Friday, August 31, 2012

Quarter Sessions

Quarter Sessions


The letter "Q" is the least frequently used letter in the English language. There are fewer words, surnames and  place names beginning with letter Q in English, than probably with any other letter. So, I knew that writing a blog linking family history research to the letter "Q", would indeed be a challenge. I had been thinking about "Q" since back at letter "N".  Something beginning with Queensland? (the state in which I was born) ... or ...I have a fabulous Medieval Quail recipe? ... Nothing took my fancy. Then by coincidence last week, I was undertaking a task that we all dread. I was cleaning my desk and filing, and whilst doing so, I came across papers which I had collected during the 13th Genealogy and Heraldry Congress in Adelaide, in March of this year, (and now you know how infrequently I tidy my desk). In a lecture I had attended about unusual names, the surname GOTOBED was cited. ( Go-TO-Bed). The lecturer claimed, that in many years of delivering this particular talk, never once to have discovered anyone who descended from this unusual name. To everyone's surprise, two people in the audience raised their hands to acknowledge that they both had the name Gotobed in their ancestry and it happened to be myself and my 'genea' and 'Kiva'* friend Kerry Farmer. [*]

In actual fact, it is my husband who descends from Ann Gotobed who was born in Bedfordshire in about 1688 and who married Richard BEARD in 1702, in Wootton By Bedford, Bedfordshire. Apart from reminding me that I still need to follow up on this shared surname with Kerry, I suddenly remembered that when researching the Beard family, I had unearthed an intriguing skeleton in the Beard family closet through the Bedfordshire Quarter Session records. And just like that... I had my "Q" post!


Often, unless we know that our ancestors had a run in with the law, we never might think to search court or criminal records for family members, and so it was when I was researching my husband's 'Beards of Bedfordshire'. My husband's maternal great great great grandfather, Joshua Beard, ( Baptised 29 October, 1816) had been a Baker in Haynes, Bedford, before immigrating to Australia with his wife and children. His father, also named Joshua Beard, had been a baker before him. It was this seemingly quiet unassuming first baker of bread, Joshua Beard, born in 1789, in Haynes (Hawnes), Bedfordshire who I discovered had led a mischievous life. Through a paper trail of evidence in the Quarter Session Records of Bedfordshire, I discovered that Joshua, not only had nine children to his wife Elizabeth GUDGIN, but in fact, had families to two other women at the same time, whilst married to Elizabeth. But for locating the Bedford Quarter Session records, held in The National Archives (UK),  I might never have known about Joshua's three families. There were no marriage records or birth records to link him to the children of the other relationships and the children of those relationships took the surnames of their mothers.  Now, I am certain you are intrigued by Joshua Beard's story, and I will tell you more of Joshua's most interesting misdemeanors after a short history about Quarter Sessions. These  records are possibly a much under appreciated source of information for family historians, and are relevant to more than just criminal records. I have spoken in previous blogs about putting meat on the bare bones of research. Quarter Session records can be an extremely useful source for filling in the gaps in our family stories. 

Bedford Gaol where Joshua Beard spent some time.


Quarter Sessions were sessions of a court  held in each county of England (except for Middlesex, which was held in conjunction with the court of Westminster) and were conducted as the name suggests, quarterly, or four times per year.  The history of Quarter Sessions dates back as far as 1327, when during the reign of King Edward III, men were appointed in every county to keep the peace. By 1368, a court system was organised, whereby Justices of the Peace were authorised to hear and make judgement on criminal matters brought before them. In 1388, it was resolved that the courts would sit in January (Epiphany), Easter, Midsummer and Autumn (Michaelmas).

Most of the crimes heard at the Quarter Session courts were of a minor nature. Major crimes, punishable by death, were tried at the Assizes, where judges were not local men. Quarter Session courts heard both criminal and civil matters and embodied a long lasting time frame from the 14th century until 1971, when a reorganisation of the British legal system saw them replaced by Crown

Quarter Session records for England are held at The National Archives [ ] and can also be located at Local County Record Offices and Local County Archives. A google search for 'quarter sessions' will produce many links to excellent websites offering information about these court records or to the records themselves. There are many surviving Quarter Session records, particularly from the 17 th century onward.

A Quarter Session record from Bedfordshire


Quarter Session court hearings were introduced in Australia, in NSW, in 1824. to deal with all criminal matters not punishable by death. These Quarter Session courts were conducted four times a year in Sydney, Liverpool, Windsor and Parramatta in 1824, Campbelltown in 1828, Maitland in 1830 and Bathurst in 1832. Surviving records can be found in a number of locations including online on the  the TROVE website [ ]. Links to the Quarter Sessions can also be found at State Records NSW [ ] and the State Library of NSW [ ]. The helpful website also has links to Australian Quarter Session records. Quarter Session records from the Maitland courts have enabled  me to accumulate such a wealth of  information regarding five of my my convict ancestors, enough so that I have constructed a story of substance about their lives ( sometimes it pays to have criminals in the family!).

