Changes to the Find A Will website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1921 Census of England and Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousin Calculator

Cartoon by Vic Lee (2015) showing Einstein struggling to work out genealogical relationships

The difference between ‘second cousin’ and ‘first cousin once removed’ is not difficult to grasp.  The former is someone who shares the same great grandparents as you, whereas the latter is EITHER the child of your cousin OR you are the child of their cousin.  But in non-genealogy circles it’s surprising how many people get this muddled.  In fact I remember, myself, referring to my cousin’s children as my second cousins.  So this week here’s a little something for less experienced genealogists – or indeed for anyone having trouble calculating cousin relationships.  This becomes all the more important if you start to work with DNA and need to place likely matches, but there’s a DNA-specific cousin calculator to help with that aspect.  Today’s post is all about understanding how and why our cousins are ‘removed’.

The following ‘Cousin Calculator’ chart is really quick and easy to use (instructions down the right side).  It’s available from FamilySearch.  Click the link to download a higher resolution copy for your own use.

Grid enabling quick calculations of cousin relationships

This is really helpful in pointing you to the answer, but it still doesn’t explain why and how these people are so many times ‘removed’; and understanding this seems to me to be the main difficulty for many people.  I hope the following explanation will help.

It’s all about different generational ‘levels’
We know that these cousins are on two distinct, direct lines of descent from the ancestors they both have in common.  As set out on the above chart, first cousins share the same grandparents, second cousins share the same great grandparents, third cousins share the same GG grandparents, and so on….  However, the above only holds good when there is no generational difference between the two cousins.  We talk about cousins being ‘removed’ when there is a generational difference between them.  First cousin once removed, second cousin three times removed, and so on.

In fact, as an old hand now, dealing with this, I don’t use a chart to identify cousin relationships.  I find it quicker to look at those two individual lines of descent and do a couple of quick calculations:

  • First, I identify the Most Recent Common Ancestor(s)
  • Then I count how many generations down from them to my ‘cousin’ in the other line.  This gives us the ‘2nd cousin’, ‘3rd cousin’, (or whatever) part of the relationship.
  • Next, if they are older than (more accurately, ‘on a generational level above’) me, I look to see who is their ‘opposite number’ in my line.  That is, which of my ancestors is on the same generational level?
  • And finally I count down how many additional generations from that ancestor to me.  The number of additional generations is how many times ‘removed’ we are.
  • If my ‘cousin’ on the other line is on a generational level below me, then I look for my own ‘opposite number’ in their line, and count down how many additional generations to them, to get the number of times ‘removed’.
Family tree showing two lines of descent

This little family tree shows two lines of descent from my 3xG grandparents, George and Mary.  I’m descended from their daughter Annie Elizabeth.  The other line is descended from their daughter Martha.  A couple of years ago I made contact with Martha’s great grandson, called [Son] on the tree, to ask if he had any photos of Martha and Annie Elizabeth that he might share with me.  He didn’t, but he did have a little ‘family history’ that his aunt [Amy] had written sometime during the 1950s.  What a find!  There were some inaccuracies in it, but it gave a real insight into my great grandfather George’s life – information I couldn’t have got from anywhere else and which really helped me to understand the family dynamics.

So – the key people in that little story are [Son], his aunt [Amy] and [Me]. 

Amy is the same generational level as my granddad John.   The two of them are three generations below their Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA), George & Mary.  In other words, George & Mary are their great grandparents, making John and Amy second cousins (2C)

To calculate my relationship to [Amy] I need to count down from John to myself – that’s two generations.  So [Amy] is my second cousin twice removed (2C2R)

However, if I want to calculate my relationship to [Son], I don’t use my granddad John as the benchmark, because [Son] is on the same generational level as my Dad.  The two of them are four generations below their MRCA couple, their 2xG grandparents (George & Mary), making my Dad and [Son] third cousins.  I am one generation below [Son’s] third cousin (my Dad), so [Son] and I are third cousins once removed (3C1R), and my children are [Son’s] third cousins twice removed (3C2R).

Half cousins
Sometimes we see the term ‘half cousin’ or even something like ‘half third cousin twice removed’.  Wow – Scary! 😀 

The important thing to remember here is that the ‘half’ relates to the MRCA couple.  One of the ancestral couple married twice.  One of these half cousins is descended from the first spouse and the other from the second.  The rest of the calculation is exactly as above.  If the ancestor had married more than twice the same would apply – all descendents from that ancestor but with different spouses would always be ‘half’ plus something: half 4C, half 3C3R, etc.

I don’t know if this helps, or if any of my experienced readers have another way, but that’s how I do it.  Either way, if you didn’t understand why some cousins are ‘half’ or ‘removed’, I hope you do now.

