Royal Navy Officer Admiral John Byng was born on 29th October 1704 and was controversially executed by gun fire on 14th March 1757 on the quarterdeck of his former flagship, ‘Monarch’  for failing to "do his utmost" to prevent Minorca falling to the French following the Battle of Minorca.

Admiral Byng’s harsh sentence was opposed by many, including Admiral Forbes who refused to sign his death warrant. 

The Society is pleased to have a written explanation by Admiral Forbes explaining his reasons for not signing the death warrant of Admiral Byng. This document can be found in the ‘Herbert’ Special Collection.

Professional genealogists Geoff Swinfield has kindly transcribed this 253 year old document for ease of understanding.

alisa3 thumb Rare Find: Admiral Forbes explanation for refusing to sign Admiral Byng’s death warrant.


Adml Forbes’s reasons for not signing Adml Byng’s

Dead Warrant.

It may be thought great presumption

in me to differ from so great Authority as that of the

Twelve Judges but when a man is call’d upon to sign

his name to an act, which is to give Authority for the

shedding of blood, He ought to be guided by his Conscience,

& not by the Opinion of other men.

In the Case before us, it

is not The merit of Adml Byng that I consider whether

he deserves Death or not, is not a Question for me to decide; but whether, or not, his Life can be taken away by the Sentence pronounc’d upon him by the Court Martial, and

after having so clearly explain’d their motives for pronouncing such a Sentence, is the point alone has imploy’d my most serious attention.

The 12th Art. of War, upon

wch Adml Byng’s Sentence is grounded, Says ___ According to

my understanding of its meaning, “That every person who

shall in time of action withdraw, or keep back, or not

come into fight, or who shall not do his utmost &

through Motive’s of Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection,
shall suffer Death. The Court Martial does, in Express

Words, acquit Adml Byng of Cowardice & Disaffection, & does

not name the word negligence. ____ Adml Byng does not, as I

conceive, fall under the letter, or description of the 12th Art of

War _____ It my be said, that negligence is implied, the(n)

word is not nam’d, otherwise the Ct Martial wou’d not

have brought his offence under the 12th Art of War, having

acquitted him of Cowardice, & Disaffection.

But it must be acknowledg’d,

that the negligence imply’d cannot be wilfull negligence;

for wilfull negligence in Adml Byng’s situation must proceed

either from Cowardice, or Disaffection, & he is expressly acquited

of both these crimes, besides crimes wch are imply’d only

& are not nam’d may indeed justify suspicion, &

private opinion, but cannot satisfy the Conscience in a case

of Blood.

Adml Byng’s fate was reffer’d to a Court Martial

his Life & Death was left to their opinions; The Ct Martial

condemn him to Death, because as they expressly say they

were under a necessity of doing so by reason of the letter of the

law; the severity of wch they complain of, because it

admits of no mitigation. ________ The Ct Marl expressly say,

that the prisoner, they do, in the most earnest manner, recommend

him to his Majts mercy; it is then evident, that in the

opinion, and Consciences of the Judges, he was not deserving of


The Question then is, shall the opinion, or necessities

of the Ct Marl determine Adml Byng’s fate. If it shou’d be

the latter, he will be Executed contrary to the intentions, & the

meaning of the Judges; who, to do justice, do most earnestly

recommend him for mercy; and if it shou’d be the former, his Life

is not forfeited. His Judges declare he is not deserving of Death;

but mistaking either the meaning of the Law, or the nature of

his offence, they bring him under an Article of War, which

according to their own description of his offence he does not

I conceive fall under; and then they condemn him to death,

because, as they say, the law admits of no mitigation. Can

a Man’s life be taken away by such a Sentence. I wou’d not

willingly be understood, & have it believ’d, that I Judge of

Adml Byng’s deserts; that was the business of the Ct Marl; & it is

my Duty only to Act according to my conscience; which,

after deliberate consideration, & assisted by the best lights that

a poor understanding is capable of attaining, it remains

still in doubt; and therefore I cannot consent to Sign a

warrant, Whereby the Sentence of the Ct Marl may be carried

into execution; for I cannot help thinking, that however

criminal Adml Byng may be, his life is not forfeited

by that Sentence. I don’t mean to find fault in the

least with the Opinion of other men; all I endeavour

at, is to give reasons for my own; and all I desire, or

wish is, that my meaning may not be misunderstood.

