Geography & Family History

By Stanley Merridew

In tracing your ancestry obviously a grasp of history, historical dates and facts can be useful but it is worth taking into consideration that geography, economic geography in particular, plays just as an important part in our research.   Some researchers are fortunate in finding a family stayed in one parish for generations but they are in the minority.  For the majority our forebears flitted from place to place leaving no apparent trail.  

The reason was invariably to earn a living.  Go back as recent as the turn of the twentieth century and a huge percentage of the working population was employed in agriculture or domestic service.  All occupations within these categories were dependent upon the whims of their employer.  Both categories were often employed on an annual basis, taken on at hiring fairs, the like of which within our locality were held at Otley, Skipton, Ripon and possibly Hawes.  Normally when a family suddenly disappears from a parish we would look in adjacent parishes.  However an agricultural labourer or housemaid could be one year at say Adel, in September (the time hiring fairs were normally held) goes to Otley Fair and takes on a job at Addingham and the next year goes to Skipton Fair and ends up in Long Preston with a number of parishes between the first move and the second.

If they are producing children parish registers or non conformist registers will show baptisms.  Marriage entries may not help as by the time of the ceremony they are “of this parish”.  If they fell on hard times parish chest documents can prove invaluable where a settlement examination takes place to prove their parish of settlement so that their current parish can claim subsistence from their parish of settlement.   If they were employed on a large estate sometimes the records will contain wage records, normally found at County Record Offices and rarely explored by family historians.  This is very relevant to Yorkshire as much of the land formed part of large estates and the owners often had property elsewhere transferring workers from one area to another. Once the census came along clues are there with birthplaces of spouse and children.  A county parish map is invaluable to track down all possibilities and knowing all records that are available for each parish.

Where families crossed county boundaries, the same reasoning applies but with additional considerations.  From the middle of the eighteenth century new employment opportunities arose in the heavy industries of the north east, textiles and related trades in Yorkshire and Lancashire and a wide variety of industries in the Midlands.  Coal mining was spread across the north, the midlands, Scotland, Wales and often forgotten, North Kent.  Those involved in maritime trades frequently moved along the coast and sometimes long distances.  In Norfolk for instance many families came from or went to Grimsby, Hull, Newcastle, Sunderland and the east coast of Scotland.  The textile industry saw perhaps the biggest migration with families transferring from strong traditional areas such as East Anglia and the West Country with mechanisation thriving in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire.  Many of the leadmining families of Wharfedale came from other parts such as Swaledale, Derbyshire, Cornwall and some the coalmining regions.  Then, when leadmining waned, they went back to those areas or moved elsewhere.

The birth of the railways from the 1840s also created large scale migration with workers being transferred as new lines were launched.  Fortunately by this date the census begins to help with birthplaces.  Railway company records are huge but do regularly show employee records.  The original staff on the Otley & Ilkley Railway came mainly from Deryshire where they had been employed by the Midland Railway Company.  Unfortunately for us the railway companies had a habit of moving staff around their region.

Finding Adjacent Churches & Chapels

Genuki, a site many will know has many treasures, including a parish locater.  Go to “Gazetteer”, enter the place name and county, click on Find a Church” and it will list all possibilities within a three mile radius including non conformists and churches and chapels later than the ancient parishes  You can then click on “Plotted on a Google Map” and hey presto they all appear. 

Looking further afield, London has always proved a magnet.  Any quick scan of a census page for London shows individuals with a variety of origins.  However even in London there is often a pattern with East London drawing incomers from an arc of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Kent, whereas on the western side many are from Surrey, Berkshire and further afield.  Transit families would also the use the obvious routes, main roads.  Many years ago I analysed the population of Wetherby in the 1861 census and discovered a huge percentage of the population were born outside of Wetherby and its environs.  Of course the A1 ran through the middle and the majority of the strays had moved up or down the trunk route, for ease of transportimg what few chattels they possessed. 

For those with more adventurous ancestors who crossed oceans the internet has proved a real boon.  Census records for US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are now accessible to us.  They are always   worth checking if you are searching an unusual surname as you may find other strands of your family.   Ellis Island in New York, where all immigrants were processed, released their records from the 1890s and more records of arrivals in the former colonies are being released.  There is a database of those transported to Australia available online plus many passenger lists.

In this article I have only scratched the surface of many possibilities.  “”My Ancestors Moved” by Antony Camp, published by the Society of Genealogists will give a wider perspective and you may have your own theories you could share.  Often in family history you hit the “brick wall.”  It is often a question of looking at every possibility, sometimes from a different angle.  They didn’t choose to be elusive although sometimes it appears that way.