Layers of evidence

This post focuses on two issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

The 1921 Census of England and Wales

Happy New Year to you all!
Have you been looking at the 1921 Census?

In case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the 1921 Census for England and Wales was released to the public on 6th January.  It includes the Isle of Man and Channel Islands; members of the Armed Forces (wherever in the world they were stationed, apart from Scotland); Merchant Navy and fishing vessels in port on the night of the census or returning over the following day or so; plus visitors, tourists and people in transit.

This census is particularly important for us as genealogists: there won’t be another until 1951.  The 1931 census was burned in a fire during the Second World War; and because of the war, no census was taken in 1941.  We do of course have the 1939 Register to plug the gap, but it’s sad to know we won’t have another census to look forward to for the next 30 years.

The 1921 Census was taken on 19th June 1921, having been postponed from 24th April following the declaration of a state of emergency owing to coal miners’ strike action.  This was a period of great social change, following the 1914-18 War and, mirroring our own time, the Spanish Flu epidemic.  The women’s suffrage movement of the previous decade had started to pay off, and some women had won the right to vote – although this still depended on the woman in question being a householder in her own right or the wife of a householder.  With the return of the men after the War, there was a growing expectation of ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’; while the women who had kept the factories going during the absence of their menfolk were dissatisfied with the expectation that they should return to their kitchens as if nothing had ever happened.

Societal changes mean changes in the questions asked.  I was sad to see the loss of the 1911 questions regarding length of the present marriage and number of children born to that marriage including whether still living or since died.  Apparently this was removed because so many responded incorrectly – but I’m sure you’ll agree that their wonderful ‘incorrect’ answers gave us as genealogists so much information! The long-standing question about infirmity and nature of that infirmity has also been removed.  On the 1921 Census these are replaced with questions about:

  • age ‘in years and months’;
  • for children under 15, whether one or both parents has died;
  • the actual employer and work address;
  • an additional category for marital status: Married, Single, Widowed and now for the first time, Divorced;
  • for Welsh households, a question about language spoken. 

Of course, it isn’t just genealogists who have been eagerly awaiting the publication of these records.  While the main purpose of any census is to inform contemporary social policy development once the data is analysed and condensed into statistics, one hundred years on it’s time for local and social historians to do likewise.  They will take more of an overview; we, of course, are interested in the individual entries.

The contract to publish the 1921 Census was awarded to FindMyPast, who have exclusive rights for the first three years.  After this it’s likely also to be available on other genealogy subscription sites.  Initially, there’s an extra charge for viewing the records, but as with the 1939 Register, these charges will be removed when FindMyPast have recouped part of their investment.

That investment has been considerable: a team of specialists have worked for three years to digitise almost 38 million entires.  Between them they have carried out conservation work (repairing tears, ironing out creases, dealing with mould and insects) as well as scanning each household schedule – or photographing it if it was considered too fragile to scan.  After that each record was returned to its place within one of the 30,000 ledgers, and the digitised version of each record was transcribed and indexed.  You can learn more in the following short video.

Some family history enthusiasts are upset at the charges: currently £2.50 to view the transcript and £3.50 to view the original.  I’m not: I appreciate the huge amount of work involved.  There is no way the public sector could have financed this. Inviting tenders from the private sector was the only option; and without their investment this simply would not have become available to us.  That said, you can access it for free (via FindMyPast) if you can get to The National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth or Manchester Central Library.  The rest of us will have to make decisions, prioritise and find ways to keep costs down.  I decided to search only for direct ancestors (six households for me, five for my husband’s family) and to access only the original document.  For this you get the front and back of the household schedule (2 pages).  As a full FindMyPast subscriber I received a 10% discount on the £3.50 charge – hence eleven lots of £3.15, total £34.65.  There are other households I’d like to see but these will have to wait until FindMyPast remove the charges. In spending £34.65 I feel I’ve contributed to helping them recoup their investment.

Why choose the original rather than the cheaper transcript?  Because the original is always preferable.  Transcript errors do happen – and feedback to date suggests the transcriptions on the 1921 Census are the weakest link, which is a shame because a dodgy transcription of individuals’ names and birthplaces also impacts upon the efficacy of the index, hence search results.  That aside, I want to see my ancestors’ handwriting – and the errors they sometimes make when completing these forms can often give us other information and even an insight into their personalities. 

