Where there’s a Will there’s a way…

You might have noticed I’ve given a lot of thought on this blog to records related to our ancestors’ deaths. It started a couple of years ago when an increase in the cost of civil BMDs prompted me to write about what other kinds of records might be available that would give much of the same information – and sometimes more – thereby saving the cost of the death certificate.  Next came What Can Death Records Tell Us About Life? Death records have also featured here and there as evidence used in conjunction with other findings in my research to prove one hypothesis or another. The truth is I love a good death record. They can tell us SO much about a person, their life and family; and none more so than a Will.

The last two posts have focused on how to find Wills and Administration documents, both since 1858 and the far more cumbersome arrangements before the changes of that year. Today we’ll look at lots of ways we can use the Wills, particularly those from earlier centuries when there might be gaps in other record sets. They really are not just about how much money there was and who inherited it!

A Will can…

Substitute for a baptism
There was an example of this in a recent post when, finally, I found a father’s will in which he (Nathaniel) named and bequeathed land to my 6xG grandmother Jane, who I had long suspected was his daughter. Until this point I had built a good case but there was no definite evidence that they were father and daughter. Although, in the absence of a baptism record, I still have no definite birth year for Jane, the order in which Nathaniel refers to his two daughters indicates she is younger than her sister (baptised 1685), thereby supporting Jane’s own death record which suggests a birth year of 1687.

In another example, I suspected my 8xG grandfather, Thomas, was one of six siblings born to Christopher Simonson. I had baptisms for most of these siblings but not for Thomas, likely born during the Interregnum. In this example it was one of the brothers, Lister, baptised as son of Christopher in 1642, whose Will came to the rescue. In it, Lister specifically refers to ‘my brother, Thomas’. Thomas is a witness, scribe and co-executor to the Will, and by comparing handwriting to other known documents I can see this is definitely my Thomas.

Substitute for a marriage
Lister’s will worked overtime for me. In referencing his brother-in-law, Thomas Snell, he also made his will stand in for his own missing marriage record. Thomas Snell was his wife’s brother, therefore her maiden name was also Snell.

Substitute for a burial
It goes without saying that if Probate has been granted the testator has died! So even if we can’t find a burial record, we have a pretty good idea of the month and place of death. Sometimes the actual date of death is noted on the back of the bundle of papers.

Help you fill out the family of your ancestor
It may name sons, daughters, siblings, parents, cousins… There may also be people who seem to be family members but can’t yet be placed. All need to be noted and when possible can be inserted into your tree.

However, the absence of a child’s name does not imply a parting of the ways. Nor will the list of children necessarily include them all. A couple of years ago I wrote about my discovery that my 4xG grandfather John Wade’s Will made no reference at all to his daughters, leaving the family business and money only to his sons. The four sisters remained unmarried and lived together throughout their lives. It wasn’t until I obtained each of their Wills that I realised they had been well-cared for prior to their father’s death, in the form of railway stocks and shares. Father John’s arrangement ensured the daughters would retain their own money (and a level of independence) even if they married, while the family business would remain in the hands of his own sons.

Generally, though, wives and daughters will be named – offering us a rare sighting of the female family members in a time when documents usually omitted them completely.

Confirm family roots within a locality
Again, Lister gives value. In his Will he expresses his wish to be buried in the local churchyard, ‘as near to my Ancestors as possible’. This implies several previous generations in this parish. When I first read this I knew only of the father, and baptisms of the other siblings showed he had moved around the region. I now have two more generations before that, and ongoing wider research suggests a long association of this family with the area, although I’m yet to join the dots.

Suggest literacy levels
Although the shaky initials or ‘mark’ of the testator doesn’t necessarily mean they are unable to write (they may simply have been too weak to write at that precise time), certainly we can see which of the witnesses could write. Even official copies of Wills record who signed and who made marks. However originals provide additional clues: By comparing handwriting within the document and with others, you may even be able to work out if one of your ancestors wrote the document – even if maybe they could read and write in Latin.

Provide an insight into family relations
Generally, there is a sense of community at the time of writing and witnessing the Last Will and Testament of a sick relation. Death was part of life, and helping a family member or friend to put his affairs in order and ensure each other’s families were cared for was something done willingly. There is trust evident between the testator and those he chooses as his executors, or to assist a surviving spouse in the task. Occasionally, though, we might pick up on family tensions. In 1684 as my 8xG grandfather John Wilson divided up his lands and property between his five surviving sons, he included this final sentence: ‘And if any of my sayd sons their Executors or adm[inistrators] shall sue Molest or Trouble my sayd Executor for any greater Summe or Legacie then is given them by this my last Will and Testament that then the Legacie to them hereby given to bee voyd and noe more paid to them but Twelve pence.’  It seems John didn’t entirely trust his sons to behave well towards each other.

