Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Saturday, 14 April 2012

A Dwindling Brood - Family Size

A Dwindling Brood

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]

‘My grandfather was one of eight’ or ‘my great-grandmother brought up twelve children single-handedly:’ these are the common boasts of family history. Such tales of prodigious fertility abound, of course, because families were indeed considerably larger in the nineteenth century than they were later to become. Statistics derived from censuses bear this out. As one historian, Eilidh Garrett, puts it: ‘among those married women born between 1851 and 1855, over one third experienced at least seven live births and as many as 15 % had ten or more confinements during the course of their lives.’

The reasons for large families were numerous. In the religious climate of the early nineteenth century, it was widely believed that birth control was against the will of God. Some thought that if contraception were more readily available, it would encourage sexual immorality and even prostitution. On top of this, it was commonly believed that the use of contraceptives might adversely affect women’s health causing illnesses as varied as cancer, sterility and madness. In addition, with Britain’s increasing industrial prosperity came better nutrition and better health resulting in a sharp decrease in child mortality.

The result of all this, of course, was large – even massive – families. Some of the nineteenth centuries best-known public figures came from large families. Alfred Lord Tennyson (later Poet Laureate) (b. 1809) was the fourth of ten children; the later Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli (b.1804) and William Ewart Gladstone (b. 1809) were one of five and six children respectively. The naturalist, Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, who married in 1838, had ten children as did the writer Charles Dickens who married Catherine Hogarth in 1837.

And others went further. Lord Lyttleton, (1817-1876) British aristocrat and Conservative MP, had eight sons and four daughters by his first marriage and a further three daughters by his second marriage. Elizabeth Dorling, the mother of Mrs Beeton, had seventeen children, giving birth to her last at the age of 47 (she was also stepmother to four more!). Maria Edgeworth – the novelist and children’s writer – was one of 22 children (albeit by four different mothers).

But by the last three decades of the nineteenth century, all this had started to change. By comparing information from the ten yearly census returns, historians have proved that – in general terms – British families really did shrink after 1870.

Whilst there was great variation in the way family size changed in different parts of Britain at different times, some generalisations can be made. In the decades immediately following 1837 (the start of Civil Registration), the crude birth rate was roughly 32 to 37 babies per thousand people per year. However, in the 1870s, this figure started to fall dramatically. By 1911, there were just over 25 babies born per thousand people per year and by 1930, the number was just 15 per thousand.

Why did some families get smaller after 1870?

If you know something of your family’s circumstances in the late nineteenth century, you may be able to make an educated guess as to the particular reasons for the changing size of their families. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Social Class

On the whole, poorer families tended to be larger than middle- and upper-class families by the end of the nineteenth century. It would seem that those higher up the social scale were sometimes more willing to limit the size of their families in order to be able to afford a better lifestyle and to provide those children that they did have with a better private education

2. Community Ethos

The size of your family will probably have reflected the size of other families around them in their community. It will have depended on where exactly they lived in Britain and what they did for a living. Families from mining or heavy industry backgrounds (in Lancashire, for example) tended to be large in every generation right up to the end of the nineteenth century. For them, it was useful to have many children who could ultimately bring in a wage. But it would be wrong to assume that low paid jobs and large family size went hand-in-hand. In mill towns, such as Bolton, for example, where there were many women in the labour force, fertility rates among the working classes were generally low.

  1. Religious Belief

Your ancestor’s religion might well have had a bearing on the number of his or her children. Catholic families tended to be large because birth control of any kind was strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church. Methodism, on the other hand, preached self-restraint which was sometimes interpreted as sexual abstinence. Quakers were one group who married particularly late and consequently had noticeably lower fertility than other groups.

  1. Availability of Birth Control

By the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards birth control were changing. This is not to say that contraception was actively promoted, but there were certainly more books and pamphlets on the subject. Methods of birth control included:

- Natural - abstinence, prolonged lactation (breastfeeding) and coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method).

- Barrier - condoms made (after 1843) from vulcanised rubber, cervical caps, syringes and soluble pessaries. After 1930, latex condoms, caps and diaphragms were used.

- Abortion - herbal remedies containing abortificents such as rat poison, gin and gunpowder, were widely advertised in nineteenth-century newspapers as a means of procuring a miscarriage (‘removing obstinate obstructions’). From 1837, the law expressly forbade abortion at any stage during pregnancy (as opposed to after quickening – or when foetal movement could be felt). However, there is no doubt that many abortions took place.

