Military ancestors: case studies

It is today exactly 101 years since the end of The Great War. Of infinitely less global significance but a milestone for me anyway, today also marks the first anniversary of this blog. It started with a post dedicated to my two great uncles who were killed in action in 1917.

Today I’m continuing that theme with four case studies showing how I’m using evidence from a variety of sources to learn more about my ancestors’ military careers.  This post builds on my last, and you might like to read it in conjunction with that.

As you read through the case studies, there are three things I’d like to highlight:

  1. Although the service record is a real bonus, if you don’t have it, all is not lost; you really just need their name and something indicating their regiment and battalion.
  2. Everyone who served will have a different story.  As you’ll see below, records found for two of my family members pointed me to stories that were far more personal, not really about the war at all.
  3. Third, having the records/ memorabilia/ etc is not enough.  We need to really look at them, read them, and extract all the information and clues we can.

Albert, my Granddad
I already knew:
Albert’s military career is the genealogist’s dream scenario.  I knew he had been a Regular in the Army, and we have a lot of memorabilia, keepsakes and heirlooms from his time including his medals, pacing stick, decorative military drumsticks, shooting trophies, Soldiers Small Book, photos, correspondence to and from home, newspaper cuttings he had saved of significant events, his regulation issue ‘housewife’ (sewing kit) bearing his service number, ongoing education certificates and much more.  Based on that little lot I knew his regiment, battalion, service number, countries visited and exact dates.

Key piece of evidence:
Albert’s Soldiers Small Book.  These were issued specifically so that the soldier could record his own military career, and Albert was meticulous in keeping it up to date.

My research:
A series of records predating Albert’s decision to join the Army would explain what prompted him to do so, and even how he came to be equipped to join up as a musician.  He attested in December 1905, and after initial training joined the Yorkshire Regiment 1st Battalion (The Green Howards) in February 1906.  His 1905 attestation, including a physical description (but not his ongoing service record, which is presumably lost) was on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO96 militia service records 1806-1915).  Ancestry supplied a medal roll index card, an entry on the medal roll register (WO329 Service Medal and Award Rolls, First World War) and I have discharge papers.  He was discharged initially to the Reserves, and shooting trophies suggest he continued to play an active part locally.  He would later serve during WW2 with the Territorials.

The Long, Long Trail website provides additional information about the battalion’s movements in India after 1914.  During WW1 the Green Howards formed part of the 1st Indian Division: 3rd Infantry Brigade, moving around several bases, and culminating ultimately in the Third Afghan War in 1919.  All of this ties in with photos and Christmas card locations, and explains why Albert didn’t arrive home until Christmas 1919.

As I write this I’m mindful that exactly one hundred years ago Albert was on board a ship quarantined for smallpox off the coast of South Africa.  He was desperate to get home to marry his fiancée, my Grandmother.

Ongoing:
I now realise that throughout his long life, and even though his service with the battalion ended in 1921, my Granddad identified as a Green Howard.  I feel the need to go deeper into this story as a way of honouring that.  There’s still much I could do to find out more, including:

  • Visiting the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, Yorkshire.
  • Locating regimental diaries for his various tours.
  • Wider reading, e.g. What was happening in the areas where the battalion was based? What was the life of an army musician?  I know he was a crack shot with the rifle, but how did this fit with military band duties?  What other roles did he have?
  • Applying for his WW2 Territorial Army record.

*****

Joseph, my Great Granddad
I already knew:
I knew Joseph was in the Boer War, and I have a photo of him as a young man during his Army years, standing alongside a fine horse.

Key piece of evidence:
Joseph’s service record.  This was available on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO 97 Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913).  He attested for the Dragoon Guards in 1889.  His service record includes personal information, next of kin (an aunt), conduct and details of service.  It references his skills as a groom and horseman.  After serving in the East Indies and Natal he was discharged to the Reserves in 1896, but recalled in 1900 to fight in the second Boer War.  By this time Joseph was married and almost certainly didn’t want to leave his wife and baby to fight in South Africa.  In January 1902 he was severely wounded in the abdomen.  A little over two weeks later he was near-fatally wounded and was returned to England.  He was discharged in October 1902, medically unfit for further service.