Making the most of transcripts and indexes

My last post focused on the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions.  But transcripts can also be our friend!  Today we’ll focus on their benefits, and how to make the most of them. I hope there is something here for both beginners and intermediate level family researchers. Perhaps beginners will benefit most simply from an appreciation of the variety of records available, whereas intermediate level genealogists will be more interested in wringing every last drop of use out of each of them.

To start, then, what do we mean by ‘transcription’?
In my last post I used the term as a sort of ‘catch-all’ for documents that copy and record the information from an original document.  But in genealogy there are lots of different kinds of record that do this, and some of these copies are more properly called ‘indexes’.  It makes sense, then, to start by looking at the different types of record we might come across.

This is the image of the original record (A) of my 5x great grandparents, James Calvert and ‘Sally or Sarah’ Brewer.  The actual original is kept at West Yorkshire Archives, and although I haven’t seen that physical document, I can say I’ve seen ‘the original’ because I have this photograph of it.  It tells us that James was from another parish: Bradford, whereas ‘Sally or Sarah’ was from ‘this’ parish: Calverley. They were married by Banns, and we can see that James signed the register, but ‘Sarah or Sally’ made her mark. These alternative names, together with the fact that on every other record I’ve found, the name ‘Sarah’ is used, suggests Sarah was her ‘proper’ name, but that everyone called her ‘Sally’. Then down at the bottom we see the names of the witnesses. We will never find a copy (transcription or index) of this document that includes all of this information. Even if what is transcribed is perfectly accurate it will not have all of these facts and visual clues.

Photo of original marriage register entry, dated 1799
Source: Ancestry.co.uk: West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1512-1812; Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds

Below is a document contemporary to the original.  It’s the Bishops’ Transcript (B) of that same event. It was written up at the end of the year (1799-1800) and sent off to the bishop.  This image is on FindMyPast.  Unfortunately the entry for James and Sally/ Sarah is right down at the bottom of the page. I’ve lightened it but it’s still dark and not easy to read, but already we can see a difference between these two documents.  This records simply the following: ‘James Calvert and Sarah Brewer by Banns’, plus the date: 8 Dec.

Marriage entry on Bishops' Transcript for 1799 marriage
CLICK FOR BIG! Source: FindMyPast: Yorkshire, Bishop’s Transcripts Of Marriages; Original at Borthwick Institute for Archives

There are other records on FindMyPast and Ancestry for this event, e.g. FindMyPast has it in the England Marriages 1538-1973 set (C).  It is a transcription only – no image – in  fact this record set was created by FamilySearch, and used at FindMyPast with their permission.  It records only the following information:

First name(s): James
Last name: Calvert
Marriage date: 08 Dec 1799
Marriage place: Calverley
Spouse’s first name(s): Sarah
Spouse’s last name: Brewer

There are other types of modern transcripts.  If you’re lucky you might just come across a local genealogy website relevant to your interests with dedicated researchers who have transcribed lots of documents and made them freely available.  The following is from such a site: CalverleyInfo.  Here we can see a very full transcription (D) of James and Sarah’s marriage.

Transcription of three 1799 marriages from CalverleyInfo local genealogy website

CLICK FOR BIG! Source: Calverley Info: Calverley Parish Church Records: Marriages 1791-1800

To illustrate more types of transcribed records I’m going to have to switch to a different part of my family, but still in the ancient parish of Calverley.  These records are for the burial of my 8x great grandfather, John Dracup.  I have the original record from the parish register (with image) and it reads: ’10 [April] John Dracup Junior of Idle Green buryed’.

Next, the entry for that burial on FreeReg (E).  In fact there are two, and when I click on each one to view the transcript I see this is because the information has been transcribed by two different people, but the transcription is the same, and it does provide all the information on the original.

Search results for 1674 burial record on FreeReg

Source: FreeReg


My final example is from the Calverley page of GENUKI.  There are a lot of transcripts for Births, Marriages, Burials and other related records on this page, including several different sets for the Calverley burials, transcribed and made freely available by a number of different people.  One person, for example, has extracted all baptisms for people living in Idle for the years 1796-1800; other sets are for marriages arranged alphabetically by groom and by bride.  The set I’m going to home in on is Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, arranged alphabetically by surname (F), and transcribed by Steve Gaunt.  Scrolling down to Dracup, this is what I find: a full listing of the burials of several generations of my ancestors, all in one place, and John Junior is right there in the middle.  Again, all the information from that original has been included.

Source: GENUKI: Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, transcribed by Steve Gaunt

Apart from the original, right at the top, every other document you have just seen is a type of transcription. Some are indexes – they might serve simply to point to where information can be found. Since they are online most of them depend on the existence of a searchable index (G) so we can find them. What they have in common is that the information they record has simply been copied from somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ might be the original, or it might have been copied from another transcript. The Bishops’ Transcript has an unusual status in that it is a contemporary original document, but it is itself just a copy – a resumé, even – of the original entry in the parish register.