5.     Fear of Childbirth

In the late nineteenth century, there was an alarming increase in maternal mortality or death in childbirth. It is possible that the evident dangers of childbirth put some women off increasing the size of their families. Each instance of childbirth was dangerous because there was always the possibility of mothers catching puerperal fever and dying. This awful eventuality was almost certainly caused by poor hygiene on the part of doctors who passed on infections from diseased patients to expectant mothers. The problem particularly affected middle-class mothers since it was among this sector of society that doctors had taken over from midwives in the traditional matter of childbirth.

Top Tip

If you are able to look at the 1911 Census, you will be treated to further information about your family size. Sometimes known as ‘The Fertility Census,’ this asked householders to enumerate how many children had been born alive during a marriage and how many children had survived. 

The number of children in a household was probably the most significant factor in your ancestors’ lives. Imagine how it affected the amount of living space they had, their levels of health, nutrition and hygiene, the constraints on their income, the relationships between older and younger family members and, in particular, how it dominated the life experiences of married women. It may never become clear whether having many or only a few children was a matter of economic imperative, community ethos, maternal health or personal choice in your family. But the changing shape of your family in the past is a fascinating subject and definitely one worthy of investigation.

Useful books

Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, OUP, 2006.

E Garrett, et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, 1891 –1911, CUP, 2006

J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning Among the Victorian Middle Classes, Gregg Revivals, 1993.

Angus McLaren, Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England, Croom Helm, 1978.

Useful Websites   Access to the 1911 ‘Fertility’ census.    History of abortion in Britain and around the world. History of contraceptive methods and practices.

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, England, family size, population, demographics

Family Records: Death Certificates (and where to go next)

Ways To Go: Death Certificates

Ten methods you can use to find out more about your ancestor’s death
[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]

You have your ancestor’s death certificate, but what do you do next? The internet can help you find out a great deal more about your ancestor’s death providing you know the right questions to ask and the right places to look.

  1. What exactly was the cause of death?

According to her death certificate, my great aunt, Lillie Symes, died on 15 January 1894 at the age of thirteen months from  ‘pertussis’ (more commonly known as whooping cough) and broncho-pneumonia. Your ancestor’s death certificate will give you the cause of death in medical language. For a layman’s translation of medical terminology, try using an online medical dictionary such as Archaic medical terms for diseases can be investigated at:

  1. Where did my ancestor die? 

The death certificate will give the address of the place where your ancestor died. In many cases, like that of Lillie Symes, this will have been at home. Lillie died at 29 Llanfair Street, Ancoats, Manchester – a poor, industrial district of the great city. There are numerous websites that can give you more historical information about the town, county and region from which your ancestor came. Try entering the relevant place name at or Local history societies can provide more detailed information about specific areas, see
If your ancestor died in hospital, it may be possible (in a small number of cases) to find out more. The Historic Hospitals Admissions Records Project at, for example, is a free online database of admissions to various childrens’ hospitals in London and Glasgow between 1852 and 1914. At this site, you may be lucky enough to see your ancestor’s full handwritten case notes, as well as dates of admittance. If your ancestor died in the workhouse or other institution, you should check the website of the National Archives to see whether any records exist for those institutions and, if so, where they are kept.

  1. How (and for how long) did my ancestor suffer?

According to the medical website, Lillie Symes’ illness may have developed over weeks and perhaps months. An ordinary cough would have developed into intense bouts of coughing – paroxysms of one or two minutes duration in which the little child would have gone red, her body tense, her eyes bulging. She may have had up to a hundred bouts of coughing a day, each one ending in a desperate attempt to take in a breath and with it (probably, though not necessarily) the infamous, dreadful ‘backdraw’ or whoop.

There are now websites dedicated to describing the symptoms of most diseases. Simply google the name of the disease in which you are interested. Alternatively, the following general NHS site is very useful and can be searched by disease at

  1. Was there an epidemic at the time?

A general search on the internet under the terms ‘whooping cough’ and ‘epidemic’ informed me that in the nineteenth century, epidemics of the disease came every three or four years in Britain. Some sources suggest that eight in ten children in the period had whooping cough before they were five. In Scotland alone in the year before Lillie’s death, 131 children died from whooping cough in the month of April and 145 in May.

