• Poison Panic on BBC One

    We're pleased to host another guest post by author and FreeREG transcriber Helen Barrell, who will feature on BBC One's Murder, Mystery and My Family  this Wednesday (3rd April) at 09.15am. 

    Here, Helen describes the usefulness of parish registers in researching the subject of her books, and the case of Sarah Chesham, who she believes suffered an unfair outcome in her trial.

    Cover of Poison Panic

    The cover of Helen's book: Poison Panic.

    Some years ago, I was researching a branch of my family who lived in Acton in Suffolk. I discovered a great-several times uncle called Mordecai Simpson who, it turned out, had been drawn into an arsenic poisoning which led to the hanging of a 17-year-old.

    This was the rather sad case of Catherine Foster, who was convicted of murdering her husband. The crime only came to light when Mordecai, who lived next door to Catherine, noticed his chickens dying. It turned out they’d eaten leftovers from the arsenic-laced dumpling that Catherine had fed to her husband. She was hanged in 1847.

    While transcribing the parish registers for Wix in Essex, I stumbled over another arsenic case – when Mary May was found guilty of poisoning her half-brother Spratty Watts (also known as William Constable). Mary was hanged in 1848, and the more I looked, the more cases of arsenic poisonings I found cropping up in the newspapers around that time.

    And one of the other cases was that of Sarah Chesham, who stood trial no less than three times for poisoning in 1847 and once again in 1851. Just after that final trial, when Sarah was condemned to death, an act was passed which restricted the sale of arsenic. Up until then, it was as easy to buy as an any innocent grocery, but after the act was passed, arsenic could only be purchased if the customer signed or marked the poisons register. In later years, many other poisons were added to the restricted list, including strychnine and cyanide. If you’re an avid reader of Golden Age crime fiction, you’ll have come across poisons registers in murder mysteries.

    But these stories are no fictions – real people died of arsenic poisonings, and real people were hanged in front of crowds of thousands of people. I was curious about the impact of the cases on the people involves and their communities and so set about researching them in detail. In 2016, Poison Panic, my book about the cluster of poisonings in Essex was published, and in 2017, Fatal Evidence, the biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor – the toxicologist who worked on nearly all the cases in Poison Panic, as well as famous nineteenth-century trials like that of William Palmer – came out.

    Alfred Swaine Taylor giving evidence at an inquest

    Last year I was contacted by the makers of BBC1’s award-winning series Murder, Mystery and My Family. Sarah Chesham was to be the subject of one of the episodes, and they asked me for my help.

    I was really glad to be involved as I’m not convinced that Sarah Chesham had a fair trial in 1851. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s what the law would define as an “unfair trial”, because as things were in 1851, the judge presiding over the case and who sentenced her to death after she was convicted of attempted murder, had not technically done anything wrong. It’s just that morally it doesn’t seem right as the Offences Against the Person Act, under which she was tried, doesn’t include execution as a possible sentence – life imprisonment or transportation for life are the stiffest sentences possible. However, judges were allowed to sentence as they saw fit, and Campbell, the judge, decided that Sarah was guilty of the charges she’d been acquitted of in 1847 as well. 

    Sarah had no defence counsel, and the press had been printing lurid nonsense about her too – with no money of her own, no solicitor to raise a petition, and with no Appeal Court (which wouldn’t exist until 1875) to challenge Campbell’s sentence, Sarah Chesham was hanged.

    Parish registers were incredibly useful for my research – not only did they inspire me in the first place to find out more about the arsenic poisonings afoot at the time, but they also helped me to reconstruct the families of those involved. In the case of Mary May, the registers were useful for finding out if the newspapers were correct when they claimed she’d had sixteen children and murdered them all – it will come as little surprise to learn that this wasn’t true at all. Over-the-top gossip surrounding the arsenic poisonings cases made their way into newspapers unchecked and were repeated and exaggerated as the stories spread. 

    Parish registers offer us an insight into ordinary people’s lives – and when those people become part of extraordinary events, those registers can give us the facts that overblown, tub-thumping newspaper editorial of the past distorts. And so it’s fitting we filmed a scene in Clavering’s churchyard, where the very vicar who recorded Sarah Chesham’s family in his parish’s registers once stood.

