About English Ancestors

Writer, genealogist, family historian

Tracing history through parish registers

I’ve spent a lot of time, in recent weeks, analysing the baptism, marriage and burial registers of Leeds in the 17th century.

All English genealogists working at intermediate level and beyond know about ‘the Interregnum’ – the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – and the devastating impact this can have on tracing back generations who might have been baptised, married or buried during this period. But have you ever looked at the parish registers of your parishes of interest to see how such events played out on a more general basis in the records being kept?

Before starting this particular research I contacted the local archives and was told the registers for Leeds were complete. I then started to investigate the period more fully, through background reading, and found that the Interregnum was just one of a whole series of contemporary social and political factors impacting on the town.

First, Leeds had both economical and tactical significance in the English Civil War, which began in 1642.  The Battle of Leeds took place on 23 January 1643, and while the parish burial register indicates relatively few deaths, the vicar of Leeds was forced to flee the town.  

Two years later, an outbreak of the plague wiped out one fifth of the population of the township.  The overcrowded, close-built housing, and particularly that on lower ground by the river and becks (streams) where fulling and dyehouses, and housing for the humbler clothworkers were situated, was perfect breeding ground for the disease.  In March 1645/46 the situation was so serious that the parish church was closed, and no religious rites performed there for some weeks. 

Extract from Leeds parish burial register for March 1645/46, indicating lists of numbers buried buring the plague.
Extract from Leeds parish burial register:
‘About the beginning of April 1646
came Mr Saxton to the vicar at w[hi]ch time
prayers and sermons begun againe at the
ould church then were burials taken notice of as before’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see the whole of this page, and the notes on the preceding page [here].

Next came the Interregnum, which lasted from January 1649 until May 1660.  During this period the church was effectively disestablished. Moderate Anglican clergy were replaced with those of Puritan persuasion.  Custody of the parish registers was removed from the ministers and given to civil parish clerks, and solemnisation of the marriage ceremony became an entirely civil function.  Bishops (and hence Bishop’s Transcripts) were abolished, and although records were kept they were often badly organised. When Restoration came in 1660, and the role of the church returned to its pre-Interregnum position, vicars often refused to accept the validity of records handed to them by the secular clerks. 

In a practical sense baptisms did continue, but it seems the previous arrangements for local chapelries to report names of those baptised to the main parish church collapsed.

Note on Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649, in which the scribe blames parents for neglecting to report baptisms in the local chapels to the main church
Extract from Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649:
‘The most of the children baptized at the several chappelles
in this parrish for this last yeare, are not to bee found in this
book, because their careles parents neglected to bring in their
names, and therefore let the children or such as want the names
hereafter blame them, who have beene often admonished of it and
neglected it’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

Simlarly – and note that this is the same hand as above – the recording of marriages brought about much displeasure:

Note on Leeds parish register, dated October 1659, in which the clerk blames prties to marriages and other ministers for the breakdown of the marriage registers.
Extract from Leeds parish marriage regiser October 1659:
‘Those that come hereafter to search about Registering of marriages
from the 8 of June last until this present 11 of October 1659 may
take notice that the persons married within that time took the liberty
either to marry without publishing as many did or else they went to Mr
Browne Curate of the ould church and got married there and at
several chappels in the parrish without ever acquainting the Registrer
or paying him his Dues, and therefore if any occasion fall out to make
search for such they may judge who is to blame. those and many others before took the same liberty
October 1659′

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

More strife followed with religious division, and persecution interspersed with periods of greater tolerance.  The population of Leeds was largely split down the middle in terms of traditional Anglican and adherents of a more hellfire-and-brimstone approach to the scriptures.  This, too, meant that at various times ardent Royalist or committed Puritan ministers in turn were ejected from the church, bringing about further disruption in the registers.

As a consequence of the above, although in terms of coverage of years it is true that the Leeds parish registers have no gaps, in terms of the content of those years, not only are there significant gaps, but also (as you can see in the two images directly above) the uniform, neat handwriting of the Interregnum years belie the fact that these are the church clerk’s later transcriptions of the contemporary notes formerly made by the civil parish clerk.  (And we all know that transcriptions may include errors and omissions.)

Even when working in later periods, when faced with a selection of potential records that don’t quite fit, it’s important to remember that record sets may be incomplete.  Records may have been lost or damaged, may not be available online, may have been mis-transcribed and indexed, or may never have existed – sometimes through clerical error at the time and sometimes because of an issue of wider application such as those outlined above.  It has been fascinating to read about these events in textbooks and then see for myself the impact on the registers, but also sad to realise that some of those life events that failed to make it onto the parish registers may have been my own missing ancestors.

If you’d like to try this for yourself
I’ve found the easiest way to browse record sets (whether that be to examine them line-by-line in search of an ancestor, or to browse them looking for the impact of historical events as I have used them above) is on Ancestry, and the easiest ‘way in’ to browse any parish register is to go to an existing record for any ancestor from that record set (already in my online tree) and then use the links at the top of the page to go to the exact parish and year I want. In the example below, the record set is for the whole of West Yorkshire for the period 1512-1812. If I click on ‘Rothwell, Holy Trinity’ I can select any other parish I need from the drop-down menu. Then if I click on the year I can change that to the one I want. From that point I can browse the whole year of baptisms, marriages or burials for the parish. After a while you can easily work out roughly where the marriages or the burials start, and go straight to the appropriate pages for each year. Obviously this will only work for you if Ancestry have a licence with the relevant archives for your parish of interest.

Screenshot from Ancestry.co.uk showing top of page from Rothwell parish registers and title header bar

On FindMyPast, if records from your parish of interest are on there, you can move backwards and forwards from any page for a record you already have, but this is cumbersome, and there’s no way of knowing how many more pages remain of the year you’re currently looking at before you’ll get on to the following year. However, some of the record sets are ‘browsable’, and this is an altogether better experience but not all record sets are available yet to browse in this way. The difference is that ‘browsable’ sets have a ‘filmstrip’ facility (see bottom left on image below) which you can click to open, and then whiz back and forth along the pages, quickly homing in on the pages you want.

To find these browsable record sets, select ‘Search’ from the upper menu bar, and then ‘All Record Sets’. Type ‘browse’ in the upper left hand box, and you’ll see the numbers of records reduce to just those collections that are browsable. Then, in the box below, select ‘England’, and finally type in your place of interest. I entered ‘Norfolk, England’, and from the 50 record collections available I selected ‘Norfolk Parish Registers Browse’. On the next page you enter a year range (or leave it blank) and an event (baptism, marriage, etc) or leave it blank, and then the parish. I haven’t yet found any records of interest to me that are browsable, but this will be a good facility when more are added – and you might be luckier than me.

