Category Archives: Ancestry Research

The Northamptonshire Earthquake of 1750

English parish registers were sometimes used to record momentous events as well as baptisms, marriages and burials.  In 1750 the Reverend Thomas Barnett, Vicar of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, wrote a dramatic account of the earthquake which struck his church just as he was in the act of administering Holy Communion:

On Sunday Septr 30th 1750. We were terribly alarmed with a violent Shock of an Earthquake.  It was felt at this Town about half an hour past twelve at Noon.  I was at that time administering the Holy Sacrament, and was with the whole Congregation in the greatest Surprize.  Its first Approach was heard like a mighty Wind or rather the driving of many Coaches.  The Motion was from S.W. to N.E.  Its Continuance was as near as I could judge about half a Minute, and was very dreadful and awful. 

The Earth was sensibly perceived to heave under our Feet.  The Church totter’d from its Foundation, and the East Window shook most violently, as if all was coming down, and from the Roof, which we thought was falling on us, we heard dreadful Crackings three or four Times, as if great prodigious Weights were flung upon it.  In Fear and Trembling we expected instant Death, either by being crush’d under the Ruins of the Church or else that we should have been swallowed up alive; but as Almighty God directed, no Harm happen’d unto us.  They who were in the Churches or Houses were more sensibly affected and felt it most, than those who were walking.  It was felt in all the Neighbouring Towns of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

Rothwell, Northamptonshire

A more phlegmatic and secular account of the same event was provided by the steward to the Earl of Cardigan (whose seat was Deene Park, Northamptonshire). Like the Vicar of Rothwell, the steward compared the sound to the rumble of a heavy coach:

… The Noise that preceded the Earthquake was, for a few Seconds, like the rumbling of a Coach upon a Bridge … The Force of the Shock was chiefly, if not entirely lateral; and so considerable, as that several People, who were sitting in Chairs, catched at the Walls, Tables, and such things as stood next them, expecting they should be thrown down: Buildings of all Kinds were shaken greatly; and the Beds, Chairs, and such things as stood above-stairs were displaced, and rocked about very much: Windows were shaken as if they would have been broken; and in several Places Pewter upon Shelves in Kitchens thrown upon the Floor…. I have not heard of any Damage being done by it more than some Chimnies thrown down, but nobody hurt by them.

The Northamptonshire Earthquake followed the London Earthquakes of 8 February and 8 March 1750. These similarly caused little damage and no fatalities, but many people thought they were a sign of divine wrath.  

‘Like the sound of heavy carriages’

Five years later, English parish registers show parishioners donating money to the survivors of the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, which struck on All Saints Day 1755 and led to more than 10,000 deaths, destroying a third of the city.  According to a British merchant who survived it, the Lisbon earthquake too began with ‘a rushing noise, like the Sound of heavy Carriages, driving hard at some Distance’.


Sources

Parish Registers of Rothwell, Northamptonshire: frontispiece to ‘Rothwell Register 1708–96’ (Northamptonshire Archives, digitised by Ancestry).

Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Lisbon 1755: The First ‘Modern’ Disaster (but if modern, how is it so?); University of Oxford, https://public.mml.ox.ac.uk/files/windsor/5_maxwell.pdf.

‘Roads, and those in Tring’, Tringlocalhistory.org.uk.

‘An Account of the Earthquake Which Happen’d about a quarter before One O’Clock, on Sunday, September 30, 1750, by Mr. – Steward to the Earl of Cardigan’, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 46, pages 721–23. JSTOR. Accessed 6 May 2024.

Old Occupations: Glossaries for Ancestry Research

One of the chief interests in researching your ancestors is finding out what they did for a living. But many occupations have changed over the years, and so has the vocabulary. So what exactly was a Sagger Bottom Knocker? a Throstle Doffer?  Here, in no particular order, are some useful free glossaries and other resources that may help to find out what your English ancestors were up to.

Engraving from 19th century Book of Trades
‘Mechanical Powers’, from The Book of Trades

Pottery Jobs Index

An A-Z of jobs in the Potteries, this is part of thepotteries.org, an excellent local history resource for Stoke-on-Trent.  Many entries have links to an entire page of information and illustrations. (This is where you will find the Sagger Bottom Knocker, hanging out with the Blunger Operator and the Bank Odd Man.)

Mining Occupations

Provided by the Durham Mining Museum, this is an authoritative glossary extracted from four 19th-century sources, largely (but not entirely) relating to the Durham and Northumberland coalfields.  Detailed explanations are provided for some occupations. Sadly, the list includes many references to children, such as the wailer (the boy who picked out the impurities from the coal) and the foal, a small child who assisted a slightly bigger youth (headsman or putter) in dragging coal from the workings to the larger passages. If the foal and the headsman were of equal strength they were known as half-marrows.

Obscure Old English Census Occupations

A general alphabetical index of terms found in UK census returns, some of which are obvious but others that are less so.  Rather oddly, part of a stock photography website.

Female textile workers

Victorian Occupations (1891)

An alphabetical listing of occupations found in the 1891 census of London.  Again, a mixture of the obvious and the obsolete, including some one or two startling anachronisms (Armiger, ‘Squire who carried the armour of a knight’).  But one mustn’t be a Quarrel Picker (glazier: one who fitted quarrels, the small panes of glass used in lattice windows).