    Helen Barrell, FreeREG Transcriber and Author of Poison Panic in Clavering, Essex.

    The second series of Murder, Mystery and My Family is being broadcast on BBC1 from 25th March to 5th April. The episode about Sarah Chesham airs on Wednesday 3rd April.

    Helen Barrell’s books Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence are published by Pen & Sword and available from all good bookshops.

    Transcriptions for Acton, Clavering and Wix can be found on FreeREG.

  • How will GDPR impact historical records?

    The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force on the 25th of May 2018. Designed to augment existing Data Protection rules, the principles as set out in Article 5 show clear requirements that all personal data held by anyone must be stringently and transparently collected, stored, processed and preserved or removed, and will result in heavy fines for breaches and failure to comply.

    Genealogy services that store and process data are having to review and strengthen their procedures; for example WikiTree are removing DNA test information on living non-members. Family historians may understandably have questions about what the GDPR means for genealogical research… will we still be able to order birth, marriage and death certificates for living people?  Will the harsh rules and measures lead to the destruction of records that could be of future genealogical interest? What about other personal data that FreeUKGEN holds?

    Records on Free UK Genealogy websites

    While many of the records on our websites are about dead people, some Record Subjects are living people, and thus regulated by GDPR. Very occasionally, a record focussed on a dead person will contain information about living persons - for example, a burial record can state someone is the widow, or widower, of a named living person. 

    We collect and process publically available register and census information including personal data about a Record Subject’s birth, baptism or other similar entry into a religious body, marriage and marital status, occupation (e.g. ‘groom’s occupation’), gender, age and other personal data as is recorded in historical documents. We consider it is legitimate to process this information for research purposes, including statistical and historical purposes. Further, many of the records we process provide public access to official documents,  including indices of Birth and Marriage, and registrations of marriage these are likely to be, additionally, covered in an exemption.

    Destruction of records

    Article 5 states that “...further processing for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes shall not be considered to be incompatible with the initial purposes”. (Article 5)
    In the recent ‘Windrush immigrants’ case, a former Home Office employee reported that landing cards of people who have lived in the UK for many years, which were used to establish their status were deliberately destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. Responding to the claim, the Home Office admitted that records were destroyed but claimed that this was necessary to comply with the Data Protection Act (DPA). However, the Board of Trade had transferred comparable historical records to the National Archive (BT 26 Inwards Passenger Lists 1878 to 1960), and government departments continue to do this. For example the surviving aliens' registration cards for the London area as recently as 1991, which survived by accident, have been transferred, and are now open records.You can find them on the National Archive here. 

    It is a real concern that the fear of incurring large fines may drive organisations to destroy business records that could be a rich source of genealogical information. It is easy to see how managers and Data Protection Officers may believe that destroying documents holding personal data removes any risk of mishandling. We have seen such a case on social media involving a local funeral director with 45 years worth of records. Worried that their small business doesn’t have the time, money or expertise for further processing, they arranged for the historic records to be shredded.

    It is clear that the GDPR highlights the importance of effective records management and should help drive the case for investing in new information management technologies and programmes. Businesses could donate records that are no longer needed by them (e.g. no longer covered by a contract) which nevertheless have research value to an appropriate research institution, such as a local archive, or transfer to a business archive.

    Record Disposal Policies of local councils often include provision to ensure that records of potential historic interest or research value are identified and transferred to their Archive Service. This would have to be done with the agreement of the Archive Manager, going through the formal accession or deposition process that must take into account already strained resources such as storage space and staff to manage and maintain the records.

    The ARA are arguing for “clear language in any UK and Irish implementing legislation that ‘all archiving purposes are in the public interest’ and therefore all archives have a clear legal basis to exist and do their invaluable work.”

    Other personal data that is held by Free UK Genealogy

    Free UK Genealogy holds data for a number of other reasons that are permitted by GDPR (and its predecessors):

    Contract: e.g. we have (unwritten) contracts with our volunteers - in order that they can transcribe, we have to send them images or links to images, and in order to do that we have to hold and process their email addresses.

