Can you take a hint?

Can you take a hint?
Or to be more precise – should you take a hint?

I am of course referring to the many hundreds of record suggestions you’ll be offered by your subscription genealogy site as you progress your online tree.  On Ancestry these are indicated by a green leaf at the upper right corner of the person’s thumbnail.  On FindMyPast you’ll see a number inside an orange circle.  Your own subscription site will have its own method, but these are the two I work with.

Hints are generated by algorithm.  They can be records, photos, even stories submitted by other users.  On Ancestry they can also be other users’ online trees, and a recent development is ‘potential parents’.  We’ll consider those in a later post.

Genealogists are divided on whether they love or loathe hints.  Some turn them off; others accept them far too readily without considering whether this is in fact the correct record or person.  My own view is that hints are great, but they are just that: hints.  Whether I accept them or not is up to me.  I use them as a quick starting point for my own research and consideration.

Let’s work through some examples, all based around my 4x great grandmother.

Since we work backwards in our genealogical research, I’m starting with my 3x great grandmother, Harriet.  Her baptism record in 1810 tells me her father’s name is Joseph Hodgson.  I find a marriage for Joseph, two years before Harriet’s baptism.  The bride’s name is Elizabeth Fawcett.  This ties in with a widowed Elizabeth Hodgson shown on the 1841 and 1851 censuses, living with the now grown-up Harriet and her husband and family.  So I now have the name of my 4x great grandmother: Elizabeth Fawcett; I know when and where she married; and the 1851 census tells me she was born in Leeds, around 1777.  Other than that I know nothing.  Let’s see what the hints suggest.

Ancestry Hints
Ancestry offers 11 hints plus 11 online trees.  Ignoring the trees for now, the hints include the 1841 and 1851 censuses that I already have, plus two different records relating to the marriage.  There is also a photo of the marriage record from the parish register, uploaded by another researcher.  I can compare all this to what I already know, and see that all these records are correct: I can add them to my tree.

Next, there are four death records.  These relate to four different Elizabeth Hodgsons who died in 1857, 1858 and 1859.  They can’t all be right.  The 1858 record is from the Probate Calendar and tells me this Elizabeth lived in Bingley.  One of the 1859 Elizabeths died in Hutton Magna.  That leaves two records: 1857 and 1859, both in Leeds.  The correct one is 1857.  It is a cemetery record which gives me the age of the deceased (80, ties in with 1851 census) as well as her address at time of death: Wards Fold.  Although in 1851 they had a different address, the 1861 census for daughter Harriet shows the family living in Wards Fold.  So this one record tells me several things:
1. Harriet and family moved to Wards Fold prior to November 1857;
2. Elizabeth was still living with them when she died;
3. She died Nov 1857 and was buried in Beckett Street cemetery on 29th November;
4. The plot/burial reference.
I had to do a bit of work to find this information, but it would have been much harder to find Elizabeth’s death without these hints.

The remaining two records can be discounted.  One relates to an Elizabeth Hodgson marrying in Sheffield in 1843; the other to a marriage in 1947.

FindMyPast Hints
FMP offers fourteen record hints, and rates each one for likely relevance.  The top hint is rated at 98%; the bottom is 73%.

Right at the top are two marriage records.  I know these are correct, because the names, place and date all match up with what I already have.  However, these are not the same records as those already found on Ancestry.  There is a reason for this: Ancestry have an arrangement with West Yorkshire Archives Service which permits them to show digital images of the original West Yorkshire parish registers.  FindMyPast don’t have this arrangement.  They do, however, have one with the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York, which permits them to show digital images or transcripts of records created by the ecclesiastical see of York.  These two new records are the Bishop’s Transcript of the marriage record (a handwritten copy of the information on the parish registers, sent annually to the bishop); and a transcript of the Licence obtained by Joseph and Elizabeth to allow them to be married without Banns.  The latter provides additional useful information:
1. The age given for Elizabeth is 21, suggesting a birth year of around 1786 rather than 1777 as per the 1851 census and cemetery record.  It’s possible that a false age was given at this time, but more likely is that the age recorded on the later records, as given by daughter Harriet or her husband, was a guess.
2. Marriage by License was unusual, incurring an extra fee.  Therefore not only did this couple have the means to pay that fee, but also there must be a reason why they went to the trouble.  Perhaps that reason is out there somewhere, waiting to be found. 😊

Next come three death records.  One is the 1859 Leeds death, already discounted.  The others are for Elizabeth Hodgson and Betty Hodgson, both Leeds, 1857.  Did Elizabeth go by the name of Betty, and was her death registered in this name?  I can check this against the General Register Office website, which tells me that Betty was 65 when she died, whereas Elizabeth was 80.  Although I now know that Elizabeth would have been 71, not 80, this figure does match with the cemetery record I know to be Elizabeth’s.

