Genealogy: Essential Research Methods

I remember the day I realised the records I had been finding, downloading and attaching to my online tree did not ‘belong’ to Ancestry.  Rather they had been photographed and indexed by/for Ancestry who, with permission from the relevant archives, made them available via their website. 

The progression from Beginner to Intermediate skills for the genealogist is peppered with such realisations.  Broadly, as we become more proactive in searching for specific records to close specific gaps we must develop our knowledge of the types of records that exist and which ones might hold the information we require.  Alongside this we must develop the skills to find them (since these additional types of record are less likely to have been made available online), analyse them and support each one with effective citation, keeping records of our progress and findings.  Helen Osborn’s work Genealogy: Essential Research Methods leaves aside the records themselves, focusing here on these essential skills of finding and using them.  It’s definitely not a book for Beginners; rather it’s a serious, diligent and methodical approach to genealogy.  You’ll get the most from it if you’re already working at a sound Intermediate level or higher, and looking to improve further.  For pretty much anyone who falls into these categories, I think there will be something to learn from this excellent work. 

The book focuses on researching within England and Wales. All references to archives and the records framework, and all examples from the author’s own work are from these two parts of the UK.  The principles of good research practice, however, are applicable everywhere, and from that perspective the book will be of use to anyone serious about developing as a genealogist and family historian.

The book was first published in 2012, although my copy was printed in 2020. It goes without saying that there have been changes in genealogy since then, in terms of wider online availability or records, website links, and even in the organisation of some of the archives themselves.  This issue is mostly limited to chapter 4 but for me is the only drawback, and is generally easily remedied with a Google search rather than simply typing in the sometimes defunct link.

It starts with a chapter setting out common genealogical and research challenges.  In the remaining chapters, techniques and ideas for working with and around these challenges are presented.  Yet it is not prescriptive; rather it reads as an ongoing personal exploration by a highly experienced professional genealogist, historian and qualified archivist inviting us to join in this exploration.  It is very readable. 

Within those chapters you’ll find the following:

  • How to seach online, using effective search terms
  • The importance of reading the particular website’s instructions
  • An understanding of the records framework for England and Wales, including the various jurisdictional levels and the legal, historical and geographic framework that underpins it
  • Different types of archives, the types of records they keep and how they are organised
  • Guidance on drawing upon work already done by others, including online trees and transcriptions
  • Analysis of each document in terms of value, bias and to get every last shred of evidence from it
  • Developing a thorough action plan and other ideas for when you get stuck
  • The importance of documenting sources, and different levels of citation
  • Why we should record our research process
  • Different ways of storing the info, including paper and digital; organising it in a way it can be passed on, perhaps to family or perhaps published in family history magazines or as a family history
  • Evidence and proof

Two meaty issues that have been a constant topic of interest for me – simply because there are no British genealogy ‘standards’ for them – are citation of sources (which has requirements for genealogy that differ from general academic fields in some respects) and advanced-level proof.  The former is dealt with in Chapter 8, with guidance on what needs to be in a citation and also what to record in a research log. The emphasis is on understanding ‘why’ rather than simply ‘what’. If we understand why such information should be noted we will develop the ability to create our own citations rather than simply adopt a formulaic approach. Proof is dealt with in Chapter 10. The two are of course linked, since it is through rigorous citation that we will record the evidence we are presenting as proof, thereby enabling not only ourselves but also others to follow our trail and decide for themselves if they are in agreement with our conclusions.

There is one more chapter that I know I will return to from time to time: Chapter 7 on Planning and Problem-solving. This entire chapter is about approaching brick walls in a systematic way, rather like having ‘a second pair of eyes’ to look for something you might have missed. There is advice about how to approach the problem solving in a systematic way, and also a checklist for record sources, some of which you might just have missed.

When I read this book I already considered my research and analysis skills to be well-developed but was looking for ideas to be more rigorous, particularly in documenting work done and developing action plans. I found I could mentally tick off much of the advice – yes, I’m already doing that – but there were also gems here and there where I knew I could do better, and which I’ve used to develop a personal action plan for improvement. If you’re serious about developing as a genealogist I recommend this book.

Click the image to find this book on Amazon.co.uk.
(Affiliate link)

Edward’s last journey

Family stories are not always true, but often there is truth in them.

I wrote in my last post about my elusive GG grandfather Edward Robinson. Last month, after a 25-year search, I was finally able to place him with his birth family. Throughout the search there had always been at the back of my mind my mother’s story – which must have had its origins with her own grandmother, Edward’s daughter Jane. The story was that when Jane’s mother died, after spending all his money on women and drink Edward went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river. I knew The Crooked Billet, still a pub until fairly recently, and although I never went inside, whenever I drove past I would think of its connection to my family history.

Even with a one-line story such as this there may be several elements. I had long ago found evidence to show that my GG grandmother, did indeed die long before Edward – thirty years earlier to be precise. I had also found several drunk and disorderly charges, each resulting in several nights in Wakefield prison. What surprised me when I first researched Edward was that there was another long-term partner after my GG grandmother. Edward was with Hannah at least seventeen years, from before the 1881 census until his death in 1898. This was never passed down in the story. And finally, Edward’s act of suicide and the location is evidenced by his death certificate and the Coroner’s notes.

Only one element of this story remained to be proven: that Edward was born close by The Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet. Throughout the years of my search for Edward’s birth family I remained guided by this, but always open to the possibility it might not be accurate.