A Quarter Session Court in Hay, NSW


Quarter Session records contain a wealth of historical information for family historians, and they are much more than just judicial evidence of petty crimes. These records contain witness statements and petitions from the accused, which offer colourful anecdotes and exquisite descriptions of people, places and the daily life of ancestors and which reflect the times and circumstances in which they lived. Until the institution of County Councils (in the 1800's), the Quarter Sessions dealt with civil issues such as roads, bridges, prisons, lunatic asylums, hospitals and the militia amongst other matters of great value to family historians. Records contain names of not only prisoners, but of jurors, witnesses, justices, constables, clerks and church wardens. There is a good chance that even if your ancestor was law abiding, he or she may have had their name recorded in a Quarter session record for any number of reasons. The information in these records can provide you with an incomparable insight into the lives of ancestors.

 One of the common criminal reasons for a man to appear before the Quarter sessions court, was, if a woman brought against him a charge of bastardy... and that was the very charge which disclosed  Joshua Beard's double life.


Joshua Beard, baker of Haynes in Bedford married Elizabeth Gudgin in 1808, aged 19 years. By 1822, Elizabeth had given birth to nine children several of whom did not survive infancy. There seemed not to be anything out of the ordinary in the life of this baker and family man, until a search of The National Archives UK, exposed an amazing trail of encounters with the law for Joshua Beard.

The first hint of  strife in Joshua Beard's life was a Quarter Session hearing in 1810 which stated;  'Joshua Beard, Haynes, Baker; keep peace towards William Cockerill, Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter Sessions.'

'Well,' thought I, defending this bread baking Beard from Bedford, 'anyone can have an argument.' But then I discovered that in 1814, Joshua was once again appearing before the justice of the peace in the Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter session, in Bedford. This time I was in for quite a surprise. The record showed that Joshua had strayed from his marriage only four years after it had taken place. The record read, 'Joshua Beard, Haynes, Baker, Bastardy. W.  ANN GARRET...'  This record even gave me the name of Joshua's mistress so that I could trace the child born out of wedlock.

Further investigation revealed that Ann Garrett was born in Lidlington in 1790 and gave birth to a son, named William in 1814, in Liddlington, Bedfordshire.

Lidlington, Bedfordshire

The town of Haynes where Joshua lived with his wife Elizabeth and their children and where he ran his Bakery, was 11 km south of Bedford. Lidlington lies adjacent to the town of Bedford. Joshua perhaps thought his affair with Ann Garrett was safe from discovery, with some distance between the two women. In 1818, Ann gave birth to another son, again fathered by Joshua Beard, and named Emmanel Garrett. One can only imagine how Elizabeth Beard must have felt upon discovery that her husband had been unfaithful. She herself had given birth to their third child, a daughter Emma in 1813, a daughter, named  Elizabeth, born  in 1816 and another daughter named Eliza in 1818. Eliza died that same year, the year in which Joshua's mistress gave birth to a son Emmanuel.  Elizabeth gave Joshua another daughter also named Eliza was born in 1819. The evidence shows that Joshua was having a relationship with both his wife and Ann Garrett between 1813 and 1818.

In 1833, a warrant was issued for Joshua Beard to appear before the Midsummer session of the Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter session. Joshua was 'held for want of sureties'. 

A further document reveals that Elizabeth had brought a charge against Joshua, under the 'Articles of peace- against her husband, Joshua beard, of St Paul's...'

This record is particularly significant as it divulges that Joshua was a parishioner of St Paul's Church. What is relevant about this is information, is that St Paul's Church is located in the heart of Bedford and not in Haynes where Elizabeth and the family were living. Elizabeth's claim was that Joshua had become violent towards her when under the influence of alchohol.

Bedford and St Paul's Church.

Joshua's hearing took place on the 12th of June, 1833. The record provides a physical description of the man himself. According to the Quarter Session record, Joshua Beard was 5 ' 7" tall, with 'brown' hair and was of 'sallow' complexion. Remarks from the hearing were; 'this man is insane'.  (Clearly the women in his life did not find him so). The record also shows that Joshua was living in Bedford, and indicates that 'number of children: ( were) Unknown'. Not surprising, since by this time it had become apparent, that in 1822, a third woman, named Rebecca JOYCE had given birth to a son named, Joseph Joyce, proclaimed to be fathered by none other than, Joshua Beard. Electoral Rolls and Poll Books show Joshua to be living in Haynes, in 1820 and 1831. Since Joshua Beard died in Haynes in 1836, it appears from the Quarter Session record that Joshua was not living with his wife Elizabeth in 1833 when she filed a charge against him. The charge  has remained on record for this family historian to discover some 178 years later in the Quarter Sessions of Luton and Bedfordshire. The Quarter Session records of Bedfordshire allowed me to fill in gaps in the fascinating story of my husband's great great great grandfather's real life story. Without these records, Joshua would have remained on the family tree as a 'Baker from Bedfordshire'. Now we know him to be so much more a colourful character. And importantly, we have tracked down the descendants of Joshua Beard's other relationships who live all around the world and we have united Joshua's descendants.