Of course when you’re paying to view individual documents it’s really important that you don’t rush in and pay for a record that turns out not to be your ancestors.  It’s therefore vital that you understand how the FindMyPast search engine works – it’s far more precise than Ancestry’s, and you have to be more precise in the search terms.  So here are a few tips:

First, with all this focus on the charges, it’s important to note that SEARCHING IS FREE. You can search the 1921 index all day long and it won’t cost you a penny. When it came online at one minute past midnight on 6th January I spent 30 minutes clicking around just looking for my families before I went to bed. I didn’t make my purchases until the next day, but using the hovering cursor technique (see below) I was able to draw upon the forename combinations to be sure that I had found the correct family. In other words, at the very least you can place your family and some specific members of that family in a certain locality without paying a penny.

FindMyPast have put a separate gateway into the 1921 Census on their header bar.  Click on this and you can immediately input name, birthyear and location.  However, this search will focus only on the exact information you give, so if for whatever reason the correct record is not returned you need to ask the search engine to be more flexible.  For this you go back to that first 1921 Census page and click on Advanced Search.

Now you can ask the search engine to offer surname variants, provide a span of birthyears, separate out the likely location in 1921 from the birthplace, and search with a variety of other terms.  You could choose to leave the location blank, or you can give a location and then gradually extend out from it, up to a maximum of 100 miles.

You can also use wildcards: for example since my surname is often mis-spelled (and I have an errant great grandfather whose Life Purpose was To Avoid The Census Enumerator By Any Means Available) I might try Heppen*, Hepp*, Hep*, H?p* and so on.  (No, it didn’t work; I still haven’t found him…..)  This is also useful if you have ancestors with foreign names that could easily be mis-transcribed – or indeed if your ancestors were gradually anglicising/ changing spellings of their names. 

Linked to the above – if your first search doesn’t succeed try a different family member – perhaps one with the most unusual name or (in the case of an immigrant family) the one with the most phonetic forename. When searching for one of my husband’s families I tried several family members before finding one of the children with the name spelled sufficiently as expected as to be recognisable by the search engine.

Once you have your selection of returned records move your cursor along the line, to the right, where you’ll find an icon for Record Transcript and another for Record Image.  Hover (don’t click!) your cursor over one of these icons, and you’ll see how many people are at the address, together with the first names of up to three of them.  You can use this information to help you decide if you have the right household.  Before buying I sometimes searched for several family members, checking the name combinations, before deciding this was definitely my family.

Something else you can do in Advanced Search is give priority to a certain search term. For example, you could input name (e.g. Ethel Jones) and birthyear (e.g. 1889) but leave everything else blank. Now you’ll get all the Ethel Jones’s born that year throughout the entire country. Or you could input Ethel Jones and Birmingham but leave the year blank – giving all the Ethel Jones’s in Birmingham across a wide span of ages. For my master enumerator-avoiding great grandfather I tried leaving all blank apart from name (with various wildcards) and his occupation, which was cooper. No…. nothing. But you might have more luck.

Paying to access the original image gives you more than the two sides of the household schedule your ancestors completed. At the bottom right of the page, click on ‘Open Filmstrip’. From here, once the charges are removed, we will be able to whizz backwards and forwards through the filmstrip with gay abandon, to see who the neighbours are – sometimes family are living very close by. But for now, there are additional features we can see. With the filmstrip opened, click on ‘Extra Materials’. These include the Enumeration District cover, a description of its boundaries and streets included, and a map.

If you’ve already been searching for family members on the 1921 Census I hope you’ve had some good finds.

Wishing you comfort and joy

Digital scrapbook page featuring golden retriever dog wearing Father Christmas hat.

Earlier this year I was thinking about how we could preserve our visual legacies in ways more likely to spark the interest of those who follow us. One of the ideas I wrote about was digital scrapbooking. It was back in August and September that I was tidying up and reorganising my digital photo archives, and making a start on digitising old family photos. I can report that progress has been good but there’s still a long way to go.

Alongside digitising the old photos I realised I could use my existing photo editing software for digital scrapbooking, and I’ve had lots of fun making digital scrapbook pages using some of the old photos. My brother’s birthday card this year was made this way and I’m so happy with how it turned out.

Today I’m combining this new-found digital scrapbooking interest with one of my personal Christmas traditions, which is that every year I’m compelled to try to photograph our four-legged family members wearing Christmas hats. I have to say that I enjoy this far more than the said four-legged family members, but George here does love posing for a photo and is prepared, up to a point, to accept the ignominy of wearing a hat if it means he can be the centre of attention.

