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The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

The History of the Surman Index

Charles Surman (1901-86) gave his card index to Dr Williams’s Library in 1960 and the Friends of the Library paid for the specially constructed drawers made to hold the cards. A second copy was given to the Congregational Library and is now housed at Bedford.

The index was originally sponsored by the Congregational Historical Society, but was the work largely of Surman himself. In 1936 he joined the Society, of which his father-in-law Dr Alexander Grieve, then Principal of Lancashire Independent College, was President. The same year the Rev. A. G. Matthews, author of Calamy Revised, sketched out a scheme for sponsoring and guiding research and agreed to act as ‘Research Organizer’. This initiative apparently came to nothing, but two years later, at the Society’s AGM in May 1938, Surman outlined an ambitious project to create ‘A Directory of Congregational Biography’. It is clear that Surman had already begun work on the card index following the suggestion of his father-in-law that he prepare a biographical list of the students who had attended the Lancashire and Yorkshire Independent Colleges and earlier institutions. Indeed in October 1936 he told E. J. Price, Principal of Yorkshire United College, that he had ‘sometimes thought it would be valuable to have a Directory of Congregational Biography’. By the time of his announcement in May 1938 Surman had about 5,000 cards. Two years later, following the return of several hundred questionnaires from the thousand sent out, he had 15,000. The work was interrupted by the Second World War. Thereafter Surman worked on his index for an hour every day including Sundays, despite a busy pastorate. In 1958 he resigned as Research Secretary to the Congregational Historical Society after twenty-one years. Aware of the value of the index to researchers, he offered it to Dr Williams’s Library to be available for students and others to consult. Surman in fact created two card indexes: the first of ministers, which forms the database; the second of congregations, much less well known, which was also given to Dr Williams’s Library. It is hoped at some later stage to convert the second index listing of all known Congregational congregations and causes.

Inevitably in an index constructed over a period of twenty years which is principally the work of a single compiler there are additions and corrections to be made. The quality of the original cards (many of which are coloured and typed in red as well as black ribbon using a manual typewriter) has presented difficulties in ensuring the accurate transfer of data. The cards have been scanned, processed using Prime Recognition OCR Software, and then sent to India where they were checked, corrected and marked up in XML by Tricom Infotech Solutions Limited. There are also problems of consistency: earlier academies are sometimes identified by the location, sometimes by the theology tutor, both of which often changed. There are inconsistencies with which congregations are named, how place names are spelt (especially Welsh names), and county designations made. Much time has been spent trying to remove these inconsistencies. All place names have been checked manually against an electronic gazetteer. The pre-1972 counties and parishes have been kept. The Rev. John Taylor, himself a Congregational, later United Reformed Church, minister, brought the index up to 1972, adding further details from yearbooks and other sources, such as the Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society.


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