Stephen Porters Talk at SocGen

A genealogical talk on the Records of Jamaica, given during a half -day course, titled "The West Indies", and held at the Society of Genealogists, London, on Saturday, 21 June 1997. By Stephen D. Porter, London NW2 411N.

Just over 30 years ago, on the 12th February 1966, the late Mr. Philip Wright delivered a lecture before this Society, titled "Materials for Family History in Jamaica." The text of this lecture was published in "The Genealogists' Magazine" of the Society, in September that year. Simultaneously, in 1966, appeared the publication "Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica," compiled by Mr Wright and published by the Society of Genealogists. This book, I might add, is now considered scarce and has recently changed hands for about 35 per copy. This work was also re-issued in 1990 as Microfiche by the Society.

The lecture was one of a general nature, including a broad sweep of the island's history and record keeping. I shall, therefore, dwell more with specific records that are available for the family historian and where they can be found, along with other useful information. In addition, where some of these records are to be found in London, namely the Parish Records, some Civil Registration and Newspapers.

Jamaica's official written records are comparable in quality to any British records made during the 17th through 20th centuries. This was due to the establishment of the Island Secretary's Office in 1659, shortly after the island's capture from the Spanish, followed by the continuous Colonial administration there for 300 years. The survival rate is fairly good despite the ravages of time, hurricanes, fire, earthquake and other destructive factors. Fortunately, there has been recognition that these and other records should be preserved, for they are as much a part of the islands heritage as well as being documents of a legal nature. For this purpose the Institute of Jamaica was set up in 1879 in Kingston and the Archives established in the 1950's. at Spanish Town. The preservation of the nation's heritage, in many spheres, has continued to the present day.

There are 2 main locations for Family History researchers in the island and these are concentrated in the south-eastern part, where the Administrative and Financial centres are to be found. Firstly, at the former Capital, Spanish Town, is the Archives and nearby at Twickenham Park we now have the Registrar General's Department. Secondly, at the present Capital since 1872, Kingston, where the Institute of Jamaica & National Library, the Supreme Court, the Survey Department and the University of the West Indies, all have material of varying relevance and interest.

Before delving into the holdings of these repositories, it is first necessary to highlight, not only the history, population and social structure of the island, but the Parish divisions which took place over the centuries, as the Church of England Records and Civil Registration, as well as other documents, are all indexed by Parish. Also, some Estates have the same name but are scattered throughout the island, thereby causing some confusion in locating the correct one. It is, therefore, essential to have an understanding of the boundary changes which have taken place, as some have remained constant whilst others have changed or been eliminated altogether.


Jamaica was divided, from the early days of its recorded history, into Precincts from which Parishes were formed. On view is a map of the island showing the chief towns that developed into Parish Capitals. I have chosen 3 periods to illustrate, in general terms, the shape these Parishes took, over the years, these being 1705, 1841 and 1867.

There is sometimes confusion with the 2 parishes of St. Thomas up to this time: St. Thomas in the Vale was swallowed up by St. Catherine and St. Thomas in the East then became known simply as St. Thomas, from 1867. Old habits died hard and the old names of these 8 parishes still lingered on, unofficially, many years afterwards.

The decline in the economy led to the importation of other labour forces to work the land as well as turning to other crops to help sustain the economy. The Morant Bay rebellion of October 1865 resulted in many far reaching changes to the way the island was governed, under the rule of Sir J.P. Grant, which formed the administrative structure upon which modern Jamaica is based.



The Archives are located on King Street, near the main square in the centre of Spanish Town, behind the Rodney Memorial, in the parish of St. Catherine. The archivist is Elizabeth Williams who has been there a number of years. The opening hours are Monday to Friday from 9 am until 4.30 pm, except on Friday which closes earlier at 3.30 pm. They are shut for weekends and holidays. Toilet facilities are not always working and lack the essential supplies. Telephone 984-2581, Fax 984-8254.

The Island Record Office and Registrar General's Department used to be kept in the much older adjoining buildings which dated from about 1800, namely the same Rodney Memorial Building and the old Armoury, to new premises at Twickenham Park in 1996. Some of the rooms are still being used as storage by the R.D.G., for instance copies of baptisms, marriages and burials back to the 1660s as well as the old Copy Registers and Parish Registers. The Archives have also been allocated part of the remaining space.