Zoë Ball was asking about family Christmas traditions recently on BBC Radio 2. One listener shared that her mother buys a new toilet brush every year at Christmas time and on Christmas Day, before she puts it to use in the bathroom, the family holds a competition to see who can toss the new toilet brush into its holder… Makes my tradition of photographing the animals seem very tame! What about you? Do you have any special traditions that will be passed on? Are there any older family members with stories to tell about how they used to celebrate Christmas?

Whatever you’ll be doing over the remainder of 2021, whether you celebrate or not, and whether by the time Christmas arrives the latest COVID variant will yet again make family gatherings inadvisable, I wish you comfort, joy, peace and good health, now and in the year to come.

I’ll be back with my next post on 15th January 2022.

*****

Digital scrapbooking supplies used are from Life Chronicled: Christmas by Connie Prince; and Joyful by Ginny Whitcomb. Both sets were purchased from ScrapGirls. I have no connection to this store but terms of use require that I acknowledge the designers when posting online.

DNA Painter Ancestral Trees

Fan tree created using DNA Painter
DNA Painter fan tree

Today I have pretty things for you!
For ages I wanted to create a colourful fan tree. I had no idea how to go about doing that but suspected it would involve a lot of work, so I was particularly impressed when, a while back, Jonny Pearl introduced the facility to do this very quickly and easily on his DNA Painter site.

I wrote about DNA Painter earlier this year as part of my mini-series on using chromosome browsers as part of DNA research for genealogy. As explained in that previous post, DNA Painter is brilliant for mapping out your DNA segments, but in theory even if you don’t intend at this stage to use the main DNA functions, you could still get your own colourful fan just by uploading your tree to the site. You do this by downloading the GEDCOM file from your online tree or your own software or simply by inputting the information manually.

Once loaded, your tree will appear as a pedigree with each of the lines colour coded. The DNA Painter default palette uses pretty much the same colours I use on Ancestry to assign known DNA matches to each of my great grandparents’ lines, but here on DNA Painter the default paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather colours were the wrong way round for me. It was very easy to flip the colours. Editing and building the tree is very straightforward too. You can hover over any ancestor to edit their information, add their parents or delete them, and you can mark them as a genetic ancestor – someone who is a common ancestor confirmed not only by paper trail but also by DNA. Fly your cursor over any ancestor and then select View/Edit → Edit or Add Notes to change any information about them, including the colours used for them and their ancestors.

From this point you can go to the three options at the top left hand corner of the screen: TREE / FAN / TEXT. Tree is the default – the pedigree. Text is a handy pedigree list of all your ancestors, with dates and places of birth and death. However for me the fan is the most exciting part. It only goes to 10 generations and I have some lines further back than that, so they are not included. Already, though, you can see at a glance how well you’re doing and where you have gaps.

I’m sure the arrangement in the fan above is obvious, but in case it isn’t: from left to right, the colour blocks are pale blue for my paternal side and pink for maternal. Then I have blue for my paternal grandfather (with violet and blue for his ancestors); yellow for paternal grandmother (with orange and yellow for previous ancestors); green for maternal grandfather (with turquoise and green for his ancestors); and finally salmon pink for maternal grandmother, with deeper pink and browny pink for her ancestral lines.

For all versions of the fan tree shown in the images in this post, you can hover over any individual person’s ‘box’ to see their name, vital dates and their relationship to you. At the same time on the left of your screen you’ll see the lineage from that person to you. I couldn’t show this in these images because the screen shot process disables the hovering cursor.

You can also click on ‘Tree Completeness’ over at top right of the screen to get numbers and statistics of ancestors identified at each generational level. All the images in this post click for a bigger version, but you’ll definitely need to do that to see the info on this next image.

Screen grab of DNA Painter Ancestral Trees tool bar showing options for Tree view, DNA filters, Tree completeness and other options
DNA Painter Ancestral Trees toolbar

Moving along the toolbar options to ‘Dimensions’, these next two fan charts draw upon all the information you provided when you uploaded or built your tree. First, you can see all your ancestors colour-coded by the age at which they died.

Fan tree showing ancestors' ages at death
DNA Painter fan tree showing ancestors’ ages at death

Next, ancestors colour-coded by the century in which they were born.

Fan tree showing century of ancestors' births
DNA Painter fan tree showing century of ancestors’ births

So far all the charts shown relate simply to the detail of your family tree. However, if you also work with DNA, you can make use of all the following fan charts:

On the upper toolbar, select DNA Filters. The first option is Show Genetic Ancestors. Provided you have already marked which of your ancestors are proven as genetically linked (see above) you will now see how you’re doing in terms of corroborating your documented tree through DNA matching. This is mine.

