• The Witchfinder General: Halloween Guest Post

    Helen Barrell - FreeREG transcriber and writer of historical crime fiction and non-fiction describes how she uncovered records pertaining to the 'Witchfinder General' in the parish registers of Essex and Suffolk.

    One of the biggest witch-hunts in English history began in the village of Mistley in north-east Essex in 1644. When I began to transcribe Mistley’s parish register covering that period, I expected to find the names of those caught up in the panic. But the register unlocked clues as to the power structures in the area that helped to bring Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witchfinder General, to prominence.

    After three years of inducing terror and extracting false confessions under duress, Hopkins died and was buried in Mistley, on 12 August 1647. A note in the register tells us that he was the son of Mr James Hopkins, Minister of Wenham – about eight miles away from Mistley, over the border in Suffolk.

    (Courtesy of Essex Archives Online. D/P 343/1/1)

    The reason for Hopkins being in Mistley had been shrouded in mystery. What brought him there from Suffolk? Why was he buried in the place where he started his witch-hunt?

    As I was transcribing the register, picking up every name as I worked my way through it, I wondered if there were any other people called Hopkins in the register – did Hopkins have any family who had travelled to Mistley with him?

    This led me to the burial in 1641 of John Hopkins, with the handy note “son of Marie Hopkins (wife to Mr. Tho. Witham, parson).” So there we have our explanation for why Matthew Hopkins was in Mistley – his mother had married the vicar, after the death of his father in 1634. And John Witham, who performed Hopkins’ burial, was his stepbrother.

    I wondered if the family of Thomas Witham could shed any light on Hopkins. Witham was inducted into Mistley’s church in 1610, when at once - and I’m sure other transcribers will recognise my joy at this - his beautiful, clear handwriting appears in the register. He kept the records neatly for over thirty years, carefully numbering each entry. He was fond of adding a distinctive trefoil design with a long tail, and whenever a record related to someone in his family, he often wrote the name twice the size of everyone else’s.

    (Courtesy of Essex Archives Online. D/P 343/1/)

    From 1613 until 1629, the baptisms of seven children of Thomas and his wife were recorded in Mistley’s parish register. His wife was named Free-gift, a presumably Puritan name, perhaps an Anglicised version of “Dorothy”, which means “Gift of God”. She died in 1633. 

    Between 1630 and 1639, four brides with the maiden name “Witham” married at Mistley. Two of them, Marie and Dorcas, match up with daughters of Thomas and Free-gift, but two other brides, Anne and Susan Witham, do not. However, when we come to the baptism of Susan’s children by her husband Richard Edwards, the names are written in the same large writing that Thomas Witham used for his family. So it seems likely that Susan, and perhaps Anne too, were also children of Thomas and Free-gift, perhaps born before Thomas became Mistley’s vicar.

    This is important to note, because it was the death of one of the Edwards’ children which helped to spark off the witch panic. Richard was an extremely important man in north-east Essex, a wealthy landowner who was also chief constable of the Tendring Hundred - the area where Mistley lies. By 1643, Thomas Witham had gone to London to preach, leaving his church vacant. It seems that Matthew Hopkins, as son and stepson of clergymen, had influence, as would Richard Edwards. And if Edwards’ wife was Hopkins’ stepsister, then it was the death of his stepsister’s child, apparently by witchcraft, that set him off on his career as The Witchfinder General. It was perhaps not random rage, but targeted revenge.

    But it’s not only in Mistley that we find the Witham family connecting with a prime mover in the witch panic. Bradfield, the parish immediately to the east of Mistley, was the home of Sir Harbottle Grimston, who sounds like a villain in a Dickens’ novel. He was a very important man, and as a Justice of the Peace (along with Sir Thomas Bowes, my great-several times uncle, I’m sorry to say), helped Hopkins in his schemes to prosecute witches.

    I’m currently transcribing Bradfield’s earliest register, and came across the Grimston family in the 1500s - Harbottle was baptised there in 1578. Then in the 1620s, familiar handwriting appeared in the register, and I even spotted a stylised trefoil - was this Thomas Witham? But a note in Latin helpfully informed me that one Peter Witham, alumnus of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, became the reverend incumbent of Bradfield in 1628. 