I now know that on his father’s side Edward is descended from generations of Edward and John Robinsons, all living in Hunslet in Meadow Lane, just across the river from Leeds township and marked on the map below with a blue dot. Edward’s family lived here at the time of his sister Elizabeth’s baptism 1822. They also, it turns out, had an older son, John, baptised in 1818, Meadow Lane being the place of residence given here too. At some point between sister Elizabeth’s birth in 1822 and brother John’s death in 1834 Edward sr. broke with tradition and moved with his family to Pottery Fields, marked on the map with a pink dot. The Crooked Billet inn was more than a mile away in Thwaite Gate, indicated with a red dot, right on the border with the parish of Rothwell. It isn’t looking like Edward would have been born there.

Map of Hunslet dated 1846-47. Note: This was a time of enormous and rapid industrial and housing development in the area. Even 20-30 years earlier it would have been more rural in character.

It is in fact Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Clarebrough’s family that is key to this puzzle. I’ve now traced her line back to my 11xG grandparents in the sixteenth century. The Clarebroughs are a long-established Rothwell family, located mainly in the Oulton and Woodlesford area. Elizabeth and her twin sister were eighth and ninth of thirteen children, although at least three of them did not survive to adulthood. Baptism and burial records indicate that the family relocated from Oulton between January and August 1791. The place they moved to was… Thwaite Gate in Hunslet, the exact location of The Crooked Billet. They were still there in 1805 when Elizabeth’s father was buried, and although by the time of Elizabeth’s mother’s death in 1830 she was living in Woodhouse Hill (indicated on the map with a green dot), she would seem to have remained close by the area around Thwaite. Even if a baptism record does somewhere exist for my GG grandfather Edward, the abode given will be the usual residence – Meadow Lane or Pottery Fields – and yet it is entirely reasonable to consider that his mother Elizabeth might have gone to stay with her own mother for the period of her confinement, and that he really was born right next to or at least close by The Crooked Billet.

Thinking more widely than this story for a moment – I wonder if this might sometimes be the key to locating missing baptisms? What if our ‘baptism-less’ ancestors who insist on census records that they were born in place X really were born there, because the mother had gone to be with her own mother for the birth, even though a baptism record will be found in place Y…? After all, the parish register records the name and abode of the father, not the actual place of birth. Quite apart from a truthful response to the question of the father’s own abode, it was in any case important for proof of settlement for a child to be registered in the correct parish.

Back to Edward, we can now fast forward to March 1898 when, the story goes, he left his home in Leeds township (marked orange on the map below) and drowned himself in the water by The Crooked Billet (red dot). In fact, thanks to several witnesses whose words are recorded in the Coroner’s notebooks, we can be more precise than that. South of Leeds the river Aire, being not fully navigable, is accompanied on its way to the Humber by the Aire & Calder Navigation canal. The Coroner’s notes, written the day after Edward’s death, evidence that Edward had walked along the water from Thwaite Gate in Hunslet and thrown himself in the canal close to Rothwell Haigh, at roughly the spot marked by the blue dot. Knowing what I know now about his mother’s origins, just a little further along the river, in and around Woodlesford and Oulton (green dot), knowing that as a twin her family’s connection to her sister and her children might have been particularly close, and knowing through burial records that the older generation retained a strong connection to the parish of Rothwell even after moving to Hunslet, I can imagine happy childhood days playing by the water, or walking the three miles or so along the water to visit family.

Edward’s Last Walk: Map of Leeds and Rothwell dated 1900

Of all my ancestors, Edward has been the hardest to love. Finally, working through his story with the additional information, and re-reading the Coroner’s notes, has helped me to make my peace with him. My impression of Edward was that he didn’t have a good life. He didn’t settle to a trade, and the deaths of two significant women in his life – his mother and his first wife, seem to have sent him off on self-destructive behaviour. My mother’s story, suggesting that in his despair, Edward was returning to his own roots to drown himself, was certainly true, but I now believe the attraction was not The Crooked Billet inn itself, but happy childhood memories with his mother and family by the water on the way to Rothwell.

*****

I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a few weeks. My next post will publish on 15th July.

Will the real Edward Robinson please stand up?

When I started researching my tree my Mum told me what she knew about her family.  It wasn’t much, but enough to get me started.  Regarding her mother’s grandparents she could name only one, and even then only his surname: Robinson.  However, for the next 25 years, my GG grandfather Robinson – Edward, as I discovered – kept his origins a closely guarded secret.  The problem was that there were no documents to evidence his birth family.  He didn’t actually marry either of his ‘wives’, and if there was a baptism, I have never been able to find it.  Any of these records would have evidenced Edward’s father’s name, location and occupation. From 1851 onwards I collected a great deal of information about Edward, right up until his death in 1898. All censuses and other documentation are absolutely consistent with a birth year of 1826 – and with one exception, even consistent with a birthdate between 18th March and 3rd April 1826, but there was nothing at all to enable me to place him with a family.

Even before knowing Edward’s name, I grew up hearing stories about him.  He had a stall in Leeds market. My Grandma told me he paid a shilling for her mother, Jane, to go to school one day a week, and Jane used to play with gold sovereigns on the floor.  After Edward’s first wife, my GG grandmother Margaret died, he turned to drink and lost all his money.  There is truth in this: I unearthed drunk and disorderly reports and short spells in the slammer, but I rather suspect there was never that much money to lose.  Finally, my Mum told me that after losing all said money ‘he went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river’.  This too is true.  I have the Coroner’s Report made the day after his death in 1898, although Edward actually drowned himself a couple of miles along from that spot.

