Discovering Your Family History - Getting Started

In recent years television programmes such as the  BBC’s "Who Do You Think You Are?" have hugely increased interest in genealogy. lf you have ever thought of starting your own journey of discovery but have not quite known where or how to begin, you might like to follow this new series of articles highlighting some of the more important sources in tracing your family history. We shall be looking for examples from Yapton to illustrate the process.

A good place to start is with the records of the parish church. The church, as now, had the spiritual well-being of its flock at heart and was responsible for recording the rites of passage of parishioners. The parish itself was the basic unit of local government from Tudor times and its wide range of responsibilities touched the lives of villagers in a variety of ways.

Church Lane, Yapton

The archives of St Mary, Yapton, now preserved in the County Record Office in Chichester, are a good example of the records created in carrying out these religious and civil roles and today they are essential sources for the family historian.

Parish registers are records of baptisms. marriages and burials and before civil registration began in 1837 are the principal means of tracing a family back in time through the centuries. The first volume for Yapton starts in 1538 and consists of 25 folios of parchment. Deciphering handwriting can be a problem but we are helped today by the fact that most early registers have been transcribed and indexed.

One of my favourite parish register entries is a baptism at North Mundham in 1817 recording the christening of the 27th child of one family of agricultural labourers. Families could be large in those days! There are often interesting insights in these records into the life of the village. Around this time in Yapton there are references in the registers to the baptism of children of soldiers billeted here with their wives during the Napoleonic Wars.

Officers, such as churchwardens and overseers of the poor, carried out the many and various administrative tasks allotted to the parish. Vestry minute books record their appointment. Account books list their expenditure. ln 1745 at Yapton they bought a property for use as a parish poor house. ln the 1780s the churchwardens were regularly paying out for new strings for the violins, violas and cellos in the church band. Later they were levying rates to clear up after a ‘great storm’ in 1897 and a fire in the belfry in 1909.

St Mary the Virgin, Yapton

All of these sources are rich in names and provide a means of compiling a family tree and adding the colour that makes genealogy so fascinating and compulsive an interest. We will be examining other categories of records in future articles and seeing how they shed light too on the story of our village.

ln the meantime do come along to the County Record Office. We have 25 miles of documents going back 1200 years. We also have electronic databases and free public access to the family history websites Ancestry and Findmypast. We also have friendly and expert staff to help you on your journey. We are open six days a week and visiting is free. You will be very welcome.

Alan Readman

Alan Readman is the County Archivist based at the West Sussex Record Ofiice, Orchard Street, Chichester. PO19 1DD. Tel: 01243 753602. Email:

(Originally published in Yapton News, November 2012)