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 Ancestry.com – 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…

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