Last week there was a Project and Helpdesk meeting of Rugby Family History Group. As previously mentioned, we are now transcribing the Parish Registers of Harborough Magna – and we have got back to the earliest register. At the last meeting I received several complaints from members that they couldn’t read the handwriting, so I decided that it was time for a short lesson.
There are some 40 odd pages, covering 100 years from 1540 which are all written in the same way and similar handwriting. Were they copied from a previous register or separate sheets? Perhaps by churchwardens Robert Chiles and John Cleaver, who beautifully decorated one of the pages.
I chose one of the pages at random, projected it onto a screen and went through a year of entries, demonstrating how to start transcribing unknown handwriting. This was the page I used:
Like the rest of the pages, it is clearly written (apart from a bit of damage down the edge) but to anyone not used to the handwriting – quite scary! You have to treat it as deciphering a code.
I think most people could manage the first line, which says “The yeare of our Lord god”. This suggests that the next line is the year itself. It says “One thousand six hundred and eleven” and gives us several letters that we can use for the rest of the extract. In particular note the long “s” in the middle of “thousand” and the start of “six” and the “h” in “thousand” and “hundred” – a common letter that causes problems as it is so different to how it is written nowadays. We can also make a note of how the other letters are written, the vowels (especially “e” that looks more like an “o” and the “x” at the end of “six” that will be useful when we get to roman numerals. A final point to note in this line is the “v” in “eleven”, it is written as “u”. This is a hangover from the latin alphabet that used the same letter for both. We shall come to a similar confusion with “i” and “j” later.
Now look at the individual entries, one per line. As this is a parish register they should each record a baptism, marriage or burial. In this particular extract there are no marriages, so each is either a baptism or burial. The fourth word in the bottom (10th) line we can see is “buried” – it is in the same position in lines 2 & 9, each time preceded by the same short word . This is “was” as in “was buried” – the “w” and “a” are clear, so we now know that the squiggle that looks a bit like a “b” is in fact an “s” – different from the long “s” already noted and only used at the end of words.
Looking for “was” in the other entries, we find it towards the end of other lines, preceding the word “baptized” (not always – the writer was not consistent). We now know what “p” and “z” look like.
What would we expect to find after “was buried” or “was baptized” – the date! This usually starts with the word “the”, in this case written in two different ways. In the bottom line it is “ye” – compare it with the “y” in “yeare” in the heading. Just above it is “the” – compare with the “th” in thousand. Different ways of writing the same word. In fact both should be transcribed as “the” – the “y” in “ye” is not in fact a “y” but an Old English letter called a thorn – the equivalent of th. In this register there is no consistency in use – the writer uses whichever he fancies. (I should confess here that RFHG transcribes the two versions differently as ye and the – are we wrong?)
Lets look at the first entry. It ends “was baptized ye” and an illegible date. Ignore for the moment the difficult 1st and 2nd and 6th and 7th words, apart from noticing that word 2 and 7 are probably the same. In between are three words, the first is “the” again and the last an easy “of”. The middle word starts with (long) “s” “o” – it is sonnne (son). We can see it in several other baptisms and in lines 5 & 6 there is what must be daughter. We now have a “g”. Notice the line along the top that differentiates it from the “y” (and the “h” which is all tail).
We can now see that the first entry reads: (name1) (name2) the son of (name3) (name4) was baptized the (date), where name2 is the same as name4 – all we need to decipher are the names (we’ll deal with the dates later). Name1 is fairly easy – William – the “W” is rather flamboyant – they liked to start the line with a flourish! His father’s name is John – the “o” and “n” are easy and the “h” we have met before (see it in “hundred” immediately above). There are not many male names ending ohn, so it must be John. If the dates were a bit clearer we could compare the letter with January, June or July. What is the surname? At least we have two examples to look at! Well, it ends in a “th” and there must be an “i” in there somewhere, as there is a dot in the same place in both versions. But what is the first letter? Any other examples on the page? Well it looks the same as the forename and surname in line 4 and the surnames in line 6 and 10. Do any of the months use it? Perhaps September? Yes – it’s just common old Smith (You would be amazed at the strange transcriptions of this name I see!)
So the first line reads William Smith the sonne of John Smith was baptized ye (date illegible) – easy wasn’t it!
The second line is a burial, so only one name to deal with and no son/daughter to give us a clue as to whether it is a man, women or even a child who has died. The forename ends in a “e” and there is the dot of an “i” somewhere. The first letter is “A” – compare with April lower down, then “l” – as in eleven, the “i” “c” (as in March in the same line) and “e” – Alice. The surname starts with J (or I) as in John and then an “s” and the rest is not clear but might be “well”. Iswell? Not a name that is familiar in the area, so we will transcribe it with a question mark. It might appear again on another page with a different spelling.
At this point in the lesson people were starting to get the hang of it and suggestions were coming thick and fast – it was working! I will make a list of the names at the end of this post for anyone who wants to have a go at the rest of the entries. Watch out for the eighth entry – the first two words are “the same”.
Finally a little bit on roman numerals, which are used for some, but not all, of the dates here. We are dealing with days of the month, so the number will be anything from 1 to 31. In roman numerals this will be some combination of “i” = 1, “v” (which will appear as “u”) = 5 and “x” (remember the letter at the end of “six”) = 10.
Let’s look at the second entry. We have “Alice Iswell was buried the (number) of March”. Well, usually if you are writing dates they end with a “th” (or “st” or “nd”) and in this case we can see it ends in a clear “th”. This leaves us with xxij – where did that “j” come from? Remember the “J” in John and “I” in Iswell – the same letter, so the date is xxii =22.
Why write the second “i” as “j”? If you were writing figures using this method – perhaps a bill or money you owed someone, it would be easy for someone to add (or erase) one of the “i”s. So for security you write the final “i” as a “j” meaning that it is the last figure.
So that’s all there is to it. I sent my class (sorry – volunteers) back to their desks, with a page of the register each to transcribe. There was also a sheet of examples of letters. It was slow, but I could hear them quietly discussing and comparing. The standard of the transcription was greatly improved – and there were less complaints. Let’s hope they remember how to do it by the next transcription evening – if not I can refer them to this blog!
List of male forenames in the extract: William, John, George, Thomas, Samuell, Randole, Hughe.
Female forenames: Alice, Pacience, Lidia, Joan
Surnames (most of them common in later registers): Smith, Iswell?, Webb, Scotten, Cleaver, Steane, Bird,