Tuesday 17 February 2015

Recognizing Notables in the Parish Records

I have occasionally observed the use of titles and honorifics in the registers of Cornwood parish, Devon. Invariably they were attached to notable people in the community who, for the most part, were major landowners. I use this example as it is the area of origin of my Shepheard ancestors and for which I have transcribed all of the parish baptism, marriage and burial records. I am sure that the same holds true for other parishes in Britain.

The heads of the Rogers family were consistently referred to with the titles of “Sir” and “Bart.” – for Baronet – in the Cornwood registers; for the women, “Lady” or “Dame” were used. John Rogers, the first of the line, made his fortune as a merchant and bought an estate and the lordship of the manor, called Blatchford, from John Hele, in 1690. He was created a Baronet in 1699. Eight Baronets from the Rogers family, including one who was created Baron, Lord Blachford, in 1871, are buried at Cornwood, and, as one might expect, all with their full titles recorded in the burial register.
1716 baptism entries for Frederick & Barbara, son & daughter of Sir J. Rogers Bart. & Mary his wife
1889 burial entry for Frederick Rogers, Lord Blachford

One term that most people are familiar with in family history records is Esquire. It originally was generally used interchangeably with “squire” although that word originated as the individual who served a knight.

Historically, in Britain, Esquire was the title used for man with a “rank next below that of Knight. Besides those Esquires who are personal attendants of Knights of Orders of Knighthood, this title is held by all attendants on the person of the Sovereign, and all persons holding the Sovereign's commission being of military rank not below Captain ; also, by general concession, by Barristers at Law, Masters of Arts, and Bachelors of Law and Physic” (Boutell, 1899). In the 1600s, Esquire was defined generally as the title for the eldest sons of knights or peers and their eldest sons in perpetuity, for those in positions created by the monarch or by virtue of their office, such as Justices of the Peace. In more modern times it may be attached to the name of any man in formal use or in the address of a letter where there is no prefixed title.

In the Cornwood parish registers only a few men were recorded with the term, Esquire, all of them members of the most affluent and influential families in the parish and owners of the major manors or estates – including the Hays, Hele, Maynard, Pode, Praed, Savery and Trefusis families. The burial register is most often the place one finds the title recorded. The title was almost expressly used for the eldest sons of the families, which was the norm in Britain.
1691 burial entry for Robert Savery Esquire of Slade
1692 baptism entry for Waltham Savery, son of Will. Savery Junr. Esq & Catherine his wife

Another term used for many individuals in the same families where a man was accorded the title of Esquire is Gentleman; Gentlewoman was common for the wives or daughters of these families. In the registers, the term is not used for any of those men known as Esquire, suggesting the designation was more restricted to younger siblings of those families – still “gentle” by birth but likely not in line for inheriting titles or necessarily land. Many of those recorded with the term, Gentleman, were from wealthy land-owning families but not part of the most “titled” families – knights or peers.

1685 burial entry for William Mason Gentn.
1830 baptism entry for Joshua Horton Northmore, son of Mary & Matthew Fortescue Northmore, of Hanger, Gent.
Many of those recorded in Cornwood records, with the term, Gentleman, were from wealthy land-owning families but not part of the most “titled” families – knights or peers – including the Badcock, Bunswell, Burrell, Coryton, Fortesque, Hele, Mason, Maynard, Northmore, Prideaux, Rogers, Savery, Williams and Worthington families.

More commonly, other important members of the community were identified by an honorific – Mr., Mrs. or Miss. Again, none of the individuals who were shown as Esquire or Gentleman (Gentlewoman) were referred to in this manner in the registers although the widows of some gentlemen or esquires might also be shown as Mrs. Most of the references are found on the burial register. The land tax lists also have numerous individuals shown as Mr. or Mrs. In all cases, these were individuals who also owned land in the parish.

My 5th and 6th great-grandfathers were referred to in most register entries as Mr. Both were land-owners and active in the community.

Nicholas Shepheard (ca 1675-1756) – 6th great-grandfather – was listed in the Devon Freeholders lists as “yeoman”, “gentleman” and “freeholder” between 1711 and 1733. He was an original Feoffee and Trustee for Wakeham's Rooke Charity set up in 1700 and continued to administer the fund until his death in 1756. On the baptism entries of seven of his nine children, Nicholas was shown as Mr. His burial was recorded as Mr. Nicholas Shepard and his wife’s as Mrs. Amy Shepard. The spelling of their names in the registers was done at the discretion of the Vicar but not in keeping with other documents Nicholas has signed as Shepheard.
1718 baptism entry of John Shepherd, son of Mr. Nicholas & Amy Shepherd
1723 burial entries for Ann and Amy Shepherd, daughters of Mr. Nicho. Shepherd
1751 burial entry for Mrs. Amy Shepard
1756 burial entry for Mr. Nicholas Shepard

Nicholas Shepheard (1716-1786) – 5th great-grandfather – was listed in the Devon Freeholder’s lists as “gentleman” and “freeholder” from 1762 to 1783. The designation indicates he had a fairly high position in the parish. He was shown as a co-Assessor & Collector on the Land Tax Assessment roles as well as a land owner of two major properties in the parish. He also served as the Churchwarden for St. Michael & All Angels Church in Cornwood. In that position he was primarily responsible for having the bells manufactured and installed in the church belfry in 1770. His name is cast into five of the bells (see my post of July 1, 2014). Nicholas was a Trustee of the Wakeham's Rooke Charity with brother, Richard, succeeding their father, Nicholas, in the position.

Recording the status of individuals by way of title is very much an old practice. In Cornwood parish the last time the term Esquire was used was in 1898 in the baptism register when Phyllis Cordelia Pode, daughter of Cyril Augustus & Constance Pode, of Slade manor, was baptized. In the burial register, it was for George Crawley, Esquire, a Captain in the Royal Navy, who was buried in 1810.

The last use of Gentleman was in 1896 in the baptism register when Gerard Parker, son of Mackworth Parker, of Moor Cross, was baptized. In the burial register, it was for Henry Rogers who died in 1716.

An honorific was last used in the baptism register in 1808 when Anne Roberts was baptized, her father being a servant to Mr. Pode. The last reference in the burial register was for Mrs. Anne Hayes in 1803.

Knowing the people within a parish or region and observing the titles or honorifics with which they are recorded allows one to get a sense of the hierarchy in the community at the time. Obviously, titles conferred by the Crown are at the highest level – knights, baronets, barons. Those known as Esquire appear to occupy a second level. And Gentlemen/Gentlewomen are the third. Both of these we might refer to as “gentry” or “landed aristocracy”. In past centuries, those called Mr. or Mrs., especially on official documents, were important people in the community and very likely all land-owners. In Cornwood parish we can certainly make the above connections to social position and influence.

All baptism and burial images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the rights holder, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office. Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.


Boutell, Charles. (1867). English Heraldry. London & New York: Cassell, Petter. and Galpin.