Court Rolls of Balsham Manor

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

I recently visited the London Metropolitan Archives to view some early manor court rolls for my home village of Balsham in Cambridgeshire.

At first, manor court rolls can seem a little overwhelming as a source – until 1733 most were written in highly abbreviated Latin. It takes some effort to access, transcribe and translate them. It’s worth perservering, though, because they can be a very valuable source of information about individuals and families in a period when other sources can be scant.

Manor courts were the place where the business of the manor was carried out. Court barons, which took place every three weeks or so, dealt with exchanges of land, the swearing in of new tithingmen and/or tenants, the pledges of existing tenants and minor disputes or misdemeanours. Court leets, held twice a year, dealt with more series cases within the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor.

In practise, the customs of each manor varied greatly, and some held courts more regularly than others. Moreover, not all manor court rolls have survived, so (as always!) the chance of finding mention of an ancestor depends upon the availability of the records.

In Tudor Balsham, the Elizabethan lord of the manor was one Thomas Sutton, said to be the richest commoner in England at the time. On his death, Sutton bequeathed Balsham Manor, along with his other estates, to establish a school and hospital at the former monastery of Charterhouse in the City of London. As a result of this, the rolls have been reasonably well preserved and most have survived.

The first manor court after Thomas Sutton bought Balsham Manor was held on 14 December 1575. Earlier courts had recorded its jurors and those sending their excuses for absence (called essoin), but these lists were not long and it is apparent that the previous lords had not required all tenants to attend. However, in Thomas Sutton’s first courts, there are extensive lists of villagers, including those who couldn’t attend but who sent proxies, lists of head tithingmen (chief pledges) who were sworn as jurors and a list of customary tenants who were obliged to attend court. In total there are over 60 names of people of Balsham recorded. As such, it is an incredibly rich source of names for the parish.

The parish registers for Balsham have survived from 1560 onwards, and so some of these names can be cross-referenced in with baptisms, marriages and burials. In some cases, it gives more information about the person, such as ‘cleric’, ‘widow’, ‘junior’ or ‘aged’.

Below I have transcribed the full list of names from the manor court roll of 14 December 1575 and I hope it might help anyone who has ancestors from Balsham to further their knowledge. For those without Balsham ancestors, I hope it might illustrate how useful the manor court rolls can be to help understand a particular place and its people from many centuries ago.

Those who couldn’t attend, and the names of the proxies sent in their place:

  • William Freeman [to be replaced] by John Freeman
  • John Funstone by William Lawrence
  • Thomas Lawrence senior paid a fine
  • William Teversham by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Cranfield by Robert Cranfield
  • Henry Tye, Thomas Malt, Robert Symond, John Symond and William Sibley by John Pearne the rector of Balsham paid a fine
  • Richard Mayles and Edmund Smyth by John Smyth junior
  • Leonard Durgeon by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Pepper by Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Norton by Richard Cornell
  • William Pryor by John Smyth senior
  • Robert Webb of [West] Wickham by Richard Marsh
  • John Stacey and John Brand by Leonard Woolward
  • John Lynzell and William Lynzell by William Flack
  • William Cornell by bailiff

The chief pledges who were sworn in as jury, in three groups of 11:

  • Richard Marsh
  • John Smith senior
  • John Cowle
  • William Lawrence
  • John Smith junior
  • John Starre
  • Leonard Woolward
  • Robert Haylock
  • Robert Bullen
  • Edmund Rule
  • Richard Cornell
  • Robert Smith
  • Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Marsh
  • John Taylor junior
  • John Pearn
  • John Woolward
  • Matthew Teversham
  • Bartholomew Tassell
  • William Symond
  • Thomas Grigg
  • William Lorkin
  • Thomas Morton
  • John Abery
  • Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Smith
  • John Chaplin
  • John Diss senior
  • Robert Cranfield
  • Thomas Webb

The customary tenants who were obliged to attend court were:

  • Leonard Norton
  • Robert Broomstead, clerk
  • William Pryd junior
  • Letitia Diss, widow
  • Alice Cockerton, widow
  • Elizabeth Rule, widow
  • Marion Webb, widow
  • Katherine Haylock, widow
  • Joanna Pryd, aged.

