About English Ancestors

Writer, genealogist, family historian

Using DNA testing to develop your family research

Last September I wrote about deep ancestral DNA testing using Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial tests.  I said back then that I would write more about my experience of using DNA testing alongside traditional documentary research to develop my family tree.

Today I’m going to introduce the topic of autosomal DNA, including inheritance patterns and an overview of how we can use autosomal DNA testing in our family research.  The following four posts will look at:

  • unexpected results;
  • ethical issues, particularly flowing from unexpected results;
  • the benefits of asking certain other close family members to test for you;
  • different testing companies.

There’s a lot to say and if this is new to you it will seem complicated – it certainly did for me when I first started.  I found the best way to learn was to read to understand the basics, and then just do it!  So I’ll do my best to introduce it all in small chunks.  And alongside my own discussion of the topic, and my own experiences, I’ll offer links to websites, books and other resources. There are several online groups, including on Facebook, where you can ask questions if you’re stuck, and people are helpful.  After the initial introduction of some key points over the next few posts I’ll move back to other family history topics, interspersing with more DNA posts from time to time.  I do appreciate that this won’t interest everyone, but it’s a growing and important part of genealogical research these days.

Autosomal DNA
The DNA tests we see advertised for genealogists use a different type of DNA from the two types I wrote about in that previous post.  What they test is autosomal DNA (atDNA).  This comprises the twenty-two pairs of non-sex chromosomes within the nucleus of every cell.  There is also an additional pair of chromosomes within the nucleus, which are the sex chromosomes.  Females inherit one X chromosome from their mother and one from their father.  Males inherit just the one X chromosome from their mother and the Y chromosome from their father.  As we have seen, the Y chromosomal DNA requires a completely different test.  However, some atDNA tests do include testing of the X chromosome, and this can give additional information to help us to understand which of our lines to focus on when we have a match, but for now I’m focusing on the non-sex, autosomal chromosomes.

Building on what we covered in my previous DNA post, autosomal DNA differs from mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA in the following ways:

  • Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by all babies from their mother but only her daughters pass it on.  Boys, therefore, receive this DNA but do not pass it on to their children.  Y-chromosomal DNA is passed on from the father only to his sons.  Daughters do not receive it at all.  By comparison, atDNA is passed on to every child.  There are no differences whatsoever based on the child’s sex.
  • Mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA mutate (change) very, very slowly.  They are passed on largely unchanged.  This means that our mitochondrial DNA (and for males, Y DNA) can connect us to specific ancestors and their kin who lived many thousands of years ago, perhaps in the Middle East, perhaps in Africa.  By contrast, the atDNA changes with every successive generation.  I’ll say more about this below, since this is at the heart of how we use it in our genealogy research, but for now, just note it as a contrasting feature with these two other DNA types.
  • The operation of mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA, passing largely unchanged from parent to child, means that when we follow it backwards we follow just one line: your mitochondrial DNA has passed to you from your mother, to her from her mother, to her from her mother, and so on, back through time.  The Y DNA has worked in the same way, from father to male child, right back through time.  Those types of DNA, then, can take us on a journey up a very narrow and specific part of our family tree: your mother, your maternal grandmother, just one of your 8 great grandparents, just one of your 16 great grandparents, just one of your 32 GGG grandparents, and so on.  (And the same for Y DNA for male inheritance.)  By contrast, autosomal testing provides a 360-degree coverage of all your atDNA inherited from all of your lines.  There is no difference for children of different sexes.
  • Experts tell us that at the present time atDNA testing is accurate only for five or so generations.  I have found connections further back than that which fit with the smaller amount of DNA and with my documented family tree, and that’s good enough for my purposes, but the experts say five generations or so.

Autosomal DNA inheritance
I said above that our autosomal DNA comprises twenty-two pairs of chromosomes.  One chromosome from each pair is inherited from our mother, the other from our father.  This means that we get half our autosomal DNA from our mother and half from our father.  Obviously, each of our parents also inherits half of their autosomal DNA from their mother and the other half from their father, and so on, back through time.

This might suggest that the inheritance of atDNA is very tidy, with progressively smaller, exact fractions from each of our ancestors: half from each parent, a quarter from each grandparent, an eighth from each great grandparent and so on.  But that is not the case.  The atDNA we receive from each parent will not be an exact 50-50% split of what they received from each of their parents.  On the other hand it isn’t entirely random either: there are parameters.

When we talk about amounts of atDNA we don’t usually refer to it in percentages.  There is a unit of measurement: the centiMorgan (cM).  One of the authorities on DNA testing for genetic genealogy is Blaine T. Bettinger.  Since around 2015 he has been investigating these parameters for centiMorgan inheritance through a research project known as the Shared CentiMorgan Project. It is the go-to document for calculating likely relationships based on DNA.  As I write this, his published results (Version 4) are up to date as of March 2020.  Click the following chart to see it full screen on Blaine’s own website.

