Making the most of transcripts and indexes

My last post focused on the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions.  But transcripts can also be our friend!  Today we’ll focus on their benefits, and how to make the most of them. I hope there is something here for both beginners and intermediate level family researchers. Perhaps beginners will benefit most simply from an appreciation of the variety of records available, whereas intermediate level genealogists will be more interested in wringing every last drop of use out of each of them.

To start, then, what do we mean by ‘transcription’?
In my last post I used the term as a sort of ‘catch-all’ for documents that copy and record the information from an original document.  But in genealogy there are lots of different kinds of record that do this, and some of these copies are more properly called ‘indexes’.  It makes sense, then, to start by looking at the different types of record we might come across.

This is the image of the original record (A) of my 5x great grandparents, James Calvert and ‘Sally or Sarah’ Brewer.  The actual original is kept at West Yorkshire Archives, and although I haven’t seen that physical document, I can say I’ve seen ‘the original’ because I have this photograph of it.  It tells us that James was from another parish: Bradford, whereas ‘Sally or Sarah’ was from ‘this’ parish: Calverley. They were married by Banns, and we can see that James signed the register, but ‘Sarah or Sally’ made her mark. These alternative names, together with the fact that on every other record I’ve found, the name ‘Sarah’ is used, suggests Sarah was her ‘proper’ name, but that everyone called her ‘Sally’. Then down at the bottom we see the names of the witnesses. We will never find a copy (transcription or index) of this document that includes all of this information. Even if what is transcribed is perfectly accurate it will not have all of these facts and visual clues.

Photo of original marriage register entry, dated 1799
Source: Ancestry.co.uk: West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1512-1812; Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds

Below is a document contemporary to the original.  It’s the Bishops’ Transcript (B) of that same event. It was written up at the end of the year (1799-1800) and sent off to the bishop.  This image is on FindMyPast.  Unfortunately the entry for James and Sally/ Sarah is right down at the bottom of the page. I’ve lightened it but it’s still dark and not easy to read, but already we can see a difference between these two documents.  This records simply the following: ‘James Calvert and Sarah Brewer by Banns’, plus the date: 8 Dec.

Marriage entry on Bishops' Transcript for 1799 marriage
CLICK FOR BIG! Source: FindMyPast: Yorkshire, Bishop’s Transcripts Of Marriages; Original at Borthwick Institute for Archives

There are other records on FindMyPast and Ancestry for this event, e.g. FindMyPast has it in the England Marriages 1538-1973 set (C).  It is a transcription only – no image – in  fact this record set was created by FamilySearch, and used at FindMyPast with their permission.  It records only the following information:

First name(s): James
Last name: Calvert
Marriage date: 08 Dec 1799
Marriage place: Calverley
Spouse’s first name(s): Sarah
Spouse’s last name: Brewer

There are other types of modern transcripts.  If you’re lucky you might just come across a local genealogy website relevant to your interests with dedicated researchers who have transcribed lots of documents and made them freely available.  The following is from such a site: CalverleyInfo.  Here we can see a very full transcription (D) of James and Sarah’s marriage.

Transcription of three 1799 marriages from CalverleyInfo local genealogy website

CLICK FOR BIG! Source: Calverley Info: Calverley Parish Church Records: Marriages 1791-1800

To illustrate more types of transcribed records I’m going to have to switch to a different part of my family, but still in the ancient parish of Calverley.  These records are for the burial of my 8x great grandfather, John Dracup.  I have the original record from the parish register (with image) and it reads: ’10 [April] John Dracup Junior of Idle Green buryed’.

Next, the entry for that burial on FreeReg (E).  In fact there are two, and when I click on each one to view the transcript I see this is because the information has been transcribed by two different people, but the transcription is the same, and it does provide all the information on the original.