My research:
Other research has shown that Joseph was orphaned at a very young age, brought up in the local workhouse, and as was common for the time, siphoned from there into the Army, as was his slightly older brother.

I can find nothing more online about Joseph’s military career.  However, a search on the TNA website turned up a record in series WO 121 Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Discharge Documents of Pensioners, and I visited to view it in person.  It was a HUGE file with a great deal of personal information covering the rest of Joseph’s life.  In this sense, Joseph’s military story spanned his whole life: his serious abdominal wound meant he had a lifelong disability which limited his work options.  I hadn’t known about this.  From 1902 until Joseph’s death in 1953 at the age of 83, he was required to present regularly for medical examination to be sure his condition had not improved (even though one examination had concluded it would never improve, only worsen).  Reading the file made me very sad and quite angry.

Ongoing:
Again, I’d like to go deeper into Joseph’s military experience, by:

  • Visiting the Royal Dragoon Guards Museum in York
  • Locating regimental diaries
  • Wider reading and films about the second Boer War and life in the British Army 1889-1902.

*****

Great Uncle Cyril
I already knew:
A treasured photo shows Cyril as a smiling young man – a boy really – clad in his new army uniform and seemingly quite excited about the adventure he’s about to go on.  Pictured with him are his sister (my Grandma) and little brother.  Their faces indicate they don’t share their older brother’s enthusiasm for this turn of events.  Cyril was killed soon afterwards, aged 18 years and 26 days.  He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.  Many years after that photo was taken, that worried little brother would visit the town and pause by the panel bearing Cyril’s name, no doubt thinking of happier times they had spent together.  I have the postcard he brought back.

Key piece of evidence:
Cyril is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.  This includes his regiment, battalion, service number, and next of kin details.  (He was the son of Joseph, above).  There is no service record for Cyril, so this was the only way I could have found this essential information.

My research:
Armed with that information I found:

  • Cyril’s Soldier’s Will.  This is interesting from a broader family history viewpoint, because he wrote ‘I leave my money to my mother’.  In fact his mother had died two years previously, and the lady he now named was his stepmother.  It suggests she was kind to the children, and they all got on well as a family.  It also possibly indicates that she was the one who took care of the household finances.
  • Register of Soldiers’ Effects (Ancestry, source: Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901–60. National Army Museum, Chelsea) – I can see from this that his things were sent to his stepmother, as per the will.
  • Medal Rolls index card (Ancestry)
  • In 2014 I visited Ypres, including Cyril’s entry on the Menin Gate and a battlefield tour.  During the tour a chill ran down my spine when the tour guide said ‘Right here is the position of the British Front on 31st July 1917’.  That Front included Cyril, and I was standing where he died the following day.
  • The Regimental diary (Ancestry, source: WO 95/1096–3948 First World War and Army of Occupation War Diaries) gives precise details of events, times and movements.
  • I have also located a list of trench maps that I plan to view in conjunction with the diaries.

Ongoing:
I’m happy with my research for Cyril.  It just needs to be written up.

*****

Great Uncle Joseph
I already knew:
Very little.  Only that Joseph had been killed in action during WW1.  Owing to a mis-labelling, I didn’t realise until last year that I had a photograph of him.  Unlike his brother Albert (my Granddad), Joseph was a conscript.

Key piece of evidence:
As with Cyril, the starting point was Joseph’s commemoration on the CWGC website, which includes his regiment, battalion and service number.  It does not, however, include his next of kin but his widow is named on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, below, and the other details match up.