Beware!
So this is a good time to think back to my last post, and remember that every time the information is copied, there is the possibility of mistakes creeping in: human error, difficulties with archaic writing, inexperience, carelessness, administrative error…. Every single time something is copied there is scope for error. We must be mindful of that when we use them.

Where will we find these different types of record?
If you have a paid subscription to Ancestry, FindMyPast, The Genealogist, MyHeritage, etc then you’re more likely to have access to digital images of the originals.  However, this depends on whether the archives where the originals are kept has licensed your subscription site to share them.  For example, FindMyPast has a licence agreement with Staffordshire Archives Service which means they can provide Births, Marriages, Banns, Marriage Licences, Burials, Wills and Probate records – all with images of the originals.  On Ancestry, at the time of writing, you’ll find ‘Staffordshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1839’ – these are just transcripts, no images of the originals.  On the other hand it is Ancestry that has the licence agreement with Wiltshire, and you will find all the parish records with images on that site.  FindMyPast currently has simply the Indexes.  Neither site has originals of parish registers from Berkshire.  Transcripts (or ‘indexes’) are all that is available. When we progress beyond the basic census and civil Births, Marriages, Deaths, it makes sense to choose our subscription website based on availability of the older parish registers that you need.

The transcripts and indexes, on the other hand, tend to be freely available. As indicated above, you may find them on the GENUKI page for your parish, on FreeReg, through a local family history society, or a local website dedicated to making genealogical records available, like the CalverleyInfo site. You’ll also find them for free on FamilySearch (although FamilySearch do also have a lot of images of parish registers that you can browse) and you may even come across a brilliant site like one I sometimes refer to for my Wharfedale ancestors: Wharfegen Family History, which is a very trustworthy, ongoing project to construct the family lines and histories of every person who lived in the Wharfedale and Craven areas of Yorkshire.
That’s a LOT of possible transcripts!

So how can we make the best use of them?
* Firstly, a transcript is infinitely better than nothing
The original might have been lost, or it might not yet have been photographed for use on subscription websites. You might not be able to get to the archives where the original is stored, or it might have become too fragile for public perusal. You might not have the cash to access the subscription website where the records are kept, or any subscription website for that matter. For all these reasons, we can be very grateful for transcriptions and indexes. Although I don’t need that particular FamilySearch transcription (C) above, there are still some events for which the FamilySearch transcription is all I have. But if I use a transcript I always make a note of that, if possible I note where the originals are to be found, and if an original becomes available online I replace it as soon as I can.

* Second, even if you do have access to the original record, the transcript can help
Take a look at Original (A) above, for example. Can you read everything on there? I had trouble with the first name of one of the witnesses. Now look at Full Transcription (D), and there you have all the names. Someone has kindly done the work for you. All you have to do is decide if you agree.

* Third, you can use the Bishops’ Transcript to confirm a modern transcript of the original, or to help with illegible writing on the original
OK, so the Bishops’ Transcript (B) above is NOT a good example of this. But mostly they are very neat and the photographed image is NOT too dark to see. Anyway, trust me – you can.

* Fourth, the Bishops’ Transcript is also great if you have a subscription with a website that provides this but not the original parish register
I gave a few county examples of this above, but I have an ongoing example relating to my own research. West Yorkshire parish registers are on Ancestry but not on FindMyPast. However, FindMyPast has the Borthwick Institute records from York which include the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire. For this reason alone I need subscriptions to both sites.

* Fifth, if your subscription site doesn’t return an existing record, try searching on a different site
I gave this example in my last post: I couldn’t find a marriage for my 5x great grandparents. His name was Thomas Mann and she was Sarah. I felt sure her surname would be Creak, since that was the middle name given to their son, my 4x great grandfather. There was no such marriage showing up on Ancestry or FindMyPast. Eventually, it was FreeReg that came to the rescue (example E above is from this site). The problem here was in copying the name to the index. Ancestry did have the record, but their index gave the bride’s surname as Cooke. There’s no guarantee that FreeReg will be right and Ancestry will have it wrong of course. It could be the other way round. But it’s an example of the benefit of having a variety of sites and indexes (G) at your fingertips, and swapping between them all when you can’t find something. Remember – there is scope for human error in every index, and if the index is not correct we will not find our records on that site.

* Sixth, if you come across a transcription that’s arranged alphabetically instead of chronologically, use it as a checklist
That was how I used the alphabetical transcription (F). I found I had almost all of these burials but a couple were new to me. All I had to do was search for these specific records on my subscription site, and the records appeared.

* Finally, if you come across the work of a dedicated and trusted researcher thank your lucky stars – but still search for the evidence!
With practice, you can tell which researchers you can trust. Their work is careful and meticulous, thoroughly sourced, well organised… I’ve named three such examples above: the CalverlyInfo site, the Calverley page on GENUKI (although not all pages on GENUKI are as well padded) and the Wharfegen site. If you come across a site like any of these you can do a happy dance. Even so, use it as a starting point. Look for the originals. And if you can’t find the originals cite them and their website as your transcription source.