Search results for 1674 burial record on FreeReg

Source: FreeReg


My final example is from the Calverley page of GENUKI.  There are a lot of transcripts for Births, Marriages, Burials and other related records on this page, including several different sets for the Calverley burials, transcribed and made freely available by a number of different people.  One person, for example, has extracted all baptisms for people living in Idle for the years 1796-1800; other sets are for marriages arranged alphabetically by groom and by bride.  The set I’m going to home in on is Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, arranged alphabetically by surname (F), and transcribed by Steve Gaunt.  Scrolling down to Dracup, this is what I find: a full listing of the burials of several generations of my ancestors, all in one place, and John Junior is right there in the middle.  Again, all the information from that original has been included.

Source: GENUKI: Calverley Burial Indexes 1596-1720, transcribed by Steve Gaunt

Apart from the original, right at the top, every other document you have just seen is a type of transcription. Some are indexes – they might serve simply to point to where information can be found. Since they are online most of them depend on the existence of a searchable index (G) so we can find them. What they have in common is that the information they record has simply been copied from somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ might be the original, or it might have been copied from another transcript. The Bishops’ Transcript has an unusual status in that it is a contemporary original document, but it is itself just a copy – a resumé, even – of the original entry in the parish register.

Beware!
So this is a good time to think back to my last post, and remember that every time the information is copied, there is the possibility of mistakes creeping in: human error, difficulties with archaic writing, inexperience, carelessness, administrative error…. Every single time something is copied there is scope for error. We must be mindful of that when we use them.

Where will we find these different types of record?
If you have a paid subscription to Ancestry, FindMyPast, The Genealogist, MyHeritage, etc then you’re more likely to have access to digital images of the originals.  However, this depends on whether the archives where the originals are kept has licensed your subscription site to share them.  For example, FindMyPast has a licence agreement with Staffordshire Archives Service which means they can provide Births, Marriages, Banns, Marriage Licences, Burials, Wills and Probate records – all with images of the originals.  On Ancestry, at the time of writing, you’ll find ‘Staffordshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1839’ – these are just transcripts, no images of the originals.  On the other hand it is Ancestry that has the licence agreement with Wiltshire, and you will find all the parish records with images on that site.  FindMyPast currently has simply the Indexes.  Neither site has originals of parish registers from Berkshire.  Transcripts (or ‘indexes’) are all that is available. When we progress beyond the basic census and civil Births, Marriages, Deaths, it makes sense to choose our subscription website based on availability of the older parish registers that you need.

The transcripts and indexes, on the other hand, tend to be freely available. As indicated above, you may find them on the GENUKI page for your parish, on FreeReg, through a local family history society, or a local website dedicated to making genealogical records available, like the CalverleyInfo site. You’ll also find them for free on FamilySearch (although FamilySearch do also have a lot of images of parish registers that you can browse) and you may even come across a brilliant site like one I sometimes refer to for my Wharfedale ancestors: Wharfegen Family History, which is a very trustworthy, ongoing project to construct the family lines and histories of every person who lived in the Wharfedale and Craven areas of Yorkshire.
That’s a LOT of possible transcripts!

So how can we make the best use of them?
* Firstly, a transcript is infinitely better than nothing
The original might have been lost, or it might not yet have been photographed for use on subscription websites. You might not be able to get to the archives where the original is stored, or it might have become too fragile for public perusal. You might not have the cash to access the subscription website where the records are kept, or any subscription website for that matter. For all these reasons, we can be very grateful for transcriptions and indexes. Although I don’t need that particular FamilySearch transcription (C) above, there are still some events for which the FamilySearch transcription is all I have. But if I use a transcript I always make a note of that, if possible I note where the originals are to be found, and if an original becomes available online I replace it as soon as I can.

* Second, even if you do have access to the original record, the transcript can help
Take a look at Original (A) above, for example. Can you read everything on there? I had trouble with the first name of one of the witnesses. Now look at Full Transcription (D), and there you have all the names. Someone has kindly done the work for you. All you have to do is decide if you agree.

* Third, you can use the Bishops’ Transcript to confirm a modern transcript of the original, or to help with illegible writing on the original
OK, so the Bishops’ Transcript (B) above is NOT a good example of this. But mostly they are very neat and the photographed image is NOT too dark to see. Anyway, trust me – you can.

