Category Archives: Family History Tips

Why Waste Time and Money Researching Your Family History?

It’s been an all-consuming interest for the past goodness knows how many years. I’ve spent countless hours on research. And don’t mention the small fortune shelled out on subscription sites, books, certificates, data storage, courses, archives visits, family-related antiques, postcards and ancestral tourism. I’ve amassed files full of records and reports. I’ve endured the frustration of dealing with the fog-plaiting myriad of online records. My living room floor frequently takes on the role of a temporary filing cabinet. I’ve risked eye-strain and headache trying to read scratchy, barely legible writing and faded documents, both original and on microfilm and microfiche. I spend hour upon hour caught up in suffering, harsh lives, misery and death. Some days I’ve nothing to show for it other than the eliminatation of yet another source.

Is it really worth it? Should I have been living in the present and making memories rather than digging up the past? What really is the point of knowing my 6x great grandfather’s name let alone how many children he had and what happened to them all? And when I’m gone will all my research follow me into the ground or go up in smoke?

But then there’s that Eureka moment when I’ve found out something. The intellectual challenge of cracking what appears to be an insoluble family history puzzle, as well as the broader learning about aspects of history never taught at school: ones that are really interesting because I can relate them to my flesh and blood. There’s the thrill of actually reading that document or handling some centuries old piece of paper and feeling that connectedness with history. There’s the sense of belonging through finding my family, ones that are long-forgotten. It’s like bringing them back to life in a way. There’s the sense of community too, with those pursuing the same obsession. There’s the brick wall that nags at me night and day. I’m never finished. Loose ends abound. There’s always more to discover. So day after day, week after week I’m drawn back.

Let this serve as a warning to anyone starting out on family history. Are you really prepared for the expensive, frustrating, 24×7 obsession you’re about to unleash into your life?

And if the answer is yes, you won’t regret it!

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The Changing Landscape of Family History

I’m feeling a little lost. This is the time of year when my thoughts would be turning towards planning my ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ adventure. But, as was announced last year, this is a show that won’t go on. Yes, the writing may have been on the wall with the massed ranks of so-called chuggers, aka charity muggers, in evidence last year. Stand space was expensive making it difficult for genuine family history organisations to have a presence. Even The National Archives gave it a miss. Is this a sign the popular interest in family history research has plateaued and is perhaps on the decline?

And, dare I say it, maybe the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has struggled occasionally with who it thinks it is in recent series. Yes, there are some gems of episodes. But it doesn’t seem to hold the same thrall of its early days. The BBC have also seemed happy to tinker with scheduling, to the detriment of viewing continuity, possibly an indication of where it now stands in their pecking order. No longer a flagship viewing offering? But is that in part because the format needs a shake-up?

Also has the series encouraged the belief family history is quick and easy? The big Internet and associated ‘it’s all a mouse-click away.com’ con, which in turn fostered the ‘fast-food family historian’ in us all to some extent. That attitude led to some of the more informative talks at last year’s ‘Live’ show, such as ones about genealogical proof, being a step too far for some of the audience. It’s too much like hard work, all this checking, corroborating and building a body of evidence.

I personally feel the absence of a national show has left a huge void in the British family history calendar of events. But maybe that’s because I’m a tad family history research obsessed. I’m going to miss its social aspect, the chance to see what’s out there beyond my own family history interests, the informative talks to improve my skill set, not to mention the opportunity to grab a book bargain or subscription discount. I’m seeking out alternatives, from the ‘Secret Lives’ conference to local and regional events and talks. One source to find out what’s on is GENEVA, an online calendar of GENealogical EVents and Activities.

On the same era-ending theme, earlier this month the final edition of ‘Your Family History’ magazine plopped on my doormat. Or should I say I dashed to the newsagent to buy my final copy, as my subscription expired the previous month and no reminder to renew was sent? For 15 years, initially under the title of ‘Your Family Tree’, it has provided information, advice and tips for the family history community from beginner to the more advanced. But time has been called on the publication. Reasons cited for its demise included rising costs and competition from the Internet. This competition presumably extends to digital media, blogs, podcasts and the like. But again I’m left wondering if the appetite for family history research has levelled out.

