Military ancestors: case studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

My research:
Armed with that information I found:

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Researching military ancestors

As genealogists we’re all about honouring our ancestors, so it’s inevitable that when November comes around, thoughts turn to Armistice Day.  With this in mind, I was asked by my friend Jules to write about finding military records.  It’s a huge area, so I’m going to concentrate on Army records for the ranks in more recent conflicts, because that’s where I have most experience.  If your ancestor was a rank and file soldier in the First World War or the Boer War I hope you’ll find what follows useful. If the person you’re researching falls outside this narrow scope (e.g. they were in the Army but as an Officer, or in the Navy, etc.) I hope you’ll still find something of interest.  The records will be different, and arranged differently, but I hope that having seen the kinds of record discussed here, you’ll be able to look for equivalents, either with your genealogy subscription site or by getting to know what records exist at The National Archives (TNA).  I’ll talk about TNA at the end of this post.

If the person you’re researching served in WW2 it’s more complicated.  For reasons of confidentiality, you won’t be able to get hold of your ancestor’s WW2 record unless they are deceased and you are next of kin.  It’s a little easier if your person of interest has been deceased more than 25 years.  Find out how to get hold of WW2 records here.  There’s a charge of £30 for each record.  I’m sure that eventually these records, too, will be digitised and online, but not for at least another twenty years.

Today I’m going to look at the range of records and other information we might be able to use to start to understood our military ancestors’ experiences.  I’ll follow this up in my next post with a few case studies showing how I’m using these diverse information sources in combination to build a picture of the military careers of my family members.  And finally, I’ll draw November to a close with a post about Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries.

What records exist, and where are they?
Many records exist about our military ancestors.  Most of them are held at The National Archives (TNA) and only a small proportion have been digitised for online availability through subscription sites.  There are also museums and archives dedicated to each of the services, and to specific army regiments.  A list of all the army museums is available at the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website.  A quick note about the Navy: the naval ‘equivalent’ to the regiment is the ship, so a sailor’s record includes lists of ships, dates and destinations.

It’s likely that your search for information about any military ancestor will begin online, using your subscription website.  However, what I hope to demonstrate is that you can still learn a lot about your ancestor’s experience even if the main person-specific records are not available.

At FindMyPast start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military, Armed Forces and Conflict and enter the name and other details in the search form that appears on the next page.  You can further refine your search using the sub-categories listed at the left of your screen.

At Ancestry.co.uk start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military.  On the next page you’ll find a search form, or you can further narrow your search by selecting a sub-category from the upper right sidebar.

When you’ve exhausted what these general searches have to offer, you could try more targeted searches, particularly on Ancestry (the better search engine on FindMyPast is likely to find all the available records using the search method outlined above.)  For a more targeted search on Ancestry, try browsing the specific data collections listed in the bottom left sidebar on that search form page, or by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, selecting Card Catalogue, and searching with a title or keywords.  Both these subscription websites have a lot of military collections.  If you use a different genealogy site, it will help you a lot to know how to do these types of targetted search on there.

What types of record might we find?

The Service Record
This should include attestation (joining up) papers, discharge papers and a summary of activity and conduct during the years of service.  This is the one we all hope to find because it will include a physical description as well as some information about family and civilian life, promotions and demotions, and the soldier’s service number.

However, not all service records have survived.  Sadly, about 60% of WW1 service records were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940.

If the Service Record for your ancestor isn’t available, all is not lost.  You can still learn a lot about their military experience provided you can find their regiment and battalion.

Commonwealth War Graves
If your ancestor was killed in action during the First or Second World Wars they will be commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website.

You’ll be able to search for them just by name or by advanced search.  If you’re planning to visit the cemetery, the information given even includes the exact location of your ancestor’s grave or commemoration tablet.  It will also include the regiment, battalion and soldier’s service number.

Soldiers’ Wills
If your ancestor died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986, you may be able to obtain a digitised copy of their Soldier’s Will at the government’s online Find A Will service.  Remember that probate is not necessarily granted in the year of death, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for, try a year or two afterwards.

Unfortunately, not all the Soldier’s Wills have survived.  I found the will of one of my great uncles but not the other.  The accompanying notes, made at the time of processing the will, include the regiment, battalion and service number.

Medal rolls
Apart from details of medals awarded, medal rolls include name, regiment, rank and service number.  However, unlike the CWGC and the Soldiers’ Wills, there are no other identifying features (next of kin, etc), so unless the soldier’s name is unusual, you do need to know regiment or regimental number before you can be sure this is the right person.

Regimental War Diaries
Although as genealogists we love to find personal records about our family members, once we have the basic information about their regiment and battalion, we can learn a lot about their experiences by reading the regimental war diaries.  I found two regimental diaries online (here), and was able to follow the movements of my two great uncles right up to their deaths – although their names don’t appear in the diaries.

The National Archives
After exhausting all the available online records you could move onto the National Archives.
As mentioned above, it’s a huge archive, and you’ll find records there that are not (and probably never will be) available anywhere else.  The online search facility takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth the effort (and not just for military records) to learn how to use it, and how the records are arranged.