Marriage Record (Pallot's Marriage Index) for Joshua Beard and Elizabeth Gudgin.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge - Past, Place, People and Identity

 PAST, PLACE, PEOPLE &  Identity

Image Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we do our Family History? What  inspires our curiosity about the Past? What motivates us to collect names of People from the past and the Places they came from?  The PAST, the PEOPLE and the PLACES we research are intrinsic components of our identity.

Our identity - who we are - is integral to how we perceive ourselves, as individuals, as members of families, communities, groups, cultures, nations and the ever increasingly globalized world in which we live. 

We perceive our identity as individuals and as members of groups.


Our identity develops, as we relate to people in different places throughout our lives. The relationships we build within each place and the associations with people, impact on our sense of belonging  and significantly, our sense of place in the world. 

 We begin with OURSELF, as an individual. Who am I? I am a daughter, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother. You could be a son, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather and so on. We occupy a place or places within the family unit and in doing so we form a sense of belonging. We identify with our family because we belong. As family members we experience emotional responses to others. We form relationships within the family which influence us and impact on how our lives are shaped. As individuals we have tangible proof of identity - a birth certificate, a passport. We know we exist. However, it is our relationships with the immediate people in our lives, our emotional responses to people in our families, the way in which we interact with family members and our feelings for these PEOPLE, which becomes a part of our identity and allows us to perceive who we are. 

My daughters' understanding of 'who am I?'  began in the immediate family.


PLACE extends beyond physical geography. The PLACE where we live significantly influences how we make sense of the world. The physical PLACE, starting with the family home, the place where we live becomes a part of our identity. The home in which we live, is significant to our identity. We develop relationships with the place we call home -  attachment, ownership, our associations with home, all contribute to an all important sense of belonging to a PLACE. 

Connection to PLACE is vital to our identity.

Where we live in a wider context - our social identity - is also a crucial part of how we define who we are. We identify with local groups such as schools, church communities, sporting groups, local history or family history groups, occupations. We feel connected to PLACE through our connection to the people in the community or PLACE in which we live. 

As a citizen of a country we  experience national pride. One just needs to have watched the recent Olympic Games, held in London, to have witnessed national pride. We identify with the country in which we reside because we are a citizen. We feel connected to other people who share our relationship with the same country. 

PLACE and people are  an inseparable part of existence and a significant part of our identity. Identity occupies a meaningful place in our lives. It is our sense of identity, what factors in our lives influence us, the PLACE in which we live, the PEOPLE who we interact and form relationships with, the groups and religions to which we belong, our culture, traditions and  nationalities, which shapes the way in which we perceive ourselves as and allows us to understand our place in history.


PEOPLE and PLACES from our family background are an inherent part of our identity. Understanding the identity of our ancestors helps us to understand our own identity. It answers the question 'who am I?' in a wider scope than in our own immediate lives. It places our 'sense of self' within the context of the larger world as a whole, and significantly, within history itself.

Place occupied an important role in the lives of the people who were our ancestors. When we discover the places our ancestors came from and we understand the way in which they 'belonged' to particular places, we can establish a sound feeling of kinship with these PEOPLE of the PAST. Our ancestors undoubtedly,would have possessed a sense of attachment and a sense of belonging to the places where they dwelled and worked. Their identities evolved from the social classes, the types of housing, the community groups,  their religion, the people they associated with, and the work patterns associated with the places in which they lived. 

Ord House, Isle of Skye, ancestral home of my husband's MacDonald ancestors

The places where our ancestors lived extended beyond geographical locations. They were more than the physical characteristics of rural areas, villages, towns or cities.  To understand the places of our ancestors, we need to look into the relationships they had with their physical environment as well as the impact the environment had on the people themselves. The places in which our ancestors lived, influenced the way they lived, the choices they made (ie reasons for migration), the relationships they formed and how they made sense of the world in which they existed. 
When we understand the PAST and the PLACES our ancestors came from, we come to understand what it means to 'come from a place'. Understanding what shaped the lives of our forebears helps us to understand the part of our identity which we have inherited from  people of the past. Ancestors pass on traditions, culture, ideas, memories, religion, recipes, songs, tangible objects and much more. What is from the past and has been preserved for the future, is our heritage. It is what is valued enough to keep, to protect, and to hand on to future generations. In recognising and appreciating our heritage, and the identity which we have inherited from our ancestors, we can establish a bond or kinship with the places we come from. We develop a 'sense of place' which relates to our existence in a global world where we may not have continuity of place as did many of our ancestors, and where we may no longer live for generations in one place. 

Researching our family history, and understanding the relationship our ancestors formed with the places where they lived,  helps us to form strong ties of 'kinship' with people from the past. Family history provides a new type of identity for us, which is no longer embedded in a single place or country. It provides us with a sense of who we are - an identity - which is intertwined with many people and many  different places from our past. People, Places and the Past, establishes our own place within the context of world history, and significantly help us to understand our own identity. 

