Researching military ancestors

As genealogists we’re all about honouring our ancestors, so it’s inevitable that when November comes around, thoughts turn to Armistice Day.  With this in mind, I was asked by my friend Jules to write about finding military records.  It’s a huge area, so I’m going to concentrate on Army records for the ranks in more recent conflicts, because that’s where I have most experience.  If your ancestor was a rank and file soldier in the First World War or the Boer War I hope you’ll find what follows useful. If the person you’re researching falls outside this narrow scope (e.g. they were in the Army but as an Officer, or in the Navy, etc.) I hope you’ll still find something of interest.  The records will be different, and arranged differently, but I hope that having seen the kinds of record discussed here, you’ll be able to look for equivalents, either with your genealogy subscription site or by getting to know what records exist at The National Archives (TNA).  I’ll talk about TNA at the end of this post.

If the person you’re researching served in WW2 it’s more complicated.  For reasons of confidentiality, you won’t be able to get hold of your ancestor’s WW2 record unless they are deceased and you are next of kin.  It’s a little easier if your person of interest has been deceased more than 25 years.  Find out how to get hold of WW2 records here.  There’s a charge of £30 for each record.  I’m sure that eventually these records, too, will be digitised and online, but not for at least another twenty years.

Today I’m going to look at the range of records and other information we might be able to use to start to understood our military ancestors’ experiences.  I’ll follow this up in my next post with a few case studies showing how I’m using these diverse information sources in combination to build a picture of the military careers of my family members.  And finally, I’ll draw November to a close with a post about Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries.

What records exist, and where are they?
Many records exist about our military ancestors.  Most of them are held at The National Archives (TNA) and only a small proportion have been digitised for online availability through subscription sites.  There are also museums and archives dedicated to each of the services, and to specific army regiments.  A list of all the army museums is available at the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website.  A quick note about the Navy: the naval ‘equivalent’ to the regiment is the ship, so a sailor’s record includes lists of ships, dates and destinations.

It’s likely that your search for information about any military ancestor will begin online, using your subscription website.  However, what I hope to demonstrate is that you can still learn a lot about your ancestor’s experience even if the main person-specific records are not available.

At FindMyPast start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military, Armed Forces and Conflict and enter the name and other details in the search form that appears on the next page.  You can further refine your search using the sub-categories listed at the left of your screen.

At Ancestry.co.uk start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military.  On the next page you’ll find a search form, or you can further narrow your search by selecting a sub-category from the upper right sidebar.

When you’ve exhausted what these general searches have to offer, you could try more targeted searches, particularly on Ancestry (the better search engine on FindMyPast is likely to find all the available records using the search method outlined above.)  For a more targeted search on Ancestry, try browsing the specific data collections listed in the bottom left sidebar on that search form page, or by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, selecting Card Catalogue, and searching with a title or keywords.  Both these subscription websites have a lot of military collections.  If you use a different genealogy site, it will help you a lot to know how to do these types of targetted search on there.

What types of record might we find?

The Service Record
This should include attestation (joining up) papers, discharge papers and a summary of activity and conduct during the years of service.  This is the one we all hope to find because it will include a physical description as well as some information about family and civilian life, promotions and demotions, and the soldier’s service number.

However, not all service records have survived.  Sadly, about 60% of WW1 service records were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940.

If the Service Record for your ancestor isn’t available, all is not lost.  You can still learn a lot about their military experience provided you can find their regiment and battalion.

Commonwealth War Graves
If your ancestor was killed in action during the First or Second World Wars they will be commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website.

You’ll be able to search for them just by name or by advanced search.  If you’re planning to visit the cemetery, the information given even includes the exact location of your ancestor’s grave or commemoration tablet.  It will also include the regiment, battalion and soldier’s service number.

Soldiers’ Wills
If your ancestor died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986, you may be able to obtain a digitised copy of their Soldier’s Will at the government’s online Find A Will service.  Remember that probate is not necessarily granted in the year of death, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for, try a year or two afterwards.

Unfortunately, not all the Soldier’s Wills have survived.  I found the will of one of my great uncles but not the other.  The accompanying notes, made at the time of processing the will, include the regiment, battalion and service number.

Medal rolls
Apart from details of medals awarded, medal rolls include name, regiment, rank and service number.  However, unlike the CWGC and the Soldiers’ Wills, there are no other identifying features (next of kin, etc), so unless the soldier’s name is unusual, you do need to know regiment or regimental number before you can be sure this is the right person.

Regimental War Diaries
Although as genealogists we love to find personal records about our family members, once we have the basic information about their regiment and battalion, we can learn a lot about their experiences by reading the regimental war diaries.  I found two regimental diaries online (here), and was able to follow the movements of my two great uncles right up to their deaths – although their names don’t appear in the diaries.

