Recording names: Part 1

Have you ever wondered how to record an ancestor’s name?

Here’s the basic rule:
Record the person’s name as it appears the first time it was registered
This will be the civil birth registration, or if the birth precedes the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, then we record the name as it was written on the baptism register.

That’s quite straightforward, but this is an issue with a lot of twists in the plot!  Today I want to look at two of those twists that will affect all of us as we carry out our research.

Recording women’s surnames
Although traditionally the convention has been for the woman to take her husband’s name on marriage, the name we record on our family trees doesn’t change.  No matter how many times a woman marries in real life, it is her birth name that should remain on the family tree.

What if we don’t know her maiden name?
Since we work backwards in our genealogical research, we often come across a woman with her married name before we learn her birth name.  In the following census document, we see John S Pollitt, his wife Mary A Pollitt and their children Herbert and Marion.  If we agree that this is our family and we accept the record, Ancestry will add to our tree not only the record and source reference but also the family members.  Mary A will then appear on our tree as Mary A Pollitt.

Snippet from census form showing family group

But Pollitt is Mary A’s married name.  To find her maiden name we need to look for the marriage between John S Pollitt and Mary A.  Or we could look for the mother’s maiden name on the birth registrations of the children.  Any of these will show us that her birth name was Loversidge; and this is the name by which she should be shown on the family tree.

Recording a woman with an unknown maiden name
What if we can’t find any records to evidence a married woman’s birth name?  This isn’t uncommon, particularly for women in earlier centuries.  I have eight women in my own tree whose maiden names I haven’t been able to find.  So how do we deal with this?

Trust me – the following are NOT good solutions:

  • Leaving the surname blank
  • Writing Unknown, Unk, N/K or similar

The reason for this is that if you want to search for your ancestor Jane N/K, you may well find you have several of them, and can’t work out which is which.

When I was first trying to come up with a solution to this, I found this online discussion and the summary at the top of the page useful.  Drawing upon this, the method I now use is to type (___) m.Bloggs.  i.e. three underscores in parentheses, followed by m. and the surname of the husband.  Your ancestor might have this ‘surname solution’ just for a while, until you track down her maiden name, or she might stay that way for ever.  Decide what system appeals to you.  As long as it works and you’re consistent, then any system is as good as the next one.

Moving on…

Illiteracy, accents and surnames
Another issue we’ll all come across is changing spellings of surnames in the birth, baptism or other records.  Although by the end of the 19th century, literacy was widespread and spellings settled, prior to that the name was often recorded by a clerk who listened to the informant and wrote down what he thought he heard, using a spelling he thought made sense.

This can result in some unusual spellings, but we can always add explanatory notes.

Here are two quite different examples from my research:

  • My 10xG grandfather seems to have been a Flemish weaver who came to this country in the 16th century fleeing religious persecution.  In his marriage record his surname is Drakopp.  His son John’s baptism records the surname as Dracoppe.  For John’s son’s baptism (also John) the name recorded is Drackupp, and his son Nathaniel’s baptism has the spelling Draycupp.  His daughter Jane, my 6xG grandmother has the spelling Dracupp, and there this surname leaves my direct line.  The change of spelling at each generation isn’t a problem.  In fact it tells its own story, partly to do with accent and partly to do with a gradual anglicisation of the name.  It almost certainly indicates illiteracy, since if these people could have written they could have chosen to maintain a consistent spelling of their name.
  • A young lady in my tree was registered with the rather grand name Hinnis Amelia Virginia Lavyn.  When I first saw it I assumed Hinnis was a Germanic name, but then I noticed that the child’s grandmother was called Annis.  The birth was registered in Leeds in 1848 by a mother who was brought up in London, and the clerk, his ears attuned to the local Leeds accent, clearly wrote what he ‘heard’!  This is a strange case because the name is clearly a mistake.  Some of my distant cousins researching this line have changed the name to Annis or Annice.  I’ve chosen to record the name as it was registered but add (Annice) in brackets.  Perhaps all this confusion was why the little girl grew up using only her second name, Amelia.

So, there are some common issues around recording surnames.  Next week we’ll look at name changes of a more decisive nature, and how to deal with them.

Public online trees: friend or foe?

