01 January 2008

Okanagan Researcher: Claires British Studies Tour

Okanagan Researcher, Vol. 16 (2), December 1999


Claire's British Studies Tour,

to England, July 1 to 23, 1999


Claire Smith-Burns

BIGHR Tours, Samford University:


My British Genealogical Tour was organized by Samford University's British Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (BIGHR) in Birmingham, AL. It is open to anyone with serious genealogical interests; the Institute also offers genealogical credit courses throughout the year. The seventeen participants on my tour were from Vermont, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Washington, Georgia and BC (three). Various options are usually offered on this annual trip. The tour focuses on different regions of Britain each summer: i.e. Summer 1999 was the English West Country counties; Summer 2000 will be Ireland; Summer 2001 will be Scotland. For more information check the BIGHR Website: www.samford.edu/schools/ighr/ighr.html , or contact Jean Thomason, Director, Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, Samford University Library, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL USA 35229. Prices for my tour varied from $2250 to $3300 USD; I received a reduction of $700 USD as I made my own air travel arrangements. The Summer 2000 Irish trip ranges from $1500 to $3600 USD.

The tour is based in London and stays at Daniel House in Kensington. Daniel House is owned by Samford University. It is six stories high (counting the basement) and is divided up into small, Spartan, dormitory-style rooms - some single, some double (bunks), some quadruple, all with cupboards, drawers, a desk and sink. Each floor shares one toilet and shower. I was on the fifth floor and there were 80 stairs from my room to the Breakfast Room. Fitness is desirable, if not required! There are several public sitting areas, a public phone, laundry facilities, a study/lecture hall, several computers, TV Room, Kitchen, Breakfast Room, and public refrigerator. A buffet breakfast is provided and one is welcome to prepare simple meals.

Daniel House is well situated. There are a number of hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and deli's very near by. It is two short blocks from the Gloucester Road subway station and bus stops. Kensington Palace and Gardens, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Natural Sciences are all within walking distance. The London branch of the LDS Family History Centre is nearby and the beautiful Kensington Library which is the repository for the London library system's genealogy collection is a short bus ride away. The BIGHR tour included a London transit pass valid for tube and bus travel within Zone 1 and a first-class BritRail Pass. So getting around couldn't be easier.

There is a Research Leader (Sherry Irvine was ours; David Rencher will lead the 2000 tour) and a Director on the tour (Jean Thomason, Director of the Samford University Library always manages the tours). Jean is a wonderful person who quietly trouble-shoots any problems and ensures that each participant gets the most out of their BIGHR experience. I just loved her "Southern" mannerisms: it was easy to get used to being addressed as "Miss Claire." As well, there were several members of the tour who are veterans of this program and they were also full of tips and advice. Most of the tour members were fairly advanced genealogists so it was a great opportunity to learn - a kind of "genealogical immersion!"

Although there were several "free" days, in actuality every minute is organized to make the most of every opportunity. Sherry Irvine is extremely well organized and an expert on London (having grown up there). She herded us around with great efficiency. Of course, you are always free not to go with the group. The BIGHR tour is well established and respected and we received special handling at every research repository. Our research leader was always available for on-site help and one-to-one guidance. She provided a series of lectures in the evenings and even brought in a director from the Corporation of London Archives one evening for a fascinating talk on the "Freedom of London." In addition, many guided side-trips were squeezed in, such as a visit to one of the largest map-stores in the world, antiquarian bookstore browsing (Sherry knew where all the good bookstores were), cathedral tours, a short visit to the National Gallery, tour of the Museum of London, trip to Needham Market to attend a Genealogy Fair, etc. Time was truly at a premium but with good planning tour members also took in concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, musicals, cathedral services, museum tours, bus tours, Thames cruises and train trips all over the countryside. As the tour offers several options, it is possible to customize your trip to suit your requirements.

The basic tour included your room and breakfast at Daniel House for the duration of the trip. There was an option to travel with the research leader and director to Exeter for the middle week, where the group stayed in student residences at the University of Exeter (these were quite luxurious) and visited various repositories in and near Exeter. I opted to meet the group in Exeter for two days but to then travel with a distant cousin up to York and several points in between. Jean Thomason graciously accommodated my special request and worked out a price for me.

