Category Archives: Historical records

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.

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.


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.


I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.

‘A picturesque and amusing document’

From 1810 Huntingdon Quarter Sessions, HRO

Articles of Peace exhibited by Joseph Thorpe and Sarah his wife, of Holywell with Needingworth against Thomas Jones of Holywell for threatening language. “I would not mind killing you (meaning the Exhibitant) no more than I would the worst Vermin as crawls – I would wring your (meaning this Exhibitant) Neck as I would a Crow….. tomorrow is the Jubilee and we mean to have a large Bonfire and a Stake drove down in the middle and we shall tie you (meaning this Exhibitant) to that Stake and burn you (meaning this Exhibitant) to ashes and it will be ten times hotter than Hell.”

Description of ‘a picturesque and amusing document’ in Huntingdonshire Archives, reference HCP/1/5. Looks well worth a read!