Hint at the testator’s religious views
Wills can, but do not necessarily reflect the testator’s religious views. They might instead reveal the scribe’s views. Alternatively, I have compared wills written within five years of each other but 40 miles apart, in which the similarity of overblown religious phrases in the opening lines suggests the two scribes were writing to an accepted formula.

Reveal how our ancestors lived
From 1530 to 1782 one of the probate/ administration requirements was that the executor should appoint three or four local men to value the deceased’s personal estate, and provide the probate court with a full ‘Inventory’: a detailed list of every single item of the deceased’s possessions, together with an assessed value for each. The Inventory relates only to the personal estate, i.e. it doesn’t include land and property; but since the list is generally organised room by room, including items found in outbuildings and barns, etc, it does indicate where the household included such buildings, how many living rooms and bedchambers and so on.

In the Will itself your ancestor may list houses, messuages, lands, etc. Comparison with contemporary maps may reveal exact locations of named holdings. He may also identify himself by occupation or standing. Not only does all this suggest a certain standard of living, but it may be compared with other record sets, such as occupations on baptisms or number of hearths listed on the Hearth Tax returns.

Show community networks
Occasionally we will find ourselves reading so many Wills from a small village that we recognise names of all those who regularly help out as scribes, witnesses, executors, takers of the inventories, and so on. We almost start to feel like we know all these 17th century inhabitants who were trusted community members and friends of our ancestors.

And finally… the bit we always expected the Will to be about:
Indicate how the land, property, goods and chattels were to be apportioned
Here we see how land was passed on according to the wishes of the testator and inheritance norms. We start to understand how, where the oldest son inherits the lion’s share, younger sons move progressively down the social hierarchy. There is also the possibility of bequests of small items treasured by the testator to a special person. (How wonderful would it be to recognise an item that your family still has!)

Alas…
Sadly, sometimes the bequests in the Will and the named beneficiaries prove you haven’t got the right person. I bought the Will of what I assumed was my 7xG grandfather Robert Lucas. He had a son named James in exactly the right place and at the right time to be my known 6xG grandfather, but when I read the Will there was no mention of James, just two daughters. It sent me back to the parish registers, and I found the little James I had assumed to be my ancestor had died not long after birth.

*****

Although most of the Wills are written in English, the further back you go, the more likely it is that you’ll need to be able to read old handwriting, but I think you’ll agree that with such riches available from scouring them, it’s worth the effort.

These are all examples of things I have learned from looking at Wills. Can you add anything more? Has something astonishing in an old Will ever helped you to break down a brick wall or make a great discovery?

Finding a pre-1858 Will

In my last post I mentioned that the arrangements for Wills and probate in England and Wales changed in 1858.  After the Court of Probate Act of 1857, Wills are generally much easier to find.  Before 1858, however, the arrangement was far more complicated.

Ecclesiastical Courts
Prior to the changes brought about by the 1857 Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration (if someone died without making a Will) was a function of the ecclesiastical courts.  However, there were more than 300 possible courts.  Before we can work out which one dealt with our ancestor’s estate we first need to understand the court hierarchy within the Church of England. 

Between the Reformation and the mid-19th century there were twenty-seven dioceses in England and Wales. 

Map showing Church of England dioceses in England and Wales between the Reformation and the mid-19th century
Map showing C of E dioceses and provinces circa 1550 to mid-19th century

Then, as now, these were organised into two provinces, or archdioceses: York and Canterbury. The dioceses of York, Carlisle, Chester, Durham and Sodor & Man came within the province of York, the remainder fell within Canterbury.

Each of these dioceses were subdivided into archdeaconries, and it was generally here where matters of probate were decided.

However, there were many exceptions.  Some territories were instead under the jurisdiction of a manorial, ecclesiastical, royal or prebendary ‘peculiar’.  Elsewhere, jurisdiction might leap-frog the archdeaconry, resting instead with the bishop’s own ‘Consistory Court’. These probate rights were jealously guarded: they brought in an income.

[This map came from an article by Paul Wainwright about using York Diocese Cause Papers for family history research.]

The court to be used varied from parish to parish
Within each diocese there were of course many parishes, and even adjacent parishes could come under the jurisdiction of different Probate courts. The easiest way to find out the arrangements for your parish of interest is to use the online tool at FamilySearch.

  • Go to FamilySearch Maps and enter a location in the search box.
  • I’m going to use Kinver. Only one location, in Staffordshire, matches that name. That’s the one I need, so I’ll click on that.
  • A fairly basic map showing the boundaries of the parish appears. For Kinver, if I click to remove the pop-up box I can see that this parish included other places called Stourton and Compton.
  • However, we do need that pop-up box so I click the place name again over in the left sidebar and the box will reappear. What we’re interested in is Jurisdictions. Click on that, and fourth down in the list you’ll see Probate Court. For Kinver, we see that this parish comes under the diocese of Lichfield, and the Probate Court was the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory). In other words, this parish does not deal with the usual archdeaconry for probate matters.
  • For comparison, if I click on the adjacent parish of Wolverley, I’m now not only in a new county (Worcestershire) but also a new diocese: Worcester; and the Probate Court is the Court of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester. Back in Staffordshire, and back in the diocese of Lichfield, before 1846 my ancestors in Bilston would have used the Court of the Peculiar of Wolverhampton, and after that date would have used the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory).