It’s fair to say that Edward had a colourful life, and from 1851 I think I have the measure of him.  I even suspect that withholding information was a reflection of his personality: he probably didn’t trust the authorities, and maybe it has taken him all this time to trust me too!  Nevertheless, in amongst all of the above there were several clues:

  • Edward was born in 1826, or at the latest in 1827
  • In all records he gives his birthplace as Leeds
  • My mother’s story suggests a birthplace of Hunslet – not part of Leeds township at that time, but just across the river, and within the large ancient parish of Leeds.
  • There was a hint that he might actually have been born at the Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet.
  • Edward had two daughters: the younger, Margaret, was named after her mother.  Might the older, my great grandmother Jane, have been named after Edward’s own mother?

Two of these clues turned out to be red herrings, but they had me hooked for a while.  At the time of Edward’s birth the innkeeper at the Crooked Billet was John Robson.  Could that name somehow have morphed into Robinson?  No, it hadn’t: it seemed Edward could have been born *near* the Crooked Billet, but not *in* it.

As for Jane, there was an Edward of the right age living with a Jane old enough to be his mother in Hunslet at the time of the 1841 census.  However, searching the parish registers for a Robinson marrying a Jane in the parish in the years before 1826 returned only two records, both traceable in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living away from Leeds. 

Searching the parish registers for Edward’s baptism proved equally fruitless.  Ten Edward Robinsons were baptised in Leeds between 1825 and 1831.  There were also two marriage records in 1847 and 1867 that might possibly have been him.  I had long ago realised that the reason Edward and my GG grandmother Margaret didn’t marry was that she was already married to someone else.  Perhaps Edward too, had married another woman before meeting Margaret?  But no: the couples in these two records were still together in subsequent censuses when I knew Edward was with Margaret or, after Margaret’s death, I knew where he was.

It troubled me not being able to break down Edward’s brick wall, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to give him another opportunity to reveal his identity.  Using Ancestry, FindMyPast, TheGenealogist, FreeReg and FamilySearch, I listed every possible baptism for every Edward Robinson baptised in Leeds from 1824 to 1831.  I was able to discount a couple on the basis of location or father’s occupation; another died in infancy; and the rest I worked forwards through the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  I knew where my Edward was in 1851, so if any of these Edwards could be located elsewhere, they were not my Edward.  I was left with about three baptisms, and no way of choosing between them.  I then searched the 1841 census for any additional possibilities, and found two not accounted for in the baptisms.  One of these was my long-preferred Edward with Jane in Hunslet.  The other was Edward and sister Elizabeth, living in Hunslet with their parents Edward and Elizabeth.

At this point I did something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do on previous attempts to break through Edward’s brick wall: I turned to DNA.  Using the filters on the Ancestry website I searched amongst all my DNA matches for anyone with the surname Robinson and birthplace of Leeds in their trees.  I didn’t expect to find anyone.  I needed someone who had already traced their ancestry back to Edward’s parents, who had young Edward in their tree, who had taken the DNA test, and shared DNA with me – not guaranteed at 3rd or 4th cousin level.  It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. But unbelievably I found someone: just one person, estimated at 5th to 8th cousin.  He had my Edward in his tree, born c.1826, living in 1841 with sister Elizabeth and parents Edward and Elizabeth.  This was, in other words, one of the families I had already identified as a possibility.  Unlike Edward, sister Elizabeth had a marriage certificate and a baptism record and had therefore been traceable quite easily back to her birth family. My DNA match, Elizabeth’s descendant, already had another bit of information on his tree too: a marriage record for Edward’s parents, and with that a maiden name for the mother: Clarebrough.  But could this just be coincidence? My match and I didn’t share very much DNA; this could be a case of confirmation bias. The next step was to do the same filtered search on Ancestry, but this time for the unusual surname Clarebrough and a birthplace of Leeds.  If I could find anyone amongst my DNA matches just one generation further back from Elizabeth Clarebrough but descended from a different sibling, then there was no doubt that this was my Edward…  Bingo!  A DNA match, and three more on MyHeritage.  Finally, after 25 years of trying, I have my Edward!

I hope there’s something in this account and the methodology to interest you. In those pre-census/ pre-Civil BMD days, listing all possible baptisms and then working each one forward to discount as many as possible can often solve the puzzle. In Edward’s case it didn’t, and without bringing in the DNA cavalry at this point I would never have been able to break through this brick wall.

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.

Counting the population, 1811-1831

Since 1841 the decennial census has been an increasingly invaluable resource for genealogists and family historians, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on our ancestors that we can compare with parish registers, civil BMD certificates, and other documents recording events in their lives. 

But did you know that the census did not begin in 1841?  There were four earlier censuses, in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831. 

There had been calls for a better knowledge and understanding of the state of the population since the middle of the 17th century.  How many people were there?  How many paupers?  How many men were available to fight, and what would be the impact on their communities if they were required to do so?  These, and other important questions were behind the call, and it was felt increasingly that existing parish records were not up to the job. However, it was not until the turn of the 19th century that the issue finally found its way to the statute book.  The Population Act of 1800 provided for ‘an enumeration’ of the population on 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible thereafter, with two objectives:

  1. to ascertain the number of persons, families and houses and a broad indication of the occupations in which the people were engaged;
  2. to gather information to provide a better understanding of whether the population was increasing or decreasing.