The National Archives
After exhausting all the available online records you could move onto the National Archives.
As mentioned above, it’s a huge archive, and you’ll find records there that are not (and probably never will be) available anywhere else.  The online search facility takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth the effort (and not just for military records) to learn how to use it, and how the records are arranged.

From the Home page you can click on Search the catalogue to search by name, but you’ll get far better results by doing a more targetted search, by which I mean narrowing it down to a specific collection, or ‘department code’. For example, the War Office records collection have the prefix WO, while Admiralty are recognisable by the prefix ADM.  Specific types of record are then assigned a number, so WO 97 is where you’ll find Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913; Royal Navy Officers’ Registers of Pensions and Allowances 1830-1934 are at ADM 23, and so on.

If you find any of these records using FindMyPast you’ll see this TNA reference on the citation under ‘series’, along with the exact reference for the document.  But if you’re trying to search for new records on TNA website, how do you know what department and series codes to use?  Well, you’ll find them (and lots more information) from the Home page if, before starting your actual search, you click on Help with your research.  This will enable you to home in on relevant categories, such as:

  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • Military and maritime

Click on one of these categories to refine your search, and then select from the range of focused topic guides.  Each guide will give you an overview of what records are kept by TNA, whether or not they are searchable, whether they may be viewed at TNA online, or perhaps through Ancestry or FindMyPast, etc.  Sometimes a visit to the archives at Kew (or paying for copies to be sent to you – which is very expensive) is the only way to see the records.  Amongst my treasured finds is a huge file about my great granddad’s medical record and military pension, which I was able to browse and photograph, including letters written by him.  It was far too personal to ever be included online.

Other ideas:

Family memorabilia and heirlooms
If you’re lucky you might have some cherished heirlooms that have been passed down in your family: medals, regimental publications, Soldier’s Small Book, a ‘death penny’, photos, letters and Christmas cards, etc.  By really looking at these you might be able to pick up other information.  (More about this in my next post.)

Visiting the graves and battlefields
If your ancestor/ family member was killed in action there will be a grave or a memorial on or near the battlefield.  It’s also likely that tours by knowledgeable local historians will be available.  You can learn an awful lot about their experience by joining one of these.

Wider reading about military history and specific battles
and
Films and documentaries relevant to your ancestor’s experience
When you know where the person you’re researching was on active service, you might find it interesting and enlightening to read relevant military history books or watch films and documentaries.

Evidence: part 1

Last time I wrote about a family history document written several decades ago by a distant cousin and passed to me very recently by her nephew.  Although full of mistakes, it was still of much value to me.  Firstly, my own research broadly agreed with the names and places mentioned, and where there were discrepancies I was confident that these were down to my late distant cousin mis-remembering family stories: my research was correct. Second, although her claims about past wealth cannot be borne out by evidence so far available to me, there were sufficient verifiable facts that some aspects are worthy of further investigation.  And finally, the more recent accounts, which related to my great grandfather, his birth mother and their families, were essentially family gossip, things I would never learn by reading official records.  These are the parts of her story I value most.  I learned a lot about my great grandfather.

Following on from that, I thought it worthwhile to look a little deeper at different types of evidence, why some carry more weight than others, and how there can nevertheless be value in all.

Historians make an important distinction between primary and secondary sources.  As genealogists we tend to focus more on the distinction between original and derivative records.  And yet there is overlap between all of these categories.

Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or not long afterwards.  For us as genealogists these include original records from official sources, such as:

  • birth certificates
  • baptism records
  • marriage records
  • death certificates
  • wills
  • property documents, e.g. deeds
  • apprenticeship records
  • court records
  • 1911 census (and subsequent censuses, as they are released)

but they will also include such things as:

  • photographs of people and places
  • letters
  • memoirs
  • diaries
  • spoken accounts by people who played a part in the event

Secondary sources tend to be published works in which the author describes, summarises, discusses or in some way draws upon information gathered from other sources (primary or other secondary).  A secondary source may be produced many years after an event, and the author may have had no physical connection whatsoever with the original event.  Examples might include:

  • historians’ texts based on research about a person, locality, event or period of interest
  • literature contemporaneous to the events, e.g. Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • modern historical novels and films based on sound research

One advantage of such sources is that the author can benefit from an overview.  S/he may know and understand much more than any one particular individual could have at the time.  There is also the benefit of hindsight, not to mention objectivity.

Derivative records are records created after the event but based directly on an original record.  As such, there is scope for error, based on illegibility of the original text, carelessness, or anything in between.  Examples we regularly come across include:

  • transcriptions of original records
  • indexes of record collections
  • census records, 1841-1901
  • Note that a photocopy of an original document remains, for our purposes, an original.

So far everything seems quite straightforward, but the picture is not quite as clear-cut as it seems.  Let’s consider some anomalies and grey areas.