The Archives building is fairly modem, having been erected in 1961 and was opened to the public the following year, in February, and is home to a wide array of documents of national importance. It has a restoration and conservation area as well as a bindery and photographic section. There is space for about 12 people in the air-conditioned research room - named the Clinton Black Reading Room in honour of the first Government Archivist, appointed in 1955. The late Mr. Black was the author of numerous books on the island's history. Research services to the public are limited.

Some of the holdings include the following;

Duplicate copies of the Jewish Registers are held by the Archives, the originals are kept by the Jewish community at the Kingston synagogue. These include surviving registers of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi and, later, the Amalgamated congregations.

They also hold Wesleyan Methodist records.

Sometimes individuals deposit Records which are filed under their name, not under the topics which they contain.



The Registrar General's Department (RGD) accommodates TWO of the record keeping arms of the State: The ISLAND RECORD OFFICE (PRO) which holds mainly business related transactions and the GENERAL RECORD OFFICE (GRO) which deals with records of births, marriages and deaths ie Church of England Registers and Civil Registration.

Recent changes have seen these departments move from their once familiar but very much out-of-date buildings to modem premises at Twickenham Park on the outskirts of Spanish Town (near to Central Village), within the Parish of St Catherine, on the main road to Kingston.

The building, which was opened to the public just under a year ago, on the 1st August 1996, has all the usual modem conveniences, including 2 canteens, air-conditioning and wheelchair facilities. Outside, the fenced compound contains a secure and ample parking area with security guards at the gate and police at the main office entrance. The public are attended by an appointment system and the opening hours are 9 am to 3 pm, Monday to Friday. They can be contacted by telephone on 984-3041-5, 984-9374 or fax 984-2353. The Registrar General is Mrs Patricia Holness. Since the move the RGD has become a self-financing body which has meant either an increase in charges to the public or charges where none existed before. For instance, Certificates applied for in the UK were 5 at the old premises, they now cost 15 at the new. What has not changed, however, is the waiting time - this is still up to 6 months.

The IRO holds documents such as Laws of Jamaica, Registration of Trade Unions, etc. and, more importantly to family researchers, they hold Wills and Deeds from 1660 to the present. Once Wills have been Probated at the Supreme Court they are sent to the IRO for preservation. Photocopies of these documents can be obtained, at present, at a cost of J$ 150 per Legal sheet, however, as a page from these old Deed books, which are quite large, take about 4 sheets in total, the cost can be J$600 or 10 per document. They are Certified Legal documents, unfortunately they do not make ordinary copies for those who need them for a cheaper rate. Local users of this service are protesting at the current situation.

Books which are too fragile to photocopy may be microfilmed but this could take a long time. The only other way would be to transcribe from the original documents.

The GRO provide those individuals who wish to do their own searches with the Mormon microfilms of baptisms, marriages and burials from the 1660s to 1880. Law 6 Registers cover, from 1871, records of all religions. As mentioned earlier, all the originals are stored in the Armoury in Spanish Town. More on the Mormons Microfilms later. Search fees at the GRO are J$70 or l.30 for 1 hour, starting from the receipt of documents, with waiting times of about 15 mins to I hour.

They also hold the Civil Registration records of births, marriages and deaths, however, only the staff are allowed to consult the originals when applications are made for Certificates. Compulsory registration dates from 1878 onwards, when from the 1st April births and deaths have been recorded islandwide and marriages since 1880, each parish being divided into Registration Districts with a Registrar appointed for each , the Central Recording Office was at Spanish Town. The Mormon microfilms are also available but, because of persons still living , births from 1930 onwards are withheld from the public.


The National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) is located at 12 East Street, adjoining the Institute of Jamaica, in the heart of Kingston, and is open Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, with early closing at 4 pm on Friday. They are closed weekends and holidays.

The National Library places emphasis on the collection and permanent preservation of material - both printed and audio-visual - produced in Jamaica and acquires, where possible, material produced overseas on Jamaica, or by Jamaicans. It was established in 1979 and is based on the collection of an older library, the West India Reference Library (WIRL) founded in 1894. The WIRL was part of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) which was founded earlier, in 1879, under whose jurisdiction other cultural organisations fall at present.

