The series of books known as the Victoria County Histories are a goldmine for family historians and those interested in local history. The series started in 1899 and the project was dedicated to Queen Victoria hence the name. It was a massive undertaking with the aim to write a complete history of the land, places and prominent people of each English county, but the Victorian were ambitious people and obviously the founders of the VCH thought it could be completed. I think they would be surprised to find that the project is still being worked on and completion is a little way off.
The model for each county was that the topography, geology, flora, fauna and history would be covered, each subject was to be written by a eminent specialist and the books were to be scholarly, but readable by the ordinary person. Each set of county books ran into several volumes and most major libraries subscribed and still subscribe to the series. These books aren’t the type of publication that the average genealogist is going to purchase as they can cost up to £100 a volume and as I mentioned above there are generally at least 3 volumes for each county. A recent innovation is the publishing of Victoria County History Shorts, they are paperback books featuring a single parish. These were began so that the information could be made available to researchers much quicker than waiting for all the work involved in compiling a county history was completed. The cost of these shorts are a much more reasonable £12.
In the past the only way to use the histories was to find a library that held the volumes for the county in which your ancestors lived and go along and read them onsite. Because of the cost of the books they were generally not the sort of book that was made available for loan. Then along came the genealogists friend, the internet, and it wasn’t long before the volumes were digitized and made available online. The Victoria County Histories website does not have images of the books online, for that you will need to access another website, but it is very easy to do. I will take you through the process of getting to the information you want, but first I would like to tell you how useful these books are.
Victoria County Histories – How are they useful to genealogists?
Unless you are interested in the topography, geology, flora and fauna of the county the volumes of interest to family historians are the ones in which the county is broken down into parishes. Each parish generally contains a history dating back as far as it is possible to go, even back to the Domesday Book of 1086 if it was recorded in it. There is mention made of prominent buildings such as the vicarage or rectory, the manor houses and other large homes. Mills, canals, rivers and streams are mentioned and this is particularly useful if your ancestor might have traveled by canal or river or worked as a water bailiff etc. The history of the manors within the parish and a list of who held the manors are included. The local Church history is recorded and sometimes a list of the clergy going back centuries. Mention is made of any chapels attached to the parish church and also any non conformist meeting houses or chapels. This is useful information as you may then want to look for additional church records. Descriptions of charities set up to administer monies and properties left, often for the relief of the poor of the parish, in the wills of parishioners are recorded. Drawings, plans, sketches are also included depending on what the individual author decided would enhance the narrative.
Unless an in-depth history of your particular ancestral village or town has been written I can’t think of a better way to discover the area where your ancestors lived other than reading an account in the Victoria County History. Not only do they give you a comprehensive history of the area they usually have names of the prominent inhabitants. Whilst these might not be your ancestors they would have been known to your ancestors as friends or workers on their land. They are all part of your ancestors story.
I will take you through the process of accessing the books online using as an example one of my ancestors village – the parish of Wonston, Hampshire.
Firstly go to the Victoria County Histories website.
Click on the “Counties” tab at the top of the site and a drop-down box will appear click on Parish Index.
Enter the name of the parish you are interested in and chose the county where it is situated. Click the “Search” button. (If your parish or county doesn’t come up then I am afraid the history hasn’t been published yet. You could email the publishers and ask if the parish history is in the pipeline to be made available in the near future.)
The name of your parish will appear underneath the “Search” button and at the end will be the letters “BHOL”.
Click on the “BHOL” button. This will take you to a page on the wonderful website British History Online. This is a dangerous website for genealogists ! You will find that it will entice you in and you will spend hours exploring all it has to offer. I will write a post about this site another day, but for the moment simply concentrate on the page it takes you to.
You will see that the parishes are grouped into the Hundred in which they are situated. A Hundred is an ancient administrative area, it dates back to the 10th century and was in use until the 19th century. Wikipedia has a very full description of what a Hundred is and it’s history. As you advance in your genealogy you will find Hundred’s referred to quite a lot so getting to know which Hundred your ancestors parish was in is very useful.
Work you way down the page looking for your parish. The parish of Wonston isn’t on the first page so you simply click on the “2” at the base of the page to go to the next page.
Working down “Page 2” you will find the parish of Wonston. The parish you can see is in the Hundred of Buddlesgate.
Click on “Parish: Wonston” and the page of the history of Wonston will appear.
A description of the situation in the landscape of the parish is given. Following this is a mention of the manor house followed by the full description of the Rectory, I do wonder if the local Rector wrote the history as he goes into some detail about the Rectory! There is a floor plan of Rectory which is a marvelous find if you have an ancestor who was Rector or, if like me, you have several ancestors who were maids there and no doubt scrubbed the floor! The history of the Manors, there are several in the parish, are given next along with a sketch of the current Manor House and Coats of Arms for the various families who held the manors over the centuries. Land in another parish is mentioned as it was given by Edward 1st to the holder of one of the manors within the parish.
A description and brief history of the parish church is given and details of who had the right (advowson) to appointed the Rector. Finally the parish charities are written about, who gave them, when and who the beneficiaries were to be.
Finally there is an extensive footnote list. Do look at these lists as they can lead you onto records that you might otherwise not know exist. I have had a couple of good break through’s by using these footnote lists. Both concerned families of small farmers who were not mentioned by name in the history, but whose land was mentioned.
Before you leave your parish I recommend that you save off a copy of the history to your computer as I am sure you will want to re-read it at some stage and also include it in your file for that family. Having done that I suggest that you return to the page where your parish is and click on the page containing information about the Hundred your parish is in. There is usually a map of the Hundred and also a brief history of that area.
Victoria County Histories – Summary
Can you tell I am a great enthusiast of the Victoria County Histories ? I have introduced them to hundreds of my students over the years and without exception they have been wowed by what they find. So take the time to explore both the Victoria County Histories website using their search page to lead you into the British History Online.
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