Why is the 1911 census an original record, yet the earlier ones are not?
Since you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know that when we find the 1911 census return for one of our ancestors, we see a single sheet completed by the head of household and relating to the members and accommodation of that household.  Undoubtedly, this is an original record and primary source.  By contrast, for the earlier censuses what we see is a long list of all residents in a specific locality, arranged by household, and organised according to the route the enumerator took as he walked from house to house, collecting the information.  You might have explained this difference with reference to the illiteracy rates: that since a great many people were unable to read and write, the enumerator simply arrived on the doorstep and wrote down the information he was given.  But this is not true.  Individual records were created for each property, and this was then transcribed onto the lists we see today.  The original sheets were destroyed.  In other words, all we have left for these earlier censuses is the derivative record.  This might explain some inconsistencies.  Off the top of my head: my great grandfather George appears as Enoch in the 1891 census.  Was this a mistranscription, or did George object to nosy-parkers coming to ask him questions?  My great grandparents’ second child is referred to in the 1881 census as Jane (female).  He was actually John, a boy.

Birth, Marriage and Death certificates: Are they original records?
You would think so.  But no, they are not necessarily so.  Imagine yourself registering a death in 1851.  You would go to the local Registrar’s office.  They would record all the information, give you your copy, keep the original for themselves and then send a third copy to the General Register Office in London.  Of course, there were no photocopiers: the only way to do this was to write it out by hand.  In other words, when we buy BMDs online from the GRO, what we receive is a facsimile of a copy of the original record, i.e. a true copy of a derivative record, and not the original itself.  You can choose instead to buy your BMDs from the local Register Office.  However, some don’t offer this service, while others don’t have the capacity for creating facsimiles of the originals: what we receive is a modern handwritten or typed copy of the original – again, a derivative record.  Perhaps this might explain an odd discrepancy you may have come across?

Bishop’s Transcripts: are they original or derivative?
BT’s are an interesting grey area.  They are the copies of parish registers that, from 1598 until around 1800, church ministers were required to keep and send annually to the diocese office.  Even if a parish’s records from this period have not survived, there is the chance that the BTs have.  They are contemporaneous with the originals, and if not actually written in the hand of the cleric, then at least by a churchwarden who may have known the individuals involved.  As copies, strictly speaking they are derivative records and may contain transcription errors.  However, sometimes they contain more information than the originals, and are often invaluable in providing a second chance in deciphering 17th or 18th century handwriting.

Are original records necessarily correct?
No.  Even an original record can only be as good as the information given in the first place.  In past centuries many people would have had no idea how old a deceased person was.  Any inconsistencies between age at time of death and the age you know to be correct can often be put down to this, provided all other details are correct.  Equally, sometimes false information is knowingly given, such as the tweaking of an age for a marriage, the falsification of marital status for a bigamous ceremony, and the pretence of marital status on birth registrations when the parents are not in fact married.

Think also about what is ‘truth’.  A contemporary newspaper report might be considered an original record.  We can expect a court reporter to faithfully summarise what happened during a trial.  But what about a war correspondent?  Their reports would inevitably be limited by what they actually saw and knew, what they felt was suitable for public retelling, and all this within the context of government censorship.  Is it true if it is not the full truth?  Is it of value nevertheless?  Yes, because all of these limitations are part of the context.

Indexes
The wonderful thing about online genealogy sources (Ancestry, FindMyPast, FreeBMD, etc) is that the records are indexed.  As a result they are very easy to find.  We just type in a few key facts and we’ll be rewarded with a selection of possible records.  So much easier than going to the local County Records Office and sifting through decades of data stored on microfiche.  However, the indexes themselves are a derivative record: a list of each individual record to be found within the source.  As such they can and do include errors.  My great grandfather, born in Leeds, is indexed on the FMP 1911 census index with a birthplace of Scotland.  Consequently, it took me from 2011 until 2018 to find him.  I have also found a very clearly written ‘Alfred’ listed on the index as ‘George’, and indeed an entire collection indexed under Northamptonshire rather than Norfolk.  (When straightforward searches fail to return results, try searching instead for another family member – the one with the least common name.)

Contemporary values, ideas and gossip
One of the fascinating things about my late distant cousin’s story was the clarity with which she expressed the prejudices of her time.  While on the one hand expressing pride that a member of the family had been involved with offering assistance to late 19th century Jewish refugees, there was an undercurrent of anti Irish / Roman Catholicism.  This distinction does seem to be in keeping with other vibes I’ve picked up from this period in my home town.  In this respect the issue of truth and accuracy can sometimes take a back seat, in the sense that while we need to know the facts, in order to understand the society of the time, we also need to know what people thought, what they valued, what was scandalous.  Our own 21st century values may be completely irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why an ancestor pursued a particular course of action.  A word of caution, too, about family stories: they are not always true, although from my experience it seems there is often an element of truth in them.

