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! 🙂

1 thought on “Can you take a hint?

  1. Pingback: Setting up your online tree: privacy issues | English Ancestors

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