If your ancestor died from a serious contagious disease such as typhus or cholera, check to see if there was an epidemic at the time of his or her death. You can see a timeline of epidemic diseases in the UK at Ireland faced a typhus epidemic in 1817-19 (for example) and there were outbreaks of cholera in London in 1832-3 and 1853-4.. Graveyards with large collections of gravestones from the same year might indicate that there was an epidemic of some kind as might parish burial registers with many entries close together. Local libraries may also have information about the timing of outbreaks of certain diseases in the locality.

  1. Was a vaccine available?

If the disease was infectious, check to see whether or not immunisation was available at the time of your ancestor’s death. Useful websites include and The fact that a vaccine existed at a certain time  does not, of course, mean that your ancestor will have had access to it but having this information can give you an idea of how common or uncommon the cause of your ancestor’s death was.

Unfortunately for her, Lillie Symes’ death preceded the discovery of the whooping cough bacterium (‘Bordatella pertussis’) by twelve years. It was not until 1948-1954 that a vaccine was tested by scientists from the Whooping Cough Immunisation Committee of the Medical Research Council and then made available. Prior to its introduction by the NHS in 1957, whooping cough was still affecting approximately 100,000 people a year in England and Wales.

  1. What pharmaceutical treatments were around?

Find out how a doctor might have treated your ancestor. The website of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society can be searched by the name of the disease and gives information about medications including embrocations, liniments, and inhalations at different points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries etc. Remember that pharmaceutical treatment was only possible for the better off of our ancestors.

Despite the fact that it was widely acknowledged that there was ‘no specific cure for whooping cough and that no drug could check the onset nor stop the progress of the disease’ there were a large number of embrocations, liniments and inhalants available on the market at the time of Lillie’s death. These included Bevington’s drops and Dr Bow’s Liniment (thought to contain ammoniated camphor liniment, belladonna liniment, soap liniment, strong ammonia and tincture of opium).  

  1. What home remedies were available?

Unless your ancestor was very well off, his or her last illness was probably treated (not with expensive pharmaceuticals or vaccines) but with home remedies passed down through the family. Medical advice books of the time (which can often be picked up cheaply in second hand bookshops or online at sites such as can give an insight into what passed for good home nursing.

Information in the Sunlight Year Book 1898 suggests that Lillie Symes would have been nursed in a sitting position, efforts would have been made to clear the mucus from her nose and throat, and her intake or food and drink would have been fussed over. Homemade medication might have involved a ‘liniment made of one teaspoonful of oil of cloves, two teaspoonfuls of oil of amber, and two tablespoonfuls of camphorated oil well shaken up together in a bottle, [and] rubbed into the pit of the stomach and into the spine every night.’ Teas, garlic and honey were also recommended as methods of cutting the phlegm.

  1. Who was in attendance at my ancestor’s death?

The death certificate will include the name of the person who informed the registrar of your ancestor’s death. In Lillie Symes’ case, this was her mother, Elizabeth, who was present at the death. If the carer is not obviously a relation, it’s worth looking up the name on one of the online census sites for the area in which your ancestor died. You may find that the informant was a paid nurse, a neighbour, or a daily help who lived nearby. Amongst other things, this information may help you understand how well or poorly off your ancestor was at the time of his or her death.

  1. Will the death be recorded anywhere else?

Announcements of death, funeral notices and obituaries may all also appear in local newspapers up to several weeks after your ancestor’ death. Local newspapers may appear on microfiche in your local or city library, but bear in mind that the deaths of ‘ordinary’ people (especially babies such as Lillie) are unlikely to have appeared in newspapers until the early twentieth century. However, if your ancestor’s death certificate informs you that he or she died in an accident or other dramatic event (for example, a pit disaster or a house fire), check local newspapers of the time for an account of the tragedy.

Family deaths may also be recorded in personal documents such as family bibles, diaries, and letters.
  1. How can I find out where my ancestor was buried?
If your ancestor died at or near home, he or she will probably have been buried in the churchyard of the main Church in the parish nearest to where he lived or in the nearest municipal cemetery. Remember that Non-conformists, Catholics and Jews will have been buried in the graveyards of their own places of worship rather than in the precincts of the local Anglican church.

Burials were recorded in parish or burial registers which may still be kept in the local place of worship or which may have been deposited in the County Record Office. Some parish registers have been transcribed and are available to view online, see: or one of the commercial family history sites such as Coverage of parish registers online is patchy but getting better all the time.

Once you have located the correct register, look for your ancestor’s name at a time about a week after the date of death on the death certificate. An entry in a burial register may simply note the name of the deceased and the date of burial. Occasionally, however, there may be more information such as the name of the spouse of the deceased (or even those of his or her parents), his or her occupation, abode and even cause of death.