Next on the list is another marriage record from a different record set (England Marriages 1538-1973), also correct.  And after that there are three baptisms, two burials and two census records, all with the correct names but from other parts of Yorkshire.  Not my Elizabeth.

Again, I had to do a bit of work for my information, but it was easy to identify and discount the incorrect records.  Afterwards, having Elizabeth’s correct age enabled me to search and locate her baptism record (Christmas Day, 1785) and take her line back a further two generations.

To conclude
Hints should of course be used judiciously, but I really can’t understand why anyone would turn them off!  Let me offer this guidance:

  • Hints are suggestions, not instructions.
  • They are compiled by algorithms, not humans, and will not all be correct.
  • Just because only one possible record shows up, this does not make it the right record for your ancestor.  If it doesn’t sit happily with the rest of your information, then either it is incorrect or it should be treated as a hypothesis, while you try to prove or disprove it.
  • Hints are there to assist, but you’re in charge.
  • Finally, the hints are a handy starting point.  But don’t just rely on this as a means of finding records.  We also need to carry out focused searches – a slightly more advanced skill that we’ll consider at a later date.

Happy hunting! 🙂

St Mary’s Tadcaster: Hidden past

St Mary's church, Tadcaster

Whenever I’m working on an ancestor I try to get an idea of their life and surroundings by seeking out old photographs or paintings.  If there’s no chance of ever having a photograph of this ancestor (which obviously is most of them), then I use a photo of a building or place that had meaning for them as their profile picture.  Often that will be the church where they married or were baptised.  This is why I came to be in Tadcaster, drinking coffee in the oldest café in town, and taking photographs of the parish church, St Mary’s.

St Mary's church, Tadcaster.

Back home, I looked up the church on the Internet to find out more about it – when it was built, and so on.  It was then that I learned this little church has a surprising story to tell!

Originally built around 1150, the first church was burnt and sacked by the Scots.  It was rebuilt around 1380, with further additions bringing it to its present size and shape by about 1480.  And yet… this is not that church, not exactly.

The church stood next to the River Wharf, close enough that when the Wharf burst its banks, which seemingly it did frequently, the church was flooded.  To prevent this, in 1875 the decision was taken to take down the church, brick by brick, and rebuild it largely to the same shape and dimensions, four feet higher up the bank away from the river.  The work was completed in 1877.  It cost £8000 and was deemed to be a success.

View of St Mary's church, Tadcaster, as seen from Tadcaster Bridge.

But do you notice how dreary and overcast it is in these photos?

It was 30th November 2015 when I took them.  It had been raining torrentially for days, and by Christmas there was still no end to it.  Exactly one month after I stood on the ancient bridge over the River Wharf to capture the scene above, it collapsed.  It had stood, connecting the two parts of the town, since around 1700.

But the church was safe, right…?  I mean, after all the careful taking apart and rebuilding at a safer spot four feet higher up the bank?

Well… not exactly.

Church and churchyard flooded

One hundred and thirty eight years after the rebuilding of the church, the elements once again had the upper hand.

This fantastic photo was taken at the height of the floods, by Otley-based commercial photographer Giles Rocholl.  He previously gave permission for me to post this photograph on another blog.  (Yes, I know, it knocks the spots off mine!)

Book Review: The Dead on Leave

I know where my mother was on 28th September 1936.  Aged only twelve, she had walked the short distance from her home to Holbeck Moor to watch as Oswald Mosley arrived, flanked by a thousand members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF).  The march commenced a mile or so away, at Calverley Street in the centre of Leeds, although the BUF had planned a longer route.  They had been forbidden by the authorities to march through the Leylands district, which for more than a century had been the ‘melting pot’ of Leeds, where newcomers, including Irish and Jewish immigrants, lived side by side with the working classes.  Even so, the night before the march, swastikas and slogans appeared throughout Leylands on shopfronts and businesses owned by Jewish residents.

By the time Mosley and his Blackshirts reached Holbeck Moor, 30,000 Leeds residents – most of them Communist Party members or Labour supporters – were waiting for them.  As Mosley took to the stage the crowd roared out The Red Flag.