The family history landscape is changing. In reality it has always been a constant evolution. But the Internet is the real game-changer in recent years, considerably speeding up the process.

I started my family history journey probably just after the launch of ‘Your Family Tree’ (as it was called then). Back then it was old fashioned painstaking research methods. None of this ‘everything only a mouse click away’ belief, too often implicitly peddled by T.V. programmes and family history subscription sites now. Online subscription-based genealogy database services were in their infancy. IGI and FreeBMD were my high-tech, online ports of call. Microfiche and microfilm readers, Family History Societies and visits to local libraries and archives provided my gateway.

I well remember the days of going to my local library and scrolling through the census. Ditto for parish registers. I’d even plan holidays to visit archives in family associated locations in order to fit in a few hours research. This for basic record sets like the census or parish registers, things we take so much for granted today. Hard to imagine, but it wasn’t online and neither did it come automatically with a helpful searchable index. If you were lucky the local Family History Society might have compiled an index booklet. Or maybe an antiquarian publication had reproduced them. But, as the Family History Society exhorted, you still needed to check the original document.

But in the main you were ‘indexless’, and it was the long job of scrolling through filmed copies of the census, or going through the parish register microfiche by microfiche noting down all occurrences of family surnames. And maybe repeating the process, as research turned up a new surname to track in the same parish….several times over. But that way, you did get to familiarise yourself with the records, the community in which your ancestors lived and the writing!

It’s hard to imagine that this was how we did family history only a few years ago. Today, subscription genealogy services are in constant competition to get the next big dataset online. This is today’s gateway to family history. Yes, it is brilliant there is so much out there to tempt people into the wonderful world of family history. It’s making family history more accessible. And it can save masses of time in travelling up and down the country on archives visits. But in the race to get it all online, clear source referencing along with precise coverage dates, seems to have been dismissed. For instance the unwary may assume Ancestry’s West Yorkshire Parish Register collection includes all parishes. It doesn’t. But finding out what is there, and the years covered, is not an easy task. And transcribing errors may in turn lead to false negative results.

In a way it’s become too big, too unwieldy and the race to ‘chuck stuff online’ has meant it’s been too organisationally chaotic. For many there’s that initial flurry of interest, but it all tails off. And make no wonder people give up. It can be like plaiting fog. Especially when you don’t fully understand what’s there in the first place. I’ve heard people admit to it. They start off enthused but then they soon find it all too overwhelming and lose track (and interest) in what they’re doing.

In a way, the Internet may have curiously decreased knowledge too. There doesn’t seem to be the same willingness to trawl through a parish register, the Quarter Sessions or a Borough Court register to check for yourself. It’s too much like hard work. Yet there are times when this is necessary. For many it now needs to be the quick click, instant gratification of an online search and move on without evaluating whether it’s right or wrong. And hey presto I’ve got a tree going back to 1066!

A corollary is because so few are prepared to put in this painstaking work, the amount of time it takes is not appreciated. For so many there’s no interest in finding out about the variety of records, what they can and can’t do, what pitfalls there are, and what alternative sources exist to plug gaps. Which is why the demise of knowledge-bringing magazines such as ‘Your Family History’ is such a loss.

I’m forever seeking out information and knowledge to develop my family history skills: be it reading, both online and traditional books and magazines, as well as attending talks, webinars, podcasts and formal learning courses. I’m currently signed up to a series of Guild of One Name Studies monthly webinar. There are so many sources of learning out there if you look. And by doing them and improving your knowledge, you’ll be amazed how much you learn which in turn will lead to more accurate family trees, and hopefully breakthroughs. But that’s the point: you have to know the limitations of online sources and actively seek out knowledge beyond the confines of your computer. And by seeking out this wider knowledge you become more acutely aware of the computer pros and cons.

