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Debrett Ancestry Research, the UK professional genealogists

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Lesser Known Sources

At Debrett Ancestry Research we are constantly looking for fresh and more unusual sources, which might reveal the true identity of that elusive "earliest known ancestor". This approach is particularly important for the periods before the start of standard sources, such as civil registration records of births marriages and deaths (which started in 1837), and census returns (which began in 1841). Parish registers and probates (wills) are, of course, the staple sources for genealogy before 1837, but they are sometimes missing or defective or unhelpful in clarifying the identity of an ancestor. Here are a few earlier English sources which can help resolve some of the problems faced by the genealogist:

Apprenticeship Indentures

In 1710 the government introduced a tax on apprenticeship indentures and thus the Inland Revenue kept central records of most apprenticeships, and these have been indexed. The indentures frequently name the father of the youth apprenticed, together with his address and occupation. Recently we were able to trace the true origins of a builder in west London to Bristol (which is 120 miles away), where he was born in 1739 and was apprenticed as a carpenter in 1756.

Records of Direct Taxation

These are particularly helpful for the 16th and 17th centuries. The government was constantly trying out new ways to tax ordinary people. For instance, there was a "Sheep Tax" in 1549/50, which was extremely unpopular. Recently we identified a client's ancestor in this source, which showed that he owned 100 sheep. Most of the taxes were based upon the value of moveable goods and/or land, and it is often possible to show continuity of ownership of property in one place over several generations. This is very valuable if parish registers are lacking. During the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), each householder was assessed for tax based upon the number of hearths in his or her house. Thus the "Hearth Tax returns" show the size of the house in which our ancestor lived.

The Protestation Returns of 1641/2

In 1641 every adult male was invited to sign a petition demonstrating loyalty to the Protestant constitution. Failure to sign aroused suspicions of Popery. The returns, which are now in the House of Lords, were organised by parish, and about one third of the lists survive. If you are lucky, you may find the signature of your ancestor.

Bernau's Index (at the Society of Genealogists)

This is a massive index to a wide range of sources, mainly covering the period 1500 to 1700. Among the sources which it covers uniquely are depositions made in legal actions in the courts of Chancery and the Exchequer in the 17th century.

Chancery Records

The Court of Chancery dealt with a huge volume of litigation over trusts, wills, property transactions and disputes over debts and mortgages. Most litigants were wealthy (although this was by no means always the case), but deponents (ie those giving written evidence in response to questions posed by the court) came from all walks of life, and were often servants or tenants or neighbours with good memories of local history and customs. Using Bernau's Index (see above), we can identify the names of deponents, and follow up the original documents at the National Archives in London. A deposition will start by revealing the age, address and occupation of the individual, and how he or she knew the litigants.


Registries of deeds were historically kept in only two counties in England: Yorkshire and Middlesex. However, collections of local deeds and family papers are held in all record offices, with varying degrees of information as to their contents in the catalogue. These can be cumbersome to examine but, if an ancestor owned or rented land, such records have been known to break a deadlock in cases where other more obvious sources have failed. Collections of deeds frequently include copies of wills and even family trees. Early deeds are often in Latin.

Manorial Documents

Manorial courts were the basis of local government from Norman times onwards and survived into the nineteenth century. Two different kinds of court were held; transfers and grants of land were the province of the Court Baron; the Court Leet and View of Frankpledge dealt with minor criminal matters. If a family held property copyhold (sometimes known as customary tenure), they had to surrender it to the Court Baron each time it was sold or bequeathed; so the court records provide evidence for family links. Earlier records are usually in Latin.

and from Ireland ...

The Spinning Wheel Premium Entitlement List of 1796 is a large and very useful index to names found throughout Ireland, but particularly in Ulster. At this period the government introduced a scheme to encourage the linen trade in Ulster and free spinning wheels or looms were given to individuals in return for planting flax on their land. A great many Ulster farmers took advantage of this scheme, and thus the surviving Spinning Wheel Premium Entitlement List gives a good indication of where surnames were to be found in 1796. Of greatest value, this source has enabled us to pinpoint the true parish of origin of an emigrant who travelled to America shortly after this date.