Information relating to the first objective was to be collected by the Overseers of the Poor or ‘other Substantial Householders’, via house to house enquiry.  The second objective was to be addressed by selective scrutiny of parish registers during the previous hundred years, and was to be carried out by the Clergy in England and Wales, and by the Schoolmaster ‘or other fit person or persons’ in Scotland.

This pattern of specific Act of Parliament followed by a census the next year occurred every decade up to and including the 1910 Act / 1911 census.  (The Census Act of 1920 provided for future enumerations as well as for that due to be taken in 1921.)  As with the censuses since 1841, the questions asked were amended in 1811, 1821 and 1831.  You can read the exact questions asked, together with more about the history of the earlier censuses at the Vision of Britain website

Sadly for us as genealogists and family historians, what distinguishes these early censuses from those since 1841, is that they were simply enumerations of the population: there was no requirement to record names.  Of course the information recorded was and remains of use to various professionals including planners, population analysts and historians, and we can access digitised images of the original reports via online search at histpop: online historical and population reports.  An abstract for Leeds Town for the 1801 enumeration, for example, shows that the East division, where I know some of my ancestors lived at that time, had 1,156 inhabited houses, occupied by a total of 1,339 families.  58 additional houses were uninhabited.  I also see that in this division there were 2,387 males and 2,737 females, and I can see the breakdown of occupations of these people.  Similar information is available for 1811, 1821 and 1831 – and of course for every other parish in the country.

If by now you’re thinking this is all very nice, but you would far prefer to see records with the names of your ancestors and to learn a little more about them specifically and their lives… you may be in luck.

When the overseers, schoolmasters, clergy or other fit and substantial persons carried out their enquiries, they did of course make their own records. Generally this would have included a list of actual named householders, together with the required information for that household. They were, as we know, not required to submit this information; rather they extracted the numerical data from it. Having done that they may have destroyed their original paperwork. On the other hand, they may have retained it, often amongst the papers in the parish chest.

In fact quite a few name-rich lists from the early censuses are known to have survived and more come to light from time to time. As they do, their existence and whereabouts are recorded by a team at the University of Essex Department of History, who have published a booklet listing their findings: Census schedules and listings, 1801-1831: an introduction and guide, available online [here]. Documents are listed by county, alphabetically, and within that by parish. Known locations of the documents are included. They may, for example, be at the local record office; copies may be at the main library; and local history or family history societies may have transcribed them. The authors at Essex University acknowledge that theirs is a work in progress, so it’s possible that there may still be more to be found amongst parish records and papers at your local Record Office.

To return to my Leeds Town example, notes have been found for almost the whole township for 1801, and these do include the East division. I haven’t yet been able to view it, but it will certainly add another piece to the developing jigsaw puzzle of known information about my ancestors in this area.

I hope you find something of interest about your parishes too.

Thomas and Lucy: a Removal Order

Historic church photographed from inside modern building

If you know Norwich you may recognise this scene, captured from The Forum.  The 15th century church opposite is St Peter Mancroft.  The significance of this scene for me was not only the reflections of the super-modern structure juxtaposed with the historic church, but also in the fact that here I was with my son, inside the modern structure in the year 2019, looking out on that ancient church inside which, 230 years earlier, my 4x great grandparents were married, and six years after that my 3x great grandfather Thomas was baptised.

All of this is relevant to the tale that follows. It follows on from my last post about the operation of ‘settlement’ as the key concept in dealing with the poor.

I was in Norwich visiting my son, spending each evening with him and passing the days while he was studying, at the county archives or walking around the churches and parishes of significance to my Norwich ancestors.  Amongst others, I was on the trail of the aforementioned Thomas and his wife Lucy: my 3x great grandparents.  After marriage they settled in another Norwich parish: St Martin at Oak.  Yet the baptism records of their children were puzzling: five children born in St Martin at Oak between 1819 and 1828, then a daughter born two hundred miles away in Fewston, Yorkshire in 1830, another son back in St Martin at Oak in 1832 and then seven more children in Fewston and Leeds between 1834 and 1846.

I understood why they had moved to Yorkshire.  Thomas was a weaver: the very trade upon which Norwich’s wealth had been built; and yet even by the time of Thomas’s apprenticeship weaving was on the decline in Norwich, and with that the city itself.  Quite simply, Norwich was unable to compete with the new spinning and weaving mills located in other parts of the country alongside fast flowing water and ready coal supplies.  And so Thomas traded in his cottage industry lifestyle, working long hours at his loom beside the trademark long weavers’ window on the upper floor of the family home, for a position spinning flax at West House Mill at Blubberhouses within the parish of Fewston, about eight miles from Harrogate.

