Maiden names: a handy code breaker!

Today’s post follows on from the last, in that the focus is on women. However, here we’re looking at the presence or absence of maiden names in official documentation, and their inclusion within naming patterns. (I’ve previously written more fully about Irish and English naming patterns, and these will also feature in my next post.)

Inclusion or absence of maiden names on civil birth certificates
Less experienced family historians often need help with understanding precisely what is meant by maiden name entries on civil birth registers and certificates, so we’ll start with this.

Without even buying a birth certificate there’s a lot of information freely available on the General Register Office Online Index, if you know how to decipher it. Here’s a classic entry to start with: the inclusion of Frances Mann’s mother’s maiden name (MMN) on the following entry tells us not only that her maiden name is Sword, but by extension also indicates that the former Miss Sword is now married to Mr Mann, and that he is the father.

MANN, FRANCES    SWORD  
GRO Reference: 1846  S Quarter in HUNSLET  Volume 23  Page 287
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Compare with this next entry. The absence of MMN (the ‘ – ‘) tells us that Albert Robinson was born out of wedlock. In other words, the MMN is the same as the child’s surname because the mother is not married.

ROBINSON, ALBERT      
GRO Reference: 1879  S Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 471
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

What about this one?

TAYLOR, ALBERT    TAYLOR  
GRO Reference: 1877  J Quarter in HUDDERSFIELD  Volume 09A  Page 386
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Here we see that a MMN is given, but that it is the same as the child’s surname. This could mean two things: either the child is born out of wedlock, and the MMN is stated even though it is the same as the child’s surname; or the parents both had the same surname before marriage. In such a situation we would need to see the actual birth certificate (or marriage certificate) to be sure. If the parents are married the birth certificate would probably give the ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ as ‘[forename] Taylor, formerly Taylor‘; and the father’s details will of course be included.

Here’s another type of entry that less experienced researchers often have difficulty with: Under ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ you might see something like the following: ‘Margaret Robinson formerly Macanerny previously Baxter‘. This means the mother, Margaret Robinson, now married to Mr Robinson, was previously married to a Mr Macanerny. Before that, her maiden name was Baxter. It is the name Baxter that will be indicated online on the GRO Index, but to get that additional information you have to see the actual certificate:

ROBINSON, JANE    BAXTER  
GRO Reference: 1857  D Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 351
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Understanding all of the above is great because it directs us to other life events and documents, or indeed indicates that such documents will not be found. Be aware though that an official document is only as true as the information provided by the informant. In the last example, the marriage between Margaret Baxter and Mr Macanerny was never dissolved, and twenty years of searching suggests she never actually ‘married’ Mr Robinson.

*****

We can now turn to ways in which people chose to include mothers’ maiden names when naming their children or indeed as a later choice of the individual him/herself.

Maiden names as middle names
It seems to have been during Victorian times that the fashion really developed for including the MMN as a child’s middle name. It did happen before this period, but seems to have increased in popularity amongst the middling and working classes at this time. Some families seem to have given the MMN only to the oldest son or possibly the oldest daughter; others gave the MMN as a middle name to all their children. It has nothing to do with legitimacy or otherwise of the child. In examples in my own tree, marriage dates clearly evidence that this was not in question. It is of course a bonus for the family historian, since it links without a shadow of a doubt the child to the mother’s lineage, and it’s particularly useful if the child was born prior to the introduction of civil registration in 1837. I have a 4x great aunt, for example, baptised in 1812 with the name Maria Thompson Wade, Thompson being the MMN. This is all the more helpful because the only record so far found for this baptism is a transcript, giving only the father’s name.

There are a few caveats to making use of this practice in our research though:

  • On occasion the name passed down, although originating as a mother’s maiden name, may not be this specific mother’s maiden name. It may have been handed down by tradition in the male family, possibly originating some generations back, e.g. with a great grandmother. I have a possible example of this in one of my lines, and it’s a mystery I’ve not yet been able to solve: a child baptised in 1737 with the name George Chilvers Christian yet definitely the son of Christopher Christian and Barbara née Aylmer.
  • The middle name may be mistranscribed as double-barrelled. A hyphen may even be adopted by choice of the individual in later life. So Thomas Beecroft Mann, surname Mann and MMN Beecroft, may possibly be indexed under the surname Mann or Beecroft-Mann, even though he considered his surname to be Mann.
  • Here’s a tricky one that took me a while to work out: my 2x great aunt married a man named Allen Whitworth Schofield. As far as I can see, all of their children were registered with one or two forenames followed by Whitworth Schofield. Some of the children (the ones who emigrated to the US) adopted this as a double-barrelled name in adulthood. Others didn’t but transcribers often assume this to be the case. In fact the origin in this case does indeed stem from illegitimacy. Allen was registered in 1843 with the surname Schofield, and the absence of MMN on the GRO index indicates that his mother was unmarried. Four years later his mother marries Mr Whitworth and from that time Allen is recorded on censuses with the surname Whitworth. Although Allen eventually marries with the surname Schofield he continues to use Whitworth as a middle name, and to honour his stepfather he gives this as a middle name to his children.

Maiden names as first names
The use of a MMN as a first name may continue for several generations. When eventually we find the origin it’s a real bonus, confirming our research back to this point. The aforementioned Thomas Beecroft Mann named one of his sons ‘Beecroft’. I have also come across a Horner Ingham, also his uncle Horner Ingham, their name originating with the marriage of their grandmother/mother Ann Horner to James Ingham.

Maiden name as surname with father’s name as middle name
In contrast with the use of the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, when these names are reversed this always indicates illegitimacy. (Please note that I’m referring here to the historic situation, and not to present day surname naming practices which may be quite different.) Historically, a child born out of marriage was baptised with the surname of the mother. If, shortly after that, the parents marry it is quite normal for the father’s name to be inserted as a middle name. Although this is what happened in the Whitworth Schofield example above, the gap between Allen’s birth and his mother’s marriage (four years) suggests her new husband is stepfather rather than biological father to Allen. However, when my 3xG grandmother, Annabella, was baptised in 1816, the parish register recorded her parentage as ‘Martha Walker, a single woman of Micklefield‘. Four months later, Martha married James Noble, and in all documentation after that the child was known as Annabella Noble Walker. It is the short gap between baptism and marriage that indicates James is more likely in this case to be the actual father. In fact I can’t understand why he just didn’t step up a few months earlier! DNA matches have now confirmed he is definitely my ancestor.

I have seen one early 20th century example of this in which for delicate reasons I won’t go into the mother and father were not able to marry. The child was given the mother’s surname and had no contact with or knowledge of the father who did nevertheless, we think, pay for the child’s upkeep. However, the inclusion of the father’s surname as a middle name was part of the little paper trail that was left for some genealogist (Me!) to track him down more than 100 years later and permit an acknowledgement of him as biological father.

Formalising a middle MMN as a double barrelled surname for reasons of family pride
And finally, I have one example in my tree of the mother’s maiden name being adopted as a double-barrelled surname for reasons of pride in that individual’s notable maternal ancestry. In that example the person clearly wished to emphasise his connection to his maternal grandfather and also to his mother’s brother, a rather dashing and highly accomplished uncle, whose biography the nephew went on to write.

*****

Have you come across any other unusual uses of maiden names? Have you been able to draw upon a historic maiden name to verify your research? If you can add anything to the above please do share in the comments.

Genealogical Women’s Lore

Back in October 2019 I reviewed two books about researching female ancestors.  Both were useful and interesting.  However, neither was particularly what I had anticipated.  We all know that women are far less likely to feature in records than their husbands, fathers and sons.  Having gone to all the trouble of producing a living human being many mothers were not even given a mention in the parish register; and in some parishes this exclusion of women was so extreme that a married woman was not even really mentioned when she died, her burial record referring merely to ‘Wife of John Smith’ or ‘Widow Brown’.  The whole point of these two books therefore was to highlight specific record sets that might include our women ancestors, together with an understanding of developments in social history and general themes that might be of interest even though we won’t find specific records – like fashion.