Note that this information on FamilySearch Maps is good as at 1851. There may have been some changes, but generally this is a good place to start.

So you now have a picture of how complex the situation was, but at least we have a way of finding out which court dealt with the parish where our ancestor lived.

Probate took place where the testator held ‘property or noteworthy goods’
For most of our ancestors, once you’ve found the parish you know where to look for the probate or administration documents. However, technically, probate took place not where the testator died but where he or she held ‘property or noteworthy goods’.  What if your ancestor held land in several parishes or even several archdeaconries? The rule is quite simple: you go up a level in the church hierarchy until you reach the level that encompasses all the relevant lands. Hence, if a person held property in two archdeaconries within one diocese, probate was proved at the Bishop’s Consistory Court.  If property was held in more than one diocese, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) or Prerogative Court of York (PCY) was used; and if in both provinces, probate at both was usual. 

The rule may be simple but the difficult part might be knowing all the places your wealthier ancestor held land.

Regardless of the above, for some circumstances the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was preferred or required

  • Serving soliders and sailors, and people who died abroad but held property in England and Wales.
  • From 1818-1858, if the deceased held stocks and shares, the Bank of England would only accept wills proved at the PCC.
  • The PCC was preferred by Nonconformists who wished to lessen the connection to the local Anglican church structures.
  • It was also preferred for reasons of prestige.

Finding the Wills
Building on that background information we’re now in a better position to look for our pre-1857 ancestors’ wills. As with the post-1857 National Probate Calendar, wills are indexed by year of probate which, if disputed, could be several years after death, so be prepared to search further than the actual year in which you know your ancestor died.  There is, unfortunately, no centralised index, so we must make use of finding guides (see below), but here are some pointers:

  • Wills proved at the archdeaconry or an ecclesiastical peculiar will usually be lodged with the relevant county archives.
  • Those proved at the bishop’s Consistory Court may be lodged with a separate diocesan archive.
  • Records of manor-peculiars can be difficult to locate. Being private papers, they could have been lodged out of county if the former lord of the manor had a principal home elsewhere. They might also have been lost, or simply never been made available to the public.
  • The National Archives hold registered copy wills for all probates made at the PCC between 1384 and 1858. These are not the original wills – you won’t see your ancestor’s signature – but they are copies of the original probates written into volumes by clerks at the church courts. You can search them [here]. At the time of writing (because of limited access to the National Archives at Kew) some of these are available to download free of charge. Some of them (but not all) are also available on Ancestry.co.uk in the record set England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858.
  • The Borthwick Institute in York holds half a million wills, dating from 1267 to 1858. Most of these are from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, but there are some from Cheshire, Lancashire, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and Durham. The index for all these documents from 1688 is available on Find My Past, with an easy link through to Borthwick for ordering digital copies of the originals. (Any probate documents will show up under Birth, Marriage & Death records.) Pre-1688 Wills are indexed separately, both at the Borthwick archives and also in a series of Yorkshire Archaeological Society publications available online through Internet Archive, starting with YAS Record Series Vol. 6: Index of wills in the York Registry, 1389 to 1514.
  • Other wills may be available online, but it all depends on licensing arrangements made between the archives and one of the subscription websites. For example, Ancestry has a record set called Yorkshire, England, Probate Records, 1521-1858 which includes probate documents for a manor-peculiar of interest to my research.

Finding Aids
These include:

FamilySearch maps

Smith, Cecil R. Humphery: The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers – This is available on Ancestry.co.uk as the record set Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers

J. Gibson & S. Raymond: Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for wills 6th edition, The Family History Partnership, 2016 – This is an inexpensive booklet but is sometimes out of print. You can usually get second hand copies.  County record offices and local history libraries are also likely to have it.

Don’t forget that you can always ask the staff at the archives for advice if you get stuck.  I have only ever found them to be extremely helpful.

*****

This has necessarily been a whirlind tour.  I did a four-week course to learn how to find and use Wills, and if you wanted to do that too you can find the course [here].  But there is at least enough information here to get you started and I hope it helps.

Layers of evidence

This post focuses on two issues.

First, it concerns ancestors who lived and died before the census and before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.  After 1841, these records work together as regular check-ins to see how our ancestors are progressing.  Before 1837-1841 we have to find different record sets to do the same job. In the description that follows you’ll see that I was looking for something to compensate for the fact that a key baptism was missing. This is one of the big step-ups as we progress to intermediate level genealogy and beyond. It’s complicated by the fact that often these records don’t have universal coverage, and even if particular record sets do survive for your area of interest, whether they are available online or not depends on arrangements between your local records office and one of the online subscription websites. All of the information I refer to in this post was available online with the exception of the probate and administration documents, which were listed online at FindMyPast but the actual documents had to be ordered and purchased.

