Explore my links!

I’m taking a break during September, and will be back here on 1st October.

Before I go, I’d like to invite you to explore my Links, which I’ve been working on over the last couple of months.  You’ll find them at the top of this page, on the top menu bar.

Click on Links (either right here or at any time from the top menu bar) and you’ll find a page of categories.  Each category has a dedicated page with more information that I hope you’ll find useful.  I’m adding to these pages all the time and I do use them myself as a library of the sort of information that always comes in handy.  The categories are:

Essential general websites for genealogists includes sites like GENUKI and A Vision of Britain through time, which are invaluable for homing in on a locality and getting essential information.

Websites with free access to transcripts and databases of essential genealogical records includes sites like FreeBMD, FreeCen, FreeReg, FamilySearch and GRO, where you can look up transcripts or use indexes to records free of charge.

Online dictionaries, glossaries of useful terms, etc includes lists of old medical terms, occupational names, Latin phrases and a useful timeline of Victorian legislation.

Websites providing online maps includes links to lots of different types of map that I find useful when exploring my ancestors’ lives and I think you will too.

Social and political history includes links to various websites specialising in a particular historical period that will be of use when researching and understanding ancestors’ lives.

DNA includes a list of my own blogs about DNA for genealogy, together with other websites and online resources I’ve referred to within them.  It’s a work in progress.  I’ll be adding more to this in the autumn as I publish more posts on this subject.

There is also a page for each of several cities of particular interest to me: Leeds, York, Norwich, London, and a page with links to regional Family History Societies, again just for the areas of interest to me, but an Internet search will lead you to something suited to your own needs.

I hope you’ll find the information in these pages useful.  It’s intended as a general resource so please do feel free to refer whenever you need to.  If you spot a gap do let me know.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ll be starting work on a two-year Advanced Genealogy and Family History course in September.  To enable me to focus fully on that, when I return to blogging in October, I’ll be reducing my output from three posts per month to two: on the 1st and 15th of each month.

I do occasionally post little extras and share articles via my Facebook page.  So if you’re on Facebook please click to follow the link below, and like/follow English Ancestors.

Wishing you a good September.

A Secretary Hand survival guide

Handwriting dated 1678

Unless we limit ourselves to transcripts of documents, sooner or later every genealogist has to confront the challenge of archaic handwriting styles.  Later eighteenth and nineteenth century handwriting styles generally pose no difficulty for me (although I’m aware from online genealogy groups that this is not universal) but earlier than that it’s a whole new ball game.

Developments in handwriting were not an accidental process.  Different styles of writing were devised to meet changing needs.  Hence ‘Textura’, the beautiful calligraphic script we know from illuminated manuscripts, was very formal and tidy, but the clearly separated letters were themselves composed of separate strokes, the pen being lifted from the page after each stroke.  Beautiful it may have been, but the process was very slow and painstaking.

The evolution of cursive handwriting in the middle ages was a significant development, making the process of writing quicker and more efficient.  Formed with as few strokes of the pen as possible, the whole purpose of the new cursive texts was the speedy copying of official documents or records.  The earliest cursive script we’re likely to see in parish registers is ‘Secretary Hand’.  Imported to England from France and Italy in the fourteenth century, its use became widespread in the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – exactly the period when the keeping of registers of baptisms, marriages and burials became mandatory.

The handwriting example above is definitely one of the easier examples I’ve seen.  It was written by my 8xG grandfather in 1678.

The difficulties of reading Secretary hand can include:

  • It was popular at the same time as other cursive scripts, including ‘Italic’ (which I find easier to read) although the two hands were used for different purposes.  By the mid seventeenth century a hybrid style developed incorporating aspects of these two and what was to become the (much easier to read) eighteenth century ‘running’ hand.  We’re likely to see examples of all of this as we look at parish registers and other documents of the period and on occasion we will need to try to decipher them all.
  • There were of course unique individual handwriting styles and idiosyncrasies, just as we have today
  • The formation of certain letters can actually look like other letters to our modern eyes
  • Writers still used the now obsolete Anglo-Saxon letter y, or þ (known as ‘thorn’) to represent a ‘th’ sound, the long s, which we can easily confuse with an f, and sometimes the Middle English letter ȝ, easily confused with a z but in fact known as yogh, and used where modern English has gh or y.
  • Words may be abbreviated or contracted
  • Some syllables or letter combinations were replaced with hieroglyphs
  • Writers were not consistent in the use of the above, even in the same document or the same sentence
  • Spellings were not uniform, and certainly were not the same as today’s
  • In the case of surnames and placenames, the scribe may have written down what he ‘heard’

