Setting up your online tree: privacy issues

I wanted to continue from where we left off two posts ago, by talking about the value of public online trees as a form of hint.  But before getting into that it seemed sensible to start by thinking about your own online tree.  Should it be public or private?  What are the issues?  How do you change these settings?

Public or private?
When you create your online tree on a subscription genealogy website like Ancestry or FindMyPast, you’ll be asked if you want it to be public or private.  If it’s private only you, plus anyone you specifically invite, can see it.  If it’s public anyone can see it. There are pros and cons for each.  Some people prefer private for security reasons, some because they include treasured family photos and they don’t want these to be mis-used (e.g. applied to the wrong person in another tree).  Others feel more comfortable with private if this particular tree is being used to work on a hypothesis and is as yet unproven.  Yet others may not wish to be seen by another branch of the family with whom there has been a rift.  With a public tree, on the other hand, you can share freely what you find with distant cousins; and there’s more chance of being contacted by others researching branches of your family.  Whatever you decide, and whatever your own reasons for having your tree public or private, that will be the right decision for you.

If you’ve already set your tree up and want to check or amend these settings, it’s not too late.  On Ancestry and FindMyPast you can change it as follows.  (If you use a different site there will probably be similar options.)

Ancestry
Click on Trees (upper left corner of screen), then, if you have more than one tree, select the one for which you want to change the settings.  When that opens, click again on the name of the tree (upper left corner on this screen), and select Tree Settings from the menu.  Privacy Settings.is the middle option of the links in the upper middle of the next screen.

FindMyPast
Click on Family Trees (upper left corner of screen), then on the tree for which you want to change the settings.  When that opens, click on Tree Settings (the cog, upper right of screen).  A new screen appears and amongst other things you can choose here to make the tree public or not.

Privacy for living people
Even if your tree is public, there are particular privacy issues for living people.  I take privacy seriously, and I don’t know about you but I’d be pretty cross if I found myself and my family, with all names, places and dates of birth on a public tree for absolutely anyone to see.

On Ancestry, any person you mark as ‘living’ will remain private to others viewing your tree. In ‘tree view’ they will show up as an individual in the correct place in your family, but instead of a name with dates, the word ‘Private’ is shown, and the profile page for that person is not accessible.  If you invite someone else to view your private tree, you can decide whether or not to allow them to see living people.

On FindMyPast you can choose whether living people should be visible or not. The settings for this are on the same page as the private tree settings, as outlined above.

One huge family tree for the world?
Some genealogy websites have a different approach to online trees.  FamilySearch is all about helping others and working together to create a huge, communal family tree for the world.  This is all very lovely,and I’m all for finding connections and ways to bring the world together.  But different people have different approaches to genealogy.  Everything on my tree is properly sourced and cross-referenced or is marked as a hypothesis – something I’m trying to prove or disprove.  That’s not, of course, to say I don’t make mistakes, but if I do get something wrong, I can go back to where my original ‘evidence’ falls down, to put it right.  Not everyone is so fastidious.  Not everyone even attaches records, or if they do they may not look at the records, to gather all the available information from them and ensure that what follows is consistent.  And yet on FamilySearch, anyone would have the authority and ability to come along and change my tree, without even consulting me.  FamilySearch is a wonderful and generous site as far as records are concerned, but if you’re planning on putting your online tree on there you need to be aware of this.

I’m getting hot under the collar even as I type this, so for balance I found a video on YouTube about a Zen approach to people messing up your tree….  😊

It’s up to you to decide if this would work for you.

So, next time we’ll talk about using online public trees to develop your own tree.

Can you take a hint?

Can you take a hint?
Or to be more precise – should you take a hint?

I am of course referring to the many hundreds of record suggestions you’ll be offered by your subscription genealogy site as you progress your online tree.  On Ancestry these are indicated by a green leaf at the upper right corner of the person’s thumbnail.  On FindMyPast you’ll see a number inside an orange circle.  Your own subscription site will have its own method, but these are the two I work with.

Hints are generated by algorithm.  They can be records, photos, even stories submitted by other users.  On Ancestry they can also be other users’ online trees, and a recent development is ‘potential parents’.  We’ll consider those in a later post.

Genealogists are divided on whether they love or loathe hints.  Some turn them off; others accept them far too readily without considering whether this is in fact the correct record or person.  My own view is that hints are great, but they are just that: hints.  Whether I accept them or not is up to me.  I use them as a quick starting point for my own research and consideration.

Let’s work through some examples, all based around my 4x great grandmother.

Since we work backwards in our genealogical research, I’m starting with my 3x great grandmother, Harriet.  Her baptism record in 1810 tells me her father’s name is Joseph Hodgson.  I find a marriage for Joseph, two years before Harriet’s baptism.  The bride’s name is Elizabeth Fawcett.  This ties in with a widowed Elizabeth Hodgson shown on the 1841 and 1851 censuses, living with the now grown-up Harriet and her husband and family.  So I now have the name of my 4x great grandmother: Elizabeth Fawcett; I know when and where she married; and the 1851 census tells me she was born in Leeds, around 1777.  Other than that I know nothing.  Let’s see what the hints suggest.