What wasn’t included was what we might learn about her life *because* she is a woman, or because ‘this was the way things were done’: things that women ‘know’ and ‘understand’, and might sometimes have been talked about in hushed tones in the kitchen away from the men.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, and have now put together three posts (this one and the next two) to try to read between the lines and ‘decode’ every last bit of information from entries about our foremothers.  There are no guarantees to what follows, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures!  So if you have a brick wall and you’re prepared to think outside the box, perhaps one of these ideas might help.

Our foremothers changed their surname on marriage
Okaaay… obvious!  We all know our female ancestors changed their names when they married.  And yet… how many times have you been tripped up by this?  I know I have.  The fact is that even a very young woman could have been widowed already, and an older widow might remarry.  This is easier to trace post-1837, when the civil certificates give more information: marital status plus the bride’s father’s surname.  But prior to that we have to work harder.  So if a baptism doesn’t seem to exist for her, look instead for an earlier marriage, using just her first name and the known surname for the spouse.  If a likely looking marriage shows up, now look for a burial for the husband.  Similarly, if you can’t find a burial for your female ancestor, look for a remarriage, and then a later burial with the new name.

Childbirth as a guide to the mother’s age
According to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) a woman’s childbearing years are assumed to start at age 15 and end at age 45 (the day before her 46th birthday).  Let’s put that to the test.  Look at women in your tree who had large families and long lives.  How old was each one when she had her last child?

Here’s a random sample from different branches (and time periods) of my tree:

  • Annie Elizabeth, b.1850; d.1926. Last child born 1888 when Annie Elizabeth was 38*
  • Jane, b.1857; d.1940. Last child born 1900 when Jane was 43
  • Mary, b. c.1801; d.1863. Last child born 1846 when Mary was c.45**
  • Rachel, b.1828; d.1884. Last child born 1869 when Rachel was 41
  • Elizabeth, b.1792; d.1848. Last child born 1833 when Elizabeth was 41.
  • Lucy, b.1802; d.1885. Last child born 1846 when Lucy was 44.
  • Sarah, b.1784; d.1860. Last child born 1828 when Sarah was 44.
  • Dorothy, b.1763; d.1843. Last child born 1803 when Dorothy was 40.

*younger than the others listed, but by this time Annie Elizabeth had already had 13 children, one divorce and one judicial separation with second husband on grounds of domestic violence.
**consistent with two census returns, although the final census gives a younger age.

These examples from my tree suggest the ONS general assumption of childbearing years was as valid 200 years ago as it is today.  For a woman who gave birth regularly throughout her marriage and lived on for some years after this, the end of childbearing is a reasonable guide to her age and therefore for the search of her baptism.  It could help to narrow down the search to within five years.

A named woman is (almost) certainly the mother
Here’s something that becomes important if DNA matches are not adding up: the named father on a child’s birth certificate or on the parish baptismal register might sometimes turn out not to be the biological father, but the named woman is almost certainly the mother.  To recap from my earlier post on unexpected DNA results: FTDNA, one of the main DNA testing companies, assess the NPE (‘Non-Paternity Event’ or ‘Not Parent Expected’) rate at about 1-2% per generation. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki page on NPEs cites a number of studies, some of which have concluded that historical NPE rates were much higher than more recent times.
There are a few exceptions to this assumption about the mother.  The child may have been given away at birth and brought up as the child of another family – although in the one known example of this in my ancestry (Annie Elizabeth’s firstborn) the baby was originally registered and baptised as the child of the biological parents.  Another possibility is that the mother was very young and the baby was registered as the child of its grandmother. (I can recommend watching re-runs of ‘Call The Midwife’ to encourage lateral thinking on the lengths desperate women might go to.)  Although these possibilities must be borne in mind, though, we might generally assume that the named mother at least is the biological parent.

Untimely deaths
The death of a woman of childbearing years may have been connected to a birth
If a female ancestor of childbearing years dies it’s always worth looking for a baptism or birth record around the same time. Equally, a woman known to have died from childbirth complications has definitely given birth, even if there is no birth certificate: there was definitely a baby but it may not not have survived. Before 1939, if the baby was stillborn there will not be a record.
Example: My 2xG grandfather Marcus’s first wife, Ann, was only twenty when she died. It was only when I bought the death certificate and read the cause of death: ‘Milk Fever’, that I realised I needed to look for a baby. Little Ann was born on 16th January 1850 and was only one week old when her mother died. The baby also died, five days later.

The birth of a baby indicates that the mother was alive on the day the child was born (even if she died shortly afterwards).  By contrast, the best we can conclude for a missing (presumed dead) father is to say he was alive nine months earlier.
Example: After Ann’s death the aforementioned Marcus married Harriet. They had four children, of which the last one is my great grandfather. He was born in September 1859, and Marcus is registered as the father, yet by the time of the 1861 census Harriet is described as a widow. There is no death certificate and no known burial. Did Marcus really die, or did he just move away? All we can really say is that his last known presence was nine months before the baby’s birth (… although I have been desperately seeking a DNA match for Marcus for several years. Without this I can’t even say for sure that he was my great grandfather’s father.)

Other indications of pregnancy: An interesting example came up a couple of weeks ago in Series 4, episode 2 of A House Through Time: Leeds (BBC). In the following household, the presence of the ‘Monthly Nurse’ indicates that Mary H Mellish is in the very last stages of pregnancy, preparing for the birth. However, no birth is ever registered. The only way we have of knowing Mary was pregnant and her baby was stillborn is this entry on the census, and the presence of Margaret Towns, Monthly Nurse. The census is of course a decennial snapshot of the population. There would have been many more Monthly Nurses and mothers whose labours ended in stillbirths, and it would be a significant event in each mother’s life, but there is no official record of them. Even here, we understand it only by joining the dots.

Entry on census return showing presence of 'Monthly Nurse' at residential property.
TNA Class: RG11; Piece: 4538; Folio: 34; Page: 62; GSU roll: 1342092. Source: Ancestry.com

Did she die and did he re-marry? Naming traditions can make distinguishing between generations difficult. How do we know if a marriage record on an old parish register relates to an older man or his adult son of the same name? Here’s an example where I was able to use the wife’s burial record together with DNA as proof that my ancestor is the older man.
Example: My 4xG grandfather George Gamble married my 4xG grandmother (Hannah) in 1790, when she was 20 years old.  I couldn’t find a baptism but working on the assumption he would be about the same age as Hannah, I had been looking for a baptism between around 1760 and 1770.  It was a DNA ThruLine suggestion on Ancestry that alerted me to the true facts.  At first the ‘Common Ancestor’ didn’t seem to be to my George at all: it led to an older George Gamble, born 1749, whose wife was Susanna. Then I noticed that they stopped having children in 1789, the year before my George married Hannah.  Might Susanna have died in that year, perhaps in childbirth?  I checked for a burial for a Susanna Gamble, and there it was, about 14 weeks after the last birth – another case of milk fever perhaps?  I then checked all the occupation references for this other George.  He was a clothier, the same as my George.  The 1790 marriage entry for my 4xG grandparents refers to ‘George Gamble of this parish, clothier, and Hannah Brook of this parish, spinster’, but makes no reference to George’s own widowed marital status.  This was, however, undoubtedly the same person.  It was the final birth combined with Susanna’s untimely death that solved the case.

Regular as clockwork
If records indicate a very regular pattern of childbirth for a woman, such as every 2 to 3 years, but with one longer gap this may point to a stillbirth or miscarriages, an illness, a child being born away from the normal residence or for some other reason an additional child that you haven’t found.
Example: Annie Elizabeth, in the above list of my foremothers, had a good standard of living yet gave birth to a lot of sickly babies, generally with a very short gap between pregnancies – in one case an eleven month gap followed by a nine month gap.  I had already found eleven babies but it wasn’t until I saw her entry on the 1911 census for number of babies born alive and number of babies since died that I realised two more were missing.  I noticed that in the midst of all these pregnancies there were two 3-year gaps – not a long time between pregnancies for most other women, but within the context of Annie Elizabeth’s childbirth patterns, three years was a long gap. I found one of the missing babies born and baptised in a quiet rural area away from Leeds.  I assume that in view of all the infant deaths, Annie Elizabeth had gone there to see through the last months of that pregnancy and the birth in a calmer environment away from the family business.  The final missing baby, however, has never been identified but I suspect may have been born (perhaps stillborn) during the other 3-year gap between babies 2 and 3.  

