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. 🙂

What can death records tell us about life?

In a previous post about Death Certificates I talked about a whole range of alternative records that could provide sufficient information about a person’s death to make purchasing the official certificate unnecessary. Today I want to return to this topic but with a different focus: to consider how these same records, purportedly confirming a person’s death, might tell us a great deal more about their life.

We know that after 1837 Death Certificates record specific information: the deceased’s name, age, place and cause of death, occupation (husband’s occupation if a married woman or widow) plus description/relationship and residence of informant.

Yet these facts of the deceased’s death start to give us clues about how they lived.  Did they live to a ripe old age or die young?  Does the cause of death suggest anything other than natural causes, e.g. an occupation-related disease, an accident, a suicide?  Was the informant a close relative?  If not the spouse or adult son/daughter, was it a sibling, indicating that the family remained close both geographically and in kinship?  If we then also add in some of the alternative sources of information about deaths (I listed them in that previous post), we might find we can learn a surprising amount of additional information.  Here are four quite different examples from my own research:

Coroner’s Reports
On 17th March 1898 my 2xG grandfather, Edward, took his own life.  The death of a person in unexpected, unexplained or violent circumstances triggers a Coroner’s hearing.  Where records of these survive they will be at the local Archives/ Record Office.  Sometimes they are quite brief, but Edward’s isn’t.

The Coroner interviewed four people: the bridge turner who was the last person to see Edward alive: the coal boat master who found his body in the water; and the woman who strip-washed and laid him out.  The principle interviewee was Edward’s daughter, my great grandmother, Jane.  Between the four of them they provide information about what happened that day.

But Jane also talks about how Edward was in life.  She paints a picture of him in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  He smoked his tobacco but had a serious, ongoing bronchitis condition (they probably hadn’t worked out the connection by then); he received 3 shillings a week from the Poor Law Guardians; he had a life insurance policy with the Prudential (I wonder if they paid out for suicides).  She visited him daily, and had seen a change in his behaviour – he had become very ‘irritable and childish’ during the past 3-4 weeks.

I learned that Edward lived in a ‘yard’, above a stable.  He had given notice but had not yet left.  A few days before Edward’s suicide, the occupier of the stable below had ‘insulted him’, causing him to fear that the stable occupier would return on St Patrick’s Day to break all his windows.  Whatever happened, and whatever was at the root of the animosity, it was clearly weighing heavily on Edward’s mind.

The reference to St Patrick’s Day is intriguing.  What was the significance?  Edward’s first wife was Irish, but she was long dead; and although I’ve never found Edward’s baptism, family legend has it that ‘he went back to the place where he was born to drown himself’.  Have I been looking in the wrong place: could Edward have been Irish?  Edward is the enigma that keeps on giving.

Obituaries
If your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life, you may find an obituary in the local/ national newspaper or other publication.

My 4xG uncle Edwin Wade, was Lord Mayor of York in 1864-65.  A successful surgeon-dentist, he was active for many years in local politics, a ‘mover and shaker’ in many public bodies, and an early investor in the railway company.  I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a pillar of the community he had been until I read his obituary in the York Herald, 13th December, 1889.  (FindMyPast newspaper search.)  There, I learned that Edwin was also senior Justice of the Peace and associated with public bodies such as the Lunatic Asylum, School for the Blind, York Tourists’ Society, York Savings Bank and the Merchant Taylor’s Company.

Edwin’s funeral was a huge event.  As the cortège passed through the streets of York, the whole city came to a standstill.  Blinds were drawn on the Mansion House and other public as well as residential buildings; shutters were closed on local businesses.  A comprehensive list is given of the York great and good who attended, and also all family members.  This helped me to track down a number of marriages and other connections.

Wills
For any ancestors who died since 1858, you can search the government’s wills and probate website to see if they left a will.  Be sure to enter your search (surname and exact year of probate – which may be after the year of death) in the correct section: 1858-1996; 1996 to present; or soldier’s wills.  Once you’ve identified the correct person on the ‘Probate Calendar’ you can order a digital copy of the actual will (cost £10) which will be emailed to you.

Wills can tell us a huge amount about our ancestors and their families, and I’ve ordered quite a few over the years.  However, in the example that follows, just the information on the Probate Calendar was enough to solve my current problem:

I had traced one of my lines back to a William Wade in York, and I knew his wife (my 3xG grandmother) was Jane, but wasn’t yet sure either of Jane’s maiden name or of William’s parents.  One of the possible marriages was to a Jane Cass in Huntington, daughter of Thomas, an innkeeper.  Possible parents for William were John Wade and Sarah; and if this was correct, I had found baptisms for all of William’s siblings.  I entered all this on my tree, noting that it was not yet proven.  Some time later I found a likely death for Thomas Cass, and then an entry on the Probate Calendar:

Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

I could have ordered the actual will and I’m sure I will, eventually.  However, although this short entry told me only one thing I didn’t know about Thomas (he left ‘Effects under £300’), it proved without doubt that all parts of my hypothesis about this line were correct.  It linked my known 3xG grandfather William Wade to Thomas Cass, and even included William’s older brother, Edwin.  Strange I thought at the time, to name the  brother of your son-in-law as the chief executor…  Of course, that was before I knew that Edwin Wade was your all-singing all-dancing politician, board member, soon to be Lord Mayor of York, and in general the man to trust if you wanted something done!

Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches
For reasons that deserve a separate post it’s not always clear if our ancestors were Nonconformists.  For years I couldn’t find a baptism record for my 3xG grandfather, John Ingham.  Eventually a possible emerged.  Everything made sense: the location (Morley), the year, even the names of the parents and siblings which I could see repeated in his own children.  The only problem was that adult John seemed to be Church of England.  He married Betty in her C of E parish church (Calverley), and all their children were baptised accordingly.  But this baptism was in an Independent chapel.  I dithered for a long time over whether to accept this record as John’s.  In the meantime, continuing to research other lines, I gradually realised that a lot of my other ancestors came from Calverley and adjacent villages – and they were all Nonconformists.  There seems to have been large communities of different Nonconformist congregations in a triangle taking in Calverley, Pudsey (Betty’s actual birthplace) and another village called Idle. Might there also have been some sort of connection between these congregations and that of Morley, where the possible baptism for John took place?

It was a memorial inscription that made everything fall into place, erected in 1880 to the memory of Betty’s brother Abraham Gamble, by his wife Elizabeth.

How on earth could this have helped?  Well, it’s to be found in Pudsey (Betty’s birthplace), on the wall of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, thereby confirming Nonconformity in Betty’s wider family.  It followed that my 3xG gradparents Betty and John might have met on social events between their respective congregations, and therefore the unexpected Nonconformist baptism record for John could be correct.  Together with all the other information, I was now happy to accept the John on the baptism record as my John.  It may seem tenuous, but afterwards, I did find that Betty and Abraham’s mother, Hannah, had also been baptised in the Morley chapel, moving to Pudsey after marriage.  The connection between the two families was an old one; but it was that memorial inscription that tipped the balance of probabilities for me.

As I hope these examples illustrate, we can look upon these death-related records as simply a confirmation of names, dates and places.  Or we can really look at them, wringing out every last clue to better understand our ancestors’ lives.

Do you have any similar examples?  Or are there perhaps as yet unseen clues lurking in the death records on your tree?

Recording Names: Part 2

Last week we looked at two types of name changes we all have in our trees: women upon marriage and changes from the days before our surnames had settled spellings.

This week I want to move on to deliberate changes of name by the individual.  Here are some examples from my own tree.  Perhaps you have something similar in your own.

Informal adoption
I mentioned a couple of posts back that my great grandfather was given by his mother to her sister in law, who brought him up as her own son.  Prior to The Adoption of Children Act, 1926, adoption was not a legal process, so these types of informal adoption were the norm.  I have no idea if my great grandfather knew that his ‘mother’ was in fact his aunt.  In one census she listed him with his birth name but certainly by adulthood my great grandfather had assumed his adoptive surname, and this was the name passed on to future generations.

Deed poll
A number of people in my extended family changed their name formally by deed poll.  Some changed their first names as well as the surname.

Informal use of a different name
Several people changed their surname without the formality of deed poll.  Some experimented with more than one surname before finally settling on the one they preferred.  Yet more changed names several times on immigration into the United States.  (These took a lot of detective work to find!)  There were a variety of reasons for this, and looking at their wider stories I can see why each of them did it.

How do we record such name changes on our trees?
What distinguishes all these examples from the convention of women changing name upon marriage and historic spelling changes is that here, someone has made a deliberate decision (or had a decision made for them by adoptive parents) regarding how they would like to be known, and our names are such an important part of our identity that I want to honour that decision.  But how do we do this whilst remaining true to the basic rule in genealogy that the name we put on our family tree is the one first recorded for that individual?

I spent some time trying to identify the ‘good practice’ for dealing with this.  It turned out there is no such recognised good practice. 😦

I also don’t think any of the online or software trees deal with it very well.  While all have the capacity to indicate a change of name within the facts timeline, only one name can be shown at the top of the person’s profile.  What do you choose?  Either James and Joanne Bloggs seem to have given birth to two Bloggs children plus another child whose surname is Jones, or we ignore the decision made by that third offspring to be known by another name.  We can of course make use of notes to explain what happened, but what I would like is for the change of name event to trigger a second ‘field’ on the person’s profile, so that it clearly indicates both names, in the format:
Name: John Bloggs
AKA: John Jones.

In the absence of this, my personal solution has been to include both names in the surname field, using the format John Bloggs / Jones.  It may mess up the search facility, but I feel happier with that compromise than with leaving out one of the names.

If you want to explore this further, here’s a useful online discussion on the topic.

And here’s a helpful video from Ancestry outlining reasons why people may have changed their name.  From around 13:15 it deals with different ways of recording those changes on your Ancestry tree.

*****

I’ll be taking a short blog break next week, but will be back as usual the following week.

Recording names: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

Snippet from census form showing family group

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

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

Trust me – the following are NOT good solutions:

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

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

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

Moving on…

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

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

Here are two quite different examples from my research:

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

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

Public online trees: friend or foe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples found during my research:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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