The information from some burial registers for big cities now appears online at local government sites. Lillie Symes’ burial record is given at the Manchester City Council site (see full address below). She was buried five days after her death on 20th January 1894 in an unmarked communal grave (plot number given on the site) which eventually included the bodies of at least ten other non-related people.

Useful Books 

Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jerger, Jeanette L. A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists, Heritage, 2009

Eastoe, Jane, Victorian Pharmacy, Remedies and Recipes. Pavilion, 2010.

Flanders, Judith Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003

Other Useful Websites Gateway to many medical sites useful to genealogists. The British Library history timeline provides an opportunity to compare the key events from each historical decade with advances in science, medicine and technology.  A multimedia site dedicated to the Victorians and their health Manchester City Council site recording burials and cremations in several Manchester cemeteries from 1837 onwards.  Information about the National Burial Index now available to buy on CD ROM.  

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, England, death, death certificates

Family Records: Marriage Certificates (and where to go next)

'Married When June Roses Grow’

Ten tips on marriage certificates and where to go next

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]

You’ve got the marriage certificate, but where do you go from here? You can find out a great deal more about your ancestors and their marriage on the internet providing you know where to look and the right questions to ask.

1. When did they marry?
My great grandparents, William Symes and Elizabeth Terrell married on June 2nd 1884. 


The marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, William Symes and Elizabeth Terrell, 1884. My own collection.
According to the website this was a Monday - perhaps chosen for its association with good health (see box). June was probably the most popular month in Victorian times for wedding nuptials. A popular verse promised that ‘Married when June Roses Grow, O’er Land and sea you’ll go.’ (For a full version of the verse see: There was also a superstition about bad luck following couples who married in the month of May (‘Marry in May and you’ll rue the day’) which meant that vicars were often kept busy at the end of April and the beginning of June.

Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday best of all,
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday for no luck at all

Bear in mind that marriages were more popular on certain days of the year in specific parts of the British Isles. New Year’s Day, for example, was an auspicious day for Scottish weddings. For more on the superstitions around the days and months on which to marry see: To find out the date of Easter in the year that your ancestors married and the dates of other important religious festivals (from any denomination) visit

You can check online to see what, if any, significant national or world events took place in the year of your ancestors’ marriage at  The website  gives the key events in British and World history in 1884 as well as listing contemporary world leaders, and memorable moments in culture and the arts. Local newspapers, often available to view on microfiche in local libraries, can provide fascinating insights into the world with which your ancestors would have been familiar. Particularly relevant to William and Elizabeth would have been the opening, in the same month as their marriage, of a new Manchester railway station – Manchester Exchange Station. Since William’s job (as a carter, see point 7 below) involved the transportation of goods from stations to warehouses around the city, this would have welcome news.  

Wedding dresses like this one would have been in fashion around the time of the wedding, but it is unlikely that Elizabeth Symes, a domestic servant, would have worn one. From the Girl’s Own Paper Feb 28th, 1885, Vol VII, No, 270 p 345

2. Where did they marry?

The marriage certificate gives the place of William and Elizabeth’s marriage as the Parish Church of St Mary, Beswick in the County of Lancaster.  A search at shows that this church was a new one in the area having been founded in 1878 – just six years before the marriage.

Find a photograph of the church in which your ancestors married at - a website which aims ultimately to have photographs of all the churches in Britain and Ireland. Postcards with pictures of churches can be searched at You may also find pictures of churches at the British Listed Buildings site More information about churches from many denominations can be found through

The Marriage Act of 1753 declared that all marriage ceremonies in England and Wales must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this Act, but Non-Conformists and Catholics had to be married in Anglican Churches. After the Marriage Act of 1836, Non-Conformists and Catholics could be married in their own churches. Non-religious civil marriages could also be made in registry offices after this time. In practice, however, most couples chose to marry in church.

3. Who were the witnesses to the marriage and is it relevant that they could sign their names?

The witnesses of William and Elizabeth’s marriage were the bride’s father, William Terrell, her two sisters, Jane and Annie, and ‘William Dibble’ (the man who later married Jane Terrell and became William’s brother-in-law). Interestingly, all the witnesses came from Elizabeth’s side of the family reminding me of the fact that William (a migrant to Manchester from the South West) had no relations in Manchester.