Tracing your illegitimate ancestors in the newspapers

King Street, Cambridge

King Street, Cambridge, where Eliza Hull lived with Frederick Charles and their children

Whether you refer to them as illegitimate, natural children, base-born, born out of wedlock, or bastards, everyone has some in their family tree. I’m talking about children born to unmarried mothers.

They can present a seemingly unbreakable brick wall, as their fathers’ names are seldom recorded on birth certificates and rarely in parish registers. If you are lucky you might find some details in workhouse records, but what about in the newspapers? It might seem unlikely but it is possible.

Here is an example published in the Cambridge Independent Press in 1864, found via the British Newspaper Archive website:

“BASTARDY EXTRAORDINARY! Eliza Hull appeared to affiliate four illegitimate children upon Frederick Charles. The woman, who lives in King-street, has had four children, as she states, by the defendant, the eldest being nine years of age, he giving her money for their support. Last week the defendant married another female, and now Eliza Hull brings her case before the Magistrates.

“The man is a gentleman’s coachman, and has £25 a year, and after a good deal of obstinacy on his part, he agreed to compromise the matter by paying 4s. a week; although he protested that he was not the father of the two elder children, and that he could produce evidence against the complainant, showing that her antecedents were of a most unsatisfactory character.”

What a fascinating article! It throws up so many questions. Why did Eliza keep up her… acquaintance with Frederick over such a long period? Why hadn’t they married? If only the last two children were his (according to him), whose were the others?

Clearly they had an informal arrangement for her to receive some money towards the children’s upkeep, but was Frederick’s marriage to someone else the final straw? Being an unmarried mother was frowned upon – to say the least – so Eliza must have felt very strongly about the situation to have brought an affiliation case to make the situation official. She must have feared the loss of Frederick’s payments after he married another woman. (What a bounder!)

While this article is fascinating, it doesn’t really provide any hard proof for any possible descendants of Eliza Hull. But it would give a strong lead to follow if they had taken a DNA test. They might want to look out for any matches who had the surname Charles in their family tree.

My own great-great grandmother, Lucy Howard, gave birth to three children in three different workhouses. I can only assume she must have been very fertile. Lucy had a hard life – born to a poor Norfolk family, she was a workhouse inmate by the age of nine. Two of her children were brought up by her brother. She did eventually settle down and marry, but then died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

I learned from the Northampton Mercury (again, thanks to the British Newspaper Archive) that in 1889 Lucy brought an affiliation case shortly after the birth of her third child, Harry:

“AFFILIATION. Lucy Howard, 4, Althorp-Terrace, v. William Scott Lightfoot, 36, Drapery. – Mr. C.C. Becke appeared for the defendant. – The case was dismissed.”

Again, she must have felt strongly enough about her predicament that she was prepared to stand in court to say “this man is the father of my baby – and he should pay” and have her name (and his) published in the local newspaper for all to read. William Scott Lightfoot was a member of a respectable middle-class Baptist family. With no way for the court to know whether Lucy – a laundress – was telling the truth, perhaps it’s not surprising that the case was thrown out.

Newspapers can help fill so many gaps in our knowledge of our ancestors’ lives. Even if the papers cannot solve the whole puzzle, they might just give you a few more pieces to slot into place.

  • The British Newspaper Archive is a subscription website. A year’s access costs £80. You can also access the same material via FindMyPast if you take out their ‘Pro’ subscription at £44.84 for 3 months, or £156 for a year (at time of publishing). Both sites have special offers and introductory discounts, so it’s worth looking out for those.

Guest post by Katie Fuller, Associate Researcher

Name changes by deed poll

Name change

How can you find evidence of a name change in your family history? Image from Wikiphoto published under Creative Commons Licence.

Family historians looking for proof of a name change will often find it simply does not exist. It was (and is) perfectly legal to change your name and begin using a new one without having to register the change with an official body.

