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The British Record Society 1889-2009

The British Record Society was founded in 1889 largely to take over responsibility for the Index Library, which had begun life the previous year as a private scheme for the publication of indexes to British public records. The Society was also always interested in record conservation, and to act as what would now be called a pressure group for archives and their users. From the outset the Society was actively concerned with probate records, and its first completed volume was an index to Northamptonshire and Rutland Wills 1510-1652. In its early years it also published indexes to other records, notably Chancery Proceedings and Inquisitions Post Mortem.

The creation of an official series of Lists and Indexes in 1892 reduced the need for private publication of indexes to records in the Public Record Office, and the Society thereafter turned its attention to records held in other repositories. Of the first 50 volumes of the Index Library, about a quarter were issued in conjunction with local historical societies. Collaborations of this kind have resumed in recent years.

In the 1920s the Society became more actively involved in records preservation; in 1929 it absorbed the Manorial Society (which had been listing collections of manorial documents since 1906) and hired premises for sorting documents and sending them to local record offices. However, in 1933, this side of the Society's work was handed over to the newly-formed British Records Association, which flourishes to this day.

Just over half of the first 50 volumes were indexes to wills and administrations, and from the 1930s to the 1990s the Society concentrated almost exclusively on publishing indexes to probate records. The pace of publication was slow before and after the Second World War, but the 1950s witnessed a general quickening of tempo in editorial work, thanks largely to the energetic involvement of Dr Marc Fitch.

Over the next 40 years the thrust of the Society's work was threefold:

  1. The continued publication of indexes to the pre-1700 records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (the highest probate court in the land), a project now complete apart from administrations 1660-1700, which it is hoped will see the light of day over the next few years.
  2. A concerted attempt to tackle the pre-1700 records of the various London probate courts, a task now nearing completion.
  3. The enlistment of county archivists across the land in the task of producing indexes to local probate records, an enterprise that has resulted in the publication of numerous local indexes, notably those concerned with the records of Essex, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire (several of which cover the entire period to 1858 when the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in probate matters came to an end.)

The Society has gradually improved the quality of its indexes and increased the quantity of information they contain. Whenever possible, inventories are indexed as well as wills and administrations. Occupations and places of residence are always included, and are themselves indexed, thereby ensuring that the volumes are of value not only to genealogists but to economic, social and local historians.

Throughout its history, the Society has been dependent on subscription income and voluntary labour. The work involved in producing a single index can be enormous, and the timelag between the initiation of a project and the eventual appearance of a volume has tended to be lengthy. This remains the case, although modern technology has speeded up the sorting of index entries and the preparation of supplementary indexes. The advent of microfiche publication was also of temporary benefit, enabling the Society to increase its output, but the main series of Index Library volumes continued to be published in traditional printed and casebound form. We shortly expect to put some of our probate publications on the Internet, so that they may be found more readily, especially by family historians. We also hope this will generate extra income for the Society and also for the Record Offices concerned, through orders for reproductions of documents.

With the completion of the Society's work on pre-1700 probate records in sight (if far from imminent), it was faced with the choice of simply continuing its work on post-1700 probate records or producing indexes to other records. A two-pronged approach has emerged. The BRS will continue to publish indexes to probate records but is also collaborating with the University of Roehampton (in a project adopted by the British Academy) in producing a series of texts of Hearth Tax returns for the 1660s and 1670s. This major project has the aim of providing an indexed transcript of a Hearth Tax return for each county, concentrating on those counties where no such transcript has yet been printed.

Since 2000 the BRS has published Hearth Tax volumes for Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Durham, Warwickshire, West Yorkshire and Westmorland; and probate volumes for Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and the dioceses of Lichfield and Salisbury.