Ancestry Hints
Ancestry offers 11 hints plus 11 online trees.  Ignoring the trees for now, the hints include the 1841 and 1851 censuses that I already have, plus two different records relating to the marriage.  There is also a photo of the marriage record from the parish register, uploaded by another researcher.  I can compare all this to what I already know, and see that all these records are correct: I can add them to my tree.

Next, there are four death records.  These relate to four different Elizabeth Hodgsons who died in 1857, 1858 and 1859.  They can’t all be right.  The 1858 record is from the Probate Calendar and tells me this Elizabeth lived in Bingley.  One of the 1859 Elizabeths died in Hutton Magna.  That leaves two records: 1857 and 1859, both in Leeds.  The correct one is 1857.  It is a cemetery record which gives me the age of the deceased (80, ties in with 1851 census) as well as her address at time of death: Wards Fold.  Although in 1851 they had a different address, the 1861 census for daughter Harriet shows the family living in Wards Fold.  So this one record tells me several things:
1. Harriet and family moved to Wards Fold prior to November 1857;
2. Elizabeth was still living with them when she died;
3. She died Nov 1857 and was buried in Beckett Street cemetery on 29th November;
4. The plot/burial reference.
I had to do a bit of work to find this information, but it would have been much harder to find Elizabeth’s death without these hints.

The remaining two records can be discounted.  One relates to an Elizabeth Hodgson marrying in Sheffield in 1843; the other to a marriage in 1947.

FindMyPast Hints
FMP offers fourteen record hints, and rates each one for likely relevance.  The top hint is rated at 98%; the bottom is 73%.

Right at the top are two marriage records.  I know these are correct, because the names, place and date all match up with what I already have.  However, these are not the same records as those already found on Ancestry.  There is a reason for this: Ancestry have an arrangement with West Yorkshire Archives Service which permits them to show digital images of the original West Yorkshire parish registers.  FindMyPast don’t have this arrangement.  They do, however, have one with the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York, which permits them to show digital images or transcripts of records created by the ecclesiastical see of York.  These two new records are the Bishop’s Transcript of the marriage record (a handwritten copy of the information on the parish registers, sent annually to the bishop); and a transcript of the Licence obtained by Joseph and Elizabeth to allow them to be married without Banns.  The latter provides additional useful information:
1. The age given for Elizabeth is 21, suggesting a birth year of around 1786 rather than 1777 as per the 1851 census and cemetery record.  It’s possible that a false age was given at this time, but more likely is that the age recorded on the later records, as given by daughter Harriet or her husband, was a guess.
2. Marriage by License was unusual, incurring an extra fee.  Therefore not only did this couple have the means to pay that fee, but also there must be a reason why they went to the trouble.  Perhaps that reason is out there somewhere, waiting to be found. 😊

Next come three death records.  One is the 1859 Leeds death, already discounted.  The others are for Elizabeth Hodgson and Betty Hodgson, both Leeds, 1857.  Did Elizabeth go by the name of Betty, and was her death registered in this name?  I can check this against the General Register Office website, which tells me that Betty was 65 when she died, whereas Elizabeth was 80.  Although I now know that Elizabeth would have been 71, not 80, this figure does match with the cemetery record I know to be Elizabeth’s.

Next on the list is another marriage record from a different record set (England Marriages 1538-1973), also correct.  And after that there are three baptisms, two burials and two census records, all with the correct names but from other parts of Yorkshire.  Not my Elizabeth.

Again, I had to do a bit of work for my information, but it was easy to identify and discount the incorrect records.  Afterwards, having Elizabeth’s correct age enabled me to search and locate her baptism record (Christmas Day, 1785) and take her line back a further two generations.

To conclude
Hints should of course be used judiciously, but I really can’t understand why anyone would turn them off!  Let me offer this guidance:

  • Hints are suggestions, not instructions.
  • They are compiled by algorithms, not humans, and will not all be correct.
  • Just because only one possible record shows up, this does not make it the right record for your ancestor.  If it doesn’t sit happily with the rest of your information, then either it is incorrect or it should be treated as a hypothesis, while you try to prove or disprove it.
  • Hints are there to assist, but you’re in charge.
  • Finally, the hints are a handy starting point.  But don’t just rely on this as a means of finding records.  We also need to carry out focused searches – a slightly more advanced skill that we’ll consider at a later date.

Happy hunting! 🙂

Civil BMDs: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates (Part 2)

In the last post we were discussing Civil BMDs.  In light of imminent increases in costs of Birth, Marriage and Death certificates, we were considering whether we need to buy them, or if the information can be obtained via other sources.  We started by considering Birth Certificates.  We will now conclude with Marriage and Death certificates.