My research:
There is no service record and I can find no Soldier’s Will.  Joseph married in 1913, and a record dated May 1915 indicates he had not joined up by that time.  Based on the evidence so far available I have no way of knowing exactly when Joseph attested, but conscription started on 2nd March 1916 and was extended to married men on 25th May of that year.  I suspect Joseph was a reluctant conscript.  He was killed in action, aged 26, on 9th October 1917.  Ancestry has provided his entry on the Medal Rolls, and on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, also the Regimental diary, including maps.  My trip to Ypres (above) also included a visit to Joseph’s grave.

Joseph’s story, however, has an epilogue.  At the time of his death his wife was 3 months pregnant with their only child.  Given the early stage it’s likely Joseph died not knowing he was to be a father.  Eight months after his death his widow remarried, and the baby was registered two months before that with the surname of her new husband to be.  I have followed this baby through to his death in 2002, and wonder if he knew he was Joseph’s son.

Ongoing:
I’d like to look for muster rolls at The National Archives, and hope thereby to be able to work out precisely when Joseph attested.

*****

Further National Archives Collections
Having worked  through these four case studies and identified gaps in available evidence, I now realise there could be a great deal more information at The National Archives.  The individual records that show up in an online search of TNA collections are merely the ones that have been indexed.  There are many more that haven’t been indexed.  They would perhaps show up by searching for the battalion rather than name of soldier, and could then be browsed page by page.  Whether I would ever have the time to do that is another matter.

I hope these four case studies have helped you to see how evidence from a wide range of sources, including non-military sources, can be used together to build up a picture.  Note, too, that although I’m now at the stage of looking for gaps in evidence and considering wider reading to give me a deeper understanding, it has taken years to get to this position.  Sometimes the evidence reveals itself only gradually.

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 2

In my last post I wrote about different types of information that we might draw upon to build our family trees: original and derivative records, and primary and secondary sources.  If you haven’t read that post, you might want to read it now.  Today’s offering builds on it, by considering:

  • How can we use these types of evidence together to build a conclusive case?
  • When can we be sure we really have the right person and the facts straight?
  • How much evidence is enough?

There is no straightforward answer.  Some advise you should aim for three pieces of evidence.  I don’t agree.  Sometimes one piece of evidence is so conclusive it’s all we need.  Quality is more important than quantity.  Other times we find ourselves conducting an ongoing investigation that can take years.

What follows is two case studies that illustrate my own experience of building a hypothesis, finding possible answers, and eventually finding that one final, convincing piece of information.

Case study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents?
As an inexperienced genealogist I came to a brick wall with one of my lines.  My 3x great grandfather was Joseph Lucas, and census records indicated he was born around 1787.  Joseph’s baptism record provided his father’s name – also Joseph – and from there I was able to find Joseph senior’s marriage, his wife’s name (Anne) and the names of all their children.  Since Joseph senior died before censuses commenced I had no way of knowing his age.  Several Joseph Lucas’s were baptised in the parish, all within a few years, and any one of them could have been my Joseph.  With nothing to indicate the name of his father, how could I narrow them down?

One of the potential baptisms, in 1754, interested me because of the father’s name: Nathaniel. My 4xG grandparents, Joseph and Anne, had a son with the same name.  Checking all the children of this older Nathaniel and his wife Sarah, I found that alongside their son Joseph (potentially my 4xG grandfather) they too had named a son Nathaniel.  In fact, six of my Joseph’s twelve children shared names with the children of Nathaniel and Sarah.  Given the importance of naming traditions, I thought I was on to something.  But there was a catch.  That 1754 baptism was Nonconformist.  What’s more, Nathaniel’s family lived at the opposite side of Leeds from where I knew my Joseph raised his family.  Two far more experienced researchers insisted I was wrong, one on the grounds of the Nonconformity; the other citing geography: ‘These are the Woodhouse Lucas’s; ours are the Hunslet Lucas’s.’  Consulting online trees, I could see that this was a problem no one had solved.