Image Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ordnance Surveys and Family History

Ordnance Survey- noun, the official map making body of the British or Irish Government

Map of Ely Cambridgeshire Wikipedia

"I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and I find it hard to believe."  Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.

Maps are an extremely important resource for family historians. They allow us to place our ancestors into the geographical context of their lives. Old maps are also very useful for assisting us to find place names which may longer exist. This post, though, is not about maps in general, but rather, it ascribes to the specific maps which marked the coming of age of cartography in Great Britain -  Ordnance Survey maps. These maps were the first accurately measured and scaled maps to cover the entirety of Britain. Today the geographical data on these maps serves an enormous audience, which includes, defence forces, local and national government departments, architects, engineers and family historians.
"Ordnance Surveys intimately trace the course of all the roads, national trails, minor footpaths, bridleways, power cables, becks, gills, streams, brooks, and field boundaries that bisect a landscape of miniature woods, speckled scree slopes and orange contour lines...." "...before the Ordnance Survey map was created, Britain was represented by a mosaic of county and military surveys of variable accuracy, content and scale..."    Map of a Nation,  [Rachel Hewitt, London Granta, 2010]


The Office of Ordnance in Britain, dated as far back as the 14th century. Attached to the Royal Arsenal and located at the Tower of London, this body was responsible for overseeing the Monarch's armaments, castles and arsenals. In 1518, the Office of Ordnance became known as The Board of Ordnance, and although military in nature, was a body, independent of the Army. From the late 17th century, map making was an important function of the Board of Ordnance.

If you want to understand today, you have to look into the past." Pearl Buck

An historic decision made in June of 1791, by the British Board of Ordnance (the precursor of the Ministry of Defence), precipitated the first detailed mapping of Great Britain and was the agent for the interesting name Ordnance Survey.  Although this date is usually accepted as the founding date for the First Series of Ordnance Survey maps, the path which led to its foundation began earlier. The origins of the Ordnance Survey date back to earlier military surveying of Scotland following difficulties experienced during the Jacobite Uprisings (1745-6), due to extremely ineffective maps of the Scottish Highlands. Royalist troops were severely hindered by the inconsistencies and deficiencies of available maps. Maps were marked with variances of names, places names were overlooked altogether, and no maps afforded  a factual outline of  the  inaccessible mountains, rivers and lochs of the Scottish Highlands.  In 1766, proposals were made to the Government for the first official scaled survey of Scotland as well as a 'general military map of England', suggesting a scale of 2 inches to the mile.

It had become obvious that although Britain possessed national maps, most were highly decorated, beautifully coloured, works of art. Early maps were rarely produced by actual measurement of the ground, owing to the lack of measuring instruments, and although beautiful to gaze upon, were neither dependable nor accurate.  Tithe maps, created in the early to mid 1800's showed details related to landowners and dwellings, as did Valuation Office Surveys and National Farm Surveys. These maps, although extremely valuable sources  for family historians, are fairly unreliable, being inconsistent as well as having no accurate measurement nor significantly, scale.

A Map of England depicting it in the Saxon times, John Speed, 1670

The real foundations were laid for the Ordnance Survey maps in 1783-4, when the Royal Societies of Paris and London set about resolving a controversy,  regarding the accuracy of the sites of the astronomical observatories in these two cities. They embarked on a project to position the cities by means of a system of triangulation ( measuring distance and determining locations, by measuring angles from determined points). Triangulation remained the main mechanism of surveying until replaced by modern satellite positioning systems. In 1784, the triangulation of south-east England from a base line on Hounslow Heath was commenced. Although the Paris-London triangulation, completed in 1790,  was a civil pursuit,  responsibility for the enterprise was assigned to Major-General William Roy ( 1726-1790), who was assisted by the Royal Artillery and this surveying was the basis for the first Ordnance Survey.

The purchase by the Board of Ordnance of a new surveying instrument called the Great (or 36 inch) Ramsden Theodolite, and the threat of French invasion, instigated a national military survey, in 1791, which began with the mapping of south east Britain using the baseline that Roy had measured. So commenced one of the world's most systematic and thorough mapping agencies. Britain's national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, or  OS thus, emanated from a history of military maps. Its history encapsulates political revolutions, wars, and regional divisions which have changed both physically, in character and in identity.

The Great Ramdsen Thoedolite, a precise instrument for measuring angles in the horizontal and vertical planes.

The first official map produced by the Ordnance Survey was published in 1801 by William Fadden. The detailed one inch to one mile scaled map was of the county of Kent. A map of Essex followed, after which all of Britain and Ireland were surveyed and mapped. The Ordnance Survey became Britain's national mapping agency and has remained at the forefront of mapping ever since. Over the years since 1791, the Ordnance Survey has updated and revised its enormous collection of survey maps. The OS was responsible for formulating the national grid reference system which references  locations within the British Isles.   Ordnance Survey maps today are considered to be  the hitchhikers guide to the landscape of Great Britain and the immense digital data base of the OS, fills the screens of our 'satnavs'. From the time that adventurous mapmakers, trekked the countryside of Britain, bearing the great heavy theodolites on their excursions, to today's government department which generates web mapping services whose geographic services benefit the community as a whole, the Ordnance Survey has dominated the terrain of mapping.