Occupational Codes

A bit later in date than most of the lists, but still highly useful, this is a digital edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Terms Based on the Classification of Occupations used in the Census of Population, 1921, originally compiled by the Ministry of Labour.  Arranged within categories, but also including a dictionary of occupations, it covers nearly 30,000 terms, a good many of them now obsolete, such as the disturbing decomposing pan man who ‘charges shallow iron pans with salt and sulphuric acid…’ in the paint-making (etc) industry.

Kindly provided by Peter Christian (2016).

Cotton Industry Jobs

A list of selected occupations in the Lancashire cotton mills, compiled by Andy Alston from family knowledge and ancestry research.  Includes some illustrations.

The Book of English Trades and Library of the Useful Arts: with Seventy Engravings (1818)

Slightly less convenient to use than the modern glossaries, this is available through Hathitrust, Google Books and elsewhere.  It provides a detailed contemporary account of many early 19th-century trades, with some atmospheric engravings.  Some comments may jar upon the modern ear (The journeymans earnings are good; but we fear, as in numerous other trades, that his habits are not calculated to induce him to make the most of them). The level of detail is fascinating: who knew, for example, that in the hat-making trade:   

… beer-grounds are applied in the inside of the crown, to prevent the glue from coming through to the face, and also to give the requisite firmness at a less expence than could be produced by the glue alone …. In France, however, they use wine…

and finally….

The Oxford English Dictionary

The magnificent OED has to have the last word as the definer of the obsolete and the obscure. However, many occupational terms were just too obscure or localised to find their way in. Accessible free if you are lucky enough to have a local library or other institution that subscribes to this essential reference work. 

Tracing Your Ancestors (in England): Top Tips

Here at Debrett Ancestry Research we have researched more than 7,500 families over the years. Tracing your ancestors is a fascinating and absorbing occupation and we all learn endlessly from what we do. But here are a few pointers for those just starting out.

Tip 1: Cherish living memories

Woodcut: medieval young and old women embracing

Family memories are a precious and fragile resource.  So if you can, before setting out to trace your ancestors, ask other family members what they remember. Keep the answers safe and organised. 

We have designed a special book for this, as described in a previous blog: Recollections.

Tip 2: Treat online family trees with caution

Woodcut: medieval man holding branch

They can be helpful, but a lot of the family trees posted on sites like Ancestry are just plain wrong. Beyond living memory, you want every link in your family tree to be supported by hard evidence. That means a historical document, or an image of one. An index entry isn’t enough.  Someone else’s guesswork certainly isn’t. 

However, the best online family trees include multiple original documents, either uploaded or provided as links. If so, look at the evidence for yourself, and check that it makes sense.

Tip 3: Get birth & marriage certificates

Woodcut: medieval scribe with quill

Census returns are a wonderful resource in tracing your ancestors, but don’t rely on them alone. For the period from 1837 onwards, aim to obtain a full birth and marriage record for each ancestor. The birth certificate gives an address and occupation and the maiden name of the mother. The marriage certificate shows the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom.  This is crucial evidence linking one generation to the next. 

However, your ancestors might have married in a parish church whose registers have been filmed by Ancestry or Findmypast.  In that case, the image of the full record can replace a marriage certificate.  Similarly, a baptism record might provide a full date of birth and address (and the General Register Office birth indexes show the mother’s maiden name).

Tip 4: But remember some events were not registered

Although it was a legal requirement to register births in England and Wales from 1 July 1837, not everyone complied. It was only after the Birth and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 that a fine for non-registration was introduced. Similarly, many couples did not marry formally.

Tip 5: Use original records

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

We all make mistakes, and that includes indexers. Besides, the original records are much more interesting than a transcript. Beyond 1837, use Ancestry and Findmypast to search parish registers and a whole host of other records.  But be aware that they don’t cover everything.  Your ancestors might have lived in a county whose parish registers have not been filmed. If so, use an index like FamilySearch in the first instance, but you will then have to seek out the full details, or employ a professional genealogist to look for them.

Tip 6: Keep detailed notes

Woodcut: medieval scribe

Even if you are using a computer program to lay out your family tree, keep a full written record of everything you have looked at.  Every time you record a fact about an ancestor, make a note of where you found it.  If you save an record to your computer, give it a meaningful name so you can find it easily.

Tip 7: Look at maps and gazetteers

Old maps, in particular.  The National Library of Scotland provides an excellent online collection of old Ordnance Survey maps. Old gazetteers (eg Samuel Lewis) and county histories will provide potted descriptions of a parish or village. The more you find out about where and how your ancestors lived, the more interesting your family tree becomes.

Tip 8: Think about the historical context

It really helps to understand the bigger picture.  Read up on the background. Explore the literature of the time.  Wars, bad harvests, industrial change, all affected how and where your ancestors lived. 

Tip 9: Consider different spellings of the name

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

The spelling of surnames was very flexible until relatively recently.  It’s usually a good idea to use the ‘variant’ option when using an online index. If you draw a blank, try lateral thinking. Indexers sometimes have a hard time reading old records and might have misread something. Some capital letters (eg K/R/P) will have been indexed incorrectly.

 

Tip 10: Take your time

Woodcut: medieval figure with scroll

Genealogy is a time-consuming, painstaking process. It can be very challenging and it’s easy to make mistakes. So, don’t rush or guess.

Look at each record carefully, giving yourself time to get used to the old handwriting if need be. Double-check any detail you have copied.

In tracing your ancestors you are taking a journey back in time. Enjoy the travel as well as the destination!