This coincidence of names was too much for me to let it go, but it was only a hypothesis, requiring further proof that I didn’t have.  I did add Nathaniel, Sarah and all their children as the family of my 4xG grandfather Joseph, but knowing that others thought I was wrong, I didn’t want to take the line back any further.  I left it for several years.

By the time I came back to look at this line I was more experienced, knowledgeable and confident.  This is what happened next:

First, I found the baptism of Joseph’s wife, my 4xG grandmother, Anne.  Her father was called Leonard… the same name she and Joseph gave their first son.  So if they named their first son after Anne’s father, surely their second son, who was Nathaniel, was indeed named after Joseph’s father…?

Next, I found a record for Leonard senior on the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.  Anne’s father Leonard, it turned out, was a master tailor… just like Joseph was.  Might Anne and Joseph have met as a result of Joseph learning his trade at the side of Anne’s father?  I’ve never found a record proving that Joseph was apprenticed to Leonard, but from wider reading I knew it was not uncommon for apprentices to marry the master’s daughter; and Joseph’s marriage to Anne is at exactly the right time to coincide with the end of Joseph’s apprenticeship.

Consulting a map of the period, I could see that Leonard’s home in Chapeltown was less than a mile from Woodhouse where Nathaniel and Sarah were raising their family – a reasonable distance for their son to walk daily during his apprenticeship.

Initially, the baptism records I used for Joseph and Ann’s children were transcripts, found on FamilySearch.  Now I found the originals on Ancestry.  Looking at each one, I now saw that the earlier children were born in Chapeltown, consistent with the couple living with Leonard while Joseph developed his skills following apprenticeship.  Using these same baptism records, I was able to work out exactly when Joseph and Anne moved from Chapeltown to Hunslet, which is where Joseph set up his own business, and where their descendants would remain for the next few generations.

There was no longer any doubt: my 4xG grandfather Joseph Lucas is the son of Nathaniel and Sarah Lucas, baptised in a Nonconformist chapel in 1754; and later abandoning that practice.  All of this was worked out using primary sources: the original records (baptism, marriage, apprenticeship) and the map.  Initially, the derivative records (transcripts of the baptism records) gave me sufficient information to develop my hypothesis, but had not provided the detail that enabled me to see where Joseph and Anne were living when each child was born.  That alone would have provided some important evidence (that Joseph was not originally from Hunslet) when I first started to formulate this hypothesis.  Wider reading, including an understanding of the apprenticeship system both generally and in Leeds (where the system was slightly different) enabled me to draw conclusions from the apprenticeship record.

One final piece of evidence has come to light recently: a DNA match with a distant cousin further back along the line from Nathaniel and Sarah.

Case study 2: The Symondsons of Starbotton
My 8x great grandfather is Thomas Symondson.  He married my 8x great grandmother Agnes at St Mary’s church in Kettlewell in Yorkshire’s Wharfedale on 19th February 1674/75, and their first child, my 7x great grandfather Lister Symondson, was baptised in the same church on 21st July 1678.

Thomas’s own baptism cannot be found.  Based on his marriage year of 1674/75, a birth year around 1645-1655 seems likely.

Looking at other online trees connected to Thomas and Lister, one tree in particular caught my attention.  It was compiled by someone with a wide interest not just in this family but in the whole of the area known as Wharfedale.  Over time, this person is working through every register from all parishes within Wharfedale, and transcribing them.  The result is not only an online tree at Ancestry, but also a dedicated (free to use) website including every person ever traced within Wharfedale (all 408,794 of them!) and a list of their key life events with dates.  A life’s work indeed, and of the highest quality.  In other words, everything on the tree and the website has been compiled from original records (primary sources), but what I was seeing was derivative.