Secondly, in this post you’ll see how I start out with what can only be a hypothesis – based on a coincidence of names, approximate years and places. I gradually add in more evidence until finally I am in no doubt that my original hunch is true. I say ‘gradually’. This has taken a few years, and was only proven to my complete satisfaction a few weeks ago.

The hypothesis
My starting point is a likely but not proven father/ daughter relationship. The two people in question are my 6xG grandmother, Jane Dracupp, who married my 6xG grandfather James Lucas in Leeds in 1710, and Nathaniel Dracupp who was in the right place at the right time to be her father.  The surname is unusual, and this made connecting them much easier. However, Nathaniel is not the only Dracupp of an age to father children; it’s just that he seems to be the only one to have left his parish of birth and moved to Leeds.

I have never found a baptism for Jane.  There is, however, a record for Mary, daughter of ‘Natha Draycupp’, who was baptised in Leeds in 1685.  Given Jane’s marriage in 1710, a baptism of circa 1685 is consistent with her likely birth year.  She might have been born in 1683, or 1687, perhaps.  The father’s given name is also significant, since Jane and her husband James will go on to name their second son Nathaniel.  (I’ve written a lot about traditional naming patterns and how they can be used to home in on likely parents/ grandparents. See e.g. [here] and [here].) It looks very much like Nathaniel Dracupp will be Jane’s father, and Mary her sister.  But other than the circumstances of birthplace and approximate year, and the fact of Jane naming her son Nathaniel, there is no actual evidence.

Evidence that Nathaniel, Mary and Jane live close by
I had noticed Nathaniel’s name on a couple of Overseers Rate Books for the years 1713 and 1726 but no specific abodes were included, and when I first found them I didn’t spot that Nathaniel’s entries were in the same part of the Manor of Leeds where I knew James Lucas (and therefore Jane after marriage) to be living.  When I realised this I went through these records thoroughly, looking for all references to Nathaniel.  I also looked for James Lucas and for Mary’s husband, whose name was Jeremiah Myers.  I found them all living very close together, with Jeremiah/Mary and James/Jane seemingly occupying adjacent plots of land.  This was slightly complicated by the fact that James was entered under the name ‘James Lukehouse’, which might have been a different person altogether.  However, in my head I could hear a local pronunciation of the word which would rhyme ‘house’ with the ‘as’ in Lucas.  Again, this tipped the scales a little more towards the likelihood of my hypothesis, but it wasn’t definite proof – and indeed might have been considered clutching at straws!

Evidence of a kinship or friendship connection between Jane and Mary’s husband
Although I hadn’t been able to find burial records for Jane or James, I now found letters of administration for a James Lucas who died in 1722.  The existence of letters of administration means James died without making a Will, suggesting an unexpected death.  Whereas a Will often names all children of the deceased, together with spouse, and possibly other family members who might be brought in as executors, trustees or witnesses, letters of administration will have none of these things.  However, there will be a sworn undertaking by the widow and possibly other family members to carry out faithfully the requirements of the probate court (an ‘Administration Bond’), and of course these people will be named.  Often, it is only when we read these names that we know for sure that the deceased is actually the person we think it might be.  I was in luck.  The document was signed by my 6xG grandmother Jane Lucas; and one of the other signatories was Jeremiah Myers, suggesting a good connection between the two.  It really is starting to look now like Jeremiah could be Jane’s brother in law – meaning Mary would be Jane’s sister and therefore Nathaniel Dracupp would be her father.

Evidence indicating Jane’s approximate birth year
The death of my 6xG grandfather James at a comparatively young age suggested Jane might have remarried.  I found a likely marriage seven years later, in 1729: Jane Lucas and a John Smith.  I did think at this point that my luck had run out!  John Smith and Jane Smith?!  I would never be able to narrow them down!  However, trying to confirm all this I went back to the Overseers Rate Books and found John Smith listed on that same plot of land, adjacent to Jeremiah Myers.  (John and Jeremiah would continue to be listed as landholders at the same properties for some decades.) I also found a burial for Jane Smith in 1757.  The record gave Jane’s husband’s name (John Smith), the abode just as I expected it to be, and also an age at death of 70, which indicates a birth year of 1687 – just two years after the baptism of Mary Dracupp.  Further, the burial was recorded in Nonconformist records at the chapel where I knew the next generation of the family now worshipped. This was definitely my Jane.

To be honest by this stage I was happy to accept that all these happy coincidences pointed to Nathaniel being Jane’s father.