    Legal: e.g. some people, very kindly, permit us to claim Gift Aid on their donations.  We have a legal obligation to pass their names and addresses on to HMRC, and hold and process this information to do this.

    Legitimate interests: we include information about our legitimate interests in our forthcoming revision of privacy information. We hold, for example, the names and email addresses of people who have contacted us using our contact form, in order to be able to reply to them.
    We don’t have any ‘vital’ interests (data held/processed to save lives) and we don’t (at the moment) carry out ‘public tasks’ (if a public body delegated tasks to us, we would do).

    Consent: where we have no contract, legal or legitimate interest, we need to ask for consent to hold and process data (for example, in the past we have sent invitations to test new features, notices of forthcoming meetings, and similar to our newsletter mailing list.  While we hold and process the personal data of who has signed up for the newsletter as part of a contract (they ticked a box saying they wanted the newsletter), they didn’t sign up for additional emails - so we have asked that they give us explicit consent for each additional kind of mailing. Consent is the ‘last straw’ of legitimate data holding and processing.


    If you would like to know how we handle the data we hold, you can read our updated Privacy Notice here https://www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk/files/Documents/Privacy-Notice.pdf

  • Censuring Censuses!

    If you're a part of any family history forum or group, it's not unusual to find a genealogist bemoaning the spelling and handwriting, or casting aspersions on the intentions of a particular Census Enumerator. We recently shared this image on our Facebook page and our followers certainly appeared to see the veracity behind the humour:

    However, we then came across this poem which seems to lay at least some of the blame at the feet of our ancestors! 
    (Please note that this was published in 1881, and we haven't been able to see the original)

    The Enumerators Complaint

    The census may be good and right and useful to the human natur'
    But I can swear there's no delight
    In being an enumerator;
    For up and down six blessed streets,
    I've tramped it morning after morning,
    And the reception that one meets
    Should I serve as a most wholesome morning.

    This house, their writing isn't plain;
    That house, their language is exotic;
    And some describe themselves as sane,
    Who seem to me quite idiotic.
    Towns such as countess never knew
    Are given as the natal places;
    While you're supposed to find what's true,
    And to correct in faulty cases.

    Then ladies of a certain age
    Decline to make it clear by telling;
    And others fly into a rage,
    And oh, such awful slips and spelling!
    And some deduce - in humour bold -Their line from non-existent nations,
    And state they've grown uncommon old
    In most unheard of occupations.

    Here, you perceive that you intrude;
    And here, the party's an objector;
    And here, they are positively rude -They fancy you're the tax collector.
    So what with humbug and rebuff,
    And cutting many fruitless capers,
    I have already had enough,
    And cry - Confound these census papers!

    We complain about the enumerators; they pass the buck on to the public. It seems that in the taking of the census, the old adage needs updating:

    There can be three sides to a story!

  • Irish Family History: Extra Sources of Records

    In the previous post of the seriesNicola Morris explored the surviving Irish census returns. In this issue, she discusses the main 19th century census substitutes; what the records will tell us, where to find them online and how to best use them for research.

    NB: RootsIreland, Ancestry and Find My Past are free to search, but require subscriptions to view records.


    Once the records of civil registration, parish registers, census returns and land records have been fully explored for evidence of your ancestors, there are plenty of other sources that can supplement what has been established about your Irish family history.  Some of these sources will add colour and depth to your family story and others may contain clues that will progress your research to earlier generations.

    A miscellany of records follows, that might be worth exploring for evidence of your ancestors in Ireland.

    Valuation Office Books

    In the last post we looked at land records that are used as census substitutes, the primary of these being Griffith’s Valuation.  The Valuation Office Books are the precursor to Griffith’s Valuation. Compiled in the decades prior to Griffith’s Valuation the books are specific surveys of property organised into House Books, Field Books, Tenure Books and Quarto Books. The House and Tenure Books are probably the most useful for genealogical research.