And yet there still seems to be only a passing realisation that not everything is on the internet. There is so much more in archives waiting to be explored. Much of it will never make it onto these online providers such as Ancestry, FindMyPast or The Genealogist because it is not commercially viable. Who for instance would be interested in churchwarden accounts, Vestry minutes, charity records, manorial documents and the like for some obscure location? But often these documents may help prove a link.

Bottom line, these companies are only interested in what makes money. After the 1921 census, what will they use to generate income and fresh interest? Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why price structures are amended; why Ancestry is putting its more recently acquired UK military datasets not on Ancestry.co.uk but on sister-company Fold3, in order to get another subscription stream; and why there is such a push on DNA testing as an alternative cash-cow. I’m not against DNA testing per se. It has a place. It is another tool. But there is perception peddled that it’s a quick root to a fully formed family tree, with no research required.

By the same token cash-strapped Councils, looking to make savings, are cutting back archives opening hours, or even closing them, because so much is online. Read the same for local libraries. It’s an easy excuse for them to use in order to reduce costs. And so it’s all online becomes a self-perpetuating myth.

Which is why I think David Olusoga’s recent BBC2 series ‘A House Through Time’ was such a refreshing change. Not only was it interesting, engaging and informative, it was a new way to introduce people to family history. It didn’t propagate the ‘it’s all online’ impression. And it wasn’t afraid to admit some people were difficult to trace and the trail went cold. Hopefully it has reached out to, and inspired, a new set of family historians, those seekers and keepers of documented, accurate ancestral truth, memories and knowledge.

My Top 12 Family History Suggestions for the New Year

As the year closes, here are 12 Family History suggestions for you to consider in 2018. 12 as in one per month. Or maybe because I simply couldn’t whittle them down to 10. You can judge!img_4905

  1. Review your research. Often research is ‘completed‘ and then shelved for years or possibly for ever, even if there are gaps. It does pay though to periodically revisit your research. What might have seemed a dead-end 12 months ago, may no longer be the case. A new record set, an additional piece of information gleaned through researching another family member, or even your own improved research techniques – all these can mean a brick wall is ready to come crashing down.
  2. Join a Family History Society. These organisations are the bedrock of family history up and down the country. They offer a wealth of help, advice and local knowledge. They also provide opportunities to meet with others sharing the same passion for, what can be, a solitary pursuit.
  3. Visit an archive. Contrary to what may appear to be the case, not everything is online. Far from it. And even what is there is not perfect. The indexing may leave something to be desired. Or the source citation may be so unclear as to mislead. One of the simple pleasures of family history research for me is physically connecting with original source material. To hold a document from a bygone era, possibly centuries old, and realise you’re touching something created by people long since gone. All the more special if, within that document you discover your ancestor’s name.
  4. On the same lines, check out your local library. They may have lots of free resources to help you with your family history research. From local newspapers on microfilm, to electoral registers, donated research, council minutes, medical officer of health annual reports, school yearbooks and magazines. The may have censuses, and microfilm or microfiche copies of parish registers. Many have free computer access to Ancestry or FindMyPast. So get down to your local library. You may be pleasantly surprised what’s there.
  5. Talk to relatives. They are living connections with the past, often too easily ignored whilst you pursue your paper trail. My dad died this year. Even though I did quiz him about the past, it’s only now he’s gone that I realise there’s so much more I wished I’d asked him. A few years ago I gave dad a book to fill in about his life. He never did it. So talk to your relatives whilst you have the chance.
  6. Do a family history course or webinar. Anything really to improve your skills. It doesn’t need to cost much. There are lots of free tutorials. Check out The National Archives events – they do some really good free online webinars. FindMyPast also do them. Your local Family History Society may run courses too. But ultimately your research techniques, and results, will benefit from it.
  7. If you do a DNA test, and if you are able to, please Please PLEASE include a tree. Even if it’s only a skeleton tree with a few direct line ancestors. There are so many treeless DNA testers, and it’s so frustrating trying to work out what the connection is between you and them. Yes there are ways and techniques to try to work round this. But it’s so long-winded and speculative. It’s far easier if at the outset there are some family names to work with. So if you received a DNA test this Christmas, besides the initial excitement of spitting or swabbing, do take a bit of time to upload a tree. By doing so you may get more potential DNA matches contacting you too.
  8. Check out #AncestryHour on Twitter. Tuesday’s at 7pm-8pm (GMT). Lots of fast-paced, fun, friendly family history chat, tips and plenty of opportunity to ask questions. More details are here. Starts again on 9 January 2018.
  9. If you do have a public tree on Ancestry, review it to make sure it’s accurate. And if you’re new to family history and looking at these public trees don’t take them as gospel. Do your own research and checking. So many of these things are blindly copied perpetuating the myth that 95 year old 3x great auntie Ann gave birth to twins!
  10. A bit long term, and on a less cheery note: what will happen to all your painstakingly researched family history once you’re gone? Will it end up in the bin? Start thinking now about how it will be preserved. Is there someone in the family to pass the baton on to? If not, is there another option?
  11. Photographs. A dying art in this digital age. I can’t remember the last time I put a family photo in an album, never mind label the names. They’re all on my phone, FaceBook, or when I get round to it, on my computer. So perhaps devote some time to putting a few key family photos (with names) in an album for future generations. Perhaps I’m showing my age and technophobe side here?
  12. Make 2018 the year when you better organise your family history research. Note sources in full. Note negative searches. Note dates searches were conducted. Write up research, and file it, at the time you do the work – not six months later when you’ve not a clue what paper is where, let alone what your scribbled note says and anyway it’s now all too overwhelming to sort out.montage