Many witnesses to nineteenth-century marriages were relations of the marrying couple. If a blood connection with the witnesses is not obvious, take a look at the nearest census in time to your ancestors’ wedding date, you may find that the witnesses were in fact neighbours of your family.

The Education Act of 1870 aimed to guarantee the attendance at school of children between the ages of 5 and 13. Don’t assume, however, that because witnesses could write their names, they could read and write properly. It is estimated that it was not until 1914 that 99% of the population were literate. Many witnesses to marriages simply signed the register with a cross. This is probably because they were illiterate, but don’t rule out the other possibility - they may well simply have been too drunk to sign on the day of the nuptials!

4. What rights did my female ancestor have within marriage at this time?

Elizabeth Terrell married just two years after the passing of the momentous Married Women’s Property Act (1882). This allowed women, for the first time in history, to keep any property they owned before marriage and to keep any earnings that they acquired after marriage. The Act probably had little effect on the Symes/Terrell marriage as Elizabeth, a domestic servant, would have owned nothing before marriage and probably gave up work on marriage.

Women’s rights in marriage improved slowly but surely during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To find out more about what your female ancestor was entitled to expect see: see

5. What can I learn from my ancestors’ ages at marriage?
At 28, William and Elizabeth were slightly above the average age at which men and women in England and Wales married in the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to the Every Woman’s Encylopedia, the average age for women marrying in 1896 (12 years after the Symes/Terrell marriage) was 25.08 and men 26.59 . In 1884, these figures would have been slightly lower. The fact that William was as old as 28 when he married may be explained by the secret revealed at point 10 below.
During the 19th century the minimum age at which marriage was permitted (with parental consent) was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. In 1929, the Ages in Marriage Act  raised this to 16 for both sexes. Until the age of 21, marriages had to have the consent of parents or guardians.

6. How can I find out more about what the wedding was actually like?

William and Elizabeth were working-class people. As such, it is likely that their wedding went ahead with very little fuss. For many historic traditions and superstitions at weddings see:  For a brief history of the wedding dress in Britain see: But remember that many of the fashions and traditions described on the web apply to middle and upper-class brides only.

In working-class unions such as that between William and Elizabeth, it was common for the couple to have brief ceremony in church and to then go home for a wedding breakfast. Afternoon weddings only became popular after 1886 when there was a change in the canonical hours. Often the bride’s mother would have stayed at home to prepare this. Elizabeth may have worn a white dress (which was common for bridal gowns after the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840) but is more likely that bride and groom both simply wore their Sunday best. In fact, so understated was the working-class wedding that William may well have gone to work on the afternoon.

7. Where can I find out more about my ancestors’ occupations?

William Symes’s occupation on his marriage certificate is given as ‘carter’. The same term is used to describe the work of both his father, ‘William Symes’ and his father-in-law, ‘William Terrell’. In the nineteenth-century city, carters (using horse-driven vehicles) were important carriers of produce and people.  For more on male occupations in history see or

On the marriage certificate, Elizabeth Terrell is described as a ‘domestic servant’. I found out a little more about this from the 1881 census where she is recorded as working as a cook for the family of a lawyer  in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. Remember that on the marriage certificates of many women (particularly in the middle and upper classes), the space for occupation was usually left blank as the task of running the domestic household was not considered to be work. Also, much paid work undertaken by working-class women such as laundering, charring, and laying out the dead went unrecorded.

For a useful alphabetical list of both men’s and women’s occupation as recorded in the 1891 census for London see

8. What can I learn about my ancestors’ place of residence at the time of marriage?

According to the certificate, my great-grandparents lived very near to each other prior to their marriage: William at 6 Brewery Street, Ashton New Road, Manchester and Elizabeth at 18 Forrest Street, Beswick in the same city. They married, as was customary,  at a church in the bride’s parish. To count as such, the bride had to have lived in the parish for fifteen days prior to the banns first being read.

For more information on your ancestors’ residence at the time of their marriage, try entering the relevant place name at or Local history societies can provide more detailed information about specific areas, see Local libraries and archives will, in all probability, have photographs of the area and even the street in which your ancestor was born.  A new website allows people to attach old photographs of places to a map of Britain – your ancestor’s street may just be online.

9. Where else might I find information about my ancestors’ marriage?

Records of your ancestor’s marriage will be kept in the parish register relating to the church in which they married. Many of these have been transcribed and can be accessed online or via a CD: see for more information. Original parish registers may be kept in the original church or in the County Record Office. Their location can be searched at

It is also possible that your details of the marriage have been recorded in a Family Bible. But be careful, details recorded a long time after the event may be full of errors.

