19 items of clothing
Blankets Tent, thermarest mattress, sleeping bags and liners. Emergency space blankets
3 billycans, 1 frying pan, 1 dish 18 items of washing and eating kit including a folding sink (no stove)
1 Primus stove Camera, mobile phone and charger, credit cards, bike computer
6 chairs and a rickety table (provided) Passports and driving licence

The boys had arranged to get milk, eggs and bread from a nearby farm, and got through eight eggs and a gallon of milk per day. There was also a village shop where you could buy “anything from corn plasters to confectionary”. When not cooking – and they complained about how much time they had to spend cooking – they devoted most of their week to cycling around the district on roads presumably as deserted as this photo of Killingbeck Garage, York Road, in 1929:


A petrol station, paint and repair shop are shown to the left; the site on the right was later used a booster station to provide extra power for trams to travel up Halton Hill to the right, down Selby Road. The clock tower of Seacroft Hospital can be seen on the horizon (image from Leodis).

The rural roads were in a poor state, while wayfaring at unsignposted junctions was a lottery. A midweek trip to Pately Bridge enabled them to escape the cooking drudgery by having tea out, and gave them an opportunity to decry, rather snootily, the overabundance of pubs on Pately Bridge. Finally escaping to Dacre, they were then, in Wodehousian terms, “exhorted by the village arm of the law to apply a lucifer to our lighting appendages” (those Acetylene lamps again) before finally heading home by a circuitous route.

It is not surprising, given that the boys were writing for a school magazine, that they present a uniformly wholesome picture, though there are occasional hints of rifts in the lute (H and M were dispatched one day to Pately Bridge for fresh supplies but returned home late and empty-handed). Furthermore, on several occasions, the standard of cooking fell short even of that usually acceptable to four very hungry, energetic boys. But of drinking, smoking or girls there is not a mention.

The cottage’s sole entertainment system being two copies of the Illustrated London News for 1867, the boys felt compelled on a wet Thursday evening (2 September 1920) to cycle the 14 miles to Harrogate in search of fun. According to the Harrogate Advertiser (Saturday 28 August, 1920) they could have gone to the Beechwood Hotel for a thé dansant, where a Miss Harkins directed Mr Gordon Williams’ Dansant Orchestra. But, at 4 shillings, this was a pricy option and possibly unappealing to adolescent aesthetics.

With prices ranging from 4d to 1/-, however, the picture houses were a better fit for pocket and taste. They could choose from The Picture House (“the pick of pictures perfectly projected”) which was showing Tom Moore in the romantic photo-play Just for Tonight, supported by a two-part comedy, a news reel and two travel shorts. Or there was the Palace Theatre, showing Priscilla Dean in She Hired a Husband, supported by the Charlie Chaplin short The Flirts and a topical Fox News reel. Finally “a crowded house” at the newly-opened Central Cinema enjoyed The Spider and The Fly, a “strong love drama” followed by Dustin Farnum in A Man’s Fight, all the while being entertained by Mr William Elbarne on the organ. Since they make reference to a Wild West thriller in their article, we can assume the boys went to the Central but, wherever it was, they were making their way home by 11pm, only to get lost again on the dark, signless roads and not arrive back till 1am.

By United Picture Theatres of America Inc. - Motion Picture News (Jul. - Aug. 1919) at the Internet Archive, Public Domain,

By United Picture Theatres of America Inc. – Motion Picture News (Jul-Aug 1919) at the Internet Archive, Public Domain,

By and large, though, it was an age when people made their own entertainment… but not always successfully it would seem. On Saturday 4 September, the boys were invited to a neighbour’s sing-song and the “unsuspecting mortals” accepted. Having found that the neighbour was a poor piano player, they then discovered “she also thought she could sing. Up to a certain point she could but after that she slipped her moorings and got adrift. Her nerve-shattering attempts to reach notes two octaves higher that Nature intended … The awful strain of having to control an overwhelming desire to howl for two hours on end is enough to drive a sane person to lunacy. However, all good things must come to an end and when this one did we trooped home, locked the door and laughed”.

The holiday itself came to an end on Monday 6 September when, with justified foreboding, the lads went to the farm to settle the bill and “paid up under protest. Then we loaded our cycles with our goods and chattels, said good bye to our friends and returned home without mishap”… leaving us a fascinating glimpse into the good old days, where everyday activities like cooking and washing were pretty hard and unglamorous, and holidays definitely weren’t for wimps.

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