Years ago, when I was just starting out, an experienced genealogist helped me to see that my great grandfather had been adopted.  The ‘father’ named on his marriage certificate was, in fact, his uncle by marriage.  The wife of that man was the older sister of his birth father, my natural 2xG grandfather.  Armed with this new information I found my great grandfather’s birth certificate and the record of the doomed marriage of his birth parents.  There were, however, some anomalies on the marriage certificate.  The age given by the bride, Annie Elizabeth, didn’t correspond with the ages given on future censuses; she didn’t sign, even though I knew from later documents that she could; the groom used his father’s middle name and an occupation that didn’t match other records; and the marriage was witnessed by one family member only, this being the groom’s older sister (the one who would eventually bring up the baby as her own son).  The whole thing smacked of an underage elopement.  Everything I knew about Annie Elizabeth was potentially a lie.  I could see from later censuses that she was born in Leeds, probably 1850-51.  Based on this, I found the most likely baptism.  The father’s name and occupation didn’t match that on the marriage certificate, but this was entirely in line with all the other anomalies, all in the cause of throwing the authorities off scent.

This baptism was my best guess, my working hypothesis.  I made no attempt to research this line, other than to identify Annie Elizabeth’s siblings, and her parents’ birthplaces.  After this, busy with other things, I set aside my genealogical research for a while.  When I came back to it all a couple of years later it was with renewed enthusiasm.  I learned how to use a variety of records from previous centuries, and made a lot of exciting new discoveries.  One of my triumphs was to take Annie Elizabeth’s paternal line back to the 1640s, and to find that they originated in the same village in South Yorkshire where that adopted 2xG grandfather would be born two hundred years later.  This was such an interesting line, with gentlemen farmers – and even a clandestine marriage in Mayfair.

Then, one day, I noticed there were new Ancestry hints for Annie Elizabeth, and these included a public online tree.  Same name, baptism, parents, siblings…..  But this woman had emigrated to the United States.  Surely they had the wrong person!  My tree was so thoroughly researched, with evidence every step of the way.  And then I remembered – while all that was true from the point of Annie Elizabeth’s father, the fact of him being my Annie Elizabeth’s father was only ever a hypothesis.  I looked closely at the documentation on this other tree, and found the proof: the address this other Annie Elizabeth gave as her place of residence on her marriage certificate matched the address I already had for the family at the time of the 1871 census.  There was no doubt about it, while all my research back to 1640 was absolutely correct, it was correct for that other Annie Elizabeth, not for mine.

The experienced genealogist that I had become had built a lot of work on a rookie mistake: I had omitted to mark Annie Elizabeth’s assumed family as a hypothesis, and during my break from genealogy I had come to think of it as fact.

We all make mistakes
There are so many reasons why the information on someone’s tree might be incorrect.  They might be working on a hypothesis.  They might have missed a vital piece of information, or be working with what’s available until more accurate information comes to light.  They might be beginners, not yet really sure how to do family research.

Just because it’s on someone’s tree doesn’t make it true
My approach to other members’ online trees is exactly the same as the approach to hints outlined in my previous post.  Some will be correct; others won’t.  It’s up to us to work out which.  Treat them as suggestions.  Draw upon their research and use it as a checklist.  Then research some more.  Someone else’s tree may say your 4xG grandparents had seven children: John, James, Mary, Ann, Jacob, Sarah and Matthew.  So try to find baptisms for them all, and when you find them, look closely to be sure it’s all consistent.  People moved around, but if your ancestor seems to have moved to a different town, taken a different wife and started a new occupation just for the middle child, then chances are this child isn’t your family.  In other words, it’s still up to us to do the thinking, the cross-referencing, and to decide whether or not they do in fact relate to our ancestor.

Just because it’s on everyone else’s tree doesn’t necessarily mean yours is wrong
It might mean that of course.  But hold strong!  Review your research before you buckle under the strain of it all. 😊

Some examples found during my research:

  • John married Sarah in 1674, after which seven children were born.  All seems quite reasonable, except that Sarah is recorded on that tree as having died in 1672.  This information appears on six trees.
  • Nathaniel married Sarah in 1738.  According to several trees, Nathaniel had three wives, all named Sarah – but there are no deaths and no further marriage records.  I can see the origin of one of these mistakes: A baptism record refers to ‘Nathaniel and Sarah Woodhouse’ – but clerics of yore were not given to punctuation, and Woodhouse is where they lived, not Sarah’s surname.  The real (and original) Sarah died aged 85, in 1801, fully consistent with her birth year of 1716.

