• Nick

A window on the 'good old days' of family history research.

Back in the 1950s a Plymouth solicitor, Roger Serpell started to research our family history. When he died in 1998, the results of all this research ended up stuffed into carrier bags and left in a cupboard. Thankfully, some years later, I managed to persuade his son to pass all these records to me. Apart from bringing home the ease with which such family documents can be lost after someone’s death, they throw a fascinating light on what is was like to research family history in the days before computers, e mail and the internet.


Roger was nothing if not an enthusiast and he roped in other members of the family to assist. He also made copious notes of both his findings and the reasons for his conclusions over the years. The vast majority of the material I was given comprised these notes, as well as correspondence with other family members both in the UK and abroad. There were, in total, seven archive boxes of it.


Like all good genealogists, Roger started with what he knew already, his immediate family. His father had also been a solicitor so the need to carefully find and assess evidence was in the blood. It also helped that his family had been prominent in life in Plymouth, his great grandfather having been mayor in the 1870s. There were, therefore, some family records available to start him off and he made much use of the local library..


The big difference between then and now is that if you wanted to view records, you had either to physically travel to see them, or employ someone else to do it for you. Once you found those records, the information had to be painstakingly copied and brought home. Like many of us, parish registers formed a very important part of his research but, in 1950s Cornwall, these had not been centralised, every parish kept its own registers, often in the parish church. To view these meant writing a letter to or telephoning the relevant parish priest for permission to view the registers, then driving to the relevant parish to see them before paying the standard fee laid down by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Extracting the information meant sitting in a church vestry, often cold and slightly damp, and reading through all the entries to find references to the Serpell name. To stretch his legs, Roger would take a break to wander round the graveyard looking for relevant headstones.


Census records seem to have been available on microfiche but were not indexed and, when he started, only the 1841 and 1851 census was available. Again, this meant hours going through pages and pages of documents in order to identify a familiar name. The Record Offices in Cornwall and in Plymouth had been set up in the early 1950s. However, without the benefit of online catalogues, it was necessary to write or phone in order to find out what documents were available and to arrange an appointment to go and see them. The Cornwall Records Office was a two hour drive from Plymouth so the amount of time just getting to view documents was considerable. Wills were obtained from the Probate Office for the sum of (1/6d 7½p) including postage.


Occasionally Roger would employ a genealogist although finding one did not seem to have been that easy. In 1964 a gentleman in South Devon was employed for one bit of research at the princely sum of 10 shillings (50p) per hour. He also occasionally employed an agency in London, whose primary purpose was to do searches at the Public Records Office, then in Chancery Lane. I was fascinated that, among the documents, was a small booklet listing of members of the ‘Association of Genealogists and Research Agents’ an early incarnation of the present day AGRA.


By the early 1960s Roger had a number of family members sending him information. His brother Christopher, a BBC Correspondent based in London, was able to assist with searches in the capital while a distant cousin, the daughter of a Virginian banking family, descended from Serpell emigrants to the USA, made several trips to the UK as well as helping with American records. I also found a lot of correspondence with family members in Australia and Canada. By the 1970s he was regularly receiving long letters and family trees from across the Atlantic, all written on those flimsy air-mail letters that existed at the time.


It seemed from Roger’s notes that he would sit down when things were quiet, and jot thoughts and ideas on the nearest bit of paper to hand. I found family trees sketched out on the back of envelopes and theories jotted down on minute bits of notepaper. It was fascinating to see his thought processes as he tried to work out who was related to who. He never came to a final conclusion until the evidence was properly documented, something that creators of far too many Ancestry trees could usefully take on board.


He did make an attempt to try and find out the origin of our surname but, like everyone since, was unable to come to any conclusion. There were a number of letters to and from now defunct surname organisations in the UK and and as far afield as Sweden, Italy and Germany where similar surnames existed, but no link was ever established. One of the more amusing exchanges were those with a man in London who was convinced Serpells were connected to the name Surplis, something for which there was, and still is, no evidence at all. This particular correspondence went on for years, much to Roger’s growing exasperation. He was relieved when the the letters stopped coming , assuming perhaps the man had died, but they were resurrected ten years later when, to his horror, Roger found the man had moved just down the road to Torquay and was writing again.


These days, a large part of what Roger collected can be found at the touch of a computer button and stored on genealogy programs. I’m not sure any of us would have had the patience to devote the time to his sort of research in our fast-paced modern age. But the underlying principles of what he did, still form the basis for sound family history research. Having started my research into the family at the beginning of the internet age, I was full of admiration for what he had done and the time he had devoted to doing it.

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