Tea with the vicar

Tea with the vicar

In the days before computers, a notebook, pencil and perseverance were the only things a genealogist needed. Mike Sharpe explores the history of genealogy itself

Mike Sharpe, professional genealogist and writer

Mike Sharpe

professional genealogist and writer


Today, family history is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes. Popular TV programmes and the growth of online resources have encouraged millions to seek out their roots. Yet curiosity about one’s forebears is nothing new; in fact, the study of genealogy dates back centuries.

In Britain, early genealogy was intricately bound up with the class system. Genealogists (who were generally antiquarians) grappled with the family trees of the nobility and gentry, but were more concerned with pandering to their clients’ expectations than finding the truth. The pedigrees they drew up, showing links to illustrious antecedents, were often questionable and sometimes involved no research at all. Only in the late 19th century, aided by a new breed of professional genealogist, did standards improve and genealogy begin to gain wider appeal.

Edwin Lyne, a middle-ranking civil servant, set out to find his ancestors, whom he thought to be yeoman farmers in the Midlands, in the late 1870s. His interest was spurred by reports that a Mary Lyne of Reading had left an unclaimed estate valued at £500 and he wondered whether he might be a beneficiary. Appeals in the personal columns of newspapers elicited numerous responses from possible relations as well as servants who had worked for the Lyne family. In search of firm evidence, Lyne turned to two sources still used today: parish registers and Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills. He wrote to clergymen in parishes of interest asking them to search their registers, some of whom were cooperative and others not. One vicar complained that he did not have time to examine the registers and that the earlier entries are written in a most difficult handwriting and are faded through age. Despite employing a professional genealogist, Lyne eventually abandoned his inquiry and failed to leave even a proper pedigree to show the result of his work.

Inside cover of family bible of Ann Poulson
Inside cover of family bible of Ann Poulson, of Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, the author’s great-great-grandmother Mike Sharpe

Genealogy as an amateur pursuit was increasingly popular in Lyne’s era. When Charles Bernau compiled his International Genealogical Directory (IGD) in 1906, he received more than 1,400 entries from genealogists both amateur and professional in Britain, Europe and America. In publishing the IGD, the first genealogical directory for general use, Bernau was breaking new ground. At a time when even a telephone directory was a novelty, some felt that the prospect of being contacted by a complete stranger went against all social norms. You surely do not intend your book to act as a social introduction, but only for purposes of correspondence?, asked one contributor. Another feared that having their name published could lead to correspondence with people one may not care to know .

Charles Bernau’s International Genealogical DirectoryCharles Bernau’s International Genealogical Directory 2
Charles Bernau’s International Genealogical Directory – the publication introduced lists of genealogists’ interests

Even so, only the upper and upper-middle classes had the time and money to probe their origins in any formal way. Poor literacy, low wages and difficulties in accessing the records meant most working people had little knowledge of their lineage. In place of official records, they continued to rely on the oral tradition, handing down tales from one generation to the next. For many households the family bible became the prime repository of genealogical information, with births, marriages and deaths being systematically recorded by whoever in the family could write.

family record sheet at the Society of Genealogists
Family record sheet at the Society of Genealogists used by the genealogist George Sherwood, c1910

Facilities for genealogists
For researchers of yesteryear the first port of call was the Public Record Office (PRO), the forerunner of The National Archives. Formed in 1838, in its early days the PRO saw its role as being to secure custody of the ancient records rather than to promote their use for scholarship or research. Readers were seen as little more than an inconvenience, to be tolerated rather than encouraged. Recalling his visits there in the 1880s and 90s, professional genealogist Walter Rye described a long unpleasant room with low tables and high backless forms which cramped the searcher’s legs if he were anything above a dwarf in stature .

The release of the 1861 census in 1962, the first new census collection in nearly 50 years, put strain on the PRO. Conditions in the search rooms in Chancery Lane had barely changed since Walter Rye’s time, with each document having to be fetched and returned by hand. Recalling her first visit in the sticky heat of July 1965, Stella Colwell noted how it was a matter of securing a seat in the Long Room… and of trying to find your way through the maze of references. Since there were no indexes, locating a family or even a known address was no small undertaking. Boxes containing the original paper returns had to be ordered up, often involving a wait of an hour or more. Each box had to be searched painstakingly, page by page, and if unsuccessful the whole procedure repeated for a neighbouring district.

Somerset House, for many years the home of both the General Register Office (GRO) and the Principal Probate Registry, was another familiar stamping ground for generations of genealogists. With the search rooms becoming chronically congested, in 1974 the GRO opened a new facility at St Catherine’s House. This represented an improvement for a while but before long there were complaints that this too was becoming overcrowded. At lunchtime on a weekday,noted the Daily Telegraph, the place is sometimes more like an ill-organised Boy Scout jamboree, as picnickers mingle with serious researchers thumbing through the registers.One researcher described how you needed to be six feet tall to easily reach the indexes, measuring 24 inches by 18 inches, on the top shelves and to have bulging arm muscles… to swing the index from the shelf onto the sloping desk .

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A hundred years after Edwin Lyne wrote to clergymen, many parish registers were still held in churches and, like Lyne, researchers experienced widely differing receptions. Some incumbents would lock the visitor in a stone-cold room, with no toilet facilities, for an unspecified length of time; the mean spirited would stand over the genealogist as they copied out pages of entries and then charge them for the pleasure; and the kind hearted would welcome the researcher into the vicarage and provide copious cups of tea. Fred Markwell, a founder of the Federation of Family History Societies, encountered one vicar who charged four guineas for extracting eleven entries, and another who waived his fee despite an extended search across several registers.

 Sir Edmund LodgeSir Samuel Egerton Brydges
Before the mid-19th century, genealogy was primarily the pursuit of antiquarians and scholars compiling noble pedigrees. Pictured far left is Sir Edmund Lodge (1756- 1839), an officer of arms who wrote The Genealogy of the Existing British Peerage (1832). Meanwhile Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges (1762-1837) also compiled pedigrees and bibliographies –athough his own claim to the dormant Chandos barony (he styled himself ‘Baron Chandos of Sudeley’) is believed to have been based on false evidence!

Riding the technology wave
Over the last 50 years, technological change has had a profound influence on the genealogy world. Beginning with microfilm, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, then microfiche, personal computers, compact discs, and most recently, of course, the internet, family historians have seen wave after wave of innovation.

Each generation of technology has helped bring down costs, speeded up the research process and further pushed the boundaries of what researchers are able to achieve.

Family historians have embraced these developments, even though at times the pace of change has seemed daunting.

Visiting the PRO in 1972 to consult the census on microfilm for the first time, Stella Colwell observed the films on open shelves arranged like a row of toys in boxes. The new process was certainly more efficient, but without being able to handle the original returns she felt the personal and intimate involvement with history was lost .

The inclusion of CD drives as standard equipment on home PCs in the early 1990s represented another milestone. For researchers used to paper indexes, films and fiches, the opportunity to access millions of records on a single disc was astounding.

Genealogist John Titford recounted the wondrous experienceof using the International Genealogical Index (IGI) on CD and was gob-smacked at being able to purchase the entire American telephone directory on disc for $99. Of course, we know now that this was only a taster for the vast data deluge that was to follow, as a result of the internet and mass digitisation.

New communities
Today, the horizons for family historians are wider than ever. Traditional sources are readily available online using a variety of payment models, and in some cases for free. Social media are enabling genealogists to connect in novel ways, allowing new communities to emerge. Meanwhile, genetic genealogy offers us insights into our personal histories that we could never have accessed before, in many cases pre-dating the historical record.

People of all backgrounds are now able to build a much richer picture of their ancestors’ lives than ever before. Although the days of tea at the vicarage may be over, family historians can be sure that exciting times lie ahead.


Heralds’ visitations
Use of parish registers in genealogy
Burke’s Peerage first published
Sims’ Manual for the Genealogist
International Genealogical Directory
Founding of the Society of Genealogists
Bedfordshire County Record Office, the first CRO
Institute of Heraldic & Genealogical Studies founded
Federation of Family History Societies begins
Federation of Family History Societies begins
GENUKI internet portal launched
Who Do You Think You Are? TV series begins in the UK

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