Example from the register of St Catherine’s parish taken from FamilySearch.org, showing the baptism of a daughter to John Lee (brother of Robert Cooper Lee) and Mary Lord. It also shows the baptism of a legitimate child, the ‘bastard’ son of Robert Taylor, records the ‘mulatto’ status of the Clifford children and shows two adult baptisms.
One of the wonderful things about genealogical research is the willingness of so many people to share what they know, to help you find records you are looking for, and to make information available to everyone without charge. There are volunteers working all over the world to read and transcribe vital records, and other material, and to put it on-line.
Assuming you have access to a computer (or you would not be reading this!) you have a vast volume of information to draw on that could not have been imagined by our predecessors who had to work by visiting their local parish church, writing to the vicar of a parish they thought their ancestor might have come from, or requesting documents from their local county record office in the hope that they would find something useful. All these avenues are still available, and are often very useful, but working from home, or in your local library (which may also have a subscription to some of the paid genealogy sites such as Ancestry) there are many records available to you for free.
The first site I ever used, and one of the very first to put records onto the internet, was familysearch.org . To quote from them directly:
FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years.
The site has recently had a makeover and increasingly hosts a much wider variety of records than the baptisms and marriages of the original IGI (International Genealogical Index). In addition to transcribed indexes they now also include images from parish registers, and burials and census records are gradually being added. For Jamaica’s early parish registers, baptisms are now indexed but for the present to access older marriages and burials you must still use the images of the original handwritten indexes and then find the corresponding register page.
Transcribing Jamaican records presents particular problems, not just of difficult handwriting, but because of the complex state of relationships and colour status so it is always worth trying different combinations of parent names and different spellings. Apart from those who had no choice in coming to Jamaica from Africa, there were many arrivals from other parts of the world and as IGI widens its geographic spread you may now be able to find your ancestors who came from places other than Great Britain. You may also find ancestors who left Jamaica for the USA, Canada and other countries.
Recently completed indexing projects that will shortly be available on line include the following:
Italia (Antenati Italiani), Bergamo—Nati, 1875-1894 [Part 2C]
The question of whether our ancestors were actually married and if so where and when is one which has particular resonance in the context of 18th century Jamaica.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting, albeit briefly, Professor Rebecca Probert and her husband who were at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live event at Olympia in London. You might recognise Professor Probert from her appearances on television in programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Heirhunters and Lucy Worsley’s series Harlots, Heroines and Housewives. You will also find a very useful lecture by her (which you can download as a podcast) on marriage law and tracing marriages on the National Archives website.
Rebecca Probert is a Professor of Law, and her interest in genealogy has led her to extensive study of marriage law and to a crusading desire to correct many of the misapprehensions that exist about marriage practices and what constituted a legal marriage, which she saw propagated without question down the years in genealogy textbooks and handbooks.
For example, could you marry by jumping over a broomstick, did our ancestors indulge in test marriages for a year to see if the woman would become pregnant, did lack of parental consent mean a marriage was illegal, did many couples live together regarded as married by the custom and consent of their community? Professor Probert’s book Marriage Law for Genealogists sets out to provide the definitive answer to these and many other questions.
The book covers the law of England and Wales as Scotland has always had a separate legal system. It takes as its starting point the year 1600 and covers the many changes that took place in the seventeenth century during and after the Civil War, as well as critical legal changes such as the Hardwicke Marriage Act (which came into effect in 1754), and more recent changes such as that making it possible for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.
Because the author recognises that many readers will be interested in specific questions rather than wishing to read the book from cover to cover, she has structured it around a series of key questions, and flags up a series of key facts invaluable to anyone wishing to check on a particular aspect of marriage law. The questions she addresses are whether and why a couple got married, who could marry and whom they were free to marry, how marriages took place in terms of the formalities required, when a person could get married in relation to minimum age and questions of parental consent, and she provides some guidance on where marriages may have taken place. It was for example perfectly legal to get married in a parish other than your own and she discusses why this might have been the case.
Some misunderstandings about marriage are of relatively recent date. For example the belief that before 1754 a simple exchange of vows between two people constituted a valid marriage, can apparently be traced to a New York legal case in 1809, which led to an English case confusing the distinction between being bound to be married and actually being married. Being bound to be married Professor Probert compares with the exchange of contracts on a house purchase which binds the parties but requires completion. The notion that two parties could be married by jumping over a broomstick has been traced to a misunderstanding in a change of language when ‘broomstick’ was an adjective used to describe a sham, and resulted from a nineteenth century interest in pre-industrial folk customs, interpreting visual images of broomsticks as depicting actual folk ceremonies.