These findings are based on submissions from almost 60,000 people who have tested their own autosomal DNA and have known and documented relationships with other testers who share some of their DNA.  Locate yourself at SELF on the chart, and from there look around the wide range of relationships with whom you might share atDNA.  You’ll see, for example, that the average amount of atDNA you share with a parent is 3483cM, but based on real test results from these 60,000 participants it could be as low as 2376 or as high as 3720cM.  The average you’ll share with a full sibling is 2613cM but it could be as low as 1613 and as high as 3488cM.  The average shared DNA with a great grandparent will be 887cM but it could be as low as 485 or as high as 1486cM.  Looking further afield, the average amount shared with your 4th cousin is 35cM but it could be as low as zero or as high as 139cM.

How can we use this information to develop our family trees?
By now you may be thinking:

  • ‘Why on earth would I want to know how much DNA I share with a 4th cousin?’
  • Or ‘My great grandparents are long dead.  I couldn’t access their DNA even if I wanted to.’
  • Or even ‘Yes, very nice.  And this has what, exactly, to do with developing my family tree?’

When we take a DNA for genealogy test and agree for the results to be included in a pool of testers we will be able to see which of the other testers share DNA with us.  Depending on which testing company you use, you will be told the name (or pseudonym) of your match; the amount of shared DNA in centiMorgans; the likely relationship you have with that person (based on the amount of shared cM); and you may possibly have information regarding the exact shared segments plus access to the other person’s tree.  You will also be able to see other testers who match both yourself and that other person.  The results are never displayed in a way that enables another person to see private information about your DNA, simply that you match with them at specific segments.

If my atDNA and another person’s atDNA is exactly the same at one or more places (segments) throughout the twenty-two chromosomes, then that means we have both inherited that part of our DNA from common ancestors.  The higher the amount of DNA we share (the centiMorgans), the closer our relationship is.  If, based on the shared cM, our suggested relationship is around 4th cousin, then we will be looking for a Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) at around 3xG grandparent level.  We now shift to looking at our trees.  Assuming we have both done accurate research, if we both have the same ancestor named as 3xG grandparent (or thereabouts, e.g. it could be my 3xG grandparent and the other person’s 4xG grandparent) then we have found our match.  Based on this we now have the following:

  • a further piece of evidence that our documentary research is correct;
  • proof that there were no adoptions or unexpected paternity events along the way;
  • a new cousin who shares our interest in family history and DNA.  From here on, if you’re minded to, you might be able to share research and new discoveries (I have become great friends with some of my ‘new’ cousins, while for others the connection has been more focused and businesslike);
  • and something else that I think is rather wonderful: you now know that this little piece of you has come down through several generations, unchanged, from an ancestor whose name you have and whose life you have been researching.

Of course, it doesn’t always go as smoothly as that.  Your match might not have a tree – I have often taken what little information they have and worked their tree back to find our shared ancestor: the MRCA.  Your match might not even know who their parents are: I have now used DNA to help one person find their biological father and another to find a missing grandfather.  On the other hand, it may be that your match’s tree is more advanced than yours, and that this DNA connection will help you break through a brick wall and take your tree back a generation or two further.  But we can’t do any of this without other testers: our distant cousins living now, who have also tested and whose test results combined with our own are the key to unlocking information about our shared ancestral lines.

Find out more
Blaine’s excellent book, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy was my starting point in getting to grips with how this all worked.
You can read more about the Shared cM Project [here]
And download a PDF with (a LOT!) more information [here]
His website is perhaps of more use if you’re already familiar with DNA for genealogy and are looking for more information about specifics.
His YouTube channel is [here]

Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones.  Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish.  You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

The Repair Shop

Have you seen BBC’s The Repair Shop?  If you’re in the UK you can (at the time of writing) watch most of the episodes on BBC iPlayer, but you can also watch shorter clips on YouTube, and I assume these clips will be available for anyone, anywhere in the world.

The programme is described as ‘an antidote to throwaway culture’ and ‘a workshop of dreams where broken or damaged cherished family heirlooms are brought back to life’, and I’m on board with both of these philosophies.  But for me it’s more than that.

There is of course the beautiful craftmanship of the wonderfully talented group of artisans who work individually and in combination to bring life back to treasured possessions.  As a lover of crafts and the beauty of the handmade myself, I appreciate this fine work.

Then there are the stories behind many of the pieces – stories of loved ones and the memories and emotions that can be wrapped up in a single treasured item.  We all have something like that, don’t we – often something that may be of little or no value to anyone else but to us means so much more.  The emotions with which the restored items are received by the owners tell their own story.