10. Can I believe everything I read on a marriage certificate?

In short, no. The marriage certificate featured here startlingly includes two falsifications.

First, William Symes gives his marital status as ‘bachelor,’ when in fact he was a widower - a fact I discovered from the 1881 census.

Secondly William’s father is given on the certificate as ‘William Symes, deceased’. In fact, the groom was illegitimate. I traced his birth certificate and found that no father is recorded. William took his surname from his mother, Emma Symes. In his early years he was brought up by his grandfather whose name was also William Symes, and it is likely that he simply used this name on the certificate to cover up an embarrassing situation.

Useful Books

Paul Atterbury and Hilary Kay, The Wedding: 150 Years of Down the Aisle Style, David and Charles, 2006

Molly Dolan Blayney, Wedded Bliss: Victorian Courtship and Marriage, Abbeville Press, 1992.

Avril Lansdell, Wedding Fashions 1860-1980 (History in Camera), Shire Publications, 1986

Margaret Ward, Female Occupations: Women’s Employment from 1840-1950, Countryside Books, 2008.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, marriage, marriage certificates, England

Family Records: Birthday Books (Scotland)

‘Many Happy Returns’

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008]

Few sources for family history can be more appealing than the Birthday Book. These small-size, intricately designed, volumes were very popular among the middle and upper classes in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, Birthday Books were so much in demand that a variety of publishers in Scotland’s big cities vied to produce the most attractive format. Birthday books tended to be kept by women rather than men, so if your ancestor was the wife or daughter of an Edinburgh banker or lawyer, a Glasgow industrialist or a Scottish laird, it’s possible that she may once have owned a birthday book and that what she wrote in it may help you to find out more about your family in the past.
The Lyric Birthday Book, Edinburgh, 1883

The Victorians celebrated birthdays with more gusto than previous generations- parties were held, for instance, with cards, cakes and games. It was important that birthdays were not forgotten. Birthday books often included the birthdays of large numbers of friends and family recorded over a long period of time. One I came across recently was purchased in the 1880s but included entries made as late as the 1960s. Originally birthday books were bound in leather or red morocco; many had gilt edges and ornamental printed endpapers. Those that have survived are often broken at the spine, dog-eared and held together with tape, attesting to many years of use. They were sometimes interleaved with lined blank pages for notes. At other times smaller spaces were left for entries between illustrations and quotations.

Whatever state your Birthday book is in, read it very carefully. Like the Family Bible, it may have provided one of the few places for your ancestor to record important family information over several generations.
Title Page of The Lyric Birthday Book, Edinburgh, 1883
Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Five Things to Look for in Your Birthday Book

1. Establish To Whom the Book Belonged

As Birthday Books were reasonably expensive, they were often given as gifts from one family member to another (usually for a birthday or at Christmas). Check to see if there is an inscription at the front of the book which might help you establish who owned it. Owners of birthday books often mentioned their relationship with the people whose birthdays they recorded. Entries such as ‘John Andrew McWilliams, great nephew’ for example, can be very useful if you are trying to fill in names on the branches of your family tree.

 2. Understand the Entries

Read each entry carefully as sometimes extra genealogical information is included alongside the name. In the book (pictured here) the name of ‘Arthur William Pierce’ is written as one of the entries for October 21st. The writer also helpfully recalls Arthur’s year of birth 1915 and the year of his death 1948. This entry, therefore, provides several pieces of useful information all at once. Entries may also record the age of a relation – sometimes recorded in brackets or after a slash. In these cases, you need to ascertain in which year the book was used – look at the date of publication as a guide. All this can, of course, be helpful in the search for birth and death certificates.

 The Scott Birthday Book (1879) which  includes quotations from the works of Sir Walter Scott. This page mentions the birthday of twins Romulus and Remus alongside the birthday of the writer, Henry Irving.

  3. Look out for Records of Other Events

 Birthday books can also contain surprise entries about other family events and anniversaries and even about events outside the family in the public world. Deaths and marriages as well as baptisms and burials were often recorded. Other, more lengthy, entries can be eye-openers that can give your family history research a real boost. One gem I came across recently, for example, was: ‘September 30th (1901): George Prior married, 2nd time.’

Deaths as well as births were sometimes recorded in birthday books - This one records, Dear Mother died. The Birthday Motto Book and Calendar of Nature, Frederick Warne and Co. 1871.