* Fourth, the Bishops’ Transcript is also great if you have a subscription with a website that provides this but not the original parish register
I gave a few county examples of this above, but I have an ongoing example relating to my own research. West Yorkshire parish registers are on Ancestry but not on FindMyPast. However, FindMyPast has the Borthwick Institute records from York which include the BTs for the whole of Yorkshire. For this reason alone I need subscriptions to both sites.

* Fifth, if your subscription site doesn’t return an existing record, try searching on a different site
I gave this example in my last post: I couldn’t find a marriage for my 5x great grandparents. His name was Thomas Mann and she was Sarah. I felt sure her surname would be Creak, since that was the middle name given to their son, my 4x great grandfather. There was no such marriage showing up on Ancestry or FindMyPast. Eventually, it was FreeReg that came to the rescue (example E above is from this site). The problem here was in copying the name to the index. Ancestry did have the record, but their index gave the bride’s surname as Cooke. There’s no guarantee that FreeReg will be right and Ancestry will have it wrong of course. It could be the other way round. But it’s an example of the benefit of having a variety of sites and indexes (G) at your fingertips, and swapping between them all when you can’t find something. Remember – there is scope for human error in every index, and if the index is not correct we will not find our records on that site.

* Sixth, if you come across a transcription that’s arranged alphabetically instead of chronologically, use it as a checklist
That was how I used the alphabetical transcription (F). I found I had almost all of these burials but a couple were new to me. All I had to do was search for these specific records on my subscription site, and the records appeared.

* Finally, if you come across the work of a dedicated and trusted researcher thank your lucky stars – but still search for the evidence!
With practice, you can tell which researchers you can trust. Their work is careful and meticulous, thoroughly sourced, well organised… I’ve named three such examples above: the CalverlyInfo site, the Calverley page on GENUKI (although not all pages on GENUKI are as well padded) and the Wharfegen site. If you come across a site like any of these you can do a happy dance. Even so, use it as a starting point. Look for the originals. And if you can’t find the originals cite them and their website as your transcription source.

I hope there are some new ideas for you amongst that little lot. Have you any other interesting ideas for making the most of transcriptions? If so, why not leave a comment.

One family, three generations, many errors…

My 6xG grandparents John Christian and Rose Moss had five children:

First child John’s baptism is missing, but he died in 1733 and was buried 20th March.  I have seen digitised images of the original record on Ancestry (record set: England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812) and FindMyPast (record set: Norfolk Burials) so I know for certain that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich.

However, according to record set: England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991, also on Ancestry, but licensed from FamilySearch, the burial took place on that same day but at Necton, Norfolk.

Second son Jonathan was baptised 25th August 1734. Again, digitised images of the original records on Ancestry (record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1535-1812 and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935, this latter being Bishops Transcripts) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Baptisms) leave me in no doubt that this took place at St James Pockthorpe, Norwich. 

Yet according to England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, it too took place on the same day but again at Necton.

No baptism to be found for daughter Rose, but again digitised originals evidence her burial at Norwich St James Pockthorpe on 21st June 1737 – although there is also a separate indexing of the record on Ancestry under the name of Ross.  And once again England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991 records the event at Necton.

No problems for the baptisms of sons Christopher and Philip: correctly recorded at St James Pockthorpe on all record sets.  However, when it comes to Christopher’s second marriage in 1764, records for both the marriage and the banns, although having digitised images and correct transcriptions, are incorrectly attributed to the Northamptonshire county records office instead of the Norfolk archives.

Christopher already had a son by his first wife.  This son, also Christopher, would eventually marry Jane Childs on 18 July 1788 at Norwich, St Andrew.  I know this to be a fact.  I have seen the digitised image of the originals on Ancestry (Record sets: Norfolk, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936; and Norfolk, England, Transcripts of Church of England Baptism, Marriage and Burial Registers, 1600-1935) and at FindMyPast (Record set: Norfolk Banns And Marriages – separate records for the marriage and for the banns which were read on 25 May, 1 Jun, 8 Jun, 1788).  All records indicate that both bride and groom are of the parish of Norwich St Andrew.

