The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Book Reviews by Don Steel

 The Gibson Guides Part 1

No-one has given greater service to genealogy in this country than Jeremy Gibson, a fact recognised by the fellows of the Society of Genealogists when they made him an honorary fellow, one of only two. (The other is Tony Camp, the former Director of the Society). Since the Federation of Family History Societies was formed in 1974 he has been beavering away producing guides to a wide range of source material. Some guides have been produced by him alone, others in collaboration with someone else, usually an expert on the particular topic. Since everyone calls the series the Gibson guides these collaborators have perhaps received less acclaim than they deserve. I suspect that in the case of the guides reviewed below few readers will even recognise their names. But most of them have been real workhorses and collactively deserve our gratitude almost as much as Jeremy does.

The Gibson guides are more important than any book telling you about the sources like the McLaughlin guides or the Federation An Introduction to… series, useful though these are, for you can usually find some other book with similar information. But the Gibson guides, telling you what records there are and where they are, are nearly all unique. As a bonus, there is usually a useful introduction about the records. Three of them are, in my opinion, indispensible for any serious family historian. Two of them are dealt with in this article; a third Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills will be dealt with in the next article in this series.


Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians. Compiled by Jeremy Gibson and Elizabeth Hampson 7th edition FFHS 1998. 3.50.

If you do not know that an index exists you are in danger of re-inventing the wheel. A lady at one of my classes had recently plodded through the 1891 Census for a considerable part of Southampton. Not owning this guide, she had not realised that an index to the 1891 Census for the whole of Hampshire has been published by the Hampshire Genealogical Society and is available in both book form and fiches. The Nottinghamshire Family History Society has not only indexed every census 1841-1891 but has produced a surname index by registration district 1851-1841 (1841 is arranged differently). Many counties like Dorset, Norfolk or Nottinghamshire have indexed all marriages from 1538 to 1837. Others have indexed from 1754 and are still at work on the earlier period. Beyond doubt, this is the most important book I stock.


Poor Law Union Records Vol 4 Gazetteer of England and Wales Compiled by Jeremy Gibson and Frederic A Youngs Jr. FFHS 2nd edn 1997 4.50.

Some readers may be surprised that I have included among the three indispensible guides a book with such an esoteric title. However, it is more than it seems. When the Births, Marriages and Deaths act was passed in 1836 setting up a national system of Civil Registration which, as we all know, came into operation the following July, it was only two years after the Whig Government of Earl Grey had reformed the Poor Law. In 1834 the parish ceased to be the main unit of Poor Law administration. Parishes were grouped into unions and each union was required to build a union workhouse. Henceforth there was to be no poor relief for the able bodied except in the workhouse, which, to discourage the workshy had to have a lifestyle and standard of living which was "less eligible" than that of the poorest labourer outside.

When they framed the 1836 act, the Government decided that the Poor Law Union made a much more efficient basic unit for Civil Registration than the 12,000 or so individual parishes. So they took the Poor Law unions and called them Registration Districts. The same units were henceforth also used for censuses. So if you know what Poor Law union a parish was in you know what registration district it was in. Conversely you can use this Gibson guide to find what parishes were in a particular registration district in the GRO indexes. It is unfortunate that Jeremy did not devise a title which reflected this fact, though he does give it a passing mention in the introduction inside the cover.

Because the registration districts use the same names as the Poor Law unions there are some very oddly named districts, particularly along the coasts. A union took its name from the town where the workhouse was situated. Usually this was the nearest market town and so typically a registration district takes its name from a market town and the villages are clustered around. But in some urban areas land was expensive so the workhouse was built not in the largest town in the area but in a village. Thus if we turn to Kent in this booklet we find that Folkestone did not give its name to a registration district. Instead it was in the Elham district. Deal was in the Eastry district. Most Canterbury parishes will appear in the General Register Office (GRO) indexes as Canterbury, but two St Gregory the Great and Christchurch come under Blean.. Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham were lumped together as Medway. The North Aylesford union was re-named Strood in 1884.

Some years ago a Canadian genealogist wrote to me to say that a student of his had been unable to find his grandfather’s birth in the GRO indexes. He knew the exact date (and therefore the quarter) when he was born and that he was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk. He had a middling sort of name – not common, but not rare either. Let us call him William Marshall. Admittedly this Gibson guide was not available then, but I consulted a Victorian Kelly’s Directory to find out what Poor Law Union Folkestone came under. It was Mutford and Lothingland. Sure enough the entry was there in the right quarter but had been overlooked because Mutford (The GRO indexer skipped the ‘and Lothingland’ ) meant nothing either to the grandson or his searcher who had assumed a place the size of Lowestoft would not come in a registration district no-one has heard of.

There really are a lot of traps with Civil Registration districts. The Gibson guide shows that most Bristol entries will be indexed as Bristol. But if you lived in the Bristol parishes of St George or St James and St Paul Out or St Philip and St Jacob Out it will not say Bristol but Barton Regis from 1837 to the 1840’s, then Clifton until the 1880’s, then Barton Regis again. This registration district was an arc of miscellaneous suburbs enveloping Bristol on the north side of the Avon. It included parishes like Clifton to the West of Bristol, Stoke Gifford and Winterbourne to the north and Stapleton to the East. In 1834 the administrators obviously had difficulty in deciding what to call this conglomeration, so resurrected an old manorial name which would be then, as it is now, quite unfamiliar to most Bristolians. It was probably changed to Clifton because this was at least a place that people had heard of, but doubtless changed back again because it seemed misleading that parishes like Stapleton in East Bristol should be in a union taking its name from a village to the west of Bristol. So someone in St James Bristol, having children born in the 1880’s might have the first three registered in Barton Regis and the remainder in Clifton. But they all marry in Barton Regis. Yet the family never moved!

This booklet really is indispensible to sort out such problems – much more useful either than the Registration District maps published by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies which do not show either registration district boundaries or individual parishes. It is also much more useful than the little booklet by Wiggins which shows registration districts and sub- districts but not parishes. There are a few errors – For example Norwich is missing completely – but future editions will doubtless eliminate these.

These books may be obtained from Don Steel, Brooking, Jarvis Lane, East Brent, Highbridge, Somerset TA9 4HS, UK. For postage and packing add 75p per 10 or part 10. Orders for UK only.

Poor Law Union Records Vol 4 Gazetteer of England and Wales   Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians

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