The original collection of the WIRL grew from a small collection of BOOKS into one of the most comprehensive of its kind of Jamaica and the English speaking West Indies, with over 36,000 volumes available. This was largely due to the efforts of Frank Cundall, the former Secretary/Librarian of the Institute from 1891 until his death in 1937. The WIRL's primary function was to collect and preserve publications of cultural and historical importance.

Books are only one category of the printed material available. Other collections consist, briefly, of the following: The NEWSPAPER section which houses copies of over 200 titles of Jamaican newspapers dating from 1718, particularly strong from the 1780's onwards. Most of the early issues are now on microfilm. More on this subject later.

There are also approximately 3000 PERIODICALS including scholarly journals, school magazines, Annual Reports of institutions and newsletters. There are over 4000 miscellaneous PROGRAMMES of cultural, educational and sporting events. CLIPPINGS files number over 2000 which contain biographical and historical information on persons, places and events in Jamaica. MAPS & PRINTS of Jamaica and the West Indies. ESTATE MAPS with plans and diagrams of Estates in Jamaica particularly in the l8th & l9th centuries. MANUSCRIPTS relating chiefly to the island consist of unpublished material such as Estate journals, diaries and correspondence files. PHOTOGRAPHS & SLIDES containing photographic records of Jamaican life from the start of photography in the island during the 19th century. PHONOGRAPH RECORDS, TAPES & CD's form a representative collection of Jamaican music. FILMS & TAPES of historical material from the Jamaica Information Service and Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. VIDEO CASETTES of current material produced chiefly in the island.

Among the services which are publicised on offer are:

The availability of genealogical material is too diverse to cover here, however, much relevant information can be obtained from the following runs of printed publications:

Before briefly exploring the potential of these, mention must be made of an extraordinary feature at the library -the Fuertado Manuscripts.

Official and Other Personages of Jamaica 1655- c1870
This work comprises 58 volumes of selected biographical information by the compiler, Walter Augustus Fuertado, who, to quote an article in the Jamaica Journal of 1969, "patiently, year after year, collected snippets of information, put them together and laboriously, volume after volume, transcribed them into a work with a span of over two centuries, a work which is valuable not only as a source of information on individuals, but provides an interesting social history for those who care to read between the lines."

One of Fuertado's main sources were the Jamaica Almanaks and, to a lesser extent, extracts from births, marriages and deaths from the "St. Jago de la Vega Gazette" which was printed and published at Spanish Town, in which town he worked as an accountant to a firm of solicitors there, Harvey & Bourke. Before that he had worked as a clerk in the Island Secretary's Office, employed in making searches, for over 10 years.

Fuertado also wrote and had printed, in 1890, a book titled "A 45 years reminiscence of the Characteristics and Characters of Spanish Town". He died in 1910 aged 71 years.

Now to return to the printed sources and briefly explore the potential of each one as follows:

There is also the West Indies & Caribbean Year Book, published from 1926 annually, with much of commercial interest pertaining to the West Indies in general. It covers all West Indian islands and the Latin American countries of Central and South America that border the Caribbean sea.


Situated on King Street, in Kingston, the Supreme Court houses copies of the Probated Wills of about the past 100 years -the originals are sent to the I.R.O. Mainly used for the requirements of the Legal profession they are not geared to dealing with the public, instead, a written request has to be submitted.


Three different departments have their location at 23 1/2 Charles Street. They are the Survey Department, the Registrar of Titles and the Department of Statistics.

The Survey Department has a variety of maps that can be purchased commercially, different emphasis placed for varying purposes, for instance a Cadastral series showing property names and boundaries or others showing towns, districts & estates. Census information, but not as we know it, is available through the Department of Statistics. Data showing household names, as far as I am aware, do not exist.