However, there is lots of help available online.  I’ve put together a list of resources from respected bodies you might find useful when trying to decipher Secretary and other sixteenth and seventeenth century scripts:
Basic guidance, abbreviations and editorial conventions for reading Secretary Hand from Folger Shakespeare Library
Recognising different letter forms of medieval scripts from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections
Secretary Hand alphabet examples from FamilySearch

Or if you’re really determined, and have the time to devote to it, here are a few online courses, made freely available:
English Handwriting Online 1500-1700 from University of Cambridge
Palaeography tutorial & exercises from University of Oxford
Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800: A practical online tutorial from The National Archives
And finally:
Early Modern Scottish Paleaography: a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I’ve just completed in preparation for commencing the Advanced Genealogy Diploma.  The benefit of this course is that the basics of paleography are introduced via a series of mini ‘programmes’ (videos) by Dr Lionel Glassey.  These are excellent and perfectly targetted for the general interest audience – although I’m still finding the older Secretary Hand difficult to read.  (I’m hoping this will improve with practise, since this is a major part of the first year of my forthcoming course.)  The MOOC is provided via futurelearn by the University of Glasgow.  The paleography is intertwined with Scottish history, and is therefore doubly useful for those with Scottish roots.  However, these sections can be speed-read if you wish.  If you do have Scottish roots you might be interested in using your new skills to help in transcribing the kirk session records of Govan Old.  There is a link to learn more about this right at the end of the course.

Google Books is my genie!

I remember years ago, watching an episode of The Goodies on TV.  They had got themselves into a typical Goodies scrape, and one of them said ‘What we need is an English-Swahili dictionary….. Ah! Here’s one!’  It still makes me smile now, the absurdity of something so obscure turning up on the table right beside you, just when you need it.  And yet, exactly this has happened to me….. twice!

The first time was six years ago.  I had just worked out that the reason I’d spent many years searching without success for my great grandfather Edward, was because he was listed with a completely different surname on every census and other conceivable document.  Finally, tracing him back through his childhood to his birth, I realised that his father had been a Jewish immigrant who had died not long after Edward’s birth.  Edward was then listed in 1861 with his mother’s maiden surname and in 1871 with his stepfather’s surname.  In the 1880s after marriage, he and my great grandmother tried out several different variations on all of the above, registering and baptising their children with different surnames before finally settling on the one I knew as my grandmother’s.  I remember sitting at the dining table working through all this in my mind, and wondering if their motivation might have been rising antisemitic tensions.  With no memory at all of his father and no emotional connection to the surname with which he had been registered at birth, Edward seemed keen to remove it – and the threat of antisemitism – from his family. I remember raising my eyes heavenwards in a rather dramatic gesture of seeking divine intervention, and thinking ‘What I need is a book about Jewish history and antisemitism in Leeds in the 1870s and 1880s.’  At the time we were having work done in another room, and all along the floor by the dining room window, piles of rather obscure books were taking refuge from the dust and upheaval under way in their usual room.  Still deep in thought, I exhaled, lowering my eyes in the direction of the window to my left, and as I did so the very first thing I saw was a book with the title Immigrants and the class struggle: The Jewish immigrant in Leeds, 1880-1914.  Why my husband had this book remains something of a puzzle, but it was just what I needed.

