Family history is all about finding and reading documents, whether you look at scanned images at our site, or hunt for the originals in record offices. As you work your way back from recent certificates to older wills and parish registers, the writing on these documents can be tricky, as the words and their meanings – and even the shapes of the letters themselves – have changed over time. Understanding these ancient scrawls can often be the key to comprehending your ancestors’ lives.
Generally, older records are harder to read. Documents from the 19th and 20th centuries mainly use the words and writing styles we’re used to today, so they don’t present too many problems. Where you do run into difficulties, it’s often because of bad handwriting or poor equipment – blobs of ink obscuring letters and writing that’s so faded it’s almost illegible are common issues.
As you move into the 17th and 18th centuries, you’ll find far more variation. Spelling can be particularly difficult, as it wasn’t standardised until compulsory education began around 1870. Surnames and place names in particular can have a wide variety of spellings, even on the same page.
Documents from around this time will also start to introduce you to different styles of handwriting. Although these are all in English, they can look quite different from modern script.
The first style you’ll come across will probably be Round Hand. This free-flowing, expressive way of writing is especially common in personal papers and letters from the 18th century. It’s not too far away from how we write today, although early examples may use different shapes for capital letters, almost interchangeable i’s and j’s, and a long s.
These variations are a hangover from the precursor to Round Hand – Secretary Hand. This style emerged in the 16th century, and dominated in England for almost 200 years – so you’ll often come across it on parish registers. Secretary Hand can look like nothing but scribbles at first, but take the time to look at individual letters in turn and you’ll often find you can decipher it.
A 17th-century alternative was Italic Hand. This style developed in Italy though the Renaissance. It’s far easier to read than Secretary Hand, but unfortunately it’s less common.
Before this time, most of the population couldn’t write at all, so there was little need for a universal style. Several Royal and Government departments developed their own scripts. The most successful of these was Chancery Hand, used at the Royal Chancery in Westminster. You may come across it in legal documents, especially wills. It’s usually very neat, but the formal letter shapes can be confusing.
There are some simple tricks you can use to help you understand old documents:
1) Look closely
Place the document on a clean surface in a well-lit room. Then either put on gloves or make sure your hands are clean. Take a magnifying glass, and examine each part of the document, to make sure you spot every letter and small mark.
2) Read slowly
Read through the document slowly and carefully. Today, many of us are used to ‘skim reading’, so you’ll need to resist the temptation to skip ahead, and take the time to look carefully at each individual letter. If you’re unsure about any words, leave them out and go back to them later.
3) Make a chart
It’s useful to make an alphabet chart as you go. This is very easy – just write out the alphabet on a separate piece of paper, then copy examples from the document for each letter – preferably lower and upper case. It’s easiest if you can identify letters in more obvious words like names and places, then refer to your chart to help with more difficult words.
4) Write it down
When you’ve read the whole thing, go back to the beginning and attempt to transcribe the document in your own handwriting. You can either leave out words you don’t know, or put suggestions with question marks. Make sure you transcribe what’s actually there – don’t correct spellings or add missing characters, as you may make mistakes that will confuse you later.
5) Spot the differences
You’ll find it much easier on your second read through. Look out for unusual spellings. For example, i’s and j’s are often interchanged, and if a writer does this once, they may well do so again later on. Also be careful of downward strokes, which can cause confusion with i’s, u’s, n’s and m’s.
6) Shortened forms
Abbreviations can be particularly tricky. It helps to keep a list of them as you come across them, perhaps with your best guess of what they mean. You can then look them up in a dictionary or online after you’ve finished.
These tips will help you decipher many of the older records in our collections, and track down mentions of your family.
If you come up with a portion of a document that you just can't read, try reaching out. We have a very helpful community on our Facebook page who enjoy jumping in to help with family history questions. You can join us on Facebook here.