Whatever you do with your family history quest in 2018, enjoy it! I’ll publish my own New Year’s Resolutions tomorrow.

A Short Life Remembered: Resurrecting the GRO Dead

This is another in my “Short Lives Remembered” series. In these posts I focus on often-forgotten children in family trees. Those who died all too young. The ones who never had chance to marry, have children and descendants to cherish their memory. The ones who, but for family history researchers, would be forever forgotten. This story is a direct result of the new search facilities available with the General Register Office (GRO) indexes. 

I wrote about the new searchable indexes of births and deaths and the extra flexibility they provided here. As it is a new compilation it differs from other indexes because, where possible, the GRO have provided the mother’s maiden name right back to July 1837, as opposed to the September quarter of 1911. For deaths, an age is included if it is on, or is legible on, the original entry. Again this is back to their 1837 inception, as opposed to the March quarter of 1866 on other indexes.

Armed with these new search options, I am in the process of going through my family tree. For some there are obvious child-bearing gap years to focus on. The 1911 census is even more explicit in that it gives the number of children born in a marriage to a couple and provides the number surviving/dead. So the search offers a new tool to identify some of the hitherto unknown dead children if other methods have failed. More speculatively I’m going through my direct line ancestors to see if there are any other missed babies. Tedious with the two-year search parameter and having to specify the gender when searching. But rewarding nevertheless.

This is the story of my first search. 

I decided to investigate my 2x great grandparents Joseph and Kezia Hill (née Clough). Joseph and Kezia married on 22 April 1869 at Tong Parish Church. Coal miner Joseph was only just 20 and Kezia 18. They both lived on Whitehall Road, Drighlington. Childhood sweethearts I assumed. In February 1871 son Albert was born, followed by John Herbert (Jack) in December 1872. Another boy, Harry, was born in around early 1874. Finally daughter Martha arrived  towards the end of September 1876. Kezia died the following year. So I had a very narrow search window for this family.  

I didn’t expect much, given they’d had four children in their seven years of marriage. However the very first search produced a possible. I used 1870 +/- 2 years, males, with the surname Hill and mother’s maiden name Clough, and no phonetically similar/similar sounding variation options. It produced three hits. These are in the screenshot below. 