The second occasion was just last week… you’ll soon start to see what all of this has to do with the title of this blog post!  I’ve been writing up the story of Benjamin who was transported to Tasmania in 1834.  Research had turned up the name of the convict ship on which he was transported and the names of the Ship’s Master and Ship’s Surgeon.  I knew from wider reading that Benjamin’s experience of the voyage would have depended largely on the attitude of the Ship’s Surgeon, Thomas Braidwood Wilson.  Like every Ship’s Surgeon he was required to complete a log of the voyage, including treatment of serious illnesses and general comments.  Unfortunately, since Dr Wilson chose to write his log in Latin I was able to learn nothing at all about the man.  If only there was some way of finding out more about him and getting inside his head…

In these situations I always start with Wikipedia.  Although this is not accepted as a reliable source, a good entry will include sources and further reading.  So starting with Wikipedia I learned that Dr Wilson was not only a Royal Navy Surgeon but also an explorer and botanist.  At least two of his descendants have written about his life, but there didn’t seem to be a way of getting copies of their work outside Australia.  That was when I hit the jackpot: a narrative of one of his voyages around the world, starting with a convict voyage to Sydney in 1828 then a circumnavigation of Australia including a shipwreck and several exploratory expeditions inland.  That alone would have given me an insight into the man, but then just for me (!) he concludes with a chapter about the practice of transportation and his approach to dealing with convicts during the voyage.  The full facsimile copy of this is available to read for free on Google Books.  You can click the image below to find it yourself.  I read the entire text and found it easy to read, most interesting and most importantly for my particular needs, very enlightening about the author.  If early exploration about Australia interests you, perhaps you’ll enjoy it too, but I’m really just including it here as an example.Title page of facsimile copy of TB Wilson's A Voyage Round the World, published 1835.There are several points to come out of all this:

Firstly, don’t give up!  The seemingly impossible might just happen.  Admittedly, when it does, it is probably more likely to happen through the intervention of the Internet rather than a physical book appearing at your side.

Second, it seems that in the ninteenth century people wrote books and pamphlets on all kinds of rather niche topics. Even if you don’t know the title of the book (or even if you don’t know such a book exists), if you start out with a search on Google or Wikipedia you might be guided to exactly what you need.

Third, I’ve previously referred to other facsimile copies on Google Books, e.g. [here] and [here].  Being now out of copyright, many of these books and pamphlets have been copied and made available for anyone to read, free of charge.  Alternatively, the entry may direct you to where library copies are available.

Fourth, you may also find Amazon Kindle to be of use.  Here too, many older, out-of-copyright books have been typed up and made available for free from Kindle.  I’ve downloaded several novels to read as background for my research, just to get a feel of the period.  You don’t need an actual ‘Kindle’ to make use of this.  A free App enables you to read Kindle books on other devices.

Finally, other Kindle books may be available at very reasonable prices that will help fill in some gaps for you.  I usually find these come up as suggested items when I search for something specific.  For example I was searching for an (alarmingly expensive!) book about prison hulks when a short biography based on the memoirs of a transported convict popped up as a suggestion.  It cost me £4.49 and being an e-book was available immediately for me to read.  Very useful it was too.

I hope all of this has helped you to imagine that the seemingly impossible might be within your reach… at least in relation to antiquarian publications.

Finding ancestors’ siblings

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

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

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

These are the resources we’ll be using:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit of an advance on the census returns!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archiving photographs

I hope this finds you well and feeling positive.  I had planned to be spending this coming week and last with family, but it wasn’t to be, not for a few weeks yet.  I hope you’re finding things to do with your time, and that if the lockdown has left you with even more to do than usual (e.g. home schooling) that you’re finding some time for yourself too.

So as it’s Easter weekend I thought something light would be in order.  I’ve been sorting through my inherited family photos and I’m at the very early stages of archiving them properly.  It will take a long time to do it, but reading around the subject I’ve come up with a list of what I need to do, and I thought I would share that with you.

Organise:
Sort photos into families.  If possible, store these in acid free boxes until they are scanned.  The scanning is likely to take some time, and is best done in small batches.
I’ve sorted my photos into my mum’s side, my dad’s side, and the ones that were taken after my parents got together.  There are also some people I don’t know, plus others that I feel sure I will be able to put a name to when comparing with other images.

Scan:
I know from past attempts at archiving my photos that the scanning process will take considerable time, particularly as I like to digitally ‘clean up’ the images as I go.
Scan the front and if there is anything on the back, e.g. photographer’s studio, date, greeting, etc. scan the back too.
Store them as tiff files with caption and metadata.  (There’s something I didn’t do last time.)

Save:
Save to hard drive, pen drive, the Cloud, etc – as many places and options as you have.