A similar misunderstanding arose concerning the term ‘hand fasting’, sometimes believed to be a marriage for a year and a day and used as a fertility test, but which was in fact no more than a period of betrothal which was a formal contract to be married at some future date.
Another myth that Professor Probert debunks is the notion that in the past huge numbers of people cohabited, married in the eyes of their community but not by their church. There were a great many reasons why this was not the case and in fact in the early eighteenth century only about 2% of births were illegitimate, with peaks during the First and Second World Wars, the rate did not really rise until the 1960s. The fact that you may not be able to find a record of your ancestors’ marriage, does not mean that they were not married nor that their children were illegitimate.
Who you were allowed to marry in the past was much more restricted than it is now. The so-called ‘prohibited degrees’ included close blood relations but also many who were only distantly related to you by marriage. The book includes a useful table of those marriages which could never be valid such as between a parent and child, those which have always been valid such as between cousins, and a range of permitted relationships which have varied over time. It is also interesting to note that if a marriage did occur within the prohibited degrees it could only be challenged while both parties were still alive.
You may have been surprised to discover an ancestor whom you knew to be a nonconformist, or a Roman Catholic, who nevertheless was married in an Anglican parish church. Before the advent of civil marriage in 1837 only Jews and Quakers were likely to have been married other than in an Anglican parish church by an Anglican clergyman, although Catholics often did go through a second Catholic ceremony. Even if your ancestor was married without calling the banns or by obtaining a licence, as long as the ceremony was conducted by an Anglican clergyman the marriage was clandestine but valid. During the Civil War religious marriage ceremonies were replaced for a brief period by a form of civil marriage, but Canon Law was reinstated in 1660 and the Hardwicke marriage act tightened up on what had been seen as a number of undesirable practices. After the mid-eighteenth century record keeping improves, to the relief of many a genealogist, but the fact that a marriage was not registered did not render it invalid. This protected the couple whose marriage might have been challenged as a result of an absent-minded cleric failing to keep proper records.
When considering your ancestor’s marriage Rebecca Probert makes clear the difference between directory requirements which were desirable, and mandatory requirements which if neglected would render a marriage invalid. She deals with questions such as couples who gave false or partial names in order to conceal an intended marriage from family members, and with those who did not have parental consent to their marriage. With the arrival of civil registration and the increasing availability of divorce the question of remarriage in church arose, and I was unaware that it was permissible to be remarried in church although since 1857 Anglican clergyman could refuse to perform such a ceremony.
Professor Probert’s book is an invaluable aid to anyone researching their family history and a useful antidote to the numerous myths that have grown up concerning marriage in the past.
Marriage in Jamaica
In relation to Jamaica the question of whether your ancestors were married relates very closely to who they were, why they were there and when. This is further complicated by the condition of the parish registers of the period. Although the legal regulation of marriage was the same as for the home country and local vicars were required to prepare ‘bishops transcripts’ of their registers, the frequent death of incumbents and the depredations of climate and insect attack on the primary copies of the registers mean that the registers were often poorly kept or have periods without entries. So as in England the lack of a register entry for a marriage does not mean it did not happen. Where both parties were from the white elite, and you can find baptism entries for their children you can be certain they were married.
However, during the eighteenth century there was a serious shortage of white women in Jamaica and an easy availability of free and enslaved women. This led to a variety of relationships, consensual and otherwise, resulting in the birth of mixed race children who if recognised by their fathers were often baptised with his name and were left property on his death. I have discussed previously what happened to some of these children when they were sent to England.
Marriages between free negroes or Taino Indians, who were present in Jamaica from the earliest days, did take place, but only rarely is the racial category assigned to the parties recorded in a parish register. For example, Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675. The disapproval accorded to any suggestion of a mixed race marriage is reflected in the reaction to the impending marriage of Rose Price in 1765.
A 1765 letter from Simon Taylor demonstrates the sort of disapproval that a marriage might incur when he refers to the intention of Rose Price to marry. ‘I cannot forget to acquaint you there is a Report on Friday last a Licence was taken out for our friend Rose Price and one Miss Patrick a Writing Master’s Daughter at Spanish [Town] and without a Shilling but that Rose sett out the next day for the Red Hills with his Black wife. I should be very sorry that he should play the fool so egregiously as there has been some coolness between his father and him for some time about other matters and in all probability this will so much incense the Old man that he will disinherit him…’ It is not clear whether Rose Price went ahead with the marriage since the following year he was married to Lydia Ann Fagan. Fear of ‘diluting’ the white elite was ever present and perhaps his father intervened to reinforce the convention that marrying a mixed race wife was just not done.