Long window in Norwich typical of traditional weavers' houses

Typical Norwich weavers’ window

It’s known that the owners of West House Mill toured workhouses and charitable institutions in London and other large towns in search of hundreds of apprentice children, just as Thomas’s orphaned contemporary Robert Blincoe (‘The Real Oliver Twist’) had been ‘recruited’ around 1800.  In fact, they hold the dubious honour of being amongst the first to do that.  It’s reasonable to suppose, then, that Thomas might have been persuaded to relocate to the mill as an ‘engine minder’ while the owners were on a recruitment drive in Norwich.  Reasonable, too, to imagine that all the benefits of this new life were highlighted, and little of the reality.  The fact is that West House Mill was a huge, noisy, five-storeyed mill in a remote position in the Washburn Valley on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  The working day, starting at 5am and ending sixteen hours later with perhaps just an hour’s break for rest and a midday meal, was hard-going and repetitive.  The mill depended on the slave labour of the pauper children, effectively imprisoned there until they reached the age of twenty-one: it was a place of misery.  While workers’ cottages were provided and the beauty of the countryside undisputed, the culture shock for Lucy and Thomas, used to the milder climate, the facilities of Norwich, the tranquillity of detailed work at the handloom and family nearby would be immense.

There was very little risk for the mill owners in employing Thomas.  In accordance with the law, it’s almost certain that he left Norwich with a Settlement Certificate.  Ever since the 1662 Settlement Act these certificates had facilitated migration by serving as a guarantee from the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the ‘home’ parish to those of the intended ‘host’ parish that, in the event of difficulties resulting in an application for poor relief, the home parish would pay the costs of ‘Removal’.

Early 19th century engraving of large flax mill

West House Mill at Blubberhouses, Fewston, Yorkshire

Two days after taking my ‘ancient and modern’ photo I was back in The Forum.  Alongside several restaurants, the building is home to the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library which includes the Norfolk Heritage Centre.  Here, I came across a reference to Thomas, Lucy and their first four children: a Removal Order dated 1826.  This surprised me on two counts.  First, based on the baptism records I had believed their initial migration took place between 1828 and 1830; and second, if my family had been removed from Fewston back to St Martin at Oak in Norwich, what was the reason for this, and why had they returned there in time for the 1830 baptism of their sixth child?

The detail of the Removal Order was even more unexpected.  In 1826 Thomas, Lucy and their four named children (6 years to 3 months) were removed from St Martin at Oak, where they had ‘lately intruded themselves contrary to the law relating to the settlement of the poor, and that they had there become chargeable’.  By decision of two Justices of the Peace they were to be returned to the last legal place of settlement, and that was Fewston in Yorkshire.

I confess that until this point I had misunderstood the full draconian extent of the application of ‘settlement’ in the operation of relief of the poor.  While fully understanding the rules for acquisition of settlement rights in a new parish, my understanding had been that an individual would always retain rights acquired by birthright.  In other words, that the granting of new settlement rights was a privilege and an additional set of rights.  Raising my eyes from the index, my eyes lighted once again on St Peter Mancroft, right outside the huge modern windows of The Forum.  Here Thomas had been baptised.  Here his existence had first been recorded.  In trying to do his best to provide for his family Thomas had lost his right to live in his home town and was henceforth banished to a noisy, remote mill two hundred miles distant.  My ‘ancient and modern’ photograph now assumed a new significance: loss and injustice.  Injustice because the empty promises made to him cost the mill owners nothing, while believing them had cost Thomas and Lucy a great deal.

Sadly the Settlement Examination papers (I referred to this stage of the process in my last post) have not survivied, nor have the equivalent papers for the other end of the process in Fewston.  These would have given me a lot more information about dates of migration.  However, thanks to this Removal document I now know that Thomas and Lucy first moved to Fewston earlier than previously thought – probably around 1825.  I now understand that the Certificates of Settlement were time-limited.  As soon as Thomas had acquired legal rights of settlement in Fewston – presumably by being hired continually for more than a year and a day – the certificate ceased to have value.  Hiring Thomas may have been risk-free for the owners of the West House Mill, but for Thomas and Lucy it was a one-way ticket.  We might imagine that they tried to make it work, but finally were so unhappy that they decided to return to Norwich; and by then it was too late.  All previous settlement rights had been erased.  On 29th April, 1826, just three months after the Norwich birth of their fourth child, the Removal Order was signed for their forced return to Fewston.

Thomas and Lucy did not go quietly.  They were back in St Martin at Oak for the baptism of a fifth child by 1828; in Fewston for the sixth in 1830; possibly (according to a note on the parish accounts) back again briefly in 1831; and in 1832 a final child was baptised in St Martin at Oak. Between 1834 and 1843 six more children were baptised, all at Fewston, and the 1841 census shows them here, living in workers’ accommodation.  Thomas, formerly a skilled handloom weaver, is now an ‘engine minder’.  The six oldest children, aged twenty to eleven are all ’employed at the flax mill’.  I strongly suspect that it was through realisation that this would be the inevitable fate of all their children, and a desire to avoid this, that Lucy and Thomas were so desperate to escape.  It is notable, however, that the eventual ‘acceptance of their fate’ coincides with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, with its central focus on the workhouse in dealing with the poor.  Faced with trying to make a go of it in Norwich but the likelihood of the workhouse for the entire family if they failed to do so, Thomas and Lucy seem, reluctantly, to have chosen Fewston.  They would now live out their days in Yorkshire, relocating to Leeds by 1846, but my guess is that their hearts remained in Norwich.

Relief of the poor: Settlement

The threat of ‘the workhouse’ loomed large over our nineteenth century ancestors.  Even if they worked hard and were able to provide well for their families, there was always the possibility of accidents (even fatal ones), disability, sickness, failure of harvests… and therefore no longer being able to work.  The workhouse regime began with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and was formally abolished only in 1930, yet it wasn’t the first legislative arrangement for dealing with ‘paupers’ and ‘vagrants’.  Prior to 1834, relief of the poor was based on the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the Act of Settlement of 1662.