So, in the days when divorce was prohibitively expensive for many, if a married woman began to live with a new partner, she could adopt his name without requiring any legal process.

However, some people preferred to make their name change official. Before the 20th century this was done through royal licence or sometimes through Private Acts of Parliament. Later, deed poll was used.

Deed poll is a legal contract which is made before a solicitor. It provides documentary evidence of the name change.

In most cases, the files are unlikely to have been kept by the solicitor for more than five years. However, for safekeeping, a deed poll can be entered in the Enrolment Books of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Not all people chose this option, as it came with a fee and, after 1914, required a public notice in The Gazette.  The cost and publicity put many people off. Therefore, absence of an enrolled deed poll does not mean the name change was informal. A deed poll may have been obtained, but not enrolled. The National Archives estimates that only 1% of names changed by deed poll were enrolled.

From 1914, all enrolled deed polls had to be advertised in either the London, Edinburgh or Belfast Gazette, and these papers are searchable for free online.

The London Gazette, 2 July 1929.
Reproduced under Open Government Licence.

These two examples are from the London Gazette on 2 July 1929. Wolfe Zukovsky of Leeds was seemingly very fond of his forename!

Further information can sometimes be found in the wider press. For example, this was reported in the Shields Daily News on 19 August 1925:

“Robinson Case Echo

Newton Changes His Name by Deed Poll

Mr Montague Noel Newton has changed his name by deed poll to Montague Norman Norreys. The fact is announced in the ‘London Gazette’. He is described as of Down Street, Piccadilly.

Mr Newton gave evidence for the Midland Bank when Mr Vharles [sic] Ernest Robinson unsuccessfully sued the bank for £125,000 – part of the £150,000 paid by Raja Sir Hari Singh (“Mr A”) to avoid being cited as co-respondent in a divorce petition.

Most of the money had fallen into the hands of William Cooper Hobbs, who was subsequently convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison.”

Shields Daily News, 19 August 1925. Accessed through the British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast.

If you want to see the original enrollment, the Enrollment Books are held at The National Archives, Kew. Years 1903-2003 are held in series J18.

During the Second World War all name changes had to be declared and published in The Gazette so that the National Registration details could be altered and an identity card and ration book could be issued in the new name.


The Forgotten War – Burma Campaign

meningreenI’ve recently read the book Men in Green, the diary of a soldier serving in Burma during the Second World War.

Written during his service, this book covers Private John’s day to day experiences, conversations with friends and thoughts during his time in Burma.

It has been published by a former client of mine, Ann Markwell, who is the niece of the extraordinary Private Richard John. She remembers her Uncle Dickie fondly.

While it’s scant in dates and names of regiments, the diary is full of the details of the daily life of a soldier in the jungles of Burma. Private John began as a despatch rider, but was later sent to the front line to work with the signallers. He and his Company endured great hardship and lived through harrowing episodes, but the bravery and courage of the soldiers is what endures throughout the book.

As a first-hand account, written on the battlefield, it is useful to anyone who has ancestors who served in Burma, or who would like to learn more about the daily trials of soldiers fighting in the jungles of Burma. Be warned – some of the images of the brutality of jungle warfare may stay with you…

You can buy it at Amazon.

“Greatest dramas are about ordinary people”

In Brian Blessed’s preview for Who Do You Think You Are? this evening, he says:

‘I’m not looking for crowns and coronets and the glittering prizes. I’m looking for humanity. On television the greatest dramas are about ordinary people, ordinary relationships. That is where you learn so much, that has great meaning and that’s what I’m looking for.’

I couldn’t agree more Brian. Looking forward to a Blessed drama this evening. 9pm BBC 1.


Lives of World War 1 project

Potton War Memorial

Potton War Memorial

The Lives of World War I project, which launched yesterday, uses modern crowdsourcing technology to collect historical data about First World War veterans.

Run by the Imperial War Museum, the website allows you or anyone else to enter information about First World War veterans, for others to see.