4. Ask Who Wrote the Entries

Sometimes, the owners of birthday books would ask friends and relatives to sign their own names. Indeed, some books actually requested contributors to sign the relevant page. In this way, birthday books double up as autograph books. If you have genuine signatures, you can attempt some analysis of handwriting. Ask yourself, for instance, if the script is confident and assured or small and hesitant. This may indicate something about your ancestor’s personality. Turn the pages upside down to get a better feel for the flow of the writing.  

This page records the relationship between the writer and her ‘great niece,’ Jennifer Thorn Walder, born 1934. The Birthday Motto Book and Calendar of Nature, Frederick Warne and Co. 1871.
5. Consider the Format 

With a large number of English birthday books also on the market, Scottish publishers looked for unique selling points to make their books more attractive. Some celebrated the nation’s literary talent, for example, Auld Acquaintance: A Birthday Book of the wise and tender words of Robbie Burns (compiled by James B. Begg a grandnephew of Burns) was published by the Edinburgh publisher William P. Nimmo in 1883. And The Scott Birthday Book, which contained quotations from the works of Sir Walter Scott was published in 1879.

Some Scottish birthday books celebrated the nation’s dual culture. The Highlanders Book of Days: A Birthday Book in Gaelic and English was published in Edinburgh by Maclachlan and Stewart in 1885, for instance. These Scottish birthday books joined a large number of English-produced Birthday books which promoted other nineteenth-century novelists and poets including:  The Robert Browning Birthday Book (1896); The Byron Birthday Book (1879); The Charles Dickens Birthday Book (1882); and The Tennyson Birthday Book (1900).

Since birthday books were available in a wide choice of formats, the particular type of book owned by your ancestor may well say something about his (or more likely her) religious interests, literary tastes or other predilections. If your ancestor owned the The Temperance Daily Text Book and Birthday Record of 1883, for instance, you might conclude that his or her family had taken the pledge. For those of a jollier temperament, there were a number of appealing Scottish titles including: The Birthday Book of Riddles and Guesses by Mary E. Donald (1918) and the anonymous Birthday Book of Wit and Humour, 1879 (both published by Nimmo in Edinburgh). 

Whatever your ancestor’s interests, there was probably a Birthday Book out there on the market to satisfy it. English publishers were also producing Birthday books with themes as disparate as Empire, foxhunting, suffragettes, cricket and astrology. The format of your birthday book should either tell you something about your ancestor, or about the times in which he or she lived.

If you have the good fortune to come across a birthday book among your family papers, treasure it. If you don’t, why not search for one online. A number of birthday books often come up for sale on the second hand book site and on the auction site It’s just possible that your family birthday book is out there somewhere and that it might just contain the clue you need to take you on through censuses and certificates to discover more about your family’s past.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful websites  A full list of Birthday Books published during the Victorian period and beyond can be accessed through the search facility here. Birthday Books for sale on the internet. the internet site where you might find your family birthday book up for auction.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Scotland, Scottish, birthday books

Scottish Census 1851

Ten Things You May Not Know About the 1851 Census for Scotland

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2009]

In 1851, Scotland was still four years short of adopting Civil Registration – the system of registering births, marriages and deaths that had been used in England and Wales since 1837. In the absence of such a system, the 1851 census - taken on the night of 30th /31st March 1851 - can be of real value in helping you to find out more about your Scottish ancestors in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sometimes, indeed, this census sometimes picks up people whose births or marriages may not have been recorded in the parish registers.

How can I access the 1851 census?

You can access the 1851 census for Scotland and search for your ancestors at the following websites. Some of these are free sites, at others you will have to pay to view the entries.

If you wish to view the original census enumerators’ books, you must visit the General Register Office (Scotland) New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1, 3YT.

1. A Gateway to the Past

From the 1851 census, you should be able to find out exactly where your ancestor was born. The schedule asked respondents to state the actual county and parish or town of their birth (rather than simply to state whether they had or had not been born in the county where they were now living, as the 1841 census had done). This means that this mid-century census is a real gateway to the past; once you know where your ancestor was born, you can go on to search the Old Parish Records for the record of his or her baptism.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

2. What The Enumerator Thought 

There is a space allotted in the 1851 census schedules for the enumerator to make his own comments. If he was astute and interested in his task, he may have noted aspects of life in the locality in which your ancestors lived such as housing conditions, changes in farming methods, or the fact that many people had emigrated from the area. Unfortunately, the spaces for comments are not always filled in. But where they are, they can provide fascinating demographic commentary that may not be available from any other source. Be aware that this information is not always available to view on the online version of the 1851 census but it can be seen on the original documents.