There are two important issues at the heart of all this.  The first is that relief of the poor was a parish matter.  This had less to do with any sense of ‘Christian duty towards those less fortunate’ than with the fact that alongside the spiritual role we associate today with the local church, the parish was also the local administrative unit, responsible for collecting monies and ensuring the smooth-running of the local area.

The next important issue follows on from this.  Since local people had to cough up the money to provide for the poor, the parish was at pains to ensure that only genuinely local poor people were eligible.  This led to the concept of ‘settlement’.

Even if we say that essentially, a person had the right of settlement in the parish in which he or she was born, there still had to be some acknowledgement of migration, and a system for allowing the acquisition of settlement for those genuinely moving into a new parish for sound reasons.  It was the 1662 Act (and later amending Acts) that introduced the rules under which a newcomer acquired such legal rights.  These were:

  • holding parish office
  • paying the parish rate
  • renting property worth more than £10 p.a. or paying taxes on a property worth more than £10 p.a.
  • being resident in the parish for 40 days, after having given the authorities 40 days’ notice before moving into the parish
  • being currently apprenticed to a master in the parish
  • having served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident
  • being hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day
  • having previously received poor relief in that parish

However, the above rules applied only to men and unmarried women, and there were different rules for children born within wedlock and those born illegitimately:

Much as the need to restrict relief of the poor to genuinely local people was real, suffice to say there was plenty of scope in all of the above for trickery, twisting the rules, cruel, draconian decisions and absurd outcomes. It became common practice, for example, to look for masters outside the parish when placing a child as a parish apprentice… so that in case of problems the child would have ceased to be a burden on the home parish.  Over time, this extended to sending children as young as seven years old to growing industrial towns in the north, often many miles from home.  Robert Blincoe, for example, believed to have been the real-life inspiration for Dickens’s Olver Twist (see above link), was sent from London to Nottingham.  Later, he was transferred to a parish in Derbyshire, where the unscrupulous mill owner built the apprentice living quarters just across a stream in the adjacent parish. In other words, the profits and benefits of the mill and the children’s labour went to the owner in one parish, while the burden of providing for their burials and other disablement expenses fell to another.  Another ploy was the avoidance of settlement rights after employment for a year and a day by employing migrant workers only on short term contracts.  And the different arrangements for men, women, and legitimate / illegitimate children could mean that in times of genuine hardship the man’s settlement was deemed to be where he had worked; his cohabiting but unmarried ‘wife’s’ settlement was where she had been born – or even in the parish of another, estranged, husband; while their illegitimate children would have settlement in their own place of birth and those aged over seven then apprenticed to masters throughout the country.

The means by which such decisions were made was the Settlement Examination, a legal document drawn up pursuant to those rules outlined above.  Generally, the trigger for a Settlement Examination was the application for poor relief by the person who had fallen on hard times.  The examination focused on the personal, employment and ownership histories of the individual, or if a married woman, of her husband, late husband or absconded husband.  You can read more about Settlement on the London Lives website – a general overview; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have London roots – and there is also a separate page about Settlement Examinations.  On both pages there are links to examples of Settlement Examination documents, or you might like to follow the case of one person’s experience:

Susanna Flood:
Settlement Examination 1
Removal Order 1
Petition and Appeal
Settlement Examination 2
Removal Order 2

If you come across Settlement Examination documentation in your own ancestry it will give you valuable information about family members and any migration history.  In the pre-census era this can help you add detail to your ancestors’ lives.

My Ahnentafel based filing system

In my last post we looked at the Ahnentafel system.  I outlined how it works and how I use it sometimes in printed family histories.

However, my main use of this system is purely administrative.  I use it to organise information on my computer – and I find it invaluable.

This is how it works:

  • I have a folder for Family History.  Within that folder there are some miscellaneous files.
  • However, most of the information is attributed to the appropriate direct ancestor and stored in a filing system based on the Ahnentafel system.
  • Each folder has the ancestor’s Ahnentafel number followed by name and birth/death years.
  • To make it easier to home in quickly on the correct folder I include the generational prefix.  So I am 01_001, my Dad is 02_002, my Mum is 02_003, my grandparents are 03_004 to 03_007.  My great grandparents are all within the prefix 04, GG grandparents within the prefix 05, and so on.
  • Putting all of the above into practice, a typical folder will have a title like 09_368 William Wade 1702-1783.
  • The folder is created when the ancestor is found.  Inclusion of dates is advantageous for distant ancestors, partly because naming patterns often mean there are ancestors over consecutive generations of the same name, and partly because I don’t remember the name of every distant ancestor and which generation they fit into.
  • Whenever I have a new piece of evidence (downloads, photos, etc), I store it in the appropriate file for that direct ancestor.  Remember that you won’t be able to see any evidence linked to your online tree on Ancestry, etc, if you let your paid subscription lapse.  You may also have downloaded evidence from other online sources, or you may have family tree software on your computer.
  • Some of the info I have relates to siblings / other children of the family who are not my direct ancestors.  For these, I store them with one or other of their parents.  If one of these people has an interesting history with a lot of additional documents I create a sub file for them within the parent’s file.

So here’s a snippet of what it looks like when I have xplorer open on my desktop.  On the left you see some of the folders for my 8th generation (5xG grandparents) and on the right I have opened one of the folders so you can see the kind of information I store in there.