I hope there are some new ideas for you amongst that little lot. Have you any other interesting ideas for making the most of transcriptions? If so, why not leave a comment.

One family, three generations, many errors…

My 6xG grandparents John Christian and Rose Moss had five children:

First child John’s baptism is missing, but he died in 1733 and was buried 20th March.  I have seen digitised images of the original record on Ancestry (record set: England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812) and FindMyPast (record set: Norfolk Burials) so I know for certain that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich.

However, according to record set: England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991, also on Ancestry, but licensed from FamilySearch, the burial took place on that same day but at Necton, Norfolk.

Second son Jonathan was baptised 25th August 1734. Again, digitised images of the original records on Ancestry (record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812 and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935, this latter being Bishops Transcripts) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Baptisms) leave me in no doubt that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich. 

Yet according to England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, it too took place on the same day but again at Necton.

No baptism to be found for daughter Rose, but again digitised originals evidence her burial at Norwich St James Pockthorpe on 21st June 1737 – although there is also a separate indexing of the record on Ancestry under the name of Ross.  And once again England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991 records the event at Necton.

No problems for the baptisms of sons Christopher and Philip: correctly recorded at St James Pockthorpe on all record sets.  However, when it comes to Christopher’s second marriage in 1764, records for both the marriage and the banns, although having digitised images and correct transcriptions, are incorrectly attributed to the Northamptonshire county records office instead of the Norfolk archives.

Christopher already had a son by his first wife.  This son, also Christopher, would eventually marry Jane Childs on 18 July 1788 at Norwich, St Andrew.  I know this to be a fact.  I have seen the digitised image of the originals on Ancestry (Record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936; and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Banns And Marriages – separate records for the marriage and for the banns which were read on 25 May, 1 Jun, 8 Jun, 1788).  All records indicate that both bride and groom are of the parish of Norwich St Andrew.

However, record set England Marriages 1538-1973, licensed by FamilySearch to FindMyPast, has three different transcripts for this marriage:

  • 18 July 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 8 June 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 18 July 1788 at Norwich, Norfolk

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All of the above relates to just three generations of one line of my family.  I have many similar examples, both in Norfolk and in Yorkshire – and possibly others that I just dealt with and corrected without really noticing.  This is easier to do when you are both experienced as a genealogist and familiar with the lay of the land.

But we are not all experienced, and we are not all familiar with the geography of the areas where our ancestors lived. At the time of coming across some of the above errors I was lacking in both – at least at the time of discovering the Necton mysteries.  When an entire generation of my family seemed to have been baptised simultaneously at both St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton, about 25 miles away – surely an impossibility in the 1730s? – I started to wonder if perhaps the church at Necton had some sort of connection to the parish of St James Pockthorpe in Norwich.  Perhaps St James Pockthorpe was a grand church, and Necton was some sort of chapelry linked to it?  Or perhaps my ancestors had family ties to Necton and the baptism was recorded there too. I have since visited St James Pockthorpe and know the former to be far from the truth, but at the time I remember posting a question about this on an online group.  A more experienced genealogist pointed out to me that all of the wrong information had come from one provider, that these record sets were transcripts only, and that the true information could be seen and verified by looking at the images on all the other sets.

There are several points to take from all of the above, and for less experienced readers I hope there will be something to learn from this. The first is that even on the same subscription site the same event might be recorded in several different record sets. In the examples above, the same event has appeared in the original parish register entry, the contemporary bishop’s transcript based on that register, and a more modern transcription of that information that someone has made for ease of bringing genealogical information free of charge to a wider audience.

The second point is that not all record sets are equal. A transcription is much better than nothing, but it is far better to see the original image for yourself. It was only through seeing the original record in several of the record sets for St James Pockthorpe that I knew for sure the Necton entries were wrong. It was then through realising that the incorrect information all came from one source – the transcriptions licensed from FamilySearch – that I realised the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions. Ever since, when I rely on a transcription made by someone else I note that it was a transcript and where possible I note the location of the originals. Over time, often the originals will become available online. We need to get to know which are the best sets for our geographical areas of interest, and to rely on transcripts only when necessary.

Third is that we must engage with the information. In the other main example above, when records suggested that Christopher and Jane married in two different places on two different dates it made me pause for thought.  It was unlikely that there were two Christopher Christians marrying two Jane Childs’s in Norfolk within a few weeks of each other. More likely that the different dates came about because of a record of the reading of the banns – and the lack of a field for the transcriber to record that this was the banns and not a marriage. It was also possible that that Christopher’s bride was from the parish of Catfield, therefore banns would be read at both places.  It was only by reading the information on the records that I could see both Jane and Christopher were from the parish of Norwich St Andrew and the problem was in the transcription; but also that yes, the different dates arose because some of the records related to the banns.