Marriage Certificates

Civil Marriages records are not listed on the online GRO index.  You will, however, find them on Free BMD.  The listing will look something like this:
Marriages Dec 1907: CASS Charles Hunter; Leeds; 9b 882

You’ll also find them listed on your usual genealogy subscription website (Ancestry/FindMyPast, etc).  The advantage of searching here is that the name of both spouses will be included on a short list, like this one on Ancestry, in the England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915:
Name: Charles Hunter Cass
Registration Year: 1907; Registration Quarter: Oct-Nov-Dec
Registration district: Leeds; Volume: 9b Page: 882
Records on Page:
Charles Hunter Cass
Alice Howgate
Joseph Joy
Ellen Elizabeth Young

Unlike with the FreeBMD transcript, since the two parties, Charles Hunter Cass and Ellen Elizabeth Young are both listed, I can cross reference the wife’s name with future censuses and so I know I now have the correct marriage.

Of course, the full marriage certificate will include a lot more information, but to access that information I will have to buy the certificate.

The Marriage Certificate will record the following information:
Registration District
Date and Place of Marriage
Register entry number
Names of Parties
Age of Parties
Status and Occupation
Residence at time of marriage
Fathers’ names and occupations, and also possibly a note if either was deceased.
Method of marriage – banns, licence, certificate etc
Signature or mark of the couple and witnesses

However… there might be a way for you to see all of this information without having to buy the civil Marriage Certificate: the same information is recorded on the church register.  These registers will be available to view at the relevant county record office.  But if you’re very lucky they will also be available to view online as part of your subscription to your usual genealogy subscription website.  You’ll soon recognise which of the record sets give you only the transcript of the index, and which give you the digital image of the original church register record.  For example, many of my family’s marriage records are available on Ancestry, in the West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 record set.  The above-mentioned marriage of Charles Hunter Cass and Ellen Elizabeth Young is to be found in that record collection.  If you have a subscription to Ancestry you can see the full record here.

Interesting, isn’t it, so many different versions of the same event, and if you know where to look you can access so much more information!

A few things to bear in mind about marriage records:
Ages can be inaccurate or downright false, e.g. given to avoid a minor having to obtain parental consent, or even to avoid disclosing the true age to the other party.  A recording that the bride or groom is ‘of full age’ is taken to mean aged 21 or more.

Address may be the same for both parties, but this was often done to avoid paying two sets of banns fees if one party resided in a different parish.  (Unless you are a certain branch of my family where literally everyone’s children in the street inter-married!)

Father’s name and occupation may be left blank, and this may indicate that he was unknown, but could have been left blank for other reasons.  It may, for example, suggest he was deceased by the time of the marriage, although in such cases it was more usual to include the word ‘deceased’ alongside the father’s details.  Having said that, the absence of the word ‘deceased’ does not necessarily mean he was alive at the time of the marriage.  These are all merely clues – they liked to keep us guessing!

Death Certificates

As with Birth Certificates, the easiest way to find a death certificate is on the General Register Office online index.  Here’s an example:

MOSS, ALFRED, age 0.  GRO Reference: 1841.  S Quarter in LEEDS.  Volume 23  Page 186
Here we see Alfred Moss.  The 0 indicates that he died before his first birthday, rather than that he was stillborn.  (At this time a stillborn would not have been registered at all.)  To get more information we will have to buy the certificate.

The Death Certificate will record the following information:
Registration District & Sub District
Register number
When and where Died
Name and surname
Sex
Age (including statement of parentage in the case of a child)
Occupation (including that of the husband of a married woman or widow)
Cause of Death
Description & Residence of Informant
When Registered

From 1875 the registration had to be supported by a medical certificate.
From mid-1969, date and place of birth and usual address are included.
Also from 1969, if the deceased was a married woman, her maiden name was included.

A few things to bear in mind about death records:
The age on the index is really important.  It helps us to discount lots of certificates and home in on the right one – as with the Mother’s Maiden Name on the Birth Index.  But be prepared to allow a few years out either way.  Often informants were not sure how old someone was and had to guess.

Although civil registration was introduced in 1837, it wasn’t until 1875 that the onus of registering a death was placed on the next of kin or closest relative of the deceased person.  This may explain why some deaths were not registered in the earlier years.  It’s possible that ordinary people, used to registering everything through the church, just continued to do so via the burial service, and thought this new system was a fad!

What other records might give you some of this information?
There are many potential sources of information for deaths.  They won’t all give you exactly the same information as the Death Certificate, but finding a couple of these might mean you don’t need the certificate:
Notices in the newspaper
Cemetery record – it may seem strange, but the Beckett Street Cemetery records in Leeds is one of my very favourite record sets!
Church Burial record
Gravestones (and websites dedicated to this, like Find A Grave or Gravestone Photographic Resource.)
Wills and Probate documents, e.g. Probate Calendar
Military Service records
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – the website and the actual cemeteries
Military pension files at The National Archives – you have to visit to see the actual files, or you can pay for them to photocopy the contents (- that can be quite expensive.)
Coroner’s Report – in case of violent deaths, etc.  (In such cases, it is the Coroner who is the informant, rather than a family member.)
Newspaper reports of unusual deaths.
Obituaries – if your ancestor was particularly grand or achieved something noteworthy in their life.
Monuments, epitaphs, etc, in churches

Paradoxically, whereas the Birth and Marriage Certificates will help us to take our family trees back a generation, the various Death records, including all those ‘alternatives’ listed above, can tell us a lot about how the individual lived his or her life.  I’ll do a post on this in the future, including some examples from my own research.