Extract from 1911 census showing number of children born to female householder.
TNA Class: RG78; Piece: 1548. Source: Ancestry.com

It’s important to note that this part of the 1911 census was directed at married women, and that the question relates to children born of ‘this marriage’.  Widowed for thirteen years, Annie Elizabeth should have left it blank, and we can see that the enumerator crossed through her responses in red ink – but luckily for us many widows and stepmothers completed this section, and it’s always lucky for us if they did.  I also strongly suspect that some women included stillborn babies in their numbers.  As mentioned above, at this time stillbirths were not even registered.  The apparent inclusion of them by their mothers in this census response is perhaps their way of giving legitimacy to the little ones who were never counted.

*****

So these are my thoughts on ‘women’s issues’ for genealogists – or gynecology for genealogy. They may just help in untangling a brick wall. If you can add anything along these lines I’d love to know.  Next time I’ll be sticking with our foremothers, and focusing on maiden names.

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods

I remember the day I realised the records I had been finding, downloading and attaching to my online tree did not ‘belong’ to Ancestry.  Rather they had been photographed and indexed by/for Ancestry who, with permission from the relevant archives, made them available via their website. 

The progression from Beginner to Intermediate skills for the genealogist is peppered with such realisations.  Broadly, as we become more proactive in searching for specific records to close specific gaps we must develop our knowledge of the types of records that exist and which ones might hold the information we require.  Alongside this we must develop the skills to find them (since these additional types of record are less likely to have been made available online), analyse them and support each one with effective citation, keeping records of our progress and findings.  Helen Osborn’s work Genealogy: Essential Research Methods leaves aside the records themselves, focusing here on these essential skills of finding and using them.  It’s definitely not a book for Beginners; rather it’s a serious, diligent and methodical approach to genealogy.  You’ll get the most from it if you’re already working at a sound Intermediate level or higher, and looking to improve further.  For pretty much anyone who falls into these categories, I think there will be something to learn from this excellent work. 

The book focuses on researching within England and Wales. All references to archives and the records framework, and all examples from the author’s own work are from these two parts of the UK.  The principles of good research practice, however, are applicable everywhere, and from that perspective the book will be of use to anyone serious about developing as a genealogist and family historian.

The book was first published in 2012, although my copy was printed in 2020. It goes without saying that there have been changes in genealogy since then, in terms of wider online availability or records, website links, and even in the organisation of some of the archives themselves.  This issue is mostly limited to chapter 4 but for me is the only drawback, and is generally easily remedied with a Google search rather than simply typing in the sometimes defunct link.

It starts with a chapter setting out common genealogical and research challenges.  In the remaining chapters, techniques and ideas for working with and around these challenges are presented.  Yet it is not prescriptive; rather it reads as an ongoing personal exploration by a highly experienced professional genealogist, historian and qualified archivist inviting us to join in this exploration.  It is very readable. 

Within those chapters you’ll find the following:

  • How to seach online, using effective search terms
  • The importance of reading the particular website’s instructions
  • An understanding of the records framework for England and Wales, including the various jurisdictional levels and the legal, historical and geographic framework that underpins it
  • Different types of archives, the types of records they keep and how they are organised
  • Guidance on drawing upon work already done by others, including online trees and transcriptions
  • Analysis of each document in terms of value, bias and to get every last shred of evidence from it
  • Developing a thorough action plan and other ideas for when you get stuck
  • The importance of documenting sources, and different levels of citation
  • Why we should record our research process
  • Different ways of storing the info, including paper and digital; organising it in a way it can be passed on, perhaps to family or perhaps published in family history magazines or as a family history
  • Evidence and proof

Two meaty issues that have been a constant topic of interest for me – simply because there are no British genealogy ‘standards’ for them – are citation of sources (which has requirements for genealogy that differ from general academic fields in some respects) and advanced-level proof.  The former is dealt with in Chapter 8, with guidance on what needs to be in a citation and also what to record in a research log. The emphasis is on understanding ‘why’ rather than simply ‘what’. If we understand why such information should be noted we will develop the ability to create our own citations rather than simply adopt a formulaic approach. Proof is dealt with in Chapter 10. The two are of course linked, since it is through rigorous citation that we will record the evidence we are presenting as proof, thereby enabling not only ourselves but also others to follow our trail and decide for themselves if they are in agreement with our conclusions.

There is one more chapter that I know I will return to from time to time: Chapter 7 on Planning and Problem-solving. This entire chapter is about approaching brick walls in a systematic way, rather like having ‘a second pair of eyes’ to look for something you might have missed. There is advice about how to approach the problem solving in a systematic way, and also a checklist for record sources, some of which you might just have missed.

When I read this book I already considered my research and analysis skills to be well-developed but was looking for ideas to be more rigorous, particularly in documenting work done and developing action plans. I found I could mentally tick off much of the advice – yes, I’m already doing that – but there were also gems here and there where I knew I could do better, and which I’ve used to develop a personal action plan for improvement. If you’re serious about developing as a genealogist I recommend this book.

Click the image to find this book on Amazon.co.uk.
(Affiliate link)

Presenting a visual legacy

Black and white photo of group British Army National Service recruits

One of the young men in this photo is my Dad. It was taken in 1946 during his initial National Service training in Aberdeen. When I look at it I think of an amusing story he told me about his time there.

One of the other recruits was from the Western Isles. A Gaelic speaker, it soon became clear he didn’t understand English. The NCOs persevered, doing their best to make clear what they required, but eventually it was accepted it just wasn’t going to work. The decision was taken to release the Gaelic speaking man from National Service. Assuming he wouldn’t be able to navigate the route to the railway station and make himself understood when buying a ticket for the journey back to the Islands, they asked my Dad to accompany him, buy his ticket and see him safely onto the right train. This my Dad did, and as they were parting the young man who spoke only Gaelic turned to him, shook him warmly by the hand and said in perfect Scottish-accented English: ‘Well thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful.’ And with that he jumped on his train and escaped National Service.

*****

Starting with more recent generations is more likely to create interest
My personal observation is that even people with no interest in family history will nevertheless enjoy stories about people they knew. I’ve often made the mistake of thinking a distant cousin might share my fascination with our shared line back to the 17th century, only to find what they’re really interested in is the life of their grandparents. As luck would have it, those more recent generations are the ones we have photos for. It follows then that old family photos are a great place to start in encouraging younger generations to take an interest in their wider family history.

In my last post I wrote about my dawning realisation that unless I make my family photographs more accessible, they could easily be lost forever when I’m no longer around, and I outlined what I’ve been doing to organise my files. This time I’m focusing on using and presenting those images. The emphasis here remains on digital images. But as is clear from the above example, this doesn’t exclude the beautiful monochrome photos we inherited from our parents and grandparents. I wrote previously about archiving the originals and how, for safety, these old photos should be scanned and digitised too, before the originals are safely stored. My own digitisation of all the old photos I inherited is about halfway complete. So now – old photos or modern – I’m ready to turn to what we can do once they are safely stored in our digital archives.

We need to provide context
A Facebook Family History group I’m a member of often has requests from people working through old family photos but with no idea who the subjects are. It takes a group effort with people contributing knowledge about changing fashions, estimating ages and the like, so that the original poster can try to work out who the subjects might be. I’ve also participated in ‘spot the unusual earlobe’ type discussions in which we’re asked if two photos might be of the same person, thirty years apart.

At the very least, then, what we need is to provide future generations with notes about who and when. If possible what, where and why would also be great. I like to take it a stage further if I can, using the photo as a starting point for a story, just like the one at the top of this post. I know from experience that this can help draw people in, but I need a way of presenting them alongside the images for family members to keep. What follows considers physical creations using images you print off yourself; and digital creations, in which you create the entire thing at your computer and then share the file/ link or a print of that end product.

Physical creations
Photo albums and scrapbooking are tactile and can be beautiful. I used to love arranging photos, and adding notes and other memorabilia. However, they take up a lot of space, and it’s now widely known that many albums actually harm our photos. Even if I took swift action to replace those first albums with sticky pages covered with film bought for about 99 pence each in my early teens, I know that none of my later albums, despite being much better quality, are actually ‘archival’. What we need is acid/ lignin/ PVC-free archival quality albums; and these come at a cost. It turns out albums with black pages are a no-no too; I have two of these. What’s known these days as ‘scrapbooking’ (and has little to do with what used to be called ‘scrapbooks’!) is probably safer for the photographs, since those who enjoy this craft are more likely to be aware of archival issues; and archival quality scrapbook papers, adhesives and the like are widely available. Having given much thought to this whole issue I’ve come to the conclusion that provided I don’t use treasured originals of monochrome photos, and provided I have a digital back-up of any images used, albums and scrapbooking are fine. I’ve removed all the old monochrome photos taken by my Dad from the cheap album I put them in when I was 13, and will be keeping them in an archival quality box from now on, but as long as any prints used can be replaced, I’m happy to have my photos in albums and scrapbooking albums.

Digital creations
Undoubtedly, digital creations have a lot of advantages. Whereas you would probably compile only one album or create only one scrapbook about an event or a special person’s life, a digital version of the same can be circulated amongst the extended family. This list has been compiled following a lot of online research and mulling it all over, a bit of talking to others, and some dabbling. It has enabled me to work out what options I’m going to use, and I hope it will help you too.

Creating Timelines
This idea turned out to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There are so many online applications and articles about creating timelines, that I had to keep reminding myself of what I was trying to achieve. What I want to be able to do is quite specific:

  • create a series of short timelines focusing on just one person or even just one part of that person’s life, for example my Dad’s time doing National Service, or my Granddad’s service with the Green Howards
  • build each timeline around my own family photographs
  • attach stories and significant local or world events as context
  • include maps
  • have it online, but private and password protected, so that I can invite family members but not overload them with info at any one time. This also means they could return to look any time they want without fear of losing, say, an email link or a document from me.

I narrowed the various options down to four online timeline websites.

Twile is online, free, private, password-protected and family members can be invited to view and collaborate. They provide the option to start by uploading a GEDCOM file, which I did. After a bit of exploration it seems easy to use. However, the skeleton timeline created by my GEDCOM goes back to the 1500s and this will seem cumbersome and off-putting to family members. So – just because I’ve already uploaded the entire GEDCOM – I’ve decided to use Twile for a different purpose: to create Timelines for more distant ancestors when I’m working on their life stories and researching/ recording context.

Timetoast appealed because it’s not linked to a family tree. You can create as many timelines as you like – so you can home in on a specific part of a person’s life and make another timeline for their full life if you wanted. Provided you’re happy with them all being public the account is free. There are two options for paid accounts, the more expensive Pro account providing an all-bells-and-whistles experience. My problem here is that I would want my recent generation timelines to be private but wouldn’t make so many timelines that it would be worth paying the full subscription. However, if you would make sufficient use of it this does seem like a good option.

HistoryLines also looks very good. They make it clear that what they’re about is the stories, and that’s just what I’m trying to achieve here. Their vehicle for telling these stories is your family tree and although you can start with a couple of stories for free, there is a subscription if you want to keep going. Their offering is different from the others in that they have gathered together a lot of contextual information that you can access and link directly to your timelines. This contextual information is arranged by State and, being a US-based company, my impression from the website was that you’d get more from what they have to offer if your ancestry is within the US. However, I wrote to ask a few questions and received very full and helpful responses to them all. Importantly, they tell me they do have a lot of contextual content for England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can also just input information and leave it to HistoryLines to auto-write the stories if you don’t feel confident about writing your own content.

Treelines is free but they do reserve the right to charge at some point in the future. They say ‘If ever we do start charging users, even if you decide not to pay for a subscription, we will not delete any data you’ve already added to the site.’ You have the option for uploading a GEDCOM, but for this website I’ve inputted manually myself, my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I’ll gradually add siblings, etc, as I focus on the timeline for each of these people. Your tree is accessible only to the people you invite to it, although there is an option to make any timeline public. Importantly for my needs, there is the facility to add additional stories away from the main timeline for that person. This is the website I will use to share stories and timelines with my children, nephews and niece.

Books
Online self-publishing and marketing platforms like Blurb offer free book-making tools to help users design and publish books and ebooks. They also provide a platform for promoting and selling the product should you wish to do that. They offer a variety of book formats and quality papers, and a range of styles of book, including travelogues and family photo books.

My husband’s second cousin (also a genealogist; we worked together on their shared line) has been using Blurb for fourteen years. She tells me the company is helpful, the quality and colour of the printed books excellent, and they deal well with text passages alongside images. The maximum number of pages for the printed book is 240. She pays extra for premium lustre paper and image wrap onto the cover. The pdf file of a book costs about £3.80 and you can share it with no restriction, but the cost of printed books is high so she waits for special offers. I haven’t seen any of her actual printed books but I do have a copy of the pdf of her family history book, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It seems to me that paying a lot for what is destined to be a family heirloom is money well spent. When I wrote to Blurb to ask a couple of questions they replied within 24 hours, answering fully. They advised that all of their papers are acid-free/archival quality, and that all their books, regardless of paper type, should last as long as a typical bookstore book with proper care and handling.

Photo printing Apps
A quick Google search indicates quite a few photo printing Apps are available. After downloading to your mobile device you can use them to create a range of books (hardback, softback, booklet), prints and other products. So this is a variation on Blurb, but only for your mobile phone/tablet photos, and great if your phone is your primary camera. This is not for me – I want to edit photos and add contextual information, spending time poring over it to get the wording just right – but it might suit you. My husband has used Popsa and tells me it’s very easy to use.

Digital scrapbooking
There are various options for digital scrapbooking, from a free basic online programme called Smilebook to highly customizable software costing around £60-100, and all levels in between. These are expensive to make if you intend to print off the pages, but for circulating as digital creations, once you’ve chosen your programme, the only cost is your time. Here’s a review of the best digital scrapbooking software for 2021. As a result of exploring all this I’ve bought some digital scrapbooking papers and embelllishments and have been creating digital scrapbook pages using the Photoshop Elements programme I already use for photo editing. The results have been quite impressive and – wait for it! – I’ve had interest in them and the stories behind them from two nephews!

DIY Options
To keep costs down, here are some ideas for creating something yourself on your home computer. If you’re going to circulate to family members via email or Dropbox there’s no need to print these off, so no additional ink costs.

Finding Guide
This first idea is simply administrative and I’ve already created my own. It includes a list of my digital folders, where they’re to be found (PC and remote storage), dates covered and some thumbnail examples of the photos in each. Having put so much effort into my digital photo archives I feel confident that the folders themselves won’t change much, so it’s simply a question of keeping them up to date and updating the finding guide as technology and remote storage changes. I don’t need this: I know my archives system inside out; but our grown-up children can access our remote storage. They will now be able to find old photos, including the monochrome ones but also their own childhood photos, any time they want to.

Stories with photos
You could create a series of stories and recollections in a Microsoft Word document, each page starting with an image and followed by the text, like I did above. Other than a single photo followed by a body of text though, Word isn’t ideal for lots of images and wrap-around text.

Creating a Timeline using Word
Here’s a ‘Quick and Easy How To Tutorial’ for creating a family history timeline using Microsoft Word. I haven’t put it to the test, but the instructions seems clear enough.

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Well, they are my ideas and I hope the above has provided some useful information for you. If you have any experience with any of these photo-plus-story presentation options please let us know about it in the comments. The process of working through all this has certainly helped me to plan my next stages, and I’ll be reporting back on some of these options when I’ve had a chance to really explore them.

A visual legacy for future generations

Small boy with camera, taking photograph

One of my many Lockdown goals (I wrote about it in April 2020) was to conserve, organise and digitise all my old monochrome family photos. In fact I’ve only recently started work on that. This is because, before scanning and creating digital copies of the old photos, I decided I needed to tidy up my existing digital photo archives.

We got our first digital camera around 2002, but it wasn’t until I bought my first digital SLR in 2007 that I got serious and set up my own digital archive system. All of the digital images from that initial five years have been safely stored by my husband. About ten years ago he also used a specialist negative scanner to convert the negatives of all our analogue photos to digital files. We do, however, have different approaches to naming and archiving these files, and our ‘systems’, shall we say… don’t dovetail!

My Dad was an accomplished old-school photographer and I’ve had a camera for as long as I can remember, including a pretty decent Pentax before we turned to digital. I used to lovingly create albums with the photos, including tickets, memorabilia and notes about the events and locations. And so we come to the first of the only two disadvantages of digital photography that I can think of – being that very few people these days actually print off their digital images. I’m ashamed to say that since we went digital, although we have printed off a few individual images I haven’t compiled a single photo album.

I’ve been thinking about all this while reorganising my digital photo files. My archive system is good. Individual image files are stored in named folders, and since I upload them from my camera via my main processing software (Photoshop Elements), they are also visible in the Elements ‘media browser’ in date and time order. So they’re searchable by date in the media browser, by category (folder) in my digital archives, and also by keyword search in Elements. In theory it can take seconds to find the exact image I’m after. However, it isn’t always this straightforward. I might have returned home from a holiday in Sicily and taken a few photos of my children in the garden the following morning before uploading the entire batch with the filename ‘Sicily’ and storing them in a folder called ‘Sicily’. On my Photoshop media browser I can see the children’s images, and they will appear in date order, quite clearly taken the day after our return from Sicily. But if I want to find those images of the children in the garden in my digital archives, I probably won’t remember they are in the Sicily folder. This happens a lot, and that was why I needed to sort them all out. If I can lose images in my own pretty well-organised files, then how will my children and future generations fare? How will they even know what photos exist? And here’s the second disadvantage of digital photography: it’s so cheap and so accessible that we take many photos and often place little value on them. I’m horrified to note that having reached this stage of organising my folders, deleting quite a lot of images, copying the ones my husband had stored and renaming/incorporating them into my own system… I have just under 21,000 images in my Photoshop media browser. Many of them will be of no interest to anyone else (but they are to me) and although at least now my folders are meticulously organised and the folder names self-explanatory, it doesn’t seem such a loving legacy to expect my kids to go rooting about on my computer after my demise to rescue digital photos of their childhood days.

So it occurs to me that despite the ease of digital photography we’re in danger of having even fewer photographs to hand on to future generations than our grandparents and great grandparents left for us. Yet while there may be far more of these photos than the ones we inherited from our grandparents, these too are important. They are a visual legacy that we can pass on, alongside those old black and white images, to future generations – but only if we organise them so that they can be found and accessed. My reorganisation is now complete, and I’ve moved on to photographing and uploading the old monochrome photos, which are also being stored and categorised within my existing system. So with all this fresh in my mind, here’s my advice:

  • The first step is to organise them well, in a consistent manner that’s meaningful to you and hopefully also to others who you want to use them. Some digital photographers advise naming folders with the date. So the batch in this folder was taken on 2020 12 04 and in that folder on 2121 03 16. It’s very neat and easy to find the folders on the computer, but it’s not for me. My memories are linked to people, places and events, not to what I was doing on April 7th in any given year. So I have folders that reflect this: ‘York’, ‘Honfleur’, ‘Embroidery Projects’, a folder for each of my children for activities and friends as they were growing up, ‘home’ folders where family life is recorded, and so on. When I upload new batches my default settings are that each image is named with the date it was taken, followed by custom name, and then the number of the image from the memory card. All I have to do is decide what the custom name should be and in which folder the batch should be stored. Even if all your photography is on your phone (where custom names is not an option) you could still make images easier to find by organising them into albums.
  • Make multiple back-ups. I learned the hard way how important this is back in 2010 when my hard drive corrupted and I lost several months’ photos. I had them backed up to what I thought was two drives, but somehow backing up from there to remote storage kept getting put off and when the hard drive burned out I lost the lot. The advice is to save to three places, at least one of which is remote.
  • Keep the best, delete the rest! Once you have the equipment, whether that be a phone or a top-notch camera with digital darkroom software, actually taking the photos costs nothing, so we might take a LOT of photos. Part of my reorganisation has been to delete the excess or poor quality photos. There’s more to do, but it will have to be a work in progress.
  • Metadata. Every digital image file has text information embedded into it. Some of this data is generated automatically by the camera or phone. It includes date and time taken, possibly the precise GPS location, and the size of the file in terms of megabytes and pixels/dimensions. If the photo was taken with a camera rather than phone some technical details about the exposure will be included. If, like we did for our pre-digital photos, you create a digital file by scanning the negative, or indeed by scanning the original photo, the metadata will relate to the creation of this new file and not to when the photo was actually taken. Since it’s the metadata information that dictates where the image ends up in my media browser, I’ve had to go through and manually change the date metadata for every single scanned file. (Oh what fun that was!) However, there is other metadata that we can add manually that will really help in retrieving a file quickly when we want it. This includes the filename given to the image at the time of uploading (or as amended afterwards). It also includes tagging people who are in the image, and any keywords we add – I often use keywords when a person’s face is not fully visible and the software won’t permit me to ‘tag’.

Apart from all that, there’s the possibility of adding administrative data, including image owner and restrictions on use. I won’t go into that here since it’s not the sort of condition we would impose on our families and descendants. But if you have the right software and can make use of all these tools, it will really help you to find photos more quickly.

  • Be mindful of changes in technology. Goodness knows what the technology will look like in the future! All we can do is be mindful, and try to do what we must to ensure our images are still accessible.

There’s no underestimating the time consuming hard work that has to go into retrospectively organising the above, but it’s lovely to find photos you had forgotten about – and once it’s done you can start to have fun with your images, use them in creative ways and add context that will be meaningful to future generations. That’s what we’ll move on to in my next post. In the meantime, if you have any advice about how you’re building an accessible photographic legacy for your own future generations, please share.

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Note: The image above is a digital scan of the negative of a photo taken in the summer of 1998 when we watched the final stage of the Tour de France from les Tuileries. Since it was a scan the metadata embedded into the file had a date of 2010. Using Google I’ve been able to date that stage, and therefore this photo, to 2nd August 1998. I changed the metadata on the file manually so it’s now named 1998 08 02_Paris_0039.jpg and is stored in a folder called Paris August 1998. Since it’s a scan of a pre-digital image there is no other metadata, other than the size of the file. Plus I have tagged it with my son’s name. The original photo is in a little scrapbook he and I made together about our trip to Paris. I still plan to experiment to see how these scans of the negatives compare to scans of the actual photo.

Leaving a family history legacy for future generations

I’ve been thinking about what we can do to plan for passing on our research, photos and family history legacy to future generations – whether this means to our own families or to others interested more generally in our findings. All this has been weighing on my mind for two reasons. First, I’ve spent a lot of time recently reorganising and refining my photographic archives. More about that in the next two posts. Second… well, to be honest, my grown-up children are not particularly interested in their ancestry, and I suspect this is the reality for many keen genealogists. I have even featured in a video sketch made by one of their friends, in which I turn every topic into an ancestral story… In the video my leaping off point was an onion! It’s perfectly understandable really: I wasn’t interested in my Dad’s stamp collection, and I have no right to expect my family to be fascinated by the events surrounding 3xG Uncle Anthony’s transportation to Australia. I just wish they were – it’s a truly fascinating story! 😀

So this post is written from the personal starting point of trying to work out what we can do to interest family members in our research… The next two posts will be about organising digital photos and making them more accessible and interesting, but in this first post we’ll look at ‘genealogy wills’ and a few other ideas for trying to engage our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces…. anyone! – in their family legacy.

Make a ‘Genealogy Will’
First, the serious stuff… The idea is that you leave a genealogy-specific Will along with your regular one to be dealt with by your executors. The aim is to do what we can to ensure our research doesn’t just get wiped or go in the bin when we’re no longer around. RootsWeb published an outline ‘Genealogy Will’ that you can download and fill in the gaps or use as the basis for writing your own. It includes listing people who might be interested in taking custody of and responsibility for maintaining your work, and failing that, organisations you think might be interested in receiving it. FamilyTree.com write about how you might plan for this in their blogpost Create a Genealogical Will, although it’s aimed at readers in the United States. It makes sense, if possible, that rather than leave this to our executors, we identify for ourselves a family member who is prepared to be the custodian of our work, and show them the ropes. I hope all this is well into the future for us all, and I don’t feel inclined to write one just yet. For a start, absolutely no one springs to mind who would want to take it on. And who knows what the technology will look like by then or what online companies and local history societies will have survived? But when I do write it I intend to include websites and passwords, and to review it from time to time.