For months before the tour, I received by email and post, detailed information about the tour, preparatory information from Sherry Irvine along with websites to check out and email addresses for the other participants so that we could be in touch and chat about issues like currency and clothing.

Repositories Visited in London:

London LDS Family History Centre: This is a long but easy walk from Daniel House (20 min.); we received a brief tour from the Director of the Centre. The London FHC has a good collection of films regarding London in their permanent collection. They also have on microfiche the complete indexes for the English Births, Deaths and Marriages since 1838.

Society of Genealogists: There is a fee for non-members to use this facility - one visit was paid for through our tour. We were met by one of the head librarians and given a lecture and tour of the facility then were free to use it until closing. This is an extremely cramped but comprehensive repository. It has several unique collections like the Bernau Index of PRO Court documents, Boyd's "Inhabitants of London," Rogers Collection on Cornwall, Snell Collection on Berkshire, Campling Collection on Norfolk, Macleod Collection on Scottish families, Surname Document Collection, Dwelly Index of West Country material, Whitehead Index of East Anglian references, Fawcett Index of Clergy and North Country families, etc. Housed on several stories, the collection is roughly broken into three categories: Place, Surname and Subject (i.e. Heraldry, Religion, Armed Forces, Schools and Universities). Although the collection mainly focuses on English research, they also have a good collection of Scottish and Irish records and a representative collection on the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The ground floor houses several card indexes, the microfilm and microfiche collection, and the wonderful bookshop. Membership is fairly steep but it includes their quarterly periodical and free use of the library so if you're planning a trip to London, it may be worthwhile. The facility is mainly staffed by volunteers so quality of help varies. I visited the SOG twice while in London. They have a useful website detailing their collection and publications: www.sog.org.uk/.

Family Records Centre: Not to be confused with the LDS FHC. This new government facility houses the part of the Public Records Office that was formerly at Chancery Lane, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and a very good genealogical bookshop. Admission is free but security is very strict. We were given a lecture and tour but had the unfortunate luck to arrive on a hot, sticky day when the air conditioning had broken down. The staff were in a panic and several had fainted and were going home as the building was stifling. Needless to say, these conditions did not deter the hoards of visitors (genealogists are a very tough bunch); if they had dared announce that they were closing the facility, they would have had a riot on their hands!

At the ONS on the main floor, one can use the giant index volumes on open shelves to look up births, deaths and marriages since 1838. Once found, a form is filled in and you can order the records at the bank of cashier wickets. The cost of �6 per certificate includes postage to Canada (or you can pick up the record in about a week). The ONS website is: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/registration/default.asp. Downstairs is a large locker room, washrooms, vending machines with sandwiches, etc. and a large lunchroom. On the second floor are housed all the English census films and related indexes; indexes to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and microfilms of the original wills, inventories, administrations and probate; the PRO collection of Nonconformist Registers; rows of microfilm and fiche readers, photocopiers and helpful FRC staff. I visited this repository twice while in London. More information, including research leaflets, can be had through their website: http://www.pro.gov.uk/.

Kensington Library: Besides being the designated genealogical library for the Greater London system, the Kensington Library is the custodian of an excellent local history collection for Kensington and Chelsea. We had a most informative talk by the two local history librarians and access to the local history and genealogy computer database. Useful materials include: the British Biographical Database on microfiche, the British Record Indexing Society volumes indexing English wills, Harleian Society publications, Victoria County Histories, Illustrated London News, Index to the Gentleman's Quarterly, etc. It is free to use the library but the Local Studies and Genealogy section has limited opening hours (a great amount of material is stored in the basement or locked cabinets, rather than on open shelves).

Guildhall Library: As its name implies, this library is the repository for all records to do with London Guilds but there is also much more. We received an informative but lengthy lecture and tour by the Chief Librarian. The Guildhall Library Manuscript Section is also the repository for records relating to the City of London (Corporation of London records are held in the Corporation of London Record Office [CLRO], located next door) including parish registers, tax, probate and court records. Records go back to the 11th Century. It also has a huge library collection representing Greater London and other counties of England, including directories from 1677, poll registers, indexes to various newspapers, etc. It holds all the publications for all the English record and historical societies! The IGI, 1881 Census Index and the CD-ROM index to the Times of London are also available. The Prints and Maps Section has prints, drawings, photographs, maps and ephemera relating to London. Some of this collection is available on-line through the Collage website: http://collage.nhil.com/. The library materials are on a computer catalogue. The manuscript collection is mainly catalogued through a card index. This is a fairly new facility located next to the old London Guildhall. There is an excellent bookshop at the Guildhall Library. For more information, check their website:
http://ihr.sas.ac.uk/gh/.