    Valuation Office House Books
    The House Books are valuations of buildings.  Although the surveyors were only required to value buildings over £5, in many instances they valued every building in a townland.  The books record the occupier of the building, its description and dimensions and each building was assigned a quality number that indicated its age, repair and the materials used in its construction.  It is sometimes possible to identify the occupier of a building a decade or more prior to Griffith’s Valuation along with a description of their property, including farm buildings, which might be identified as stables, piggeries or coach houses.  Not all House Books survive and not all House Books record every building in a townland, but they are certainly worth exploring for earlier evidence of your ancestor’s family.

    Valuation Office Tenure Books
    The Tenure Books record details of the tenure of each occupier of property and record the amount of rent paid by the tenant, the terms of their tenure; whether they hold a lease or are tenants from year to year, as well as observations on the property and the occupier.  The Tenure Books can indicate the date when the occupier entered into a lease for their property and in some cases, if the lease was for a number of lives, the names of the lives on a lease, which can often be children of the tenant. The Tenure Books do not survive for every townland or parish, but are certainly worth exploring for evidence of your ancestor’s family.

    Valuation Office Field Books
    The Field Books are the least informative because they fail to record the occupiers of land holdings.  The Field Books record the lots of land in each townland with a description of each lot, however, these can be difficult to match with the lot numbers assigned in Griffith’s Valuation and without the name of the occupier are in many cases useless, unless the researcher wants a picture of the general quality of land in a particular townland.  Some Field Books record the names of the occupiers of houses that were valued in the corresponding House Books for that townland.

    The Valuation Office Books have largely been digitised and published online.  They are free to search on the National Archives of Ireland genealogy website: http://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie where you will find a link to Valuation Office Books.  The search engine requires exact spelling, so it may be sensible to use wild cards or just search for books relating to a specific parish or townland and then check all of the surnames listed.  There are detailed explanations of each source in this collection, as well as an explanation of the shorthand used for describing houses in the House Books.

    The same collection is also published online at www.findmypast.ie in the Land and Estates collection, which has a better search engine.  I tend to use both sites to make sure I have picked up everything relevant.

    Occupational Records

    The range of occupational records available for research in Ireland is vast.  Many occupational records can contain vital clues for family history research.  

    Royal Irish Constabulary

    If your ancestor was described on a census return or birth, marriage or death certificate as a policeman, constable or R.I.C. or even R.I.C. Pensioner, there should be a record of their police service.  The service records for men serving in the Irish Constabulary date from 1816 to 1922.

    Irish constabulary service records record the name of the recruit, their age, and physical description, county of birth, religion, date of marriage and county of  birth of wife, occupation prior to service, date of enlistment and the name of the person who recommended them. The service record also indicates when the recruit was promoted, reprimanded and retired, died or departed the service.  Many Irish policemen emigrated and joined police forces overseas in places like Manchester, New Zealand and South Africa. If your ancestor was a policeman in one of these places, he may have also served in Ireland prior to emigration.

    Three important clues in a service record are county of birth, date and place of marriage and the name of the person who recommended the recruit.  Constables did not serve in their county of birth, which means the place where they married and lived is not usually their place of birth. Marriages usually took place in the parish of the bride, if the county of birth of the bride is identified your search for their marriage can focus on that county.   If the county of birth of the police recruit is not enough to locate their family, the name of the person who recommended them can be used to narrow your search. This person was usually a landlord, Justice of the Peace, Police Inspector or parish priest or minister. By identifying where this individual was located at the time of your ancestor’s enlistment, you can determine that your ancestor probably lived in the same area.  The location of this individual can usually be established using land records or directories or even a newspaper search.

    The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) service records have been published online at www.findmypast.ie but it might be sensible to first use the index or list of men who served in the RIC which is published online at www.ancestry.co.uk.  The index will identify the service number of the recruit.  Searching the service records at Findmypast using a service number is much more practical.  The Findmypast collection also includes pension records and directories. The Irish constabulary also turn up in the Petty Session Court records published at Findmypast, where they took cases against the local population.    A search of these court records can place your police ancestor in a specific jurisdiction at a particular time.

    Service records for the British Army and Navy can also record the enlisted’s place of birth and occupation prior to enlistment.  Bearing in mind that large number of Irish men that served in the British army in the 19th century, surviving service records document a large portion of the Irish population.