Front cover of a 'Banns Book' showing location of link to open 'filmstrip' facility

On FamilySearch (free to use, you just need to register for an account) a huge number of images are available to browse, but not all parishes are covered, and even if your parish is, there may be gaps. To find them, from the upper menu bar, click ‘Search’, then ‘Images’. On the next page type in the name of your parish. I tried several of my parishes of interest before finding one for which images were available: Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. It may ask you to select from a few options, and then click ‘Search Image Groups’. On the next page you’ll see precisely what they have. For Great Yarmouth it was just marriage registers, with an almost complete coverage from 1794-1899, but some gaps.

It would be great to hear if you have any successes with this. Have you come across a significant event in your town and then verified it through parish records?

Old books for free!

Did you know that there are ways to read old publications completely free of charge?

I mean… obviously you can go to the library, but a lot of the books we need as genealogists are not sufficiently ‘general interest’ to be available on the library shelves, and although they might be available on an inter-library book loan, that takes time.

But you can often get them absolutely free, and instantly. Here’s how.

First, there’s the Internet Archive. You can read about it [here]; and if you go to [the home page] and just scroll down a little, you can search for any title and see if they have it. If the book you need was published before 1927, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find it there.

Next is the Hathi Trust. Again, read about it [here] – their focus is more academic than the Internet Archive. Then, back at [the home page], just enter your search terms to see if they have what you’re looking for.

The type of book you might find is truly breathtaking! As examples – I can access the full range of Leeds Parish registers as published by the Thoresby Society, Leeds’s prestigious local history society. There is also a complete set of indexes for all probate and administration entries at the Prerogative Court of York, from 1389 to 1688. More obscure – and you would be surprised how often this happens – I like to read around events when researching my ancestors, and sometimes I think ‘Oh, *if only* someone had written a book covering precisely XXXXX’ Well, often they have! I wished for a book written by the actual ship’s surgeon on the voyage that transported one of my kinsmen to Van Diemen’s Land – and found he had indeed written a book, including a chapter on his approach to his charges during transportation voyages! More recently, and thanks to one of the regular readers of this blog (Thank you Tony!) we have found a book written by someone who worked as a child in a mill of interest to Tony, and actually alongside the older children of my 3xG grandparents!

But if you never wish, you won’t find them!

Less obscure books, like literature that might add useful context to your research can often be found for free at Amazon on Kindle. You don’t need an actual Kindle to read Kindle books. You can download the app and read on any other handheld device or on a PC. On the search bar, set the department to Kindle Books, and then put in the book or the author you want (e.g. ‘Charlotte Brontë’) and add the words ‘free kindle books’. If the book you want isn’t available for free it might be available at reduced cost – £2 or so.

Good luck! I hope you find just what you need!

‘A Crysome child’

On 22nd August 1702 the child of one of my kinsmen was buried. The entry in the parish register reads ‘A Crysome child of George Lucas of Woodhouse Carr’. I imagined George going to the church and speaking to the vicar: ‘What is the child’s name, Mr Lucas?’ With a long sigh and a weary shake of the head, I could hear George replying: ‘Ayyy… it were a crysome child, ‘ardly drew breath before it were tekken…’ I took the entry on the register to mean that the baby had died even before George and his wife, Ann, had named him or her, and thought it a rather quirky find, that the vicar had recorded those words: a crysome child. I added the baby to my tree with the name A Crysome Child Lucas.

Well, I was partly right. And mostly wrong. It didn’t help that the entry was spelled ‘crysome’, which – look it up in any dictionary – means ‘characterised by crying or weeping; tearful; lamentful’. This was surely a frail, weak baby who was clearly in discomfort.

But it turns out that what the vicar should have written was ‘chrysom’ or maybe ‘chrisome’. The precise spelling varies, but the ‘h’ was important.

A chrysom (or chrisom) cloth was a white cloth or mantle. Symbolising purity, it was thrown over a child during baptism or christening. The cloth was annointed with ‘chrism’ – consecrated oil – and its practical purpose was to protect the oil from being accidentally rubbed off.

Part of a memorial monument showing three chrisom swaddled babies.

The image shows part of a monument to Thomas Selwyn 1546-1613, and his wife Elizabeth (Goring) of Friston Place. The full monument shows the two of them kneeling at a prayer desk, beneath which are three chrisom swaddled babies, all boys. Source: Wikipedia: Chrisom.

The baby’s family retained the chrisom cloth for one month after the baptism. This coincided with the mother’s return to society after giving birth. Today, the ‘churching’ of women is viewed as a thanksgiving and blessing for the delivery of the child and the mother’s survival, but until 1552 there was a purification element to this. Helen Osborne (Our Village Ancestors, p.30) writes that the baptised child would continue to be covered by the cloth until the mother was churched. For any baby dying during this period the chrisome cloth would be used as a shroud, and the baby would be termed ‘a Chrisome child’.

It follows from all of the above that a baptism was not the planned, family event into which it has since developed. Almost certainly, the mother would not have been present, since she would be temporarily away from society. Where the vicar also recorded the birthdate, it is clear that until the eighteenth century, babies were baptised as soon as possible. According to FamilySearch: Birth-Baptism Intervals, studies have shown that in the sixteenth century baptism was normally no more than a week after birth. However, from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards the interval gradually increased, one study for the period 1650-1700 indicating 14 days before 75% of children in the register were baptised. That said, I have several records from my own research clearly showing early 19th century babies being baptised on the day they were born. It was important, since tiny babies often died; and only a baptised child could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But back to 1702, and to George Lucas and his ‘crysome child’. Whilst preparing this post I googled the term with that exact spelling. One of the items returned was a Thoresby Society transcript of the Leeds Parish Registers, opened at page 180. That’s the parish where George buried his baby. On that page alone five ‘Crysome’ children were buried. Four more on page 179, five on page 178, and so on, all the way back to page 169 where the entry for George and his baby are to be found. That’s a lot of fathers to have the exact same conversation with the vicar about their own recently born, sickly, deceased child…

In fact the term ‘Chrisome’ (various spellings, but remember the ‘h’!) had come to be used for any baby dying before baptism. This puts a different spin on all those entries in the Leeds Parish Register. (None of this is restricted to Leeds, by the way; it’s just that this seems to be the only place where the ‘h’ is omitted in the records, resulting in ‘crysome’.) It made me think about the term ‘Christian name’, which was historically a religious personal name given on the occasion of a Christian baptism. Bearing in mind the church’s dual role in this respect – to baptise the child into the church and also to record the existence of an individual in accordance with the requirements of the state – there is the possibility of a punitive aspect to the recording of a child who has not been baptised, and therefore officially and religiously has no name, as merely ‘a Chrysome child’. We might assume any child so recorded is unbaptised, since a baptised child – even if a Chrysome child in the sense of dying within a month of baptism – would be recorded with his or her own Christian name. It seems comparable to the recording of a child born out of wedlock as ‘baseborn’ (or related terms). How much more difficult for the parents of this period to know that not only would their dead child never be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but also he or she would forever remain nameless in the eyes of God.