Public Record Office, Kew: Here is a vast treasure-house of information. The Public Record Office (PRO) Kew is located outside of London in Richmond (towards Heathrow Airport). It is an impressive building surrounded by a huge pond and gardens and is close to the famous Kew Gardens. Again, security is very tight. Always be sure to bring your Passport and the full address and telephone number of your residence in London with you to all repositories as you may need this information to obtain a reader's pass. Purses, backpacks, fanny packs, binders and books must all be stored in lockers. We had an informative lecture and tour at the PRO Kew and the staff were very helpful. Documents here are records of central government - i.e. Army and Navy, Colonial Office, Exchequer (taxes of various sorts), Civil Courts, Criminal Courts, etc.
There are several research areas: the Reference Room with shelves of finding aids, Calendars describing the collections, research leaflets, and several computer catalogues; the main Reading Room where you order your documents and are given a pager that indicates your assigned reading table and when your document is ready for pick-up. For large documents and maps, you are usually directed to the Large Document Reading Room that also houses British Military Records. There is a good computer database to Soldier's Discharge Papers, 1760-1854 in this room. There is also a large library of periodicals and other materials of use to British historical researchers (the book I requested could not be located!!). On the main floor are the lockers, a large bookshop of genealogical and historical materials, washrooms and a cafeteria-style lunchroom. The PRO Kew catalogues (Calendars) are now accessible on-line: www.pro.gov.uk - click on the "Search" icon to get to the catalogues.

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (HMC): Located in Quality Court near the old Public Records Office at Chancery Court, this facility holds the key that may unlock important family information for you. They are the keepers of: the National Register of Archives (NRA), UK Archival Gateway (ARCHON) and the Manorial Documents Register (MDR). We were given a very informative lecture by a young archivist. In this little facility is amassed finding aids on archival collections for most repositories in the United Kingdom. A computer database, which is also accessible on-line, helps you discover materials which may be of interest to you. From there, an NRA number indicates the finding aid volume in the Reading Room which details that particular collection. This organization also keeps the register for Manorial Documents, many of which are in private hands. The Manorial Documents catalogues for Wales, all three Yorkshire ridings, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are now on-line but it may be years before the entire catalogue of manorial documents is posted. ARCHON is an informative on-line service that lists details on archives throughout the UK and other useful data. The HMC has a small number of publications for sale. To access the various databases, go to the HMC website at: www.hmc.gov.uk/main.htm.

House of Lords Library: Needless to say, security was tight for this library which is located in one of the towers of the famous Parliament Buildings. We listened to a short lecture in the top of the tower while sitting around a table full of ancient documents and scrolls. The place was like a maze and had what must be the world's smallest public elevator ("Max. 8 persons" said the sign but we were squashed with only three). Here, one finds parliamentary records and documents like the Protestation Returns, Enclosure of Common Lands and many records relating to Estates. Several of our group stayed on to do research. Visit their website at: http://www.parliament.uk/.

British Library Newspaper Library: Located in St. Pancras, on the out-skirts of London, this was probably the most interesting lecture and tour we received. It was fascinating to be taken through the "back-rooms" of this facility to see the newspapers being preserved, microfilmed, bound and stored. We were even allowed to "run loose" in the stacks and pull volumes for a few minutes. The BL Newspaper collection includes newspapers, journals and periodicals from all parts of Britain and on all topics - just think of some obscure interest and there is sure to be a journal devoted to it! The Library also collects newspapers from all over the world, and is especially strong on the Commonwealth countries. The downside is that it is not particularly user-friendly. Our group all requested material but only two of us received our documents after waiting almost two hours and reading space is limited. There is a card catalogue and some finding aids in bound volumes. There is also a library of relevant material and some newspaper indexes on open shelves. Much of the collection has not been microfilmed so the researcher is often reading through original newspapers which is a great nostalgic treat.