What happens is that one person makes a mistake, and several more people copy it without trying to prove or disprove it.

‘Potential Parents’
This bad practice is now all the more serious because Ancestry has introduced Potential Parents.  At the further reaches of your tree, where for the time being you’ve come to a full stop, Ancestry may flag up the likely next generation.  You can review information and choose to accept or ignore the parents.  The problem is that these suggestions are based on what the majority of other researchers have done, and as we’ve just seen, one mistake plus many copies of that mistake can make a majority.

Although I appreciate that Ancestry are offering the records for your perusal, I still maintain that this is not enough.  You need to look widely and consider ALL possible records before making your decision.  Another example from my research:

  • William and Sarah married in 1790.  I’m therefore looking for a baptism for William probably between 1760 and 1770.  The most obvious one is a 1674 baptism within the parish, with parents Benjamin and Grace.  This is what every other public tree shows, and therefore what pops up as ‘potential parents’ for William.  At first I come to that conclusion myself.  However, while reviewing the baptism records for William and Sarah’s children, I see that two of them refer to William (the child’s father) as the ‘son of Joseph’.  Benjamin and Grace are NOT my William’s parents.  In fact the only possible baptism takes place in an adjacent parish within a Nonconformist chapel.  This also ties in with a number of Nonconformist records for William and Sarah’s descendants.  I remove Benjamin and Grace from my tree, changing the baptism details and amending the father to Joseph.  However, by this time ‘potential parents’ have also popped up for Benjamin, and even though I now have Joseph as William’s father, the algorithms persist in offering Benjamin’s parents for Joseph!

Upside down and back to front!
For me, these options have turned the genealogy process on its head.  Yes, we all want to find ancestors, take our trees back another generation, find out more about their lives…  But surely we want them to be the correct ancestors?

My suggestion is that rather than look for ancestors, look for the records that prove who your ancestors are.  A slight difference in focus, but it makes all the difference.

If you like, you can turn all types of hints off.  I’ve turned off potential parents but as I hope I’ve explained in these two posts, I do think record hints and public trees can help if used wisely, and I do make careful use of them.

Do you have experience of this yet?  What have you found?

Setting up your online tree: privacy issues

I wanted to continue from where we left off two posts ago, by talking about the value of public online trees as a form of hint.  But before getting into that it seemed sensible to start by thinking about your own online tree.  Should it be public or private?  What are the issues?  How do you change these settings?

Public or private?
When you create your online tree on a subscription genealogy website like Ancestry or FindMyPast, you’ll be asked if you want it to be public or private.  If it’s private only you, plus anyone you specifically invite, can see it.  If it’s public anyone can see it. There are pros and cons for each.  Some people prefer private for security reasons, some because they include treasured family photos and they don’t want these to be mis-used (e.g. applied to the wrong person in another tree).  Others feel more comfortable with private if this particular tree is being used to work on a hypothesis and is as yet unproven.  Yet others may not wish to be seen by another branch of the family with whom there has been a rift.  With a public tree, on the other hand, you can share freely what you find with distant cousins; and there’s more chance of being contacted by others researching branches of your family.  Whatever you decide, and whatever your own reasons for having your tree public or private, that will be the right decision for you.

If you’ve already set your tree up and want to check or amend these settings, it’s not too late.  On Ancestry and FindMyPast you can change it as follows.  (If you use a different site there will probably be similar options.)

Ancestry
Click on Trees (upper left corner of screen), then, if you have more than one tree, select the one for which you want to change the settings.  When that opens, click again on the name of the tree (upper left corner on this screen), and select Tree Settings from the menu.  Privacy Settings.is the middle option of the links in the upper middle of the next screen.

FindMyPast
Click on Family Trees (upper left corner of screen), then on the tree for which you want to change the settings.  When that opens, click on Tree Settings (the cog, upper right of screen).  A new screen appears and amongst other things you can choose here to make the tree public or not.

Privacy for living people
Even if your tree is public, there are particular privacy issues for living people.  I take privacy seriously, and I don’t know about you but I’d be pretty cross if I found myself and my family, with all names, places and dates of birth on a public tree for absolutely anyone to see.

On Ancestry, any person you mark as ‘living’ will remain private to others viewing your tree. In ‘tree view’ they will show up as an individual in the correct place in your family, but instead of a name with dates, the word ‘Private’ is shown, and the profile page for that person is not accessible.  If you invite someone else to view your private tree, you can decide whether or not to allow them to see living people.