Fan tree showing ancestors with genetic link proven by DNA
DNA Painter fan tree showing ancestors with genetic link proven by DNA

My first ever DNA post was about deep ancestral DNA testing: mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA. To recap very quickly, everyone inherits mitochondrial DNA from their mother – but only daughters pass it on. This means everyone can be sure that they share the same mitochondrial haplogroup as their mother, their mother’s mother, and so on right back through time. That is illustrated by the following chart. (In fact I have only been able to trace this line back to 3xG grandmother, but even though I don’t know her name, I do know that my 4xG grandmother has the same mitochondrial as me.)

Fan tree showing mitochondrial DNA inheritance
DNA Painter fan tree showing mitochondrial DNA inheritance

Y-chromosome DNA works exactly the same way, but only males inherit it, and obviously therefore only fathers pass it on. So the Y-DNA inheritance path is an exact mirror image of the mitochondrial, following father’s father’s father’s father’s line right the way back. (The chart below showing this is for a man whose DNA I manage. Obviously I can’t get this information from my own DNA.)

Fan tree showing Y-chromosome DNA inheritance
DNA Painter fan tree showing Y-chromosome DNA inheritance

The second option in DNA Filters is Show X-DNA Path. At some point I’ll do a blogpost about X DNA. I haven’t done it so far because I don’t have many X matches to use as illustrations. If you already understand X-DNA inheritance patterns the meaning of the following two screenshots will already be clear, and when I do eventually write about this I’ll include them, since they illustrate perfectly the different inheritance patterns for females (the one immediately below)…

Fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for females
DNA Painter fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for females

… and males:

Fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for males
DNA Painter fan tree showing X-DNA inheritance for males

Because of the dark colour used, it isn’t clear from these last two screen grabs that if you hover your cursor over the dark patch the intensity of colour reduces and you can see the individual ancestors’ names.

I don’t know about you, but I think all of this is pretty cool!

The Menin Gate and Last Post Ceremony

Menin Gate, Memorial to the Missing, at Ypres, Belgium
Ypres Menin Gate

Two or three minutes walk from the central Market Place in Ypres, stands the magnificent Menin Gate, Memorial to the Missing. It honours all the British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found or remained unidentified in and around Ypres after the First World War. 

My first glimpse of the Menin Gate was a black-and-white postcard brought back by my great uncle who went there before I was born to remember his older brother, Cyril. Cyril is one of the 54,896 men – from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the West Indies – whose names are engraved on the Portland Stone panels. I now have that postcard, along with some photos and one of the death notices my great grandparents sent out to family and friends.

In April 1914, as the centenary of the Great War approached, I spent a few days in Ypres, learning about the final days not only of Cyril but of another great uncle too: Joseph. Like Cyril, Joseph lost his life in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. His remains lie in Poelcapelle Cemetery.

The Menin Gate, or in Flemish Menenpoort, was historically the eastern gate opening from the walled town of Ypres (Flemish: Ieper) in the direction of the town of Menin (Flemish: Menen). The grand archway now marking the road to Menen bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original gate – as the pre-1914 contemporary photograph below shows. In fact, the whole of Ypres had to be completely rebuilt after the war.

The two stone lions guarding the entrance to the town were removed during the war to prevent damage. They were presented to the Australian nation in 1936, in honour of the more than 36,000 Australian soldiers killed or wounded on the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.  They stand now at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra.

Menin Gate, or Menenpoort, as it was before World War 1.
The Menin Gate (Menenpoort) before World War 1

The new gate and memorial was unveiled on 24th July 1927.  It was designed in classical style by Sir Reginald Blomfield, and features a central Hall of Memory (which is also the road), loggias on the north and south sides of the building, and staircases linking the two levels.

And yet the Menin Gate is not a sad, dusty old memorial.  It remains very much a part of daily life in Ypres.  Since 2nd July 1928 The Last Post Association has overseen a daily act of homage to those who fell in defence of the town.  Between 7.30pm and 8.30pm every evening, the road through the archway is closed, and as many as several hundred people gather.

At 8pm promptly, wearing the uniform of the local voluntary Fire Brigade, the buglers of The Last Post Association sound the Last Post – the tune used to commemorate the war dead in Britain and in Commonwealth countries.

Four buglers sounding The Last Post at the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres.
Buglers at The Last Post Ceremony at Ypres

Marching bands, visiting dignitaries and delegations from organisations throughout the world come to Ypres to take part, and to lay wreaths. But even if not one single visitor attends, the ceremony still goes ahead.