Screen grab of computer filing system based on the Ahnentafel numbering system

You may wonder why I did this.  It’s true that it involved an initial investment of time.  However, it has paid dividends ever since.  I can now quickly store and retrieve any digital file connected with any of my ancestors or their close family members.

I find this better than just having a handful of surname files, such as one for the Wades, one for the Thompsons, and so on.  In part this is because it’s so much easier to retrieve information from a smaller folder – there could be a LOT of information to plough through to find the right file amongst all the others in a general ‘Wade’ file.  This also worked better for me in keeping consistency with women who have changed names upon marriage.  A filing system focusing on group surnames could ‘lose’ married women who started out with their father’s surname and changed to their husband’s.  My system means that every woman has her own file in her birth name, and any changes upon marriage can be accommodated by simply including the correct files in her folder, regardless of what name is used and indeed however many times she changes her name.

*****

I haven’t mentioned Lockdown for a while, but just a quick note to say I hope you are all well, and if any of you are in areas that have gone into localised Lockdown, keep safe.

The Ahnentafel system

Have you come across the Ahnentafel genealogical numbering system?

‘Ahnentafel’, meaning ‘ancestor table’ in German, is an ascending numbering system for ordering and identifying ancestors.  Starting with the Subject of the tree (i.e. you, or the person/ descendant whose ancestry is being shown) and working backwards, every direct ancestor is given a number.  The Subject is number 1, his/her father is 2, mother is 3, paternal grandfather 4, paternal grandmother 5, maternal grandparents 6 and 7, and so on.

A quick Internet search will return many examples of Ahnentafel templates and charts, some circular, some with colours, some completed, for example with the royal family’s details, some looking very much like a regular pedigree chart but with the addition of numbers….  This one from Lost Cousins is the one that introduced me to Ahnentafel in the first place.

The features of the Ahnentafel chart are:

  • It starts with a Subject / descendant and works backwards through the generations
  • It shows only the direct line – no siblings, no other children
  • Apart from the Subject – number 1 on the chart, who may be male or female – the direct male ancestors are always even numbers and the direct female ancestors are always odd numbers

Calculating each ancestor’s number
Thanks to the elegance of mathematics, the correct number can easily be allocated to an ancestor, even if they are many generations in the past, simply by following this simple formula:

  • To obtain any person’s father’s number, anywhere on your ancestry, double that younger person’s number.
  • To obtain any person’s mother’s number, double their own number as above, then add 1 to that figure.  The mother will therefore always be one number higher than the father.

Hence:
You are number 1
Your mother is number 3   [1×2 =2 +1 =3]
Her father (your grandfather) is 3×2 =6 and her mother (your maternal grandmother) is 3×2 =6 +1 =7
Your maternal grandmother’s mother (your mother’s mother’s mother) is therefore 7×2 =14 +1 =15
Your mother’s mother’s mother’s father is therefore 15×2 =30.
His father is 60.  His father is 120 and the mother is 121, and so on.

This arrangement of numbers of course applies to everyone’s tree in the same way.  But be aware if you’re working on your cousin’s tree that the arrangement of numbers will not necessarily be the same.  If your cousin is the child of your mother’s brother, your maternal grandparents will be your cousin’s paternal grandparents.  In other words, although half of your trees will be identical, the arrangement on the Ahnentafel will be completely different.

As you see, using this system, provided you have already calculated the Ahnentafel number of the closer generation (which you will, since we always work back through time), then you can always work out very easily the Ahnentafel number of that ancestor’s parents.

Generation numbers
We have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 GG grandparents, and so on.  The number of direct ancestors doubles with each generation.  To make it easier to see at a glance in which generation an ancestor is located we can choose to include a prefix to the Ahnentafel number.  In the worked example above, my mother’s mother’s mother’s father is 30.  As my GG grandfather he comes within the fifth generation, and I could therefore indicate him with the reference number 5: 30 instead of just with the A-number 30.

Table showing organisation of generations by Ahnentafel numbers

Why would you use this system?
It is undoubtedly easier to pinpoint an ancestor at A-number 418 or 9: 418 than to describe him as the subject’s mother’s father’s mother’s father’s father’s father’s mother’s father – or even to use the shorthand of that: MFMFFFMF.  But of course it will only be easier if we’re using it in communication with someone else who understands the system!  You may, like me, be familiar with the glazing over of the eyes of pretty much any family member if you stray too far into the detail of a fascinating (obviously!) ancestral tale.  I know that if I started to refer to my ancestors using numerical code or possibly worse, using long strings of M’s and F’s, those glazed expressions would quickly transform into something questioning my sanity.  Generally speaking, ‘my 6x great grandfather’ will more than suffice!

Even on paper, because of the doubling of ancestors that must be squeezed onto the page with every new generation, there’s a limit to how many generations can be included on one page.  Even if you’re able to print out on A3 paper, the sheer numbers of ancestors to fit in the additional columns will mean only a couple of extra generations at most can be added.  The Lost Cousins example linked to above includes 3xG grandparents (six generations total), requiring space for 32 names in the final column.  Two more generations would require space for 128 5xG grandparents in that final column – and I have identified several 10x and 12x great grandparents!