Parish register entry for marriage of Thomas Mann and Sarah Creak

Fourth is that errors are not limited to transcription sets. Archaic handwriting may be difficult to read, and even when the original image is included in the set the names may be wrongly indexed. I spent many years looking for the marriage of a Thomas Mann to a Sarah Creak. (See above) Creak had been transcribed as Cook. If something looks unlikely, or if we’re drawing a blank, it makes sense to try the same search using a different record set or even a different index with another provider, such as FreeBMD, FreeReg or FreeCen.

And then there is the matter in the final example above, in which the entire record set has somehow been assigned to Northamptonshire. If you were unfamiliar with the geography of your ancestors’ homeland you might easily record the location of the originals as Northamptonshire records office instead of Norfolk, which wouldn’t be a good thing.

I hope there is food for thought in all that. Now that we have the perils of over-reliance on transcriptions out in the open, my next post will look at the matter from the other side – how we can use them effectively in our research.

Finding ancestors’ siblings

You’ve found a new ancestor and now you now want to find his or her siblings.  How do you do that?  An obvious answer that might come to mind (depending on the era of course) is that they will be listed along with your direct ancestors on the census.  But that isn’t necessarily so.  The census will list all children of the family who are still alive and at home on the night of the census.  Some might have died before they even got a chance to be included on a census; some might be working away in service or apprenticeship; some might be spending the night with grandparents.  In other words, the census is a good start, but it might not be complete.

So to be sure of finding all the siblings, we need to use other sources.  We need to check baptisms and, after 1837, civil birth registrations.  And before we can do this, we need to get as much information as possible about the parents.

I’m going to use four different online resources to get information about the siblings of one of my ancestors: Ann Wade who, according to the 1851 census, was born in Huntington (just outside York) around September 1850.  Her father was William Wade from York, and her mother was Jane, also from Huntington.

These are the resources we’ll be using:

To get started, we need to find Ann’s birth. We will use the GRO birth index and the following search criteria: surname Wade; forename Ann; female, born 1850 (exact); Registration District: York.

I find two Ann Wades born in York that year, but one would have been older than six months at the time of the 1851 census, so I’m leaning towards the other, registered Oct-Dec of 1850, and her mother’s maiden name is Cass.

If I can find a marriage within a reasonable time before 1850 between a William Wade and a Jane Cass, then I know I have the correct family.  The Marriage Index on FreeBMD has such a marriage in Oct-Dec 1948, and a further FindMyPast record shows that the marriage took place in Huntington.

We now have all we need to search for all children born to William Wade and Jane née Cass in York, after their marriage (1848).  I like to allow 20 childbirthing years, but this can be extended.  As we work with the different resources, note how the search criteria differs slightly for each one.  See how, as the information we input varies, this can impact on the usefulness of the results.  But note too how we can use the various resources together to build up a richer picture of the family.

Census returns
Before we start searching using the four websites listed above, let’s see what the census returns have to say.  According to them, how many children did William and Jane have?  These are the children recorded:

1851 – Ann, 6 months
1861 – Ann, 10yrs; William, 6 yrs
1871 – William, 15 yrs; Sarah, 9 yrs

Let’s see if there are more, who slipped through the net.

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The General Register Office Birth Index – free to use, but you need a (free) account.

The search criteria now varies from our first ‘fact-finding’ search for Ann.  We input the following: surname; forenames left blank;  mother’s maiden name (If these are names likely to be mis-spelled, we can change the ‘exact matches only’ to something more approximate); Registration District: York.  For this search we need to start at 1848, so I’m starting with 1850 plus/minus 2 years, then 1854 plus/minus 2 years, 1858, 1862, etc.  I will need to do this twice: once for females and once for males.

These are the birth registrations (Wade; MMN Cass) the GRO Index returns:

  • Ann, Dec 1849 (MMN mis-transcribed as Coss so I didn’t pick her up at first)
  • Ann, Dec 1850
  • Thomas, Mar 1852
  • John Thomas, Jun 1853
  • William, Dec 1854
  • Edwin, Dec 1855
  • Thomas, Jun 1857
  • Edwin, Jun 1858
  • Sarah, Sep 1861

A bit of an advance on the census returns!

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FamilySearch – free to use, but you need a (free) account.

Let’s switch now to FamilySearch.  What we hope to find here are the baptism records for each of the children.  These should fit together nicely with the births.  From the top menu bar, Click Search then Records.

On this search form the search criteria is: surname (Wade, in my case); parents’ names (I don’t include the mother’s maiden name in case it confuses the search, just her forename); birthplace; country (England); and the start and end years of my search.  The search will stick to these dates exactly.