On top of all that there’s the heritage of the skills themselves.  In England there was a tradition of apprenticeship which gradually died out as a result of the Industrial Revolution.  Boys (usually, although girls could be apprenticed too for certain trades) were apprenticed at around 12 or 14 to a master craftsman.  The apprenticeship would last seven years, and at the end of it the young man was qualified and experienced in all aspects of ‘the art and mystery’ of his craft.  Something I’ve noticed about my own male ancestors is that in the first half of the nineteenth century they were generally valued tradesmen – weavers, tailors, drapers, blacksmiths and so on, often with their own small family-run businesses – and along with every other artisan in the town they had a specific, important role to play.  After all, everyone needed clothes, shoes, ironware, and so on.  By the end of that century every single one of my ancestors had a role that, even if it could be given a specific title, like ‘engineer in a woollen mill’ or ‘flax dresser’ it could equally fall into the lowly, catch-all term of ‘labourer’.  They were cogs in someone else’s wheel: their jobs were boring, repetitive and often dangerous, and there was little call for creativity.

Of all the craftspeople on The Repair Shop the one who most attracts my attention is Suzie Fletcher, the saddler.  My 4xG grandfather, Robert, was a saddler and harness-maker.  His apprenticeship began in 1781 and at a cost to his father of £31 10 shillings was clearly a highly prized trade.  When I watch Suzie Fletcher I reflect that many of the techniques and tools she uses have changed little from the time when Robert was plying his trade.  But I also note that along with knowhow, skills, experience and tricks of the trade there is a need for creative thinking: she sometimes has to take a step back to work out how she might be able to achieve what she needs to do.  I imagine Robert would have done that sometimes too.

Perhaps one of the craftspeople on The Repair Shop – carpenter, horologist, ceramicist, smith, etc – shares an occupation with one of your ancestors.  You might just learn a little more about them by watching an episode or two.

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.

Spinsters

Full page of TitBits magazine dated April 1889, featuring responses to a competition for spinstersImage from Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian on Twitter.
Click the image for a slightly bigger version that will be a bit easier to read.

Dr Bob Nicholson, who shares stories from the Victorian era on Twitter, recently wrote about a competition in Tit-Bits magazine in 1889.  Single female readers were invited to answer the question: ‘Why Am I A Spinster?’, with a prize awarded to the lady providing the best response.  In the event, there were too many good responses to be able to choose just one, so on 27th April, 1889, the full page of responses pictured above was published. Some are witty, some poignant.

I’ve been meaning to write about spinsters for a while.  I’ve noticed a few in my ancestral lines and wondered why.  After all, society was not geared up for independent, single women.  Of course, as suggested in the Tit-Bits article, there could be any number of reasons.  Perhaps they were not interested in men/ marriage/ motherhood, or perhaps one daughter was expected to stay home to take care of ageing parents.  Perhaps they had lost their one true love in war?  Or maybe, despite the ‘old maid’ sniggers, they wanted to retain their independence, and this was the only way to achieve that?

To refer back to my previous post about researching female ancestors, before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. The only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.

Most women, of course, would not need to trouble themseleves with the matter of how to hang on to their personal wealth.  It was more a matter of how would they survive.  This was not just a concern for spinsters.  Widows and abandoned wives, too, may have had difficulties in later life when left without a husband/ father bringing in the money.  Many had to rely on charity for accommodation (e.g. almshouses or living with a brother’s family) and for living expenses.  Some of our maiden great-aunts will of course have been sufficiently well provided-for, and others had worked all their lives and continued to do so.  I have examples of all of these in my tree, and perhaps you do too.

However, one of my own ancestral families particularly piqued my interest.  My 4x great grandparents, John and Sarah, had five sons and five daughters.  The family business (Woollen drapers to the people and gentry of York) was doing well, all five boys married after securing admission to the Freedom of the City of York, and the oldest son rose to the position of Lord Mayor of York in the 1860s.  And yet of the daughters, one died aged 25 and the others remained at the family home until the death of their parents in 1860, by which time the sisters were aged 48 to 32.

Some years ago I obtained their father, John’s, will.  At first sight I was quite upset by what I read.  John bequeathed all his money and the family business only to his sons.  The four daughters were not even mentioned.  Indeed by the census of the following year one of the sons had bought out the family business and although he and his wife remained in their former home, all four sisters had moved out of the rooms above the shop premises in Stonegate and were living together in a private house in York.

And yet the sisters did not seem to go without.  In the censuses of 1861-1901 they describe themselves as ‘Railway Annuitants (Railway Stock)’, living off the dividends from these investments.  I could also see from the Probate Calendar on Ancestry (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995) that each of them would eventually leave a will, bequeathing what she had to her remaining sisters.