    As it’s been a couple of years since I originally transcribed Mistley’s registers, I looked back at my notes and found a snippet from the Alumni Cantabrigiensis, which contains a brief biography of students who studied at the University of Cambridge. Peter Witham and Thomas Witham both appear, and Alum. Cantab. says that they were brothers. To be honest, I could have guessed that from the near-identical handwriting! Although of course, who knows - perhaps Thomas used to pop over the parish border to write up all the baptisms, marriages and burials for his brother in his beautifully neat handwriting? Although the Mistley register has “baptised” and the Bradfield register “baptized” - would one man change his spellings? But, just like Thomas’ habit when recording family events, when Peter’s son was baptised in 1630, the entry was written in larger writing.

    (Courtesy of Essex Archives Online. D/P 173/1/1)

    During Peter Witham’s incumbency at Bradfield, three records pertaining to Sir Harbottle’s family were entered in the register: three of his grandchildren, none of whom were actually baptised in Bradfield as they were all born in London. They take up half the length of a page, with full details about where they were born, what time of day, and other details - far more information by some way than is included in the entries for the mere ordinary folk of Bradfield.

    Considering what I had surmised regarding Matthew Hopkins’ relationship to the Witham family and their involvement in the witch panic, I wondered if here, again, we had evidence of the close-knit networks of power in the area. Peter Witham was stepuncle to The Witchfinder General, and he seems to have been close to Sir Harbottle Grimston, or at least acquainted with him, as the vicar would be with the local gentry. Although Peter Witham left Bradfield in 1633, just before Hopkins would have arrived in Mistley, a connection had been made between the Grimstons and the Withams during his incumbency.

    So Matthew Hopkins wasn’t in Mistley by accident. He had lived there since boyhood, and was connected with the most powerful men in the area. It is no surprise, then, that when Civil War came and unrest and panic afflicted the populace, he could rise to prominence as The Witchfinder General.

    (Courtesy of Wellcome Images)

    Parish register images: courtesy of Essex Archives Online. No further reproduction is allowed images unless with written permission from the Essex Record Office

    Additional information:

    For a fascinating and eminently readable study of Matthew Hopkins, see: Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. London: John Murray, 2005.

    Great Wenham’s earliest register hasn’t survived, so no record of Matthew Hopkins’ baptism exists. Thomas and Peter Witham were born in Steeple in Essex, according to Alum. Cantab., but the earliest register for Steeple hasn’t survived either.

    Manningtree was part of the parish of Mistley until the late 1600s. Richard Edwards is stated as being of Manningtree on his statements that he gave alleging witchcraft against several local women.

    About the Author:

    Helen Barrell is a librarian and an author. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Punt PI and her Victorian true crime books Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence are published by Pen & Sword. www.essexandsuffolksurnames.co...

  • Guest Post: The GRO Searchable Database and PDF Pilot

    We are happy to welcome Anne from Leaves Family History Research Service as our first Guest Poster. Here, she presents her musings on the new GRO pilot scheme.

        Updated 31st January 2018

    A Brief Background:

    There have been calls to improve access to civil registration records for many years going back at least 25 years.  Various Government papers looked at the issues, including a 1990 White Paper on ‘Registration: Proposals for Change’, but little if anything was ever agreed.

    In 2002 the 'Civil Registration: Delivering Vital Change', report mentioned electronic access to ‘historic’ records could be provided by a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation.  The report may have been referring to FreeBMD, which had started to transcribe a few years before.  Between 2005 and 2012 there were several attempts to digitise and index the General Register Office (GRO). records, primarily the DoVE (Digitisation of Vital Events) and MAGPIE (Multi-Access to GRO Public Index of Events) projects, but none were completed.  It was not until the Deregulation Act 2015 that different ways of accessing historic civil registration records were discussed again.  This Act allows the relevant Government Minister to make regulations dealing with searching and supplying information from civil registration records held in the GRO. (1)

    This month (November 2016) the GRO began trialling the first of 3 pilot schemes, allowing the purchase and emailing of PDF copies including birth records dated 1837-1934 and death records dated 1837-1957.  The purchase of marriage records are not included in the trial.  These copies can only be used for research, not for official identification purposes, as they are not certified. Phase 2 will pilot the delivery of the PDF records within 3 hours, and phase 3 the delivery of PDF copies of civil registration entries that are not held by GRO in a digital format.

    The Searchable Index

    To assist in the ordering process a free online searchable database was also introduced.  To access this you must register and login into the GRO website.  Unlike the original GRO indexes, which many family history researchers are familiar with, these indexes include the mother’s maiden name for most birth registrations prior to 1911, and ages of death prior to 1860.  Both of these will be a huge boost for researchers.  Sadly, the birth index only goes up to 1915, although the death index continues to 1957.  This means that in order to purchase a PDF copy of a post 1915 birth record, the reference details must be found on the FreeBMD website or other partner databases.  There is currently no searchable GRO index for marriages.