Here’s what we get, all on the first page of results, all identifiable by the parents’ names, and all but one identifiable by the York parish of St Maurice:

  • Ann, baptised 24 Sep 1849, York St Maurice
  • Ann, baptised 28 Sep 1850, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, baptised 11 Jan 1852, York St Maurice
  • John Thomas, baptised 30 Apr 1853, York St Maurice
  • William, baptised 16 Oct 1854, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, baptised 27 Dec 1855, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, baptised 16 Apr 1857, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, baptised 5 Apr 1858, York St Maurice
  • Sarah, baptised 4 Jul 1861, York St Olave

(So this also tells me the family moved house between April 1858 and July 1861.)

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Ancestry – Subscription site. You may be able to access at the local library, or free access during one of their ‘free’ weekends.
Our search in Ancestry starts with Search on the top menu bar, then selecting Birth, Marriage & Death.  Search criteria here is: surname (forename left blank); year, plus/minus 10 years; birthplace; parents’ names.

This returns 159,267 birth records, but I can see which ones are in York, and if I hover the cursor over the record I can see the parents’ names without having to open each record.

So it’s quite quick to see that the following civil birth registrations and baptisms are all on the first page.  The advantage here is that if your tree is on Ancestry, saving these records will automatically input the source information.

  • Ann, Dec 1849; baptised 24 Sep 1849, York St Maurice
  • Ann, Dec 1850; baptised 28 Sep 1850, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, Mar 1852; baptised 11 Jan 1852, York St Maurice
  • John Thomas, Jun 1853; baptised 30 Apr 1853, York St Maurice
  • William, Dec 1854; baptised 16 Oct 1854, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, Dec 1855; baptised 27 Dec 1855, York St Maurice
  • Thomas, Jun 1857; baptised 16 Apr 1857, York St Maurice
  • Edwin, Jun 1858; baptised 5 Apr 1858, York St Maurice
  • Sarah, Sep 1861; baptised 4 Jul 1861, York St Olave

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FindMyPast – Subscription site. You may be able to access at the local library, or free access during one of their ‘free’ weekends.
Search criteria: surname; forename left blank; year (plus/minus 10 years); location.  It is not possible to input parents’ names, therefore results are not filtered by this information – a disadvantage since this search returns 47 civil birth records and 145 baptisms.  All the siblings are there, but I have to open and check each one to see if they are children of William Wade and Jane née Cass.

However, FindMyPast has a big advantage in this particular case: their records include images of the original parish registers and original Bishop’s Transcripts – always preferable to using a modern transcript.  One way of overcoming the disadvantage of the limited search criteria would be to find the children from the GRO and FamilySearch, and then to key in specific names and dates for each on on FindMyPast in order to obtain the specific records with images.

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As you can see, in this situation, the free sites served us very nicely, and together gave us transcripts of all the evidence we need.  In this particular case, although FindMyPast was the most cumbersome to use, the records available were the best.  By familiarising ourselves with the search mechanisms of a number of sites – your subscription site along with whatever free-to-use sites there are – you’ll soon learn which site would likely give you the best results in any search, and you’ll get to know how to use them in combination for best results.

And as for the Wade family, for whom only three children ever showed up on the censuses, the sad truth is that there were nine live births, and six of them died shortly afterwards.  This adds considerably to the ‘story’ of parents William and Jane.

The 1939 Register

I said in my last post that the 1939 Register was not a census.  It is, however, ‘census-like’, in that it includes some of the information normally included in our decennial censuses.

So what was it? 
This ‘National Register’ had a very specific purpose: to coordinate the war effort at home.  In December 1938 the decision was taken that, in the event of war, a Register would be compiled of every civilian in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Following invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany on September 3rd.  Final preparations were then put in place for ‘National Registration Day’, including issuing forms to more than 41 million people and appointing enumerators to visit every household to collect the information.

What information is included?
Information was collected for the night of September 29th 1939.  For every civilian the following details were recorded:

  • Surname and other names
  • Address
  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Marital status
  • Personal occupation
  • There was also some official information (schedule number and sub number) plus, for institutions, a record of whether the individual was an Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient or Inmate.

Anyone already engaged in military service on that date wasn’t included, even if they were currently billeted in their own homes. However, members of the armed forces on leave and civilians on military bases were included.

How was this information used?

  • To issue identity cards: It was a legal requirement to present your identity card upon request by an official, or bring it to a police station within 48 hours; also to notify the registration authorities of any change of name or address.  This requirement continued until 1952.
  • After January 1940, to issue ration books.  (Rationing finally ended in 1954)
  • To organise conscription and the direction of labour for the war effort
  • To monitor and control the movement of the population caused by military mobilisation and mass evacuation.
  • After the war, in 1948, it was used in the establishment of the National Health Service, serving as the NHS Central Register.  Until 1991, the Register was updated as people died or changed their names (on marriage or via deed poll).