On FindMyPast you can choose whether living people should be visible or not. The settings for this are on the same page as the private tree settings, as outlined above.

One huge family tree for the world?
Some genealogy websites have a different approach to online trees.  FamilySearch is all about helping others and working together to create a huge, communal family tree for the world.  This is all very lovely,and I’m all for finding connections and ways to bring the world together.  But different people have different approaches to genealogy.  Everything on my tree is properly sourced and cross-referenced or is marked as a hypothesis – something I’m trying to prove or disprove.  That’s not, of course, to say I don’t make mistakes, but if I do get something wrong, I can go back to where my original ‘evidence’ falls down, to put it right.  Not everyone is so fastidious.  Not everyone even attaches records, or if they do they may not look at the records, to gather all the available information from them and ensure that what follows is consistent.  And yet on FamilySearch, anyone would have the authority and ability to come along and change my tree, without even consulting me.  FamilySearch is a wonderful and generous site as far as records are concerned, but if you’re planning on putting your online tree on there you need to be aware of this.

I’m getting hot under the collar even as I type this, so for balance I found a video on YouTube about a more Zen approach to people messing up your tree….  😊

It’s up to you to decide if this would work for you.

So, next time we’ll talk about using online public trees to develop your own tree.

Book Review: Flesh and Blood: a history of my family in seven maladies

Something I enjoy about the early months each year is the return of the BBC series Call the Midwife.  It’s fascinating to see the progress of time, with world events set against the backdrop of London’s working-class Poplar district.  I particularly appreciate the ‘goodness’ of the main characters, dealing with others without judgment.  One of these characters is Dr Turner, played by Stephen McGann.

I’m not a follower of celebrities, and I knew nothing about Stephen McGann’s background, but when I learned a few months ago that he was a keen genealogist and had written a book about his family’s history, I decided to read it.  The original title is Flesh and Blood: a history of my family in seven maladies.  For some reason, in the paperback version the last words have been amended to seven sicknesses.  My assumption was that, through the generations, successive family members had met their end as a result of contracting one or other of the same seven illnesses, and that since manner of death is often linked to work and living conditions, this aided his understanding of how his ancestors lived.  I also assumed that in setting out his family’s history within this framework McGann was giving a nod to the role he’s best known for – the kind doctor in Call the Midwife.  Well, I wasn’t entirely right, and it wasn’t until the final few pages that I fully understood why he used this framework.  It was also not entirely a book about family history, in the sense that the final three chapters are autobiographical – and to tell the truth I wouldn’t normally read an autobiography.  Nevertheless, this was a book that made me think a lot about my own ancestry; and it’s for that reason that I’m reviewing it here.

Stephen McGann’s family history overlaps with my own in a number of ways, but primarily in that we’re both descended on one line from great great grandparents who fled Ireland because of the Potato Famine, or ‘The Great Hunger’ as it’s remembered in Ireland.  This famine, brought on by successive years of total failure of the potato crop caused by a fungal disease known as the potato blight, brought Ireland to its knees between 1845 and around 1852.  During this time, one million people starved to death and a further one and a half million left the country.  Predictably, then, the malady dealt with in the first chapter is ‘Hunger’.  It’s a very good, accessible introduction to the events, and to the terrible attitude of the landlords in Ireland and the government in the United Kingdom which made a horrifyingly tragic situation even worse.  Stephen McGann’s ancestors, Owen and Susan McGann, fled Roscommon.  My own ancestors fled neighbouring Mayo but probably didn’t meet until they reached Leeds.

Yet the starvation that killed so many back in Ireland continued to haunt those who fled, since when they reached their destinations they were hungry, destitute, clothed in rags and without work or shelter.  Relief for the poor wasn’t available through the ordinary channels, since Poor Law Relief in England was based upon residency rights within the parish.  Many of course would have disembarked at Liverpool.  Those who remained there, like Stephen McGann’s great great grandparents, would find shelter, as many as thirty to a room, in stinking, unsanitary hovels alongside the docks.  And the coroners began to record case after case of death by malnutrition.