From the Home page you can click on Search the catalogue to search by name, but you’ll get far better results by doing a more targetted search, by which I mean narrowing it down to a specific collection, or ‘department code’. For example, the War Office records collection have the prefix WO, while Admiralty are recognisable by the prefix ADM.  Specific types of record are then assigned a number, so WO 97 is where you’ll find Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913; Royal Navy Officers’ Registers of Pensions and Allowances 1830-1934 are at ADM 23, and so on.

If you find any of these records using FindMyPast you’ll see this TNA reference on the citation under ‘series’, along with the exact reference for the document.  But if you’re trying to search for new records on TNA website, how do you know what department and series codes to use?  Well, you’ll find them (and lots more information) from the Home page if, before starting your actual search, you click on Help with your research.  This will enable you to home in on relevant categories, such as:

  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • Military and maritime

Click on one of these categories to refine your search, and then select from the range of focused topic guides.  Each guide will give you an overview of what records are kept by TNA, whether or not they are searchable, whether they may be viewed at TNA online, or perhaps through Ancestry or FindMyPast, etc.  Sometimes a visit to the archives at Kew (or paying for copies to be sent to you – which is very expensive) is the only way to see the records.  Amongst my treasured finds is a huge file about my great granddad’s medical record and military pension, which I was able to browse and photograph, including letters written by him.  It was far too personal to ever be included online.

Other ideas:

Family memorabilia and heirlooms
If you’re lucky you might have some cherished heirlooms that have been passed down in your family: medals, regimental publications, Soldier’s Small Book, a ‘death penny’, photos, letters and Christmas cards, etc.  By really looking at these you might be able to pick up other information.  (More about this in my next post.)

Visiting the graves and battlefields
If your ancestor/ family member was killed in action there will be a grave or a memorial on or near the battlefield.  It’s also likely that tours by knowledgeable local historians will be available.  You can learn an awful lot about their experience by joining one of these.

Wider reading about military history and specific battles
and
Films and documentaries relevant to your ancestor’s experience
When you know where the person you’re researching was on active service, you might find it interesting and enlightening to read relevant military history books or watch films and documentaries.

Targeted searches on Find My Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

In Find My Past, then:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*****

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

Targeted searches on Ancestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Press! Wills reduced!

I’ve talked before about the government’s online Find a Will service.

Well… Big News!  The cost of using this service has been massively reduced.  Instead of £10 per Will, the cost is now £1.50.

I don’t know about you, but that makes a huge difference to me. I’m normally very careful about buying Wills and BMD certificates, only buying when I know it will give me information that will help me to progress in some way.  But at £1.50 per Will, I can justify buying ones that have merely piqued my curiosity.  I don’t know if this reduced price will be permanent, but if you can, it makes sense to go through your ancestors and see if there’s a Will or two you need.  I’ve ordered eight.

Why might you need a Will?
It’s not about being nosy and seeing how much money and property they left – although of course that information will tell you a lot about the kind of lifestyle your ancestor might have enjoyed.  But in fact a Will can tell us a great deal about family networks.  There might be a child you hadn’t known about, or perhaps a complicated family network following divorce or separation.  There could be a share of the inheritance to a child who seemed to you to have fallen off the radar.  Prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, fathers might have made arrangements for their daughters, to avoid all the inheritance falling into the hands of an unknown future husband.  In other words, a Will might give us a lot of useful information.

Some tips on using the service
The online Find a Will service deals only with probate from 1858 to the present day.  You have to search in one of three categories:

  • Wills and Probate 1996 to present
  • Wills and Probate 1858-1996
  • Soldier’s Wills – these will usually only be on here if the person was killed in action.  However, some of them have been lost.

Make sure you have the correct section highlighted before you enter your search terms.

Screen grab from UK government's Find a Will website search page

Although the search field asks for year of death, the information is in fact arranged by year of Probate, i.e. the year the Probate documents were finalised.  This could be the year after death, or in some cases several years after death.  So remember to search the following year or two if you can’t find your ancestor in the year they actually died.

If you find your ancestor you’ll see a short statement of who he or she is, where they lived, when they died, when and where Probate was granted and the names of Executors. This will help you to identify the correct deceased person, and you will also need some of this information to be able to order the documents.

Bear in mind that the Executors are not necessarily the beneficiaries, so the people listed on this note are not the full story.  For that, you do need to buy the Will and Probate documents.  For example, I’ve just ordered the Will below.  I expect William Cass, son, and William Wade, son-in-law, to inherit, but not Edwin Wade, who is the very able older brother of William Wade but not directly related to the deceased.Entry on UK Probate Calendar, 1860

After you’ve entered the search terms, sometimes Irish and Scottish records come up before the English ones start.  Sometimes, too, you might find your ancestor listed on a page headed ‘Administrations’ rather than ‘Probate’.  This means your ancestor didn’t leave a Will: they died ‘intestate’.  If your ancestor died intestate but still had property of value to pass on, the courts would appoint an administrator to deal with the estate.  In other words, it would be dealt with via Administration rather than Probate.  There will still be documents relating to the sharing out of the inheritance, but there won’t be a personal statement from the deceased relating to how they want their property to be shared.