And that’s it!  Have you selected some must-have BMDs yet?
Good luck!  🙂

Civil BMDs: Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates (Part 1)

News broke over Christmas that the cost of civil Birth, Marriage and Death certificates (Civil BMDs) is to increase from £9.25 to £11 (paper copy, postage included) or from £6 to £7 for an emailed pdf.  The increases will take effect on 16th February 2019.

If you don’t provide the full index references, there will be an additional charge of £3 – but don’t worry; these are easily found.  All the information in the following example, including Volume, Page, etc. was obtained from the searchable index on the General Register Office website.
TALENT, ADA.  Mother’s maiden name: WOOD
GRO Reference: 1865, M Quarter, in LEEDS, Volume 09B Page 493

These prices refer to the purchase of certificates from the General Register Office, but local register offices may also provide this service, and for this they set their own charges, usually about £10.  Some genealogists prefer to use local offices because this is where the information was originally obtained from the informant.  In the days before photocopying, carbon copies, etc, the only way to get that information to the central General Register Office was to copy it out by hand, meaning possibilities of transcript errors, firstly in reading and transcribing the original hand-written record, and later, when that central record was transcribed for the online register.  However, not all local offices will send you a facsimile of the original; it may be a typed copy, created upon receipt of your request.  It’s for you to decide what you prefer, and to place your orders accordingly.

But do you need a certificate at all?
Now that my research is well progressed, I do buy the odd certificate out of curiosity, but initially my approach was to order only if I believed the certificate would give additional information to help me take my tree further back.  To adopt this approach you need to have an idea of what the certificate will include.  You also need to know if that same information might be available on another record, accessible without additional charge.

So let’s start by looking at Birth Certificates.  Marriage and Death Certificates will follow in my next post.  Remember – when we talk about Civil BMDs, we’re referring only to the Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates available since 1837.

Civil Birth Certificates
Information included:
Registration District & Sub District
Register number
When & where born (time may also given – see note below.)
Name
Sex
Name & Surname of Father
Name & Maiden Name and previous married surnames of Mother
Occupation of Father
Description & Residence of informant
Date Registered
Details of name/s entered after Registration

Getting as much information as possible from this record:
Sometimes a time of birth is given.  When you see this, it’s normally an indication of twins, triplets, etc. so you should look for more births.

The omission of a father’s name suggests the child is illegitimate.  From 1875, in the case of illegitimate births, the father had to be present at the registration to consent to his name being added.  The recently deceased father of a legitimate child would still be included.

If the mother has previously been married, the entry will say something like ‘Jane Smith, formerly Jones, previously Brown’.  In this example, Smith is her married name, Jones her name by the former marriage, and Brown was her maiden name.

Use the address to cross reference with census returns, directories, etc.

Do you need to purchase this record?
It depends what you want to know.  The General Register Office online index provides an overview of this information – just enough to help you decide if this is the right person.  Let’s look again at that example given above:
TALENT, ADA.  Mother’s maiden name: WOOD
GRO Reference: 1865, M Quarter, in LEEDS, Volume 09B Page 493

Without even purchasing the certificate, we can see the baby’s full name; the mother’s maiden name; the year the birth was registered, and in which quarter (M = March, and refers to Jan-Feb-March); the registration district (Leeds) and where exactly in the GRO’s system this record is to be found.

You don’t see the actual date of birth.  Remember that a birth must be registered within 42 days.  It’s entirely possible, then, that this child may have been born in December or even November of the previous year.  You have to buy the certificate to get the exact date.

Most importantly, the mother’s maiden name is included on the GRO online register.  Often, I find this information is all I need to help me progress; I don’t need the actual certificate.

Knowing the Registration District means you can look on the GRO register for more births from the same family.  Search using just the surname, mother’s maiden name, registration district, and try every year for a decade or so on either side of your confirmed birth.  You will have to do this twice – once for female, once for male registrations.

Other records providing similar information
The 1939 Register includes the actual date of birth of all individuals recorded, but not the place of birth.  All censuses from 1851 to 1911 (and before long, 1921) include the year and place of birth but not the actual date of birth.  If you’re sure you have the right person this combination may be sufficient for your needs.

The child’s Baptism record may provide you with most of this information.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find digital images of the original records online, but this depends on the specific county your ancestor was born in, and whether that county has made digital images of their original records available to Ancestry, FindMyPast, etc.

The introduction of a pre-printed parish baptism record book in 1813 means that by the period we’re discussing (post-1837) entries were standardised, including as a minimum the following information:
Register entry number
Date of Baptism
Child’s name
Parents’ names
Abode (Not usually the actual address)
Quality*, Trade or Profession of father  (*e.g. ‘Gentleman’)
By whom the ceremony was performed
(The actual date of birth wasn’t required until around 1860, although some clergymen did include it before then.)