Ordnance Survey maps are a fundamental resource for family historians. Maps produced by the Ordnance Survey are amongst the best in quality in the world. The OS has produced maps of Britain in ancient times, Roman times and maps relating to Britain during the Medieval Era. It has a vast collection of photographs which span many years of surveys and its collection of maps over time are a unique record of  Britain's metamorphosis, as boundaries of civil parishes and government divisions of counties and place names altered throughout the years.

An Ordnance Survey map


The National Archives UK (TNA),  [>Records ] has excellent information about the Ordnance Survey, and retains a number of Ordnance Survey maps in their holdings.
The Ordnance Survey hosts its own website,  [ ].  Since April of 2010, the OS has offered a wide spectrum of mapping data, including, OS getamap ( an online application for maps from Ordnance Survey), and an educational category which is well worth exploring. The OS site, explains in depth how to choose the correct map to suit your purpose (eg  you can find out which scale map  is most useful to you as a family historian). You will need to register with this site but if you are searching for reliable Ordnance maps as a family history resource, this website is well worth visiting. The OS website also hosts an informative blog which is worth following if you use maps as family history sources. Below, I have included an example of one of my own OS searches for Cramlington in Northumberland which was the birth place of my great great grandmother, Hannah Tait GAIR, in 1846.

Search page on the OS website

My search results for 'Cramlington'

The detailed OS map of Cramlington I found.

The OS website offers maps in different scales to suit assorted purposes and offers advice on how to choose the map most appropriate for you.

OS map at 1:10 000 scale showing roads, road names and major buildings.
An example of OS range of map scales.
On the above maps you can click on each example to view a larger version to understand the different scales and uses of the OS maps.
The Ordnance Survey website explains in detail the national grid, and presents a fascinating interactive guide to this information. To view this, requires Adobe Flash player plug in.

The National Grid.

Old Maps UK    [ ] is an online repository of old maps which includes Ordnance Survey maps. Amongst other maps you can search for Ordnance Survey County Series and Ordnance Survey Town Plans. This site is very user friendly and a search is easily performed. In the example below, I searched for the town of Long Houghton, in Northumberland, where my fourth great grandfather, Roger GAIR was born in 1782.

My first search result showing the location of Long Houghton in Northumberland.

A closer inspection of Long Houghton.

Using Maps in Genealogy    [  ] is a an excellent website, and most helpful to use as a map resource. This site explains how to use maps in your family history research.

Map from the Using Maps in genealogy Website.  provides many pertinent links to Ordnance Survey maps.

A Vision of Britain Through Time  [  ] is an excellent website which includes a searchable facility for finding First Series Ordnance Survey maps as well as newer Ordnance Survey maps. Once a map has been found for the location you are researching, this website offers  an historical description of the place, taken from local and national gazetteers.

Map and historical description of Hougham, Lincolnshire, where I can trace my Morley family back to 1633.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Negative Evidence

Negative Evidence - it's important too!

Image: Wikimedia. Reused under ©© Creative Commons Licence

"The first point [of research] is that we cannot hope to prove any proposition unless we look for negative evidence that might contradict it."  [Studies in Philology , Richard Lavin, Volume. 92, No.4, 1995, p383]

As family historians we are constantly searching for evidence of the existence of ancestors. Evidence is  not to be confused with information. Evidence is much more than information. It is the information which we analyse and evaluate and which we accept to have authentic relevance to our research.

For the most part in the process of our research, we look for positive evidence. Positive evidence is what every family historian hopes to find. It adds names to our family trees. Positive evidence that an ancestor is associated with our lineage, can only be proved, when our information is tested, and we have sufficiently eliminated all contradictory evidence. As family historians, we seek unequivocal proof that ancestors belong on our family tree. To achieve this end, we use evidence, both positive and negative to reach our conclusions.

Photo Sharn White © Copyright

As every family historian knows all too well, vast numbers of hours are often invested in research which yields nothing of concrete value, no positive evidence and no names to place on the branches of the family tree. The question could be asked - are these hours of research a waste of time? After a long day or night of what seems to be fruitless searching, it is easy to think time has been frittered away. An example from my own research, is that of  my great great grandfather, John Morrison, born in Aberdeen, in 1847 [according to the positive evidence I have discovered and recorded, including his death certificate and marriage record which states that his father's name was William]. In the 1851 Scottish Census, I found five males named John Morrison, each around the correct age, but no one with a father named William. I therefore located no positive evidence that any of these persons were my 2 times great grandfather. This is an example of negative evidence. By process of elimination, I determined which of the males named John Morrison were NOT my ancestor, narrowing my search to one possibility. John Morrison, aged 4 years in 1851, ( born in 1846), who was living with his sister and grandfather in Aberdeen, fitted the profile of my 2 times great grandfather. Before I could accept this negative evidence ( absence of evidence) as reliable evidence, it required testing to search for  evidence. I found  census and marriage records for each John Morrison found in the 1851 census, eliminating those who did not have a father named William and each John Morrison who did not marry Hannah Tait. In this way I eliminated those males who were NOT my ancestor. All negative evidence - but all leading towards a positive result (I hoped). The next logical step was to compare my negative evidence against any positive evidence in my possession. On the the marriage record (1869) of my 2 times great grandparents, I was fortunate enough to link a witness ( John Morrison's sister) to  the address of the grandfather with whom John and his sister were living in 1851.

