Setting their hands: Making their Mark

By Gwyneth Endersby, Record Assistant

A signature by mark has the same intent as any signature on a document, though to be regarded as a signature it needs to be witnessed by two persons other than the notary. Even today, the National Notary Association has strict rules about persons signing using a mark, the fundamentals being that: the signer must personally appear, their identity must be verified, and a witness or notary should write the person’s full name alongside their mark.

The types of records bearing marks

Whilst not an exhaustive list by any means, the types of documents we hold at the Record Office showing people’s marks are as follows:

  • Parish records: principally entries in marriage registers (post 1754)
  • Apprenticeship indentures
  • Business contracts
  • Court records
  • Legal documents relating to land and property

A small survey of records held here at the Record Office reveals that people have employed many more types of mark than just a simple cross – though this is notably the most widespread version. The more unusual marks include simple and elaborate decorative symbols and plain or stylized initials.

Parish registers

Perhaps the type of record people are most familiar with, parish marriage registers contain plenty of examples of these provided by some brides, grooms and/or their witnesses. The signing of marriage register entries did not begin until 1754, following Hardwick’s Marriage Act and the introduction of pre-printed registers, with the aim of preventing clandestine marriages. The wedding couple, plus two witnesses and the vicar himself all had to bear testimony.

The cross/X mark generally predominates in marriage registers.  This might relate to the possibility that illiterate signatories, especially those uncertain about how to sign, were instructed to perform a certain symbol by the parish clerk – resulting in many identical or repetitive marks. In the Bentham marriage register, we find a mixture of crosses and simple, single pen strokes as marks:

PR/HIN 1/9 Hinderwell marriage register 19 December 1791, John Reader & Mary Burton – they make the more commonly used ‘X’ mark
PR/BNL 1/9 Long Bentham marriage register 17 February 1806, showing the marks of David Gifford & Jenny Thistlewood – the upright stroke mark commonly used here

Apprenticeship Indentures

Those apprenticeships arranged for pauper children and young adults of the parish by overseers of the poor, are signed only by the churchwardens/overseers and apprentice masters/mistresses. Private arrangements, however, are signed and sealed by the apprentices as well as their master/mistress, in the presence of two witnesses.

In the example below, John Shepheard of Douthwaite Dale – who is able to sign his full name – binds himself as an apprentice tanner to master tanner, William Frank of Hutton-le-Hole. William Frank’s signature mark is a stylized ‘W’.

Z.1506 9/1/3 Apprenticeship indenture of John Shepherd, 1703, including detail showing William Frank’s mark

Business/Trade contracts

Not surprisingly, the parties involved in business contracts signed and sealed agreements in the presence of a pair of witnesses. From the Richmond District Council collection (DC/RMB), the articles of agreement shown below are a contract established between John Bincks, representative of the town and Borough of Richmond, and Thomas Wood, of Thirsk, bell-founder. Dated 18 July 1665, Thomas Wood agrees to cast two new bells, tuning them to suit the existing three in the parish church, then hang them and keep in good repair for one year. Signing and sealing the agreement, Thomas Wood’s mark is his initials, ‘TW’. 

DC/RMB V 4/1 Thomas Wood’s contract for Richmond’s bells, 1665, including detailed view of his mark

Court records

During the court sessions, clerks recorded witness statements and examinations of the accused, often verbatim. Those in question then signed these, or else had their names written for them against their personal marks. Some examples below of 17th century Scarborough borough court papers are shown here for the rather unusual marks they contain.

First is the statement of Agnas Allmon, a Scarborough midwife, (1634) regarding her attendance at the birth of Elizabeth Fardinge’s illegitimate daughter (illegitimacy was a serious moral crime in the 17th century). Agnas signs the statement using her angular mark:

DC/SCB VI 4 Statement of Agnas Allmon, midwife, in the case of Elizabeth Fardinge, 7 October 1634

In another court case relating to illegitimacy, Margarett Merryall (1640) confesses to bearing the illegitimate child of Thomas Wright, an anchor-smith. She signs with a ‘U’ shaped mark. Margarett’s claim she was subject to Thomas’s “lewd and wicked manner” does not prevent her receiving the severe punishment of public whipping.     

DC/SCB VI 4 Examination of Margarett Merryall regarding her illegitimate child, 19 January 1640

One of the most intriguing cases in the Scarborough borough court papers, however, is the witchcraft accusation of Anne Hunnam (alias Marchant) in 1652. Bailiff Luke Robinson records the statements of various witnesses to Anne’s crime and to the finding of witch-marks upon her person, as well as Anne’s own firm statement of her innocence (not signed). The pages below show the signature marks of two witnesses, Margery Fish and Elizabeth Dale, which appear to be stylized initials of their first names.

DC/SCB VI 4 Statements of Margery Fish & Elizabeth Dale in the case of Anne Hunnam’s witchcraft trial, 19 March 1652

Title deeds and associated documents relating to land and property are an important feature of estate and family archives. With related papers often tied together in bundles, the types of title deeds we might find come in various forms depending on whether the land or property is freehold, leasehold, copyhold, mortgaged or a settlement (with entails). Associated documents include items such as wills, bonds, affidavits and articles of agreement. Being legal documents, title deeds are formally written, and are often in Latin if dated before 1733. They each contain the signatures, or marks, and seals of the parties involved.

In the deed shown below (Z.1506 4/4), John Sympkin of Pickering Lythe, husbandman, is leased a cottage and garth in Pickering by Agnes Allen and her son Christopher. John makes his mark on the demise (lease) for 21 years, dated 8 May 1613.

Z.1506 4/4 Pickering demise – Agnes & Christopher Allen to John Sympkin, showing detail of John’s mark, 8 May 1613

On 20 March 1623, a messuage or tenement at Cropton, occupied by Grace storme, is conveyed by Thomas Skelton of Sinnington, yeoman, to Edward Chamberlayne of Hutton-le-Hole, ‘gent’ (Z.1506 6/1). The reverse of the conveyance, shown below, is interesting in that the yeoman signs his full name, whereas the gentleman makes only a simple arched mark:

Z.1506 6/1 Conveyance of land at Cropton, Thomas Skelton to Edward Chamberlayne, showing the signature and the mark, respectively, of Thomas and Edward, 20 March 1623

In a deed poll, made on 3 April 1641 (Z.1506 5/1), Elizabeth Berreer, together with Francis Best and his wife Jane, convey to William Grindwell seven roods of arable land in the town fields of Wood Appleton and a beastgate of land in Hamley. Jane is named but does not sign or mark, but the marks of Elizabeth and of Francis are clearly made.

Z.1506 5/1 Deed poll relating to land at Wood Appleton and Hamley, with detail showing the marks of Francis Best and Elizabeth Berreer, 3 April 1641

Yeoman William Kirton (or Kearton) of Hipswell uses a pair of elaborate marks on his lease for life from Lord Viscount Castlecomer of pasture and meadowland at Hipswell, dated 2 April 1718 (ZKW (NLI).

ZKW (NLI) Lifetime lease for land at Hipswell, showing detail showing William Kirton/Kearton’s marks, 2 April 1718

One thought on “Setting their hands: Making their Mark

  1. A very helpful and interesting post especially on the use of marks in place of signatures. – thank you. In my own family research, I have a copy of the marriage certifiate of my great grandmother, where she makes her mark (1875). Yet my mother, who knew her well, assured me she was quite literate, she read her grandchildren stories and could write letters to friends. Perhaps it was often expected that working-class women had not been educated and she was just told at her marriage ‘Make your mark here’ and so she she did!

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