Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Using the York Cause Papers for Family History

As a family historian I’m always on the look-out for record collections that add some colour to the past lives I’m researching. Sources such as parish registers, general registration and census records are indispensable sources, but on their own they can only give a small number of clues to the life a person led. Sometimes that may be all you’re looking for, but I generally find that once you have an outline view, you become hungry to find more about the person. How did they live? What was their personality like? What did they do in their life? What were their beliefs? Who were their friends? How did they interact with others? What did they own? The list goes on…

Diocese of Church of England between the Reformation and the mid-19th century
Dioceses of the Church of England between the
Reformation and the mid-19th century
I recently had my eyes opened to the documents from the church courts of the Archbishop of York. Known as the York Cause Papers, these documents hold information on people mainly living in the Diocese of York, and the Northern Province and run from 1300 to 1858. The papers are well known and well used by academics researching church, legal and medieval history, but less so by family historians researching the lives of specific individuals or families. Certainly, I’d always felt a little intimidated at the prospect of delving into them and feared that I could spend a lot of time finding very little!

I was looking for a project subject for my studies at the University of Strathclyde, and Alexandra Medcalf from the Borthwick Institute showed me the papers for the cause of Hannah Willmott from Ellerburn. Hannah died in 1820 without leaving a will and had no immediate next of kin. Administrators carried out the initial distribution of her estate, but the scale of wealth she had inherited meant that lots of people started to come out of the woodwork, disputing the actions of her administrators and staking a claim to a share of the estate. The detail of Hannah’s cause deserves a blog post of its own, but what really challenged my preconceptions about Cause Papers were the records I found in this case: 5 detailed family trees, more than 60 “certified” copies of parish register entries and 30 witness testimonies giving vivid descriptions of individuals and events.

Images of part of a genealogical chart and copies of parish register entries, from the Hannah Willmott testamentary case
Examples of copies of parish register entries and an excerpt from a genealogical chart, TEST.CP.1820/3

With more than 15,000 causes and appeals in the overall collection, I suspected that there could be great potential locked into the records, so I had to find out more. The courts heard causes relating to probate, marriage, immorality, defamation and tithes, and I felt that the probate records could hold details of particular interest to a family historian. And so my project was launched!

I spent time building a high-level view of the entire Cause Paper catalogue, then looked in detail at a selection of testamentary (probate & administration) causes dated between 1733-1858. Here are some of the things I found in the causes I looked at:

A relatively large number of people can be found in the collection. Across the 100 causes I looked at in the catalogue, I found 720 named individuals. Causes most often involved only 2 participants, but some (admittedly exceptional) causes had more than 30 people involved. The average number of participants was 7 people per cause. Looking more broadly, and with 15,000 causes in the full collection, it means that there is the potential to find details for more than 30,000+ individuals (possibly up to 100,000). Although this is not a large number when compared to collections such as parish registers or census records, when considering the relatively humble background of those listed, and the periods covered, this is a significant collection.

The individuals came from a wide range of backgrounds. The occupations of people involved in causes were not just limited to legal or church officials. They also included producers (e.g. agricultural workers), manufacturers (e.g. clothing, food, construction), sellers and dealers, professionals and transport workers. This is great news for family historians, as biographical information about individuals from such a broad range of backgrounds is extremely scarce prior to the 1841 Census.

Table showing occuations for participants in testamentary causes
Occupations found for 50% of the 720 people named in testamentary catalogue sample
Most of the individuals came from Yorkshire. This was not really surprising, but given the complexity of church court jurisdictions (there were 372 active in England & Wales in 1832), it’s useful to know that I found 84% of participants came from Yorkshire (all Ridings). 13% came from elsewhere in the Northern Province (mostly Lancashire, Durham and Nottinghamshire), and 3% came from the Southern Province.

Heat map showing locations of testamentary cause participants
Heat map showing locations of testamentary cause participants

The depositions (witness testimonies) and case exhibits are generally the most useful documents. I looked at 20 causes in great detail and found more than 400 documents, across 1000 images. These documents contain a wide variety of facts and clues, some of which may not be available elsewhere, and this is where I found I could glean most information about a person’s character. Other records such as parish records, family trees, guardianship, debtor/creditor accounts, etc. may open up new lines of enquiry helping break through a brick wall.

Examples of documents in causes: an account of funeral costs from 1779 (TEST.CP.1779/2 p. 2)
and a sample of questions put to witnesses 1820 (TEST.CP.1820/3 p. 106)

The catalogue has a wide range of search terms. Many family historians will be searching for a person by name. Whilst the search allows for a search by name or variant, I’d love to see an enhancement to allow for a phonetic search. During the period of the records, names would have been spoken much more often than written, and given the rich variety of dialects across Yorkshire, a phonetic search would help to track individuals down. The search is not just limited by name. The cataloguing team have indexed a wide variety of terms, all of which can be searched in the advanced search. Places, occupations, dates, roles, sex, status are all indexed (where they appear on the source record), and while I did find a small number of inconsistencies, errors and omissions, this doesn’t in any way diminish the fantastic job the team did in compiling the catalogue.

The quality of online images is excellent. People familiar with attempting to read parish registers from digital versions of grainy, feint microfilm images, will be delighted with the quality of the images in the cause paper collection. I only found a couple of less than perfect images in the 1000 I looked at.

The records are (relatively) easy to read and understand. Armed with a basic understanding of court procedures, and a good reference book, the records were surprisingly easy to follow. The handwriting was generally clear, most records types were easy to identify, and the standard records were consistent in their structure. After 1733, English was the mandatory language, and I also found it used in many pre-1733 records. Those pre-1733 records written in Latin were harder to decode, but they were generally formulaic so once the record type had been identified, I found it possible to pull out keywords.

Having found all of these benefits, I also need to sound a word of caution which will be of no surprise to family history researcher. Always keep in mind the context of the records, don’t just take them at face value. These records were created in adversarial court cases, so there is a risk of bias and this needs to be taken into account before accepting what is written. This is made difficult on some occasions, where a cause did not have a full set of papers, making it harder to reconstruct the case and determine a record’s context. However, understanding the verdict and cross-referencing facts to other sources (e.g. newspaper accounts of proceedings) will help in this area. 

So is it worth the effort? Absolutely it is! The project team which created the online catalogue have created a fabulous, easy to access, free to use resource. Anyone researching a Yorkshire tyke living between 1300 and 1858 should have this on their list to check and may well tap into a rich seam of information that will bring real colour to their research.

The catalogue of York Cause Papers can be found at here, with images (where they are not linked directly through the catalogue) here

To get a deeper understanding of the records, the following are invaluable sources of information:
  • The Cause Papers Research Guide.
  • Tarver, Anne. (1995) Church Court Records: An introduction for family and local historians. Chichester, England: Phillimore.
  • Withers, Colin Blanshard. (2006) Yorkshire probate. 1st edition. Bainton, England: Yorkshire Wolds Publication.

This blog was written by Paul Wainwright, a volunteer at the Borthwick Institute working on the Retreat Letters Project . Paul is a student on the University of Strathclyde's MSc in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies and a student member of the Register of Qualified Genealogists

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