Image Wikimedia Commons

In the absence of positive evidence, be assured, that you have not squandered time. The very absence of evidence of your own ancestor is EVIDENCE in itself.  The significant inferences which emerge, when we find no trace of an ancestor at all in our searching, are as important as the positive evidence we uncover. The commonly used terminology for this absence of evidence [ besides 'frustration'] is  NEGATIVE EVIDENCE.  In the absence of any positive evidence, it is feasible to arrive at a sound conclusion from the negative evidence that you have gathered during your research.

Ancestors do not always turn up in records... Image Sharn White © Copyright Creative Commons

Negative evidence is defined in Webster's Dictionary as : "evidence of any kind which suggests, via deduction or inference, the non - existence or non presence..."  
Elizabeth Shown Mills defines negative evidence as " inference one can draw from the absence of information that should exist under given circumstances" [Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 1st Ed, Electronic. 200, p. 825 & 28.]

Each time a family historian proves kinship with a  forebear, the evidence is chronicled and preserved. Be it a record of a birth, baptism, marriage or death, a passenger list or a census record, positive evidence is documented, and our sources are recorded on our family trees. All genealogy programs provide various means by which to cite sources and evidence you have collected.  It  is also  important to document all negative evidence that you discover in your research. It is quite possible that the absence of records of an ancestor, may substantiate your case for relationship. Negative evidence eliminates who is NOT an ancestor and without doubt it proves where your ancestor WAS NOT. Negative evidence does not generate a 'copy' of a record as does positive evidence ( e.g. a baptism record) therefore it may be of benefit to keep a log of all negative evidence you find. Record keeping avoids time wasted re-checking records which you have already investigated.

Oops already checked this record! Image Sharn White © Copyright

When you find a birth entry which appears to be appropriate for an ancestor, negative evidence can be used effectively to substantiate your supposition.


My 2 times great grandfather, John Morrison, mentioned earlier, married Hannah Tait Gair in 1869, in Northumberland, England. On the marriage record, Hannah's father was named as Roger GAIR (occupation -Gardener) and her birth place was stated to be Cramlington, Northumberland.  Roger Gair was found easily in the 1861 census where I found Roger aged 46, (born 1815, Alnwick, Northumberland), wife Elizabeth, aged 44 born Cramlington, Northumberland) and daughter Hannah, aged 14 (born  in 1846, Cramlington, Northumberland). This Roger Gair was working as the head gardener at Heaton Park. It was not difficult to find a marriage for Roger Gair to Elizabeth TAIT, in Cramlington, in 1840, especially as Hannah's middle name was Tait. A birth for Roger Gair was located in Denwick, Alnwick, Northumberland on October 29, 1815. Any thorough genealogist will attest that a NAME is NOT proof of a person. Despite having a strong argument that this was my family of Gairs, I needed to prove beyond doubt that there was no contradictory evidence. This is where I used Negative Evidence to identify whether the Roger Gair I had found, was the person for whom I was searching.

Heaton Park where Roger Gair was head gardener.  Image Wikimedia Creative Commons


  • A search for birth records revealed no other person by the name of Roger Gair born in Northumberland in 1815 or in an expanded search up to 5 years before and after this date.
  • No other Roger Gair was born in Alnwick in around 1815.
  • No other family with the surname Gair had a father named Roger and a daughter named Hannah in the 1851 and 1861 UK census.
  • There were no other later records relating to a Roger Gair born around 1815 (ie death).
  • No other Roger Gair could be located whose occupation was that of a gardener. 
The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History, [ David Hey, 1996, NY.] provides the following description of negative evidence or negative proof   'a term much used in genealogical research. It denotes the attempt to prove that a name in a parish register is the one sought, by searching all the other records in the neighbourhood to make sure no one else of that name is recorded.'

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, known as Negative Evidence, I arrived at a soundly examined, well supported and reasoned  genealogical conclusion that I had found Roger Gair.