The Probate Calendar does not provide a copy of the actual will.  For that, you have to place an order via the Find A Will website.  Fascinated though I was by this story, I really couldn’t justify spending £40 on a series of wills just to satisfy my curiosity.  You may remember, though, that last July the price of wills was greatly reduced, from £10 to £1.50 each.  Now spending £6 to satisfy my curiosity was entirely reasonable….

It seems that each of the four sisters made a will in 1862, and on the basis of this, when the oldest, Maria, died in 1895 she left £1523 to her sisters.  Shortly afterwards, the remaining sisters, now aged 66 to 78, each made a new will, leaving her worldly possessions to whoever outlived her, and in the event of herself being the sole survivor, to three named charities.  I suspect each sister chose a charity dear to her own heart, and all had agreed to share the final funds equally between the three charities, regardless of which sister survived the other two.  Hence at her death in 1899 Louisa left £1983; and in 1900 Emma left £1956 to just one surviving sister, Sarah.  It’s interesting too, to note the circles the sisters moved in.  These were educated and knowledgeable women, able to take on the role of executrices for each other.  However, the executors for the will of whichever sister died last were to be the solicitors George and Frederick Crombie, both of whom described in the wills as ‘friends’, not merely professionals carrying out a service.  It was not until the death of Sarah at the age of 87 in 1904 that they were required to perform this role.  Her estate, totalling £6140, was left in equal shares to the York Branch of the RSPCA, the Royal Sailor Rest at Portsmouth and Devonport and the Sailors’ Orphan Home.  According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, this figure equates to around £750,000 in today’s terms.

How on earth did Sarah end up with so much money?!
I think the key is in the census entries: they lived in York, and they were living on dividends from investments in the railway.  Investing in the railways at this time must have been akin to buying shares in Microsoft in the late 1970s.  The sisters were very fortunate.

But this brings us to the question of who, exactly, made the investments.  Perhaps sometimes the sisters invested their own money, out of any wages or allowance they received from the family business, but almost certainly the bulk of the funds would have come from their father, John.  To understand why he would do this we need look no further than the financial arrangements prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, as outlined above.  What John was doing (and what many other fathers did) was to protect his daughters from the system.  Had he left 1/9 share of his business to each of his offspring, and had any of the daughters married, her capital would immediately have passed to her husband.  And not all husbands were kind, family-oriented men who were good with money…  This way, John was ensuring that each of his daughters would never be without an income of her own.

I was so glad to have worked all this out.  I’m no longer cross with my 4x great grandfather.  And as for his daughters, I would like to have known them too.

Just to clarify – this information wasn’t hard to find!
I found it all using just three types of document:

  • the census returns
  • the Probate Calendar
  • copies of the wills (this would currently cost £7.50 for all five)

… And then I sat back and thought about it all, drawing upon my wider reading and a bit of lateral thinking.

Perhaps there will be similar stories lurking in the wills of your ancestors.

Archiving photographs

I hope this finds you well and feeling positive.  I had planned to be spending this coming week and last with family, but it wasn’t to be, not for a few weeks yet.  I hope you’re finding things to do with your time, and that if the lockdown has left you with even more to do than usual (e.g. home schooling) that you’re finding some time for yourself too.

So as it’s Easter weekend I thought something light would be in order.  I’ve been sorting through my inherited family photos and I’m at the very early stages of archiving them properly.  It will take a long time to do it, but reading around the subject I’ve come up with a list of what I need to do, and I thought I would share that with you.

Organise:
Sort photos into families.  If possible, store these in acid free boxes until they are scanned.  The scanning is likely to take some time, and is best done in small batches.
I’ve sorted my photos into my mum’s side, my dad’s side, and the ones that were taken after my parents got together.  There are also some people I don’t know, plus others that I feel sure I will be able to put a name to when comparing with other images.

Scan:
I know from past attempts at archiving my photos that the scanning process will take considerable time, particularly as I like to digitally ‘clean up’ the images as I go.
Scan the front and if there is anything on the back, e.g. photographer’s studio, date, greeting, etc. scan the back too.
Store them as tiff files with caption and metadata.  (There’s something I didn’t do last time.)

Save:
Save to hard drive, pen drive, the Cloud, etc – as many places and options as you have.

Use and Share:
You can now attach copies of these photos to people in your trees as well as share them with others researching your family – preferably to receive more photos in return!  You could also use them in projects to scrapbook your family history, create albums, etc.