    Another example of valuable occupational records relate to education.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find evidence of children attending school in 19th century Ireland, but teachers are much better documented.

    1905 List
    The National Archives of Ireland hold a list of all National School teachers in the country in 1905.  The value of this list is that it records the schools where the teacher was taught. As most children attended a National School close to their home, identifying their local school can lead to locating their place of residence or birth.  This list is available in the reading room of the National Archives of Ireland.

    Department of Education Files
    The Department of Education files for 19th century Ireland are held in the National Archives of Ireland and include teacher salary books as well as registers relating to the administration of the school, which include inspectors’ comments on the quality of the teaching and the departure, transfer or appointment of teachers to a particular school.

    British Parliamentary Papers
    In an appendix to a British Parliamentary Commissioners Report on the state of Education in Ireland in 1826 is a list of teachers organised by county, barony, parish and then townland.  This list includes hedge school teachers and private school teachers and a description of the school. British Parliamentary Papers can be accessed online at most libraries and archives and the appendix can be searched for a surname or townland or parish.

    These are just two examples of the type of occupational records available for research in Ireland.  John Grenham, in his book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and on his website: https://www.johngrenham.com/records/jobs_in.php#records presents a list of surviving records that document certain occupations.  Some of these sources are published, some online but many are only available in archives and repositories in Ireland.

    Crime and Poverty

    In recent years Findmypast have published a large collection of surviving court, prison and workhouse registers for Ireland.   The mainstay of this collection are the Petty Session Court records. The Petty Session Court was the lowest court in the country, hearing cases of petty crime.  In many instances the crimes were nothing more than being drunk and disorderly, allowing livestock to wander or driving a cart without lights on a public road after dark.  Frequently family disputes or feuds with neighbours appear in the Petty Session Court records. This means that these records can identify quite a large number of the population for the areas and time frames for which the records survive.  The defendants were usually recorded with their townland address, making it easy to identify relevant ancestors.

    More serious crimes were heard in the Quarter Sessions or Assize Courts and the best place for finding evidence of cases in these courts are newspapers.  Irish newspapers reported on the local quarter sessions, often with verbatim transcripts of the cases heard.

    Irish Newspapers
    Irish newspapers have been published online on two different websites.  The British Newspaper Library holds a copy of every Irish newspaper published from 1826, as well as an extensive collection of pre 1826 Irish papers.  This collection is being slowly digitised as part of the British Newspaper Library’s online collection and is replicated at www.findmypast.ie  A separate collection of Irish newspapers can be found online at www.irishnewsarchive.com Both sites are subscription websites and although there is some duplication, their collections are largely different.  The best means to search these vast collections for relevant reports on your family is to search using their townland address, an almost unique search term, which, when coupled with your family surname, should locate articles relevant to your family.  

    While it can be fun undertaking broad newspaper searches for any reference to your family, if you wish to undertake a more targeted search for a specific event, such as a court appearance, birth, marriage or death notice it might be sensible to start your search by identifying the newspapers most relevant to where your ancestors came from.

    The National Library of Ireland website hosts a Newspaper Database (https://www.nli.ie/en/catalogues-and-databases-printed-newspapers.aspx).  This is not a collection of digitised Irish newspapers, it is a listing of all surviving newspapers for Ireland.  It is possible to search the list by town or county of publication. Your ancestor is much more likely to appear in a newspaper published in the area in which they lived.  By identifying relevant newspapers and then determining whether the paper has been digitised and published online you can target your search to a specific publication. If the newspaper has not been published online it may be necessary to undertake a manual search at the British Library, the National Library of Ireland or at a local library or archive.

    Transportation and Prison Registers
    If your ancestors were transported to Australia they should appear in the Transportation Register, a collection created from Irish and Australian records and published on the website of the National Archives of Ireland (http://findingaids.nationalarchives.ie/index.php?category=18&subcategory=147)  The database, which can be searched by name, should indicate the date and place of the trial and date of transportation.  The trial may have been reported in local newspapers which may contain more details of the crime or the origins of the convict.  The Transportation Register will also include references to additional files found in the National Archives, such as the CRF, (Convict Reference File).  The CRF, if one exists, can contain letters from the family of the convict pleading for clemency.