Albert is there, as is a boy named Herbert. This is John Herbert. As I explained in my previous post, this is one of the quirks of the new search. Joseph and Kezia originally registered their son under the name Herbert, but changed their minds, went back and amended his name to John Herbert. The new indexes fail to pick up certified name changes. 

There is a third boy on this list though: Frank William, whose birth was registered in the September 1869 quarter. It looked promising. The Registration District corresponded – Bradford, Yorkshire. The names were family ones – Joseph’s grandfather was called Francis; his uncle and eldest brother were named William. But it wasn’t proof positive.

In the 1871 census Joseph and Kezia with infant son Albert. No Frank. Was he living elsewhere at the time of the census, or had he died, another census “in-betweener“. 

A search on the death indexes for Frank Hill with a +/- 1 year parameter resulted in 14 hits. The bottom entry looked spot on. It shows the death registration of Frank William Hill in Bradford, Yorkshire in the December quarter of 1869 – age 0.  The convention is to record the age as 0 for infants under 12 months. However, be aware that despite the rhetoric, this isn’t a hard and fast rule with these new indexes –  there are errors. I have instances were a child of two months at death is recorded as two years.  

I decided to play it safe though and went for the birth certificate initially. I ordered it on 9 November via the trial PDF system. By 11 November it arrived, five days ahead of schedule. However I couldn’t open it. The only one of my orders I had an issue with, and it would be this one. Despite this glitch, I am feeling very positive about the new PDF system. No it’s not perfect, but it is another (cheaper) ordering option, where you don’t need a fancy all bells and whistles certified copy. It’s a straightforward process, especially for those birth and death events searchable on the new indexes. And the indexes themselves have helped me progress my family history in a way not possible with the alternative ones.

Anyway, back to Frank’s certificate. I was on tenterhooks. So near but yet so far. Then Steve Jackson stepped in, who runs the Atcherley One-Name Study. He sorted it in no time, and bingo. Frank William was indeed Joseph and Kezia’s first child. 

This put a whole new spin on my family tree. For a start my great grandad was now relegated to third child. But, more importantly, Frank was born in Drighlington on 18 September 1869. This was coming up to five months after his parents married. He may therefore have been the very reason for their marriage. But sadly his life proved far shorter than those five months of his parents married life to date.   

PDF Copy Birth Certificate of Frank William Hill

Joseph registered his son’s birth, making his mark. He alternated between signing and making his mark on various birth and death registrations, so it is difficult to make literacy assumptions on the basis of a one-off registration. However the sad task of registering the baby’s death fell to Sabina Hill. I suspect she is Joseph’s sister as she’s the only Sabina Hill in the family tree at this point. However I do have a slight niggle with this theory: she was only 14 years old in 1869. She too made her mark.

Frank never thrived. He must have been a constant cause of concern for his young parents. He is described on the death certificate as having anaemia since birth. He lived only three weeks, giving up his struggle in Drighlington on 9 October 1869. 

His certificate also states, besides anaemia, he suffered convulsions for a few hours before his death. Convulsions was not an uncommon death certificate death cause for young children and infants in this era. Babies and infants who develop a fever as a result of an infection may fit because of their high body temperature. With the medical limitations of the period, in these circumstances the outward manifestation rather than the underlying cause was recorded.

So ended Frank’s short, but significant, life. Significant insofar as it was probably the initial impetus behind Joseph and Kezia’s marriage. And, as a result, generations later their family lives on. Including me.

I’ve not found a baptism for Frank. There won’t necessarily be one. And to date I’ve not found a parish register burial entry for him. But it’s early days, given its only a week ago since I learned of his existence thanks to the new GRO indexes. However the discovery of his brief life has added a new dimension to Joseph and Kezia’s life together. And sadly it’s another tragic one. Maybe next year I will write about them.

Others who feature in this series of “Short Lives Remembered” posts are:

Sources:

GRO Picture Credit: 

Extract from GRO birth register entry for Frank William Hill: Image © Crown Copyright and posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance.