Its significance to the people of Ypres is illustrated by the fact that this daily act of hommage was interrupted only during the years of German occupation during World War II, and was resumed on the very evening the town was liberated in 1944.  Today, on 11th November 2021, the 31,317th ceremony will take place.

These last two photos are from the 29,545th ceremony on 11th April 2014.

If only the world could reflect upon such bloodshed, loss of life and destruction; and resolve henceforth that hatred, violence and war will never be the answer.

Crowd gathered in the street at Ypres
Crowd gathered in the street at the Menin Gate, Ypres

Case study: Two ancestral lines, different naming patterns

In theory, we should be able to follow our paternal line with the same surname back through the generations, certain that it will continue beyond the earliest parish registers. If you (or a direct male descendant from your paternal line if you’re female) were to take a Y DNA test, then again in theory – provided there are no unexpected paternity events – you should even find the Y DNA haplogroup keeps step with the surname, right back through history. Our paternal line, though, does not comprise only endless lines of grandfathers. There is an equal number of grandmothers, and in just the same way that our foremothers married into the male surname and refreshed the gene pool, so too she refreshed the family’s traditions, recipes, ways of keeping house and, significantly for the topic of this post, the names given to children.

I wrote in two previous posts about naming patterns: the tradition of naming children in a specific order based on the names of their grandparents, parents and other significant family members. You’ll find those previous posts here (Irish) and here (English)

My last two posts have demonstrated that historically, women are significantly less likely to appear in official records. Their role was within the home, and in general the home was not a matter for public record. As we have seen, we have to get in the habit of reading between the lines regarding information about our female ancestors. For all these reasons their importance within society as a whole can easily be overlooked. Nevertheless they did have influence, even though their primary sphere of influence was domestic.

Today’s post will draw together all these topics. It’s a case study of a puzzle solved by focusing on traditional English naming patterns, and it highlights the importance and potential benefits for us as researchers of the merging of the women into the family.

When I was very young a fairly close member of my family married a lady with the same surname as his own. In more recent decades, as I progressed my genealogical research I found that this surname line on our side could be traced, still in Leeds, all the way back to the 17th century. I wondered if the same would be true for the paternal line of that lady marrying into my family, and if we would turn out to be distant cousins. Since this person is living I have changed the names. I shall refer to her as ‘Rose’, and to the surname we share as ‘Beccles’. Apart from these false names, all other information is accurate.

It was about ten years ago that I first started to work back ‘Rose’s’ paternal line. I knew her father’s name and was able to place him with his family in the 1911 census. From there, the preceding four generations were quite straightforward:

  • His father, Frank, residing with him in that 1911 census, was also located as a child in 1891;
  • Frank’s father, Samuel, residing with him in the 1891 census, was located with his own birth family in 1851-71.
  • Samuel’s father, Francis, was to be found with his birth family including father Samuel in 1841, and a baptism for Francis, son of Samuel was found in Leeds.
  • Samuel’s marriage a couple of years before that was also located, and his own baptism was in 1795. His father was Thomas.

I had now traced ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to at least 1795, and I had the name of his father, Thomas. There was so far no connection between this and my own ‘Beccles’ line, but certainly both families were still in Leeds. I now needed a baptism for Thomas, probably around 1770; and this was where my research came to an end: there were too many Thomas ‘Beccles’ baptised in Leeds within a reasonable timeframe for me to be able to decide with certainty which was the correct one.

The solution came from an unexpected source. About five years later I discovered a new record set on Ancestry: the Leeds Township Overseers Records Apprenticeship Register. It seemed to start around 1740 and to continue until the end of the 18th century. I carefully searched the register, looking for any of my ancestors or their siblings, and found two of my ‘Beccles’ boys: my 4x great grandfather and his brother Nathaniel. It was Nathaniel’s entry that intrigued me: he was apprenticed to a master tailor by the name of Francis ‘Beccles’. I immediately started to wonder if there was some family connection between my Beccles line, known to be clothworkers, and this Francis.

Then I had my brainwave: ‘Rose’s’ ancestral ‘Beccles’ line and my own line had completely different forenames. Whereas the boys’ names repeatedly handed down in my line, prior to the 20th century, were Joseph, Nathaniel, Leonard and Benjamin, in ‘Rose’s’ line the naming tradition so far featured Samuel, Thomas and, significantly here, Francis. Could this master tailor, Francis ‘Beccles’, to whom my Nathaniel was apprenticed, be part of ‘Rose’s’ direct line?