So, the next time you spend a day searching in your local archives and go home empty handed, or sit for many hours at your computer only to find no record of an ancestor, think positively of the negative evidence you are gathering. Keep records of all the searches you undertake.  Often, it is the absence of evidence that is in itself evidence.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Muster Rolls - A Valuable Family History Resource

Muster Rolls - Valuable Resources for Family Historians

Scottish Muster Roll

The Oxford Dictionary defines a Muster Roll as: noun, 
1. an official list of officers and men in a military unit or ships company
2. an inventory, a roster

Muster Rolls are a valuable source of information for family historians.  Although mainly military or shipping inventories, by nature, there are also other surviving musters such as those of police officers and significantly, for  anyone with criminal ancestors,  there are surviving musters of Australian Convicts. What is particularly of interest to family historians is that Muster Rolls or inventories, extend across all classes of people and often include information about the lives and political attitudes of commoners,  information which might not be easily found in any other source.  Because of the nature of the military system, especially in Britain,  Muster Rolls can provide excellent insight into the standing an ancestor in his community, this being accounted for by the amount or number of weapons he possessed. Whether your ancestor was a member of the militia, a gentry family member or a commoner, Muster Rolls and regimental histories are a 'must check' source of information for every family historian. For the purpose of this blog post, it is my intention to concentrate on on early militia  Muster Rolls, with particular reference to Britain and America. Shipping and Convict Muster Rolls as sources for family historians is a considerably significant topic and deserving of an independent post.


The concept of muster rolls, or inventories, dates back to feudal times. The feudal system required the Lords of the Manors to each keep their own army, which could be called upon whenever needed for defence purposes. For accounting purposes, a general muster was called annually to record all able bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60, who were eligible for military duty. An inventory was also taken of the number and value of the weapons each man individually possessed. Muster rolls also sometimes recorded occupations as well as the name of the Lord of each Manor, and the value of their lands. 

The notion of obligation to military service, (although not actual muster rolls), can be traced back even further to the Anglo-Saxon times when it was a commonly accepted tradition that all males of able body were liable to be called upon to serve as either officers of the law, the posse comitatus, or in  military service known as the fyrd. This was the common law system of  obligation to  military service which later led to the practice of calling musters of men and keeping muster rolls.

Anglo-Saxon Fyrd c. 400-878 AD

After the breakdown of the Feudal system, a similar arrangement of accounting was continued, for the keeping account of men liable for military service. During the Tudor  and Stuart dynasties in England, (1485-1649),  musters  were called periodically, in order for the King to assess the numbers of men  in the local militia and as such, the number of men ready to fight in the militia, and when required, to form a larger defence force. Within Counties, each parish was responsible for assessing each household to record its weapons, horses, armour and financial status. Military training was rarely provided for the local militia and realistically, they could not be relied upon for defence outside their own county. Early muster rolls recorded names, sometimes occupations as well as arms, although some later inventories listed numbers of men without individual names. 

In 1757 an Act was passed in England which decreed that participation in local militia would no longer be on a voluntary basis. In every parish, constables were empowered, to annually record the names of all men between the ages of 18 and 50 for the purpose of a ballot system. This ballot was  to be used from which  to conscript men for military service. Members of Peerage, clergymen, teachers and apprentices were excluded from the new forms of Militia Musters, known as Militia Ballot Lists. These lists provided names and infirmaries. Subsequent Militia Muster Rolls were compiled between 1758 and 1802, which recorded names, occupations and infirmaries. Lists from the period 1802-1806, added descriptions of persons ( e.g. servant, lodger) and number of children over the age of 14 and the 1806-1831 muster lists expanded the information about each man to include his age. 


No centrally organised army existed in England until the 17th century. Until then the system of annually mustering men to register for the militia persisted and any form of military force was fairly disorganised. Subsequent reforms  created the style of regimental structure of defence forces, which has persisted to this day.  Military forces have continued the tradition of keeping inventories of members of the defence forces. Although no longer known as muster rolls, military records, or inventories of people enlisted in defence forces, are extremely useful sources of information for family historians.

The system of mustering has bequeathed us numerous valuable records. Although some did not survive, many surviving records can be found in local county archives and offices, or in national archives and  museums. Genealogy websites such as   and   have made  Muster Rolls available for searching. Even if there is no record of our own ancestor in a Muster Roll, these inventories are a source of exceptional and fascinating local background information with regard to  our ancestors' lives. Perhaps their greatest value lies in the fact that records pertaining to the common classes in early times were uncommon. Because Muster Rolls were inventories which included every man over the age of 16, in every community, they are often the only source of information available to us about early ancestors who were commoners. 

Muster Rolls are not limited to England of course, and Muster Rolls exist for other countries. I am not intending to provide a list  of Muster Rolls in this blog post. My intention is to provide an outline of the valuable contribution  Muster Rolls can make towards family history research.  An online search of  local or national archives and family history group websites will give you some indication of what Muster Rolls are available to you to search. 

Some results from a National Archives UK search for Muster Rolls.

Local Historical and Family History Groups often provide links to Muster Rolls and may even hold records on microfiche or microfilm. Some historical groups, such as the St Keverne Local History Society, have published Muster Rolls on line for their local region. If your ancestors originated in Cornwall, you might find the Muster Roll - St Keverne Cornwall 1569 of interest. You could discover that your ancestor, Nycholas ROYE owned a 'sling and bag' , whilst John Nychlys was well armed with a 'bill and 12 arrows'. [bill hook, pictured below centre]

Medieval 'bill' or bill hook' centre.