In the midst of all this pondering I watched the Season 11 finale of Call the Midwife, in which it was revealed that even in 1967 it was common for premature babies to be buried with another deceased person, this being the only way to make sure they had a proper Christian burial and resting place. There is no doubt that George’s unbaptised ‘Crysome child’ was buried, but I wonder if, as an extra pain for the parents to bear, it had to be in an unconsecrated part of the burial ground.

By way of conclusion I’d like to make a few points. First, it’s important that we keep an open mind about our interpretation of records. Something new may come along to make us think ‘hold on… I wonder if….’; and if it does we should explore it. Second, we need to learn about the society in which our ancestors lived and worked. The vital importance of the baptism, as revealed above, just doesn’t translate to our own modern society, but in former centuries it was the equivalence of a birth certificate, a proof for inheritance, settlement rights, and the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven. And finally – if we think laterally, we will find information to help us progress our family research in the strangest of sources. Thank you, Call the Midwife! 🙂

*****

I’ll be taking a break for the rest of April. I’ll be back with my next post on 1st May.

Where there’s a Will there’s a way…

You might have noticed I’ve given a lot of thought on this blog to records related to our ancestors’ deaths. It started a couple of years ago when an increase in the cost of civil BMDs prompted me to write about what other kinds of records might be available that would give much of the same information – and sometimes more – thereby saving the cost of the death certificate.  Next came What Can Death Records Tell Us About Life? Death records have also featured here and there as evidence used in conjunction with other findings in my research to prove one hypothesis or another. The truth is I love a good death record. They can tell us SO much about a person, their life and family; and none more so than a Will.

The last two posts have focused on how to find Wills and Administration documents, both since 1858 and the far more cumbersome arrangements before the changes of that year. Today we’ll look at lots of ways we can use the Wills, particularly those from earlier centuries when there might be gaps in other record sets. They really are not just about how much money there was and who inherited it!

A Will can…

Substitute for a baptism
There was an example of this in a recent post when, finally, I found a father’s will in which he (Nathaniel) named and bequeathed land to my 6xG grandmother Jane, who I had long suspected was his daughter. Until this point I had built a good case but there was no definite evidence that they were father and daughter. Although, in the absence of a baptism record, I still have no definite birth year for Jane, the order in which Nathaniel refers to his two daughters indicates she is younger than her sister (baptised 1685), thereby supporting Jane’s own death record which suggests a birth year of 1687.

In another example, I suspected my 8xG grandfather, Thomas, was one of six siblings born to Christopher Simonson. I had baptisms for most of these siblings but not for Thomas, likely born during the Interregnum. In this example it was one of the brothers, Lister, baptised as son of Christopher in 1642, whose Will came to the rescue. In it, Lister specifically refers to ‘my brother, Thomas’. Thomas is a witness, scribe and co-executor to the Will, and by comparing handwriting to other known documents I can see this is definitely my Thomas.

Substitute for a marriage
Lister’s will worked overtime for me. In referencing his brother-in-law, Thomas Snell, he also made his will stand in for his own missing marriage record. Thomas Snell was his wife’s brother, therefore her maiden name was also Snell.

Substitute for a burial
It goes without saying that if Probate has been granted the testator has died! So even if we can’t find a burial record, we have a pretty good idea of the month and place of death. Sometimes the actual date of death is noted on the back of the bundle of papers.

Help you fill out the family of your ancestor
It may name sons, daughters, siblings, parents, cousins… There may also be people who seem to be family members but can’t yet be placed. All need to be noted and when possible can be inserted into your tree.

However, the absence of a child’s name does not imply a parting of the ways. Nor will the list of children necessarily include them all. A couple of years ago I wrote about my discovery that my 4xG grandfather John Wade’s Will made no reference at all to his daughters, leaving the family business and money only to his sons. The four sisters remained unmarried and lived together throughout their lives. It wasn’t until I obtained each of their Wills that I realised they had been well-cared for prior to their father’s death, in the form of railway stocks and shares. Father John’s arrangement ensured the daughters would retain their own money (and a level of independence) even if they married, while the family business would remain in the hands of his own sons.

Generally, though, wives and daughters will be named – offering us a rare sighting of the female family members in a time when documents usually omitted them completely.

Confirm family roots within a locality
Again, Lister gives value. In his Will he expresses his wish to be buried in the local churchyard, ‘as near to my Ancestors as possible’. This implies several previous generations in this parish. When I first read this I knew only of the father, and baptisms of the other siblings showed he had moved around the region. I now have two more generations before that, and ongoing wider research suggests a long association of this family with the area, although I’m yet to join the dots.

Suggest literacy levels
Although the shaky initials or ‘mark’ of the testator doesn’t necessarily mean they are unable to write (they may simply have been too weak to write at that precise time), certainly we can see which of the witnesses could write. Even official copies of Wills record who signed and who made marks. However originals provide additional clues: By comparing handwriting within the document and with others, you may even be able to work out if one of your ancestors wrote the document – even if maybe they could read and write in Latin.

Provide an insight into family relations
Generally, there is a sense of community at the time of writing and witnessing the Last Will and Testament of a sick relation. Death was part of life, and helping a family member or friend to put his affairs in order and ensure each other’s families were cared for was something done willingly. There is trust evident between the testator and those he chooses as his executors, or to assist a surviving spouse in the task. Occasionally, though, we might pick up on family tensions. In 1684 as my 8xG grandfather John Wilson divided up his lands and property between his five surviving sons, he included this final sentence: ‘And if any of my sayd sons their Executors or adm[inistrators] shall sue Molest or Trouble my sayd Executor for any greater Summe or Legacie then is given them by this my last Will and Testament that then the Legacie to them hereby given to bee voyd and noe more paid to them but Twelve pence.’  It seems John didn’t entirely trust his sons to behave well towards each other.

Hint at the testator’s religious views
Wills can, but do not necessarily reflect the testator’s religious views. They might instead reveal the scribe’s views. Alternatively, I have compared wills written within five years of each other but 40 miles apart, in which the similarity of overblown religious phrases in the opening lines suggests the two scribes were writing to an accepted formula.

Reveal how our ancestors lived
From 1530 to 1782 one of the probate/ administration requirements was that the executor should appoint three or four local men to value the deceased’s personal estate, and provide the probate court with a full ‘Inventory’: a detailed list of every single item of the deceased’s possessions, together with an assessed value for each. The Inventory relates only to the personal estate, i.e. it doesn’t include land and property; but since the list is generally organised room by room, including items found in outbuildings and barns, etc, it does indicate where the household included such buildings, how many living rooms and bedchambers and so on.

In the Will itself your ancestor may list houses, messuages, lands, etc. Comparison with contemporary maps may reveal exact locations of named holdings. He may also identify himself by occupation or standing. Not only does all this suggest a certain standard of living, but it may be compared with other record sets, such as occupations on baptisms or number of hearths listed on the Hearth Tax returns.