WDYTYA? Live 2017 Preparations: Tickets on Sale 

It’s not even Christmas 2016, but one of my presents will be here early. After my 2016 visit to WDYTYA? Live in Birmingham, where I felt one day was far too short a visit for me, I determined that in 2017 I would spend longer at the exhibition. Tickets are now on sale with an “early bird” discount.

WDYTYA? Live 2016 – photo by Jane Roberts

So now it’s time for me to plan my visit. I’m going for a two-day option. So next to check out hotels. And based on my previous experiences I will pre-book my workshops. I’m getting old so need a seat!

General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free

Another free resource for family historians. The GRO (England & Wales) have made available online a searchable index of births and deaths, via their website. All you need to do is have a registered GRO online certificate ordering account.

 This new index covers registered births from 1837-1915 and deaths from 1837-1957. 

The plan was to limit the index to births over 100 years old and deaths over 50. However the GRO state that completing digitisation “would require significant investment and there are no current plans to resume this work but we continue to monitor the scope for future opportunities to complete the digitisation of all birth, death and marriage records.” So, I suspect in this climate of government austerity, the completion of the death digitisation, the year-by-year roll out, and the digitisation of marriages won’t happen anytime soon. However they will update the index if there are errors and omissions, and they do have an error report form for these to be submitted to them.

The GRO have a FAQ section on the website. This includes a guide about searching the indexes. So I won’t cover that aspect in this post. There is also a useful guide here.

So what does this GRO online index add to the indexes already out their via FreeBMD and subscription sites like FindMyPast

Well for a start this is a brand new index and not a copy of an existing third party one from the microfiche indexes. Anyone doing family history will be familiar with the scenario – a search on two websites will not necessarily yield exactly the same results. So this provides an extra check with which to by-pass errors and find that illusive record.

Crucially, as the GRO point out, this new index contains “additional data fields to those which are already available and this will assist family historians to identify the correct record.” Other indexes, because they are taken from the microfiche indexes, only include age at death from the March quarter of 1866 onwards; and for births the mother’s maiden name only features from the September quarter of 1911. This index is different. Because it is a new compilation, where possible the GRO have provided the mother’s maiden name right back to 1837; similarly an age for deaths is also included if it is on, or is legible on, the original entry. The convention for recording the age as 0 for infants under 12 months is continued though. 

As a result of this extra information I think I have narrowed the 1860s death of my 3x great grandfather to two possible certificates: Not the several of previous searches. At £9.25 a certificate this could make all the difference to me taking a gamble and ordering. Similarly the availability of the mother’s maiden name on the earlier birth entries enables pinpointing the correct entry far more straightforward. It also is a useful tool to discover hitherto unknown children of a marriage during the 1837-1911 period.

Also whereas other indexes record middle names as initials for many years, the new GRO index gives them in full. In my post about names in World War 1 I didn’t include middle names as these were not identifiable in the FreeBMD indexes for that period. The use of initials on FreeBMD is explained here

However it is now possible to do a middle name search to a limited extent on the new GRO index irrespective of period, as the screenshot below illustrates. I did a search for a middle name of “Joffre” for 1914 +/- 2 years. With other indexes this isn’t possible, they just show the middle name by initial for these years, in this example “J”. 

Although it’s not a solution to calculating a total number as you can’t search without a surname, this facility might aid the correct pinpointing of an entry. 

GRO index screenshot showing 1914 +/- 2 year search for boys with surname “Smith” and middle name “Joffre”


Limitations so far for me are the:

  • two year search parameters, which can drag out the search process if you’re working on a longer window of uncertainty (for example an inter-census death), especially when you have to do a male and female search;
  • having to use the mandatory gender field when conducting a search is a tad frustrating. I keep forgetting to switch;
  • the 250 results limitation may be problematical for larger one-name-studies; and
  • not having a county-wide search functionality. It’s either everything, a volume number, which does not equate exactly to all the districts within a county (thanks to gwinowan for the tip) or a specific registration district.