I strongly suspect my grandparents didn’t know their daughter was there.  Decades later, she described the Blackshirts, hate written all over their faces, and expressed her pride for the men of Leeds who, having no time for fascism, threw stones in the direction of the stage.  She didn’t mention that Mosley was hit – I now know that the man who threw that particular stone was 19 year old John Hodgson from Leeds.  It’s astonishing what you can learn on the Internet!

By coincidence, exactly one week later, on Sunday 4th October, the far more famous Battle of Cable Street took place, as many thousands prevented Mosley from marching his Blackshirts through the East End.  My father in law, then a young man, was amongst those protestors.

It must have been about five years ago that I came across an article online about The Battle of Holbeck Moor.  I realised immediately this was the event my mother had told me about.  It was during an exchange of comments with the author of a similar article on the 28th September last year, commemorating 82 years since the event, that this novel, The Dead on Leave, was recommended to me.  It opens with events surrounding the Battle.

The 1930s was a difficult time for my mother’s family – an experience shared with many more throughout the land.  My granddad was out of work for several years, and it was perhaps from personal experience that on another occasion my mother made reference to the Means Test Investigators who would visit the homes of the unemployed.  ‘All of this would have had to go,’ she said, with an expansive sweep of her arm to indicate the china cabinet and its contents of treasures, almost all of sentimental rather than great financial value.  Again, the term ‘Means Test Investigator’ was not one she would have known.  So it was with interest that I learned a significant character in Chris Nickson’s novel was one of these Investigators.  Their powers were far greater than I had imagined, with authority to turn up unannounced, carry out thorough searches of the house and dock payments to the deemed value of any family ‘treasures’.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel; rather I was reading it to harvest facts about the period.  But I was immediately drawn in.  The characters were well-drawn, the sense of place spot-on, and the murder detective storyline gripping.  I got a real sense of Leeds as it was in the 1930s: the Depression, the ongoing tension between the Far Right and the Left, the rehousing of people from the old back-to-back housing to the local authority cottage estates with their spacious rooms and gardens, and even the high incidence of bronchial problems due to air pollution.  This was the ‘grim, industrial North’, after all; and my impression was that in the 1930s it was indeed grim.

I recommend this book to anyone with a historical interest in Leeds, the industrial North, the battle against fascism, or life in general during the 1930s Depression.  I’ve already found a whole series of police detective novels by the same author set in Victorian Leeds, and plan to start working my way through them too.

Click the image to find the book on Amazon (affiliate link).

Civil BMDs: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates (Part 2)

In the last post we were discussing Civil BMDs.  In light of imminent increases in costs of Birth, Marriage and Death certificates, we were considering whether we need to buy them, or if the information can be obtained via other sources.  We started by considering Birth Certificates.  We will now conclude with Marriage and Death certificates.

Marriage Certificates

Civil Marriages records are not listed on the online GRO index.  You will, however, find them on Free BMD.  The listing will look something like this:
Marriages Dec 1907: CASS Charles Hunter; Leeds; 9b 882

You’ll also find them listed on your usual genealogy subscription website (Ancestry/FindMyPast, etc).  The advantage of searching here is that the name of both spouses will be included on a short list, like this one on Ancestry, in the England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915:
Name: Charles Hunter Cass
Registration Year: 1907; Registration Quarter: Oct-Nov-Dec
Registration district: Leeds; Volume: 9b Page: 882
Records on Page:
Charles Hunter Cass
Alice Howgate
Joseph Joy
Ellen Elizabeth Young

Unlike with the FreeBMD transcript, since the two parties, Charles Hunter Cass and Ellen Elizabeth Young are both listed, I can cross reference the wife’s name with future censuses and so I know I now have the correct marriage.

Of course, the full marriage certificate will include a lot more information, but to access that information I will have to buy the certificate.

The Marriage Certificate will record the following information:
Registration District
Date and Place of Marriage
Register entry number
Names of Parties
Age of Parties
Status and Occupation
Residence at time of marriage
Fathers’ names and occupations, and also possibly a note if either was deceased.
Method of marriage – banns, licence, certificate etc
Signature or mark of the couple and witnesses

However… there might be a way for you to see all of this information without having to buy the civil Marriage Certificate: the same information is recorded on the church register.  These registers will be available to view at the relevant county record office.  But if you’re very lucky they will also be available to view online as part of your subscription to your usual genealogy subscription website.  You’ll soon recognise which of the record sets give you only the transcript of the index, and which give you the digital image of the original church register record.  For example, many of my family’s marriage records are available on Ancestry, in the West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 record set.  The above-mentioned marriage of Charles Hunter Cass and Ellen Elizabeth Young is to be found in that record collection.  If you have a subscription to Ancestry you can see the full record here.