3. Who Was Who

The 1851 census was the first to record the marital status of each person in your ancestor’s household and his or her relationship to the head of the household. This means that you should make fewer mistakes in your searching. It is less easy, for example, to confuse sons with grandsons or with cousins when you find people with similar names living at the same address.

4.  Disability

In 1851, the census schedule notes whether an occupant of a house was blind, deaf or dumb. This information was not required ten years later in the census of 1861, but the question was put back in again in later censuses. Be careful to read too much into what is recorded here, however. You may find that personal information given in this census contradicts information given in later censuses -  some people may not have wanted the disabilities of their family members recorded on one occasion or the other.

5.  Just How Old Were They?

For the first time on a British census, each individual's exact age was recorded on the 1851 census (to the nearest year). This replaced the former method of rounding adult ages down to the nearest five years. So with this census, you can get a clearer picture of the age relationships between your ancestors – something which will help you better to understand the dynamics of their household. You will, for example, be able to answer questions such as exactly how much younger your great-grandfather was than the brother who may have gone on to inherit a family property; or exactly how old your great-aunt must have been when she had each of her seven children.

6. Master or Trainee?

Much greater detail was asked about people's occupations in the 1851 census than in the census of ten years earlier. From the information collected, the government were able to analyse occupations into ‘classes’ and ‘sub-classes’. Masters in trade and manufacture were asked to state the word ‘master’ after the description of their occupation and to state the number of men employed on the day of the census.

7. Not Quite a Royal Residency

At the time of the 1851 census, Queen Victoria was negotiating her purchase of the fifteenth-century Balmoral castle in Aberdeenshire.  She had first stayed there in 1848 when she and Prince Albert had rented the property (from the trustees of Sir Robert Gordon, the previous owner). Though not resident in Scotland at the exact time of the census, she paid a visit in September 1851 and described a day’s hunting in which ‘Albert got a splendid stag.’ The Queen said that the area reminded her of Italy with the mountains ‘quite crimson and lilac and everything glowing with the setting sun.’ On the night of the 1851 census, the Balmoral estate was occupied by servants, gamekeepers and garden labourers including Francois d’Albertanson, aged 62, house steward, born in Flanders, his wife and four children. In 1852, Victoria and Albert bought the Balmoral property for £30,000. They set about building a new castle just a hundred yards from the original. This was completed in 1856.

8. Where did they worship?

The 1851 census was unusual in that it was accompanied by a religious census – the only one of its kind until the twenty-first century. This census assumed that everyone was Christian but asked people to state which denomination they were (e.g. Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian). Unfortunately, you will not be able to find out about your own family’s religious beliefs. Rather than asking individuals where they worshipped, enumerators sought out every church, chapel or room used for religious worship in their designated area. A printed form was then given to the person in charge (usually the minister). This asked how many people attended the service on 30th March 1851.

The religious census was not compulsory and the return rate of printed forms was very poor. In Scotland, the return rate was even worse than it was in England or Wales. As a result, the government report for Scotland was much shorter and less detailed  than that for other parts of Britain. Although it was suggested that the exercise be repeated in 1861, the various denominations could not agree what form it should take and the plans were dropped.

9. A Prelude to Emigration

Emigration from Scotland to America peaked in the mid nineteenth century. Five million Americans can trace their ancestry back to residents of Victorian Scotland mentioned in the 1851 census. If your ancestors emigrated from Scotland to Australia in the nineteenth century, the 1851 census might well be the last British census in which they appear. The Highland and Island Emigration Society operated from 1851-1859 and was run by private subscription to assist emigration to Australia. You can view the passenger lists for people leaving Scotland between 1852 and 1857 at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS ref HD4/5). The index to this is searchable on line at Scottish Archive Network

10. No Trace of Your Ancestor? 

If you can’t find your ancestors on the 1851 census, it’s just possible that this is because they were living in one of the few parishes for which the original records have been lost. The following is a list of parishes (with their parish numbers and counties) that are known to be missing.

Parish Number
Parish Name
Abbey (Paisley)
Corsock Bridge

Useful Websites - general information on the 1851 religious census.  Information on the 1851 religious census with particular reference to Scotland. National Archives of Scotland Emigration Records

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe,  ancestry, family history, genealogy, Scotland, Scottish, census, emigration