Show community networks
Occasionally we will find ourselves reading so many Wills from a small village that we recognise names of all those who regularly help out as scribes, witnesses, executors, takers of the inventories, and so on. We almost start to feel like we know all these 17th century inhabitants who were trusted community members and friends of our ancestors.

And finally… the bit we always expected the Will to be about:
Indicate how the land, property, goods and chattels were to be apportioned
Here we see how land was passed on according to the wishes of the testator and inheritance norms. We start to understand how, where the oldest son inherits the lion’s share, younger sons move progressively down the social hierarchy. There is also the possibility of bequests of small items treasured by the testator to a special person. (How wonderful would it be to recognise an item that your family still has!)

Alas…
Sadly, sometimes the bequests in the Will and the named beneficiaries prove you haven’t got the right person. I bought the Will of what I assumed was my 7xG grandfather Robert Lucas. He had a son named James in exactly the right place and at the right time to be my known 6xG grandfather, but when I read the Will there was no mention of James, just two daughters. It sent me back to the parish registers, and I found the little James I had assumed to be my ancestor had died not long after birth.

*****

Although most of the Wills are written in English, the further back you go, the more likely it is that you’ll need to be able to read old handwriting, but I think you’ll agree that with such riches available from scouring them, it’s worth the effort.

These are all examples of things I have learned from looking at Wills. Can you add anything more? Has something astonishing in an old Will ever helped you to break down a brick wall or make a great discovery?

Finding a pre-1858 Will

In my last post I mentioned that the arrangements for Wills and probate in England and Wales changed in 1858.  After the Court of Probate Act of 1857, Wills are generally much easier to find.  Before 1858, however, the arrangement was far more complicated.

Ecclesiastical Courts
Prior to the changes brought about by the 1857 Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration (if someone died without making a Will) was a function of the ecclesiastical courts.  However, there were more than 300 possible courts.  Before we can work out which one dealt with our ancestor’s estate we first need to understand the court hierarchy within the Church of England. 

Between the Reformation and the mid-19th century there were twenty-seven dioceses in England and Wales. 

Map showing Church of England dioceses in England and Wales between the Reformation and the mid-19th century
Map showing C of E dioceses and provinces circa 1550 to mid-19th century

Then, as now, these were organised into two provinces, or archdioceses: York and Canterbury. The dioceses of York, Carlisle, Chester, Durham and Sodor & Man came within the province of York, the remainder fell within Canterbury.

Each of these dioceses were subdivided into archdeaconries, and it was generally here where matters of probate were decided.

However, there were many exceptions.  Some territories were instead under the jurisdiction of a manorial, ecclesiastical, royal or prebendary ‘peculiar’.  Elsewhere, jurisdiction might leap-frog the archdeaconry, resting instead with the bishop’s own ‘Consistory Court’. These probate rights were jealously guarded: they brought in an income.

[This map came from an article by Paul Wainwright about using York Diocese Cause Papers for family history research.]

The court to be used varied from parish to parish
Within each diocese there were of course many parishes, and even adjacent parishes could come under the jurisdiction of different Probate courts. The easiest way to find out the arrangements for your parish of interest is to use the online tool at FamilySearch.

  • Go to FamilySearch Maps and enter a location in the search box.
  • I’m going to use Kinver. Only one location, in Staffordshire, matches that name. That’s the one I need, so I’ll click on that.
  • A fairly basic map showing the boundaries of the parish appears. For Kinver, if I click to remove the pop-up box I can see that this parish included other places called Stourton and Compton.
  • However, we do need that pop-up box so I click the place name again over in the left sidebar and the box will reappear. What we’re interested in is Jurisdictions. Click on that, and fourth down in the list you’ll see Probate Court. For Kinver, we see that this parish comes under the diocese of Lichfield, and the Probate Court was the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory). In other words, this parish does not deal with the usual archdeaconry for probate matters.
  • For comparison, if I click on the adjacent parish of Wolverley, I’m now not only in a new county (Worcestershire) but also a new diocese: Worcester; and the Probate Court is the Court of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester. Back in Staffordshire, and back in the diocese of Lichfield, before 1846 my ancestors in Bilston would have used the Court of the Peculiar of Wolverhampton, and after that date would have used the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory).

Note that this information on FamilySearch Maps is good as at 1851. There may have been some changes, but generally this is a good place to start.

So you now have a picture of how complex the situation was, but at least we have a way of finding out which court dealt with the parish where our ancestor lived.

Probate took place where the testator held ‘property or noteworthy goods’
For most of our ancestors, once you’ve found the parish you know where to look for the probate or administration documents. However, technically, probate took place not where the testator died but where he or she held ‘property or noteworthy goods’.  What if your ancestor held land in several parishes or even several archdeaconries? The rule is quite simple: you go up a level in the church hierarchy until you reach the level that encompasses all the relevant lands. Hence, if a person held property in two archdeaconries within one diocese, probate was proved at the Bishop’s Consistory Court.  If property was held in more than one diocese, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) or Prerogative Court of York (PCY) was used; and if in both provinces, probate at both was usual. 

The rule may be simple but the difficult part might be knowing all the places your wealthier ancestor held land.

Regardless of the above, for some circumstances the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was preferred or required

  • Serving soliders and sailors, and people who died abroad but held property in England and Wales.
  • From 1818-1858, if the deceased held stocks and shares, the Bank of England would only accept wills proved at the PCC.
  • The PCC was preferred by Nonconformists who wished to lessen the connection to the local Anglican church structures.
  • It was also preferred for reasons of prestige.

Finding the Wills
Building on that background information we’re now in a better position to look for our pre-1857 ancestors’ wills. As with the post-1857 National Probate Calendar, wills are indexed by year of probate which, if disputed, could be several years after death, so be prepared to search further than the actual year in which you know your ancestor died.  There is, unfortunately, no centralised index, so we must make use of finding guides (see below), but here are some pointers:

  • Wills proved at the archdeaconry or an ecclesiastical peculiar will usually be lodged with the relevant county archives.
  • Those proved at the bishop’s Consistory Court may be lodged with a separate diocesan archive.
  • Records of manor-peculiars can be difficult to locate. Being private papers, they could have been lodged out of county if the former lord of the manor had a principal home elsewhere. They might also have been lost, or simply never been made available to the public.
  • The National Archives hold registered copy wills for all probates made at the PCC between 1384 and 1858. These are not the original wills – you won’t see your ancestor’s signature – but they are copies of the original probates written into volumes by clerks at the church courts. You can search them [here]. At the time of writing (because of limited access to the National Archives at Kew) some of these are available to download free of charge. Some of them (but not all) are also available on Ancestry.co.uk in the record set England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858.
  • The Borthwick Institute in York holds half a million wills, dating from 1267 to 1858. Most of these are from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, but there are some from Cheshire, Lancashire, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and Durham. The index for all these documents from 1688 is available on Find My Past, with an easy link through to Borthwick for ordering digital copies of the originals. (Any probate documents will show up under Birth, Marriage & Death records.) Pre-1688 Wills are indexed separately, both at the Borthwick archives and also in a series of Yorkshire Archaeological Society publications available online through Internet Archive, starting with YAS Record Series Vol. 6: Index of wills in the York Registry, 1389 to 1514.
  • Other wills may be available online, but it all depends on licensing arrangements made between the archives and one of the subscription websites. For example, Ancestry has a record set called Yorkshire, England, Probate Records, 1521-1858 which includes probate documents for a manor-peculiar of interest to my research.