Interesting, isn’t it, so many different versions of the same event, and if you know where to look you can access so much more information!

A few things to bear in mind about marriage records:
Ages can be inaccurate or downright false, e.g. given to avoid a minor having to obtain parental consent, or even to avoid disclosing the true age to the other party.  A recording that the bride or groom is ‘of full age’ is taken to mean aged 21 or more.

Address may be the same for both parties, but this was often done to avoid paying two sets of banns fees if one party resided in a different parish.  (Unless you are a certain branch of my family where literally everyone’s children in the street inter-married!)

Father’s name and occupation may be left blank, and this may indicate that he was unknown, but could have been left blank for other reasons.  It may, for example, suggest he was deceased by the time of the marriage, although in such cases it was more usual to include the word ‘deceased’ alongside the father’s details.  Having said that, the absence of the word ‘deceased’ does not necessarily mean he was alive at the time of the marriage.  These are all merely clues – they liked to keep us guessing!

Death Certificates

As with Birth Certificates, the easiest way to find a death certificate is on the General Register Office online index.  Here’s an example:

MOSS, ALFRED, age 0.  GRO Reference: 1841.  S Quarter in LEEDS.  Volume 23  Page 186
Here we see Alfred Moss.  The 0 indicates that he died before his first birthday, rather than that he was stillborn.  (At this time a stillborn would not have been registered at all.)  To get more information we will have to buy the certificate.

The Death Certificate will record the following information:
Registration District & Sub District
Register number
When and where Died
Name and surname
Sex
Age (including statement of parentage in the case of a child)
Occupation (including that of the husband of a married woman or widow)
Cause of Death
Description & Residence of Informant
When Registered

From 1875 the registration had to be supported by a medical certificate.
From mid-1969, date and place of birth and usual address are included.
Also from 1969, if the deceased was a married woman, her maiden name was included.

A few things to bear in mind about death records:
The age on the index is really important.  It helps us to discount lots of certificates and home in on the right one – as with the Mother’s Maiden Name on the Birth Index.  But be prepared to allow a few years out either way.  Often informants were not sure how old someone was and had to guess.

Although civil registration was introduced in 1837, it wasn’t until 1875 that the onus of registering a death was placed on the next of kin or closest relative of the deceased person.  This may explain why some deaths were not registered in the earlier years.  It’s possible that ordinary people, used to registering everything through the church, just continued to do so via the burial service, and thought this new system was a fad!

What other records might give you some of this information?
There are many potential sources of information for deaths.  They won’t all give you exactly the same information as the Death Certificate, but finding a couple of these might mean you don’t need the certificate:
Notices in the newspaper
Cemetery record – it may seem strange, but the Beckett Street Cemetery records in Leeds is one of my very favourite record sets!
Church Burial record
Gravestones (and websites dedicated to this, like Find A Grave or Gravestone Photographic Resource.)
Wills and Probate documents, e.g. Probate Calendar
Military Service records
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – the website and the actual cemeteries
Military pension files at The National Archives – you have to visit to see the actual files, or you can pay for them to photocopy the contents (- that can be quite expensive.)
Coroner’s Report – in case of violent deaths, etc.  (In such cases, it is the Coroner who is the informant, rather than a family member.)
Newspaper reports of unusual deaths.
Obituaries – if your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life.
Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches

Paradoxically, whereas the Birth and Marriage Certificates will help us to take our family trees back a generation, the various Death records, including all those ‘alternatives’ listed above, can tell us a lot about how the individual lived his or her life.  I’ll do a post on this in the future, including some examples from my own research.

And that’s it!  Have you selected some must-have BMDs yet?
Good luck!  🙂

Civil BMDs: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates (Part 1)

News broke over Christmas that the cost of civil Birth, Marriage and Death certificates (Civil BMDs) is to increase from £9.25 to £11 (paper copy, postage included) or from £6 to £7 for an emailed pdf.  The increases will take effect on 16th February 2019.

If you don’t provide the full index references, there will be an additional charge of £3 – but don’t worry; these are easily found.  All the information in the following example, including Volume, Page, etc. was obtained from the searchable index on the General Register Office website.
TALENT, ADA.  Mother’s maiden name: WOOD
GRO Reference: 1865, M Quarter, in LEEDS, Volume 09B Page 493

These prices refer to the purchase of certificates from the General Register Office, but local register offices may also provide this service, and for this they set their own charges, usually about £10.  Some genealogists prefer to use local offices because this is where the information was originally obtained from the informant.  In the days before photocopying, carbon copies, etc, the only way to get that information to the central General Register Office was to copy it out by hand, meaning possibilities of transcript errors, firstly in reading and transcribing the original hand-written record, and later, when that central record was transcribed for the online register.  However, not all local offices will send you a facsimile of the original; it may be a typed copy, created upon receipt of your request.  It’s for you to decide what you prefer, and to place your orders accordingly.