Some conclusions
For us as genealogists it’s the detail that’s all-important.  If we don’t get the names, places, dates and relationships correct, nothing else will be correct.  So for us, seeing the original records with our own eyes is always the goal.

Derivative records are valuable in pointing us to the existence of the original, in providing us with information about the contents, and indeed where the originals no longer exist.  But it’s worth noting when only a transcript has been seen.

Other primary sources enable us to draw our own conclusions about the life and times of our ancestors, while secondary sources add valuable context and aid understanding

Where there are discrepancies: look at the records, step back, and decide for yourself if there is sufficient compatibility with your existing evidence for the discrepancies to be down to human error, misunderstanding, illiteracy or even censorship.  Rather than trying to prove yourself right, try to prove yourself wrong.

Next time we’ll think about how much is ‘enough’ evidence.  I’ll provide some case studies showing how all these types of evidence can be used together to build hypotheses and ultimately to overcome doubts and reach sound conclusions.

Targeted searches on Find My Past

Last week’s post was about different levels of ‘taking control’ when searching on Ancestry, and this week we’ll try the same thing on Find My Past.

As with Ancestry, we’ll look at searches in the following order:

  1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
  2. A general search from the top menu bar
  3. Narrower searches, focusing on a particular category of record
  4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.

Again, the point is that by increasingly taking control of what your search focuses on, you’re improving the level of your own research.

As with Ancestry, you can follow a lot of what’s written here by working through it on Find My Past even if you’re not a subscriber.  Obviously, you won’t be able to see the actual records.

And finally – if you already know all about general searches and homing in on categories, skip to point 4.  There might be something new for you there. 🙂

*****

In Find My Past, then:

1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
Simply click ‘Search’ from an ancestor’s profile.  I’m sticking with my GG grandfather, John Groves, born 1847 in Kinver, Staffordshire, and moving to Leeds, where he died in 1894.  This search returns 6,449 records for my perusal, but there is also a reminder of how many hints I have for this person.  Unlike Ancestry, this search filters only by name and dates, not by place, and only two on the first page of these 6,449 records are correct (although half of the hints are correct).

2. A general search from the top menu bar
From the top menu bar, click on Search, then Search All Records.  An ‘All Categories’ search form opens:

 

Here, you can input name, years of birth and death, and also a year for any specific event (which might be a marriage, a census year, etc).  For each year, you can instruct the search engine to search for that year exactly, or to search plus or minus 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 or 40 years.  Unlike Ancestry, FindMyPast will stick within those parameters chosen by you.  However, Ancestry allows us to add more events with dates, and a place for each one.  Here on FindMyPast, we’re allowed only one place name at a time.  Since my GG grandfather John lived in different parts of the country, what I have to do is search in stages.  My first search, for Kinver, returns only one record, and it’s not my John.  Changing the place name to Aston, where I know he also spent some time, returns 61 records, of which the first is correct.  Finally, changing the place to Leeds provides 128 results.  Four of the top five are correct.

The main difference here between Find My Past and Ancestry is that FMP does require a more targeted approach from the outset, focusing first on place A and years x-y, then on place B and years y-z, and so on.  Even so, my general searches returned a lot of records.

3. A narrower search, focusing on a particular category of record
Let’s now move to searching by category.  We can start with that first general search from the profile page, but this time when we get to the results page (the one with 6,449 records) we can refine the search using the categories at the left of the screen and by adding in the location.  Remember that in FindMyPast we need to keep changing the location if our ancestor moved around the country, and do a new search.

There are three things to notice:
First, you’ll probably find that far fewer records are returned.

Second, just as we can instruct the search engine to focus on a very narrow or a very wide span of years, we can also broaden the area of search, up to 100 miles from the named location. Although this doesn’t really help me with John, who migrated from one part of the country to another, it’s useful if, for example, you suspect your ancestor lived their whole life in Norfolk, but kept moving around for work.

Third, looking at the menu of categories to the left of screen, we can see how many records have been found within each category; and if we click on any one of those categories we can refine further, seeing exactly how many records there are in each sub-category.  So, for example, for John Groves, dates as above, and a location of up to 50 miles around Kinver, I’m offered 483 results, 4 of which are in the military category, and I can see just by looking at the categories on the left of the screen that these are all Regimental & Service Records.  This really helps us to home in on records that interest us.