    To search either index is easy but also surprisingly restrictive, as can be seen from the image below, and can be accessed via: https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/indexes_search.asp.

    The search for names can be exact spellings, phonetic or similar sounding.  The names are also broken down into three parts, surname (which is a requirement), followed by first and second forenames.   Although this can be a useful feature there are issues if the person was not known by their 1st forename.  It is possible however to search without inputting any forenames, but a surname must always be included.

    As the mother’s maiden name can also be added this can making the search for popular surnames easier.

    The main issues with this search is that you must choose the gender (male or female, but not both), and a year, but you can only search for up to 2 years on either side.

    An interesting omission is that you cannot search the indexes by county.  Currently you can either search by registration district, which can be restrictive if the family moved around, or by the whole of England and Wales.  

    The search page for death registration is similar but includes the age at death (+/- up to 10 years) instead of the mother’s maiden name.

    The Search Results

    To try this new system, I decided to look for the births and deaths of some of the people in my family tree, and in each case I found all of them, despite some reports of missing entries.  In fact, because of the mother’s maiden name search, I found a couple of births that I had not previously found as they had been born and died between census years.   
    In most cases when I searched for an exact spelling of a surname with no forenames given the results were displayed very quickly, although you have to scroll below the search box to see them.  When I requested a phonetic or similar sounding search, it could take up to a minute for the results to be listed, and several seconds to change to the next page.  Whether this was because of a long search or because the site was busy I do not know.
    My main concern with the results in general, was that the quarters were listed by initial letter. M = March, J=June, S=September and D=December.  For experienced researchers this is not too much of a problem, but for new researchers it can be confusing, especially as J could be taken to mean January.  There has been some online discussion on various forums about the naming of quarters with some preferring 1st Qtr and 2nd Qtr etc., but my students usually find the JFM, AMJ formats easier to remember.

    Search Results – Births.

    Another issue with the results is the lack of county.  I appreciate that counties moved their boundaries, but I needed to do an internet search to find that the ‘Lexden and Winstree Union’ was in Essex.  

    An interesting omission in the results shown above is the mother’s maiden name for birth in the Blofield Union.  As this child is in my family tree I know he was illegitimate.  I searched for other known illegitimate births, where the father is not recorded and in each case the mother’s maiden name column is blank.  So this is a good indication of an illegitimate birth.

    Early reports of the use of this database suggested that the deaths of infants contained errors relating to their ages.  Using known infant deaths from my own family tree I looked up several and only one gave the age as 0 years.  In other cases 15 years was shown instead of 15 months, and 1 year instead of 1 day.

    Birth and death in the same Qtr but showing age at death as 1 year

    The GRO have included a system to correct any incorrect or missing entries, as shown below.  The form opens in a new browser window and you are required to complete all of the details yourself.  There is no link between the record and the report, unlike the system on the FreeBMD website.  Whereas the FreeBMD website entries are linked to the corresponding index page, the GRO entries are not, so possible transcription errors cannot be checked.  

    Reporting Issue

    Ordering PDF Copies

    Ordering PDF copies or the actual certificates is now easy. Once the record has been found in the index search, you simply click on the relevant option, which takes you to the order page where all the information has already been completed - you just need to make the payment.


    It seems clear that the new GRO searchable index is simply to help researchers to purchase the correct record, rather than a general research tool. The addition of the mother’s maiden name is very useful, but tempered by the restrictive search of +/- 2 years and the male/female requirement, meaning that several searches for family members must be made rather than one inclusive search. The popular FreeBMD website will, in my view, continue to be a vital resource for the majority of general searches, especially as their double entry system can help to weed out transcription errors.



    [1] Fairbairn, Catherine. (2015)  Briefing Paper. Researching ancestry: access to civil registration records. Number 02722, 9 July 2015. Accessed online : http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN02722/SN02722.pdf


    Update - January 2018

    Phase one was clearly a success as in October 2017 a new pilot was started to run for a minimum of 3 months. Within that time over 79,600 PDF applications had been processed. The pilot was then extended for a minimum of a further 6 months until at least the 12th July 2018.

    In addition the end date for birth records has been extend by a year to 1916. Each PDF cost £6 compared to £9.25 per Certificate.

    Anne Sherman of Leaves Family History is a qualified and experienced Genealogist and Tutor.  She can research your family history, help you with your own research or teach you how to start to get started with her online course, using free websites, including the FreeUK Genealogy sites. Anne was a transcriber for FreeBMD and now transcribes for FreeREG.