I do not pretend to Judge of Adml Byng’s desert nor to

give my opinion of the propriety of the Act.

John Byng1 thumb Rare Find: Admiral Forbes explanation for refusing to sign Admiral Byng’s death warrant. 503px John Forbes portrait Rare Find: Admiral Forbes explanation for refusing to sign Admiral Byng’s death warrant.

Admiral Byng                                          Admiral Forbes

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Peerage Claims

The Society of Genealogist has hundreds of old Peerage Claims dating as far back as the 18th century.

A Peerage claim happens when a hereditary peer dies, and his heir wishes to prove his claim to the title, he or she must provide suitable documentary evidence to the Crown Office of the House of Lords to prove that he or she is indeed the heir to the title.

Claims to peerages whose succession is in dispute (as is the below example), are made by Petition to The Crown, presented through the Lord Chancellor. He refers the accompanying documents to the Attorney General in order that he may report upon them to the Sovereign.

Peerage claims are large books or files filled with ‘evidence’. The example we have used below has just under 400 pages. Mr. John Borthwick and his father were trying to prove their claim for over 40 years until it was finally recognised at the Lord Lyon Court in Edinburgh. The discovery of forged papers dating back to the 18th century helped secure the claim.

Front cover of the 1868 case of John Borthwick claiming the title ‘Lord, Honor and Dignity of Lord Borthwick’ (who died in the battle of Flodden in 1513) to the objection of Mr. Archibald Borthwick.

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Poll Books

Poll books were published from the late 1600s onwards, right through into the late 1800s. The Society of Genealogists poll book collection have been researched and mentioned in many academic publications as one of the most extensive in the world.

Poll books list not only the names, addresses and occupations of our ancestors but also their political inclinations as they list exactly whom they voted for.

Eligibility to vote in Parliamentary elections before the Reform acts was based on land holdings, renting property of sufficient value and payment of local land taxes, and in certain Boroughs, on Freedom rights. Poll books include the person’s ‘qualification’ to vote which usually meant you had to be a freeholder of a property worth at least 40 shillings. Although this was not always the case as shown in the below ‘Town of Bedford’ poll book extract where the tenant’s of the properties are also entitled to vote.

Another way a less than wealthy ancestor may have been able to vote was if he lived in a ‘Potwalloper’ county (see below) where householders were allowed to vote if they had ‘a hearth large enough to boil, or wallop, a cauldron, or pot’.

Of course, if you were a woman the above did not apply as votes for women (providing they were householders, married to a householder or if they held a university degree) were not allowed until 1918.

The Society of Genealogists is currently making digital images of its early poll book collection available for members to search as part of the MySoG pages on the Society’s website


The following is an extract from a rare early electoral roll held at  the Society of Genealogists along with its Poll Book Collection. It comprises a “Register of the Electors to vote after the end of this present Parliament  in the choice of a  Member or Members to servce for the County of Bedford  at any election which may take place after the end of 31 October 1832 and before 1 Nov 1833″


Records of those who paid the land tax were  held at Quarter Session and used as electoral roll showing who may vote. This is a printed register of  eligible voters drawn from those records



1832 Bedford voters lists shows that tenants were entitled to vote.

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The ‘Potwalloping’ Borough of Colchester 1830.

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A 1831 Cambridge poll book showing candidate Viscount Palmerston who later (aged 71) went on to become the oldest Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1859.

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Local Directories

The Society have many printed directories dating back to the 18th century. County directories were expensive to advertise in, so local businesses opted for the smaller local ones. Each local directory is a hive of useful information for family historians who’s ancestors owned small businesses.

The Society is currently working on a ‘British Business Index’ which will gather as much information as possible on British shopkeepers, businessmen and women and their companies.

The primary source for this index will come from a series of books published in the 1890s by the Brighton firm of Robinson, Son and Pike which later became W T Pike. The contents of these particular directories contain more than just business listings and advertisements. They include a history of the area, its attractions, major institutions and its commercial life. There are sometimes details of town councillors, often with vignette-sized photographs and sometimes even a picture of the local football team!