And finally one anomaly. In my post about tricky names I indicated how my 3x great grandparents changed their minds about the name they registered my 2x great grandmother under. She was originally registered as Emma Clough but, as was permissible, they subsequently amended her name to Kesia (she was known as Kezia(h), so even more spelling variants). This is shown on the original birth certificate and GRO copy. When searching on the microfiche indexes she is found under Kesia Clough. In the new GRO ones she’s down as Emma. The same applies to my great grandfather – originally registered as Herbert Hill, but amended to John Herbert. Found under John Herbert in other indexes, but Herbert in the new GRO one.

Top entry from FreeBMD showing my 2x great grandmother’s correct (amended) name; bottom entry from the new GRO indexes showing the name she was originally registered under

So be aware, the new GRO index will show the name the baby was originally registered under. This may cause confusion, especially for one-namers.

Overall though, despite its clumsiness and limitations in some ways, I’m really happy with the additional options it provides. So a thumbs up from me.

Update 1: Just read on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” Magazine FB page that, following on from these indexes, the GRO will trial the purchase of uncertified PDFs of birth certificates from 1837-1934 and death certificates from 1837-1957 at a cost of £6 each. This from 9 November 2016 lasting for three weeks, or until 45,000 PDFs have been purchased.

Update 2: GRO have launched the £6 PDF trial starting from 9 November. This from their website:

From 9 November, we are trialling emailing PDF copies of registration records. Records will not be immediately viewable, but emailed as a PDF.

The pilot is in 3 phases, starting with our digitised records:

  • Births: 1837 – 1934 and 2007 on
  • Deaths: 1837 – 1957 and 2007 on
  • Marriages: 2011 on
  • Civil Partnerships: 2005 on

Phase 1 closes on 30 Nov, or when 45,000 PDFs have been ordered, whichever is sooner. Details of phase 2 (3 hour PDF service) and phase 3 (records not digitised) will be announced here shortly.

Full details are in here in the GRO’s “Most Customers Want to Know” page.

I’ve ordered a couple of PDF certificates under the new system, which is all very straightforward to use. In fact it’s more user-friendly for those indexed entries, as you can place your order direct from the search result and all the relevant information (including name, District, Quarter, Volume & Page) is automatically entered. Delivery for these Phase 1 PDF’s is to a slightly longer timeframe. My expected email delivery is 16 November. I’m just hoping the 45,000 limit isn’t reached before they arrive, as if I’ve correctly identified a birth for an hitherto unknown baby of my 2x great grandparents, I also want to get the death certificate. 

Update 3: Phase 1 ended on 30 November. I ended up ordering 19 PDFs  in total. Six have arrived, although I do have an issue with one. It arrived in an unopenable Winmail.dat format on 11 November. The GRO finally re-sent it as a PDF on 2 December. I ordered the final 13 towards the end of the trial and delivery, due to the volume of orders, is not anticipated until early December.  

Update 4: Pilot phase 2, for a within three hour delivery service for PDF copies of all birth, death, marriage and civil partnership records has ended now. However the £45 price tag was beyond my purse strings. 

Phase 3 is now up and running, with a close date of 4pm on 12 April 2017, or 40,000 PDFs, whichever is the soonest. It covers PDF copies of those civil registration entries that are not held by GRO in a digital format, in other words those not included in the earlier Phase 1 £6 trial. The exact dates are:

  • Births: 1935-2006
  • Deaths: 1958-2006
  • Marriages: 1837-2010

These PDFs will cost £8. I may be tempted here, though it is only a £1.25 saving on the postal service – so not a massive saving.

Another Family History Website Bites the Dust

A sad day for those with coal mining ancestors and interests. Whilst doing some research into my many ancestors working in this industry, I attempted to access one of my favourite occupational websites, “The Coal Mining History Resource Centre” (CMHRC). 

However it appears to have vanished. 