Where is the Register kept?
Since the records were used by the NHS from its inception in 1948, the Register – 70,000 volumes containing more than 1.2 million pages of information – is kept at the Health and Social Care Information Centre.  It’s not available to the general public but is now fully indexed and searchable with images on both FindMyPast and Ancestry.  A transcript is also available at MyHeritage.

Why are some people not showing on the 1939 Register?
As mentioned above, anyone already on military service was not included in this Register.  However, conscription didn’t really get under way until January 1940, so most people who went on to serve in the armed forces will still be recorded here.

However, you’ll notice that a lot of the individual records are blanked out with a thick black line and the words ‘This record is officially closed’.  This is because the person may still be alive.  Since the Register was updated until 1991, the record of anyone born less than 100 years ago but dying prior to 1991 will have been opened automatically.  If your ancestor died since 1991 you can ask to have their individual record opened.  This is free for FindMyPast users, and can be done via the website upon submission of a digital copy of the death certificate.  If you’re not a FindMyPast subscriber you can use The National Archives Freedom of Information (FOI) request form to request a search of closed records from the 1939 Register, but there’s a charge (currently £24.35) for this.

How can we use it for genealogical research?
The information included is similar to the usual censuses, but covering fewer aspects of the person’s life and home.

It does, however, show exact date of birth, whereas the censuses simply give the person’s age.  (I have noticed, though, that even though the birthday is usually correct, the actual year of birth is sometimes a year out.)

As the Register was continually updated while National Registration was in force, it will include any change of name or address right up to 1952.

Since the Register was then used by the NHS, any changes of name were recorded until 1991.  This means you can search for a person using their name in 1939 or any subsequent changes – very useful for working out maiden names, previously unknown changes by deed poll or multiple marriages

However, there is an additional reason why the 1939 Register is so important to us as genealogists.  If we don’t know names of grandparents or great grandparents, getting back to 1911 when we can start to use the regular census information, can be difficult.  The 1939 Register gives us an extra chance of finding family members who were too young to be on the 1911 census but born by 1939 – and possibly still living with older family members who are on the previous census.

What’s more, after the forthcoming publication of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022) this is the only surviving survey of the population until 1951.  The 1931 census was destroyed during WW2.  (Some accounts say it was during an air raid on London; others say it was a fire in 1942 not caused by enemy action, at the Office of Works in Hayes.)  The 1941 census never happened.

Find out more
You’ll find a lot more information about the 1939 Register in the research guide at The National Archives.

Making the most of the 1911 census

The 1911 census records the whereabouts of all persons on the night of 2nd April of that year.  It’s currently the most recent census available to us. although this will change within the next couple of years when the 1921 census is published.  (We do also have the 1939 Register, and that’s very useful but it’s not actually classed as a census.)

The really special thing about the 1911 census is that for the first time, what we see is the original household form, as completed by our ancestor.  For previous censuses these original forms were destroyed; all we see is an official’s listing of information as extracted from the originals.  So in 1911 we see our ancestors’ handwriting, and although some of their entries may have been struck through by the enumerator, we can still see what they intended to write.  Sometimes this is very enlightening.  See, for example, these five census forms returned by suffragists.  Sometimes it’s fun and quite sweet, such as these entries about household petsOther times our ancestors simply made a mistake, but somehow this still tells us something important about their lives.  (See several examples below.)

What information was collected?

As with the previous census (1901) the following information is requested:

  • Address
  • Name of each household member
  • Relationship to head of household (or ‘Head’)
  • Their age (recorded in the male or the female column)
  • Marital status
  • Occupation, and whether employed or self-employed
  • Place of birth (see note below)
  • Any infirmities.  (As with 1901, the categories of deaf and dumb; blind; lunatic; inbecile/feeble minded are offered – definitely not terminology acceptable to us today, and often probably a  poor description of the facts.  In an earlier census my 3G grandfather, formerly a tailor and innkeeper, was described as an imbecile.  I wonder if he had had a stroke.)

In addition, new for 1911:
Married women are asked:

  • how many years the marriage has lasted
  • how many children of that marriage were born alive; how many are still alive and how many have since died.

How does this help us?
This can be very enlightening.
My GG grandmother, although widowed for 19 years, responded to the question ‘How long has this marriage lasted’.  Her response led me to their marriage in Leeds and not, as I had previously assumed it would be, in Ireland.  This, in turn, placed their migrations to England to within the difficult years following the Potato Blight. and suggested they were probably not from the same town in Ireland.  In other examples, this response can help us to narrow down the year if there is more than one potential marriage for this couple. 