But do you need a certificate at all?
Now that my research is well progressed, I do buy the odd certificate out of curiosity, but initially my approach was to order only if I believed the certificate would give additional information to help me take my tree further back.  To adopt this approach you need to have an idea of what the certificate will include.  You also need to know if that same information might be available on another record, accessible without additional charge.

So let’s start by looking at Birth Certificates.  Marriage and Death Certificates will follow in my next post.  Remember – when we talk about Civil BMDs, we’re referring only to the Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates available since 1837.

Civil Birth Certificates
Information included:
Registration District & Sub District
Register number
When & where born (time may also given – see note below.)
Name
Sex
Name & Surname of Father
Name & Maiden Name and previous married surnames of Mother
Occupation of Father
Description & Residence of informant
Date Registered
Details of name/s entered after Registration

Getting as much information as possible from this record:
Sometimes a time of birth is given.  When you see this, it’s normally an indication of twins, triplets, etc. so you should look for more births.

The omission of a father’s name suggests the child is illegitimate.  From 1875, in the case of illegitimate births, the father had to be present at the registration to consent to his name being added.  The recently deceased father of a legitimate child would still be included.

If the mother has previously been married, the entry will say something like ‘Jane Smith, formerly Jones, previously Brown’.  In this example, Smith is her married name, Jones her name by the former marriage, and Brown was her maiden name.

Use the address to cross reference with census returns, directories, etc.

Do you need to purchase this record?
It depends what you want to know.  The General Register Office online index provides an overview of this information – just enough to help you decide if this is the right person.  Let’s look again at that example given above:
TALENT, ADA.  Mother’s maiden name: WOOD
GRO Reference: 1865, M Quarter, in LEEDS, Volume 09B Page 493

Without even purchasing the certificate, we can see the baby’s full name; the mother’s maiden name; the year the birth was registered, and in which quarter (M = March, and refers to Jan-Feb-March); the registration district (Leeds) and where exactly in the GRO’s system this record is to be found.

You don’t see the actual date of birth.  Remember that a birth must be registered within 42 days.  It’s entirely possible, then, that this child may have been born in December or even November of the previous year.  You have to buy the certificate to get the exact date.

Most importantly, the mother’s maiden name is included on the GRO online register.  Often, I find this information is all I need to help me progress; I don’t need the actual certificate.

Knowing the Registration District means you can look on the GRO register for more births from the same family.  Search using just the surname, mother’s maiden name, registration district, and try every year for a decade or so on either side of your confirmed birth.  You will have to do this twice – once for female, once for male registrations.

Other records providing similar information
The 1939 Register includes the actual date of birth of all individuals recorded, but not the place of birth.  All censuses from 1851 to 1911 (and before long, 1921) include the year and place of birth but not the actual date of birth.  If you’re sure you have the right person this combination may be sufficient for your needs.

The child’s Baptism record may provide you with most of this information.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find digital images of the original records online, but this depends on the specific county your ancestor was born in, and whether that county has made digital images of their original records available to Ancestry, FindMyPast, etc.

The introduction of a pre-printed parish baptism record book in 1813 means that by the period we’re discussing (post-1837) entries were standardised, including as a minimum the following information:
Register entry number
Date of Baptism
Child’s name
Parents’ names
Abode (Not usually the actual address)
Quality*, Trade or Profession of father  (*e.g. ‘Gentleman’)
By whom the ceremony was performed
(The actual date of birth wasn’t required until around 1860, although some clergymen did include it before then.)

Birth Notices in newspapers will include child’s name, parents’ names, date of birth and possibly their address.  Although, infuriatingly, I have at least one ancestor who only went to this trouble for the births of his sons.

You might expect to find the date of birth on military and penal process records.  However, historic records tend to record age rather than date of birth of the individual – presumably originally in expectation that many didn’t know their date of birth, or even their age.  However, service records may request a person’s age in terms of years and months, and where I’ve been able to check against the actual date of birth, I have found the information given to be accurate.

So what do you think? 
Is it worth ordering a few birth certificates now before the price increases, and save yourself a few quid?  Of can you find most of the infomation using other sources, and save even more?!