Use and Share:
You can now attach copies of these photos to people in your trees as well as share them with others researching your family – preferably to receive more photos in return!  You could also use them in projects to scrapbook your family history, create albums, etc.

Label:
As you finish with each batch of scanned photos the originals can now be labelled.  There are two schools of thought on this:

  1. Label with a soft #2 pencil on the back of the image.   To do this, lay image face down on a clean, white sheet of paper.  Write gently close to edge of rear of image.  Do not press hard.  Here is a blogpost about the best writing materials to use.
  2. Alternatively… Do not label the actual photos!  Instead place in acid free envelopes or sleeves.  Label each sleeve.  Afterwards remove the photos from their sleeves as little as possible, but if you do remove them, be sure to return each one to the correct sleeve.  Apparently, polyester sleeves are acid free and recommended for archival quality.
  3. Ancestry have produced a blogpost on what information to include on the label when archiving photographs.  It’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Store:
The photos can now be stored in archival conditions.  Everything should be acid free.  Particularly fragile photos can be wrapped in acid free tissue paper instead of being placed in sleeves.  I’ve found archival photo storage boxes at a dedicated preservation equipment supplier that I’ll buy when they reopen after lockdown ends.  These boxes must then be stored in a living area of the house (not an attic, cellar, garage, where temperatures fluctuate).  Ideal conditions are well-ventilated, cool rather than warm, low humidity and dark.  In a box under the bed but not close to a radiator might be a good place.  My plan (at this stage) is to place the archival storage boxes in a plastic crate that will fit under a bed.

I have two large biscuit tins of precious photos (you might wonder why they are in buscuit tins if they are so precious – but even this is a step-up from how I received them) plus two large plastic crates of more recent albums, so I have my work cut out here.  This isn’t a weekend project!

Please do leave a comment if you can add anything to this.

On that note I wish you a Happy Easter, Chag Sameach or if neither apply I hope you have a very happy weekend.

My granddad’s ‘housewife’

Army issue khaki 'housewife'

This is my granddad’s army sewing kit, known as a ‘housewife’, and dating from the period 1907-1919. As a young soldier, he had to learn to take care of his own uniform.  During the freezing cold winters of some of his tours, he also learned to knit – partly for something to fill the time, partly for the warmth afforded by the results.  Upon arriving back home late in 1919 he married my grandma, and when my mum came along it was he who passed these skills on to her, teaching her to mend and sew by hand and to knit.  Many years later, she – my mum – taught me.  From these humble beginnings my love of all kinds of needlework expanded and developed, straying far from my granddad’s knitting for warmth and sewing for necessity.  Eventually, in 2009, I started my first online blog which focused  on needlecrafts and other creative projects.  It has to be said, though, that by this time my ‘sewing kit’ occupied considerably more cupboard space than this little roll…

British Army khaki soldier's 'housewife', unrolled

My granddad’s ‘housewife’ belongs to me now.  Although it’s standard issue, it is nevertheless a very personal item, and would have travelled with him to many parts of the world.  It bears his regiment and personal identification details, and contains everything he needed to keep his uniform in full working order: needles, thread, elastic, safety pins, spare buttons … and tucked away at the back of that pocket … what seemed to be a bullet!

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

So one day, back in 2012 I posted these photos on my needlework blog.  The point of the post was to highlight the link between my granddad’s sewing and knitting and my own needlework skills, which bizarrely I seem to owe to the British Expeditionary Force!

However, that blog post caused quite a stir!

A couple of readers pointed out that the bullet could be dangerous.  They advised me to investigate its safety.  But how do you investigate the safety of a hundred year-old bullet?  In the UK, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and my gun-related knowledge was and remains virtually non-existent.  (Is it a bit dense to say I assumed it was the action of the gun that propelled the bullet through the air, rather than the explosive properties of the bullet itself…?!)