Finding Aids
These include:

FamilySearch maps

Smith, Cecil R. Humphery: The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers – This is available on Ancestry.co.uk as the record set Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers

J. Gibson & S. Raymond: Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for wills 6th edition, The Family History Partnership, 2016 – This is an inexpensive booklet but is sometimes out of print. You can usually get second hand copies.  County record offices and local history libraries are also likely to have it.

Don’t forget that you can always ask the staff at the archives for advice if you get stuck.  I have only ever found them to be extremely helpful.

*****

This has necessarily been a whirlind tour.  I did a four-week course to learn how to find and use Wills, and if you wanted to do that too you can find the course [here].  But there is at least enough information here to get you started and I hope it helps.

Changes to the Find A Will website

Oh my goodness! What have they done to the online GRO Find a Will service?!

I haven’t had reason to order a post-1858 Will for ages, so I didn’t know about the changes until I saw the video below. But before moving on to that, in case all this is new to you here’s a bit of introductory information about Wills.

Before 1858 Wills were dealt with by the Church courts – finding them can be a challenge because there was a whole hierarchy of courts; and where your ancestor’s Will was proved depended on where they lived, where they held land, the value of their estate and a number of other factors. That’s a topic for another post.

After 1858 Wills came under the jurisdiction of civil probate courts: one Principal Probate Registry, a number of local Probate Registries and a single, central index which is available online and is searchable. In other words, if your ancestor died in or after 1858 and had something to leave to their descendants, their Will or Administration papers will be much easier to find. These are the Wills we’re talking about here.

The central index is known as the National Probate Calendar. Often, seeing that will give you all the information you need. For example, the entry for my GG grandmother’s second husband provides his full name, his address, his occupation, the date of death, the regional Probate Registry where probate was granted, the names of two men to whom it was granted, and the value of his effects.

That’s a lot of information, and it may already fill some gaps for you. It will certainly enable you to narrow down the entries and be sure you have the right person. However, particularly when you’re at the fairly early stages of your research and trying to keep costs down, you may be happy just to leave it at that.

Before we move on, there are a couple of notes about these entries:
First, the National Probate Calendar arranges information according to the year probate was granted, not the year of death. This is particularly important to note because when you watch the video you’ll see the online search asks you for the year of death and limits the search to that one year. You can start with that, but always be prepared to move forwards a year (or maybe more) if the person you’re looking for doesn’t show. In my example above this person died on 11th December 1898, but probate was not granted until 26th January of 1899. 1899, then, is the year under which he’s to be found.

Second, the people named (the people to whom probate is granted) are not necessarily the people who are inheriting. They are the executors (or administrators). They may be the same people as those inheriting, but may not. In the example above, the two men named as executors were just that. One was the deceased’s wife’s stepbrother; I’m not able to place the other. Again, even without sight of the will this gives me some interesting information: I know from other documents that the actual stepfather was abusive; I have no idea where he went after the 1861 census, but I know he was not living with his wife, my GGG grandmother. And yet here is evidence that his son from a former marriage maintained a kinship relationship with his stepsister, my GG grandmother.

If you have an Ancestry subscription you can see the National Probate Calendar with the full entry, including all the information above, and you can link it to your person’s profile. The record set is England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995

However, you can also see it using the government’s own Find a Will service, and if you want to order a copy of the Will, this is where you need to go. The cost of ordering is just £1.50. For this you get digital images of all the pages. Before ordering, please note that if your ancestor died intestate – that is, if he or she didn’t make a Will – this will be recorded on the entry as ‘Letters of Administration’ rather than ‘The Will’ (or sometimes just ‘Administration’ as opposed to ‘Probate’). If that is the case, obviously there is no Will to see, but the Letters of Administration will still give names of the administrators and those who will inherit.

So… if all this is new to you, I hope that has got you up to speed.

The GRO Find a Will website search facility has recently been changed, and it’s currently rather clunky! I’m going to hand you over to Dave Annal who has prepared a short video (8 minutes 57 seconds) that shows how he overcame the changes. I hope you find it useful – and that you find some ancestors’ Wills.

Layers of evidence

This post focuses on two issues.

First, it concerns ancestors who lived and died before the census and before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.  After 1841, these records work together as regular check-ins to see how our ancestors are progressing.  Before 1837-1841 we have to find different record sets to do the same job. In the description that follows you’ll see that I was looking for something to compensate for the fact that a key baptism was missing. This is one of the big step-ups as we progress to intermediate level genealogy and beyond. It’s complicated by the fact that often these records don’t have universal coverage, and even if particular record sets do survive for your area of interest, whether they are available online or not depends on arrangements between your local records office and one of the online subscription websites. All of the information I refer to in this post was available online with the exception of the probate and administration documents, which were listed online at FindMyPast but the actual documents had to be ordered and purchased.

Secondly, in this post you’ll see how I start out with what can only be a hypothesis – based on a coincidence of names, approximate years and places. I gradually add in more evidence until finally I am in no doubt that my original hunch is true. I say ‘gradually’. This has taken a few years, and was only proven to my complete satisfaction a few weeks ago.

The hypothesis
My starting point is a likely but not proven father/ daughter relationship. The two people in question are my 6xG grandmother, Jane Dracupp, who married my 6xG grandfather James Lucas in Leeds in 1710, and Nathaniel Dracupp who was in the right place at the right time to be her father.  The surname is unusual, and this made connecting them much easier. However, Nathaniel is not the only Dracupp of an age to father children; it’s just that he seems to be the only one to have left his parish of birth and moved to Leeds.

I have never found a baptism for Jane.  There is, however, a record for Mary, daughter of ‘Natha Draycupp’, who was baptised in Leeds in 1685.  Given Jane’s marriage in 1710, a baptism of circa 1685 is consistent with her likely birth year.  She might have been born in 1683, or 1687, perhaps.  The father’s given name is also significant, since Jane and her husband James will go on to name their second son Nathaniel.  (I’ve written a lot about traditional naming patterns and how they can be used to home in on likely parents/ grandparents. See e.g. [here] and [here].) It looks very much like Nathaniel Dracupp will be Jane’s father, and Mary her sister.  But other than the circumstances of birthplace and approximate year, and the fact of Jane naming her son Nathaniel, there is no actual evidence.

