Old forms of handwriting

zackA significant number of parish registers date back well into the seventeenth century, and with any luck you may find a set that go beyond the middle of the sixteenth. If you do you must expect a little difficulty in deciphering the hand writing in their earliest pages. Indeed many 19th century documents quite difficult to decipher. In fact, at first, the hand may seem quite in comprehensible, especially if it was written in the seventeenth century. (example illustrated to right: Zachariah)
1785 It is the letters and their combinations and abbreviations in old handwriting, together with distortions caused by an individual's style that are a source of difficulty to the beginner. The more flowery the hand, the more difficult to read. This is very evident when reading certain pages of the 1841 South Australian Census in which every surname is completed with a flourish that looks very much like an 's'. The accompanying dates illustrate problems with digits. (example illustrated to right: Dalham)
The principal source of difficulty in reading old handwriting has to be the pairing of certain letters. Coupled with the omission of the minor distinguishing features of individual letters that may be missed by a hurried writer and we are faced with problems! The adjacent place name demonstrates the omission of a letter. In this case the omission is signalled by a horizontal line which indicates that the omitted letter will be an 'm' or 'n' and hence this word is Dalham. Abbreviations are common and often inconsistent. May writers assumed that the reader had knowledge of the topic and used self-created abbreviations. (example illustrated to right: Kimborough)
Sorting out K and R; O and G and E; W and M; T and C; t and c; G and C; u, n, m, and i; are probably the most difficult of all. The old form of F (ff) is often rather like a modern H. In the seventeenth century u and v are used almost indiscriminately. The commonly used 'long s' which looks rather like an f is still widely confused by transcribers. It appears at the beginning of words and within them sometimes leading to transcriptions like fight instead of sight. (example illustrated to right: John)
When we add in the propensity to abbreviate words we just add to the confusion. We are all familiar with shortened words using the final letter in superscript form but many other examples of abbreviations, some peculiar to a region or individual writer exist. One classic form includes a straight line over a letter to indicate the omission of the letter m or n and a wavy line over a letter to indicate the omission of several letters either before and/or after the letter so designated! In the 16th and 17th centuries a range of symbols were also used to represent abbreviations. The chriscombination of pr followed by a vowel produced some weird and wonderful squiggles none of which seemed to have been used consistently! (examples illustrated to right: papist and Christopher)

There are a number of useful books that can assist and I find that sharing the problem with others often produces a result. Try coming back at a later date. Search the page for similar letter combinations in other words. Sometimes enlarging the text with a photocopier helps. Trace the enlarged word with a pencil and you may come up with a result! I find the following books to be helpful aids because they give numerous excellent examples...

WSB Buck, Examples of handwriting 1550-1650, Soc of Genealogists Lionel Munby, Reading Tudor and Stuart handwriting, Phillimore.

Graham Jaunay BA DipT MACE AAGRA

Top down: Zacharia; Dalham; Kinborough; John; papist; Christopher

Click to email Proformat Subscribe