The Jamaican Campus is located at Mona, in St. Andrew. There are a few libraries within the compound serving the various faculties such as Medicine, Geology, Science, Law, which are also served by a central Reference Library with West Indian reference material available, including Theses submitted over the years on a variety of subjects. These include submissions from the other West Indian Campuses, namely Cave Hill in Barbados and St. Augustine in Trinidad. Further information can be obtained from the Librarian at these places. The W.I.R.L. in Trinidad is, I am informed, actively collecting family research from doners.


The Latter Day Saints Church have established a Research Centre, which was opened in about 1994, and is located on Constant Spring Road, at the junction with Dunrobin Avenue, in St. Andrew. The microfilmed Copy Parish Registers are available.


This Society has been in existence for many years, and produces a journal titled "Jamaica Historical Review", in which many articles by historians, researchers and other knowledgeable people about Jamaica's past, have been published.


The Roman Catholic Diocese, whose Cathedral is on North Street in Kingston, hold all records and registers pertaning to their congregation. None of them have been microfilmed or otherwise copied with a view to be inspected by non-Catholics. It is possible that this position may change in the near future.


There is an increasing, but private, interest in Jamaican family history both in the island and overseas though this has not been in sufficient numbers to form a Society in Jamaica or for anyone to become a full-time researcher. There have been from time to time people who have been involved in searching but they do not seem to be involved for a long term. A few years ago someone was offering a professional service- as she had access to all the resources then located at Spanish Town. However, with the recent move of half the documents to Twickenham Park and with limited access behind the scenes and excessive costs, as well as other personal reasons, she has given up for the time being.

One major project to emerge recently is the compilation of the Burials from the Registers of the St. Andrew Parish Church, from 1669 to 1994 but excluding the period of 1900 to 1947. Plus a section of Selected Inscriptions. This Database, created by Mr Donald Lindo with the help of a few field volunteers, resulted in a listing of over 7000 names, Containing full name, age, date buried, general location of grave, Minister, and a notes column. It is not yet commercially available.

Mr Lindo is also involved, privately, in entering names on his computer, in Brothers Keeper programme, and has over 25,000 entries and still adding more. He is on the internet.

The island's Colonial past did not find favour in the early days of post-Independent Jamaica, but slowly there has been an upsurge, if somewhat limited, of interest in all aspects of our heritage, expressed in the formation of groups such as the Georgian Society of Jamaica, in the late 1960s, with Chapters now formed throughout the island. There is also a recently formed affiliated group in the UK called the Friends of the Georgian Society of Jamaica.


There are a number of places where Jamaican/West Indian. material can be found in this country, either separately or as part of a group of records. It will be impossible to cover them all here, but I shall mention articles which have appeared in the Family Tree magazine on these subjects, such as Mr Anthony Camp's "Some W.I. Sources in England" (Nov. 1987, p 11), Mrs. Charlotte Soares' "Jamaican Research in Britain" (April 1991, p35) and recently John Titford's "Guide to Printed Sources for Family Historians - Emigration from Britain" with a section headed "West Indies & Bermuda" in part three (March 1997, p48) and even more recently, his two part item on "Barbados, Some if its Parishes, Churches and M.l." in the current issues of May and June.

I shall concentrate in this section on 2 of these places which hold specific W.I. collections of importance here in England, which will help to supplement our lack of direct access to the original records.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), 64 - 68 Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2PA. Tel: 0171-589 8561.

The Mormon Headquarters have, at its Family History Centre on the 2nd Floor, a complete collection on 35mm Microfilm of the Copy Registers of the Established Church of Jamaica. the originals of which are in Jamaica. There is an index on the main shelf listing all the parishes available, which gives the dates and corresponding microfilm number.

They also have many 16mm Microfilm of Jamaican Civil Registration between 1878 and 1920. Unfortunately, the records of the whole island are not covered at this venue at present, however, their collection is strong on the Counties of Surrey and Middlesex. Again, it is best to consult the very detailed index from the main shelf which gives the microfilm numbers and the Registration Districts available for the parishes which they hold.

Here, unlike in Jamaica, the researcher has free, easy and unlimited access to all the films, on the same floor, which are all labeled and located in trays. Opening hours Tuesday to Friday 9 am to 8 pm and Saturday 9am to 3pm. Most of the Parish Registers have their own index with quick access to the entries, either on the same reel if up to 1825, or on a series of different reels if for a later period.