Label:
As you finish with each batch of scanned photos the originals can now be labelled.  There are two schools of thought on this:

  1. Label with a soft #2 pencil on the back of the image.   To do this, lay image face down on a clean, white sheet of paper.  Write gently close to edge of rear of image.  Do not press hard.  Here is a blogpost about the best writing materials to use.
  2. Alternatively… Do not label the actual photos!  Instead place in acid free envelopes or sleeves.  Label each sleeve.  Afterwards remove the photos from their sleeves as little as possible, but if you do remove them, be sure to return each one to the correct sleeve.  Apparently, polyester sleeves are acid free and recommended for archival quality.
  3. Ancestry have produced a blogpost on what information to include on the label when archiving photographs.  It’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Store:
The photos can now be stored in archival conditions.  Everything should be acid free.  Particularly fragile photos can be wrapped in acid free tissue paper instead of being placed in sleeves.  I’ve found archival photo storage boxes at a dedicated preservation equipment supplier that I’ll buy when they reopen after lockdown ends.  These boxes must then be stored in a living area of the house (not an attic, cellar, garage, where temperatures fluctuate).  Ideal conditions are well-ventilated, cool rather than warm, low humidity and dark.  In a box under the bed but not close to a radiator might be a good place.  My plan (at this stage) is to place the archival storage boxes in a plastic crate that will fit under a bed.

I have two large biscuit tins of precious photos (you might wonder why they are in buscuit tins if they are so precious – but even this is a step-up from how I received them) plus two large plastic crates of more recent albums, so I have my work cut out here.  This isn’t a weekend project!

Please do leave a comment if you can add anything to this.

On that note I wish you a Happy Easter, Chag Sameach or if neither apply I hope you have a very happy weekend.

English naming traditions

First of all, wherever you are in the world, I hope that you, your family and friends are well.

All that thinking about Irish, and possibly Scottish, naming traditions in my last post made we wonder if a similar tradition existed in England.  It turned out it did.  In fact it was exactly the same.

To recap:
1st son named after paternal grandfather (patGF)
2nd son named after maternal grandfather (matGF)
3rd son named after father (F)
4th son named after father’s eldest brother (patB)
5th son named after mother’s eldest brother (matB)

1st daughter named after maternal grandmother (matGM)
2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother (patGM)
3rd daughter named after mother (M)
4th daughter named after mother’s eldest sister (matS)
5th daughter named after father’s eldest sister (patS)

However, there were other traditions too, that might have varied the above rules:

  • Babies may have been named after powerful people, e.g. royalty, and these names were likely to have become fashionable, perhaps particularly in London and other fine towns and cities. Naming a child after a local wealthy landowner was also common.  Perhaps this was more likely in rural areas.
  • In addition to the grandparents, parents, and their eldest siblings, babies might have been named after another significant family member. In my last post there’s the example of Annabella, named for her great grandmother who had recently died.
  • In those days of high infant mortality, babies were often named after earlier siblings who had died in infancy. This often comes as a shock to beginner genealogists. Again, in my Irish family (see last post) there’s an example of this.  As late as 1888, Patrick’s second son John was named not only for his paternal grandfather but also to honour the memory of the first-born son.  Below, William and Jane lost seven of their children in infancy, among them three Thomases and two Edwins.
  • Biblical names were popular amongst Nonconformists, particularly for people belonging to a dissenting protestant church or meeting house. In my own dissenting lines I have Nathaniel, Benjamin, Isaac and Abraham, but in wider research I’ve come across Jonah, Zedekiah and Zillah.

Perhaps some of these variations on the regular traditional naming pattern were more likely in 18th or 19th century England than in Ireland.  My very small-scale study, outlined below, is nowhere near enough to be able to say whether this is so, but it’s a possibility.

As for my last post I’ve looked at several families, this time in my English lines.  The respective parents married in 1775, 1790, 1821, 1848 and 1886, and they are from three different lines of my ancestry.  I appreciate that the detail is of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I’ve put the tables showing my findings right at the end of this post.  All you need to notice is the peach highlights I’ve used to indicate adherence to the tradition.

Every single one of the tables shows adherence at some level to the same traditional naming pattern that existed in Ireland.  William and Jane (m.1848) are textbook examples; and even in 1886 George and Rose honoured most of the main family members alongside a couple of fashionable names.  Scanning other families in my tree, I see the tradition not in every case, but certainly generally used throughout.  I’ve even drawn upon it in my research, comparing names of an ancestor’s siblings and their own children.  I just never picked up the full extent of the pattern.  It was there all along though, hiding in full sight.

