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…

Unexpected Perspectives #5

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

There are plenty of reasons to visit the Carriageworks Theatre on Millennium Square this month, the main one being that their production of Aladdin, the city’s only traditional pantomime, begins on Friday and runs right through to 9 January. Another reason is to take advantage of the tip-top views from the bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows… Look west for a stunning zigzag perspective right the way along Great George Street (I’ll not spoil it for you here) or north for a bird’s-eye view of the square outside, which is currently crawling with shoppers, diners and general browsers – all of whom look just like ants from up here:


Hey, wait… those ARE ants… I think I need to clean under my desk!

The German Christmas Market has been setting up shop(s) in Millennium Square since 2002, and attracts upwards of 750,000 visitors every year. That’s 10.5 million people who’ve been for a nosy over the last 14 years – or slightly less if you factor in that about seventy of those were me making repeat visits for a Bailey’s hot chocolate. But, statistics aside, that’s still a pretty impressive attraction.

Also impressive is the former Leeds Institute of Science and Art – now the City Museum – watching over the proceedings with its large Eye of Providence. (I’m not kidding… check out that central window in the photo above and phone the Freemasons if you don’t believe me.) Designed as a centre of education for the working class and housing a 1500-capacity lecture theatre, it was built between 1865 and 1868 to plans drawn up by Cuthbert Brodrick, the architect behind the Town Hall and Corn Exchange. The Wetherspoon’s pub to the left of the building is, of course, now named after him and, standing just between them, is the giant grenade-like sculpture Off Kilter by Turner Prize-nominated Richard Wilson, which disguises a light and sound control tower. How’s that for art with a purpose?

Anyway, we’ll leave you with this early, undated engraving of the Institute from Leodis, bethronged not with weary Christmas shoppers but instead lots of old horses, traps and other historical whatsits. Enjoy.


Unexpected Perspectives #4

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Now that the remodeling work has finished on the new sandwich shop, Simply Eat, next-door to the traditional Headrow pub, the Horse and Trumpet, it’s safe to once again poke your nose through that rather arty circular gate to the rear of the City Varieties Music Hall.


Of course, this wasn’t always the back of the theatre, as you might guess from the still-visible words painted above the doors in the photo above, which read CIRCLE & BOXES. For a long time, in fact, this now rather uninspiring alleyway served as its main entrance. The City Varieties grew out of the White Swan public house on Swan Street in 1865, when landlord Charles Thornton (yes, he also built Thornton’s Arcade) decided to turn its popular singing room into a separate – and lucrative – entertainment venue. Entry was still via the pub for a while but, after the Horse and Trumpet arrived on the scene ten years later, someone (probably Thornton) had the bright idea of capturing foot traffic from both sides of the building. Now take a look at this photo from 13 June 1930, taken from our Leodis webite, and see if you can spot said entrance:


Yes, that’s it, towards the right of the image. The photo shows the south side of the Headrow, of course, with the top of Briggate visible beside the white building on the left (which is soon to reopen as a new Samsung store). The big difference is the open land in the foreground… In order to stand in this position today, you’d probably have to jog along at the top of an escalator inside TK Maxx, as if you were on a treadmill. Back in the early Thirties, the block had been cleared in preparation for the building of the new Lewis’s department store, which opened in 1932 and lasted until the 1990s. (There’s a nice article about it, with photos of the shop under construction, on the Yorkshire Post website.)

Next year, Lewis’s is set to make a comeback to Leeds in the form of a big new John Lewis store, which will be the centrepiece of the new Victoria Gate development further down the street. How’s that for circularity?

Unexpected Perspectives #3

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

We’re back causing trouble in city centre shops again this week, squeezing ourselves around an upstairs window display to get an elevated view of one of Leeds’s busiest retail routes, Briggate.


You’ll need to ride the escalator or lift to the first floor of clothes shop Zara to get a gander from this angle, heading for the window in the far corner of the menswear department. (If anyone accuses you of trying to sidle behind the counter at this point, just remain very still and pretend to be a mannequin.) The trip is especially worth making on a Saturday afternoon, when the throng of shoppers at ground level becomes a mesmerising flow of bobbing heads when seen from above.

Our photograph reflects a window of opportunity on a less busy weekday (and, yes, there’s plenty of reflecting visible on the window in the image – sorry). As well as appreciating the surprising slope of the street from this angle, you’ll find it’s the often ornate upper levels of the surrounding buildings that stand out, rather than the shops beneath. Take a look at the next photo, from 1909, and see if you can work out which buildings it shows.


The clue of course is the Pack Horse Inn, the entrance to which is also visible in our more modern photograph (on the extreme left). The entrance to Pack Horse Yard is at number 56 Briggate, one of the oldest buildings in Leeds when the 1909 picture was taken, but which stands no longer. You can still visit the pub, however, which dates back to 1615 and has an original Templar Cross affixed to the wall beneath its gables – a sign that the building once belonged to the Knights Templar.

The entranceway itself is one of the city’s ‘low ins’. This is a 19th Century name for the various doorway-sized entrances between the shops and businesses of Leeds, which lead to a network of passageways and yards behind. Some locals believe that, over time, the expression ‘low in’ gave rise to the term ‘Loiner’, referring to a resident of Leeds. Many of these entrances remain open today and, if you decide to explore them, you’ll discover unusually-named yards, a handful of hidden shops, and more of the city centre’s oldest pubs.

  • For more photographs of bygone Leeds, visit our Leodis website.

Unexpected Perspectives #2

  • By Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Now is the time to wander down to the West Yorkshire Playhouse and take advantage of a relatively unobstructed view straight up Eastgate to the Headrow. Once the new multi-storey car park of the currently under-construction Victoria Gate shopping centre is complete (it’s due to open late next year), we wager you might still be able to see as far as the Town Hall clock tower – as seen below – but, depending on the shape of the new development, it’s by no means a given.


Today, the boughs of trees frame the prospect seen from this viewpoint at the eastern edge of the city centre but, forty years ago, you would have been staring out from beneath the arched entrance of the country’s largest housing block, Quarry Hill Flats. The complex stood on the site from 1934 to 1978, and a visit to our Leodis photographic website will show you exactly what it looked like. The picture below, however, from 1967, shows a view similar to that above, albeit with two big differences. Firstly, the left of the two ‘Bookend Buildings’, only recently demolished, still stands – the mirror image of its companion across the road. Secondly, Eastgate Roundabout (in the foreground) remains the location of Appleyard’s petrol station… Look closely and you can make out its petrol pumps where, today, flower beds and pelican crossing points stand.


Our vantage point, or hereabouts, is also the place from which to try to catch a glimpse of one of the city’s most mysterious and little-seen phenomena, known amongst the select few who’ve witnessed it as ‘Leedshenge’. It’s whispered that, if you’re standing in the right spot (somewhere around here) at the right time of day (sunrise or sunset) at the right time of year (accounts favour the vernal or autumnal equinox), the sun will momentarily rest upon the horizon, lining up perfectly with the buildings that flank the Headrow, and lending the landscape an unearthly, near-indescribable glow. You’ve missed your chance for this year, we’re afraid, but perhaps we’ll meet you there next March… that’s if that car park’s not in the way.