Evidence that Nathaniel, Mary and Jane live close by
I had noticed Nathaniel’s name on a couple of Overseers Rate Books for the years 1713 and 1726 but no specific abodes were included, and when I first found them I didn’t spot that Nathaniel’s entries were in the same part of the Manor of Leeds where I knew James Lucas (and therefore Jane after marriage) to be living.  When I realised this I went through these records thoroughly, looking for all references to Nathaniel.  I also looked for James Lucas and for Mary’s husband, whose name was Jeremiah Myers.  I found them all living very close together, with Jeremiah/Mary and James/Jane seemingly occupying adjacent plots of land.  This was slightly complicated by the fact that James was entered under the name ‘James Lukehouse’, which might have been a different person altogether.  However, in my head I could hear a local pronunciation of the word which would rhyme ‘house’ with the ‘as’ in Lucas.  Again, this tipped the scales a little more towards the likelihood of my hypothesis, but it wasn’t definite proof – and indeed might have been considered clutching at straws!

Evidence of a kinship or friendship connection between Jane and Mary’s husband
Although I hadn’t been able to find burial records for Jane or James, I now found letters of administration for a James Lucas who died in 1722.  The existence of letters of administration means James died without making a Will, suggesting an unexpected death.  Whereas a Will often names all children of the deceased, together with spouse, and possibly other family members who might be brought in as executors, trustees or witnesses, letters of administration will have none of these things.  However, there will be a sworn undertaking by the widow and possibly other family members to carry out faithfully the requirements of the probate court (an ‘Administration Bond’), and of course these people will be named.  Often, it is only when we read these names that we know for sure that the deceased is actually the person we think it might be.  I was in luck.  The document was signed by my 6xG grandmother Jane Lucas; and one of the other signatories was Jeremiah Myers, suggesting a good connection between the two.  It really is starting to look now like Jeremiah could be Jane’s brother in law – meaning Mary would be Jane’s sister and therefore Nathaniel Dracupp would be her father.

Evidence indicating Jane’s approximate birth year
The death of my 6xG grandfather James at a comparatively young age suggested Jane might have remarried.  I found a likely marriage seven years later, in 1729: Jane Lucas and a John Smith.  I did think at this point that my luck had run out!  John Smith and Jane Smith?!  I would never be able to narrow them down!  However, trying to confirm all this I went back to the Overseers Rate Books and found John Smith listed on that same plot of land, adjacent to Jeremiah Myers.  (John and Jeremiah would continue to be listed as landholders at the same properties for some decades.) I also found a burial for Jane Smith in 1757.  The record gave Jane’s husband’s name (John Smith), the abode just as I expected it to be, and also an age at death of 70, which indicates a birth year of 1687 – just two years after the baptism of Mary Dracupp.  Further, the burial was recorded in Nonconformist records at the chapel where I knew the next generation of the family now worshipped. This was definitely my Jane.

To be honest by this stage I was happy to accept that all these happy coincidences pointed to Nathaniel being Jane’s father.

Evidence flowing from Nathaniel’s death
The Overseers Rate Books continue until 1809. However, after 1726 there is a gap in the records until 1741, and Nathaniel Dracupp is not seen again.  Did this suggest Nathaniel died between 1726 and 1741 – either way a good long life for a man born in 1657. Although a burial record for Nathaniel has not been found, there was a probate record that had intrigued me for some time: In 1741, probate was granted for a Nathaniel Dracupp in Wakefield. Wakefield is about 13 miles (20 km) from Leeds, and it hadn’t seemed likely that this was the same person. As mentioned above, although Nathaniel Dracupp is an unusual name, this man I now strongly suspected was my 7xG grandfather is not the only Nathaniel in the Dracupp family. Given that a 1741 death indicated Nathaniel would have been 84, I thought it likely that this Nathaniel might be another family member from the next generation. However, knowing now that Nathaniel was living in 1726 and no longer listed in the Rate Books from 1741, I felt confident to purchase the probate documents. I probably wouldn’t have done this without the knowledge from the previous step.

It was him! Nathaniel names his daughter Mary and son in law Jeremiah Myers. He also names their one child – which indicates that the other three I knew about must have died before he made his will in 1737. Next he names his daughter Jane and her husband John Smith. Finally!!! I have my proof! The order in which he names (and bequeathes property) is significant, in that it indicates Mary is older than Jane – so the birth year of 1687 suggested by Jane’s 1757 burial record is almost certainly accurate. Jane’s children are not named individually, but they are referred to as those who will inherit after John and Jane’s natural lives – an important point since otherwise the land could pass into John Smith’s family and leave Jane’s children without. Also named is Nathaniel’s second wife, of whom I had no previous knowledge. I suspect she might be the reason he moved to Wakefield – perhaps she had land there – but no marriage record has been found.

*****

I hope you’ve found this useful. As you can see, it was only Nathaniel’s will that proved beyond doubt that he was Jane’s father. Although even before finding it I felt there was a good case and was happy to consider him as such, the difference is that without that final piece of evidence we always have to be flexible, be prepared to have an open mind should new evidence come to light that points to a different father. I no longer have to do that. This case is closed. 🙂

The 1921 Census of England and Wales

Happy New Year to you all!
Have you been looking at the 1921 Census?

In case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the 1921 Census for England and Wales was released to the public on 6th January.  It includes the Isle of Man and Channel Islands; members of the Armed Forces (wherever in the world they were stationed, apart from Scotland); Merchant Navy and fishing vessels in port on the night of the census or returning over the following day or so; plus visitors, tourists and people in transit.

This census is particularly important for us as genealogists: there won’t be another until 1951.  The 1931 census was burned in a fire during the Second World War; and because of the war, no census was taken in 1941.  We do of course have the 1939 Register to plug the gap, but it’s sad to know we won’t have another census to look forward to for the next 30 years.

The 1921 Census was taken on 19th June 1921, having been postponed from 24th April following the declaration of a state of emergency owing to coal miners’ strike action.  This was a period of great social change, following the 1914-18 War and, mirroring our own time, the Spanish Flu epidemic.  The women’s suffrage movement of the previous decade had started to pay off, and some women had won the right to vote – although this still depended on the woman in question being a householder in her own right or the wife of a householder.  With the return of the men after the War, there was a growing expectation of ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’; while the women who had kept the factories going during the absence of their menfolk were dissatisfied with the expectation that they should return to their kitchens as if nothing had ever happened.