Evidence flowing from Nathaniel’s death
The Overseers Rate Books continue until 1809. However, after 1726 there is a gap in the records until 1741, and Nathaniel Dracupp is not seen again.  Did this suggest Nathaniel died between 1726 and 1741 – either way a good long life for a man born in 1657. Although a burial record for Nathaniel has not been found, there was a probate record that had intrigued me for some time: In 1741, probate was granted for a Nathaniel Dracupp in Wakefield. Wakefield is about 13 miles (20 km) from Leeds, and it hadn’t seemed likely that this was the same person. As mentioned above, although Nathaniel Dracupp is an unusual name, this man I now strongly suspected was my 7xG grandfather is not the only Nathaniel in the Dracupp family. Given that a 1741 death indicated Nathaniel would have been 84, I thought it likely that this Nathaniel might be another family member from the next generation. However, knowing now that Nathaniel was living in 1726 and no longer listed in the Rate Books from 1741, I felt confident to purchase the probate documents. I probably wouldn’t have done this without the knowledge from the previous step.

It was him! Nathaniel names his daughter Mary and son in law Jeremiah Myers. He also names their one child – which indicates that the other three I knew about must have died before he made his will in 1737. Next he names his daughter Jane and her husband John Smith. Finally!!! I have my proof! The order in which he names (and bequeathes property) is significant, in that it indicates Mary is older than Jane – so the birth year of 1687 suggested by Jane’s 1757 burial record is almost certainly accurate. Jane’s children are not named individually, but they are referred to as those who will inherit after John and Jane’s natural lives – an important point since otherwise the land could pass into John Smith’s family and leave Jane’s children without. Also named is Nathaniel’s second wife, of whom I had no previous knowledge. I suspect she might be the reason he moved to Wakefield – perhaps she had land there – but no marriage record has been found.

*****

I hope you’ve found this useful. As you can see, it was only Nathaniel’s will that proved beyond doubt that he was Jane’s father. Although even before finding it I felt there was a good case and was happy to consider him as such, the difference is that without that final piece of evidence we always have to be flexible, be prepared to have an open mind should new evidence come to light that points to a different father. I no longer have to do that. This case is closed. 🙂

Maiden names: a handy code breaker!

Today’s post follows on from the last, in that the focus is on women. However, here we’re looking at the presence or absence of maiden names in official documentation, and their inclusion within naming patterns. (I’ve previously written more fully about Irish and English naming patterns, and these will also feature in my next post.)

Inclusion or absence of maiden names on civil birth certificates
Less experienced family historians often need help with understanding precisely what is meant by maiden name entries on civil birth registers and certificates, so we’ll start with this.

Without even buying a birth certificate there’s a lot of information freely available on the General Register Office Online Index, if you know how to decipher it. Here’s a classic entry to start with: the inclusion of Frances Mann’s mother’s maiden name (MMN) on the following entry tells us not only that her maiden name is Sword, but by extension also indicates that the former Miss Sword is now married to Mr Mann, and that he is the father.

MANN, FRANCES    SWORD  
GRO Reference: 1846  S Quarter in HUNSLET  Volume 23  Page 287
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Compare with this next entry. The absence of MMN (the ‘ – ‘) tells us that Albert Robinson was born out of wedlock. In other words, the MMN is the same as the child’s surname because the mother is not married.

ROBINSON, ALBERT      
GRO Reference: 1879  S Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 471
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

What about this one?

TAYLOR, ALBERT    TAYLOR  
GRO Reference: 1877  J Quarter in HUDDERSFIELD  Volume 09A  Page 386
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Here we see that a MMN is given, but that it is the same as the child’s surname. This could mean two things: either the child is born out of wedlock, and the MMN is stated even though it is the same as the child’s surname; or the parents both had the same surname before marriage. In such a situation we would need to see the actual birth certificate (or marriage certificate) to be sure. If the parents are married the birth certificate would probably give the ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ as ‘[forename] Taylor, formerly Taylor‘; and the father’s details will of course be included.

Here’s another type of entry that less experienced researchers often have difficulty with: Under ‘Name, surname and maiden surname of mother’ you might see something like the following: ‘Margaret Robinson formerly Macanerny previously Baxter‘. This means the mother, Margaret Robinson, now married to Mr Robinson, was previously married to a Mr Macanerny. Before that, her maiden name was Baxter. It is the name Baxter that will be indicated online on the GRO Index, but to get that additional information you have to see the actual certificate:

ROBINSON, JANE    BAXTER  
GRO Reference: 1857  D Quarter in LEEDS  Volume 09B  Page 351
Copyright GRO: Online Birth Index

Understanding all of the above is great because it directs us to other life events and documents, or indeed indicates that such documents will not be found. Be aware though that an official document is only as true as the information provided by the informant. In the last example, the marriage between Margaret Baxter and Mr Macanerny was never dissolved, and twenty years of searching suggests she never actually ‘married’ Mr Robinson.

*****

We can now turn to ways in which people chose to include mothers’ maiden names when naming their children or indeed as a later choice of the individual him/herself.

