Google Books is my genie!

I remember years ago, watching an episode of The Goodies on TV.  They had got themselves into a typical Goodies scrape, and one of them said ‘What we need is an English-Swahili dictionary….. Ah! Here’s one!’  It still makes me smile now, the absurdity of something so obscure turning up on the table right beside you, just when you need it.  And yet, exactly this has happened to me….. twice!

The first time was six years ago.  I had just worked out that the reason I’d spent many years searching without success for my great grandfather Edward, was because he was listed with a completely different surname on every census and other conceivable document.  Finally, tracing him back through his childhood to his birth, I realised that his father had been a Jewish immigrant who had died not long after Edward’s birth.  Edward was then listed in 1861 with his mother’s maiden surname and in 1871 with his stepfather’s surname.  In the 1880s after marriage, he and my great grandmother tried out several different variations on all of the above, registering and baptising their children with different surnames before finally settling on the one I knew as my grandmother’s.  I remember sitting at the dining table working through all this in my mind, and wondering if their motivation might have been rising antisemitic tensions.  With no memory at all of his father and no emotional connection to the surname with which he had been registered at birth, Edward seemed keen to remove it – and the threat of antisemitism – from his family. I remember raising my eyes heavenwards in a rather dramatic gesture of seeking divine intervention, and thinking ‘What I need is a book about Jewish history and antisemitism in Leeds in the 1870s and 1880s.’  At the time we were having work done in another room, and all along the floor by the dining room window, piles of rather obscure books were taking refuge from the dust and upheaval under way in their usual room.  Still deep in thought, I exhaled, lowering my eyes in the direction of the window to my left, and as I did so the very first thing I saw was a book with the title Immigrants and the class struggle: The Jewish immigrant in Leeds, 1880-1914.  Why my husband had this book remains something of a puzzle, but it was just what I needed.

The second occasion was just last week… you’ll soon start to see what all of this has to do with the title of this blog post!  I’ve been writing up the story of Benjamin who was transported to Tasmania in 1834.  Research had turned up the name of the convict ship on which he was transported and the names of the Ship’s Master and Ship’s Surgeon.  I knew from wider reading that Benjamin’s experience of the voyage would have depended largely on the attitude of the Ship’s Surgeon, Thomas Braidwood Wilson.  Like every Ship’s Surgeon he was required to complete a log of the voyage, including treatment of serious illnesses and general comments.  Unfortunately, since Dr Wilson chose to write his log in Latin I was able to learn nothing at all about the man.  If only there was some way of finding out more about him and getting inside his head…

In these situations I always start with Wikipedia.  Although this is not accepted as a reliable source, a good entry will include sources and further reading.  So starting with Wikipedia I learned that Dr Wilson was not only a Royal Navy Surgeon but also an explorer and botanist.  At least two of his descendants have written about his life, but there didn’t seem to be a way of getting copies of their work outside Australia.  That was when I hit the jackpot: a narrative of one of his voyages around the world, starting with a convict voyage to Sydney in 1828 then a circumnavigation of Australia including a shipwreck and several exploratory expeditions inland.  That alone would have given me an insight into the man, but then just for me (!) he concludes with a chapter about the practice of transportation and his approach to dealing with convicts during the voyage.  The full facsimile copy of this is available to read for free on Google Books.  You can click the image below to find it yourself.  I read the entire text and found it easy to read, most interesting and most importantly for my particular needs, very enlightening about the author.  If early exploration about Australia interests you, perhaps you’ll enjoy it too, but I’m really just including it here as an example.Title page of facsimile copy of TB Wilson's A Voyage Round the World, published 1835.There are several points to come out of all this:

Firstly, don’t give up!  The seemingly impossible might just happen.  Admittedly, when it does, it is probably more likely to happen through the intervention of the Internet rather than a physical book appearing at your side.

Second, it seems that in the ninteenth century people wrote books and pamphlets on all kinds of rather niche topics. Even if you don’t know the title of the book (or even if you don’t know such a book exists), if you start out with a search on Google or Wikipedia you might be guided to exactly what you need.

Third, I’ve previously referred to other facsimile copies on Google Books, e.g. [here] and [here].  Being now out of copyright, many of these books and pamphlets have been copied and made available for anyone to read, free of charge.  Alternatively, the entry may direct you to where library copies are available.

Fourth, you may also find Amazon Kindle to be of use.  Here too, many older, out-of-copyright books have been typed up and made available for free from Kindle.  I’ve downloaded several novels to read as background for my research, just to get a feel of the period.  You don’t need an actual ‘Kindle’ to make use of this.  A free App enables you to read Kindle books on other devices.

Finally, other Kindle books may be available at very reasonable prices that will help fill in some gaps for you.  I usually find these come up as suggested items when I search for something specific.  For example I was searching for an (alarmingly expensive!) book about prison hulks when a short biography based on the memoirs of a transported convict popped up as a suggestion.  It cost me £4.49 and being an e-book was available immediately for me to read.  Very useful it was too.

I hope all of this has helped you to imagine that the seemingly impossible might be within your reach… at least in relation to antiquarian publications.