As with Ancestry, we can also perform the same search by category from the top menu bar.  Click on Search and then choose your category.  Again as with Ancestry, the next screen will vary depending on the selected category.  For example, the Census, Land & Surveys category has an option to include another household member in your search, and the Travel & Migration category includes departure and destination countries/ports.  There’s also a dedicated category for the 1939 Register.  I’m going to search for John in the Birth, Marriage & Death category, using name, birth and death years, and the exact location Leeds.  There are 10 results: 1 death, 1 burial and 8 marriages.  The death and burial are correct.  Bearing in mind I hadn’t input any year for a marriage, I’m offered 8 likely dates between 1866 and 1893.  One of them is correct: 1874.  However, even though I performed my search in Births, Marriages & Deaths, I can switch to any of the other categories at any time, and I can see at a glance the numbers of records in each of those categories by looking at the list to the left of screen.

4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.
This targeting on Find My Past is very sophisticated, enabling a far more precise search than on Ancestry.  Because of this, I rarely need to home in on a specific record set (the equivalent of the Card Catalogue facility on Ancestry), but if you want to, you can do this.  Start with a search from the top menu bar.  You can do this in All Categories or in any of the individual ones, but for this exercise you’ll get more results if you stick with All Categories.  Towards the bottom of the page you’ll see there’s a box for inputting a specific record set.  You can type in the exact record set name if you know it, or just a keyword.  (Apologies for the image quality – I had to photograph the screen to avoid losing the pop-up record set suggestions when I clicked for a screen grab.)

 

Start to type in the name of your town, city or county of interest, and see what record sets there are.  You can do this even if you’re not a subscriber, so it’s useful if you’re deciding which subscription service to choose.  Of course, you can only view the actual records if you’re a subscriber.

*****

So, I hope there has been at least something new for you as we’ve looked at targeting our searches over the past two weeks.  And having explored special record sets on Ancestry’s Card Catalogue and on Find My Past, I hope you’ve found something interesting to help you progress your research.

Targeted searches on Ancestry

In a previous post we looked at the usefulness of hints as a way of finding records, as well as at the difference between Ancestry and Find My Past, in terms of the quality and focus of hints.

What I want to move on to now is searches instigated by you, the researcher.  We’ll look at this over two posts, this week focusing on Ancestry, and next week on Find My Past.  In each post we’ll consider searches in the following order:

  1. A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
  2. A general search from the top menu bar
  3. Narrower searches, focusing on a particular category of record
  4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.

What I’d like to draw to your attention is that, by increasingly taking control of what your search focuses on, you’re increasing the level of your own research.  You’re saying ‘I already know all about X, Y and Z, but I have a gap around A and B, and this is what I want to try to find out.’  This moves you on to intermediate level genealogy.

By the way, you can follow a lot of what is written here by working through it on Ancestry even if you’re not a subscriber.  Obviously, you won’t be able to see the actual records.

And finally – just to say – if you already know all about general searches and homing in on categories, skip to point 4.  There might still be something new for you there. 🙂

*****

In Ancestry then, let’s start with the kind of search most of us do when we’re just starting out as genealogists, or indeed when we’re just starting out with a new ancestor:

1. A general search of all records from an ancestor’s profile page
To do this, simply click ‘Search’ from an ancestor’s profile.  The search engine draws upon all the information you already have about your ancestor, using this as filters.  However, Ancestry treats all that information as ‘approximates’, resulting in years, places and even names on suggested records that are often way off beam.  It might also default to ‘Search all collections’ – including all overseas records as well as the UK ones.  And if you try to tighten up the search by moving the sliding scale to the right (see image below) to confirm you really do mean this exact surname, this exact place and year, more often than not it will tell you no matching records can be found.

.

So, from the profile page of my GG grandfather John Groves, a standard ‘Search’ automatically incorporating the search filters shown in the box to the left, returns 93,311 possible records.  Even if I change the filter from ‘All collections’ to ‘UK and Ireland’ only, I still get 34,360 possible records.  And whizzing down the first page of these 34,360 records, only two of them are correct.

 

 

2. A general search from the top menu bar
Go to the top menu bar on the screen, click on Search, and select Search All Records from the drop-down menu.  Sticking with John Groves, but this time typing in his name, birth year, birth place and place of residence, instead of allowing the search engine to copy over the info from his profile page, this time I’m offered a whopping 352,536 records from ‘All Collections’, or 127,706 if I amend the collections to ‘UK and Ireland’.

3. A narrower search, focusing on a particular category of record
Those first two searches have their uses, but I think we’ll all agree that a way of narrowing down would be useful.  We can start to do this by focusing on a particular category of record.  Again, we can do this from two places on the website:

If we’ve already started the general search by clicking through from our ancestor’s profile page, immediately below the search filters box to the left of the Ancestry screen we’ll see a list of categories.  Click on any one of these categories and you’ll see further options.  e.g. Click on Census and Voter Lists, and you’ll be offered a selection of decades to home in further; click on Birth, Marriage and Death, and you can select which of these three you’d like to focus on, and after that even specific record sets, and so on.