Readers of the book A Parcel of Ribbonswill be aware that the marriage of Robert Cooper Lee and Priscilla Kelly, the mixed race mother of his children, which took place on their arrival in London in 1771 seems to be absolutely unique. While there was nothing in canon law to have prevented it taking place in Jamaica, socially it was impossible.
One other feature of Jamaican marriages, among the white elite, is worth mentioning and that is the much younger average age of brides compared with young women in England. Whereas in England the average age of brides was around twenty-five during the eighteenth century, in Jamaica it was much younger. A systematic survey is required and matching baptisms (and assumed birth dates) with marriages is tricky but the overall impression is of most girls marrying in their teens. This is entirely understandable in the context of high rates of mortality in Jamaica, described by Trevor Burnard as ‘Britain’s most unhealthy colony’. To consolidate estates by marriage and create an heir as early as possible it was necessary to marry daughters as soon as a suitable match could be made. Given that Burnard  has calculated that in the parish of St Andrew the mean length of a marriage was eight years and four months and the median a mere six years and four months before the death of one partner, it is not surprising that early marriage was the norm and re-marriage frequent.
Of marriage ending in divorce rather than the death of one partner I only know of one case in eighteenth century Jamaica, where, as in England, a Private Act was required to achieve a divorce. In 1739 Edward Manning divorced his wife Elizabeth Moore citing her adultery with Ballard Beckford. Manning then followed the traditional Jamaican planter pattern of setting up house with a free mulatto woman, Elizabeth Pinnock, who outlived him and to whom he left property and slaves.
For those Jamaican inhabitants who were not of the white elite eighteenth century records are sparse. Only towards the end of the century does regular baptism of slaves become more common, often with changes of name, and with the advent of the Baptist Missionaries attempts to regularise relationships through marriage increased. Even after emancipation however, when people were free to make their own choices, rates of illegitimacy remained high.
With the increasing availability of parish register and civil records on-line you will have a greater chance of finding your ancestors than in the past and, with the aid of Rebecca Probert’s book, of establishing whether your ancestor was really married.
 Wood, Betty ed., The Letters of Simon Taylor of Jamaica to Chaloner Arcedeckne 1765-1775, in Travel Trade and Power in the Atlantic 1765-1884 Camden Miscellany XXXV, vol.19, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.24-25.
 Powers, Anne, A Parcel of Ribbons, Lulu.com, 2012, p 151.
 Burnard, Trevor, A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica, Journal of Social History, Vol.28,No 1(Autumn 1994) pp.63-82.
Probert, Rebecca, Marriage Law for Genealogists, the definitive guide, Takeaway (Publishing) 2012, ISBN 978-0-9563847-1-3
Old parish registers (OPR for short) are an invaluable source of genealogical information, but sadly are often only as good as the parish clerk or vicar who wrote in them. Some are written in beautiful script and contain additional information about the father’s occupation or the street in which the family lived, others are terse to the point of being almost useless without supporting information from another source.
If you have access to Ancestry, take a look at the registers for London where you can view the images of the actual pages. For example the early eighteenth century marriage records for St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London are clearly written and give the parish of both partners, but the later records in the same volume for baptisms and burials are untidy and hastily written although they do give the date of both birth and baptism, and the location of the burial.
Accuracy can be a problem and the record of the baptism of Robert Cooper Lee, whose parcel of ribbons gave this website its title, is doubly inaccurate – for the clerk of St Michael Bassishaw wrote his mother’s name as Sarah instead of Frances and his date of birth as the 4th of September when I know from a letter of his daughter Frances that it was the 15th. These problems can be much worse when dealing with the early Jamaican registers.
You can view the images of the early Jamaican parish registers on the Family Search site, which is free. These images are also available on microfilm through local LDS family history centres, although you may have to order them in for your local centre and pay the postage.
The coverage for different parishes varies a lot, with some of the earliest records in St Andrew (from 1664), St Catherine (from 1668) and Vere (from 1694) whereas Kingston only starts in 1721. Time, mould, insect attack, hurricane and fire took their toll on the records and they were sometimes copied to preserve them, not always with a hundred percent accuracy.