The above problems can of course be overcome by effectively starting a new table, appropriately re-numbered, at each 3xG grandparent.  This would get you back to eleven generations, or your 8xG grandparents and would be less unwieldy.  In this way, I find Ahnentafel a useful system to include in a printed family history, making it easy to pinpoint certain ancestors when interesting stories emerge.  However, I have also adapted Ahnentafel in my own information organisation system.  I’ll write about that in my next post.

English naming traditions

First of all, wherever you are in the world, I hope that you, your family and friends are well.

All that thinking about Irish, and possibly Scottish, naming traditions in my last post made we wonder if a similar tradition existed in England.  It turned out it did.  In fact it was exactly the same.

To recap:
1st son named after paternal grandfather (patGF)
2nd son named after maternal grandfather (matGF)
3rd son named after father (F)
4th son named after father’s eldest brother (patB)
5th son named after mother’s eldest brother (matB)

1st daughter named after maternal grandmother (matGM)
2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother (patGM)
3rd daughter named after mother (M)
4th daughter named after mother’s eldest sister (matS)
5th daughter named after father’s eldest sister (patS)

However, there were other traditions too, that might have varied the above rules:

  • Babies may have been named after powerful people, e.g. royalty, and these names were likely to have become fashionable, perhaps particularly in London and other fine towns and cities. Naming a child after a local wealthy landowner was also common.  Perhaps this was more likely in rural areas.
  • In addition to the grandparents, parents, and their eldest siblings, babies might have been named after another significant family member. In my last post there’s the example of Annabella, named for her great grandmother who had recently died.
  • In those days of high infant mortality, babies were often named after earlier siblings who had died in infancy. This often comes as a shock to beginner genealogists. Again, in my Irish family (see last post) there’s an example of this.  As late as 1888, Patrick’s second son John was named not only for his paternal grandfather but also to honour the memory of the first-born son.  Below, William and Jane lost seven of their children in infancy, among them three Thomases and two Edwins.
  • Biblical names were popular amongst Nonconformists, particularly for people belonging to a dissenting protestant church or meeting house. In my own dissenting lines I have Nathaniel, Benjamin, Isaac and Abraham, but in wider research I’ve come across Jonah, Zedekiah and Zillah.

Perhaps some of these variations on the regular traditional naming pattern were more likely in 18th or 19th century England than in Ireland.  My very small-scale study, outlined below, is nowhere near enough to be able to say whether this is so, but it’s a possibility.

As for my last post I’ve looked at several families, this time in my English lines.  The respective parents married in 1775, 1790, 1821, 1848 and 1886, and they are from three different lines of my ancestry.  I appreciate that the detail is of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I’ve put the tables showing my findings right at the end of this post.  All you need to notice is the peach highlights I’ve used to indicate adherence to the tradition.

Every single one of the tables shows adherence at some level to the same traditional naming pattern that existed in Ireland.  William and Jane (m.1848) are textbook examples; and even in 1886 George and Rose honoured most of the main family members alongside a couple of fashionable names.  Scanning other families in my tree, I see the tradition not in every case, but certainly generally used throughout.  I’ve even drawn upon it in my research, comparing names of an ancestor’s siblings and their own children.  I just never picked up the full extent of the pattern.  It was there all along though, hiding in full sight.

So this naming tradition, involving passing the same names down by all siblings to their own children, can be a good thing and a bad thing for us as genealogists.  Bad, in that if John and Mary have twelve children, there are potentially twelve first- or second-born grandsons called John and twelve first- or second-born granddaughters called Mary: all of them cousins for you to wade through when looking for your particular ancestor, John or Mary…

But there are benefits too:
Naming patterns can in fact help you to identify which John and which Mary is yours.  If we look wider at siblings’ names, and take into consideration the names of both spouses’ parents, we can separate out the distinct lines.  I talked about this in a previous post about Evidence – look at Case Study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents.  It can require a lot of concentration to do this, but you can achieve astonishing breakthroughs.

Varying from the standard rules to incorporate one of the other traditions might give us a little more info about our ancestors and what was important to them – could the name George or Victoria at a certain time be important because our ancestor was a royalist, or because of the appeal of a fashionable name, for example?

Can the passing on of the name of a family member that doesn’t really fit into the traditional pattern suggest the importance of a bond with an older family member, like a dear uncle, or in my Irish example, honouring father George’s great grandmother, Annabella.  In fact George is an interesting example for another reason: the grandparents’ names he passes on to his children are not his birth parents but those of the man and woman who brought him up.  I strongly suspect the reason George and his wife Bridget chose to honour both of his parents before hers was to show George’s gratitude.

Obviously, finding biblical names can be a huge clue that the family were dissenters – a fact that would impact on many areas of a person’s life and opportunities, and was not just about their religious beliefs.

And finally, naming patterns can be used in conjunction with DNA matching to identify families with likely connections.  This is particularly useful for ancestral lines where records are scarce (e.g. Irish and Jewish ancestry).  There is an example of this in my last post.  DNA matching proves only that another living individual and you have a common ancestor.  You have to work out where that match is for yourself.  Using naming patterns along with geographical locations to identify similarities can point to where that connection is, even if records have not yet come to light and possibly never will.

I hope there is something amongst all of this and my last post that will give you some ideas for using naming traditions to progress your research.  It would be great to read about any breakthroughs based on this in the comments.

*****

Here are the tables created while analysing application of the above rules in just five of my ancestral families.  The apricot highlights indicate that the rules were followed as expected.  Where the order of two consecutive expected names is reversed I’ve considered that as complying.

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children