If, instead of starting with your ancestor’s profile page, you start your search with the drop-down menu at the top left of the screen (the place where we did that second type of general search, above), it works a little differently.  Now, depending on which of the categories you choose from the drop-down menu, you’ll be asked to input slightly different information.  For census searches you’ll be asked for name, birth, where they lived and details of family members; whereas for a military search the information required is just name, birth, death and likely years spent in military service.  Even though the number of records returned is still excessive, I find these more targeted searches a useful way of getting to the right record.

4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.
But there’s an even more focused way to search, and even if you already knew all of the above, this is something you may not know about.  You can actually search individual record sets.  The way to access these is from the drop-down search menu on the top menu bar.  Click on Search, and then from the drop-down menu select the second option up from the bottom: Card Catalogue.  This is where you can really get to know Ancestry’s record collections, find the ones more likely to help you and even develop your own favourites!  (Yes, I know that sounds very nerdy.)

So, you’ve clicked on Card Catalogue, and you have this screen (above) in front of you. As you see, you can still use filters (down the left) to help you home in on the record sets most likely to be of use to you.  And if you know the full name of the record set you want, simply type that into the ‘Title’ box.  You can then search just that record set.

But you can also use the keyword search, and this is really useful.  Try typing the name of a town or city of interest to you in that box.  If the town name doesn’t return any records, try the county.  Or you could also try specific words, such as ‘apprentices’ or ‘railway’ or ‘prison’.  Spend some time playing around and see what you can find that might be useful to you

This is one of my favourite functions on the entire Ancestry website, and some of the greatest breakthroughs in my family research have come from homing in on specific record sets and searching them to death!  My two very favourite record sets are Leeds, England, Beckett Street Cemetery, 1845-1987 – which includes so much information about the deceased that I never have to buy death certificates for ancestors buried there; and West Yorkshire, England, Select Apprenticeship Records, 1627-1894 – which includes many of my ancestors from the period and gave me a lot of insights into how apprenticeships worked in Leeds at the time, as well as helping to work out extended family relationships in one of my lines.  These are unlikely to become your favourite sets, of course, but wherever your ancestors were based, I hope you find something that will help you.

You can explore the Card Catalogue even if you’re not an Ancestry subscriber.  Something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of taking out a subscription and can’t decide which provider to go with.

Untangling places, parishes and Registration Districts

Jonah Shepherd was born in Yorkshire but in the late 1850s moved with wife Alice and daughter Jane to Germany.  They were still in Germany in 1872 when Jane married.  However, around 1873, Jane and her new German husband moved, first to London and then to Northumberland, after which their lives are well-documented.  Jonah’s German-born son, Christopher, is also to be found in Northumberland, in records from 1881 onwards.  But Jonah and Alice seem to disappear.  The only (online) indication that Jonah may have returned to England is several death records in Northumberland in 1889.

Bearing in mind that the last positive placing of Jonah was 17 years earlier in Germany, my only reason for thinking he may be in Northumberland is that his adult children are there.  The search is complicated by the fact that the series of death records I see are all in the same year but in different places: Tynemouth, Killingworth, Longbenton.  Could any of these be the man I was looking for, and if so, which one?

The answer is that they are all correct.  Killingworth (St John) is the church where Jonah was buried.  Before 1837 (pre-civil BMDs) the parish would have been the only place where his death (burial) was recorded.  But since 1837 the death is officially recorded at the relevant Registration District, and in this case that was Tynemouth.  Longbenton was the actual place of death given on public online trees by other people researching this family, but without further information I still couldn’t be sure this was my man.  Hoping that a known family member would be recorded as the informant, I sent for the death certificate, and I was in luck: Jonah’s son Christopher registered the death.  But I had another surprise too: Jonah actually died in yet another place: Dudley, which falls within the Longbenton sub-Registration District (where the death was actually registered), the Killingworth ecclesiastical parish and the Tynemouth Registration District!

One person, one death, four places of death; and all of them correct, depending on the focus of the record.

You may be absolutely certain that your ancestors lived in Village ‘X’, but the actual parish may be centred on an adjacent village ‘Y’, and it is here that, prior to 1837, the main BMB (Baptism, Marriage, Burial) record will be recorded.  Of course, even after 1837, people were still baptised, married and buried in churches, so you’ll still need to be aware of the connection between your ancestor’s abode and the nearest parish.  However, any such religious rites will now form a (very useful!) secondary record: since 1837 the introduction of civil BMDs means that the official record of all Births, Marriages and Deaths will be under the Registration District within which the event took place.