Birth Notices in newspapers will include child’s name, parents’ names, date of birth and possibly their address.  Although, infuriatingly, I have at least one ancestor who only went to this trouble for the births of his sons.

You might expect to find the date of birth on military and penal process records.  However, historic records tend to record age rather than date of birth of the individual – presumably originally in expectation that many didn’t know their date of birth, or even their age.  However, service records may request a person’s age in terms of years and months, and where I’ve been able to check against the actual date of birth, I have found the information given to be accurate.

So what do you think? 
Is it worth ordering a few birth certificates now before the price increases, and save yourself a few quid?  Of can you find most of the infomation using other sources, and save even more?!

Working back to 1837/1841: some conclusions

Last week’s post showed how it’s possible to start with very little information, yet take a family tree back to before 1837.  In just one hour I created a tree, discovered 33 people, attached 72 Ancestry records, and referenced a few more from GRO and FamilySearch.  I took the tree back to Cyril’s 3x great grandparents, John and Hannah, who were living around the year 1800.

Before moving on, I thought it would be worth standing back a little to consider some issues this exercise has thrown up.

First – why did we just follow the men?
We each have 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents and 32 3x great grandparents.  The number continues to double with every generation – and that’s just the direct ancestors!  So we have to approach it gradually and logically.  My method is to follow back one surname as far as I can take it – and of course a surname is traditionally passed down the male line.  I then come back to the women marrying into that line and work each of their lines back in turn – maternal and paternal.  Eventually all lines will be covered.

Is it always this easy?
Ah, if only!  😊
In fact I really wanted to follow Cyril’s paternal line.  I recently found his surname in my own ancestry in the 18th century and wondered if we might be distantly related.  Since the online search could only reveal with certainty Cyril’s father’s full name – no year/ place of birth, parents’ names, etc. – it wasn’t possible to do that.

This doesn’t mean all is lost.  Having located the record for Alfred and Dorothy’s marriage, I could purchase the marriage certificate.  It would reveal Alfred’s age and occupation, also his father’s name and occupation.  Alternatively, the release of the 1921 census (anticipated in 2022) should show Alfred living with Dorothy and their young family, and will include his age, occupation and birthplace.  Either of these records would help me to locate Alfred in previous censuses, as well as his baptism and birth records, enabling me to take his line back.

So is there ALWAYS a way round?
Sadly, no.  Sometimes the records are just not showing.  Perhaps they don’t exist, or perhaps they’ve been wrongly transcribed.  Perhaps there are just too many people of the name you’re looking for born in the same place within a handful of years.  ‘Brick walls’, we call them.  I have several.  With luck, hard work and determination, eventually we may find some other evidence that will point us to the information we need.  But, hey – that’s part of the fun!  😀

What other information might be available about the people identified in Cyril’s tree?
Although I was just creating a skeleton tree for Cyril’s ancestors, lots of ‘Hints’ popped up, offering me other relevant records.  (I’ll do a separate post about using Hints soon.)  Even though I didn’t include these hints in my research at this stage, I could see that several were correct.  I saw, for example, military records from WW1 for some of the young men.  There was a fantastic series of photos shared by a family member showing Cyril’s great grandfather Charles Jagger with his siblings, their partners and their father Joshua.  I also noticed, very sadly, that Charles committed suicide.

What else might I expect to find?  Death records (I would have to buy the actual certificates for the full information), burial records, baptisms, electoral records, possibly mentions in the local newspaper or entries in directories, perhaps probate records, including digital copies of the actual will, and if these people were active in their church or the union, perhaps mentions in the minutes, etc.  All kinds of discoveries await!

Stories
When I work on a tree, I like to see what stories are emerging.  With just the skeleton of information collected in my last post two stories emerged for me:

The Jaggers were miners, and although they moved around a little, they were always part of a mining community.  Apart from the suicide, it struck me that other early deaths might have been occupational.  Were there accidents in the mines?  Do the certificates record deaths linked to occupational hazards for miners, such as respiratory?  I would try to find out more about the mines in the area, work out which ones these men worked at, perhaps even visit one if possible, or perhaps a mining community museum.  I would want to know about life not just for the miners but also their wives and families.

I also flagged up Nonconformity in my last post.  This is the umbrella term for Protestant religious organisations in the UK other than the established Church of England.  By the time of the more recent generations in Cyril’s tree, Nonconformity was widespread, but in previous centuries, Nonconformity, or being a ‘Dissenter’ was a huge commitment, impacting on every aspect of a person’s life.  This too, then, is something worth investigating.  How far back does Nonconformity go in this family?  Is there information on the history of the chapels they attended, about Nonconformity in the area more generally, or even Nonconformity linked to mining?  Early Nonconformity has emerged as an important story in parts of my own ancestry, and I’ll be exploring this is later posts.

Investigating such stories doesn’t depend on finding records about our individual ancestors.  We can learn much about them and their lifestyles simply by reading general historical accounts and records, visiting relevant places, and imagining our ancestors in this setting.  It’s one of the aspects of genealogy I most enjoy.

What about you?  What are the emerging stories in your tree?

