A ‘gypsy king’, the ‘peasant poet’, the fattest man in England, and death by lioness: five centuries of life and death in historic Leicestershire revealed online for the first time

  • Findmypast launch first phase of new landmark collection
  • Over 3.5 million records dating back to the reign of Henry VII now available online

Leading UK family history website findmypast.co.uk has today, 23rd January 2016, published online for the first time more than 3.5 million historic records in partnership with Leicestershire county council’s Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland.

The publication marks the first phase of Findmypast’s new Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland collection, a rich archive spanning the years 1490 to 1991 comprising beautifully scanned images of original handwritten documents. When complete, the collection will be the largest online repository of Leicestershire family history records in the word.

There is a variety of fascinating documents, including parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials, wills and probate records dating back to 1490, and millions of electoral registers spanning the years 1710 to 1974.

Councillor Richard Blunt, the county council’s cabinet member for heritage, said: “We are delighted that so much of our county's rich history and many of its people's stories will be better known through our partnership with Find My Past. For the first time, records will be readily accessible, in full colour, throughout the world."

The records are full of fascinating details of Leicestershire life through the ages and will provide researchers from all over the world with the opportunity to uncover the stories of the inhabitants of England’s most central county for the very first time. Fully searchable transcripts of each original document are also included, enabling anyone to go online and search for their Leicestershire ancestors by name, location and date.

These records cover the ancient counties of Leicestershire and Rutland. However, as some of the collections are drawn from different jurisdictions or were subject to boundary changes, some areas now beyond today’s boundaries, such as Little Bowden and Over and Netherseal, are also included.
Paul Nixon, Content Licensing Manager at Findmypast, said: “Findmypast’s new Leicestershire county collection is a tremendous way to kick-start the New Year and we are sure that visitors to Findmypast will be as excited about these records, published here for the first time, as we are to be working with Leicestershire County Council.”

Famous folk found in the records

Covering a wide area and timeframe, many of the region’s most famous sons and daughters can be found in the records including:

  • Daniel Lambert - the well-known gaol keeper and animal breeder who was famed for his unusual size appears in a 1770 baptism register from St Margaret's church in Leicester. In 1805, Lambert's weighed 50 stone making him the heaviest authenticated person up to that point in recorded history.
  • The parents of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick – can be found in an 1861 marriage register from the parish of Thurmaston. Joseph Rockley Merrick and his wife, Mary Jane Potterton, ran a haberdashery shop in Leicester and young Joseph enjoyed a close relationship with his mother. He was eventually forced to flee the family home after his mother’s death and father’s remarriage as he was viewed as a financial burden and treated cruelly.
  • Absalom Smith, ‘King of the Gipsies’ – was buried in the parish of Twyford on February 10th 1826. He was responsible for enforcing the gypsy ‘code of laws’ and adjudicating any infringements. He was a renowned athlete (especially good at running and jumping) and fiddle player who could often be seen performing at country events. Smith died at the age 60, leaving behind a wife, 13 children and 54 grandchildren.
  • The celebrated novelist, Edward Phillips Oppenheim, enjoyed massive success as a writer of genre fiction during his own lifetime. He was baptised at the parish church of St Mary Magdalen in Knighton on April 30th 1866.
  • John Johnson – the renowned English architect and Surveyor surveyor to the county of Essex (best known for designing the Shire Hall, Chelmsford and London’s Asia House). Johnson was baptised at the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester, on July 23rd 1732. He was also buried there in 1814.
  • Henry Walter Bates FRS FLS FGS – the English naturalist and explorer who gave the first scientific account of mimicry in animals can be found in an 1825 baptism register from Leicester Cathedral. Bates was famous for his expedition to the rain forests of the Amazon with Alfred Russell Wallace, starting in 1848. When Bates arrived home in 1859 after eleven years, he had sent back over 14,712 species (mostly of insects) of which 8,000 were new to science. Bates published his findings in his best-known work, The Naturalist on the River Amazons.
  • Donald Lewes Hings, CM MBE – the inventor who, in 1937, created a portable radio signalling system which later became known as the "walkie-talkie". Hings’ family emigrated to Canada when he was three years old but not before having him baptised at the church of St Barnabas in Evington.
  • John Clare – the “peasant poet”, is in a marriage register from Great Casterton in Rutland. Clare, the son of a farm labourer, came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption. His works underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century, and he is now often considered to be among the most important 19th-century poets. His entry on the register records his marriage to Martha Turner in 1820.
  • Sydney "Syd" Maurice Lucas – one of three remaining British Tommies of World War I (along with Harry Patch and Netherwood Hughes) who died in 2008 at the age of 108. He was born in Leicester and married his wife, Winifred, at All Saints’ Church, Loughborough on August 2nd 1920. Syd was conscripted into the British Army's Sherwood Foresters while a teenager in August 1918 and, at the time of his death in 2008, was one of the four remaining veterans in the world to have served in both World Wars.
  • Harold Lineker – the grandfather of Leicestershire sporting icon, Gary Lineker, can be found in a 1911 baptism register from the Leicester parish of St George. The register reveals that Harold’s aunts, Grace and Maud Lineker, were baptised alongside him.