Maiden names as middle names
It seems to have been during Victorian times that the fashion really developed for including the MMN as a child’s middle name. It did happen before this period, but seems to have increased in popularity amongst the middling and working classes at this time. Some families seem to have given the MMN only to the oldest son or possibly the oldest daughter; others gave the MMN as a middle name to all their children. It has nothing to do with legitimacy or otherwise of the child. In examples in my own tree, marriage dates clearly evidence that this was not in question. It is of course a bonus for the family historian, since it links without a shadow of a doubt the child to the mother’s lineage, and it’s particularly useful if the child was born prior to the introduction of civil registration in 1837. I have a 4x great aunt, for example, baptised in 1812 with the name Maria Thompson Wade, Thompson being the MMN. This is all the more helpful because the only record so far found for this baptism is a transcript, giving only the father’s name.

There are a few caveats to making use of this practice in our research though:

  • On occasion the name passed down, although originating as a mother’s maiden name, may not be this specific mother’s maiden name. It may have been handed down by tradition in the male family, possibly originating some generations back, e.g. with a great grandmother. I have a possible example of this in one of my lines, and it’s a mystery I’ve not yet been able to solve: a child baptised in 1737 with the name George Chilvers Christian yet definitely the son of Christopher Christian and Barbara née Aylmer.
  • The middle name may be mistranscribed as double-barrelled. A hyphen may even be adopted by choice of the individual in later life. So Thomas Beecroft Mann, surname Mann and MMN Beecroft, may possibly be indexed under the surname Mann or Beecroft-Mann, even though he considered his surname to be Mann.
  • Here’s a tricky one that took me a while to work out: my 2x great aunt married a man named Allen Whitworth Schofield. As far as I can see, all of their children were registered with one or two forenames followed by Whitworth Schofield. Some of the children (the ones who emigrated to the US) adopted this as a double-barrelled name in adulthood. Others didn’t but transcribers often assume this to be the case. In fact the origin in this case does indeed stem from illegitimacy. Allen was registered in 1843 with the surname Schofield, and the absence of MMN on the GRO index indicates that his mother was unmarried. Four years later his mother marries Mr Whitworth and from that time Allen is recorded on censuses with the surname Whitworth. Although Allen eventually marries with the surname Schofield he continues to use Whitworth as a middle name, and to honour his stepfather he gives this as a middle name to his children.

Maiden names as first names
The use of a MMN as a first name may continue for several generations. When eventually we find the origin it’s a real bonus, confirming our research back to this point. The aforementioned Thomas Beecroft Mann named one of his sons ‘Beecroft’. I have also come across a Horner Ingham, also his uncle Horner Ingham, their name originating with the marriage of their grandmother/mother Ann Horner to James Ingham.

Maiden name as surname with father’s name as middle name
In contrast with the use of the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, when these names are reversed this always indicates illegitimacy. (Please note that I’m referring here to the historic situation, and not to present day surname naming practices which may be quite different.) Historically, a child born out of marriage was baptised with the surname of the mother. If, shortly after that, the parents marry it is quite normal for the father’s name to be inserted as a middle name. Although this is what happened in the Whitworth Schofield example above, the gap between Allen’s birth and his mother’s marriage (four years) suggests her new husband is stepfather rather than biological father to Allen. However, when my 3xG grandmother, Annabella, was baptised in 1816, the parish register recorded her parentage as ‘Martha Walker, a single woman of Micklefield‘. Four months later, Martha married James Noble, and in all documentation after that the child was known as Annabella Noble Walker. It is the short gap between baptism and marriage that indicates James is more likely in this case to be the actual father. In fact I can’t understand why he just didn’t step up a few months earlier! DNA matches have now confirmed he is definitely my ancestor.

I have seen one early 20th century example of this in which for delicate reasons I won’t go into the mother and father were not able to marry. The child was given the mother’s surname and had no contact with or knowledge of the father who did nevertheless, we think, pay for the child’s upkeep. However, the inclusion of the father’s surname as a middle name was part of the little paper trail that was left for some genealogist (Me!) to track him down more than 100 years later and permit an acknowledgement of him as biological father.

Formalising a middle MMN as a double barrelled surname for reasons of family pride
And finally, I have one example in my tree of the mother’s maiden name being adopted as a double-barrelled surname for reasons of pride in that individual’s notable maternal ancestry. In that example the person clearly wished to emphasise his connection to his maternal grandfather and also to his mother’s brother, a rather dashing and highly accomplished uncle, whose biography the nephew went on to write.

*****

Have you come across any other unusual uses of maiden names? Have you been able to draw upon a historic maiden name to verify your research? If you can add anything to the above please do share in the comments.

Genealogical Women’s Lore

Back in October 2019 I reviewed two books about researching female ancestors.  Both were useful and interesting.  However, neither was particularly what I had anticipated.  We all know that women are far less likely to feature in records than their husbands, fathers and sons.  Having gone to all the trouble of producing a living human being many mothers were not even given a mention in the parish register; and in some parishes this exclusion of women was so extreme that a married woman was not even really mentioned when she died, her burial record referring merely to ‘Wife of John Smith’ or ‘Widow Brown’.  The whole point of these two books therefore was to highlight specific record sets that might include our women ancestors, together with an understanding of developments in social history and general themes that might be of interest even though we won’t find specific records – like fashion.