Getting started: An hour to get back to 1800

Get coffee!  This is a long post.  In it, I aim to show it’s possible to start with very little information, yet quite quickly and accurately progress your family tree.  You’ll find background information on my previous post.

We might call this a ‘skeleton’ tree. It will contain just names, places, dates and occupations.  It can be padded out later using other records, but for now, every new search is targeted to find this ‘skeleton’ of information.  So I’m restricting my searches to two categories of records on Ancestry: Census & Electoral Rolls, and Births, Marriages & Deaths; with additional searches on FamilySearch and the General Register Office website where needed.  All searches are on Ancestry unless otherwise stated.

As you read through, be aware of this cycle:
Search
* I start by entering the information I have: these are my Search terms.

Review and Compare
* I look to make sure information on the new record agrees with what I already have.  If there’s any conflicting information, EITHER it isn’t the right person OR I need to be able to explain the discrepancy.  In other words, I’m building evidence.

Note new information
* Every new record gives more information, and I harvest as much as I can from it. This might include names of parents and siblings, ages (which gives us approximate birth years), places of birth and occupations.

Search
* As the cycle begins again, in the next search I use this new information as my starting point.

So without further ado…  The clock is ticking!

First and second generations:

1. Starting a new tree on Ancestry, I type in the name of my ‘Home’ person: Cyril Rayner, with an estimated birth year of 1920 and an assumed birthplace of Leeds, Yorkshire.

2. Next I search for Cyril on the 1939 Register.  Created on the eve of World War 2, the Register recorded personal details of every civilian in Great Britain and Northern Ireland as at 29th September 1939.  It was then used to organise identity cards, rationing, and was later the basis for the National Health Service. The benefits of searching the 1939 Register are that it’s the most recent ‘census-type’ register; and it gives the exact date of birth of all recorded individuals.
I use the following search terms, limiting my search to Census & Electoral Rolls category:
Cyril Rayner, birth year: 1920 +/- 5 years. Birthplace: Leeds. Event: 1939, in Leeds.
Review/ Compare:
I find Cyril immediately, with his mother and brothers.  I note father was not present, but mother was not widowed, suggesting he may have been away with work for the war effort.  It does mean, however, I don’t have any information about Cyril’s father, not even his first name.
Note new information:
Names of Cyril’s mother (Dorothy) and brothers; exact date of birth and occupation for all of them; their present address.
I save this record to my tree, ensuring all named family members are now added.

3. Dorothy’s birth year of 1898 and that of her first child, 1916, suggests a marriage after her sixteenth birthday (1914) but at any time up to the birth of the baby.
I use the following search terms, limiting my search to Birth, Marriage & Death category:
Surname: Rayner; First name of spouse: Dorothy; Marriage year: 1914-1916.
This isn’t much to work with, and the Ancestry search is unsuccessful.  This is an example of the kind of search, with very limited information, that FamilySearch handles more successfully.  So I search again on that site – success!
Note new information:
Marriage between Alfred Rayner and Dorothy M Jagger in April/May of 1916.  I now have Alfred’s first name and Dorothy’s surname and middle initial as well as the marriage date.  (I can also now find the original record on Ancestry and save it to my tree.)

4. Next I look for Cyril’s birth.
I use the following search terms, limiting my search to Marriage & Death category:
Cyril Rayner, birth year 1920, Leeds.
Review/ Compare:
The birth record confirms mother’s maiden name is Jagger
Note new information:
Birth was registered in Hunslet, not Leeds.  (Hunslet is now part of Leeds but in 1920 was a separate Registration District.)
I now know I have the right family and all information is correct.  All information is saved to my tree.

Second and third generations:

I can now leave Cyril and start to look for Dorothy’s parents, siblings, place of birth, etc.

5. Switching to the GRO website, I now look up Dorothy’s birth. This searchable register includes surname, forename(s), gender, year of birth (+/- 2 years), district where birth was registered and mother’s maiden name. If you don’t have all that information you can leave certain fields blank, and any likely matching records will give you the additional information.  It’s often quicker to use than Ancestry.  However, births are not included until 100 years have elapsed, which is why I couldn’t use this database to find Cyril’s birth.
I use the following search terms:
Dorothy Jagger; year of birth: 1898; female, Birthplace: Hunslet.
Note new information:
My assumption that Dorothy was born in Hunslet was wrong, but by searching again and leaving the district blank I find her: Dorothy Mary Jagger, registered in Wakefield.  Her mother’s maiden name was Hartley.

6. I now have enough information to find Dorothy on the 1901 and 1911 censuses. That should also give me her parents’ names.
Starting with the 1911 census:
I use the following search terms, in Census & Electoral Rolls category:
Dorothy Jagger, birth year: 1898, location in 1911: Wakefield.
Note new information:
By 1911, Dorothy and her family had already relocated to Hunslet.  Father’s name: John William Jagger, a widowed miner, born around 1873.  The birthplace of John William, Dorothy and her siblings was listed as Lofthouse rather than Wakefield.  I know Lofthouse to be a mining community close to Wakefield, but if I didn’t know this I would use Google maps to locate the towns.