Until the Family Search site completes the computerised indexing of the records, you are dependent on either paging through a particular parish and time period, or using the hand compiled indexes whose images are also available. These are not in fully alphabetical order, but are organised by letter of the alphabet with blocks of records covering a period of years. If you are lucky the one you are looking at will have an annotation in the margin telling you what period it relates to, but not always. The index will give you a volume and folio reference in the form 1/23. Because the images cover two pages of the register an entry at 1/23 might be on image 12 or somewhere either side of it. Be aware that not all records are indexed, that marriages are only indexed by the name of the man and that a child’s baptism may be indexed under the mother’s name if it is illegitimate even if it later took its father’s name.
To have a good chance of finding the records you are interested in, it helps to understand family naming conventions in the eighteenth century which often followed a quite regular pattern. Where a couple were married and their children were legitimate, the eldest son was usually named after his father or one of his grandfathers, and the eldest daughter after her mother or grandmothers. It was also common for a surname to be used as a first name and the surname of a grandparent to be used as a middle name. For example Thomas Beckford married Mary Ballard in 1703 in St Catherine, Jamaica, and their eldest son was called Ballard Beckford, as was his son. The second Ballard Beckford’s daughter was named Mary Ballard Beckford.
Don’t be surprised if you find that a couple use the same name repeatedly – high infant mortality often meant that a father would make several attempts to carry on his name – if you see the same name repeated, look for a corresponding infant burial between the two baptisms. Robert Cooper Lee’s father Joseph had two attempts at a namesake before his youngest son survived.
After the eldest son and daughter, children were then named for the siblings of their parents, or after an aunt or uncle or their godparents. Sometimes they were named in honour of a family friend. Robert Cooper Lee, whose eldest son named after his brother John died young, named one son after himself; one after his friend Richard Welch; Matthew Allen Lee after his friend John Allen and Scudamore Cooper Lee after his friend Scudamore Winde. In turn John Allen named his first son John Lee Allen. Name patterns like this can often be helpful in tracing patterns of friendship especially if backed up by bequests in Wills.
In Jamaica the records are complicated by the number of illegitimate children, many born to white fathers and slave or mixed race mothers. In the early history of Jamaica slaves were not usually baptised or married in church as it was feared that if they became Christian they might acquire the rights of Christians. However from the earliest days there were free blacks and free people of mixed race – often the product of liaisons between white planters and merchants and their slaves or housekeepers. The latter were often free women of mixed race who moved between communities having some of the privileges of the white world, and as described in the article about Mary Johnston Rose, sometimes acquiring the status of being legally white.
When it came to recording the baptisms, marriages and burials of black and mixed race Jamaicans the local vicars varied in what they recorded. Some white fathers happily acknowledged their children and their names appear alongside the name of the mother in the register. However the child’s surname may be indexed as either the father’s or the mother’s. For example in 1748 John Lee and Mary Lord had a child baptised as Mary Ann Lord, the name she was buried under soon after.
In the case of the children of Mary Johnston Rose her sons Thomas Wynter and William Fuller took their father’s surnames and she was generally known as Mary Rose, although her mother was Elizabeth Johnston. That she used the name Mary Johnston Rose strongly suggests that she was the acknowledged daughter of a man called Rose, albeit not legitimate. In letters she is referred to as Mrs Rose, but beware of assuming that Mrs means that a woman was married – the title Mistress was used for both married and single women, and Mrs was also sometimes a courtesy title rather like Madame in French was used for an older woman.
The Jamaican registers may or may not tell you something useful about the ethnic origin of the person. The St Catherine’s register has the marriage of Emanuel Angola and Malina Angola in 1671, which only hints at African origin through their names. In 1677 Peter Moore and Black Betty were married as ‘free negroes’, but on the same page the marriage record of a mulatto and a negro does not tell us whether they were free. There was no requirement on parish priests to follow a set form in what they recorded, and as a result the records are fragmentary, inconsistent and sometimes very hard to read!
By the middle of the eighteenth century it is becoming more common to record the status of an individual, and children are baptised using all the various categories of colour discussed in an earlier posting. Whereas a legitimate child almost always has both parents named, the illegitimate may have none – but almost always its colour is recorded. Watch out for abbreviations such as ‘Mul.’ Or simply ‘M’ for mulatto, a letter Q (which can look like a 2) for a quadroon. Such is the segregation of people according to their colour that some of the Kingston registers actually had separate sections for Whites and People of Colour.
Civil Registration began in Jamaica on the 1st of April 1878 but some districts did not record until up to five years later. The Family Search site has over one and a half million records for Trelawny Parish Civil Registration Births, 1878-1930, and over 280,000 other indexed records from 1752-1920.
The rejoicing will be great on the part of this user when the fully indexed records are finally available online.
So good luck with your searches, and good hunting!