Societal changes mean changes in the questions asked.  I was sad to see the loss of the 1911 questions regarding length of the present marriage and number of children born to that marriage including whether still living or since died.  Apparently this was removed because so many responded incorrectly – but I’m sure you’ll agree that their wonderful ‘incorrect’ answers gave us as genealogists so much information! The long-standing question about infirmity and nature of that infirmity has also been removed.  On the 1921 Census these are replaced with questions about:

  • age ‘in years and months’;
  • for children under 15, whether one or both parents has died;
  • the actual employer and work address;
  • an additional category for marital status: Married, Single, Widowed and now for the first time, Divorced;
  • for Welsh households, a question about language spoken. 

Of course, it isn’t just genealogists who have been eagerly awaiting the publication of these records.  While the main purpose of any census is to inform contemporary social policy development once the data is analysed and condensed into statistics, one hundred years on it’s time for local and social historians to do likewise.  They will take more of an overview; we, of course, are interested in the individual entries.

The contract to publish the 1921 Census was awarded to FindMyPast, who have exclusive rights for the first three years.  After this it’s likely also to be available on other genealogy subscription sites.  Initially, there’s an extra charge for viewing the records, but as with the 1939 Register, these charges will be removed when FindMyPast have recouped part of their investment.

That investment has been considerable: a team of specialists have worked for three years to digitise almost 38 million entires.  Between them they have carried out conservation work (repairing tears, ironing out creases, dealing with mould and insects) as well as scanning each household schedule – or photographing it if it was considered too fragile to scan.  After that each record was returned to its place within one of the 30,000 ledgers, and the digitised version of each record was transcribed and indexed.  You can learn more in the following short video.

Some family history enthusiasts are upset at the charges: currently £2.50 to view the transcript and £3.50 to view the original.  I’m not: I appreciate the huge amount of work involved.  There is no way the public sector could have financed this. Inviting tenders from the private sector was the only option; and without their investment this simply would not have become available to us.  That said, you can access it for free (via FindMyPast) if you can get to The National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth or Manchester Central Library.  The rest of us will have to make decisions, prioritise and find ways to keep costs down.  I decided to search only for direct ancestors (six households for me, five for my husband’s family) and to access only the original document.  For this you get the front and back of the household schedule (2 pages).  As a full FindMyPast subscriber I received a 10% discount on the £3.50 charge – hence eleven lots of £3.15, total £34.65.  There are other households I’d like to see but these will have to wait until FindMyPast remove the charges. In spending £34.65 I feel I’ve contributed to helping them recoup their investment.

Why choose the original rather than the cheaper transcript?  Because the original is always preferable.  Transcript errors do happen – and feedback to date suggests the transcriptions on the 1921 Census are the weakest link, which is a shame because a dodgy transcription of individuals’ names and birthplaces also impacts upon the efficacy of the index, hence search results.  That aside, I want to see my ancestors’ handwriting – and the errors they sometimes make when completing these forms can often give us other information and even an insight into their personalities. 

Of course when you’re paying to view individual documents it’s really important that you don’t rush in and pay for a record that turns out not to be your ancestors.  It’s therefore vital that you understand how the FindMyPast search engine works – it’s far more precise than Ancestry’s, and you have to be more precise in the search terms.  So here are a few tips:

First, with all this focus on the charges, it’s important to note that SEARCHING IS FREE. You can search the 1921 index all day long and it won’t cost you a penny. When it came online at one minute past midnight on 6th January I spent 30 minutes clicking around just looking for my families before I went to bed. I didn’t make my purchases until the next day, but using the hovering cursor technique (see below) I was able to draw upon the forename combinations to be sure that I had found the correct family. In other words, at the very least you can place your family and some specific members of that family in a certain locality without paying a penny.

FindMyPast have put a separate gateway into the 1921 Census on their header bar.  Click on this and you can immediately input name, birthyear and location.  However, this search will focus only on the exact information you give, so if for whatever reason the correct record is not returned you need to ask the search engine to be more flexible.  For this you go back to that first 1921 Census page and click on Advanced Search.

Now you can ask the search engine to offer surname variants, provide a span of birthyears, separate out the likely location in 1921 from the birthplace, and search with a variety of other terms.  You could choose to leave the location blank, or you can give a location and then gradually extend out from it, up to a maximum of 100 miles.

You can also use wildcards: for example since my surname is often mis-spelled (and I have an errant great grandfather whose Life Purpose was To Avoid The Census Enumerator By Any Means Available) I might try Heppen*, Hepp*, Hep*, H?p* and so on.  (No, it didn’t work; I still haven’t found him…..)  This is also useful if you have ancestors with foreign names that could easily be mis-transcribed – or indeed if your ancestors were gradually anglicising/ changing spellings of their names. 

Linked to the above – if your first search doesn’t succeed try a different family member – perhaps one with the most unusual name or (in the case of an immigrant family) the one with the most phonetic forename. When searching for one of my husband’s families I tried several family members before finding one of the children with the name spelled sufficiently as expected as to be recognisable by the search engine.

Once you have your selection of returned records move your cursor along the line, to the right, where you’ll find an icon for Record Transcript and another for Record Image.  Hover (don’t click!) your cursor over one of these icons, and you’ll see how many people are at the address, together with the first names of up to three of them.  You can use this information to help you decide if you have the right household.  Before buying I sometimes searched for several family members, checking the name combinations, before deciding this was definitely my family.

Something else you can do in Advanced Search is give priority to a certain search term. For example, you could input name (e.g. Ethel Jones) and birthyear (e.g. 1889) but leave everything else blank. Now you’ll get all the Ethel Jones’s born that year throughout the entire country. Or you could input Ethel Jones and Birmingham but leave the year blank – giving all the Ethel Jones’s in Birmingham across a wide span of ages. For my master enumerator-avoiding great grandfather I tried leaving all blank apart from name (with various wildcards) and his occupation, which was cooper. No…. nothing. But you might have more luck.

Paying to access the original image gives you more than the two sides of the household schedule your ancestors completed. At the bottom right of the page, click on ‘Open Filmstrip’. From here, once the charges are removed, we will be able to whizz backwards and forwards through the filmstrip with gay abandon, to see who the neighbours are – sometimes family are living very close by. But for now, there are additional features we can see. With the filmstrip opened, click on ‘Extra Materials’. These include the Enumeration District cover, a description of its boundaries and streets included, and a map.

If you’ve already been searching for family members on the 1921 Census I hope you’ve had some good finds.

Wishing you comfort and joy

Digital scrapbook page featuring golden retriever dog wearing Father Christmas hat.

Earlier this year I was thinking about how we could preserve our visual legacies in ways more likely to spark the interest of those who follow us. One of the ideas I wrote about was digital scrapbooking. It was back in August and September that I was tidying up and reorganising my digital photo archives, and making a start on digitising old family photos. I can report that progress has been good but there’s still a long way to go.

Alongside digitising the old photos I realised I could use my existing photo editing software for digital scrapbooking, and I’ve had lots of fun making digital scrapbook pages using some of the old photos. My brother’s birthday card this year was made this way and I’m so happy with how it turned out.

