ID: PBH_CTH_029 / Eric Hall

TitleOf Local Records and Researches - Birch Centenary Chronicles 29
AbstractOf Local Records and Researches

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 29.

Published in Parish News - February 2003

From time to time we receive enquiries, and information, about people who may have lived in this area. Some enquiries are of a general nature but often they concern specific families and, as we no longer hold records within the parishes, these are usually directed to the Essex Record Office website or their archives in Chelmsford or Colchester. Most family researchers will find census records of use but these show only those resident on a particular date every ten years and are only open to searches after 100 years. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in 1837 but the details cannot be examined with out purchasing the relevant certificate. Before 1837 it is necessary to know the Parish in which our ancestors lived as the main records, before that date, were the Parish Registers.

In country areas it is easier to trace the right parish but difficulties exist with towns and cities where the rapid population growth led to the creation of new Parishes over time. Even locally the area known today as Birch, Layer Breton or Layer Marney may not be the same as 200 years ago and it may be necessary to scan a number of parishes before discovering the person being looked for.

Parish registers were ordered to be kept by each parish priest in 1538 and, if available, they form a very useful source for research until 1837 and even later as it is known that the civil system of registration leaves much to be desired until around 1875 when it was strengthened. So providing we can read the records we can, quite easily, trace our ancestors back as far as the time of Henry VIII. That is very much wishful thinking in most cases and experience tells us that it is, almost certainly, impossible for most families.

Starting with our largest parish, whether it be known as Much Birch, Birch Magna, Great Birch, Birch and accepting that those names, for this purpose, covered Little Birch, the earliest register dates from 1560 but runs to 1755. The volume, held in Colchester, measures 17.5 by 29.0 by 2.5 centimetres and is bound in a white skin now, unsurprisingly, rather faded. Entitled as being from Great Birche the archivists have noted that there are no baptisms between 1670 and 1675; no marriages from 1590 to 98, 1648 to 1662, 1666 to 1678, and no burials were recorded from 1648 to 1660. In respect of this latter period it is quite common to find that nothing much is recorded for those years as that the time of the Civil War and the Protectorate. What happened to the records prior to 1590 in Birch we have no idea but the surviving records, for the early years, are clearly transcribed from some other source now lost.

In Layer Marney the position is worse as the first surviving Parish register starts only from 1742 and we have no idea what happened to the records of the first two hundred years. Here again some of the entries have become faded and were re-written in 1933. Layer Breton's first surviving register dates from 1749 and here the archivist has noted that "Entries in confused order. Only 6 baptisms recorded between 1749 and 1766".

There was no set format in which these early records had to be made and indeed the Birch Register, as with many others, contains notes of things other than the registration of births, marriages and deaths. For example in 1689 details are recorded of the apportionment, among the parishioners, of the costs of repairing the churchyard fence which is of use if you have traced an ancestor to that date and wish to know their standing, or possible residence, within the parish. Of similar use are the records of charity accounts between 1612 and 1625 and you may even be lucky enough to find the name you are looking for in the list of four persons who received Holy Communion on Easter Day 1666. In a later Birch Register there is a copy of an Act of Parliament for the "better preventing of Clandestine Marriages" of 1763, and in 1818 there are details of an arbitrator's award in a boundary dispute between Birch and Copford. The Layer Breton Registers contain a list of all the Rectors of the Parish.

Having found that a record for a particular year and parish exists then it is a matter of having the expertise to read the earliest entries. This is only a problem here in the case of Birch but it must be borne in mind at all times that not every infant was baptised nor were all couples married and, if they were, such an event could have taken place elsewhere. The standard of recording varied over time and, as shown in the years listed above for Birch, not all events were recorded. Even in other years not every event, it seems, was recorded. Between 1560 and 1608 their were 230 baptisms and 162 burials in Birch. Looking at the details it seems more than likely that between 1592 and 1597 for example something was adrift as there were only 12 baptisms and 5 burials in the 6 years.

The records are very short on the kind of details we would most like to have. There is little recorded, in the early years, about the age of those buried. Sometimes we can infer relationships but Widow Smith might refer to one of several families, or generations. Occasionally an entry such as the baptism of "Joane daughter of John of Garlands on 12th June 1575" can be very frustrating unless we can be certain who lived at Garlands at that time. Other entries are very specific but, nonetheless, pose questions as the baptism of a child on 20th May 1580 described as "bastard". In such cases additional information may be inferred where a second given name is entered which is a possible hint as to who fathered the infant.

The first Birch burial noted was Nicholas Goodwyn on 20th June 1560 and an early marriage was between Edward someone and Ann Bridgeman in May 1560. Later entries are easier to decipher and it always useful to have an unusual surname when tracing ancestors. Who could miss the marriage, in 1721, between Thomas Thodom and Mehitaphel Wiltshire or that between Thomas Cooper and Clementine Hazell the next year (and entry). Who would expect to find the entry of a marriage between Edward Fox and Mary Clark "both of Fordham" in 1729 in Birch? Even stranger is the entry for the marriage of John Mead, singleman, and Hannah Butcher, widow on Christmas Day 1752 recorded in Birch but which, the entry notes, took place at St Nicholas Church, Colchester.

As noted above the Layer Breton Register started in 1749 but the first entry seems to be transcribed from elsewhere as it refers to the baptism of several members of the Sach family between 1749 and 1751. One has to bear in mind that entries were made frequently by churchwardens rather than clerics and those providing the information were unable to read or write and could not check the entries. Just a few of the Layer Breton entries will illustrate the problem - do the Heward, the Howard, the Hayward and the Haward entries refer to the same family? Some, such as Kettle, South and Bundock are easier to identify but what about Goody and Gooday? Without identifying details we do not know which Bond or Potter is linked to which family without a great deal of research by family historians who find this such a popular, and absorbing, hobby while local historians find some family names quite intriguing e.g Heckford in Birch in the eighteenth century and possibly earlier.

AuthorEric Hall
PublishedFebruary 2003
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath