DNA Painter

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

My last post introduced chromosome browsers.  We looked at how to interpret the data revealed in the browser, how to use it for One-to-One or One-to-Many comparisons, and the importance of using this information in conjunction with documented trees.  We talked about the weakness of chromosome browsers, being that they are unable to distinguish between DNA from your maternal line and that from your paternal line.  MyHeritage have partly got round this by introducing a ‘Triangulation Tool’ which operates when using the chromosome browser in One-to-Many mode, highlighting when the matches being compared ‘triangulate’ – that is, when you and all the matches being compared are all descended from a common ancestor. 

What MyHeritage cannot tell you is which of your lines – maternal or paternal – this match is on.  You have to work that out yourself.  One other obvious issue – and this is by no means a weakness on the part of MyHeritage, but it is a drawback anyway – you can only use the Triangulation Tool on MyHeritage to compare segment data with people whose autosomal DNA was either tested with or has since been uploaded to MyHeritage.

DNA Painter is a third-party tool that helps you overcome these two difficulties.  It was created by Jonny Perl in 2017 and has gone from strength to strength.  It’s free to use provided you create only one profile.  If you want more than one profile, or if you want to use the advanced tools there is a charge.  I have seven profiles.

I cannot express enough how fantastic DNA Painter is.  For me, it’s right up there with seeing the Aurora Borealis.  I know that may sound excessive, but it’s true.

Briefly, the way DNA Painter works is this: when you’re comparing your DNA with another person’s using a chromosome browser you can download the segment data.  This data – whether it be from MyHeritage, FTDNA, 23andMe or GEDmatch – can then be uploaded to DNA Painter and ‘painted’ on your profile. Unlike a chromosome browser, DNA Painter has two lines for every chromosome – a paternal line and a maternal line so you can start to separate out your matches.  If you know which of your lines these segments are on – say, if you are painting a match with your maternal first cousin so you know this is on your maternal line – you can include this information, and these segments will be painted to your maternal copy of those chromosomes.

Blaine T Bettinger’s excellent video showing how to use DNA Painter was all I needed to get me started.  He covers how to paint segments, how to edit them, and other features (although there are more now than when this video was made in 2017).  I watched it through once, then again in short bursts alongside ‘painting’ my first segments, and after that it was all plain sailing.

So without further ado I’m going to suggest you watch this video. (The automatic start point is not right at the beginning – you’ll need to wind it back.)

Blaine T Bettinger: Mapping your Chromosomes with DNA Painter:

Just to be clear – you can’t use DNA Painter if your results are just on Ancestry.  You have to be able to see your results in a chromosome browser.  So if you tested with Ancestry you need to upload your data from there to MyHeritage or FTDNA or GEDmatch before you can use DNA Painter.

This is how my main profile on DNA Painter looks right now.  Click it to see a larger image:

Chromosome map from DNA Painter

The pale blue lines in the background represent the copy of each chromosome that I got from my father and the pale pink lines are for the copy I got from my mother.  By the time I found DNA Painter I had already confirmed a number of my matches on GEDmatch and MyHeritage. These were the ones I painted straight away. As these were known and confirmed matches I already knew our Most Recent Common Ancestor couple (MRCA) and I knew if the match sat on my maternal line or my paternal line so was able to paste them accordingly.  These known matches set the scene for anything else I paint.

More recently I allocated specific colours to each of my grandparents.  My paternal grandfather is shades of blue and my paternal grandmother yellow.  My maternal grandfather is green and my maternal grandmother red. You can see this on my profile: the blue and yellow shades are always on my paternal line, the green and red shades always on my maternal line.

Apart from my brother (he’s not on here; I made a separate profile for him) I have no matches at all closer than second cousin, so the nearest MRCAs for whom I have confirmed matches are at great grandparent level.  In my colour scheme the closer ancestors have a pale version of their allotted colour, and the further back generations have increasingly darker shades of that colour.  Again on my profile, look at the maternal line on chromosome 13.  You’ll see two long lines representing my great grandparents, and within them several shorter segments of darker green.  These darker segments are ancestors further back along these great grandparents’ lines whose DNA I’ve discovered because of matches with more distant cousins.  In fact these more distant matches have evidenced that the first long green segment on chromosome 13 is from my great grandfather, while the second long green segment is from his wife, my great grandmother. 

In every case I record the MRCA couple when I ‘paint’ the match, and these are shown in the table at the bottom right of the profile. 

If I have a segment already attributed to one of my copies of a chromosome – let’s say to my Dad’s paternal great grandparents and another match on that same segment comes along that seems to be from my Dad’s maternal line, then something is wrong.  While both of these relationships are consistent with my own paternal copy of that particular chromosome, it is not consistent with my Dad’s chromosome inheritance: one of these would be on his maternal copy and the other on his paternal.  He could not have passed on both of these copies to me on the same segment.

So – possibilities include:

  • I’ve made a mistake
  • My tree, or my match’s tree is wrong
  • There is a case of misattributed parentage (often referred to as an NPE – ‘non-paternity event’) somewhere along one of these lines in my own tree or my match’s tree
  • All of the above is absolutely in order but this person and I also match on my maternal line and that is where the segment is from
  • The segment is a piece of DNA belonging to a shared population group, such as Jewish or Irish

You make mistakes as you go but you can edit and change them very easily as new info comes in.

Here’s an example of a DNA match with a surprise and how I used DNA Painter to record it, changing my initial conclusions:

A and I matched at around 3rd to 4th cousin.  He was adopted but had found his birth mother and had an idea of who his father was.  Using my own tree and working back the tree of his suspected father I was able to confirm that we had MRCAs at 3xG grandparent level, making us 4th cousins.  The man A thought might be his father definitely was.  I added A to my list of confirmed matches and painted our segments to my profile.  Our match was on my paternal line, and painted yellow for my paternal grandmother’s ancestry.

After so many years of searching, A found it quite difficult to accept so easily that we had found his father, so I offered to work on three other close matches that triangulated with the two of us.  When A could see that other matches led to the same conclusion I thought he would be convinced.  The first two matches did indeed lead back to the same MRCA, and both of them were closer matches to A than they were to me – they are all descended from one of our 3xG grandparents’ sons, and I am descended from another.  A was happy: something shifted for him, and for the first time he really believed he knew his roots.  Then I moved on to the third of our common matches.  Starting with a small amount of information on this person’s online tree, I worked back until I found an overlap with A’s tree.  But it was confusing: A’s match with this person led up another of A’s lines – one that didn’t end with our confirmed 3xG grandparents.  It took a bit of working out (there was a lot of false information on census and marriage records and a nasty divorce) but eventually I was able to follow their common line… back to another set of my 2xG grandparents still on my paternal line, but this time my paternal grandfather.  A and I are cousins twice over: on both sides of my paternal line, both of these connections confirming different parts of A’s father’s line.  DNA Painter actually allowed me to record this information by keeping two of the segments yellow and changing the third segment we share to blue – it’s the pale blue segment you see on my paternal line towards the end of chromosome 12.  How amazing is that!

My main profile on DNA Painter is for confirmed matches only.  However, there are still a number of decent matches on MyHeritage, FTDNA and GEDmatch that I can’t place.  I didn’t want to lose sight of them, so I created a new profile for my mystery matches.  By comparing my mystery profile matches to other confirmed new matches from time to time, I’m able to narrow down our match, at the very least allocating some of them to either my paternal or maternal line or even moving them into my main profile.  More recently I decided to set up an Irish mystery matches profile which I hope in time will enable me to home in on distinct parishes or areas.

In the “Segment/Match Notes” I list how the match descends from the common ancestral couple, any relevant ID numbers, and anything else pertinent including other potential ancestral lines in common. This means that I list every generation beginning with the common ancestral couple and ending with the tester.

It occurs to me that chromosome mapping kind of turns it around so that it’s about mapping your DNA segments just as much as it is about proving your family tree.  I do know, though, that my chromosome map will never be complete.  My close family is too small.


It’s perfectly possible to make great DNA discoveries without even looking at a chromosome browser.  However, working with chromosome browsers and DNA Painter has done more than simply help me to sort out my matches.  It has helped me to visualise and better understand complex abstract information.  By viewing my matches in a chromosome browser I saw, for example, that the twenty-two chromosomes are all different lengths and numbered 1 to 22 broadly in that order of length.  I also saw and understood that the longer the segments, the closer the family connection.  Hence a lot of short segments indicates either that you are more distantly related, or you may simply share a lot of DNA as a result of being from an endogamous or close-knit community, going back centuries. I knew that the segments I was looking at came either from my mother or from my father, but it wasn’t until I started to use DNA Painter that I understand the maternal copy and paternal copy of each chromosome covers the full length of the chromosome.  Originally (because of the single grey line on the regular chromosome browser) I thought 50% of that line was from one parent and the other 50% from the other parent.

If you’re a visual person you too may find it easier and more enjoyable to work this way.  It is definitely more fun!

There is a DNA Painter User Group on Facebook with, at the time of writing, approaching 12,000 members, and there are very knowledgeable group members who will help with any questions. Jonny and Blaine are also on there.


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.

DNA: Chromosome mapping and chromosome browsers

This is the first part in the third and final ‘mini-series’ in my beginners’ guide to genetic genealogy.  You’ll find links to all the previous posts [here].

In this mini-series we’re moving on to something called ‘chromosome mapping’ and as an essential part of that we’ll be looking at my favourite tool: the chromosome browser.  We’ll focus on:

  • a definition of chromosome mapping
  • what a chromosome browser is
  • what it tells you about your match with another person
  • how we can use it to identify multiple matches who are descended from the same common ancestors
  • amount of shared DNA and length of segments as a guide to the closeness or remoteness of a match
  • ‘triangulation’
  • a case study illustrating how this can all work together

What do we mean by chromosome mapping?
When you have a number of confirmed DNA matches and you’ve identified Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) for each of them, you have already started to allocate matches to different branches of your tree.  A second cousin, for example, becomes a ‘benchmark’ for more distant DNA matches along the same great grandparent line.  We can do this far more accurately if we can actually see the specific segments we share with that second cousin.  All these segments, we know, came to us (and to this second cousin) from that known set of great grandparents. If we now find a more distant match (say, a 4th cousin) on one or more of the same segments we can trace those specific segments back even further. Not only will this help to verify our documentary research going back to the next MRCA – likely to be around 3xG grandparents – but also we now know *which* of those previously identified great grandparents this specific segment of our DNA actually came from.  I find that very exciting.  However, before we can do any of this we need to be able to ‘see’ those segments, and for that we need a chromosome browser.

What is a chromosome browser?
Essentially, a chromosome browser is a visual representation of the parts of your DNA that you share with one or more other people.  It looks like a series of ‘stripes’ – one stripe for each of your twenty-two autosomal chromosomes.  If you tested with FTDNA or 23andMe there will be an additional stripe for the X chromosome.

The following is an example of one of my matches from MyHeritage.  I have removed name and contact details, but we’ll call this person A. 

Screen grab of DNA match information on My Heritage

The essential information provided here about my match with A on the general listing of all my matches is:

  • we share 155.4cM across eight segments
  • this equates to 2.2% of our autosomal DNA
  • the longest segment is 45.5cM
  • our estimated connection is ‘1st cousin twice removed – 2nd cousin once removed’

If I click on the pink ‘Review DNA Match’ button, I also see

  • a list of all the other people on the MyHeritage site who also match A and me
  • if A has a tree on MyHeritage I can look at that
  • lists of any surnames we have in common
  • a comparison of our ethnicities estimates
  • a chromosome browser representing our match

That’s a lot of information.

At its most basic level, the chromosome browser provides a graphical view of some of that information.  It doesn’t provide any surname or ethnicity data, but it does show exactly where, on your chromosomes, those shared segments are.

Below is that match with A as viewed in the chromosome browser.  The 22 grey lines represent me: my 22 autosomal chromosomes.  The segments where A and I match are those pink lines (segments) on chromosomes 1, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 and 21.  Although you can’t see it on this screen grab image, if I hover my cursor over any of the pink segments while I’m on the MyHeritage website I can see exact locational information (start and end points).  I can also download all that information.

These segments are where A and I have inherited exactly the same DNA from the same ancestors.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to one)

Using the chromosome browser ‘One to Many’ function
A and I now have a lot of information about our match but although we know we’re fairly closely related we still can’t say which of our ancestors we both share. For that we need to look at our documented trees.  However, in this case, by a process of elimination of A’s close family members who have tested but don’t match me we have been able to conclude that we are connected on the one part of A’s tree about which nothing is known: a missing grandparent.  The chromosome browser may be able to help.

Using the ‘One to Many’ tool, we can use the chromosome browser to compare overlaps between our own DNA and that of several other people – up to seven matches all in one go at MyHeritage.  In the example below I’m looking at just two of my matches, comparing exactly where each of them matches me, and looking for any segments where all three of us match.  Again, the grey lines represent my 22 autosomal chromosomes.  The red segments show my match with A (you can see they are in exactly the same positions as in the above chart, although now they are coloured red).  The mustard segments are another person with whom we both match at a close level.  We’ll call that person B.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to many)

The chromosome browser here shows that I share more DNA with B (mustard) than I do with A (red), and the segments tend to be longer.  It also shows that I share lots of DNA with each of them that I don’t share with the other. However, there is one more very important piece of information: A, B and I all share exactly the same DNA in two positions: on chromosomes 7 and 13.  Taken as a whole this tells us:

  • All three of us are descended from the same fairly recent common ancestors.
  • Between the three of us, we have inherited different parts of the DNA of these common ancestors.  What we inherited has come down the line from them to us via our own parents and grandparents – and just to recap a key point from my post earlier this year (Asking other family members to test) siblings (in this instance our respective grandparents) inherit a lot of the same DNA but not exactly the same – which explains why A, B and I don’t all have exactly the same autosomal DNA from those ancestors
  • I am more closely related to B than I am to A
  • Since I have previously placed B as my second cousin I already know which set of great grandparents are our Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA).  Those two 3-way shared segments are proof that A is also descended from these same common ancestors.  As a result A now has a name for that missing grandparent
  • Also as a result, I now know that all those segments coloured red and mustard on my maternal line have come to me from that particular set of great grandparents

What we have just seen at chromsomes 7 and 13 is an example of triangulation.  To fully understand what this means, we need to understand a key point about chromosome browsers.  The chromosome browser represents each chromosome as a single grey line, but that one grey line belies that fact that we get two copies of each chromosome: one from our mother and one from our father.  The chromosome browser cannot tell these maternal and paternal lines apart.  Therefore when you look at a match on a chromosome browser the segments on those grey lines could be maternal or paternal.  They could even (more unusually) be a mix of both if your match is related to you via your maternal and your paternal lines.  We have to find some way of working out which.

If you’re working on MyHeritage the Triangulation tool helps with this.  It tells you if two or more people match with you at a given segment on the same copy of the same chromosome.  In other words – either on your maternal side or on your paternal side.  It still doesn’t tell you which side that is, but if you can work it out for at least one of the matches using your documented tree, then you know that this is also where the other ‘triangulated’ person matches you.

You can see how the triangulation tool works in the example above: there is a little box around the overlapping segments at chromosomes 7 and 13.  This is MyHeritage’s way of saying that these two segments of DNA shared by A, B and me are indeed on the same copy, and we are therefore descended from the same line.  A, B and I triangulate.

Segment length and amount of shared DNA as a guide to remoteness of the match
Obviously, these great grandparents from whom A, B and I inherited all these DNA segments, they too inherited their DNA from their own parents, and those parents from their parents, and back through time. Since we all inherit 50% of our autosomal DNA from our mother and the other 50% from our father, when my mother was born she recombined all of this DNA from the line we share with A and B with a whole new set of DNA from her other parent, and then I did the same.  This means that DNA shared with closer matches (and inherited from closer ancestors) tends to have longer segments: there have been fewer recombinations.  By contrast, shared segments with more distant matches have undergone more recombinations  – the DNA is mixed up with that of far more other ancestors – and so segments tend to be shorter.  Hence, alongside the total amount of shared DNA, we can also use segment length as a guide to closeness or remoteness of a match.

Once we have identified the MRCA (or MRCA couple) from whom we inherited a decent amount of autosomal DNA (as I did above with A and B) we can use that information to try to place other people who match us more remotely on any of the same segments.

Consequently, attributing a segment to one ancestral couple is not the end of the story because they got it from someone else – or rather one of them did.  Therefore when we use new, more distant, DNA cousin matches to take that segment (or part of it) back further, we can work out which of the closer ancestral couple it came from, and which of their ancestors they (and we!) got it from.

A more remote example – a work in progress!
The final image, below, shows another One-to-Many chromosome browser example.  This time the red lines are B (who was mustard in the last example) and the new person (mustard segments) is C.  You can see here that I share far fewer segments with C, and that the segments are shorter.  We actually share 31.9cM, and the longest segment is 17.4cM.  Using all the information outlined above, we can say that my match with C is more remote than my match with B.  Our estimated relationship is given as ‘3rd to 5th cousin’, suggesting MRCAs at 2xG grandparent to 4xG grandparent.  Importantly though, MyHeritage’s triangulation tool (the box on chromosome 11) tells me that this match with C is further back along that same line that I share with B.  If I can find where C and I connect I will know exactly which more distant ancestors these mustard-coloured segments of my DNA come from.  But of course, beyond that set of great grandparents that I share with B there are four GG grandparents, eight 3xG grandparents, sixteen 4xG grandparents, and so on.  Our MRCA could be any one of them.

So this one is still a work in progress.  By making contact with C, I was able to use the same triangulation process (with one of his closer cousins) to determine which of C’s great grandparent lines we match on.  So we know which of *his* great grandparents and also which of *my* great grandparents, but so far analysis and further building of his tree has drawn a blank.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to many)

I have reason to suspect that these short segments have come to me from an Irish 3xG grandmother along this line, precise origins unknown, but this is not my common ancestor with C.  If I can find an Irish connection along the relevant part of C’s tree, or indeed if I can find a definite Irish lineage for one or more additional people who triangulate with B, C and me along this line, then I may even be able to place this Irish 3xG grandmother’s origins in a specific part of Ireland.  I have some ideas for how to progress this, and if they work I’ll write about them in a future post.

In my next post I’ll be continuing this theme by looking at DNA Painter, a third-party tool that helps with the organisation of segment information.


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.

St James Pockthorpe: learning from old maps and photos

Norwich Puppet Theatre, photo taken 1919
CLICK FOR BIG! St James Pockthorpe, now Norwich Puppet Theatre. Image © Janice Heppenstall

Last month I wrote about a lot of errors in the online transcripts of parish registers for St James Pockthorpe in Norwich, where several generations of my ancestors lived. I’ve written previously about the wonderful medieval churches in Norwich, and the Norwich Historic Churches Trust that ensures the ones no longer in use as places of worship are beautifully maintained and leased to organisations who bring them back into use with new purposes. St James Pockthorpe is one of these repurposed buildings. Since 1979 this Grade 1 listed building has been home to the Norwich Puppet Theatre, and I was delighted to visit there a couple of years ago. The building was open, and when I explained my interest I was given a guided tour.

Shortly after writing that previous post about the parish registers I was looking online at some old photos of Norwich, and since St James Pockthorpe was fresh on my mind I searched for that. There were several photos, but this one dated 1931, actually took my breath away. Apart from the church building itself, there is literally nothing left of this scene.

Norwich street in 1931 featuring the medieval church St James Pockthorpe and churchyard
CLICK FOR BIG! St James Pockthorpe, Norwich, showing the south side, from Cowgate. Image date 1931. Source: George Plunkett

I’ve looked at these two photos full-size and side by side, and it would no longer be possible to capture the building from this angle today. It was taken from about 20 metres to the right of where I was standing to take my photo, along what was then Cowgate. The two maps below show that today the church (now the T-shaped building to the right of the roundabout) is set back from the road. I think I was standing at the edge of the new grass verge when I took my photo. We can also see that all the street names have changed, although there is a nod to what was there previously. Cowgate Street, where the 1931 photo was taken, is now Whitefriars; Cowgate is now north of the roundabout. The church had stood at the junction of Cowgate and Bargate Street. Bargate is now the main inner circular road for Norwich and is called Barrack Street, referencing the Barracks that was built along the road around 1805. To the left of the roundabout we have St Crispins Road dual carriageway; formerly this was Norman’s Lane, and the church once standing along it is now referenced only by a street name: St Paul’s Square. A tiny part of the ancient city wall that you can just see to the right of the older map is still there, by the way.

Modern map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
CLICK FOR BIG! Modern map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
1789 map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
CLICK FOR BIG! 1789 map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich

I love visiting historic towns, and particularly places where my ancestors lived. I imagine that by doing so I’m getting a feel for the place they knew. Yet when I look at this lovely old photo, I see that in this case at least I really didn’t achieve that just by visiting and walking around, taking photos. There was a lot of heavy bombing in Norwich during the war. St Paul’s and the area around it was severely damaged and later demolished, and of course it made sense to rebuild for the changing world: wider roads and modern housing. But oh! How lovely it all was before the bombs! I do wish I could have seen it then.

The moral of this story, then, is that visiting is lovely, taking photos and asking questions is great. But to really get a feel for a place, alongside reading around the history sometimes we also need old photos and maps.

The 1789 map above came from the British Historic Towns Atlas website. It includes a page dedicated to Norwich, with links to several maps and other topographic information. I’ve added it to my Norwich links page (or you can find that page from the menu bar above, and navigate from ‘Links’ to ‘About Norwich’).

Making the most of transcripts and indexes

My last post focused on the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions.  But transcripts can also be our friend!  Today we’ll focus on their benefits, and how to make the most of them. I hope there is something here for both beginners and intermediate level family researchers. Perhaps beginners will benefit most simply from an appreciation of the variety of records available, whereas intermediate level genealogists will be more interested in wringing every last drop of use out of each of them.

To start, then, what do we mean by ‘transcription’?
In my last post I used the term as a sort of ‘catch-all’ for documents that copy and record the information from an original document.  But in genealogy there are lots of different kinds of record that do this, and some of these copies are more properly called ‘indexes’.  It makes sense, then, to start by looking at the different types of record we might come across.

This is the image of the original record (A) of my 5x great grandparents, James Calvert and ‘Sally or Sarah’ Brewer.  The actual original is kept at West Yorkshire Archives, and although I haven’t seen that physical document, I can say I’ve seen ‘the original’ because I have this photograph of it.  It tells us that James was from another parish: Bradford, whereas ‘Sally or Sarah’ was from ‘this’ parish: Calverley. They were married by Banns, and we can see that James signed the register, but ‘Sarah or Sally’ made her mark. These alternative names, together with the fact that on every other record I’ve found, the name ‘Sarah’ is used, suggests Sarah was her ‘proper’ name, but that everyone called her ‘Sally’. Then down at the bottom we see the names of the witnesses. We will never find a copy (transcription or index) of this document that includes all of this information. Even if what is transcribed is perfectly accurate it will not have all of these facts and visual clues.

Photo of original marriage register entry, dated 1799
Source: Ancestry.co.uk: West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1512-1812; Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds

Below is a document contemporary to the original.  It’s the Bishops’ Transcript (B) of that same event. It was written up at the end of the year (1799-1800) and sent off to the bishop.  This image is on FindMyPast.  Unfortunately the entry for James and Sally/ Sarah is right down at the bottom of the page. I’ve lightened it but it’s still dark and not easy to read, but already we can see a difference between these two documents.  This records simply the following: ‘James Calvert and Sarah Brewer by Banns’, plus the date: 8 Dec.

Marriage entry on Bishops' Transcript for 1799 marriage
CLICK FOR BIG! Source: FindMyPast: Yorkshire, Bishop’s Transcripts Of Marriages; Original at Borthwick Institute for Archives

There are other records on FindMyPast and Ancestry for this event, e.g. FindMyPast has it in the England Marriages 1538-1973 set (C).  It is a transcription only – no image – in  fact this record set was created by FamilySearch, and used at FindMyPast with their permission.  It records only the following information:

First name(s): James
Last name: Calvert
Marriage date: 08 Dec 1799
Marriage place: Calverley
Spouse’s first name(s): Sarah
Spouse’s last name: Brewer

There are other types of modern transcripts.  If you’re lucky you might just come across a local genealogy website relevant to your interests with dedicated researchers who have transcribed lots of documents and made them freely available.  The following is from such a site: CalverleyInfo.  Here we can see a very full transcription (D) of James and Sarah’s marriage.

Transcription of three 1799 marriages from CalverleyInfo local genealogy website

CLICK FOR BIG! Source: Calverley Info: Calverley Parish Church Records: Marriages 1791-1800

To illustrate more types of transcribed records I’m going to have to switch to a different part of my family, but still in the ancient parish of Calverley.  These records are for the burial of my 8x great grandfather, John Dracup.  I have the original record from the parish register (with image) and it reads: ’10 [April] John Dracup Junior of Idle Green buryed’.

Next, the entry for that burial on FreeReg (E).  In fact there are two, and when I click on each one to view the transcript I see this is because the information has been transcribed by two different people, but the transcription is the same, and it does provide all the information on the original.

Search results for 1674 burial record on FreeReg

Source: FreeReg

My final example is from the Calverley page of GENUKI.  There are a lot of transcripts for Births, Marriages, Burials and other related records on this page, including several different sets for the Calverley burials, transcribed and made freely available by a number of different people.  One person, for example, has extracted all baptisms for people living in Idle for the years 1796-1800; other sets are for marriages arranged alphabetically by groom and by bride.  The set I’m going to home in on is Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, arranged alphabetically by surname (F), and transcribed by Steve Gaunt.  Scrolling down to Dracup, this is what I find: a full listing of the burials of several generations of my ancestors, all in one place, and John Junior is right there in the middle.  Again, all the information from that original has been included.

Source: GENUKI: Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, transcribed by Steve Gaunt

Apart from the original, right at the top, every other document you have just seen is a type of transcription. Some are indexes – they might serve simply to point to where information can be found. Since they are online most of them depend on the existence of a searchable index (G) so we can find them. What they have in common is that the information they record has simply been copied from somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ might be the original, or it might have been copied from another transcript. The Bishops’ Transcript has an unusual status in that it is a contemporary original document, but it is itself just a copy – a resumé, even – of the original entry in the parish register.

So this is a good time to think back to my last post, and remember that every time the information is copied, there is the possibility of mistakes creeping in: human error, difficulties with archaic writing, inexperience, carelessness, administrative error…. Every single time something is copied there is scope for error. We must be mindful of that when we use them.

Where will we find these different types of record?
If you have a paid subscription to Ancestry, FindMyPast, The Genealogist, MyHeritage, etc then you’re more likely to have access to digital images of the originals.  However, this depends on whether the archives where the originals are kept has licensed your subscription site to share them.  For example, FindMyPast has a licence agreement with Staffordshire Archives Service which means they can provide Births, Marriages, Banns, Marriage Licences, Burials, Wills and Probate records – all with images of the originals.  On Ancestry, at the time of writing, you’ll find ‘Staffordshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1839’ – these are just transcripts, no images of the originals.  On the other hand it is Ancestry that has the licence agreement with Wiltshire, and you will find all the parish records with images on that site.  FindMyPast currently has simply the Indexes.  Neither site has originals of parish registers from Berkshire.  Transcripts (or ‘indexes’) are all that is available. When we progress beyond the basic census and civil Births, Marriages, Deaths, it makes sense to choose our subscription website based on availability of the older parish registers that you need.

The transcripts and indexes, on the other hand, tend to be freely available. As indicated above, you may find them on the GENUKI page for your parish, on FreeReg, through a local family history society, or a local website dedicated to making genealogical records available, like the CalverleyInfo site. You’ll also find them for free on FamilySearch (although FamilySearch do also have a lot of images of parish registers that you can browse) and you may even come across a brilliant site like one I sometimes refer to for my Wharfedale ancestors: Wharfegen Family History, which is a very trustworthy, ongoing project to construct the family lines and histories of every person who lived in the Wharfedale and Craven areas of Yorkshire.
That’s a LOT of possible transcripts!

So how can we make the best use of them?
* Firstly, a transcript is infinitely better than nothing
The original might have been lost, or it might not yet have been photographed for use on subscription websites. You might not be able to get to the archives where the original is stored, or it might have become too fragile for public perusal. You might not have the cash to access the subscription website where the records are kept, or any subscription website for that matter. For all these reasons, we can be very grateful for transcriptions and indexes. Although I don’t need that particular FamilySearch transcription (C) above, there are still some events for which the FamilySearch transcription is all I have. But if I use a transcript I always make a note of that, if possible I note where the originals are to be found, and if an original becomes available online I replace it as soon as I can.

* Second, even if you do have access to the original record, the transcript can help
Take a look at Original (A) above, for example. Can you read everything on there? I had trouble with the first name of one of the witnesses. Now look at Full Transcription (D), and there you have all the names. Someone has kindly done the work for you. All you have to do is decide if you agree.

* Third, you can use the Bishops’ Transcript to confirm a modern transcript of the original, or to help with illegible writing on the original
OK, so the Bishops’ Transcript (B) above is NOT a good example of this. But mostly they are very neat and the photographed image is NOT too dark to see. Anyway, trust me – you can.

* Fourth, the Bishops’ Transcript is also great if you have a subscription with a website that provides this but not the original parish register
I gave a few county examples of this above, but I have an ongoing example relating to my own research. West Yorkshire parish registers are on Ancestry but not on FindMyPast. However, FindMyPast has the Borthwick Institute records from York which include the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire. For this reason alone I need subscriptions to both sites.

* Fifth, if your subscription site doesn’t return an existing record, try searching on a different site
I gave this example in my last post: I couldn’t find a marriage for my 5x great grandparents. His name was Thomas Mann and she was Sarah. I felt sure her surname would be Creak, since that was the middle name given to their son, my 4x great grandfather. There was no such marriage showing up on Ancestry or FindMyPast. Eventually, it was FreeReg that came to the rescue (example E above is from this site). The problem here was in copying the name to the index. Ancestry did have the record, but their index gave the bride’s surname as Cooke. There’s no guarantee that FreeReg will be right and Ancestry will have it wrong of course. It could be the other way round. But it’s an example of the benefit of having a variety of sites and indexes (G) at your fingertips, and swapping between them all when you can’t find something. Remember – there is scope for human error in every index, and if the index is not correct we will not find our records on that site.

* Sixth, if you come across a transcription that’s arranged alphabetically instead of chronologically, use it as a checklist
That was how I used the alphabetical transcription (F). I found I had almost all of these burials but a couple were new to me. All I had to do was search for these specific records on my subscription site, and the records appeared.

* Finally, if you come across the work of a dedicated and trusted researcher thank your lucky stars – but still search for the evidence!
With practice, you can tell which researchers you can trust. Their work is careful and meticulous, thoroughly sourced, well organised… I’ve named three such examples above: the CalverlyInfo site, the Calverley page on GENUKI (although not all pages on GENUKI are as well padded) and the Wharfegen site. If you come across a site like any of these you can do a happy dance. Even so, use it as a starting point. Look for the originals. And if you can’t find the originals cite them and their website as your transcription source.

I hope there are some new ideas for you amongst that little lot. Have you any other interesting ideas for making the most of transcriptions? If so, why not leave a comment.

One family, three generations, many errors…

My 6xG grandparents John Christian and Rose Moss had five children:

First child John’s baptism is missing, but he died in 1733 and was buried 20th March.  I have seen digitised images of the original record on Ancestry (record set: England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812) and FindMyPast (record set: Norfolk Burials) so I know for certain that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich.

However, according to record set: England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991, also on Ancestry, but licensed from FamilySearch, the burial took place on that same day but at Necton, Norfolk.

Second son Jonathan was baptised 25th August 1734. Again, digitised images of the original records on Ancestry (record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812 and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935, this latter being Bishops Transcripts) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Baptisms) leave me in no doubt that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich. 

Yet according to England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, it too took place on the same day but again at Necton.

No baptism to be found for daughter Rose, but again digitised originals evidence her burial at Norwich St James Pockthorpe on 21st June 1737 – although there is also a separate indexing of the record on Ancestry under the name of Ross.  And once again England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991 records the event at Necton.

No problems for the baptisms of sons Christopher and Philip: correctly recorded at St James Pockthorpe on all record sets.  However, when it comes to Christopher’s second marriage in 1764, records for both the marriage and the banns, although having digitised images and correct transcriptions, are incorrectly attributed to the Northamptonshire county records office instead of the Norfolk archives.

Christopher already had a son by his first wife.  This son, also Christopher, would eventually marry Jane Childs on 18 July 1788 at Norwich, St Andrew.  I know this to be a fact.  I have seen the digitised image of the originals on Ancestry (Record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936; and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Banns And Marriages – separate records for the marriage and for the banns which were read on 25 May, 1 Jun, 8 Jun, 1788).  All records indicate that both bride and groom are of the parish of Norwich St Andrew.

However, record set England Marriages 1538-1973, licensed by FamilySearch to FindMyPast, has three different transcripts for this marriage:

  • 18 July 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 8 June 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 18 July 1788 at Norwich, Norfolk


All of the above relates to just three generations of one line of my family.  I have many similar examples, both in Norfolk and in Yorkshire – and possibly others that I just dealt with and corrected without really noticing.  This is easier to do when you are both experienced as a genealogist and familiar with the lay of the land.

But we are not all experienced, and we are not all familiar with the geography of the areas where our ancestors lived. At the time of coming across some of the above errors I was lacking in both – at least at the time of discovering the Necton mysteries.  When an entire generation of my family seemed to have been baptised simultaneously at both St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton, about 25 miles away – surely an impossibility in the 1730s? – I started to wonder if perhaps the church at Necton had some sort of connection to the parish of St James Pockthorpe in Norwich.  Perhaps St James Pockthorpe was a grand church, and Necton was some sort of chapelry linked to it?  Or perhaps my ancestors had family ties to Necton and the baptism was recorded there too. I have since visited St James Pockthorpe and know the former to be far from the truth, but at the time I remember posting a question about this on an online group.  A more experienced genealogist pointed out to me that all of the wrong information had come from one provider, that these record sets were transcripts only, and that the true information could be seen and verified by looking at the images on all the other sets.

There are several points to take from all of the above, and for less experienced readers I hope there will be something to learn from this. The first is that even on the same subscription site the same event might be recorded in several different record sets. In the examples above, the same event has appeared in the original parish register entry, the contemporary bishop’s transcript based on that register, and a more modern transcription of that information that someone has made for ease of bringing genealogical information free of charge to a wider audience.

The second point is that not all record sets are equal. A transcription is much better than nothing, but it is far better to see the original image for yourself. It was only through seeing the original record in several of the record sets for St James Pockthorpe that I knew for sure the Necton entries were wrong. It was then through realising that the incorrect information all came from one source – the transcriptions licensed from FamilySearch – that I realised the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions. Ever since, when I rely on a transcription made by someone else I note that it was a transcript and where possible I note the location of the originals. Over time, often the originals will become available online. We need to get to know which are the best sets for our geographical areas of interest, and to rely on transcripts only when necessary.

Third is that we must engage with the information. In the other main example above, when records suggested that Christopher and Jane married in two different places on two different dates it made me pause for thought.  It was unlikely that there were two Christopher Christians marrying two Jane Childs’s in Norfolk within a few weeks of each other. More likely that the different dates came about because of a record of the reading of the banns – and the lack of a field for the transcriber to record that this was the banns and not a marriage. It was also possible that that Christopher’s bride was from the parish of Catfield, therefore banns would be read at both places.  It was only by reading the information on the records that I could see both Jane and Christopher were from the parish of Norwich St Andrew and the problem was in the transcription; but also that yes, the different dates arose because some of the records related to the banns.

Parish register entry for marriage of Thomas Mann and Sarah Creak

Fourth is that errors are not limited to transcription sets. Archaic handwriting may be difficult to read, and even when the original image is included in the set the names may be wrongly indexed. I spent many years looking for the marriage of a Thomas Mann to a Sarah Creak. (See above) Creak had been transcribed as Cook. If something looks unlikely, or if we’re drawing a blank, it makes sense to try the same search using a different record set or even a different index with another provider, such as FreeBMD, FreeReg or FreeCen.

And then there is the matter in the final example above, in which the entire record set has somehow been assigned to Northamptonshire. If you were unfamiliar with the geography of your ancestors’ homeland you might easily record the location of the originals as Northamptonshire records office instead of Norfolk, which wouldn’t be a good thing.

I hope there is food for thought in all that. Now that we have the perils of over-reliance on transcriptions out in the open, my next post will look at the matter from the other side – how we can use them effectively in our research.

Counting the population, 1811-1831

Since 1841 the decennial census has been an increasingly invaluable resource for genealogists and family historians, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on our ancestors that we can compare with parish registers, civil BMD certificates, and other documents recording events in their lives. 

But did you know that the census did not begin in 1841?  There were four earlier censuses, in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831. 

There had been calls for a better knowledge and understanding of the state of the population since the middle of the 17th century.  How many people were there?  How many paupers?  How many men were available to fight, and what would be the impact on their communities if they were required to do so?  These, and other important questions were behind the call, and it was felt increasingly that existing parish records were not up to the job. However, it was not until the turn of the 19th century that the issue finally found its way to the statute book.  The Population Act of 1800 provided for ‘an enumeration’ of the population on 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible thereafter, with two objectives:

  1. to ascertain the number of persons, families and houses and a broad indication of the occupations in which the people were engaged;
  2. to gather information to provide a better understanding of whether the population was increasing or decreasing.

Information relating to the first objective was to be collected by the Overseers of the Poor or ‘other Substantial Householders’, via house to house enquiry.  The second objective was to be addressed by selective scrutiny of parish registers during the previous hundred years, and was to be carried out by the Clergy in England and Wales, and by the Schoolmaster ‘or other fit person or persons’ in Scotland.

This pattern of specific Act of Parliament followed by a census the next year occurred every decade up to and including the 1910 Act / 1911 census.  (The Census Act of 1920 provided for future enumerations as well as for that due to be taken in 1921.)  As with the censuses since 1841, the questions asked were amended in 1811, 1821 and 1831.  You can read the exact questions asked, together with more about the history of the earlier censuses at the Vision of Britain website

Sadly for us as genealogists and family historians, what distinguishes these early censuses from those since 1841, is that they were simply enumerations of the population: there was no requirement to record names.  Of course the information recorded was and remains of use to various professionals including planners, population analysts and historians, and we can access digitised images of the original reports via online search at histpop: online historical and population reports.  An abstract for Leeds Town for the 1801 enumeration, for example, shows that the East division, where I know some of my ancestors lived at that time, had 1,156 inhabited houses, occupied by a total of 1,339 families.  58 additional houses were uninhabited.  I also see that in this division there were 2,387 males and 2,737 females, and I can see the breakdown of occupations of these people.  Similar information is available for 1811, 1821 and 1831 – and of course for every other parish in the country.

If by now you’re thinking this is all very nice, but you would far prefer to see records with the names of your ancestors and to learn a little more about them specifically and their lives… you may be in luck.

When the overseers, schoolmasters, clergy or other fit and substantial persons carried out their enquiries, they did of course make their own records. Generally this would have included a list of actual named householders, together with the required information for that household. They were, as we know, not required to submit this information; rather they extracted the numerical data from it. Having done that they may have destroyed their original paperwork. On the other hand, they may have retained it, often amongst the papers in the parish chest.

In fact quite a few name-rich lists from the early censuses are known to have survived and more come to light from time to time. As they do, their existence and whereabouts are recorded by a team at the University of Essex Department of History, who have published a booklet listing their findings: Census schedules and listings, 1801-1831: an introduction and guide, available online [here]. Documents are listed by county, alphabetically, and within that by parish. Known locations of the documents are included. They may, for example, be at the local record office; copies may be at the main library; and local history or family history societies may have transcribed them. The authors at Essex University acknowledge that theirs is a work in progress, so it’s possible that there may still be more to be found amongst parish records and papers at your local Record Office.

To return to my Leeds Town example, notes have been found for almost the whole township for 1801, and these do include the East division. I haven’t yet been able to view it, but it will certainly add another piece to the developing jigsaw puzzle of known information about my ancestors in this area.

I hope you find something of interest about your parishes too.

A virtual tour of medieval London

These two videos are nothing short of amazing.

They were created in 2013 by two teams of six students from De Montfort University. The task was to create a gritty representation of 17th century London.

Both videos ‘recreate’ 17th century London as it existed before The Great Fire of 1666.  The amount of research is clear, not to mention artistic and animation skills.  They researched street layouts using historical maps, contemporary building construction, and diaries from the period.  The hanging signs record genuine inns and businesses from contemporary records.

Watching these videos really helps me to imagine myself back in the period.  One of the things I notice is the number of church spires.  London had 126 parishes, and although most of them have not survived, the scenes remind me very much of central Norwich today, with a church and little churchyard at almost every corner.  I realise that London must have looked very similar.  I literally lose myself every time I watch these.

The videos were created for ‘Off the Map’, a competition run by The British Library and video game developers GameCity and Crytek.  ‘Pudding Lane Productions’ (above) won first prize.

The first video lasts 3 minutes 29 seconds; Triumphant Goat’s, below, is 7 minutes 59 seconds.

Old Peculiars, New Peculiars…

For some months now, all in the cause of my Advanced Genealogy course, I’ve been up to my eyes in old manorial records and samples of archaic scripts. I’ve really enjoyed the ‘Manorial Documents’ module, and have several action plans for various ancestral lines, to be actioned when it’s safe to visit the archives. In case all this is new to you, I’ll start by saying that historically, a ‘manor’ is not a rambling, pleasant country house such as we see dotted about the English countryside. Rather the term refers to the land that came under the jurisdiction of the ‘lord of the manor’ who lived in that fine house, and to the relationship between him and the people who lived within its bounds. Originally, most of these people would have been bonded to the lord, although by the 16th century this was no longer the case.

Much of England was divided up between the patchwork of many and varied manors, and you can easily find out if land in your ancestral places of interest formed part of a manor by using the online Manorial Documents Register at The National Archives. You can search by name of manor or name of parish. Some manors have no known surviving records, but for the majority that do you can click on the results and find a list of collections, together with the archive where they’re lodged. Be warned! They are originals, written in contemporary script and sometimes in Latin…

Working on this Manorial Documents module has helped me get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding a number of my ancestors who lived in Pannal (Harrogate) and had their wills proved at Knaresborough Honour Peculiar.

What’s a Peculiar?
The Court of Probate Act, 1857, created a Court of Probate along with probate registries in London and districts throughout England and Wales. In doing so, it removed responsibility (and power) for the granting of probate from the ecclesiastical courts, making this a civil function. Prior to this Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration when someone died had been the responsibility of those ecclesiastical courts: usually the courts of the diocese and archdeaconry. However, for many centuries, certain places had been exempt from the usual jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon. These were referred to as ‘peculiars’.

Ever since learning about my Pannal ancestors and their wills I had assumed the ‘peculiar’ was the parish. In fact this didn’t really make sense, because Pannal (where they lived) and Knaresborough (where probate was granted) are two different parishes. Now, after a good deal of research, troubling over misleading definitions and scratching of the head, I understand that peculiars can be parishes, manors or liberties. Where a peculiar is a manor, we can refer to it as a manor-peculiar. This was not a privilege granted to all manors: it was, after all, ‘peculiar’. Where this manorial right does exist it can generally be traced back to some former connection with an ecclesiastical corporation, such as the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.

As I said, untangling the above was not straightforward. Most definitions of ‘peculiar’ mention only parishes. Even when I got to the bottom of the concept of the manor-peculiar, I still had to unravel the reason why Knaresborough’s manor-peculiar had jurisdiction over Pannal; and this is because it was an ‘Honour’. An Honour, such as Knaresborough Honour where these wills of my ancestors were proved, was a sort of overarching manor, the seat of a lordship with several dependent manors. It’s likely that my ancestors held land within the Manor of Pannal or the Manor of Brackenthwaite (also in Pannal), but that this manor came under the rule of the Honour of Knaresborough. (I hope to be able to confirm all this when I can eventually visit the archives.)

Identifying peculiar jurisdictions
You can find out if a parish of interest to you came under peculiar jurisdiction by using FamilySearch maps. If you’ve never used this – it’s brilliant! Try it now by searching for Pannal (It’s the one in Yorkshire). The map shows you the boundaries of the parish, and a box pops up with three mini pages: ‘Info’, ‘Jurisdictions’ and ‘Options’. Click on ‘Jurisdictions’, and amongst other jurisdictional bodies you’ll see that before 1858 Probate was dealt with by The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough. By contrast, the adjacent parish of Kirkby Overblow had the usual probate arrangements: Exchequer and Prerogative Courts of the Archbishop of York. Now try this for any parish you like, and it will tell you if there was peculiar or the normal ecclesiastical jurisdiction for probate. Then it’s a matter of finding out where these probate records are kept, and whether they are available online. In my case, some of the wills proved at The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough are online with Ancestry. These ones are lodged at the West Yorkshire Archives, because Pannal and Knaresborough were formerly in the West Riding. The rest are at the Borthwick Institute in York, which is where the main collection of ecclesiastical records for the Archbishop of York’s province is lodged.

Old Peculier
But this is New Year’s Day, and I’m still appreciating the down time. So the real reason I’m writing about this today is that one of the oddities that turned up in my research was about Theakston’s ‘Old Peculier’. The name of this beer (note the archaic spelling of ‘peculier’) is actually a reference to these historic courts. On the website Theakstons say ‘The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham [where the brewery is located] as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also reference to the strong characteristic of the beer.’ (Having just drunk the glass in the above photo I can confirm it is very nice! 🙂 ) Using FamilySearch maps we can see that Masham was indeed subject to the testamentary jurisdiction at the Court of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Masham. Not ‘unique’, though… but definitely peculiar.

It seems fitting to end this very peculiar year with a bottle of ‘Peculier’ beer of Peculiar origins, and to raise a glass to 2021 in the hope of it being decidedly less, well… peculiar. I hope this finds you and your families happy and healthy, that the festive season, although low key, was enjoyable, and that we can all look forward to what the New Year holds.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, peaceful and successful 2021 for us all!

The Princess Mary Gift Box, 1914

My first post this year was about my maternal grandparents who were married on 24 January 1920, three weeks after my Granddad returned from India. He had been away with the Army ten and a half years, and they had not seen each other since he went away shortly after proposing to the young lady who would be my grandmother. By the end of 2020 their first child, my uncle, was born.

I’ve been thinking about them a lot, recently: all those years my grandparents never got to be together. I suspect the hardest times were when my Granddad’s Regiment was posted to yet another exotic location with no home leave at all, and when he wrote each time to his fiancée to tell her his homecoming would be delayed yet again. That and Christmas, when he would have loved to be with her and his family. In a strange echo of the past, their son would write from India at Christmas 1945 to say how fed up he was to be delayed in India after the end of the Second World War, instead of being back home.

Back in 1914, when it was still thought the war would be over quickly, seventeen year-old Princess Mary wanted to send every soldier and sailor involved in the war effort a personal gift for Christmas.  ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary’s Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fund‘ was created, and donations were invited from the general public.  In a letter released by Buckingham Palace early in November 1914 and published in British and colonial newspapers, the princess wrote:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?

Please will you help me?”

The gift was to be a small embossed brass box containing a number of small items. Most contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess. For the non-smokers the brass box contained a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case with pencil, paper and envelopes, and the Christmas card and photograph.  Boxes for the nurses contained the card and chocolate.

The response to the appeal was overwhelming.  The cost of purchasing sufficient quantities of the gift box for 145,000 sailors and 350,000 soldiers was estimated at £55,000 – £60,000, but the appeal raised £162,591 12s 5d, meaning the gift could be sent to all British and Imperial service men and women: about 2,620,019 in all. The gift boxes were to be delivered in three waves: First all naval personnel and troops at the Front were to receive theirs before, on or shortly after Christmas Day.  Wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (whose gifts were held in reserve) and nurses serving at the Front were also included in this first wave, as were widows and parents of soldiers killed in action.  The wording on the card was ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’ 

The second wave included all other British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles; and finally in the third wave, all troops stationed in Britain.  Second and third wave recipients were to receive their gifts during or shortly after January 1915 – although in reality some had to wait much longer than that.  For them, the wording was amended to ‘With Best Wishes for a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’.  The front of the card bore the Princess’s monogram, with the year 1914 for the first wave and 1915 for the rest.

Princess Mary’s plan to give the service men and women ‘something that would be useful and of permanent value’ was a great success.  The empty brass box was light and air-tight, but also of quite sturdy construction.  It could be used to carry and keep safe small personal items such as money, tobacco and photographs throughout the rest of the war.  Many of them, my Granddad included, treasured it for the rest of their lives.  That’s his (now mine) you see photographed here, together with the original card from Princess Mary that indicates he received his in India as part of the second wave: it’s dated 1915 and bears the ‘Victorious New Year’ greeting. 

As for the ‘Victorious New Year’, well that was a little longer coming…

You can read more about the Princess Mary Gift Fund Box, and see photograhs of some with the original contents, on the Imperial War Museum website, and on the Netley Military Cemetery website.  They are a lot more sparkly than mine.  I decided not to clean it.


On that note, thoughts return to 2020, and to the present Christmas.  As I write this, here in the UK hundreds of lorries are backing up at the ports; European hauliers, with no food and few facilities, are unlikely to make it home to be with their families for Christmas; and many people’s already scaled-down plans have been dashed following emergency measures announced after a mutation of the COVID-19 virus.  Wherever in the world you are, and whatever changes from your usual festive arrangements you’ve had to make, I wish you a Safe and Peaceful Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year for us all.

DNA: Proactive strategies for engaging with your match list

Today’s post is the last in my three-part mini-series on practical ways to make the most of your DNA results.  The first post, concentrating on what you can do right away, aimed to encourage you to get to know the layout of your testing company’s site and what resources there are attached to your DNA results.  The second looked at ThruLines (Ancestry) and Theory of Family Relativity (MyHeritage).  Throughout, the importance of constant reference to your family trees is emphasised.  DNA works alongside the genealogy; it doesn’t replace it.

Those first two posts focused on using the information being offered to you on a plate and trying to relate it to your own research.  In this third post it’s time to get more proactive.  Perhaps there’s a gap in your tree or a brick wall, and you want to see if you can use DNA to solve it.  Or perhaps there’s a mystery match of a decent size and you want to find where this person connects with you on your tree.  In other words, you’re now coming to the DNA with a question.

Before going any further I’m going to tell you about the limitations of my own DNA testing capability.  I have no surviving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, and only one brother.  Already this means I’m depending on second cousins testing.  Now as it happens I do have an unusually large number of second cousins.  One great aunt alone was the matriarch of eleven children and about 48 grandchildren.  But although I’ve had contact with some, I’ve never met any of them and certainly couldn’t approach any to ask if they would oblige by spitting into a tube for DNA testing purposes to serve my whim.  You’d think that out of so many second cousins some of them might have taken a DNA test anyway.  Well yes, I know of three.  I make good use of the results of two of them, but the other’s results are private.

Whenever I read books or blogposts from respected DNA authorities I’m in awe of the number of family members for whom they have DNA results.  It’s plain that some buy DNA tests in bulk when they’re on offer and simply dole them out to family members, all of whom willingly oblige.  Add into this mix the fact that DNA testing is far more popular in the US than it is in Europe, and you might start to get an idea of the gap between the kind of results these DNA gurus work with and the paltry results available to me.  Apart from my brother and the two second cousins, my closest matches are at 3rd cousin once removed distance and then we’re down to 4th cousins and a lot of matches in the 30-40cM range.

What all of the above means is that I have to work a lot harder to get answers from my DNA.  It also means that with perseverence, it is possible.  This genuinely is a case where if I can do it, so can you.  In fact chances are your matchlist will be stronger than mine.

So with all that in mind, here are some proactive ways you can engage with the information available on your match list and in the attached trees, and use this to confirm your research and/or break down brick walls.

You can use the filter bar at the top of your match list to home in on focused information.

At Ancestry you can home in on unviewed matches; matches with common ancestors; matches with public / private / linked / unlinked trees; people you have already messaged, added to a group or made notes for; you can filter by relationship or shared cM; by date of test; and you can search for matches by name or with specific surnames or specific birthplaces in their trees:

Ancestry's DNA matchlist filter bar

MyHeritage allows you to filter by tree details (Theory of Family Relativity; Smart Matches; shared surname or birthplace; has a tree); by proximity of relationship; by country and ethnicity.  You can also sort by segment information, full name, and in recent order of testing.  And you can search by name or ancestral surname:

My Heritage filter bar for DNA matches

I’ve had some success using surname filters to find a common ancestral line, and also using birthplace filters to try to home in on a likely geographical area within Northern Ireland for an ancestral line with records suggesting two conflicting places of origin

Building trees
If you have a decent match that you don’t recognise and they have the beginnings of a tree attached to their results, you can try working their tree back yourself.  What you consider a ‘decent’ match will very much depend on how many close or extended family members you have on your matchlist.  You may, for example, consider that anything less than 80cM isn’t worth your time.  I will do it for much lower matches.

By way of example of what is possible.  I’ve done this, and found my connection with:

  • A 73cM match with only seven surnames (no first names) on the tree.  Our connection is 3C1R
  • A 55cM match with only the name of my match and the name of the person managing the DNA test, who was her son to, work with. Our connection is 4C1R.
  • A 53cM match with six entries on a tree – two of them private, one ‘unknown’, one with only a first name (which was not entirely correct), and two who were known by names other than the ones given at birth (!)  Our connection is 4C.

It isn’t always possible, but it often is.

If you want more ideas on how to progress these ‘Quick & Dirty’ trees, the following video (18:58 mins) might help get you started: Blaine Bettinger: Building Quick & Dirty Trees to Identify Genetic Matches

Remember that if you have close matches and both your trees are well-developed but you can’t find your common ancestors, then either your tree or your match’s tree is wrong, doesn’t go back far enough or sufficiently wide (siblings, half siblings, etc) OR you have uncovered a misattributed parentage in one of your trees. See my previous post about unexpected test results.  I have also started to look wider in my own tree building, bringing more lines forward in the hope of ‘meeting’ ancestors of distant cousins who haven’t yet been able to find their way further back.

‘Clustering’ is the term used for grouping your DNA matches into groups using the ‘Shared Matches’ tool.  The idea is that the resulting ‘clusters’ will represent the distinct lines of your own family tree.  Clustering was developed  in 2018 by Dana Leeds.  Her technique, which became known as ‘The Leeds Method‘ uses a spreadsheet and you can read all about it on her website.

In 2019 MyHeritage introduced an Autocluster tool, based on the same principles, but saving a lot of time by generating the clusters for you at the click of a button.

Since then Ancestry have introduced a colour grouping facility to their match list and a system has been developed for using these as a clustering tool.  You can see this in operation in the following video: Larry Jones: How to Cluster your DNA matches With Ancestry’s New DNA Matches

The idea is that, by pointing to a common ancestral line, clustering narrows down where you have to look for your connection to these matches.  You can then focus on each of these family ‘clusters’ as a whole – look for connections in trees, perhaps even build one ‘Quick and Dirty’ tree for each cluster rather than a separate one for each mystery match you want to explore.

A problem I have with all of these clustering techniques is that I don’t have enough close matches to be able to set the systems up.  Dana Leeds bases her method on first cousin matches.  Larry Jones’s system on Ancestry is based on second cousin matches.  I don’t even really get going until 3rd and 4th cousin matches.  Nevertheless, I do run the Autoclusters report on MyHeritage from time to time, and I do make use of the colour groupings on Ancestry.  I have eight colours: one for each great grandparent, and I add matches to these groups either when I have a confirmed match or when, based on shared matches, a connection looks likely.

Asking family members to test
Back in July I wrote about how our family members’ test results can help us in our research. In that post I wrote about the different ways our various family members’ DNA can help us to isolate the branches of our tree.  If you’re lucky enough to have relatives who will take a test for you, that post will help you work out who to ask.

Chromosome mapping
If you tested with 23andMe or if you tested / uploaded your DNA results to MyHeritage, FTDNA or GEDmatch, you’ll be able to view your matches in a chromosome browser.  This takes us into a whole new range of possibilities for working with our DNA, and I have another little mini-series of posts about this planned for the spring of 2021.


My aim for this mini-series of posts about practical application of your DNA results has been to provide sufficient basic information to enable you to start to work with your DNA and then to be able to ask informed, focused questions as you need to.  And trust me – you WILL need to!  I hope you’ve found it helpful.


My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources, useful links and book recommendations.