Finding ancestors’ siblings

You’ve found a new ancestor and now you now want to find his or her siblings.  How do you do that?  An obvious answer that might come to mind (depending on the era of course) is that they will be listed along with your direct ancestors on the census.  But that isn’t necessarily so.  The census will list all children of the family who are still alive and at home on the night of the census.  Some might have died before they even got a chance to be included on a census; some might be working away in service or apprenticeship; some might be spending the night with grandparents.  In other words, the census is a good start, but it might not be complete.

So to be sure of finding all the siblings, we need to use other sources.  We need to check baptisms and, after 1837, civil birth registrations.  And before we can do this, we need to get as much information as possible about the parents.

I’m going to use four different online resources to get information about the siblings of one of my ancestors: Ann Wade who, according to the 1851 census, was born in Huntington (just outside York) around September 1850.  Her father was William Wade from York, and her mother was Jane, also from Huntington.

These are the resources we’ll be using:

To get started, we need to find Ann’s birth. We will use the GRO birth index and the following search criteria: surname Wade; forename Ann; female, born 1850 (exact); Registration District: York.

I find two Ann Wades born in York that year, but one would have been older than six months at the time of the 1851 census, so I’m leaning towards the other, registered Oct-Dec of 1850, and her mother’s maiden name is Cass.

If I can find a marriage within a reasonable time before 1850 between a William Wade and a Jane Cass, then I know I have the correct family.  The Marriage Index on FreeBMD has such a marriage in Oct-Dec 1948, and a further FindMyPast record shows that the marriage took place in Huntington.

We now have all we need to search for all children born to William Wade and Jane née Cass in York, after their marriage (1848).  I like to allow 20 childbirthing years, but this can be extended.  As we work with the different resources, note how the search criteria differs slightly for each one.  See how, as the information we input varies, this can impact on the usefulness of the results.  But note too how we can use the various resources together to build up a richer picture of the family.

Census returns
Before we start searching using the four websites listed above, let’s see what the census returns have to say.  According to them, how many children did William and Jane have?  These are the children recorded:

1851 – Ann, 6 months
1861 – Ann, 10yrs; William, 6 yrs
1871 – William, 15 yrs; Sarah, 9 yrs

Let’s see if there are more, who slipped through the net.

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The General Register Office Birth Index – free to use, but you need a (free) account.

The search criteria now varies from our first ‘fact-finding’ search for Ann.  We input the following: surname; forenames left blank;  mother’s maiden name (If these are names likely to be mis-spelled, we can change the ‘exact matches only’ to something more approximate); Registration District: York.  For this search we need to start at 1848, so I’m starting with 1850 plus/minus 2 years, then 1854 plus/minus 2 years, 1858, 1862, etc.  I will need to do this twice: once for females and once for males.

These are the birth registrations (Wade; MMN Cass) the GRO Index returns:

  • Ann, Dec 1849 (MMN mis-transcribed as Coss so I didn’t pick her up at first)
  • Ann, Dec 1850
  • Thomas, Mar 1852
  • John Thomas, Jun 1853
  • William, Dec 1854
  • Edwin, Dec 1855
  • Thomas, Jun 1857
  • Edwin, Jun 1858
  • Sarah, Sep 1861

A bit of an advance on the census returns!

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FamilySearch – free to use, but you need a (free) account.

Let’s switch now to FamilySearch.  What we hope to find here are the baptism records for each of the children.  These should fit together nicely with the births.  From the top menu bar, Click Search then Records.

On this search form the search criteria is: surname (Wade, in my case); parents’ names (I don’t include the mother’s maiden name in case it confuses the search, just her forename); birthplace; country (England); and the start and end years of my search.  The search will stick to these dates exactly.

Here’s what we get, all on the first page of results, all identifiable by the parents’ names, and all but one identifiable by the York parish of St Maurice:

  • Ann, baptised 24 Sep 1849, York St Maurice
  • Ann, baptised 28 Sep 1850, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, baptised 11 Jan 1852, York St Maurice
  • John Thomas, baptised 30 Apr 1853, York St Maurice
  • William, baptised 16 Oct 1854, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, baptised 27 Dec 1855, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, baptised 16 Apr 1857, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, baptised 5 Apr 1858, York St Maurice
  • Sarah, baptised 4 Jul 1861, York St Olave

(So this also tells me the family moved house between April 1858 and July 1861.)

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Ancestry – Subscription site. You may be able to access at the local library, or free access during one of their ‘free’ weekends.
Our search in Ancestry starts with Search on the top menu bar, then selecting Birth, Marriage & Death.  Search criteria here is: surname (forename left blank); year, plus/minus 10 years; birthplace; parents’ names.

This returns 159,267 birth records, but I can see which ones are in York, and if I hover the cursor over the record I can see the parents’ names without having to open each record.

So it’s quite quick to see that the following civil birth registrations and baptisms are all on the first page.  The advantage here is that if your tree is on Ancestry, saving these records will automatically input the source information.

