Percival Boyd’s Legacy Still Gives Us an Essential Resource - Boyd’s Inhabitants of London

Are you searching for an ancestor that lived or worked in London during the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries? Then you need to take a look at Percival Boyd’s Inhabitants of London.

I’m fascinated by this set of records, even though I can’t find any of my ancestors in it. I’m amazed at the sheer size of the collection and the details it holds. If you find some of your family, you’ve got an absolute treasure trove. But that’s not all. I’m fascinated by why Percival Boyd started this huge piece of work in the 1930s, apparently without even a typewriter, because it’s all handwritten.

The set of records

Boyd's Inhabitants of London is a collection of about 60,000 handwritten sheets. Each sheet covers one male inhabitant of London – usually a citizen but not always. Originally, the collection was called Citizens of London, but the name changed because not all the men were actually freemen of the City. As a minimum, a sheet shows the man’s name, his London parish, and the date of his marriage. But many sheets show loads more than that:

  • the names and origins of his parents;
  • the dates and places of his baptism, marriage, and possibly death and burial;
  • the name of his wife - her origin, parentage, and dates and places of baptism and possibly burial;
  • the man’s education, profession, livery company and his will, if he has died;
  • the man’s children and their dates of baptism, marriage, spouses’ names and possibly burial date.

On average, each sheet holds about 7 or 8 names. Since there’s 60,000 sheets, that's a lot of names! It's worth checking out, especially if you are getting your family tree back to the 17th century in London. As a little bonus, many of the sheets have notes at the bottom or on the reverse side showing where Percival Boyd got his information. The books he refers to are also in the Society of Genealogists' Library and some of them have his annotations in the margins. You might find you're spending the whole day with us!

Searching the collection

It's not hard to search this collection. Members of the Society of Genealogists can search them online, using the Society's website If you're not a Member, you can visit the Society's Library in London to search them.

Bring notes with you of your ancestors' names and possible places they lived. Explain to Reception that you want to look up Boyd's Inhabitants of London. You can search the collection on one of our dedicated PCs in our Lower Library. A volunteer or member of staff will help you to get started - then settle in and, hopefully, you'll find lots of detail. Remember that if you're not a Member of the Society of Genealogists, there is a small charge for you to have access to our Library.

Who was Percival Boyd?

Percival Boyd was born in 1868. His family were London merchants and warehousemen. In a speech in 1945, Boyd explained that boys were raised to become merchants and take over the family business. He said his life in the midst of London merchants ‘had a great effect on me’. After Cambridge, he became a partner, then chairman and then managing director of his family firm in Friday Street, London. He played an important role in the Drapers Company. Apparently, in his spare time he was a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the Royal Philatelic Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries!

Boyd joined the Society of Genealogists in 1922. He became a Fellow in 1926, served on the Executive Committee from 1927 to 49, was Chairman twice and Vice-President from 1949 until his death in 1955.

But I think his work down in the detail of names and dates and relationships shows his real passion for genealogy. In 1944, J. B. Whitmore reviewed Citizens of London in the Genealogists’ Magazine. He wrote that Boyd realised how difficult it was for people to search registers. To help, Boyd decided to gather together information on each citizen of London.

Gathering the information was just one stage. Boyd could see that it wasn’t a complete answer. In 1943, his short article in the Genealogist Magazine gives us a glimpse of his thinking. He described the ‘serious difficulty’ of identifying an ancestor correctly. For common names, like John Brown, he found the current indexes ‘almost unusable’. His solution was to construct specialised indexes where each name was related to one or two other facts. This meant that if there were 12 records for John Brown, a genealogist could narrow their search down to one or two by using the related facts. As an example, he wrote that he did this for his Citizens of London. Each record in the index holds a man’s name, their livery company and/or their parish, and their marriage date. Is it just me or does this sound exactly like the relational databases we use now, such as the NHS system which identifies us by name, birth date and NI number?

Boyd also clearly believed in the value of sharing information and working together. When he delivered his first volume of the Inhabitants of London, he called it ‘An Experiment in Co-operation’ in the March 1939 edition of the Genealogists Magazine. He hoped that Members would check his index, then apply by post for a copy of a specific sheet, or send in their own sheet for him to fill in any gaps. At the same time, he expected to take any details from Members’ sheets and add them to his volume.

If anyone knows any other interesting stories or details about Percival Boyd, we’d love to hear from you:

- tell us on our Facebook page

- tweet us - @SoGGenealogist


-Sherryl Abrahart

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