British Library (BL): This famous repository was a bit of a disappointment. The building is new and quite striking, especially as it stands in front of an ornate Victorian building - the contrast is astounding. Inside are a lovely book and gift shop, thematic displays, artwork and several public facilities. Unfortunately, the library was not prepared for our group's arrival (someone on their staff had got the date wrong) and we therefore could not gain admittance to the Reading Room (there was quite a long line up for admission with only so many allowed in at a time). The British Library actually discourages public use and is known as a library of "last resort." As well as Library materials, the BL houses the former British Museum manuscript collection - I had wanted to see my seventh Great-grandfather's letters and notes but this was not to be. The BL catalogues and other interesting information are on-line at: http://portico.bl.uk/.

Repositories Visited Outside of London:

Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Canterbury: I opted out of this day-trip but those who went greatly enjoyed themselves, including the lovely lunch hosted by the Institute. Also in Canterbury are the Cathedral Archives and the Huguenot Archives.

Dorset County Record Office, Dorchester: I visited this RO on a Saturday morning. I made my microfilm reader reservation over the Internet and was able to cover a lot of territory during the three hours the repository was open on Saturdays. The staff was fairly helpful and I was thrilled to hold original Churchwarden Account Books in my hands. The catalogue is all on cards with several bound Finding Aids to the Dorset Parishes. With some help from the archivist, I was able to find my way around without any problems. In the Reading Room are printed volumes of Parish Registers, Bishop's Transcripts and other related materials on open shelves. There are also Surname Files maintained which could prove very useful (I didn't get lucky, of course). All archives require you to use good archival etiquette when handling original documents so be sure to apprise yourself of the rules. I had some photocopying done and these documents were promptly mailed to me in Canada with an invoice.

West Country Studies Library, Exeter: I visited this library with the Exeter contingent of the BIGHR tour. We received an informative, if harried, lecture and were set loose to research. Much of the collection is on a computer database designed by the Chief Librarian. The Burnet Morris Index is a unique slip-index to Devon references - the handwritten paper slips are often illegible and Heaven help you if you drop a drawer and get them all mixed up!! The Devon and Cornwall Record Society (DCRS) has a reading room here but you must buy a membership in order to consult their publications (you can use the printed volumes free at the Guildhall Library) and manuscript indexes; the West Country Studies Library computer database includes the DCRS materials.

Devon County Record Office, Exeter: This RO is housed in the same building as the West Country Studies Library. It is a fairly cramped facility with card catalogues to the various manuscript collections and a crowded microfiche reading room (most of the parish registers are on fiche). The parish register fiche collection is self-serve which speeds up the process somewhat. The staff here were not particularly helpful but they did have a fair crowd to deal with. There are a few publications for sale.

Northamptonshire County Record Office, Northampton: This facility is located on the outskirts of Northampton and proved a little hard to find on the first visit. The collection is excellent but it is accessed only through card indexes and some bound Finding Aids - no computerization here! Over the years, zealous archivists have created many types of indexes to Marriage Licenses, Poor Law Records, Wills and Administrations, Surnames, Town Records, Places, etc. These indexes are stuffed onto every available shelf space, some in flimsy cardboard drawers and piled on top of each other. There are microfilm and fiche readers available and Parish Registers have all been microfiched. The Parish Register fiche sets are available for purchase. Manuscript documents are ordered in the Reading Room (not between 12 and 2, of course, while the staff stops for lunch!!). This is a spacious room with large tables; the walls house the library collection of published materials on the county and printed parish register indexes, transcripts and Bishop's Transcripts in bound volumes. I did find that the handling of precious ancient materials (I handled huge land deeds on velum complete with seals dangling from the 16th Century, bound volumes of town records on parchment from the 16th Century and folded, grubby settlement certificates from the 18th Century) was very casual - no cotton gloves, weights or foam props were issued. In contrast, photocopying is regarded as blasphemous - the only alternatives are to copy things out laboriously by hand or to hire a photographer at great cost.

I visited this facility twice, I had requested a collection before my first visit and it was waiting for me upon my arrival. Another collection I requested could not be found and it was thought to be part of a large load of materials being worked on by their Chief Archivist. When she died several years ago, the material was all boxed up and has been sitting in a warehouse since! I had ordered a huge amount of photocopying on my first visit that was to be mailed to me with an invoice. My second visit was spontaneous but upon my arrival, the archivist asked if I was the same Claire Smith-Burns who had placed a photocopy order, if so, they had my documents ready. So I was able to pay for them and take them with me which made for great reading on the plane trip home. There is a small sitting room where one can consume food and beverages and a beverage vending machine. It would be wise to bring food with you as there are no restaurants or stores close by.