    Surviving Prison Registers held in the National Archives of Ireland have been digitised and published online at www.findmypast.ie.  Although these are far from complete and do not cover the entire country, if a relevant entry is found it can be illuminating.  Prison registers often recorded the age, description, religion and birth place of the convict, which can lead to birth or baptismal records and other family information.

    Dublin Workhouse Records
    The Admission and Discharge Registers for the two Dublin City workhouses have also been published on www.findmypast.ie.  For families from Dublin city it is certainly worth exploring this collection.  The poverty that the majority of the inhabitants of the city lived in often led to brief spells in the workhouse.  Women used the workhouse for maternity service and the elderly and sick also used the workhouse for medical care. Along with the Admission and Discharge Registers are the Minutes of the Board of Guardians for both Dublin Unions, North and South.  The minute books can contain reports from inspectors on children who were boarded out (fostered). If you are trying to find ancestors who might have been orphaned or abandoned in Dublin this is an excellent source for information relating to their care.

    Estate Records

    The importance of land records as a census substitute was illustrated in the last post.  In addition to the countrywide land surveys of Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books, it is sometimes possible to locate records relating to the estate on which your ancestors lived.  

    If your ancestor was a tenant of a large well administered landed estate in Ireland there may be surviving rent rolls, lease books and other records that document the tenantry.  Rent rolls and lease books can sometimes document tenants paying rent back into the late 18th century.  Leases, if found, can sometimes name the children of the leaseholder as lives on the lease. Tenant application books can contain requests from tenants for money to emigrate or to make improvements to their holding or even for intervention in a dispute between neighbours.  Employment records can detail the labourers, carpenters, masons, surveyors and many others employed on an estate, how much they were paid and the hours that they worked.

    The first step to locating estate records is to identify the owner of the estate, bearing in mind that a great deal of land in Ireland changed hands in the 1850s and 1860s.  The landlord is recorded as the immediate lessor in Griffith’s Valuation.

    Once the owner of the estate has been identified a search can be carried out for surviving estate records.   The Landed Estate Database at www.landedestates.ie can be searched for the estate owner and should list surviving records relating to the estate and the location of the records.  However, this is not a comprehensive database.

    Estate records identified as part of the cataloguing of Irish manuscripts in repositories in Ireland and around the world during the 20th century have been listed at the National Library of Ireland website: www.sources.nli.ie where you can search for a reference to the estate owner.  This site lists collections in numerous repositories including the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland (Public Record Office) and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, as well as some British and French repositories.  The Main Catalogue of the National Library of Ireland has also integrated their own manuscript collections, so should also be checked for estate records or collection lists relating to Irish landed estates.

    John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com also lists estate records by parish, although this is not a comprehensive record.

    The records themselves are not going to be available online and will require a visit to the repository where they are held or commissioning a researcher to inspect these records on your behalf.

    The sources listed above are only a taste of what is available.  At www.johngrenham.com you will find many additional sources listed for each parish in Ireland.  If you identify a manuscript source that has not been published online you can use the Timeline Genealogy Clerk service to request a copy or a search of a document found in an Irish repository (http://timeline.ie/irish-genea...) or commission a professional genealogist in Dublin or Belfast to access the material on your behalf.

    Genealogical research should always be systematic, working methodically back from one generation to the previous.  Gather as much documentation for each ancestor as you can find, as each source may contain a valuable clue that will assist further research.  Always save every document you find; label it and make a note of the source. This will save you coming back years later to try and find a document that you once saw but cannot remember where.  Keep your research organised, you never know what future generations will be relying on your work when their interest in family history is suddenly piqued.


    Nicola Morris M.A.G.I is a professional genealogist and member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. She is the director of Timeline Research Ltd, one of Ireland’s leading genealogical research companies. Nicola has undertaken the Irish research for WDYTYA? in the UK and US and has appeared in numerous episodes. She was also the presenter of the first series of the Genealogy Roadshow broadcast in Ireland in 2011.