However, record set England Marriages 1538-1973, licensed by FamilySearch to FindMyPast, has three different transcripts for this marriage:

  • 18 July 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 8 June 1788 at Catfield, Norfolk
  • 18 July 1788 at Norwich, Norfolk

*****

All of the above relates to just three generations of one line of my family.  I have many similar examples, both in Norfolk and in Yorkshire – and possibly others that I just dealt with and corrected without really noticing.  This is easier to do when you are both experienced as a genealogist and familiar with the lay of the land.

But we are not all experienced, and we are not all familiar with the geography of the areas where our ancestors lived. At the time of coming across some of the above errors I was lacking in both – at least at the time of discovering the Necton mysteries.  When an entire generation of my family seemed to have been baptised simultaneously at both St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton, about 25 miles away – surely an impossibility in the 1730s? – I started to wonder if perhaps the church at Necton had some sort of connection to the parish of St James Pockthorpe in Norwich.  Perhaps St James Pockthorpe was a grand church, and Necton was some sort of chapelry linked to it?  Or perhaps my ancestors had family ties to Necton and the baptism was recorded there too. I have since visited St James Pockthorpe and know the former to be far from the truth, but at the time I remember posting a question about this on an online group.  A more experienced genealogist pointed out to me that all of the wrong information had come from one provider, that these record sets were transcripts only, and that the true information could be seen and verified by looking at the images on all the other sets.

There are several points to take from all of the above, and for less experienced readers I hope there will be something to learn from this. The first is that even on the same subscription site the same event might be recorded in several different record sets. In the examples above, the same event has appeared in the original parish register entry, the contemporary bishop’s transcript based on that register, and a more modern transcription of that information that someone has made for ease of bringing genealogical information free of charge to a wider audience.

The second point is that not all record sets are equal. A transcription is much better than nothing, but it is far better to see the original image for yourself. It was only through seeing the original record in several of the record sets for St James Pockthorpe that I knew for sure the Necton entries were wrong. It was then through realising that the incorrect information all came from one source – the transcriptions licensed from FamilySearch – that I realised the potential dangers of relying on transcriptions. Ever since, when I rely on a transcription made by someone else I note that it was a transcript and where possible I note the location of the originals. Over time, often the originals will become available online. We need to get to know which are the best sets for our geographical areas of interest, and to rely on transcripts only when necessary.

Third is that we must engage with the information. In the other main example above, when records suggested that Christopher and Jane married in two different places on two different dates it made me pause for thought.  It was unlikely that there were two Christopher Christians marrying two Jane Childs’s in Norfolk within a few weeks of each other. More likely that the different dates came about because of a record of the reading of the banns – and the lack of a field for the transcriber to record that this was the banns and not a marriage. It was also possible that that Christopher’s bride was from the parish of Catfield, therefore banns would be read at both places.  It was only by reading the information on the records that I could see both Jane and Christopher were from the parish of Norwich St Andrew and the problem was in the transcription; but also that yes, the different dates arose because some of the records related to the banns.

Parish register entry for marriage of Thomas Mann and Sarah Creak

Fourth is that errors are not limited to transcription sets. Archaic handwriting may be difficult to read, and even when the original image is included in the set the names may be wrongly indexed. I spent many years looking for the marriage of a Thomas Mann to a Sarah Creak. (See above) Creak had been transcribed as Cook. If something looks unlikely, or if we’re drawing a blank, it makes sense to try the same search using a different record set or even a different index with another provider, such as FreeBMD, FreeReg or FreeCen.

And then there is the matter in the final example above, in which the entire record set has somehow been assigned to Northamptonshire. If you were unfamiliar with the geography of your ancestors’ homeland you might easily record the location of the originals as Northamptonshire records office instead of Norfolk, which wouldn’t be a good thing.

I hope there is food for thought in all that. Now that we have the perils of over-reliance on transcriptions out in the open, my next post will look at the matter from the other side – how we can use them effectively in our research.

Look at the records!

Okay, hands up…. How many of you accept the transcription of a record without actually going to look at the image of the original?