Creative ideas for passing on a family history legacy
There are lots of articles online that focus on leaving a family history legacy for your family. Obviously, different ideas will appeal to different people. Mostly, they involve creative activity, either for you alone, or with children. Some of them are about treasuring memories made together and having them to pass on, rather than specifically about our ancestry.

  • If you enjoy doing crafty things with the children or grandchildren, working together on a family scrapbook might appeal.
  • A Google search for ‘children’s family tree book’ turns up lots of books to get children interested: some stories, some for recording information.
  • Older children or teenagers with an interest might like to help collate and chronicle old family records, letters and heirlooms.
  • Keen cooks might enjoy writing up a collection of family recipes to be passed on. I like the idea of that, but to be honest my Mum viewed cooking as a chore and I only have two genuine heirloom family recipes, which is a bit limited as the basis for a family recipe book. Even this lack of recipes could reflect social history: I remember watching a TV history programme in which it was suggested that girls growing up during the war, particularly in cities, didn’t learn to cook from their mothers because their mothers were just making do with what they could get. I know, for example, that my Grandma stopped making bread and all they had was the ‘utility loaf‘.
  • If your kids have so far resisted the call of family history but you fancy enlisting the grandchildren by stealth, a shelf of family treasures is suggested, the idea being that you use them as visual aids while you tell stories about who they belonged to.
  • Needleworkers might enjoy putting together a quilt using fabric pieces from old clothes. I enjoy embroidery and have made a number of items for family members, such as Christmas stockings, each dedicated to the recipient. I know these are/will be treasured and passed on as heirlooms, but that’s a story that starts with them and me. It doesn’t bring in the older family legacy.
  • Making a video or audio recording, perhaps at a family gathering, might be more your thing. StoryCorps, whose mission is ‘to preserve the stories of our time in America’ have published lists of starter questions to get people talking.
  • If you’re a musical family you might like to make a recording of a song or musical piece. We produced a ‘singing Christmas card’ in 2002 – a CD of us singing ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’. Obviously we didn’t send it to everyone on our list, but those who got it appreciated it; and I still enjoy it every year at Christmas.
  • If you always wondered if you had a book inside you, you might try your hand at an autobiography or even a larger history of the family based on your research. In her video How to Write and Self Publish Your Family History Book, Lisa Louise Cooke interviews J.M. Phillips, self-published author of Lamlash Street: A Portrait of 1960’s Post-War London Through One Family’s Story. In the video the author shares her story together with some hints at getting started and seeing it through to the end. Of course, you don’t have to publish your work; you might just write down memories and stories in an exercise book. I was passed just such a personal account by a distant cousin, and it provided a rather gossipy insight into the family life of my great grandfather.
  • Another idea I’ve seen is to bury a time capsule. I find it quite difficult to think through the logistics of that, unless you have a settled country pile that’s likely to remain in the family – but if you have such a residence then this might be the idea for you! Safe.co.uk published How to do your own time capsule and keep your memories safe, aimed broadly at people with our interests. Another blogpost aimed more at getting children to bury time capsules was published by the Museum of Wales: Bury a Time Capsule. You can even buy special time capsules guaranteed to keep the contents safe for a certain number of years.

Perhaps there’s something there to interest you. If you have any other ideas, or if you’ve already managed to interest family members in your family history, please do share the secrets of your success in the comments. In the next post we’ll move onto photographs.

Cousin Calculator

Cartoon by Vic Lee (2015) showing Einstein struggling to work out genealogical relationships

The difference between ‘second cousin’ and ‘first cousin once removed’ is not difficult to grasp.  The former is someone who shares the same great grandparents as you, whereas the latter is EITHER the child of your cousin OR you are the child of their cousin.  But in non-genealogy circles it’s surprising how many people get this muddled.  In fact I remember, myself, referring to my cousin’s children as my second cousins.  So this week here’s a little something for less experienced genealogists – or indeed for anyone having trouble calculating cousin relationships.  This becomes all the more important if you start to work with DNA and need to place likely matches, but there’s a DNA-specific cousin calculator to help with that aspect.  Today’s post is all about understanding how and why our cousins are ‘removed’.

The following ‘Cousin Calculator’ chart is really quick and easy to use (instructions down the right side).  It’s available from FamilySearch.  Click the link to download a higher resolution copy for your own use.

Grid enabling quick calculations of cousin relationships

This is really helpful in pointing you to the answer, but it still doesn’t explain why and how these people are so many times ‘removed’; and understanding this seems to me to be the main difficulty for many people.  I hope the following explanation will help.

It’s all about different generational ‘levels’
We know that these cousins are on two distinct, direct lines of descent from the ancestors they both have in common.  As set out on the above chart, first cousins share the same grandparents, second cousins share the same great grandparents, third cousins share the same GG grandparents, and so on….  However, the above only holds good when there is no generational difference between the two cousins.  We talk about cousins being ‘removed’ when there is a generational difference between them.  First cousin once removed, second cousin three times removed, and so on.

In fact, as an old hand now, dealing with this, I don’t use a chart to identify cousin relationships.  I find it quicker to look at those two individual lines of descent and do a couple of quick calculations:

  • First, I identify the Most Recent Common Ancestor(s)
  • Then I count how many generations down from them to my ‘cousin’ in the other line.  This gives us the ‘2nd cousin’, ‘3rd cousin’, (or whatever) part of the relationship.
  • Next, if they are older than (more accurately, ‘on a generational level above’) me, I look to see who is their ‘opposite number’ in my line.  That is, which of my ancestors is on the same generational level?
  • And finally I count down how many additional generations from that ancestor to me.  The number of additional generations is how many times ‘removed’ we are.
  • If my ‘cousin’ on the other line is on a generational level below me, then I look for my own ‘opposite number’ in their line, and count down how many additional generations to them, to get the number of times ‘removed’.
Family tree showing two lines of descent

This little family tree shows two lines of descent from my 3xG grandparents, George and Mary.  I’m descended from their daughter Annie Elizabeth.  The other line is descended from their daughter Martha.  A couple of years ago I made contact with Martha’s great grandson, called [Son] on the tree, to ask if he had any photos of Martha and Annie Elizabeth that he might share with me.  He didn’t, but he did have a little ‘family history’ that his aunt [Amy] had written sometime during the 1950s.  What a find!  There were some inaccuracies in it, but it gave a real insight into my great grandfather George’s life – information I couldn’t have got from anywhere else and which really helped me to understand the family dynamics.

So – the key people in that little story are [Son], his aunt [Amy] and [Me]. 

Amy is the same generational level as my granddad John.   The two of them are three generations below their Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA), George & Mary.  In other words, George & Mary are their great grandparents, making John and Amy second cousins (2C)

To calculate my relationship to [Amy] I need to count down from John to myself – that’s two generations.  So [Amy] is my second cousin twice removed (2C2R)

However, if I want to calculate my relationship to [Son], I don’t use my granddad John as the benchmark, because [Son] is on the same generational level as my Dad.  The two of them are four generations below their MRCA couple, their 2xG grandparents (George & Mary), making my Dad and [Son] third cousins.  I am one generation below [Son’s] third cousin (my Dad), so [Son] and I are third cousins once removed (3C1R), and my children are [Son’s] third cousins twice removed (3C2R).

Half cousins
Sometimes we see the term ‘half cousin’ or even something like ‘half third cousin twice removed’.  Wow – Scary! 😀 

The important thing to remember here is that the ‘half’ relates to the MRCA couple.  One of the ancestral couple married twice.  One of these half cousins is descended from the first spouse and the other from the second.  The rest of the calculation is exactly as above.  If the ancestor had married more than twice the same would apply – all descendents from that ancestor but with different spouses would always be ‘half’ plus something: half 4C, half 3C3R, etc.

I don’t know if this helps, or if any of my experienced readers have another way, but that’s how I do it.  Either way, if you didn’t understand why some cousins are ‘half’ or ‘removed’, I hope you do now.