Finally – you’ve found your ancestor, you’ve ordered your documents and you’ve paid your £1.50 per Will.  What a bargain!  So what next?  You’ll receive a link by email within a week or two, which will take you to images of the original documents.  You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will.

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Side by side maps

When I’m working on a person’s life I like to plot out their movements from one part of the city to another, and to see where they were in relation to other family members or to the locations of significant events.  Used in combination with records and photos of old buildings, or even occasionally old paintings, I find this really helps me to get inside their story.

So I wanted to share with you a brilliant online resource I was introduced to recently.

The National Libraries of Scotland website has a wonderful collection of maps, and although some of the resources are just for Scotland, others are not.

The two resources I’m finding most useful are Find by Place and the Side by Side Viewer, both accessed via that link to the main page.  It’s worth spending some time playing around with the settings to see the different kinds of maps that are available.

In Side by Side you can view an old map in split screen whilst simultaneously viewing the same location in modern-day satellite view.  Whatever you do with one side (zoom, point to a specific building with the cursor, move the map, etc) happens to the other.

You can find the exact map of part of Oxford I’ve screen-grabbed above here. Try playing about with the zoom and cursor, and moving the map around, to see how easy it is to use this. You can also use the drop-down menus above each side to change the style of map you see.  This is a great resource for helping make sense of street layouts that have changed over the years.

Genealogy on a budget

If you’d like to get started on your family tree but cash is limited, this one’s for you.
Even if the costs of family research aren’t a problem for you, it’s still nice to save a little money when we can.

And remember that these ideas can be used in combination – subscribe for a month, take advantage of a free weekend, use the library facilities, google online records….  Challenge yourself to see how far you can go on a fixed budget.

Access genealogy websites without a subscription
These are places that might have subscriptions to one of the genealogy websites (most likely Ancestry or FindMyPast if you’re in the UK).  They will be free for you to use, although you may have to become a member (also free):

  • Your local library
  • The central library for your area/ city
  • The local archives/ county record office
  • Your nearest FamilyHistory Centre.

Look up records online for free

  • Familysearch All records are free but you have to have an account and be signed in.
  • Search the births and deaths indexes for free at the General Register Office website.
  • FreeBMD Search for births, marriages and deaths here.
  • Even if you’re not subscribed, these record sets at Ancestry and these at FindMyPast are freely available.
  • At certain times of the year (e.g. Bank Holidays, St Patrick’s Day) the main sites offer free access to their main collections. You can get an awful lot done in a long weekend if you set your mind to it. 😊

Special offers to subscription sites
Look at the Genealogy Discount site to see if there are any special offers currently available.

Or try googling the sites and adding ‘free trial’ or ‘month trial’.  They often have special offers at times of the year when they think people will have free time and minded to find out more about their families, e.g. Christmas.

Limit your subscriptions to when you know you’ll have more time
In my early years as a genealogist I limited my subscriptions to the winter months.  Other commitments meant I didn’t have much time throughout the rest of the year.  Per month, a monthly subscription is more expensive than an annual subscription, but if you subscribed for one month out of every three, it will save you money.  Remember to deactivate automatic renewal each time you subscribe.

Alternate subscriptions and reading
If you limit your subscriptions you can use the time between subscribed months to read around your family / your localities by visiting your local library, heritage centre or archives.  It’s all valuable research and will help you get a better understanding of your family.

You can also take advantage of ‘free weekends’ during your unsubscribed periods.

Even if you do keep a regular subscription, you can still save money
Keep an eye on public online trees.  Sometimes people share digital copies of BMD certificates or other records they have found on a different subscription site.  Sometimes you may even get photos of your ancestors.  If you’re sure this is the same family, that could be several documents you don’t have to pay for.

Try to find out if someone has transcribed the registers for your parish of interest
GENUKI is a good place to start.  Click on your county, then your parish.  If transcriptions are known to exist they will be listed.

Also try Googling ‘online parish clerks’ and adding your county of interest.  e.g. Cornwall online parish clerks has a page for each parish.  As an example, Altarnun parish page includes transcripts of census returns, registers, and even some apprenticehip indentures, wills, bastardy and resettlement hearings.  This is a volunteer service so what’s available will of course vary from place to place.

Occasionally you’ll come across a real nugget, like the Wharfegen & Craven Genealogical Study.  This is an ongoing project to construct the family lines and histories of individuals and families who have lived the Wharfedale and Craven areas of Yorkshire.  You only come across things like this by googling or recommendation, so see what you can find.

Don’t buy a civil BMD for every event
Refer back to my previous posts for ideas on how to find the same or similar information from alternative records:

These are some ideas to get you started.  I’m sure others will be able to add to this list, so please leave a comment if there’s a money-saving idea you’d like to share.