My first experience with an “ancient” record

In all the years I have studied history or family history I had never really experienced up close and personal what real old documents looked, felt or even smelled like.  I have mostly seen them in books, microfilm, the internet and on Television.  For most of my life that was as close as I had ever got.

When I was 30 I decided to move to Wales, it was not a snap decision, it was one made after a year of consideration and prayer.  As well my wife and I discussed it a lot and agonized over it.  She worried tremendously about it and I felt driven by what I would call the holy spirit, that I needed to go. 

This was at a time when my life was not set, my job prospects were minimal and I knew that this was not going to change easily.  Meanwhile in the UK I was told getting a job would be a snap.  At the time the economy in Britain was very good and my ability to emigrate was easy as I had UK citizen grandparents.

So long story short that was how I came to be in a small town called Aberystwyth in central part of Wales.  In this small community was a tiny branch of the church.  It also had a University which at the time I wanted to attend and a really nice view of the Irish Sea.  The key point was this place had the National Library of Wales, with a massive archive of every county in Wales, their family history records, all sorts of things.  For a history nerd like myself it was heaven on earth.

While I was there I did some research on my family history in Wales.  During that time I knew next to nothing other than sketchy ways of doing research but thankfully I found that one house appeared to get passed Matriarchally through my family line.  The way I initially found this was through the census.  My first real education was working with those.

Then realizing I was not getting far I asked to see the local information on the area, Rhiw in this case.  It turns out they kept a copy of the Bishops’ Transcripts.  Not knowing exactly what that meant I started to see if they were on microfilm, they were not.  Instead I was told they had only had hard copies.  They took me to a room, allowing me a pencil and my paper and nothing else and asked me to put a number on my desk and wait.

About ten minutes later, they brought me a shoe box tied with a bit of string, I kid you not.  So I opened the string and in this wide “shoe box” was the entire Bishops’ transcripts for the parish in Rhiw.  Old pieces of paper stretching to the 1600s all collected in a shoe box.  It was fascinating.

the 1800s documents were perfect, written in easy to read, flowing script tabular format.

Name —- event —- where —- parents —- year

They would log all christenings, funerals and weddings.  This period of record keeping stretched back easily showing me who was born in this house I had found, confirming the census and giving me much more of the personal details in ways I could not have imagined.

So as I found these I continued to look through these transcripts.  Going in the 1700s the script was smaller and more confined, now instead of tables it was paragraphs.  The paragraphs as you got farther and farther back had less and less clarity.  Suddenly sentences would read:

Robert Evins married eva Jones pwllheli buried Anne Jones daughter of Jane and Mark Thomas son born James Jones to Margrit and Henry Fronoleau James Jones married Mary Morgan daughter of Fredrick and Mary Price. 

Not an easy read. 

Then suddenly about 30 years back of 1800 the pages went form legal size to about the size of a larger memo pad.  Things were in gold or brown as the ink was starting to wear down.  The paragraphs became almost full sheets.  It was to say the least a risky venture.  And as I read this I came to appreciate how those who scowered notes like this as historians must puzzel out the strange spellings, the script that can include unrecognizable terms and yet still come out of it far more educated than when they started.

It is and impressive achievement.  And that was my first experience with honest to goodness old records.  To put it bluntly.  It was fabulous and I loved every minute of it.

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2 Responses to My first experience with an “ancient” record

  1. You didn’t describe the smell! C’mon, give it a try.

    Great article, great description, and although I seldom get to handle anything as old as your Transcript (you lucky research dog, you), I share your enthusiasm for The Real Thing.

  2. Jon W says:

    Smell, well it would be of hmm kind of hard to describe really.

    At the end of the last semester I got to hold some 500 year old books that were very neat and definately had a unique combination of an inky smell combined with faint leather.

    So there you go 😉

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