If they were strong and worked hard, the men and older boys would find work at the docks.  By the 1870s, nine tenths of the ships arriving in Liverpool Docks would be unloaded and reloaded by the Irish; and some had even risen to positions such as stevedore gang leader or warehouseman.  With the reasonably regular income, a family would be able to rent a single room in the buildings arranged over three floors around courtyards called ‘courts’ – an infinitely better habitation but nevertheless breeding grounds for those diseases that go hand in hand with poverty and overcrowding in squalid conditions.  The second chapter of McGann’s family history is therefore called ‘Pestilence’.  There is, however, an interesting dual use of the word: firstly, meaning an infectious, virulent epidemic disease; and secondly meaning ‘an entity that is morally destructive or pernicious’.  Here, the reference is to ‘the Liverpool-Irish’.  It’s clear that from the very beginning Irish migrants were held responsible for the situation they found themselves in, as if somehow the poverty was brought about by their own moral shortcomings: ‘paupers [not only] by circumstance, but by social propensity.’  This theme continues throughout the book, and is well illustrated, no more so than in the events surrounding the Hillsborough Disaster of 15th April 1989.  McGann was actually there.  He writes: ‘In order to deflect blame, [police] officers had deliberately leaked misinformation to the press.  They claimed that Liverpool fans had caused the tragedy by their own drunken behaviour and actions – even accusing these fans of urinating on police officers and picking the pockets of their own dead.’  And since these untruths resonated with the wider public view about the moral character of the Liverpool fans – specifically the Liverpool-Irish – initially the wider public lapped it all up.  It shocked me that I had never quite made that connection: that the ‘problem’ with the Liverpool supporters was that in the wider public perception they remained the lazy, ‘morally corrupt’ hordes who lived in filth when they first arrived and didn’t seem to mind.

I started to think about my own Irish roots. The same four generations separate me from my Irish ancestors, and yet my experience has been so different.  Why?  Was it because of the surname?  Stephen McGann has a direct paternal line to these great great grandparents; mine are the maternal grandparents of my paternal grandfather: the surname was lost three generations back.  Was it because of religion?  Even though the McGann men didn’t marry Irish girls, they did all marry Roman Catholics.  That religious connection was lost within my family when my Leeds-born great grandmother – having married a likely godless Englishman within the Roman Catholic church then died young, leaving no-one to keep the faith alive.  When their son, my grandfather, married within the Church of England this, presumably, finally severed ties with our Irish ancestry, about which little is known.  Even in the early days, although my great great grandparents lived in the poorest part of Leeds, their neighbours were local people and Jews as well as Irish, which probably accelerated assimilation.  Without the massive population of Liverpool’s dockside, perhaps the identification with Irish culture died out with the original migrants.  Certainly this is something I’d now like to explore for my Irish family in this area of Leeds.

The further I progressed with this book the more certain I was that I would not have arranged it around a framework of maladies.  I’d have used a wider framework of social policy, social change and injustice.  And then I realised that this was the point: that we are the ones left to tell the story, and we can only do that through our own filters.  We will each focus on what seems to us interesting or noteworthy, and omit the rest, and what leaps out as noteworthy to Stephen McGann, to you or to me will not always coincide.  In this sense, then, any family history is on some level a kind of autobiography, even if our own life’s stories form no part of it.

The ancestors Stephen McGann writes about are ordinary people, just like most of mine, and probably most of yours.  Yet the story of a nation, of an era, of a major event – they would be nothing without the individual stories of the many thousands of ordinary people who played their part.  It’s true, though, that some of our ancestors have more interesting tales to tell; and one story, about a great uncle, took my breath away.  All but forgotten in his family prior to McGann’s research, his testimony following a major tragedy at sea could have changed history’s view of an aspect of that event, had he been sufficiently less ‘ordinary’ – sufficiently less Liverpool-Irish, you might say – to be invited to give evidence.  You’ll have to read the book to find out more!

This book is well written and accessible.  McGann supports his arguments with excerpts from original sources that you could follow up if you need to know more.  For the benefit of readers who don’t know how genealogy works, he explains how he used the various family history documents such as civil BMDs and census records to find out more about his ancestors.  It goes without saying that it would appeal to Stephen McGann fans, and avid autobiography readers; but it may also be of interest to any British descendants of the Irish diaspora, whether your ancestors settled in Liverpool or elsewhere.  Clearly, the Liverpool history is a big part of this book, and for me it served as a sort of companion to the excellent BBC series A House Through Time., which at the time of writing is available via BBC iPlayer.  Finally, I think it would be of interest to anyone thinking of writing up their own family history and thinking through ways of setting down the information.

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