So which place should we record?  I record them all, but in slightly different places.  This is how I do it:

For civil birth and death registrations after 1837:
I copy the information directly from the General Register Office website. I then paste this into the notes section of the birth or death event on that person’s profile page, amending it by inserting the word ‘age’ for deaths, and the phrase ‘mother’s maiden name’ for births.  So this is what it says for Jonah:
SHEPHARD, JONAH, age 60. GRO Reference: 1889  M Quarter in TYNEMOUTH  Volume 10B  Page 147

However, if I do buy the certificate or if, through any other means (e.g. cemetery record, family documents), I know the actual residence at time of birth/death, I record that as the person’s place of birth/death.  For Jonah this is ‘Dudley’, or ‘Dudley, Longbenton’.

Parish records:
These generate a new event relating to a religious rite:

  • a baptism, which is not the same as the birth,
  • a marriage (plus banns),
  • a burial, which is not the same as death.
  • (Note: If you’re lucky, the vicar will also have recorded the actual date of birth or death, and you can insert these into the appropriate place on your ancestor’s profile.)

For these BMBs, I record the place where the event took place, and below that, in the event notes, I record any other information to be found on the relevant record.  For example:

Joseph Lucas was baptised at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds in 1754.  That’s the place I record on the baptism event, and it would be tempting to record ‘Leeds’ as place of birth.  However, the record itself reads: ‘Joseph ye son of Nathaniel Lucas and Sarah, of Woodhouse’.  I transcribe this and add it to the notes for the baptism. This now also becomes evidence for Joseph’s actual place of birth, which is not Leeds as the baptism record set might have us believe, but Woodhouse (now very much part of Leeds, but in 1754 this was a separate village).  Woodhouse and Leeds are less than a mile apart, and some might think this is splitting hairs, but having this exact place of birth information for Joseph helped me solve a mystery relating to his origins and later apprenticeship and marriage.

All this applies whether the parish record is dated before or after 1837.  After that year you might use a combination of these parish and civil records to end up with several places, as I did with Jonah, but the basic fact remains that they can all be separated out:

  • Joseph’s place of birth was Woodhouse, and his place of baptism was Leeds, Mill Hill Chapel.
  • Jonah’s place of death was ‘Dudley’ or ‘Dudley, Longbenton’, his place of burial was Killingworth Saint John, Northumberland, and his death was officially recorded at Tynemouth.

In my next post I’ll share some really useful online resources to help you find parishes and Registration Districts, and to work out their boundaries.

Parish records

So far we’ve talked a lot about Civil BMDs – Birth, Marriages and Deaths – the registration system that came into operation in 1837.  But this wasn’t the first system for keeping track of the population.  A different system had been in operation since as early as 1538.

In that year, during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell ordered that every baptism, marriage and burial in the land was to be recorded.  Although the order wasn’t immediately universally implemented, certainly by the end of the century all parishes would have been keeping records.  The focus, as you can see, was slightly different to the post-1837 civil system.  What was recorded were the religious rites rather than the biological events, so we have baptisms rather than births, and burials rather than deaths.  Or to put it another way, BMBs rather than BMDs.

The information recorded in early records was often minimal in the extreme.  Examples might be a burial of ‘Widow Smith’, with the date recorded; or perhaps a baptism of ‘John, son of Joseph Brown’.  No other identifying facts.  These are the types of records that tend to bring our research to a full stop, particularly if there are several John Browns being baptised in the same parish in a likely time period.  Others, however, are more helpful, perhaps including the mother’s name, or the ‘abode’ (road, area or outlying village) of the family.  (And don’t forget my hero, the wonderful vicar of Tadcaster mentioned in my last post!)

Of course, not all these early records have survived.  Inevitably, some were lost, some became so fragile or damaged as to be illegible, yet more will have been destroyed.  However, from 1598 a second copy of the records had to be made, for the information of the Bishop.  These are known as ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’.  Their use for us as genealogists is twofold.  Firstly, even if the parish records have been lost / damaged / destroyed, there’s a good chance that the Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs) will have survived (or vice versa).  Secondly, if the handwriting on one copy is illegible (or at least difficult to our modern eyes) we have the possibility of a second copy to compare it with.

It’s worth getting to know which of the subscription websites include parish registers or BTs (with images of the original documents) for areas of interest to your research.  For example, I know that Ancestry provide West Yorkshire parish registers, whereas FindMyPast provide the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire.  For my Norfolk ancestors, both of these sites include both parish registers and some BTs.  Of course, the originals will be found (plus micro-fiches of them) at the relevant county records office.

There are some important points to come out of all this:
First, unless you find you’re connected to a noble line, you’re unlikely to get your tree back any further than the commencement of parish recording of BMBs in 1538.  (And often, you won’t manage to get it even as far back as that.)

Second, the significant unit is the parish, which may not be the same as the town/village, etc.  Remember, too, that parishes could change as populations changed over time.