Working with these reels is difficult and if there is much to be discovered then numerous visits will be necessary in order to understand, extract and operate the microfilm units.

It is advisable to have to hand a copy of a map of the island showing the 22 parishes as families frequently moved around and had connections with adjoining parishes.

British Library, Newspaper Library, Colindale Ave., London NW9 5HE. Tel: 0171-323 7353.

The British Library's Newspaper division at Colindale holds many West Indian newspapers in their collection. The Jamaican papers on file are not as numerous as the NLJ. Some time periods are weak and others fairly strong in coverage, with sometimes 2 or more issues covering the same period.

Of the 4 publishing towns, previously mentioned, Kingston is by far the best represented: from 1780-1840 it is irregular but fair; unfortunately there are no papers between 1841-1863; however, from 1864 to the present they give excellent coverage. There are a number of publications from 1864 until about 1900, thereafter it is mainly the Gleaner that takes us to the present. The Daily Gleaner's coverage starts from 1879 to the present, but excludes the war years 1941-1945 also 1953-55. This represents that newspapers dominance on the publishing scene during this century.

The next best coverage is Falmouth but only for the years 1864 to 1888, followed by Montego Bay 1781-94, 1839-40 and a few miscellaneous dates 1865-74. The Spanish Town papers are poorly represented with very few issues over a three year period between 1839 - 41.

The problems of distance can be overcome, to a certain extent, with the combination of the Parish Registers and Civil Registration with the newspapers at Colindale. Unlike the former, however, newspapers have no index and unless a date is known, the task of finding a date is like looking for a needle in a haystack and there is a lot of interesting material hidden away in the columns, but a missing issue can also cause havoc in a blanket search.

For this reason and knowing the wealth of detail these papers contain, I have begun an in-depth study, extracting genealogical and historical data, when time allows, from the period beginning 1864, for 25 years, to the end of 1888. This period was chosen because there is coverage for both north and south coasts of the island also many Kingston papers seem to start from 1st January 1864 onwards, so by extracting and combining available data, a good overall picture emerges, as there is enough overlap between them. At present the Falmouth papers have been completed, these were less time consuming as they were bi-weekly, whereas the Kingston papers, in particular with the current project, the Colonial Standard, they are published 6 days a week, plus the Packet Editions. The C.S. has only been half covered and after that there are many others awaiting study.

The information is taken from births, marriages, deaths, funeral and obituary notices - the latter either by the Editor or a contributor, also the editorial] columns have a variety of news reports on individuals. Advertisements yield much of interest - dentists, doctors, photographers announcing their practices, merchants opening new stores, business partnerships terminated or formed, executors requesting claims against the estate of a named deceased person. People selling up and moving either to another parish or from the island, auctioning their household effects and sometimes their property, and much more.

These extractions are done by hand, in consecutive date order and so are the indexes, annually, However, recently I have started to index on a Database and hope to set and merge each additional year, when completed, on the CS. It is slow work and will take a few years before completion.

Passenger lists are an area that awaits exploration as there are regular comings and goings published for destinations in England, the U.S.A., other West Indian islands and the Central and South American ports in the Caribbean.

As a footnote, newspapers are held at the PRO, Kew, but I have not explored the holdings there.

Stanfords, Long Acre, Covent Garden, London.*

This is an excellent place to obtain a variety of material on the West Indies where can be found detailed maps of individual islands also showing principal towns in greater detail; travel books which have interesting historical as well as contemporary information. There are Ordnance Survey maps of which the ones for Jamaica has 22 sections, priced at about 10 per sheet (1:50,000).

*Full address 12-14 Longacre , London WC2E 9LP TEL 0171 836 ITS OPEN: Mon 10 -6 , Tues-Fri 9-7, Sat 10-6pm

Pennymead Books, 1 Brewerton Street, Knaresborough, N.Yorks HG5 8AZ.

This firm deals in Books, Maps and Prints of the West Indies and publishes a catalogue. Some very interesting items are available, both reasonable to pricy, such as Lawrence-Archers "M.I. of the B.W.I." at f275. There are British Parliamentary Papers which relate to important topics of the individual islands.