Family history research without the Internet

For those of you who have been following the roller-coaster ride of my search for my ancestors here on, you’ll know that as yet I haven’t really left my proverbial chair. All the research so far as been done on various web sites… oh, and not forgetting info from my relative Caroline (who I got in touch with via a web site). The first reliable national census was carried out in 1841, and central birth / marriage / death records started in the 3rd quarter of 1837 – this info is available on-line. There are some parish records available on-line, but there’s a lot of info missing. While Norfolk is very complete, London and Middlesex records are very infrequent. So there comes a time when you have to leave the chair and get down among the old records.

My research so far had revealed that one of my great x4 grandfathers was Russell (sometimes spelt with one l) Brown, born around 1791, a fisherman living at Fisherman’s Place in Chiswick. Fisherman’s Place was a group of run-down cottages situated very close to St Nicholas Church, otherwise known as Chiswick Parish Church. Fisherman’s Place, incidentally, was known as Slut’s Hole until they changed the name (for the better, methinks). So, was it safe to assume that the Brown family and some of my other nearby ancestors were recorded in the Parish of St Nicholas? The answer, it seems, is yes. If you’re interested, you should refer to the map in this blog post.

The web site of Chiswick Parish Church states that the church “is privileged to hold almost complete Registers and Vestry records in the Archives dating back to 1622”. And they welcome enquiries from researchers. Fantastic. I e-mailed Jane Watson, keeper of the archives, who responded very quickly and said that they would look for some likely records when they held their next research meeting. A couple of weeks later Jane replied and said that they’d found many relevent records, but the best course of action would be to contact her colleague Carolyn Hammond at Chiswick Library. Jane explained that the library’s local research room had transcripts of the parish records, and it prevented handling of the old original records. Carolyn has written a book on the history of Chiswick (you can find it on and she invited me to meet her at the local research room where she works part-time as a volunteer. I took an afternoon off work and made my way to Chiswick.

Carolyn started by showing me an entry found in the parish’s poverty register, describing the condition of John Cotton (another great x4 grandfather), his wife Sarah and their seven children. Actually I didn’t have proof that this was my John Cotton, although research during afternoon proved this was him. This is how the entry from 6th April 1840 read…

Husband sat by fire either tipsy or sick – wife says he worked for Jessop – but out of it now – was turned away by Finch for misconduct

2 sons – 5 daughters

1 son aged 24 laid up sick for many years

One daughter seemed a tidy girl – walked lame

All brought up in Charity School – some there now cloathed

In coat club

A great start. No, seriously, for good or bad this is a piece of my family history. Carolyn then showed me how to go through the parish baptism records and I spent the next two hours searching through a hundred years worth of records. There were many successes – I confirmed that the aforementioned Russel was the son of Russel Brown and Mary Dukes, and that Russel Brown senior was baptised in 1756 (his date of birth was missing). I found Russel junior’s date of birth (14th November 1790, so just off the 1791 estimation). I found many siblings for my ancestors – these can be very useful when details about your own ancestors are missing. I also nailed down the identity of John Cotton – I’d known that was the name of my great x4 grandfather through his daughter Sarah’s marriage to James Brown (Russel’s son)… but in the 1841 there was no Sarah in the household of the most likely John Cotton.  There was however a Sarah Cotton at Chiswick House, which was situated (I now know) at the end of Bennett Street where John Cotton lived. The baptism records matched up John’s children with those listed on the census, and there was a baptism record for Sarah in exactly the right year to match her age on the census and marriage certificate.

Another discovery is that John Cotton’s father, John (yes, another one) had acted as the Parish Clerk for a number of years. And just to confuse everyone, his wife was Sarah too.

Although I found a lot of details, there’s still some missing – not all the events happened in St Nicholas Parish. Marriages typically took place in the bride’s parish (as they do today) so I didn’t find some of the marriage details I hoped to. But that’s okay, it gives me something else to search for… and I now know that local resources are the things to look for.

In closing I’d like to say a big thank you to Carolyn and Jane for their dedication and time. No payment was requested, although I will be making a donation to the fund that helps to maintain the records.


  1. Hi – i too am related to john cotton – did a recce too to chiswick church too on one of my sporadic visits to london and have had correspondence with Jane Watson – however was not as successful as you – though i did discover that one of our John’s had been the beadle as well as clerk or warden whatever – the research team had been hit by some sort of bug! and subsequent attempts to get in touch failed – next time i am in london though i will try to get to chiswick library. Incidently i have a family prayer book of John Cotton and Sarah Denney with all the children listed – among them my greatx4 (i think or 5 maybe) grandmother Matilda Sarah who married a George Charles – and a Jonathan who was apprenticed to a Mr Brown and went to sea – will jpeg a copy of the page to you if you are interested? i have a tree on Genes Reunited too so if you get in touch via them i can open my tree to you – cheers Lynne ps i have a sort of cousin in devon – we are e-buddies from the genes reunited team and have been researching cottons for a couple of years – mostly because there is a family mystery about a certain sir cotton who secretly married a serving girl and they had children etc – there is an abundence of stuff on the court case brought by these children trying to inherit!!!! we have been trying to find a link from them to our cottons because a copy of a letter about the court case was inside the family prayer book!…….

  2. Hi – did you discover that John Cotton, the Beadle, was in the Middlesex Militia? One of his sons was born at Shorncliffe Barracks near Cheriton St Martins where the baptism register shows “s.m.m.” after the father’s name indicating the Middlesex Militia which is a bit like the Territorial Army (TA) today. There are plenty of records of the Middlesex Militia so you should be able to find out more about John Cotton and any other siblings or children who joined up as well.

    A militia force was raised from the civilian population of a county, in order to supplement the regular army in cases of emergency. In Middlesex they were called out at times of unrest. There were around 300 militiamen in Middlesex in 1802. During the Napoleonic Wars this number rose to over 2000 by 1808 and 12,000 by 1812.

    When they were embodied (ie called out) they tended to deploy the Militia away from its home county. The war with the US and France was taking place in the 1780s so the Militia were used to guard the coast to allow regular troops to serve overseas which maybe why John cotton served time at Shorncliffe Barracks near Folkstone.

    Records of the Middlesex Militia, comprising monthly pay lists for the Western Regiment and copy of court martial proceedings against the commander of the Westminster Regiment of the Middlesex Militia for misappropriation of pay.

    Extracted from the Bibliotheca Britannica:

    CAWTHORNE Col John Fenton – 1796
    Letter to a retired Officer on the Opinions and Sentence of a General Court- Martial held at Horse Guards Nov 27 1795 and on many subsequent days for the Trial of Col J.F.C. of the Westminster Regiment of Middlesex Militia Lond. Debrett 4to 2s

    Could this be John Cotton who could have changed his name from Cawthorne after the Court Martial?

    The City of Westminster archives has a lot of militia material:

    London Metropolitan Archives has a lot of docs relating to Middlesex Militia:

    The National Archives has a lot of docs relating to Middlesex Militia:

    Have fun!

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