My interest in family history was sparked when, on a family visit to Windsor Castle in 1985, I spotted a memorial to a Richard Copeland in the cloisters of St. George’s Chapel. I believe he died about 1832 and I think he was a doctor. I simply wondered whether he might have been a distant relative, and then began to wonder how I might find out.
I knew of course that I needed to find out as much as I could about my own family and ancestors and so did what many family historians regret not having done, I spoke to my Grandmother, then about 80, and she reminded me that my Grandfather’s cousin, H Rob Copeland, was interested in the Copeland history. I phoned him up, and was eventually able to meet up with him at his home in Beckenham, Kent, but before we met he kindly sent me what he knew of the more recent family, as well as photographs and booklets. I was very fortunate to have embarked on my journey when only 35 years old and that members of that older generation were still alive.
I soon realised that I would have to visit Lincolnshire as that was where the surname and family originated - this was of course very much pre-internet. I remember my first visit very clearly, and having now revisited my notes of the time, know that it was on 2nd December 1985. It was a long drive from Norfolk where I lived then, and an early start too, with the first port of call being the library in Lincoln which, at that time, was the only place I could see the Census, then on microfiche. By reading through both the 1841 and 1851 censuses for Sleaford I was able to add detail to what Rob had given me, the location of Thomas Copeland and his wife Mary with their young family, including my Great Great Grandfather Henry (link) as a small boy in the later of the two censuses. That 1851 Census also gave me Thomas’s place of birth as Cranwell, the first piece of information I had actually discovered myself.
Armed with this new information I went on to the Lincolnshire Records Office which was then housed in Lincoln Castle, at the top of the hill in Lincoln and adjacent to the Cathedral. In those days most of what one could see were original documents which were ordered from a paper-based index then brought up from storage in boxes. I’m talking about the original parish registers and other parish records, as well as copies of Wills. I’m certain I was not asked to wear cotton gloves although one did have to make notes only with pencils. I do remember that on this my first visit there I only noted down those names who spelled their surname as we do, and ignored anything spelled Coupland, a real mistake. On that very first trip I was able to read through the originals of parish registers, starting with Cranwell where I found Thomas’s baptism on July 15th 1813 giving his parents as William and Elizabeth, so that was my first additional generation backwards established, and I then noted all other Copeland entries in that Register. Thomas’s father William was not baptised there so, using the IGI *, I narrowed the number of likely Williams to one, baptised in the next door parish of Ruskington in August 1786.
I ordered up the original Parish Register for that parish and found William’s baptism on August 6th 1786, and his parents too were named as William and Elizabeth Copeland, and again I found and noted all other entries on the Register for that surname. Crucially however I found no entries for the burials of either William Copeland, which might have given me their age at death and hence their year of birth, nor any other piece of information that would have put it beyond doubt that this pair of Copelands were my ancestors. This is a fairly typical example of what family historians call a brick wall and I had hit a couple on my very first day of real research! I couldn’t know that it would take another 35 years for me to knock them down, but this is how I eventually did it.......
* The International Genealogical Index, or IGI, was assembled by the Church of latter Day Saints, or Mormons and indexed all British Parish Registers which they had photographed and transcribed. I managed to get myself a print-out of the section that included all the listed Copelands of Lincolnshire so that I had more of an idea what to ask to see on my next visits to the Record Office, and even put together a putative family tree that added additional generations before Thomas, but of course that was unproven until I obtained copies of , or at least saw for myself, the original documents on which the IGI was based. It was in Sleaford itself that Thomas was a “cottager” - a small holder - in the 1841 and 1851 censuses so the whole picture hung together reasonably well.