Third, this record-keeping role for the parishes points to an important fact.  Prior to the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, the parish’s role was both spiritual and secular; it was the local administrative unit.  In addition to parish registers for BMBs, you’ll also find vestry minutes, parish accounts and records relating to administration of the Poor Law, settlement rights, apprenticeships and a whole range of other secular responsibilities.  Without the regular decennial census, which was not introduced until 1841, these are the types of records we need to draw upon as we start to research pre-1837/1841.  What happened in 1837 was the separation of the spiritual and the secular.  Of course people continued to marry, to baptise their children, and to be buried at the church, but the recording of these rites assumed less importance in daily life as the state assumed responsibility for keeping track of its population.

Look at the records!

Okay, hands up…. How many of you accept the transcription of a record without actually going to look at the image of the original?

I know I used to do this when I first started.  The error of my ways was pointed out to me by an experienced genealogist who was researching the same surname as me and thought we may have a connection.  We didn’t, but he spotted that my 4xG grandfather, Joseph, had married Anne Hobson and not, as I had recorded, Anne Stolson.  It was the correct record, but instead of going to look at the image – which was, after all, only a click away – I had accepted the transcriber’s deciphering of the old text.

So there’s the first reason why you should always view the original with your own eyes:
Transcriptions are not always correct
This isn’t a dig at transcribers.  Usually, they get it right.  And old handwriting can be hard to read.  Take this baptism entry, for example.  Can you make out where William, son of Joseph Armitage was born?

Text in secretary hand from an ancient baptism register

Surnames and place names can be particularly difficult to work out, since the word isn’t necessarily familiar to you, and all the more so if you’re not familiar with the geography of the place.

So have you worked it out yet…?
I couldn’t.  I had to ask for help on a genealogy forum.  I thought it said ‘Pols Parke’, but there was nothing on the modern day map that suggested such a place might have existed.
It’s Idle Parke.  As soon as it was pointed out to me I could see it.

So that leads us nicely onto a second reason for looking at the originals:
It will help you to get used to reading old handwriting
You can start by using the transcription as a ‘parallel text’, helping you to compare the antiquated letters – but always remembering that what’s transcribed may not be correct, of course.

Sometimes transcriptions are spectacularly wrong
According to record sets on both Ancestry and FindMyPast, my 5xG grandfather and all his siblings were baptised simultaneously at St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton in north west Norfolk.  This confused me greatly.  Eventually, I asked on a Norfolk genealogy forum – it seemed unlikely, but was Necton by any chance a chapelry of St James Pockthorpe?  With help from a genealogist with local knowledge I realised that the ‘Necton’ records – a transcript-only set, i.e. there was no image for me to see – were the work of one organisation and the entire parish register had been mis-attributed to Necton. The baptisms had all taken place at St James Pockthorpe, and this had been correctly attributed in a different set that luckily included images.

If it doesn’t feel right, stop, think, ask for help.

Even if the transcription is absolutely accurate…
There may be far more information on the document than the transcriber had ‘fields’ to write it in
The transcript of the Tadcaster baptismal register in the Yorkshire Baptisms record set circa 1780s at FindMyPast records the names of the child and parents, the date of birth and baptism, the denomination and the parish.  Click on the image, however, and a double page spread of the original register reveals:

  • The father’s name and occupation; his own father’s name, occupation and parish; also his mother, with the name, occupation and parish of her father.
  • The mother’s name; her father’s name, occupation and parish; and the name of her own mother, along with her mother’s father’s name, occupation and parish.
  • The date and day of the week of the birth.
  • The date and day of the week of the baptism.

This is highly unusual.  Most of my baptisms from this period don’t even give the mother’s name.  (I am just a little bit in love with that old vicar of Tadcaster! :D)

Then, following on from my last post
You may be able to step back from the record, to look for the bigger picture
The transcript of my 7xG grandfather’s baptism in the Yorkshire Bishop’s Transcript of Baptisms record set at FindMyPast includes his name, the name of his father (Thomas), the date of the baptism and the parish.  On the face of it, that’s exactly what the original image says too, although it’s in Latin.  However, there is something important hiding in full view: a list of churchwardens, along with their signatures.  One of them is Thomas, and I can see by comparing his signature with the rest of the page (particularly the formation of the letters of his son’s surname in the baptism record) that the whole page is in Thomas’s hand.  My 8xG grandfather, born around 1648, wrote not only English but also Latin!  (I’ve since confirmed this by comparing with the handwriting on another longer document.)  There is no transcription that will tell you that!

All that – just a click away!
Familiarise yourself with the record sets that include images of the originals, and those that are just transcripts.  For example, I know that the West Yorkshire, Church of England set on Ancestry always includes the image, whereas the England, Select Marriages set, while providing the same basic information, includes no images.  Certain record sets don’t even include the dates and places – simply the names of key people.  These are of no use whatsoever.

Always choose the images collection where it’s available, and look at the record.  Check the information for yourself.  It’s daft not to. 🙂