BBC Radio 4 has been stretching a story about probate researchers across a week of 15 minute dramas. Legacy: Blood in the Mountains by Cath Staincliffe is set in contemporary times and in the 1930s, when the legitimate heir to the estate of Henry Gaunt goes to spain to fight fascism. Or get away from his Dad, who beat him, or the North, which was Grim; the would-be-heir gives a drunken rendition of the International followed by an uncomfortable monologue about what he'd like to do to his Dad. Anyway, the brother and sister researchers use the General Record Office, the War Graves Commission and a local record office. They couldn't have known that The National Archives would release files about the British involvement in the Spanish Civil War the week before.
The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins has been on BBC Radio 4 Extra this month. Starring Toby Stephens as Walter Hartright, Juliet Aubrey as Marian and nobody ever remembers Laura because she's so dull. Ms Aubrey, who also played Dorothea in the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch, has made a career from playing the intelligent brunette in costume dramas. TWiW is about status anxiety, that ubiquitous Victorian concern, so the key to the mystery of the Woman In White is in a parish registry. Hullo? Where's that smoke coming from?
Wilkie Collins is found out in that archive researcher's classic The Parish Chest (W E Tate, Phillimore 1946):
"An interesting mistake in connection with these Hardwicke [marriage] registers occurs in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. The forged marriage entry in the registers of Old Welmingham upon which the whole plot hangs is so described that it is clear that Wilkie Collins had never seen a Harwicke Register - composed of printed form, four to the page."
People were gentler in their literary criticism in those days.
Before the Hardwicke Registers, named after Lord Hardwicke of the Marriage Act of 1755, weddings mingled with baptisms and burials in parish registers. Tate isn't clear on why it was necessary to introduce distinctive registers, but the ecclesiastical record keeping system had its problems and these were exacerbated when governments introduced taxes on registration. There were fees for registering a baptism, marriage or burial, and fines for not informing the parson. The result, of course, is gaps in the parish records, where the parson turned a blind eye to non-registration.
You might think that records from the Interregnum, when registration was made a civil matter and couples were married by justices, would be more complete. Sadly, this is the least well recorded period of English history. The monarchy was restored in 1660 and we had to wait another 177 years for civil registration in this country. As anyone researching family histories knows, the modern system is far more efficient.