General Hints and Tips:

  •  Travel as light as possible - this makes travelling by Tube and Train easier.
  • Wear comfortable, practical clothes and bring two pairs of good walking shoes - I never did so much walking on a daily basis in my life!
  • You do not need dressy clothes - EVERYTHING is casual. Layered clothing can take you through all types of weather and temperatures.
  • I was warned that Traveler's Cheques are not always accepted so I went with only some cash and my Visa (best rate of exchange). I used my Visa for cash advances.
  • I brought a small backpack with me that accommodated my camera, notebooks, pencils, cardigan, had room for small purchases, bag lunch, etc. Most people had carry bags but I enjoyed being "hands free."
  • I kept my money and valuable documents in a small pocketbook that I wore slung around my neck - it really was ideal; I brought a money belt but never used it.
  • Buy stamps at a post office as booklets at grocery stores usually do not come in the correct denominations and the clerks have no idea how much it costs to mail a postcard to Canada.
  • It is easy and relatively cheap to pick up a variety of meals to go at most grocery stores; try to keep some food with you as it may come in handy.
  • Buy a small London A-Z book as soon as you arrive in England or before (Chapters does not carry them but several versions are available in London); this book is indispensable for maps, Tube Stations, Bus Routes, etc.
  • Buy all your film in Canada before you leave - film in England is very expensive; it's better to take too many photos than not enough!
  • Be very careful crossing streets - we tend to look the wrong way! Most London crosswalks have "Look Right" written on the pavement!
  • It is not a good idea to rent a car, especially in the cities - the rules of the road are quite different, round-abouts are everywhere and, of course, they drive on the wrong side! Good public transit exists to almost everyplace.
  • England comes to a grinding halt on Sundays, especially outside of London; be prepared as it can be difficult to obtain food (I had to go without lunch AND dinner one Sunday!!) and transportation.
  • Try to make arrangements ahead of time if travelling to one of your ancestor's churches; most are locked and it may be difficult to find someone who can let you in; Sundays are best; historically important churches in larger towns are generally open for at least part of most days.
  • Be security conscious: never leave windows open (not even a crack) in hotels and always lock your door; never leave valuables where they can be seen through a hotel-room window; never keep valuables in back pockets or jacket pockets - secure them close to your body where you can see them; leave valuable jewelry at home; be extremely careful at night and in crowded places.
  • Displaying a Canadian flag (on your backpack or as a lapel pin) can be beneficial - most Brit's consider our accent to be American and they generally aren't particularly fond of Americans.
  • British rail timetables are available through the Internet (be aware that there are many different companies operating British rail lines): www.rail.co.uk/ukrail/planner/planner.htm. Virgin Trains are great - try to take them whenever possible.

Research Hints and Tips:

  • Although I brought binders of information with me, I only took a coil-bound notebook with thick cardboard covers (to give support when writing in unaccommodating circumstances) and a few relevant notes into research repositories - most archives limit severely what you can bring in with you but provide lockers to store your excess.
  • Bring lots of pencils as most repositories only allow pencils - many do not allow erasers.
  • Laptop computers are okay in most facilities but they can be stolen and you must get special plugs, etc.; also they are heavy to carry around.
  • Keep a stash of 20p and �1 coins for lockers
  • Take a good current map of the country plus maps of your research areas showing parishes, towns, etc.
  • Don't try to do too much when you are there - pick two family lines (a main one and an alternate) and focus your research on those.
  • When possible, try to order manuscript collections ahead of your visit; this can save you valuable time.
  • Don't waste your time looking at records which are easily available here (i.e. most Parish Registers and Census records are available through the LDS); do your homework before coming to England).
  • Some records I found to be very useful were:
    • Poor Law Records and Churchwardens Accounts; most of these have not been filmed but many are on manuscript indexes at local Record Offices.
    • Wills, Administrations and Inventories: I only looked at pre-1858 records (the system was changed after this date) for the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Consistory Courts and Archdeaconry Courts for counties relevant to my research; many will abstracts and indexes have been compiled by the British Record Indexing Society (these volumes are available at some Canadian libraries) and by the local County Record Offices.