So a local gun club was my first port of call.  In an email sent via their website I explained that I had an early 20th Century British Army bullet and asked for information as to where I should go to have it checked out.  I was surprised to receive, almost immediately, a telephone call from the club, advising me that the bullet could be dangerous.  It would not spontaneously explode, but if dropped at a certain angle it could do so.  Not only that, but it’s illegal to be in possession of even one bullet in the UK without a firearms licence.  So concerned was my adviser from the gun club that he would have driven over to my house to look at the bullet had it not been for the photograph I was able to point him to on the blog – the photo you see directly above.  After seeing this he thought it had been decommissioned.  This would make it both safe and legal – but he asked me to take it into the gunsmith for a second opinion.

I had walked past this gunsmith’s shop a hundred times without even knowing it existed.  Now (rather carefully!) I took in my bullet and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  It turned out that this isn’t in fact a bullet at all.  It’s a dummy, or ‘drill cartridge’.  My granddad would have used it for drills: for practising loading the rifle at speed.

By this time, in a highly unexpected turn of events, that post from my needlework blog had been shared by an enthusiast to his own firearms blog!  Consequently I now had a small international team of firearms experts advising behind the scenes.  The brass case, I learned, is the ‘cartridge’.  The four holes drilled into it indicate it will not fire.  (You can see straight through two of these holes in my photograph below.)  The ‘bullet’ is the red bit at the end, but a real bullet would have a cupronickel coating; this one is wood.  The reason my granddad kept it in his sewing kit was to avoid the risk of mixing it up with the live ammunition.

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

I was so grateful to everyone who got involved.   Of course I was relieved to know that ‘my bullet’ wasn’t dangerous – and that I didn’t have to give it up.  But I was equally delighted to have a little more information about my granddad’s time in the army.  Thanks to all these people, I now knew that the rifle my granddad used was a .303 calibre Enfield.  I already knew he was something of a crack shot – we have a number of spoons inscribed with his name, and a trophy – all won in Army shooting contests.  And in truth, as a firearms expert himself, he would not have kept this tucked away in his family home for more than fifty years if it had been dangerous to do so.

I share all this here for several reasons.  First of all, just look how much you can learn about a family member from one small item!  Secondly, it illustrates what a wonderful resource the Internet can be, not to mention the kindness of enthusiasts who really seemed to take this situation to heart, were keen to help and had genuinely been concerned for my safety.  But on top of all that, I thought you might appreciate the story.  🙂

Do you have a little something stuffed away in a drawer that you might be able to explore further?  You never know what you might learn!

Free documents and templates for genealogists

Do you like to use documents and templates to record information, alongside what you put on your online/ digital tree?  If so, you might be interested to know about these free resources.

The Photo Alchemist, whose business is providing a worldwide photo restoration and colorisation service, has restored eighteen beautiful, full colour templates and made them available to download for free on her website.  You’ll find them [here].  I’ve made templates for my own use in the past and they’re perfectly functional… but sometimes you want something more special, and these are certainly worth the extra ink!

If you’re on Facebook:
Genedocs Templates is a Facebook group with a mission to help anyone interested to ‘preserve a more meaningful and personalized family tree and legacy’.  There’s a huge range of downloadable documents and templates for you to use free of charge.  Examples include an Ancestor Outline List, a document to help you create an obituary and a ‘3-D trunk’ chart for you to add the names of your ancestors.

There’s also The Organised Genealogist.  As with the last suggestion, you have to ‘join’ the group.  Some of the templates are US-centric, but others are of wider application, and there are discussions about specific needs of group members in the discussion threads.

If you’re on Ancestry you’ll find a selection of downloadable charts [here].  These include a Family Group Chart as well as charts to help you keep on top of your own administration.

Family Tree Magazine has created 61 genealogy forms and shared them freely [here].  Again, some of their documents are focused on the US, but others will be of use to genealogists everywhere.

Family Tree Templates have provided a number of free tree templates [here].

If you still don’t see exactly what you’re after you might be able to use some of these as a starting point and create your own.

The future of the census

There has been talk in the media recently about the possibility that the upcoming 2021 census for England and Wales will be the last one.  Rising costs are cited, with an estimate that next year’s census, despite being the first to be taken primarily online, is likely to cost £1 billion.

For us as genealogists and family historians, the census is one of the most important records, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on each of our ancestral families, and a useful comparison against birth, baptism, marriage and death records.  There is no doubt that the period from 1911 to 1841 is the most straightforward period for genealogical research.