So this naming tradition, involving passing the same names down by all siblings to their own children, can be a good thing and a bad thing for us as genealogists.  Bad, in that if John and Mary have twelve children, there are potentially twelve first- or second-born grandsons called John and twelve first- or second-born granddaughters called Mary: all of them cousins for you to wade through when looking for your particular ancestor, John or Mary…

But there are benefits too:
Naming patterns can in fact help you to identify which John and which Mary is yours.  If we look wider at siblings’ names, and take into consideration the names of both spouses’ parents, we can separate out the distinct lines.  I talked about this in a previous post about Evidence – look at Case Study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents.  It can require a lot of concentration to do this, but you can achieve astonishing breakthroughs.

Varying from the standard rules to incorporate one of the other traditions might give us a little more info about our ancestors and what was important to them – could the name George or Victoria at a certain time be important because our ancestor was a royalist, or because of the appeal of a fashionable name, for example?

Can the passing on of the name of a family member that doesn’t really fit into the traditional pattern suggest the importance of a bond with an older family member, like a dear uncle, or in my Irish example, honouring father George’s great grandmother, Annabella.  In fact George is an interesting example for another reason: the grandparents’ names he passes on to his children are not his birth parents but those of the man and woman who brought him up.  I strongly suspect the reason George and his wife Bridget chose to honour both of his parents before hers was to show George’s gratitude.

Obviously, finding biblical names can be a huge clue that the family were dissenters – a fact that would impact on many areas of a person’s life and opportunities, and was not just about their religious beliefs.

And finally, naming patterns can be used in conjunction with DNA matching to identify families with likely connections.  This is particularly useful for ancestral lines where records are scarce (e.g. Irish and Jewish ancestry).  There is an example of this in my last post.  DNA matching proves only that another living individual and you have a common ancestor.  You have to work out where that match is for yourself.  Using naming patterns along with geographical locations to identify similarities can point to where that connection is, even if records have not yet come to light and possibly never will.

I hope there is something amongst all of this and my last post that will give you some ideas for using naming traditions to progress your research.  It would be great to read about any breakthroughs based on this in the comments.

*****

Here are the tables created while analysing application of the above rules in just five of my ancestral families.  The apricot highlights indicate that the rules were followed as expected.  Where the order of two consecutive expected names is reversed I’ve considered that as complying.

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

 

Traditional Irish naming patterns

With a nod to St Patrick’s Day, here’s a little something for those of you with ancestral lines going back to Ireland (and maybe Scotland too).

One of the difficulties for family researchers with Irish lines is that prior to around 1840 Irish life events are not well-documented.  Of my six direct ancestors who were born in Ireland, English records tell me that one was from County Mayo, one from Belfast and two were, at least at the time of their daughter’s birth, in either Derry or Newry.  For the other two I have only ‘Ireland’.  I have fathers’ names (from English marriage certificates) for only two.

So for any of you with Irish ancestry from before about 1850, you’ll know that we have to think laterally and draw upon any clue we possibly can.  One such clue could be the traditional naming pattern, which was widely used in Ireland across all sections of the community until the late 19th century.

It goes like this:
1st son named after paternal grandfather (patGF)
2nd son named after maternal grandfather (matGF)
3rd son named after father (F)
4th son named after father’s eldest brother (patB)
5th son named after mother’s eldest brother (matB)

For girls the same system applied, but it was not always followed as rigorously:
1st daughter named after maternal grandmother (matGM)
2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother (patGM)
3rd daughter named after mother (M)
4th daughter named after mother’s eldest sister (matS)
5th daughter named after father’s eldest sister (patS)

For both girls and boys, sometimes the order in which grandparents were honoured could be switched, i.e. maternal first or paternal first.

I learned about this tradition only a year or so ago.  Recently I’ve read (in online comments) that it applies to Scottish ancestors too.  I don’t have Scottish ancestry so can’t put it to the test, but if you do you could try it out for yourself.

I decided to try it with my Mayo family.  This is all I know for sure:

  • I believe Margaret and John came to England separately.
  • They married in England in 1857. John’s father was Patrick; Margaret’s father was James.
  • The 1911 census indicates Margaret was from Mayo.
  • John died before the 1911 census. Earlier censuses give only Ireland as his place of birth.  However, DNA matches indicate that he too was from Mayo.  Using them I have narrowed his birthplace to a specific area of the county, but I don’t have a baptism, and therefore no mother’s name.
  • Using this information, I have found a baptism record for Margaret in Aghagower. This is supported by a DNA match in the same township, probably at the generation before.  If it is correct then I have the mother’s name: Honour.
  • This is the only Margaret born to a James with that surname in the whole of Mayo and within a likely time period (Margaret was not sure of her age) showing in all records. However, another group of researchers have claimed this family for their own, and one of us is wrong.  We always have to bear in mind in situations like this that the records we see are not necessarily a complete set.