Edward’s last journey

Family stories are not always true, but often there is truth in them.

I wrote in my last post about my elusive GG grandfather Edward Robinson. Last month, after a 25-year search, I was finally able to place him with his birth family. Throughout the search there had always been at the back of my mind my mother’s story – which must have had its origins with her own grandmother, Edward’s daughter Jane. The story was that when Jane’s mother died, after spending all his money on women and drink Edward went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river. I knew The Crooked Billet, still a pub until fairly recently, and although I never went inside, whenever I drove past I would think of its connection to my family history.

Even with a one-line story such as this there may be several elements. I had long ago found evidence to show that my GG grandmother, did indeed die long before Edward – thirty years earlier to be precise. I had also found several drunk and disorderly charges, each resulting in several nights in Wakefield prison. What surprised me when I first researched Edward was that there was another long-term partner after my GG grandmother. Edward was with Hannah at least seventeen years, from before the 1881 census until his death in 1898. This was never passed down in the story. And finally, Edward’s act of suicide and the location is evidenced by his death certificate and the Coroner’s notes.

Only one element of this story remained to be proven: that Edward was born close by The Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet. Throughout the years of my search for Edward’s birth family I remained guided by this, but always open to the possibility it might not be accurate.

I now know that on his father’s side Edward is descended from generations of Edward and John Robinsons, all living in Hunslet in Meadow Lane, just across the river from Leeds township and marked on the map below with a blue dot. Edward’s family lived here at the time of his sister Elizabeth’s baptism 1822. They also, it turns out, had an older son, John, baptised in 1818, Meadow Lane being the place of residence given here too. At some point between sister Elizabeth’s birth in 1822 and brother John’s death in 1834 Edward sr. broke with tradition and moved with his family to Pottery Fields, marked on the map with a pink dot. The Crooked Billet inn was more than a mile away in Thwaite Gate, indicated with a red dot, right on the border with the parish of Rothwell. It isn’t looking like Edward would have been born there.

Map of Hunslet dated 1846-47. Note: This was a time of enormous and rapid industrial and housing development in the area. Even 20-30 years earlier it would have been more rural in character.

It is in fact Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Clarebrough’s family that is key to this puzzle. I’ve now traced her line back to my 11xG grandparents in the sixteenth century. The Clarebroughs are a long-established Rothwell family, located mainly in the Oulton and Woodlesford area. Elizabeth and her twin sister were eighth and ninth of thirteen children, although at least three of them did not survive to adulthood. Baptism and burial records indicate that the family relocated from Oulton between January and August 1791. The place they moved to was… Thwaite Gate in Hunslet, the exact location of The Crooked Billet. They were still there in 1805 when Elizabeth’s father was buried, and although by the time of Elizabeth’s mother’s death in 1830 she was living in Woodhouse Hill (indicated on the map with a green dot), she would seem to have remained close by the area around Thwaite. Even if a baptism record does somewhere exist for my GG grandfather Edward, the abode given will be the usual residence – Meadow Lane or Pottery Fields – and yet it is entirely reasonable to consider that his mother Elizabeth might have gone to stay with her own mother for the period of her confinement, and that he really was born right next to or at least close by The Crooked Billet.

Thinking more widely than this story for a moment – I wonder if this might sometimes be the key to locating missing baptisms? What if our ‘baptism-less’ ancestors who insist on census records that they were born in place X really were born there, because the mother had gone to be with her own mother for the birth, even though a baptism record will be found in place Y…? After all, the parish register records the name and abode of the father, not the actual place of birth. Quite apart from a truthful response to the question of the father’s own abode, it was in any case important for proof of settlement for a child to be registered in the correct parish.

Back to Edward, we can now fast forward to March 1898 when, the story goes, he left his home in Leeds township (marked orange on the map below) and drowned himself in the water by The Crooked Billet (red dot). In fact, thanks to several witnesses whose words are recorded in the Coroner’s notebooks, we can be more precise than that. South of Leeds the river Aire, being not fully navigable, is accompanied on its way to the Humber by the Aire & Calder Navigation canal. The Coroner’s notes, written the day after Edward’s death, evidence that Edward had walked along the water from Thwaite Gate in Hunslet and thrown himself in the canal close to Rothwell Haigh, at roughly the spot marked by the blue dot. Knowing what I know now about his mother’s origins, just a little further along the river, in and around Woodlesford and Oulton (green dot), knowing that as a twin her family’s connection to her sister and her children might have been particularly close, and knowing through burial records that the older generation retained a strong connection to the parish of Rothwell even after moving to Hunslet, I can imagine happy childhood days playing by the water, or walking the three miles or so along the water to visit family.

Edward’s Last Walk: Map of Leeds and Rothwell dated 1900

Of all my ancestors, Edward has been the hardest to love. Finally, working through his story with the additional information, and re-reading the Coroner’s notes, has helped me to make my peace with him. My impression of Edward was that he didn’t have a good life. He didn’t settle to a trade, and the deaths of two significant women in his life – his mother and his first wife, seem to have sent him off on self-destructive behaviour. My mother’s story, suggesting that in his despair, Edward was returning to his own roots to drown himself, was certainly true, but I now believe the attraction was not The Crooked Billet inn itself, but happy childhood memories with his mother and family by the water on the way to Rothwell.

*****

I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a few weeks. My next post will publish on 15th July.

Will the real Edward Robinson please stand up?

When I started researching my tree my Mum told me what she knew about her family.  It wasn’t much, but enough to get me started.  Regarding her mother’s grandparents she could name only one, and even then only his surname: Robinson.  However, for the next 25 years, my GG grandfather Robinson – Edward, as I discovered – kept his origins a closely guarded secret.  The problem was that there were no documents to evidence his birth family.  He didn’t actually marry either of his ‘wives’, and if there was a baptism, I have never been able to find it.  Any of these records would have evidenced Edward’s father’s name, location and occupation. From 1851 onwards I collected a great deal of information about Edward, right up until his death in 1898. All censuses and other documentation are absolutely consistent with a birth year of 1826 – and with one exception, even consistent with a birthdate between 18th March and 3rd April 1826, but there was nothing at all to enable me to place him with a family.

Even before knowing Edward’s name, I grew up hearing stories about him.  He had a stall in Leeds market. My Grandma told me he paid a shilling for her mother, Jane, to go to school one day a week, and Jane used to play with gold sovereigns on the floor.  After Edward’s first wife, my GG grandmother Margaret died, he turned to drink and lost all his money.  There is truth in this: I unearthed drunk and disorderly reports and short spells in the slammer, but I rather suspect there was never that much money to lose.  Finally, my Mum told me that after losing all said money ‘he went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river’.  This too is true.  I have the Coroner’s Report made the day after his death in 1898, although Edward actually drowned himself a couple of miles along from that spot.

It’s fair to say that Edward had a colourful life, and from 1851 I think I have the measure of him.  I even suspect that withholding information was a reflection of his personality: he probably didn’t trust the authorities, and maybe it has taken him all this time to trust me too!  Nevertheless, in amongst all of the above there were several clues:

  • Edward was born in 1826, or at the latest in 1827
  • In all records he gives his birthplace as Leeds
  • My mother’s story suggests a birthplace of Hunslet – not part of Leeds township at that time, but just across the river, and within the large ancient parish of Leeds.
  • There was a hint that he might actually have been born at the Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet.
  • Edward had two daughters: the younger, Margaret, was named after her mother.  Might the older, my great grandmother Jane, have been named after Edward’s own mother?

Two of these clues turned out to be red herrings, but they had me hooked for a while.  At the time of Edward’s birth the innkeeper at the Crooked Billet was John Robson.  Could that name somehow have morphed into Robinson?  No, it hadn’t: it seemed Edward could have been born *near* the Crooked Billet, but not *in* it.

As for Jane, there was an Edward of the right age living with a Jane old enough to be his mother in Hunslet at the time of the 1841 census.  However, searching the parish registers for a Robinson marrying a Jane in the parish in the years before 1826 returned only two records, both traceable in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living away from Leeds. 