  • Ann, Dec 1849; baptised 24 Sep 1849, York St Maurice
  • Ann, Dec 1850; baptised 28 Sep 1850, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, Mar 1852; baptised 11 Jan 1852, York St Maurice
  • John Thomas, Jun 1853; baptised 30 Apr 1853, York St Maurice
  • William, Dec 1854; baptised 16 Oct 1854, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, Dec 1855; baptised 27 Dec 1855, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, Jun 1857; baptised 16 Apr 1857, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, Jun 1858; baptised 5 Apr 1858, York St Maurice
  • Sarah, Sep 1861; baptised 4 Jul 1861, York St Olave

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FindMyPast – Subscription site. You may be able to access at the local library, or free access during one of their ‘free’ weekends.
Search criteria: surname; forename left blank; year (plus/minus 10 years); location.  It is not possible to input parents’ names, therefore results are not filtered by this information – a disadvantage since this search returns 47 civil birth records and 145 baptisms.  All the siblings are there, but I have to open and check each one to see if they are children of William Wade and Jane née Cass.

However, FindMyPast has a big advantage in this particular case: their records include images of the original parish registers and original Bishop’s Transcripts – always preferable to using a modern transcript.  One way of overcoming the disadvantage of the limited search criteria would be to find the children from the GRO and FamilySearch, and then to key in specific names and dates for each on on FindMyPast in order to obtain the specific records with images.

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As you can see, in this situation, the free sites served us very nicely, and together gave us transcripts of all the evidence we need.  In this particular case, although FindMyPast was the most cumbersome to use, the records available were the best.  By familiarising ourselves with the search mechanisms of a number of sites – your subscription site along with whatever free-to-use sites there are – you’ll soon learn which site would likely give you the best results in any search, and you’ll get to know how to use them in combination for best results.

And as for the Wade family, for whom only three children ever showed up on the censuses, the sad truth is that there were nine live births, and six of them died shortly afterwards.  This adds considerably to the ‘story’ of parents William and Jane.

May you live in interesting times

If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I consider myself not just a researcher of the past, but also an ‘ancestor of the future’.  Mindful of how much I would love to be able to sit down with many of my ancestors and ask them questions over a cup of tea, I’m always thinking of ways to leave my descendants the answers to some of the questions they may one day have about me and my family.  I am in fact writing a collection of stories about the characters that leap out from my family tree as having a particular tale to tell, and in the past I’ve started to write down snippets of my own life and times – something I found difficult because ‘slice of life’ stories never appeal to me – I need the drama!  My lifetime has, thankfully, largely coincided with peace.  Yes there have been massive societal changes and developments, but these have been gradual, largely just happening in the background.  There have been exceptions of course: 9/11 and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, for example.  Whenever I met young people from Ulster in the later years of that period I was always struck with how attuned they were to politics and current affairs.

But my goodness, this has changed over the past few years.  The saying ‘May you live in interesting times’ is often said to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse – the implication being that ‘uninteresting times’ are so because they are peaceful and unchallenging; ‘interesting times’ are difficult.  Apparently, though, no one knows of a Chinese phrase upon which this might be based.  Curse or not, we can at least now appreciate what ‘interesting times’, even ‘unprecedented times’, are like.

Over the last few days I’ve heard of a number of ‘Lockdown Diary’ projects around the country.  The Mass Observation unit at Sussex University, in operation since the 1930s, are inviting people to apply to contribute to their archives. You can read all about their Covid-19 project [here], and apply [here].  They say ‘Correspondents may email, type or write by hand, draw, send photographs, diagrams, cuttings from the press, poems, stories, letters and so on.  No stress is placed on “good grammar”, spelling or style.  The emphasis is on self-expression, candour and a willingness to be a vivid social commentator, and tell a good story.’  You can read more about what they’re looking for [here].  If you don’t want to be a regular contributor you can take part in their annual one-day mass observation project, coming up on 12th May.  This year is the tenth anniversary of that project.  You can read about it [here].

It may be that your local authority archives is operating a Lockdown Diaries project.  I heard about one on the local news a few evenings ago, and have seen more by doing a quick Internet search.

Or if none of that appeals, how about something more private that reflects you, your personality and interests?  At the beginning of Lockdown I started work on a reproduction panel of the Bayeux Tapestry!  It won’t be finished by the end of Lockdown, but when it finally is finished and framed I’ll label it as my ‘Lockdown Project’.  For as long as it exists it will be known that this was stitched in 2020 when much of the world came to a standstill and most of us were required to isolate ourselves in our homes.  It will be a piece of social history twice over – depicting the Battle of Hastings and commemorating the Coronavirus.

I’ve also written a short ‘history of my life through music’ – Number 1’s on key dates of my life, and pieces that bring back memories of a specific moment in time, particular events or even just a period of my life.  What would reflect you?  Would it be music, great reads, wonderful places you’ve visited, or something else?

I leave it with you to ponder on all of the above, but bear in mind that the 12th May Observation Day is fast approaching.  I hope you and your loved ones are happy and healthy, and that together we will continue to do all we can to beat this pandemic.