So, in a nutshell, today’s technology allows stories about yesterday’s people to be amassed for tomorrow.

You’ll need to be able to identify your veteran – so it would be helpful to know which regiment they served with or, even better, their regimental number. Once you’re sure you’ve found the right record, you can upload photos, stories and memories and family information about your ancestor.

The beauty of it is that this could lead to finding lost living relatives, and finding out more about the lives of veterans in your family through other people’s memories. The timing is great, as a lot of the stories and details are still in living memory, but not for long.

If you had any WWI soldiers, sailors, nurses or other service personnel in your family, take a look and join in at Lives of the First World War

The Leaving of Loughrea: An Irish Family in the Great Famine

I’ve Leaving of Loughrearecently enjoyed reading this book, researched and written by Stephen Lally. It’s a fascinating account of the Lally family in the area around the town of Loughrea in Galway. It is of particular relevance to me, because it’s about the family of my 4x great grandfather, Patrick Lally. But the combination of general Irish history, local Galway history and family history makes this an informative read for anyone interested in their Irish ancestors during the time of the famine.

Stephen Lally covers the social and political factors leading to the great famine, conditions for the poor in Loughrea, and gives vivid and detailed accounts of the journeys of Lallys out of Galway to America, Canada and Australia.

It shows how the story of one family can be used to illustrate the lives and times of many others, so if you’re tracing your Irish family history during the 1840s and 1850s, it’s well worth a read.

The book can be bought on Amazon at

Over-enthusiastic form-filling helps fill in the gaps

Filling in forms can be confusing and so mistakes creep in. Errors made on the forms for the 1911 census can still be seen today, and these can be very helpful to a family history researcher. In earlier censuses, forms completed by householders were copied into a summary book by an enumerator and the originals were destroyed, but in 1911 the originals were kept, showing the householder’s signature and any errors they made.

I recently came across a 1911 census return for John King of 18 Quinn’s Buildings, Essex Road, Islington who recorded the full addresses where each of his children had been born, not just the required name of the town and county.They were:

Jessie King, aged 15, bookbinder, born 52 Winslade Road, Clapton, London.

John Edward King, aged 13, born 105 Malborough Road, Holloway, London.

Elizabeth Rose King, aged 10, born 39 Canning Road, Finsbury, London.

Bert King, aged 5, born 5 Elton Road, Newington Green, London.

Florence King, aged 3, born 17 Quinns Buildings, Islington, London.

Such ‘errors’ are extremely useful for anyone tracing the family.

Other errors found in the 1911 census forms include widowers/widows giving details of how many years they were married and how many children they had, even though this was not required.

If an enumerator had copied out the forms, as they had in previous censuses, this information would not have been included and would have been lost to later researchers.


Who had an affair with the Squire of Clifton?

Noted from the parish registers of Emberton in Buckinghamshire (I wish they all held such juicy details)

Sarah Squelsh was buried on 12 May 1837, aged 89. The vicar noted in the margin that she ‘had two illegitimate children by Squire Small of Clifton’.

What a fabulous detail which a descendent would otherwise never know. Interesting surname too…

‘Hidden killers’ in your family’s history

I enjoyed this week’s episode of Hidden Killers (BBC 4, 9pm, Tuesday), about dangerous products invented and used in Edwardian times. What struck me was, in some cases, how long the dangers were known by manufacturers before the use of dangerous materials was stopped.

Len Collier

My Grandad, Len Collier, in the 1940s

With asbestos we were told the link to lung disease was recorded as early as 1899, and the first death attributed to asbestos was in 1906.

I can remember my grandfather telling me that when he worked as an engineer in London in the 1960s, making circuit breakers for the Aswan Dam, he worked with asbestos and would cycle home with his hair and moustache covered in it. As was usual for his generation, he made light of it.

He did have scars on his lungs and eventually died of lung cancer, but not until he was 90 years old. I guess he was one of the lucky ones.

It took until the 1980s for the use of asbestos to be completely banned in the UK.

Did your ancestors work with dangerous substances? Don’t forget to write down your family’s stories for future generations.