I’ve looked at Margaret and John’s children’s names, and also the names given by two of their children to the following generation.  All children of both generations were born in England but within a strong Irish migrant community.  I’ve included the date of marriage of each couple, since it’s said that by the end of the 19th century this tradition was dying out in favour of fashionable names.  It’s also said that the tradition was never applied as strongly in relation to the naming of daughters as for the naming of sons.

The detail of the tables that follow will be of no interest at all to any of you.  Instead, just focus on the highlighted boxes.  Where a child is named as expected I have coloured the square peach.  If the expected naming order of two consecutive births is reversed but the expected names were still used, I have also highlighted this peach.

John and Margaret (Irish, now living in England).  Married 1857
Table analysing use of traditional Irish naming pattern in naming of children

Patrick and Margaret (Both of Irish descent).  Married 1880
Table analysing use of traditional Irish naming pattern in naming of childrenWith only two slight deviations Patrick and Margaret did it by the book: their first son died before a second was born.  They therefore re-used the paternal grandfather’s name for their second son.  They also reversed the expected order of father and maternal grandfather.

Bridget and George (Bridget of Irish descent).  Married 1885
Table analysing use of traditional Irish naming pattern in naming of children

Bridget and George named their three sons in exactly the expected order.  Regarding their daughters, the first two were named after grandmothers.  The third, instead of being named for the mother, was named to honour the father’s grandmother who had recently died.  The fourth daughter was then named for the mother, so this was only a slight deviation.  The final two daughters were named Martha and Winifred.  Following the traditional system, Bridget’s eldest sister was Mary.  This name however had already been used (paternal grandmother) and so Winifred was named after Bridget’s only remaining sister.

This leaves only the name Martha which cannot be accounted for.  However, since Bridget has stuck so closely to the traditional pattern, it’s reasonable to assume that Martha is an important name somewhere in the Irish lines.  In other words it’s something to look out for if I were ever to find records of possible families for John and Margaret back in ireland.

How might we be able to use this information?

I can think of three ways.

First, it’s nice to know who our grandparents and other relatives were named after.  Of Bridget and George’s children, for example, I knew Annabella and John.  Knowing that John was named after his grandfather, and realising that Annabella (who was known as Bella in the family) was named after her own great grandmother somehow brings me closer to those people whose lives I’m researching but who died long before my birth.

Second, it gives us a little more information about our ancestors’ lives and what was important to them.  This was clearly an important tradition, and perhaps all the more important for second generation migrants because it connected them back to their lost homeland.

The third way of using this information involves a bit of lateral thinking…
Moving back to my GG grandparents Margaret and John, because of gaps in my own knowledge/ the records, I’ve only been able to accept one of their children’s names as following the expected pattern: Patrick John was named after his paternal grandfather and his father. What we can plainly see, however, is that they passed on an understanding of the naming traditions to their own children.  Surely, then, they would have used it themselves?  (Alternatively, might Patrick and Bridget have followed it more closely than their own parents did because they wanted to honour the traditions of their ancestral land?)

It’s the daughters’ names that can’t be verified.  As explained above, I have Honour as a possible mother for Margaret, and yet Honour doesn’t feature at all amongst the four daughters.  Perhaps the baptism record I have is incorrect?  Or might Honour have been known in the family by her confirmation name to distinguish her from another Honour?  What all of the above does suggest is that it’s worth my while looking for the following names in any possible records that might come to light:
Girls: Margaret, Mary, Bridget, Winifred, Mary
Boys: Patrick, John, James

Using DNA matching I now know that while John and Margaret came to England at the time of the Great Hunger (the famine), most of their cousins emigrated to Pennsylvania.  Bearing that in mind, and armed with the naming tradition information and the above names that are important for my Mayo family, one online family tree really interests me:

John and Maria Padden, contemporaries of my own GG grandfather John Padden, Married in Crossmolina, Mayo, in 1860 before emigrating to Pennsylvania.  This is how they named their children.
Table analysing use of traditional Irish naming pattern in naming of children

Could this John be my GG grandfather’s cousin, or perhaps second cousin?

John and Maria definitely followed the naming pattern tradition.  Most of the important names – grandparents and mother – are accounted for.  Only the father’s name is not passed on.  Instead, the first son is named Patrick.  After the three important women’s names are passed on, three others that cannot be accounted for are used: Margaret, Martha and Winifred.  The overlap with names given to my own family is striking.  This is almost the same family living in parallel across The Pond!

Clearly, none of this gives any conclusive proof.  The idea is merely, in the absence of records, to look for pointers suggesting family connections – leads that might add a little further weight should a possible baptism record eventually come to light.  And DNA matching shows that this family is definitely related to me.