Leicestershire’s rich history revealed

The collection will be of great interest to social historians as the records can provide incredible insights into numerous events from the county’s rich history. For example, burial registers from Loughborough present evidence of the scale of a 1609 outbreak of the bubonic plague while registers from across the county reveal details of soldiers killed during the English Civil War.

Everyday tragedies are also captured. Over centuries when childbirth was still incredibly dangerous, it is not uncommon to find instances of children recorded as ‘stillborn’ or “abortive”. More unusual entries include the death of Roger Sheppard, who was “slain by a lioness” and was buried in the parish of All Saints, Loughborough.

Further references to darker chapters of the county’s history can also be found, including a mention of the baptism of Edward Juba, a slave described ‘as black’, in the Kirkby Mallory registers of 1734. In addition, the collection records the marriages of a number of French prisoners of war interned in the county during the Napoleonic Wars, such as the marriage in Ashby de la Zouch of a French soldier named Auguste Segoing to a local girl named Elizabeth Bailey in 1813. There are also many marriages to soldiers from the West Essex Militia, serving as guards in the town.

Also included is the burial of a Mrs Amy Waldron, who died at the age of 101 in 1858. Registers from the parish of St Andrew’s in Aylestone confirm her impressive age as notes reveal she was baptised on the 18th of November 1756.

Other unusual entries include a marriage between a hearing-impaired couple in 1575. In a register from the parish of St Martin’s in Leicester, the local clergyman went to great lengths to describe the sign language involved in conducting such an unusual service.

All of these records can be explored at http://www.findmypast.com/leicestershire-records.

About Findmypast

Findmypast (previously DC Thomson Family History) is a British-owned world leader in online family history. It has an unrivalled record of online innovation in the field and 18 million registered users across its family of online brands, which includes Lives of the First World War, The British Newspaper Archive and Genes Reunited, amongst others.

Its lead brand, also called Findmypast, is a searchable online archive of over eight billion family history records, ranging from parish records and censuses to migration records, military collections, historical newspapers and lots more. For members around the world, the site is a crucial resource for building family trees and conducting detailed historical research.

In April 2003, Findmypast was the first online genealogy site to provide access to the complete birth, marriage, and death indexes for England & Wales, winning the Queen’s Award for Innovation. Since that time, the company has digitized records from across the globe, including major collections from Britain, Ireland, Australia, and the United States. Findmypast, in association with The National Archives, recently launched the 1939 Register, a record of 41 million lives on the eve of World War II.

About the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

Although the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland is still relatively young (having been born in 1947) it can trace its ancestors back much further. The Museum in Leicester collected archives from 1849 and many of the families and institutions the Record Office serves held their own archives for centuries before passing them into professional hands.

In fact the records themselves go back much further than official collecting – dating back to the first decade of the 12th century. They include parish registers, wills, maps, photographs, sound recordings and film as well as the records of thousands of individuals, institutions, businesses and associations. The whole collection combines to tell the story of the millions of individuals who have made Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland what they are today.

Now many of these stories will be even better known thanks to the partnership with Find My Past who have digitised and indexed our parish registers, wills and electoral rolls. For the first time these priceless records will be seen in full colour throughout the world, allowing people anywhere to appreciate our rich and diverse heritage.