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Using the hearth tax for genealogy and family history

Researching those in the past

Genealogy can be generally defined as the study of the descents of families and persons from an ancestor or ancestors. Many people undertake this as a means to discovering more about their own family but there is also a more professional side to the pursuit connected with the legal or financial purposes of establishing lineage. The purpose of this is simply to establish descent, rather than to gain insight or understanding of the lives of the ancestors.

Family History is to some degree distinct from genealogy in that it refers to those undertaking research into their own ancestry with the aim of producing a documented narrative of lineage for the interest of family members and future generations. Family history tends to broaden out from merely the legal status of the ancestor and the research endeavours to 'flesh out' the individuals identified with information regarding where and how they lived.

There are also those who undertake 'one-name' studies, which are effectively projects that seek to research all occurrences of a particular surname rather than focus on a particular pedigree or descendancy. Often these studies concentrate on aspects of geographical distribution or locating a single original location of a name. Although distinct from both genealogy and family history, 'one-name' studies are of course closely related to both areas and therefore there is much collaboration between individuals and societies.

The hearth tax documents

The hearth tax was levied between 1662 and 1689 on each householder according to the number of hearths in his/her occupation. The administrators were required to compile lists of householders with the number of their hearths according to county. Early demographers and political arithmeticians, such as Gregory King (d. 1712), recognised that returns to the hearth tax were a rich store of data, but it was not until the late 1960s that modern historians really focused on the value of the hearth tax for a range of enquiries. Historians have continued to draw upon it to assess distributions of population and the divisions between rich and poor in national and local contexts, and in association with other sources it can also be used to assess vernacular architecture, life cycles, population movements, patterns of employment, kinship and the family, and early modern local government jurisdictions.

The British Academy Hearth Tax Project

The goal of the Hearth Tax Project is to publish the best surviving hearth tax return for every county in England and Wales that has not already had a satisfactory return published. Each Hearth Tax volume contains a general introduction, an authoritative and original analysis of the transcript, numerous statistical tables and is lavishly illustrated with full colour maps and photographs. However, what is of most interest to those engaged in any sort of genealogical research is that the volumes contain printed transcripts of the original manuscripts listing all of those who were liable for the tax and in some cases a great many of those who were poor or exempt. This includes details such as forename, surname, and the number of hearths for which the individual was liable or the exemption status. Sometimes, it also includes other information such as status or rank, e.g. Sir, Widow, and Esq.

For many of those interested in researching individuals in the past, the period prior to civil registration in 1837 tends to be most problematic. This can be due to a number of factors, such as the unavailability of materials, unfamiliar format, the use of peculiar terminology or simply that the documents are written in illegible scripts, and/or in Latin. Furthermore, the range of documents from which to identify and quantify individuals significantly narrows the further back in time from 1837 that one researches. Another problem is that, over time, areas change both geographically and politically with regard to boundaries, administrative units and place names; all of which can disorientate and frustrate research.

The Hearth Tax Project volumes are extremely valuable to those researching individuals in the seventeenth century. The most notable feature is the volume of data; for instance, the returns for the West Riding of Yorkshire lady day 1672 list the names of 31, 866 people. Thus, researchers can identity the names of individuals living in particular places at a particular time. Such information can be used to ascertain or confirm the whereabouts of a particular person or to demonstrate patterns of family mobility. The volumes also provide an insight into the status and economic position of the individual by recording how many hearths they were liable for, or if they were exempt due to poverty, limited means or other factors.

The Hearth Tax Project volumes provide the researcher with an extremely user friendly means of accessing the material. The handwritten return is transcribed and printed in full, negating the need to access the original manuscript, decipher the handwriting or understand the manuscript formatting. Place names are given in both original and modern spellings and the full colour maps graphically depict the seventeenth century boundaries and collection areas. Unusual or difficult abbreviations or Latin terminology are explained or translated in line with modern scholarly standards.

Each volume also includes a number of indexes to make locating the required information as straightforward as possible. The surname index is, perhaps, most valuable for those researching individuals in the past as it provides an immediate indication of the presence of a particular individual or family. However, the volumes also contain a place name index as well as a general index containing information about types of dwellings such as bakeries or smithies, and some information on status descriptors. Once again, these indexes make the locating of key information a quick and simply task.

In addition to the hard-copy volumes, the Centre has also launched the Hearth Tax Online website, which provides free access to growing range of hearth tax transcripts, surname indexes and other resources.

People and surnames

The immense value and efficacy of the Hearth Tax volumes to those studying names and in particular those undertaking 'one-name' studies is illustrated by this quote from Professor David Hey in the introduction to the volume on the West Riding of Yorkshire:

'The hearth tax returns come halfway between the period of surname formation and the present day and so are an invaluable source for the study of the distribution of names and thus of population movement. The West Riding is particularly rich in the number and variety of its distinctive surnames, many of which were derived from Pennine farmsteads and hamlets, names such as Ackroyd, Barraclough, Gaukroger and Murgatroyd, which originated high in the Calder Valley, or Hallamshire names such as Broomhead, Creswick, Dungworth and Staniforth. But all classes of surnames are represented; those derived from personal names such as Oddy (which has a single-family origin in the Ribblesdale township of Rimington), from nicknames such as Shillitoe or Sillitoe (from Featherstone), and from occupations such as Frobisher (a polisher of armour, from Altofts). Each seem to have had a single ancestor and had remained close to their points of origin.'

Whether you are looking to locate a family member as part of personal research into your family tree, have a specific interest in surnames or a more general interest in a particular county, it is likely that the research undertaken by the Hearth Tax Project will be of some considerable use or interest to you.