What wasn’t included was what we might learn about her life *because* she is a woman, or because ‘this was the way things were done’: things that women ‘know’ and ‘understand’, and might sometimes have been talked about in hushed tones in the kitchen away from the men.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, and have now put together three posts (this one and the next two) to try to read between the lines and ‘decode’ every last bit of information from entries about our foremothers.  There are no guarantees to what follows, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures!  So if you have a brick wall and you’re prepared to think outside the box, perhaps one of these ideas might help.

Our foremothers changed their surname on marriage
Okaaay… obvious!  We all know our female ancestors changed their names when they married.  And yet… how many times have you been tripped up by this?  I know I have.  The fact is that even a very young woman could have been widowed already, and an older widow might remarry.  This is easier to trace post-1837, when the civil certificates give more information: marital status plus the bride’s father’s surname.  But prior to that we have to work harder.  So if a baptism doesn’t seem to exist for her, look instead for an earlier marriage, using just her first name and the known surname for the spouse.  If a likely looking marriage shows up, now look for a burial for the husband.  Similarly, if you can’t find a burial for your female ancestor, look for a remarriage, and then a later burial with the new name.

Childbirth as a guide to the mother’s age
According to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) a woman’s childbearing years are assumed to start at age 15 and end at age 45 (the day before her 46th birthday).  Let’s put that to the test.  Look at women in your tree who had large families and long lives.  How old was each one when she had her last child?

Here’s a random sample from different branches (and time periods) of my tree:

  • Annie Elizabeth, b.1850; d.1926. Last child born 1888 when Annie Elizabeth was 38*
  • Jane, b.1857; d.1940. Last child born 1900 when Jane was 43
  • Mary, b. c.1801; d.1863. Last child born 1846 when Mary was c.45**
  • Rachel, b.1828; d.1884. Last child born 1869 when Rachel was 41
  • Elizabeth, b.1792; d.1848. Last child born 1833 when Elizabeth was 41.
  • Lucy, b.1802; d.1885. Last child born 1846 when Lucy was 44.
  • Sarah, b.1784; d.1860. Last child born 1828 when Sarah was 44.
  • Dorothy, b.1763; d.1843. Last child born 1803 when Dorothy was 40.

*younger than the others listed, but by this time Annie Elizabeth had already had 13 children, one divorce and one judicial separation with second husband on grounds of domestic violence.
**consistent with two census returns, although the final census gives a younger age.

These examples from my tree suggest the ONS general assumption of childbearing years was as valid 200 years ago as it is today.  For a woman who gave birth regularly throughout her marriage and lived on for some years after this, the end of childbearing is a reasonable guide to her age and therefore for the search of her baptism.  It could help to narrow down the search to within five years.

A named woman is (almost) certainly the mother
Here’s something that becomes important if DNA matches are not adding up: the named father on a child’s birth certificate or on the parish baptismal register might sometimes turn out not to be the biological father, but the named woman is almost certainly the mother.  To recap from my earlier post on unexpected DNA results: FTDNA, one of the main DNA testing companies, assess the NPE (‘Non-Paternity Event’ or ‘Not Parent Expected’) rate at about 1-2% per generation. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki page on NPEs cites a number of studies, some of which have concluded that historical NPE rates were much higher than more recent times.
There are a few exceptions to this assumption about the mother.  The child may have been given away at birth and brought up as the child of another family – although in the one known example of this in my ancestry (Annie Elizabeth’s firstborn) the baby was originally registered and baptised as the child of the biological parents.  Another possibility is that the mother was very young and the baby was registered as the child of its grandmother. (I can recommend watching re-runs of ‘Call The Midwife’ to encourage lateral thinking on the lengths desperate women might go to.)  Although these possibilities must be borne in mind, though, we might generally assume that the named mother at least is the biological parent.

Untimely deaths
The death of a woman of childbearing years may have been connected to a birth
If a female ancestor of childbearing years dies it’s always worth looking for a baptism or birth record around the same time. Equally, a woman known to have died from childbirth complications has definitely given birth, even if there is no birth certificate: there was definitely a baby but it may not not have survived. Before 1939, if the baby was stillborn there will not be a record.
Example: My 2xG grandfather Marcus’s first wife, Ann, was only twenty when she died. It was only when I bought the death certificate and read the cause of death: ‘Milk Fever’, that I realised I needed to look for a baby. Little Ann was born on 16th January 1850 and was only one week old when her mother died. The baby also died, five days later.

