Derbyshire Record Office Archivist, Mark Smith, explores some of the odd details and eccentricities you can identify in the Derbyshire Parish Records.
Here at Derbyshire Record Office, we look after all the surviving original registers of baptisms, marriages and burials for parishes in the Diocese of Derby. As you will notice if you make use of the Derbyshire Parish Registers, quite a number of these go back to the very beginning, which in England is 1538 – the system was introduced during the reign of Henry VIII, just a few years after he declared himself head of the Church of England.
If you are a seasoned genealogist, you will already know that parish registers are an indispensable resource for family history. However, it’s also true that some of the most interesting nuggets are to be found in the margins, as the clergy charged with maintaining the registers decided to set down some observations for posterity.
Here is a good example. The register covering the peak district village of Winster in 1615 contains a note about the freak weather conditions of that year:
1615: A Dry Summer
There was no rayne fell uppon the earth from the 25th day of March until the second day of May; and then was there but one shower, after which there fell none tyll the 10th day of June, and then there fell an other; after that there fell none at all tyll the 4th day of August: after which tyme there was sufficient rayne uppon the earth: so that the greatest part of this land especially the south parts were burnt up, both corne and hay. (An ordinary summer load of hay was at £2 and little or none to be got for money.) This part of the peake was very sore burnt upp: only Lanckishyre and Cheshyre had rayne ynough all summer, and both corne and hay sufficient: there was very little rayne fell the last winter but snow only.
A dozen miles north of Winster you will find the village of Eyam, which in the 1660s was the site of an even worse disaster: the terrible outbreak of plague which killed 260 people. The parish register, now available on Ancestry, identifies the names of the victims using a pointing finger, beside the words “here followeth the names with the number of the persons who died of the plague”.
The earliest entries in this register are actually not original: they were copied into it by Rev Joseph Hunt, who was the rector from 1683 to 1709. This explains why the entries are in the same handwriting for such a large range of years. Who knows what happened to the original entries for those years?
This “pointing finger” device is the earliest form of index – that’s why the index in the back of a book is named after the forefinger. We can see it at work again in this register, which comes from the parish of Pleasley:
This also makes mention of the plague, although the focus is not the hundreds who died in Eyam but the thousands who died in London – almost a quarter of the capital’s population:
“In this yeare after the blazeing starr is the warr at sea with the Hollander and the greate Plague at London and many other places in this nation. In London in this yeare there dyed of the Plague above ninety thousands”.
What’s this about a “blazeing starr”? The answer can be seen on the preceding page – both in a written description and in a little doodle of a comet:
Can you see the comet on the left? I promise you it is an illustration, not an ink blot. The note beside it reads: “A blazeing starr hath here appeared continueing its flames for abouts eight weekes past eastward inclining to the north; it did rise in the east and sett in the west…” The same comet was the subject of coffeehouse conversation among the social circle of the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Many who had witnessed it came to view it as a portent of the bad events that were to follow, including the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and second Anglo-Dutch war (which the Pleasley cleric calls “the warr at sea with the Hollander”).
Sometimes, parish registers contain remarkable facts within the baptism, marriage and burial entries themselves. How about this burial, which took place in southern Derbyshire on 17 April 1737?:
“Dame Elizabeth, relict of Sir Samuel Sleigh of Etwall, knight, was buried. It is remarkable that the first wife of the said Samuel Sleigh was buried 103 years ago and upwards.”
Amazing but true. J C Cox’s “Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire” says the parish church has memorials to Sir Samuel Sleigh (died 1679), to his first wife Judith (d. 1634), his second wife Margaret (d. 1647) and Dame Elizabeth (who was 82 when she died in 1737).
We are delighted that the original registers of which we are custodians can now be enjoyed by users of Ancestry’s services around the world. More about Derbyshire Record Office’s documentary treasures can be found on our blog, Derbyshire Record Office.