I then started to wonder why this situation of two lines with completely different naming traditions might have come about, and the answer, when you think about it, is obvious. A surname is static. What gives it life is those who join it – in other words, the women who come into the family as wives. If we go back to the traditional naming patterns: the first son will take the name of the maternal or paternal grandfather; the second son will take the name of the other grandfather, and so on. What changes is that every wife at each new generation brings into the mix the name of her own father, her own mother and her own name. In my ‘Beccles’ line I knew who brought in Nathaniel, and I knew who brought in Leonard. These were the fathers’ names of my 6 x great grandmother and my 4x great grandmother. So now I needed to see if I could do the same for ‘Rose’s’ line, and if I could use this to help me find the correct baptisms for each generation further back. This would involve:

  • identifying all potential baptisms for Thomas ‘Beccles’, including the name and abode of the father;
  • guided by fathers’ names, abodes and dates, identifying baptisms of all other children born to these same men;
  • placing the children in age order so as to identify first-born and second-born sons (normally named for maternal and paternal grandfathers);
  • checking also the names of third-born sons (which should be the same as the father’s name, unless that name has already been used);
  • based on all this, identifying any family/families with strong similarities in children’s names with those given by Thomas and his wife to their children. i.e. In addition to the baptism for Thomas, was there also a Samuel, a Francis, and perhaps also daughters with names Thomas and his wife passed on;
  • homing in on the most likely family/families, using the date of the first-born child to identify a marriage, likely within two years previously. This would provide Thomas’s mother’s name;
  • and finally, looking for the baptisms of Thomas’s mother and father to ascertain their own fathers’ names.
  • And repeat, back through the generations.

Remember here that what we’re looking for is adherence to the traditional naming pattern. It may not hold good, but if it does it’s an extra bit of ‘evidence’ indicating your decisions so far have been valid. Remember also the extra value of finding the mother who brings a new name into the family, particularly if it’s an unusual name. It’s strong evidence that your research is correct.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me tell you – you really have to be ‘in the zone’ to do this!

But I did it! I found Thomas’s baptism. He was the first-born son of Samuel, the name given to Thomas’s own first-born son. Thomas himself was named for his maternal grandfather, Thomas. The master tailor Francis, whose name had started the alarm bells ringing turned out to be the nephew of this Samuel – son of his older brother George. So – our first identifiable ‘connection’ is that my 5x great uncle Nathaniel was apprenticed in 1789 to ‘Rose’s’ 1C6R (first cousin six times removed). I still haven’t found our common ancestor, but I’m working on it.

Using this method I managed to get ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to the marriage of her 9xG grandparents in Leeds in the year 1627. When I passed all this information to ‘Rose’ she was astonished to see that two significant names still in her family – Frank (originally Francis) and George – had been handed down in her paternal line for several centuries. How amazing is that?!

Maiden names: a handy code breaker!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about this one?

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Genealogical Women’s Lore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods

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

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

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

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

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

Within those chapters you’ll find the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Presenting a visual legacy

Black and white photo of group British Army National Service recruits

One of the young men in this photo is my Dad. It was taken in 1946 during his initial National Service training in Aberdeen. When I look at it I think of an amusing story he told me about his time there.

One of the other recruits was from the Western Isles. A Gaelic speaker, it soon became clear he didn’t understand English. The NCOs persevered, doing their best to make clear what they required, but eventually it was accepted it just wasn’t going to work. The decision was taken to release the Gaelic speaking man from National Service. Assuming he wouldn’t be able to navigate the route to the railway station and make himself understood when buying a ticket for the journey back to the Islands, they asked my Dad to accompany him, buy his ticket and see him safely onto the right train. This my Dad did, and as they were parting the young man who spoke only Gaelic turned to him, shook him warmly by the hand and said in perfect Scottish-accented English: ‘Well thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful.’ And with that he jumped on his train and escaped National Service.

*****

Starting with more recent generations is more likely to create interest
My personal observation is that even people with no interest in family history will nevertheless enjoy stories about people they knew. I’ve often made the mistake of thinking a distant cousin might share my fascination with our shared line back to the 17th century, only to find what they’re really interested in is the life of their grandparents. As luck would have it, those more recent generations are the ones we have photos for. It follows then that old family photos are a great place to start in encouraging younger generations to take an interest in their wider family history.