Today I’m combining this new-found digital scrapbooking interest with one of my personal Christmas traditions, which is that every year I’m compelled to try to photograph our four-legged family members wearing Christmas hats. I have to say that I enjoy this far more than the said four-legged family members, but George here does love posing for a photo and is prepared, up to a point, to accept the ignominy of wearing a hat if it means he can be the centre of attention.

Zoë Ball was asking about family Christmas traditions recently on BBC Radio 2. One listener shared that her mother buys a new toilet brush every year at Christmas time and on Christmas Day, before she puts it to use in the bathroom, the family holds a competition to see who can toss the new toilet brush into its holder… Makes my tradition of photographing the animals seem very tame! What about you? Do you have any special traditions that will be passed on? Are there any older family members with stories to tell about how they used to celebrate Christmas?

Whatever you’ll be doing over the remainder of 2021, whether you celebrate or not, and whether by the time Christmas arrives the latest COVID variant will yet again make family gatherings inadvisable, I wish you comfort, joy, peace and good health, now and in the year to come.

I’ll be back with my next post on 15th January 2022.

*****

Digital scrapbooking supplies used are from Life Chronicled: Christmas by Connie Prince; and Joyful by Ginny Whitcomb. Both sets were purchased from ScrapGirls. I have no connection to this store but terms of use require that I acknowledge the designers when posting online.

DNA Painter Ancestral Trees

Fan tree created using DNA Painter
DNA Painter fan tree

Today I have pretty things for you!
For ages I wanted to create a colourful fan tree. I had no idea how to go about doing that but suspected it would involve a lot of work, so I was particularly impressed when, a while back, Jonny Pearl introduced the facility to do this very quickly and easily on his DNA Painter site.

I wrote about DNA Painter earlier this year as part of my mini-series on using chromosome browsers as part of DNA research for genealogy. As explained in that previous post, DNA Painter is brilliant for mapping out your DNA segments, but in theory even if you don’t intend at this stage to use the main DNA functions, you could still get your own colourful fan just by uploading your tree to the site. You do this by downloading the GEDCOM file from your online tree or your own software or simply by inputting the information manually.

Once loaded, your tree will appear as a pedigree with each of the lines colour coded. The DNA Painter default palette uses pretty much the same colours I use on Ancestry to assign known DNA matches to each of my great grandparents’ lines, but here on DNA Painter the default paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather colours were the wrong way round for me. It was very easy to flip the colours. Editing and building the tree is very straightforward too. You can hover over any ancestor to edit their information, add their parents or delete them, and you can mark them as a genetic ancestor – someone who is a common ancestor confirmed not only by paper trail but also by DNA. Fly your cursor over any ancestor and then select View/Edit → Edit or Add Notes to change any information about them, including the colours used for them and their ancestors.

From this point you can go to the three options at the top left hand corner of the screen: TREE / FAN / TEXT. Tree is the default – the pedigree. Text is a handy pedigree list of all your ancestors, with dates and places of birth and death. However for me the fan is the most exciting part. It only goes to 10 generations and I have some lines further back than that, so they are not included. Already, though, you can see at a glance how well you’re doing and where you have gaps.

I’m sure the arrangement in the fan above is obvious, but in case it isn’t: from left to right, the colour blocks are pale blue for my paternal side and pink for maternal. Then I have blue for my paternal grandfather (with violet and blue for his ancestors); yellow for paternal grandmother (with orange and yellow for previous ancestors); green for maternal grandfather (with turquoise and green for his ancestors); and finally salmon pink for maternal grandmother, with deeper pink and browny pink for her ancestral lines.

For all versions of the fan tree shown in the images in this post, you can hover over any individual person’s ‘box’ to see their name, vital dates and their relationship to you. At the same time on the left of your screen you’ll see the lineage from that person to you. I couldn’t show this in these images because the screen shot process disables the hovering cursor.

You can also click on ‘Tree Completeness’ over at top right of the screen to get numbers and statistics of ancestors identified at each generational level. All the images in this post click for a bigger version, but you’ll definitely need to do that to see the info on this next image.

Screen grab of DNA Painter Ancestral Trees tool bar showing options for Tree view, DNA filters, Tree completeness and other options
DNA Painter Ancestral Trees toolbar

Moving along the toolbar options to ‘Dimensions’, these next two fan charts draw upon all the information you provided when you uploaded or built your tree. First, you can see all your ancestors colour-coded by the age at which they died.

Fan tree showing ancestors' ages at death
DNA Painter fan tree showing ancestors’ ages at death

Next, ancestors colour-coded by the century in which they were born.

Fan tree showing century of ancestors' births
DNA Painter fan tree showing century of ancestors’ births

So far all the charts shown relate simply to the detail of your family tree. However, if you also work with DNA, you can make use of all the following fan charts:

On the upper toolbar, select DNA Filters. The first option is Show Genetic Ancestors. Provided you have already marked which of your ancestors are proven as genetically linked (see above) you will now see how you’re doing in terms of corroborating your documented tree through DNA matching. This is mine.

Fan tree showing ancestors with genetic link proven by DNA
DNA Painter fan tree showing ancestors with genetic link proven by DNA

My first ever DNA post was about deep ancestral DNA testing: mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA. To recap very quickly, everyone inherits mitochondrial DNA from their mother – but only daughters pass it on. This means everyone can be sure that they share the same mitochondrial haplogroup as their mother, their mother’s mother, and so on right back through time. That is illustrated by the following chart. (In fact I have only been able to trace this line back to 3xG grandmother, but even though I don’t know her name, I do know that my 4xG grandmother has the same mitochondrial as me.)

Fan tree showing mitochondrial DNA inheritance
DNA Painter fan tree showing mitochondrial DNA inheritance

Y-chromosome DNA works exactly the same way, but only males inherit it, and obviously therefore only fathers pass it on. So the Y-DNA inheritance path is an exact mirror image of the mitochondrial, following father’s father’s father’s father’s line right the way back. (The chart below showing this is for a man whose DNA I manage. Obviously I can’t get this information from my own DNA.)

Fan tree showing Y-chromosome DNA inheritance
DNA Painter fan tree showing Y-chromosome DNA inheritance

The second option in DNA Filters is Show X-DNA Path. At some point I’ll do a blogpost about X DNA. I haven’t done it so far because I don’t have many X matches to use as illustrations. If you already understand X-DNA inheritance patterns the meaning of the following two screenshots will already be clear, and when I do eventually write about this I’ll include them, since they illustrate perfectly the different inheritance patterns for females (the one immediately below)…

Fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for females
DNA Painter fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for females

… and males:

Fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for males
DNA Painter fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for males

Because of the dark colour used, it isn’t clear from these last two screen grabs that if you hover your cursor over the dark patch the intensity of colour reduces and you can see the individual ancestors’ names.

I don’t know about you, but I think all of this is pretty cool!