Pike’s books have a minimum of a paragraph about each shop, often showing a photograph of it or the proprietor and there are frequently details of when and from whom the business was acquired (often a named relative). Family members working in the business are usually given and, if a person is prominent in local society, the entry often mentions membership of the corporation and leisure activities including involvement with clubs, charities and other institutions. This kind of information tells a lot about an individual’s character and is extremely difficult to find elsewhere in such a comprehensive form.

The below images are taken from the 1895 Halifax Brighouse & District directory.

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Marriage Licences

The Society hold a collection of around 3,000 original marriage licences from churches around London and Middlesex from 1768 –1892. Many of the Document and Special Collections also contain individual marriage licences.

Marriage licences give valuable information regarding places of origin and family members. This can be vital information given the difficulties inherent in researching London families in the years before Census and General Registration.

Each license tells its own unique story like the one featured below which shows Henry Bulley and Frances Ellen Blood, two “minors” marring each other again for the second time in February 1834. They eloped for their first marriage to Greta Green in Scotland and were perhaps then ordered by their parents to marry again ‘properly’.


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Some of the 26 volumes of original marriage licences.

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Personal Stories – World War I

Many of the collections have documents relating to family members who bravely fought in one of the great wars.

The ‘Ridout Special Collection’ is no different, except for the sheer amount of information it has on one particular family member who died at the tender age of 19.

Personal letters that Gaspard Ridout wrote to his mother before he died really help to build the picture of a brave young man who was desperate to make his father proud, whilst the official documents give us real insight into how this young man died in an unprecedented German attack that unfortunately left many others dead. Combined they are a touching account of a young man’s short life.

Gaspard Ridout died on 21 March 1918 which was the first day of the last great German offensive. Operation "Michel" was opened with a 6,000 gun barrage which delivered a lethal gas attack deep into Allied lines. At one point, the Germans advanced 14 miles in one day, more than at any other time during the fighting in the West. During the first six weeks of fighting, the Allies lost 350,000 casualties, but more troops were rushed in from across the channel, and American units began arriving for the first time.

A postcard written by Gaspard Ridout shortly before his death along with his certificate of death and a war grave commission addressed to his grieving mother.

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An Inventory document detailing a wrist watch, strap and guard.

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One of many personal and touching letters written by Gaspard Ridout to his mother.

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Gaspard Ridout’s grave.

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The Society hold thousands of original and copied flat and folded maps dating back to the eighteenth century. The Society’s map collection is part of the extensive Topographical collection and covers most of the British isles as well as far away places such as Jamaica.

Many people are fascinated by old maps and rightly so, as many old maps are works of art in themselves and reveal the surroundings of where our ancestors lived. This helps to give us a better understanding of what daily life would have meant for our ancestors. It’s also interesting to find an old map of a familiar place and compare it to a modern day version.

The below example is an original map from 1862 on linen of Deptford in Kent.

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Pre 1800’s Book Collection

The Society’s archives hold over 500 pre 1800 book titles. One of the oldest books within this collection is John Speed’s ‘Historie of Great Britaine under the Conquest of the Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans’ Printed by John Dawson for George Humble, London, 1632. The third edition was published after Speed’s death in 1629. Although the binding, leather spine and marbled paper boards, are in advanced state of deterioration, it is a very valuable book which has some claim to being the first history of England, first published in 1611. See images below.

Pre 1800 books are always an interesting read as many of the spellings are different to how we spell them today. Until 1755 when Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published there was no set way of spelling and so it was up to the writer to decide how they thought the word should be spelt, leading to many variations of the same word.

Included within the collection are poll books (of which some are the only known copies), army lists and almanacs. Poll books from this period are particularly interesting as most list voters’ names, occupations, addresses and even whom they voted for. Our poll book collections have been researched and mentioned in many academic publications as one of the most extensive in the world.

It is the Society’s intention to individually enter each book on to the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) including a description of the content and any unique or unusual features i.e. original binding, extra pages, manuscript additions etc. The ESTC holds information on British printed material before 1801 held by the British Library and by over 2000 other institutions worldwide. This is a very time consuming project and will need the expertise of a qualified librarian. The Society is currently applying to trusts for a grant to employ a part time librarian for one year.


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Suggested lecture:

Saturday 9th October at 2pm. The Georgians: Sources for the 18th Century by Else Churchill.

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