Family History and Bradford Public Library

Elvira Willmott

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 58-62, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

Family history is an increasingly popular subject, possibly because during a time of uncertainty and change it is reassuring to find out about one's roots, and possibly because most of us are curious to know who our ancestors were. Once started, the search can become an overwhelming interest, perhaps containing an element of the challenge of the chase. Nowadays such an interest is not confined to those whose blood is blue; everyone has ancestors and everyone can try to trace them. There is no denying that it can be easier if they owned land, left wills or were prominent in the local community, but, on the other hand, the poor and the lawbreakers also left records.

The family historian can now call upon many more sources of help than were available in the past. Local family history societies have proliferated during the last fifteen years, records have been deposited in local record offices, indexes compiled and books on the subject published. With reasonable luck, most people of English, Welsh or Scottish descent can expect to trace their ancestors back to the early 19th century: Many will get back further than that, but it can then be much harder to establish a pedigree, largely because it is difficult to distinguish between people with the same name in a period when many records were not very informative.

More and more of those tracing their family history wish to discover not only when and where their ancestors were born, married and died, but also to find out as much as possible about their lives. What kind of houses did they live in? What were conditions like in the local mill? Were there schools and parks in the vicinity? Did the local newspapers carry advertisements for amusements, political meetings or quack medicines? Such information adds immediacy and value to the gradually emerging story. A quest of this kind can spread outwards from the family to the street, the neighbourhood and the town, and can be a valuable contribution to the history of the place concerned. But for this to happen it is essential that family history be carried out with as much regard for accuracy as any other form of history.

Most people visit their local library at some stage in their research, but the encounter between family historian and member of the library staff is sometimes difficult. The enquirer ought to be aware of what may reasonably be expected from the library.

There can be few librarians who have not met the person who comes into the library expecting to find all the information about his or her family gathered together and waiting to be asked for.

The librarian's task is to collect, organize and make available different types of material to meet the needs of researchers in many fields, including genealogy, and to give advice about its use. Some librarians will be interested in and knowledgeable about family history, while others who are not will find it difficult to match the enthusiasm of the keen family historian.

Librarians should not be expected to carry out research for enquirers - a problem which occurs most frequently when a family historian is pursuing his enquiries from a distance. It is reasonable to expect a librarian to advise on sources of information and to look up a specific piece of information , but no more. For detailed research the distant enquirer should employ a genealogist or record searcher, possibly one belonging to The Association of Genealogists and Record Agents which produces a list of its members.1 Alternatively, by joining a family history society2 it might be possible to find someone who will carry out local research, perhaps on a reciprocal basis. Members of such societies often undertake projects to list and index local records, and the Bradford Family History Society is no exception.

Anyone interested in their ancestry can save a great deal of their time, and that of librarians and archivists, by reading a good book on the subject before starting upon research.3 They will thus be aware of the need to find out as much as possible from their own families before using other records, and also what kind of information those records are likely to contain. Advice on what to read should be available at the library. The more experienced researcher will also find it helpful to consult books and articles on specialized aspects of research, and to examine books in the library before deciding whether to purchase copies.

For many people visiting the library the starting point will be the mid-19th century censuses. The Reference and Study Library in Bradford holds microfilm copies of those for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1881 covering most of the Bradford area. They supply useful information, including relationships, occupation, age and birthplace, about the people composing each household. This enables a search to be made later in the correct area for a birth or baptism. The census, however, is arranged by area and street, and not by surname, so that it is essential to know the address of the person sought if a potentially long search is to be avoided.

Addresses can sometimes be obtained from the Bradford Burgess Rolls, annual lists of all those (women as well as men) who were registered to vote in local elections. After the Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise, the number of names increased considerably. Names are arranged in alphabetical order by ward, of which there were eight when the Rolls started in 1848, the year after Bradford became a borough. By 1881 each of the nine wards was divided into polling districts thus increasing the number of sequences to be checked, and from 1883 onwards names were arranged in ward and street order, which removes the usefulness of the Rolls as a name index. It must also be realized that the Rolls only cover those areas which at the time were part of the borough of Bradford.

The library also holds a number of Poll Books, lists of voters, frequently including their addresses, and the names of those for whom they voted, for some of the years before the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. Sometimes an address can be ascertained from a Directory, of which quite a number cover Bradford from 1822 onwards. They were usually produced for commercial reasons and contain only the names, occupations and addresses of professional, business and commercial people, but besides being very useful to some families in their research they give a picture of Bradford at the time. The Bradford Family History Society is in process of indexing the 1851 census for Bradford by name; as it is completed the index will be placed in the library where it will be of great value.

Parish registers are frequently the only source of information about births, marriages and deaths (or, more accurately, baptisms, marriages and burials) before the introduction of civil registration in 1837 when the system of certificates started. The library has copies of a number of registers: but original registers are only to be found at the church or chapel, or deposited in the appropriate record office. Most used is a copy of Bradford parish registers up to 1837, recorded on twenty-one reels of microfilm of which six contain indexes of baptisms and marriages arranged by year and initial letter of surname. There are a few other registers on microfilm or in print, but most parish registers in the library are printed copies published by the Yorkshire Parish Register Society, since 1961 the Parish Register Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Unfortunately none of the YPRS volumes cover parishes in Bradford, although there are a number which fall within Bradford Metropolitan District. Bishops' Transcripts can be used in conjunction with parish registers, and the library has microfilm copies for all parishes, except Birstall, within the area covered by Bradford District.