On this tree and related website, Thomas is listed as one of five sons: Lawrence, born 1639 in Giggleswick; Christopher, born circa 1640 in Kettlewell; Lister, born 1641 in Gisburn; then Thomas himself, born circa 1649 in Kettlewell; and finally Anthony, born 1656 in Kettlewell.  Baptism records for Lawrence and Lister indicate that the father is Christopher Symondson.

From wider reading (secondary sources) I knew that the period in question was a turbulent one in English history.  Referred to as the Interregnum, it is the period commencing with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and ending with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.  During these years responsibility for the registration of births, marriages and burials was removed from the clergy and given to a ‘Parish Register’.  With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the clergy resumed their role in keeping the registers.  However, many of the registers of the Interregnum were not handed back to the incumbent or, regarded as invalid, they were destroyed.  The result is that although some of the records of the period survive, many do not.  This is almost certainly the reason for the missing records for this family, and if so they would never be found.

From the records that have survived we know that Lawrence and Lister are brothers, and their father is Christopher Symondson.  It is also clear from naming patterns that there is a family connection between this Christoper, Lawrence and Lister, and my 8xG grandfather Thomas, who would go on to name his own sons Lister and Christopher.  But is that relationship one of father/son/brother?  Or could it be a little more distant, for example cousins?  What I needed was some form of 17th century evidence that would magically link Thomas to any one of Christopher, Lawrence or Lister, as their son/brother.

Reader, I found it!  🙂

Lister left a will.  On 23rd February 1693/94 Lister willed his entire estate to his wife Mary, and after Mary’s death to their only daughter Barbary.  In the event of Barbary’s death without issue, the estate would pass (with some conditions attached) to ‘my brother Thomas Symondson and his heirs’.  The will was signed in the presence of three men, each of whom signed or left his mark.  These three men included Thomas Symondson.  (As a potential beneficiary of the will, today this would render the will invalid, but it seems in 1693/4 this rule had not yet come into being.)  As luck would have it, I already had a sample of my 8xG grandfather Thomas’s handwriting.  In 1678, at the time of his son Lister’s baptism, Thomas was churchwarden and it was he who prepared the Bishop’s Transcript of all baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish for that year.  I therefore have a whole page of his handwriting, together with two samples of him writing his own name – once to indicate the father (himself) of the baptised child Lister Symondson, and then to witness the truth and accuracy of the register.  By comparing the handwriting on these two original records I can see that the Thomas Symondson who witnessed his brother’s will and the one known to be my 8xG grandfather is the same man, and by extension, my 9xG grandfather is Christopher.

*****

One final note: I wouldn’t want to you to think all my genealogical problems are solved.  In these two examples – and many others – perseverance paid off.  But I do have many more examples of brick walls that have so far proven insurmountable.  Some of them will eventually be solved, I’m sure, but sometimes we do have to accept, finally, that the records no longer exist.

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.

Here’s why we should look at online trees!

One of my early posts considered the merits of consulting other people’s online trees.  After outlining various dangers and pitfalls, I explained that I do often look at them, but importantly, everything that goes on my tree has been fully researched and verified by me.  If there are no records to support someone’s information, it will never find its way onto my own tree, other than perhaps marked as a plausible hypothesis requiring more research.

But more recently I’ve been using trees in another way – not to search for names, dates and events, but to try to work forwards from a person I’m interested in to the ‘Home’ person (the person whose tree this is).  If it seems like the tree owner is a direct descendant of my person of interest I sometimes write to ask if they can help me with some family stories or information or even if they have photographs.  Of course I’m always prepared to share what I have too, and although usually all I can offer is my research, maybe I have some interesting stories they don’t seem to have.

Sometimes they don’t reply.  Sometimes they do, but it turns out their connection is not as close as I thought.  I think we both had a good laugh when someone replied to say that yes, my person was on her tree, but he was described by Ancestry’s relationship calculator as ‘the father-in-law of the father-in-law of the great-aunt of her husband’!  I have to say too that on occasion people have been keen to take what I had to offer and then never given me whatever they had in return.