Searching the parish registers for Edward’s baptism proved equally fruitless.  Ten Edward Robinsons were baptised in Leeds between 1825 and 1831.  There were also two marriage records in 1847 and 1867 that might possibly have been him.  I had long ago realised that the reason Edward and my GG grandmother Margaret didn’t marry was that she was already married to someone else.  Perhaps Edward too, had married another woman before meeting Margaret?  But no: the couples in these two records were still together in subsequent censuses when I knew Edward was with Margaret or, after Margaret’s death, I knew where he was.

It troubled me not being able to break down Edward’s brick wall, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to give him another opportunity to reveal his identity.  Using Ancestry, FindMyPast, TheGenealogist, FreeReg and FamilySearch, I listed every possible baptism for every Edward Robinson baptised in Leeds from 1824 to 1831.  I was able to discount a couple on the basis of location or father’s occupation; another died in infancy; and the rest I worked forwards through the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  I knew where my Edward was in 1851, so if any of these Edwards could be located elsewhere, they were not my Edward.  I was left with about three baptisms, and no way of choosing between them.  I then searched the 1841 census for any additional possibilities, and found two not accounted for in the baptisms.  One of these was my long-preferred Edward with Jane in Hunslet.  The other was Edward and sister Elizabeth, living in Hunslet with their parents Edward and Elizabeth.

At this point I did something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do on previous attempts to break through Edward’s brick wall: I turned to DNA.  Using the filters on the Ancestry website I searched amongst all my DNA matches for anyone with the surname Robinson and birthplace of Leeds in their trees.  I didn’t expect to find anyone.  I needed someone who had already traced their ancestry back to Edward’s parents, who had young Edward in their tree, who had taken the DNA test, and shared DNA with me – not guaranteed at 3rd or 4th cousin level.  It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. But unbelievably I found someone: just one person, estimated at 5th to 8th cousin.  He had my Edward in his tree, born c.1826, living in 1841 with sister Elizabeth and parents Edward and Elizabeth.  This was, in other words, one of the families I had already identified as a possibility.  Unlike Edward, sister Elizabeth had a marriage certificate and a baptism record and had therefore been traceable quite easily back to her birth family. My DNA match, Elizabeth’s descendant, already had another bit of information on his tree too: a marriage record for Edward’s parents, and with that a maiden name for the mother: Clarebrough.  But could this just be coincidence? My match and I didn’t share very much DNA; this could be a case of confirmation bias. The next step was to do the same filtered search on Ancestry, but this time for the unusual surname Clarebrough and a birthplace of Leeds.  If I could find anyone amongst my DNA matches just one generation further back from Elizabeth Clarebrough but descended from a different sibling, then there was no doubt that this was my Edward…  Bingo!  A DNA match, and three more on MyHeritage.  Finally, after 25 years of trying, I have my Edward!

I hope there’s something in this account and the methodology to interest you. In those pre-census/ pre-Civil BMD days, listing all possible baptisms and then working each one forward to discount as many as possible can often solve the puzzle. In Edward’s case it didn’t, and without bringing in the DNA cavalry at this point I would never have been able to break through this brick wall.

DNA: GEDmatch

This is the last post in my 3-part mini-series about using chromosome browsers in genetic genealogy.  You’ll find links to all my previous DNA posts [here].

Today we’re talking about GEDmatch: an online service that allows you to upload your autosomal DNA data files from any of the testing companies and compare with people who have tested with different companies.  In other words, you’re not restricted to just comparing your Ancestry results with other Ancestry matches or your MyHeritage results with others who tested there: you can compare common matches with all the testing companies in one go.

Alongside this they also have a number of tools to help with analysis of these comparisons. The basic package of tools is free to use.  These include a chromosome browser, which is particularly useful if you tested with Ancestry, since they don’t provide one.  There are more advanced tools (called ‘Tier 1’), but there is a monthly fee to use them, currently US$10 per month.  You can subscribe just for one month at a time when you know you’ll have plenty of time to explore. 

GEDmatch doesn’t itself offer DNA tests.  They state that when you upload your data, the information is encoded, and the raw file deleted.  Even so, we should all always check Terms & Conditions when we upload our DNA data to any site, and be sure we’re happy.

Often people who upload to GEDmatch don’t know what to do next; and I know both from personal experience, and from discussion with my own DNA cousins, that at first sight it all seems pretty daunting.  So in this post I’ll talk you through what I consider to be the essential basic tools.  Once you’ve uploaded your DNA files you’ll find links to all these on your home page at GEDmatch, in the right hand sidebar:

Screen grab of GEDmatch sidebar showing package of free basic tools

All you need to make use of these tools is the kit number you’ll see on the left hand side under ‘Your DNA Resources’.  It starts with one or more letters followed by some numbers.  Copy that and then follow these links:

One-to-many DNA comparison
Click on the second ‘One-To-Many’ option, and on the new page that appears, paste your kit number in the box and click to display your results.  What you’ll get is a list of everyone on GEDmatch who matches you.  They are arranged in descending order of the size of your match.

Looking from left to right you’ll see your matches’ kit number, name or pseudonym, email, largest segment and total cM (this is the field by which the matches are arranged in decending order), likely number of generations to Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) and some other information.  You might already recognise some of these people and be able to place them on your tree, together with your MRCA.

Screen grab of GEDmatch One to Many list, showing detail of matches to a number of other testers

Now we’ll move onto finding out more about some of these matches.  So pick the top one or another one near the top, and copy their kit number.  Then back at your GEDmatch home page, click on:

One-to-one Autosomal Comparison
Paste your own kit number in box 1 and your selected match’s kit number in box 2.  (Hint: after you’ve pasted your own number once you can bring it up again by double clicking on box 1, so on subsequent searches you’ll only need to input your match’s kit number.)

For these early searches leave the rest of this form in the default settings.  You can play around with them and learn more later.  Click compare.

What you’ll get on the next page is a chromosome browser showing exactly where you and this person match.  For every chromosome with a matching segment you’ll also see a little box, showing start and end position of the segment and number of centimorgans (cM).  The image below shows just part of one of my match comparisons – Chromosomes 11 to 15.  As you can see, this person and I have a matching segment on Chromosome 14.

Screen grab from GEDmatch showing part of a One to One comparison in the chromosome browser

If you’re painting to DNA Painter, as described in my last post, this text in the little box is the information you need to paste to ‘paint’ the segments.  If you match on more than one chromosome you can go back to the input form and change ‘Graphics and Positions’ to ‘Position’ only.  This will remove the chromosome browser from the results and simply provide you with several little boxes of information that you can then copy all in one go.

Now, keeping those same two kit numbers, return to the home page and click on:

People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits
Again, enter your own number for kit 1 and your match’s for kit 2.
What you get this time is three lists:

  • people who match BOTH of you
  • people who match just you
  • people who match just kit 2, and not you.

It’s the list of people matching both of you that’s most obviously helpful.  If you can already place any of these shared matches this may help you to narrow down the part of your tree where you and this person have common ancestors.  However, thinking back to my previous post on chromosome browsers, matching a third person does not necessarily mean you all ‘triangulate’.  Certainly you share a common ancestor with each one, but it’s possible that the common ancestor they share with each other might be on a different line, not related to you at all.

If you’ve read my previous DNA posts or if you’ve already been using MyHeritage, you’ll see that this basic package of tools on GEDmatch is not dissimilar to the tools on there.  The One-to Many comparison equates to the MyHeritage DNA match list; The One-to-One autosomal comparison equates to MyHeritage’s chromosome browser; and the People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits roughly equates to the shared matches you see when you click to Review any of your matches.  The advantage of GEDmatch is that there is no fee to use these tools.  There is also the availability of the more powerful ‘Tier 1′ tools when you want to make use of them.  MyHeritage, on the other hand, combines all of their tools with availability of matches’ trees that you can compare with your own.  Plus they have the triangulation tool discussed two posts back.  In terms of enjoyment of use I would have to say I prefer MyHeritage’s DNA offering above all others, but GEDmatch is a powerful additional tool in your DNA toolkit, not least because not everyone has tested with/ uploaded their data to MyHeritage, and because of the availability of the Tier 1 when you feel ready to move on.

*****

My DNA posts are intended as a beginners’ guide, building up the information in order, in bite-sized chunks.  Click [here] to see them all in the order of publication.