I know I used to do this when I first started.  The error of my ways was pointed out to me by an experienced genealogist who was researching the same surname as me and thought we may have a connection.  We didn’t, but he spotted that my 4xG grandfather, Joseph, had married Anne Hobson and not, as I had recorded, Anne Stolson.  It was the correct record, but instead of going to look at the image – which was, after all, only a click away – I had accepted the transcriber’s deciphering of the old text.

So there’s the first reason why you should always view the original with your own eyes:
Transcriptions are not always correct
This isn’t a dig at transcribers.  Usually, they get it right.  And old handwriting can be hard to read.  Take this baptism entry, for example.  Can you make out where William, son of Joseph Armitage was born?

Text in secretary hand from an ancient baptism register

Surnames and place names can be particularly difficult to work out, since the word isn’t necessarily familiar to you, and all the more so if you’re not familiar with the geography of the place.

So have you worked it out yet…?
I couldn’t.  I had to ask for help on a genealogy forum.  I thought it said ‘Pols Parke’, but there was nothing on the modern day map that suggested such a place might have existed.
It’s Idle Parke.  As soon as it was pointed out to me I could see it.

So that leads us nicely onto a second reason for looking at the originals:
It will help you to get used to reading old handwriting
You can start by using the transcription as a ‘parallel text’, helping you to compare the antiquated letters – but always remembering that what’s transcribed may not be correct, of course.

Sometimes transcriptions are spectacularly wrong
According to record sets on both Ancestry and FindMyPast, my 5xG grandfather and all his siblings were baptised simultaneously at St James Pockthorpe in Norwich and at Necton in north west Norfolk.  This confused me greatly.  Eventually, I asked on a Norfolk genealogy forum – it seemed unlikely, but was Necton by any chance a chapelry of St James Pockthorpe?  With help from a genealogist with local knowledge I realised that the ‘Necton’ records – a transcript-only set, i.e. there was no image for me to see – were the work of one organisation and the entire parish register had been mis-attributed to Necton. The baptisms had all taken place at St James Pockthorpe, and this had been correctly attributed in a different set that luckily included images.

If it doesn’t feel right, stop, think, ask for help.

Even if the transcription is absolutely accurate…
There may be far more information on the document than the transcriber had ‘fields’ to write it in
The transcript of the Tadcaster baptismal register in the Yorkshire Baptisms record set circa 1780s at FindMyPast records the names of the child and parents, the date of birth and baptism, the denomination and the parish.  Click on the image, however, and a double page spread of the original register reveals:

  • The father’s name and occupation; his own father’s name, occupation and parish; also his mother, with the name, occupation and parish of her father.
  • The mother’s name; her father’s name, occupation and parish; and the name of her own mother, along with her mother’s father’s name, occupation and parish.
  • The date and day of the week of the birth.
  • The date and day of the week of the baptism.

This is highly unusual.  Most of my baptisms from this period don’t even give the mother’s name.  (I am just a little bit in love with that old vicar of Tadcaster! :D)

Then, following on from my last post
You may be able to step back from the record, to look for the bigger picture
The transcript of my 7xG grandfather’s baptism in the Yorkshire Bishop’s Transcript of Baptisms record set at FindMyPast includes his name, the name of his father (Thomas), the date of the baptism and the parish.  On the face of it, that’s exactly what the original image says too, although it’s in Latin.  However, there is something important hiding in full view: a list of churchwardens, along with their signatures.  One of them is Thomas, and I can see by comparing his signature with the rest of the page (particularly the formation of the letters of his son’s surname in the baptism record) that the whole page is in Thomas’s hand.  My 8xG grandfather, born around 1648, wrote not only English but also Latin!  (I’ve since confirmed this by comparing with the handwriting on another longer document.)  There is no transcription that will tell you that!

All that – just a click away!
Familiarise yourself with the record sets that include images of the originals, and those that are just transcripts.  For example, I know that the West Yorkshire, Church of England set on Ancestry always includes the image, whereas the England, Select Marriages set, while providing the same basic information, includes no images.  Certain record sets don’t even include the dates and places – simply the names of key people.  These are of no use whatsoever.

Always choose the images collection where it’s available, and look at the record.  Check the information for yourself.  It’s daft not to. 🙂