Muster Roll, St Keverne Cornwall 1569

Searching Muster Rolls can be useful for indicating how early the surnames you are researching existed in a particular County. For example, should you be researching the surname JENKINS from Wareham in the County of Dorset, you might try searching the Dorset, England, Militia Lists, 1757-1860.  Finding Henry Jenkins residing in Kingston, Rowborrow, Wareham in 1759, on a militia list or muster roll, could very well be the earliest reference you discover for the surname Jenkins in the exact area of Dorset you are researching. At the very least, you will know that the surname  JENKINS existed in Wareham, Dorset as far back to at least 1759, which would be a compelling clue for further research. The Dorset Muster Rolls are newly available on  There are Muster Rolls which date even further back for other Counties of England, such as the Militia Musters for Northumberland, 1538. Perhaps the earliest known Muster Roll dating back to December 1215, has been in the possession of  the British Museum since 1927. This Muster Roll is a single parchment sheet upon which is listed the names of 47 royal household knights. Much research has been conducted in an effort to accurately determine the reason for, and exact date of this Muster Roll. Most of the names appear to be of French origin and include names such as William de Bosco, Godfrey of Crowcombe, Hugh de Boves, (who was known to be one of King John's mercenaries), and Walter le Buck. If you have ancestors who accompanied William the Conqueror to England, you might find this document to be of special interest. [ www. ]

Henry JENKINS on the 1759 Muster Roll, Dorset

Many valuable Muster Rolls have been preserved for American research.  The New York Colonial Muster Rolls, 1664, are among the muster records for individual American States, which can be searched online.   Other significant muster rolls for American family history research include Muster Rolls for the Civil War  and US Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775 - 1783.  Most of these muster records are available to search on A search of the National Archives of America results in 253 hits for 'muster rolls' and the records relate to both military and shipping musters.  

Scotland has a long history of recruited military forces - Fencibles, Militia and Volunteers who were much utilized during the Jacobite Uprisings, between the 1690's and 1746. Scottish auxiliary forces were also disposed during the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence. The Olive Tree Genealogy Blog  [ ] has excellent links to Loyalist and British Muster Rolls for British Regiments serving in America.  I have discovered one Scottish ancestor serving in the 15th Regiment of Foot, America, 1763, Muster Roll. . This Blog has links to numerous Muster Rolls which are searchable and with persons listed under name, rank and regiment, it is well worth a look.
From muster rolls compiled by the Hanoverian army following the Battle of Culloden in 1746 in Scotland, a most unique, fully indexed historical record has survived which lists every Scottish regiment which took part in the battle. I found our MacDonalds of Clanranald, listed in this extremely significant record, in Christian Aikman's book, "No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart's Army, 1745-1746".  A family anecdote boasting of this MacDonald ancestor,  breaking down the doors of Carlisle Castle, might even have a touch of truth in it, having certain evidence that he took part in the battle. Muster rolls which have survived for Scottish family history research can be found on the national Archives of Scotland website  .

Painting of the Battle of Culloden.
Muster rolls are of particular importance as census substitutes, especially for research in Ireland where many records have been destroyed. In the early 17th century, the  British, devised a scheme to settle colonists in Ulster. During what became known as The Ulster Plantation, landed estates were required to muster tenants to defend the land from threats from the native Irish. Lists were drawn up recording the number of  men on the estates who bore arms. Later inventories included the names of  all men able to fight. The most complete Muster Roll is the 1630 Muster Roll for each of the Ulster counties. These are available for the Ulster counties of Armagh, Cavan, Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan and Londonderry. Because many of these Muster Rolls have survived, the names of the original planters are known. This is especially important for family history research in Northern Ireland since by 1622, more than 4000 Scottish people alone had migrated to these counties, outnumbering the numbers of planters from England. 

Map of the Ulster Plantation.

In my own Northern Irish family research I have searched the Muster Roll of the City of Londonderry, 1630 to determine whether the surnames of my ancestors were on this list. One of my ancestors who was a planter from Scotland, Robert SHAW is listed as bearing a sword and musket. Some of my other Northern Irish surnames appear on later Muster Rolls, including THOMPSON.

Some names on the 1630 Muster Roll of Londonderry.

There are Muster Rolls which have survived from  the early chapter of the plantation scheme, between 1603 and 1633. These Rolls contain many names from the Ulster Plantation Counties and can be found alphabetically indexed from a number of sources including the following excellent website - Ulster Plantation,  . For more historical information about the Plantation of Ulster, there are many excellent websites on the internet as well as books published on this topic.  

Muster Rolls can be extremely informative records for family historians. Muster Rolls not only record names of ancestors who served officially in the military but importantly they are evidence of ordinary folk who were eligible to be called to military service. Muster Rolls embraced all classes of society - officers from the upper classes as well as soldiers and common people from the poor. Early Muster  Rolls pre date census records and can provide information and  details about individual ancestors as well as their family circumstances and status within a community. Musters are  unique census like historical records which are great value to genealogists and which may provide information not found from any other source.