In my last post I wrote about my dawning realisation that unless I make my family photographs more accessible, they could easily be lost forever when I’m no longer around, and I outlined what I’ve been doing to organise my files. This time I’m focusing on using and presenting those images. The emphasis here remains on digital images. But as is clear from the above example, this doesn’t exclude the beautiful monochrome photos we inherited from our parents and grandparents. I wrote previously about archiving the originals and how, for safety, these old photos should be scanned and digitised too, before the originals are safely stored. My own digitisation of all the old photos I inherited is about halfway complete. So now – old photos or modern – I’m ready to turn to what we can do once they are safely stored in our digital archives.

We need to provide context
A Facebook Family History group I’m a member of often has requests from people working through old family photos but with no idea who the subjects are. It takes a group effort with people contributing knowledge about changing fashions, estimating ages and the like, so that the original poster can try to work out who the subjects might be. I’ve also participated in ‘spot the unusual earlobe’ type discussions in which we’re asked if two photos might be of the same person, thirty years apart.

At the very least, then, what we need is to provide future generations with notes about who and when. If possible what, where and why would also be great. I like to take it a stage further if I can, using the photo as a starting point for a story, just like the one at the top of this post. I know from experience that this can help draw people in, but I need a way of presenting them alongside the images for family members to keep. What follows considers physical creations using images you print off yourself; and digital creations, in which you create the entire thing at your computer and then share the file/ link or a print of that end product.

Physical creations
Photo albums and scrapbooking are tactile and can be beautiful. I used to love arranging photos, and adding notes and other memorabilia. However, they take up a lot of space, and it’s now widely known that many albums actually harm our photos. Even if I took swift action to replace those first albums with sticky pages covered with film bought for about 99 pence each in my early teens, I know that none of my later albums, despite being much better quality, are actually ‘archival’. What we need is acid/ lignin/ PVC-free archival quality albums; and these come at a cost. It turns out albums with black pages are a no-no too; I have two of these. What’s known these days as ‘scrapbooking’ (and has little to do with what used to be called ‘scrapbooks’!) is probably safer for the photographs, since those who enjoy this craft are more likely to be aware of archival issues; and archival quality scrapbook papers, adhesives and the like are widely available. Having given much thought to this whole issue I’ve come to the conclusion that provided I don’t use treasured originals of monochrome photos, and provided I have a digital back-up of any images used, albums and scrapbooking are fine. I’ve removed all the old monochrome photos taken by my Dad from the cheap album I put them in when I was 13, and will be keeping them in an archival quality box from now on, but as long as any prints used can be replaced, I’m happy to have my photos in albums and scrapbooking albums.

Digital creations
Undoubtedly, digital creations have a lot of advantages. Whereas you would probably compile only one album or create only one scrapbook about an event or a special person’s life, a digital version of the same can be circulated amongst the extended family. This list has been compiled following a lot of online research and mulling it all over, a bit of talking to others, and some dabbling. It has enabled me to work out what options I’m going to use, and I hope it will help you too.

Creating Timelines
This idea turned out to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There are so many online applications and articles about creating timelines, that I had to keep reminding myself of what I was trying to achieve. What I want to be able to do is quite specific:

  • create a series of short timelines focusing on just one person or even just one part of that person’s life, for example my Dad’s time doing National Service, or my Granddad’s service with the Green Howards
  • build each timeline around my own family photographs
  • attach stories and significant local or world events as context
  • include maps
  • have it online, but private and password protected, so that I can invite family members but not overload them with info at any one time. This also means they could return to look any time they want without fear of losing, say, an email link or a document from me.

I narrowed the various options down to four online timeline websites.

Twile is online, free, private, password-protected and family members can be invited to view and collaborate. They provide the option to start by uploading a GEDCOM file, which I did. After a bit of exploration it seems easy to use. However, the skeleton timeline created by my GEDCOM goes back to the 1500s and this will seem cumbersome and off-putting to family members. So – just because I’ve already uploaded the entire GEDCOM – I’ve decided to use Twile for a different purpose: to create Timelines for more distant ancestors when I’m working on their life stories and researching/ recording context.

Timetoast appealed because it’s not linked to a family tree. You can create as many timelines as you like – so you can home in on a specific part of a person’s life and make another timeline for their full life if you wanted. Provided you’re happy with them all being public the account is free. There are two options for paid accounts, the more expensive Pro account providing an all-bells-and-whistles experience. My problem here is that I would want my recent generation timelines to be private but wouldn’t make so many timelines that it would be worth paying the full subscription. However, if you would make sufficient use of it this does seem like a good option.