But sometimes I strike it lucky.  Here’s a couple of examples:

*****

My great grandfather, George, died in 1940, but it seemed no photograph of him had survived.  After many years of asking any second cousins I came across, I finally found the tree of a descendant of my great uncle, the son with whom George lived in his later years.  If anyone had a photograph of him, surely she would.

I was right.  But along with a photo of George, she had inherited his entire family album, with photos of our grandfathers and their other brothers together, plus some correspondence with my granddad from his travels with the Army.  Some of the photos helped me to piece together a couple of mysteries.

My new second cousin doesn’t share my interest in past centuries and social history, but she loved all the stories I’ve been able to pull together about the more recent generations; and so in return for these lovely photos we spent a few weeks getting to know each other and sharing what we knew.  We’re still in touch.

*****

A few months back I wrote (here and here) about my unlucky-in-love biological 2x great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth.  The point of the two blogposts was to use her story to illustrate several aspects of marriage law (elopement, bigamy, adultery, desertion, divorce, domestic violence and separation) that had been touched on in my reviews of two books (here and here) by Rebecca Probert.

Alongside those blogposts I wrote a fuller version of the story for my own family.  In that version I questioned, for example, whether there might have been problems at home following Annie Elizabeth’s mother’s remarriage, and if that might have been the reason for the fifteen year-old eloping with someone she barely knew.  I could see that her mother and step-father were living apart by 1871.  I also wondered if Annie Elizabeth’s first child, my great grandfather (another George) who was brought up by his paternal aunt, might have known who his true parents were.  I really thought these were things I would never know.

A few months ago I broke down a brick wall surrounding Annie Elizabeth’s parents, and this new information also included finding a sister, Martha.  Following through on a family tree linked to Martha, I found a descendant.  Bearing in mind that my knowledge of Annie Elizabeth is based entirely on records and documents found through research, to the extent that I didn’t even know if my great grandfather knew she was his mother, surely a direct descendant of her sister would know more.  Perhaps there would even be a photo of this lady whose life I have found so interesting…

The gentleman I wrote to turned out to be my 3rd cousin once removed and the great grandson of Annie Elizabeth’s sister.  He sent me a short family history written by his late aunt Amy – my second cousin twice removed – together with some notes of his own research based on what she wrote.

Now Amy’s family history is not going to get any prizes for accuracy.  It’s full of mistakes and half-truths.  There are people and places that fit with my research, but names are not quite right, and there is a strong suggestion of riches in our lineage that the available facts don’t bear out.  All this is forgiven: she didn’t have access to the records we’re able to take for granted, and her account has value in itself as a testament to the stories that must have been passed down to her.

Having said that, there were some absolute gems of information.  Reading her account, it felt like Amy was reaching out across the decades to verify for me the truth of several of my hunches.  I found that not only did my great grandfather George know that Annie Elizabeth was his mother, but he remained part of the family.  Annie Elizabeth’s mother was known to him as his grandmother.  Regarding my hunch that my Annie Elizabeth may have married in haste to flee an unpleasant home life, Amy describes the stepfather as ‘a rotter’ who, in one of his bad moods, set fire to a wooden chest full of family papers and other treasures, and made his wife and two daughters (Annie Elizabeth and Martha) watch it burn.  As for Annie Elizabeth’s second husband, who would later assault her, and whose demeanour in court did not impress the judge or the news reporters, there is a whole side story about him, his drinking, his ‘swelled-headed’ arrogance and his mean nature, all of which complements the picture I had built in my mind about him, based purely on the records.

There’s still a lot of information to be mined from Amy’s account, and some other things to check out, but I feel so lucky to have been given this little window onto the life of my great grandfather and his birth mother.

*****

I hope these stories will encourage you to think about using online trees in this way.

Targeted searches on Find My Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

In Find My Past, then:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*****

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

Targeted searches on Ancestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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