7. The 1901 census:
Search terms as above.
Review/ Compare:
I confirm that not only Dorothy and her father’s details are the same, but also the names of her siblings.
Note new information:
In 1901 the family were in Lofthouse.  Dorothy’s mother was still alive and her name was Mary Ann.  (I already know from Dorothy’s birth record that Mary Ann’s maiden name was Hartley.)  Her approximate year of birth: 1873; place of birth: Lofthouse.

8. Before moving back a generation I find Dorothy’s baptism at Lofthouse in 1898.
Review/ Compare:
This includes date of birth as well as date of baptism, plus parents’ names and father’s occupation of miner.

Third and fourth generations:

I’m now ready to move back another generation.  Leaving Dorothy behind I now focus on her father, John William Jagger, born around 1873 in Lofthouse.  A few minutes ago I didn’t even know his name.  Now he’s one of my accepted ‘facts’!

9. The 1901 census has already revealed that the oldest of John William and Mary Ann’s children was born around 1893. This suggests a marriage around 1891-3.
I use the following search terms, in Birth, Marriage & Death category:
John William Jagger and Mary Ann Hartley; marriage in 1892 +/- 1 year.
I’m quick to find their marriage in 1892.
Note new information:
Luckily, this particular record set on Ancestry provides a digital image of the record, not just a transcript.  I see that John William’s father is Charles Jagger, and he too is a miner.  Their place of residence at time of marriage is given as Ouzlewell Green, Lofthouse.  Mary Ann’s father, also a miner, is Joseph Hartley.  The marriage takes place in a Nonconformist chapel – this may be useful information for finding earlier ancestors, and gives me a little wider information about the family’s life.

10. Switching to the GRO website I look for John William’s civil birth registration:
Search Terms:
John William Jagger, male, born 1873 +/- 2 years, birthplace: Wakefield.
Note new information:
Birth in October-December of 1872; mother’s maiden name: Newell.
Back on Ancestry I also find his baptism:
Review/ Compare:
The father’s name is Charles, and his occupation is miner.
Note new information:
Mother’s first name is Elizabeth.

11. We already know that John William married Mary Ann in 1892, but at the time of the 1891 census he would likely have been with his birth family.
I use the following search terms, in Census & Electoral Rolls category:
John William Jagger, year of birth: 1872 +/- 1 year, place of birth: Lofthouse and residence in 1891 of Lofthouse.
Review/ Compare:
I find John William, a miner, with his mother Elizabeth and siblings at Ouzlewell Green.
Note new information:
Elizabeth was widowed; names of John William’s siblings.

12. Using similar search terms, John William, aged 8, is located with both his parents in 1881 at Lofthouse.
Review/ Compare:
Charles, a miner, and Elizabeth; two siblings are also present, their names matching the 1891 census record.
Note new information:
Ages given on the two censuses indicate a birth year for Charles of around 1851, and for Elizabeth née Newell of around 1855.  We also now know that Charles died between 1881 and 1891.

13. John William is the oldest child. His birth in late 1872 suggests a marriage of around 1871-72 for Charles and Elizabeth:
I use the following search terms, in Births, Marriages, Deaths category:
Charles Jagger, Elizabeth Newell, 1871 +/- 1 year; location: Wakefield
Note new information:
The marriage took place on 16th June 1872.  Fathers’ names are Joshua Jagger and Joseph Newell, both miners.

Fourth and fifth generations:

We now have all the information we need to get back one more generation, so we will leave John William and focus on his father, Charles.

14. Switching to the GRO website, Charles’s birth is found in the first quarter of 1851.
Review/ Compare:
There is a discrepancy in the place of birth.  We already know from the 1881 census that Charles was born in Ouzlewell Green, Lofthouse, which comes under Wakefield.  However, the birth was registered in Hunslet.  Fortunately, I know from previous research that the Hunslet Registration District originally covered a huge area.  Checking with https://www.ukbmd.org.uk/reg/districts/hunslet.html I can see that in 1851 Hunslet did indeed include Lofthouse.  Therefore both places of birth are strictly speaking correct, but Charles was actually born in Ouzlewell Green.
Note new information:
Mother’s maiden name is Thackrah.

15. Back on Ancestry I can now follow Charles’s life back through the censuses of 1851, 1861 and 1871. Starting with 1851:
I use the following search terms, in Census & Electoral Rolls category:
Charles Jagger, born 1851, Wakefield; father: Joshua Jagger.
Review/ Compare:
I find Charles aged 1 month.  His father’s name and occupation, together with the location, confirm I have the right family, but the stated birthplace for Charles is Carlton.  Google Maps confirm that these places are all within a mile or two of each other.
Note new information:
The family is in Rothwell.  Father Joshua’s age is 33, suggesting a birth year of 1818, and his place of birth is Crigglestone (Google Maps confirms this is in the Wakefield area, therefore consistent with previous findings).  Charles’s mother’s name: Isabella, her age of 30 (= birth year of around 1821) and her birthplace of Carlton.