HistoryLines also looks very good. They make it clear that what they’re about is the stories, and that’s just what I’m trying to achieve here. Their vehicle for telling these stories is your family tree and although you can start with a couple of stories for free, there is a subscription if you want to keep going. Their offering is different from the others in that they have gathered together a lot of contextual information that you can access and link directly to your timelines. This contextual information is arranged by State and, being a US-based company, my impression from the website was that you’d get more from what they have to offer if your ancestry is within the US. However, I wrote to ask a few questions and received very full and helpful responses to them all. Importantly, they tell me they do have a lot of contextual content for England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can also just input information and leave it to HistoryLines to auto-write the stories if you don’t feel confident about writing your own content.

Treelines is free but they do reserve the right to charge at some point in the future. They say ‘If ever we do start charging users, even if you decide not to pay for a subscription, we will not delete any data you’ve already added to the site.’ You have the option for uploading a GEDCOM, but for this website I’ve inputted manually myself, my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I’ll gradually add siblings, etc, as I focus on the timeline for each of these people. Your tree is accessible only to the people you invite to it, although there is an option to make any timeline public. Importantly for my needs, there is the facility to add additional stories away from the main timeline for that person. This is the website I will use to share stories and timelines with my children, nephews and niece.

Books
Online self-publishing and marketing platforms like Blurb offer free book-making tools to help users design and publish books and ebooks. They also provide a platform for promoting and selling the product should you wish to do that. They offer a variety of book formats and quality papers, and a range of styles of book, including travelogues and family photo books.

My husband’s second cousin (also a genealogist; we worked together on their shared line) has been using Blurb for fourteen years. She tells me the company is helpful, the quality and colour of the printed books excellent, and they deal well with text passages alongside images. The maximum number of pages for the printed book is 240. She pays extra for premium lustre paper and image wrap onto the cover. The pdf file of a book costs about £3.80 and you can share it with no restriction, but the cost of printed books is high so she waits for special offers. I haven’t seen any of her actual printed books but I do have a copy of the pdf of her family history book, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It seems to me that paying a lot for what is destined to be a family heirloom is money well spent. When I wrote to Blurb to ask a couple of questions they replied within 24 hours, answering fully. They advised that all of their papers are acid-free/archival quality, and that all their books, regardless of paper type, should last as long as a typical bookstore book with proper care and handling.

Photo printing Apps
A quick Google search indicates quite a few photo printing Apps are available. After downloading to your mobile device you can use them to create a range of books (hardback, softback, booklet), prints and other products. So this is a variation on Blurb, but only for your mobile phone/tablet photos, and great if your phone is your primary camera. This is not for me – I want to edit photos and add contextual information, spending time poring over it to get the wording just right – but it might suit you. My husband has used Popsa and tells me it’s very easy to use.

Digital scrapbooking
There are various options for digital scrapbooking, from a free basic online programme called Smilebook to highly customizable software costing around £60-100, and all levels in between. These are expensive to make if you intend to print off the pages, but for circulating as digital creations, once you’ve chosen your programme, the only cost is your time. Here’s a review of the best digital scrapbooking software for 2021. As a result of exploring all this I’ve bought some digital scrapbooking papers and embelllishments and have been creating digital scrapbook pages using the Photoshop Elements programme I already use for photo editing. The results have been quite impressive and – wait for it! – I’ve had interest in them and the stories behind them from two nephews!

DIY Options
To keep costs down, here are some ideas for creating something yourself on your home computer. If you’re going to circulate to family members via email or Dropbox there’s no need to print these off, so no additional ink costs.

Finding Guide
This first idea is simply administrative and I’ve already created my own. It includes a list of my digital folders, where they’re to be found (PC and remote storage), dates covered and some thumbnail examples of the photos in each. Having put so much effort into my digital photo archives I feel confident that the folders themselves won’t change much, so it’s simply a question of keeping them up to date and updating the finding guide as technology and remote storage changes. I don’t need this: I know my archives system inside out; but our grown-up children can access our remote storage. They will now be able to find old photos, including the monochrome ones but also their own childhood photos, any time they want to.

Stories with photos
You could create a series of stories and recollections in a Microsoft Word document, each page starting with an image and followed by the text, like I did above. Other than a single photo followed by a body of text though, Word isn’t ideal for lots of images and wrap-around text.

Creating a Timeline using Word
Here’s a ‘Quick and Easy How To Tutorial’ for creating a family history timeline using Microsoft Word. I haven’t put it to the test, but the instructions seems clear enough.

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Well, they are my ideas and I hope the above has provided some useful information for you. If you have any experience with any of these photo-plus-story presentation options please let us know about it in the comments. The process of working through all this has certainly helped me to plan my next stages, and I’ll be reporting back on some of these options when I’ve had a chance to really explore them.