Very few non-parochial registers have been printed, but all those which were handed in to the authorities in London in 1837, and are now in the Public Record Office, have been microfilmed. The library has purchased copies of those in the Bradford area. A list of the parish and nonconformist register copies in the library has been produced. A number of books giving the locations of many original and copy registers throughout the country can also be consulted in the library.

It can be very difficult to ascertain which church or chapel an ancestor attended, and there are few researchers who will not find it helpful from time to time to consult the International Genealogical Index compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons. It is an index to baptisms and some marriages arranged by country, county and name. Roughly a third of Yorkshire parishes are covered, but there are few entries after the middle of the 19th century, as living persons are not included. The library has copies of the microfiches of the index covering England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Monumental or tombstone inscriptions supplement the information which appears in burial registers, and the library is fortunate to have the results of work carried out by Arthur Blackburn around 1930. He visited about 120 local churches and chapels and recorded their inscriptions in notebooks, most of which are indexed by initial letter of the surname. The notebooks have now been bound. A complete index of all the names mentioned in them is being compiled by a member of the Bradford Family History Society, and a copy will be deposited in the library when it is finished. Also in the library are the inscriptions from another dozen churches, and a list of all the places where inscriptions are available has now been produced. Newspapers are full of information about people such as councillors, magistrates, victims of accidents, advertisers and others. The Bradford Observer (which started in 1834), the Bradford Daily Telegraph (1868), the Bradford Evening Argus (1892) and several shorter-lived newspapers can be consulted in the library. They contain information about people who lived in Bradford, provide accounts of specific events, and give a picture of the town as it was in the past. Obituaries and death notices in local newspapers are especially useful to the family historian, and the library has started to compile an index to them. So far the Bradford Observer from 1834 to 1894 has been indexed in this way, and the index also contains a few earlier and later names. For 20th century Bradfordians there is a series of cuttings from local newspapers which started in the early 1920s and still continues. It contains information about appointments, successes, retirements and deaths, for people prominent in all walks of life, such as businessmen, trade unionists, schoolmasters and actresses, and is arranged in alphabetical order of name.

Microfilm has enabled records to be more easily copied, and thus more widely available. In addition to the items already mentioned the library has a copy of the index to the apprenticeship indentures throughout the country between 1710 and 1774 which are at the Public Record Office. These show the names of apprentices, their parents until about 1752, and their masters and their occupations until 1762. Apprenticeships where no money was involved, such as those arranged by parish and township officials and those between relatives, are not included.

A number of printed items will be of interest to some family historians. Those whose ancestors bore arms in the 16th or 17th centuries will no doubt examine some of the printed Heralds' Visitations, containing pedigrees, while those whose relatives were killed in the First World War may wish to consult the publications of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Various books such as Peerages, Clerical Directories, Who Was Who and Army Lists will be of use to others. Many of the volumes produced by such societies as the Harleian Society, the Catholic Record Society, the Friends' Historical Society and the British Record Society are also available. In addition there are the publications of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society, the Halifax Antiquarian Society, the Thoresby Society of Leeds and the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

Little known occupations appearing on a census can sometimes be identified by using Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, while similarly obscure place-names can often be found in the volumes of the English Place-name Society covering most counties, including Yorkshire. Another dimension can be added to family history by consulting a map of the area where an ancestor lived. The library has many maps of Bradford in the 19th and 20th centuries, together with some for other parts of Yorkshire. Its collection of photographs concentrates on public buildings rather than ordinary houses, but might include the chapel where members of the family were baptized or shops with which they were familiar. For more recent history many of the recordings made by the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, described in the last issue of The Bradford Antiquary,4 are in the library; they can help the researcher to build up a picture of life as it used to be.

Some family members may have been caught up in wars or other national events, and it can be useful to read about them, or to consult publications of the period such as The Times or The Illustrated London News. Similarly, books about national, regional or local history will describe the periods through which ancestors lived, and identify movements, such as those towards urbanization and industrialization, which may have affected them.

Thus it can be seen that the local library has a great deal to offer the family historian. It will not be the only place which he needs to visit, because family history can rarely be pursued successfully without consulting other members of the family, record offices and churches. But by using knowledgeably the resources in the library it is possible to obtain much useful information and to provide a context in which the history of the family can be placed.


1. Available for consultation in Bradford Library, or from Mrs J Tooke, 1 Woodside Close, Caterham, Surrey, CR3 6AU. (back)

2. Such as: Bradford Family History Society, Membership Secretary: Mr J.R. Rennie, 9 Ghyllwood Drive, Bingley, BD16 1NF, and also Family History and Population Studies Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Claremont, 23 Clarendon Road, Leeds LS4 9NZ. (back)

3. Some introductions to the subject are:
S. Colwell, Tracing your family tree, Faber, 1984.
D.M. Field, Step-by-step guide to tracing your ancestors, Hamlyn, 1982.
G. Hamilton-Edwards, In search of ancestry, 2nd ed, Phillimore, 1983.
C.M. Matthews, Your family history and how to discover it, 2nd ed, Lutterworth Press, 1983.
G. Pelling, Beginning your family history, 3rd ed, Federation of Family History Societies, 1984.
P. Rushworth, Retracing your Bradford ancestors, 1984.
D. Steel, Discovering your family history, Rev ed, BBC, 1986. (back)
4. R. Perks, 'Everyone has a story to tell', Bradford Antiquary, 3rd series No.2, 1986. (back)

© 1987, Elvira Willmott and The Bradford Antiquary