The birth of a baby indicates that the mother was alive on the day the child was born (even if she died shortly afterwards).  By contrast, the best we can conclude for a missing (presumed dead) father is to say he was alive nine months earlier.
Example: After Ann’s death the aforementioned Marcus married Harriet. They had four children, of which the last one is my great grandfather. He was born in September 1859, and Marcus is registered as the father, yet by the time of the 1861 census Harriet is described as a widow. There is no death certificate and no known burial. Did Marcus really die, or did he just move away? All we can really say is that his last known presence was nine months before the baby’s birth (… although I have been desperately seeking a DNA match for Marcus for several years. Without this I can’t even say for sure that he was my great grandfather’s father.)

Other indications of pregnancy: An interesting example came up a couple of weeks ago in Series 4, episode 2 of A House Through Time: Leeds (BBC). In the following household, the presence of the ‘Monthly Nurse’ indicates that Mary H Mellish is in the very last stages of pregnancy, preparing for the birth. However, no birth is ever registered. The only way we have of knowing Mary was pregnant and her baby was stillborn is this entry on the census, and the presence of Margaret Towns, Monthly Nurse. The census is of course a decennial snapshot of the population. There would have been many more Monthly Nurses and mothers whose labours ended in stillbirths, and it would be a significant event in each mother’s life, but there is no official record of them. Even here, we understand it only by joining the dots.

Entry on census return showing presence of 'Monthly Nurse' at residential property.
TNA Class: RG11; Piece: 4538; Folio: 34; Page: 62; GSU roll: 1342092. Source: Ancestry.com

Did she die and did he re-marry? Naming traditions can make distinguishing between generations difficult. How do we know if a marriage record on an old parish register relates to an older man or his adult son of the same name? Here’s an example where I was able to use the wife’s burial record together with DNA as proof that my ancestor is the older man.
Example: My 4xG grandfather George Gamble married my 4xG grandmother (Hannah) in 1790, when she was 20 years old.  I couldn’t find a baptism but working on the assumption he would be about the same age as Hannah, I had been looking for a baptism between around 1760 and 1770.  It was a DNA ThruLine suggestion on Ancestry that alerted me to the true facts.  At first the ‘Common Ancestor’ didn’t seem to be to my George at all: it led to an older George Gamble, born 1749, whose wife was Susanna. Then I noticed that they stopped having children in 1789, the year before my George married Hannah.  Might Susanna have died in that year, perhaps in childbirth?  I checked for a burial for a Susanna Gamble, and there it was, about 14 weeks after the last birth – another case of milk fever perhaps?  I then checked all the occupation references for this other George.  He was a clothier, the same as my George.  The 1790 marriage entry for my 4xG grandparents refers to ‘George Gamble of this parish, clothier, and Hannah Brook of this parish, spinster’, but makes no reference to George’s own widowed marital status.  This was, however, undoubtedly the same person.  It was the final birth combined with Susanna’s untimely death that solved the case.

Regular as clockwork
If records indicate a very regular pattern of childbirth for a woman, such as every 2 to 3 years, but with one longer gap this may point to a stillbirth or miscarriages, an illness, a child being born away from the normal residence or for some other reason an additional child that you haven’t found.
Example: Annie Elizabeth, in the above list of my foremothers, had a good standard of living yet gave birth to a lot of sickly babies, generally with a very short gap between pregnancies – in one case an eleven month gap followed by a nine month gap.  I had already found eleven babies but it wasn’t until I saw her entry on the 1911 census for number of babies born alive and number of babies since died that I realised two more were missing.  I noticed that in the midst of all these pregnancies there were two 3-year gaps – not a long time between pregnancies for most other women, but within the context of Annie Elizabeth’s childbirth patterns, three years was a long gap. I found one of the missing babies born and baptised in a quiet rural area away from Leeds.  I assume that in view of all the infant deaths, Annie Elizabeth had gone there to see through the last months of that pregnancy and the birth in a calmer environment away from the family business.  The final missing baby, however, has never been identified but I suspect may have been born (perhaps stillborn) during the other 3-year gap between babies 2 and 3.  

Extract from 1911 census showing number of children born to female householder.
TNA Class: RG78; Piece: 1548. Source: Ancestry.com

It’s important to note that this part of the 1911 census was directed at married women, and that the question relates to children born of ‘this marriage’.  Widowed for thirteen years, Annie Elizabeth should have left it blank, and we can see that the enumerator crossed through her responses in red ink – but luckily for us many widows and stepmothers completed this section, and it’s always lucky for us if they did.  I also strongly suspect that some women included stillborn babies in their numbers.  As mentioned above, at this time stillbirths were not even registered.  The apparent inclusion of them by their mothers in this census response is perhaps their way of giving legitimacy to the little ones who were never counted.

*****

So these are my thoughts on ‘women’s issues’ for genealogists – or gynecology for genealogy. They may just help in untangling a brick wall. If you can add anything along these lines I’d love to know.  Next time I’ll be sticking with our foremothers, and focusing on maiden names.

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.