Regarding children, we must remember that children who are born and die between any two censuses will never appear on a census.  Therefore when we know the names, birthyears and birthplaces of all children who do make it on to a census we can check the General Register Office index and baptism records to see if the couple had any other children.  This new question about numbers of live births and subsequent deaths can therefore be used as a reference to ensure we find the right number of children using these other record sets.  However, in my research I’ve noticed at least two women who, despite exhaustive searches, state they gave birth to more children than records indicate.  I’ve come to the conclusion that these women may have included stillborn babies – and this tells us something about them, after all.  A fully grown baby who didn’t survive the birth is still a fully grown baby for the mother, perhaps with a name, even if only in her private thoughts.

Employment:

  • In addition to a statement of occupation of ‘all persons aged ten years and upwards’, information is now requested regarding the industry or service with which the employment is connected.
  • You will also see numbers written in blue, red or green ink alongside the occupation and industry entries.  These are occupation codes and industry codes, added by an official.  FindMyPast published a list of occupation codes as used in this census.  There is also a more in-depth list at histpop, which includes the industry codes.

How does this help us?
The first point to make is that of course the use of this information/ these codes was never intended to help us as descendants!  As with every census, the motivation is always to enable the government to plan for a changing population and society.  In this case, at this time of great change in industry and technology, the government needed to understand which industries were growing and which were in decline.

Having said that, if you’re having trouble reading or understanding an occupation or industry, checking the code might help.  The named industry may also provide a little extra information about the specific nature of the work your ancestor did.  For example, I can see that my great grandfather was a cooper (765) working for a brewer (938).  This differs from his employment in 1930 when I can place him as a cooper but working for a firm whose business was manufacture and supply of barrels.

This is another of those questions where people often provided more information than was needed.  It wouldn’t help the government in this instance to know your ancestor worked at Harding’s Mill… but it helps us!

Place of birth:

  • Place of birth has been included on the census since 1851.  However, now we also have birthplace codes.  You’ll find a list here.

How does this help us?
Again, we can imagine that recording of birthplace and comparison of this against current residence would have helped the government to understand migration patterns, particularly in light of the growth of major industrial towns and cities.  Again, the code may help if the handwritten entry is difficult to read.  In any case, birthplace is an issue worth approaching with the aid of a map (and a flexible approach to spelling).  Someone I’ve recently been researching has birthplaces variously described as Conethorp, Cowthorpe, Coneythorpe, Ouseburn, York and Hopperton.  They are all correct, except York.  In the 1911 census he is simply given the code 030, which stands for Yorkshire – East, North and West Ridings and seems to be a catch-all for any place too small to have its own code.

Birthplace too, has potential for over-provision of information.  My great grandmother gives the actual street address for each family member’s birth (but not necessarily the town!).  However she got her husband’s place of birth wildly wrong, locating him at a precise street in Leeds.  In fact he was born in Cheshire.

Nationality:

  • A statement of nationality is required for each person born in a foreign country
  • Again, there are codes.  They are listed at the bottom of the birthplace codes.

How does this help us?
The inclusion of nationality is a great bonus for us.  Right up to the 1901 census the birthplace of a person not born in the UK was simply recorded as a country, or even in earlier censuses as ‘Foreign parts’.  Now, countries, provinces and counties may be recorded.  The inclusion of my GG grandmother’s birthplace as Mayo and with the code 642 – Mayo Resident, was the only information I had leading me to her birth record.

Number of rooms in dwelling:

  • The householder is asked to provide number of rooms, including kitchen but excluding non-habitable spaces such as bathroom, scullery, closet, etc.

How does this help us?
It provides additional insight into the standard of living of our ancestors.  Again, I have my great grandmother’s attention to detail to thank for the information that their home consisted of 2 bedrooms, 1 ‘house’ and a coal place.  (This was crossed out by the enumerator and replaced with the number 3.)

British Army Personnel:

  • For the first time, the 1911 census includes British Army personnel stationed overseas.

How does this help us?
The census return gives a broad location.  For example, I can see my Granddad with a full listing of his batallion, but the location given is only ‘Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Sudan’.  Thanks to his Christmas card dated 1910 I can place him at Cairo.  But more than this, I have a list of all the people my Granddad lived with as his ‘family’ of sorts for many years.

Any other little clues?
Have a good look at all the information provided by your ancestor.  What can you deduce by reading between the lines? Here’s a couple of my finds:

  • My great grandmother (not the one mentioned above) was eleven years older than her second husband, but she reduced the difference by adding six years to his age.  She also assigned herself as head of household (and I suspect that in reality, this was probably the case) but this was changed by the enumerator.
  • My Irish GG grandmother’s census form was completed in two hands.  One is plainly the enumerator’s, who looked it over, made additions and signed to witness her mark.  But the rest is completed in a less flowery hand, probably her oldest son who, now widowed, was living with her.  Clearly, then, my GG grandmother was illiterate (- at least in English.  I wonder if her first language was Gaelic.)

Why not go back to the 1911 census for each of your ancestors living at that time and see if there is just a little more information you can wring out of it? 🙂

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.