16. The 1861 census provides names of more siblings,

17. By 1871 Isabella is widowed, meaning a death for Joshua of between 1861 and 1871. Using search terms: Joshua Jagger, Wakefield and a death year of 1866 +/- 5 years, Joshua’s death and burial are located in 1869.

18. 1841 Census:
I use the following search terms, in Census & Electoral Rolls category:
Joshua Jagger, born 1818
Note new information:
Joshua and Isabella are both approximately 20 years old.  They have no children.

Fifth and sixth generations:

We can again move back a generation, so we will leave Charles and focus on his father, Joshua.

19. Assuming Joshua and Isabella are newlyweds, their marriage must have taken place around 1839-1841.
I use the following search terms, in Births, Marriages, Deaths category:
Joshua Jagger, spouse: Isabel Thackrah, Wakefield, 1840 +/- 1 year.
Note new information:
Marriage date: 25 Dec 1840, in Rothwell.  Father’s names: John Jagger and Charles Thackrah, both miners.

20. Joshua’s baptism.
I use the following search terms in Births, Marriages, Deaths category:
Joshua Jagger; birth year 1818 +/- 2 years; Father: John Jagger.
Review/ Compare:
Joshua’s baptism took place in the same Nonconformist chapel that future generations would use – an extra confirmation that I still have the right family; name of father: John.
Note new information:
Birth Date: 1 May 1818; Baptism Date: 7 Jun 1818; Baptism Place: West Parade Wesleyan, Wakefield.  Mother’s name is Hannah.

This is the first record we’ve identified that predates the new record regime of 1837 and 1841.  We now have the father’s name and the mother’s first name.  Undoubtedly, their births would take this line back to around 1800 or just before.

That’s it – my hour’s up!

I hope you followed all that. In the next post we’ll consider some issues arising from this exercise.

Getting started: Working back to 1837/1841

The Ancestry advertisements on television make it look so easy.  You might even imagine you’ll just have to type in a name and your entire family tree will magically appear, as Ancestry’s powerful computers work it all out before your very eyes.  It isn’t as easy as that.  It’s not even as easy as it looks on Who Do You Think You Are?  We don’t get to see all the records they discount before the celebrity clicks on the correct one!

But that said, it isn’t so very difficult either, not when you know how.  With a little practice you’ll get to know what information you’ll find on the various types of record, and how to use these records in conjunction with each other, confirming and adding to what you know as you work your way into your ancestors’ past.

In English family history research there’s a very definite change at 1837-1841.  More recently than this point we use one group of records, while going further into the past we must learn to find and use lots of other record sources.  Fortunately, since we work backwards from the present, it’s the easier system we must learn to use first.

To demonstrate how you can get your family back to the generations living as at 1837-41, I gave myself one hour to work on the ancestry of an old family friend about whose past I knew very little: just his name, approximate birth year, the area where he grew up, and the names of his mother and one of his brothers.  All sources identified are public records, readily available, but being deeply aware of privacy/ security issues, I chose this person because he died more than thirty years ago, has no descendants… and actually I think he would be pleased to have helped. 🙂

In the next post I’ll show you exactly how I did it, but for now I’ll introduce you to four websites.

Ancestry
Ancestry is a subscription genealogy website.  Operating from Utah, it’s the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world.  Ancestry does not ‘own’ the records you’ll find on its pages; the originals are kept in various archives throughout the country (or throughout the world if you have a ‘worldwide’ membership).  However, through Ancestry, you’ll be able to see digital images or transcripts of those original records.  You can also build your tree on the Ancestry website.

Find My Past
FindMyPast is a UK-based online genealogy service, and like Ancestry, provides subscribers with Internet access to digital images or transcripts of official genealogy records.  Again, there’s a facility to build your tree on the FindMyPast website.

There’ll be more to say about both Ancestry and FindMyPast in future posts.

Family Search
This website is created and provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons).  Family history is important to followers of that faith so that they can have relatives from past generations retrospectively baptized into their church.  The website is free for anyone to use, but you must create an account and you must be signed in each time you use it.  FamilySearch holds transcripts of records rather than access to digital images of originals.  However, there are certain types of search when I know FamilySearch will more accurately return the records I need than the subscription websites.  There will be an example of this in the next post.

General Register Office for England and Wales
(GRO)  Here you can search the historical birth and death registers for England and Wales.  These start at 1837.  At the time of writing, the death register is searchable up to the year 1957; and births are searchable to 1917.  Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates may be ordered here, and for this there is of course a cost.  However, the searchable register itself includes information that may help you to progress your research without purchasing the certificate.  To use this site you have to create an account and you must be signed in, but there is no subscription charge.

In the worked example to follow in my next post, I limit my subscription searches to Ancestry, and to the following specific record categories: Census & Electoral Rolls; and Births, Marriages, Deaths.  I also make use of the free searches at FamilySearch and the GRO website.  The main types of record I will be looking for are:

  • Civil Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) records – these commenced in 1837;
  • Census returns – from 1841 these include individual people, recorded in household groups.

Why not take a few minutes now to familiarise yourself with the two free websites.  And remember to keep this information to hand as you follow through the worked example in my next post.