Of course, the current discussion is a reminder that the census never existed for our benefit.  Those benefits to us are just a happy side effect.  Its purpose was, and remains, to help the government and local authorities to plan services with a reasonably up to date snapshot of what the country looks like.  With every passing decade, as our society has developed, become more complex and diverse, and as our attitude towards providing for diverse needs has changed, the questions on the census have become ever more detailed.  Nevertheless, as a genealogist, I was mortified when I first heard the headlines.

Digging around a little deeper, I found that in fact no decision has been taken about the future of the census.  Indeed Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician and head of the Office for National Statistics, has said he would only recommend its termination if he finds a better option.

The issue seems to be centred not just around cost, but also around the effectiveness of a decennial snapshot when the reality is constant and accelerating demographic change.  The possibilities are therefore being explored of collecting the same sort of data but via other existing and constantly updated sources, such as GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences.

Counter to these arguments is the fact that demographers consider the census the ‘gold standard’ of population records.  They point to the inferiority of existing alternative record sources as the means for demographic mapping and planning, voicing concerns about, for example, the administrative difficulties in keeping lists up to date.  Their suggestion is that while their use would be beneficial in supplementing the richness of the decennial census, thereby overcoming the concern about the lengthy gap in updating data in an age of constant change, they are no match for the richness of the census data.  They also point out that as online census return becomes the norm, future costs should reduce.

The review is ongoing and Professor Sir Ian Diamond will give his opinion by 2023.  Ultimately, it will be the government that decides.

What might this mean for the future of family history and genealogy as a hobby?  Well, of course our own research will not be affected, but for future generations, tracing families could be more difficult.  At the very least it would be different, and I draw comfort from the commitment of the demographers to quality and richness of information.  Perhaps for our descendants it will simply be a case of accessing more record sets, each one focusing on a narrower aspect of our lives.  Electoral records, for example, will show all those of voting age living at an address, while GP registers will include children.  Nevertheless, I write this with some trepidation, having checked the online electoral registration record for myself at my current address and noted that a well-known actor of ‘Carry-On’ film fame (now deceased) is listed as having lived here with me!  Although the number of his house was the same as ours, his property was located in a little courtyard leading off the same road but with a different name.  Doesn’t bode well does it!

In fact we may soon find ourselves seeking alternatives to the census.  After the release of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022), it will be thirty years before the next one.  The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire during World War 2, and the 1941 census was never taken.  Perhaps, in response to our needs, the commercial websites will start to index more of these alternative types of records for our use, and the changes a hundred years hence will be relatively seemless.

Before leaving the topic of the census, although admittedly going off at a complete tangent….
I recently came across an interesting article about a Harvard student who, working with his professor, has cracked the code used by the Incas in their ‘khipu’ textiles: knotted cords used for record keeping.  Gradually, it became clear that these were these were the Inca equivalent of census records. Bearing in mind that the Inca Empire reached its height of power in the 15th- and 16th-centuries, they were centuries ahead of us in this regard.  You can read this fascinating article [here].

Telling our own stories

In July this year the Irish Central Statistics Office announced that the back page of their Census 2021 form will be left blank for each citizen to write their own personalised ‘time capsule’ message for future generations and historians.  This will be locked away for 100 years before being made available in 2121.  Imagine how excited we as genealogy enthusiasts would be, if we knew that the census about to be released would include not just our ancestor’s handwriting, but an actual message dedicated to us!

This is a world first.  No other country has ever done it.  But if you had the opportunity, what would you write?

Why not do it anyway?!

A couple of years ago I came across a list of prompts for writing about your own life.  Produced by FamilySearch, 52 Questions in 52 Weeks is designed to be tackled over a year.  There are also some additional questions in case you want to substitute any in the main list.  Of course, there are no rules.  Take as long as you like, and go off on whatever tangents are important to you.  It is good, though, to be guided through in these bite-size chunks.  If you’re lucky enough still to have older generations to talk to, why not ask them to do it too?

*****

I’ll be taking a break now, and will return on 24th January.  Until then, I’d like to thank you for accompanying me on my genealogy journey; and above all, I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas and a very happy 2020.

Military ancestors: case studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

My research:
Armed with that information I found:

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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