I hope some of this has been useful to you.  If you have Irish or Scottish ancestry and hadn’t heard of the naming tradition, why not give it a go and see if there are any conclusions to be drawn from what you find?

*****

Finally, I hope that all of you and your families are keeping well, and coping with self-isolation and all that involves.

My granddad’s ‘housewife’

Army issue khaki 'housewife'

This is my granddad’s army sewing kit, known as a ‘housewife’, and dating from the period 1907-1919. As a young soldier, he had to learn to take care of his own uniform.  During the freezing cold winters of some of his tours, he also learned to knit – partly for something to fill the time, partly for the warmth afforded by the results.  Upon arriving back home late in 1919 he married my grandma, and when my mum came along it was he who passed these skills on to her, teaching her to mend and sew by hand and to knit.  Many years later, she – my mum – taught me.  From these humble beginnings my love of all kinds of needlework expanded and developed, straying far from my granddad’s knitting for warmth and sewing for necessity.  Eventually, in 2009, I started my first online blog which focused  on needlecrafts and other creative projects.  It has to be said, though, that by this time my ‘sewing kit’ occupied considerably more cupboard space than this little roll…

British Army khaki soldier's 'housewife', unrolled

My granddad’s ‘housewife’ belongs to me now.  Although it’s standard issue, it is nevertheless a very personal item, and would have travelled with him to many parts of the world.  It bears his regiment and personal identification details, and contains everything he needed to keep his uniform in full working order: needles, thread, elastic, safety pins, spare buttons … and tucked away at the back of that pocket … what seemed to be a bullet!

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

So one day, back in 2012 I posted these photos on my needlework blog.  The point of the post was to highlight the link between my granddad’s sewing and knitting and my own needlework skills, which bizarrely I seem to owe to the British Expeditionary Force!

However, that blog post caused quite a stir!

A couple of readers pointed out that the bullet could be dangerous.  They advised me to investigate its safety.  But how do you investigate the safety of a hundred year-old bullet?  In the UK, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and my gun-related knowledge was and remains virtually non-existent.  (Is it a bit dense to say I assumed it was the action of the gun that propelled the bullet through the air, rather than the explosive properties of the bullet itself…?!)

So a local gun club was my first port of call.  In an email sent via their website I explained that I had an early 20th Century British Army bullet and asked for information as to where I should go to have it checked out.  I was surprised to receive, almost immediately, a telephone call from the club, advising me that the bullet could be dangerous.  It would not spontaneously explode, but if dropped at a certain angle it could do so.  Not only that, but it’s illegal to be in possession of even one bullet in the UK without a firearms licence.  So concerned was my adviser from the gun club that he would have driven over to my house to look at the bullet had it not been for the photograph I was able to point him to on the blog – the photo you see directly above.  After seeing this he thought it had been decommissioned.  This would make it both safe and legal – but he asked me to take it into the gunsmith for a second opinion.

I had walked past this gunsmith’s shop a hundred times without even knowing it existed.  Now (rather carefully!) I took in my bullet and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  It turned out that this isn’t in fact a bullet at all.  It’s a dummy, or ‘drill cartridge’.  My granddad would have used it for drills: for practising loading the rifle at speed.

By this time, in a highly unexpected turn of events, that post from my needlework blog had been shared by an enthusiast to his own firearms blog!  Consequently I now had a small international team of firearms experts advising behind the scenes.  The brass case, I learned, is the ‘cartridge’.  The four holes drilled into it indicate it will not fire.  (You can see straight through two of these holes in my photograph below.)  The ‘bullet’ is the red bit at the end, but a real bullet would have a cupronickel coating; this one is wood.  The reason my granddad kept it in his sewing kit was to avoid the risk of mixing it up with the live ammunition.

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

I was so grateful to everyone who got involved.   Of course I was relieved to know that ‘my bullet’ wasn’t dangerous – and that I didn’t have to give it up.  But I was equally delighted to have a little more information about my granddad’s time in the army.  Thanks to all these people, I now knew that the rifle my granddad used was a .303 calibre Enfield.  I already knew he was something of a crack shot – we have a number of spoons inscribed with his name, and a trophy – all won in Army shooting contests.  And in truth, as a firearms expert himself, he would not have kept this tucked away in his family home for more than fifty years if it had been dangerous to do so.

I share all this here for several reasons.  First of all, just look how much you can learn about a family member from one small item!  Secondly, it illustrates what a wonderful resource the Internet can be, not to mention the kindness of enthusiasts who really seemed to take this situation to heart, were keen to help and had genuinely been concerned for my safety.  But on top of all that, I thought you might appreciate the story.  🙂

Do you have a little something stuffed away in a drawer that you might be able to explore further?  You never know what you might learn!