Ian Winstanley compiled the information for the website. But I believe Raleys Solicitors, an old-established Barnsley law firm specialising in miners’ compensation claims, ran it. They went into administration in March 2016. Whereas client work appears to have transferred to Ison Harrison Solicitors, the website seems to have been a casualty.  

Ancestry.co.uk have Ian Winstanley’s “Coal Mining Accidents and Death Index 1700-1950“, which was on the site. But CMHRC was far more than this wonderful database. Described as the UK’s largest and most comprehensive website concerning the history of coal-mining, its resources included maps, the 1842 Royal Commission reports, poems, a glossary of mining terms and a photo gallery. Unlike Ancestry, it was a free website. And to be honest I much preferred its search facility.  

I would hope the loss of CMHRC is temporary and it can soon be restored in all its former glory. But in the meantime there is a bit of a work round.  

In my post about an obsolete County Mayo website, I described how the Internet Archive Wayback Machine could be useful in accessing defunct websites. You can partly access CMHRC via this mechanism, but be warned you do lose much of the original site functionality.  

Screenshot of CMHRC via the Wayback Machine

If searching via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, the URL to use for CMHRC is:  http://www.cmhrc.co.uk

There are also the following useful sites: 

Feel free to add more to the list. 

Some suggestions that I’ve since received (thanks Judy & Fergus): 

My New Toy: Irish Birth, Marriage and Death Images

In my “Fabulous News For Those With Irish Ancestry” post I could scarcely contain my excitement at the release of Irish General Register Office (GRO) birth, marriages and death register images. The site is https://www.irishgenealogy.ie

I’ve had a few days playing with my new family history toy and getting a feel for the system. These searches have focused on my primary interest area, County Mayo, and in particular the Swinford Registration District. I’ve tried a combination of search methods, including wildcards for those multiple spellings. For example I didn’t realise how many ways you could spell the seemingly simple surnames: But Loft* identifies Loftus, Loftice and Loftis; Cass* included Cassidy, Cassedy and Cassiday.

I found it interesting to note how many of my family were baptised before their registered birth date! I knew my grandpa had two birthdays, but it seems he was not unique amongst his siblings. Staggeringly this applied to seven of out of the eight children of Michael and Mary Callaghan, whose birth register images are accessible. But it also features in my Loftus line.

Glan Church, Kilkelly, County Mayo

It points to the religious importance of quick baptism to ensure eternal salvation at a time of high infant mortality; combined with the lesser imperative to officially register, with rural transport factors and employment pressures coming into play. By law, a birth had to be registered within 42 days. Fudging the birth date was a way to avoid a late registration penalty. Interestingly my grandpa carried on the “tradition” of an incorrect birth certificate date with my mum.

As with any new release on this scale there are some glitches:

  • The site did go down a few times and at others it was painfully slow. Hopefully these accessibility issues will improve as the traffic volume decreases;
  • I do get a tad frustrated at constantly proving “I am not a robot” several times within the same session. There’s a limit to how many street signs, grass vistas, milkshakes and shop fronts I must identify before curbing the urge to scream;
  • Not all images are online yet. Births are there from 1864 to 1915. However marriages are only available from 1882 to 1940. Deaths run from 1891 to 1965. The GRO are updating further records of Marriages dating back to 1845 and Deaths dating back to 1864, but no indication of how long this will take;
  • For one of my birth searches, the link was to the wrong image. I couldn’t see any way to browse adjoining pages easily. I tried in vain to overcome the issue using the advanced search options, narrowing down dates and Registration Districts. A frustrating half an hour later and I still couldn’t access it. So I know Andrew Callaghan’s 1891 birth registration is there somewhere, but the crucial image still eludes me. I have reported the issue via the feedback form, but as yet haven’t received a response;
  • The Advanced Search facility has issues, alluded to above. Linked to this, I do wish search guidance was clearer; and
  • I’ve heard anecdotal stories of false negative results, where someone who should be there isn’t identified in searches. So far this hasn’t affected me.

But the positives far outweigh these niggles:

  • FREE register images are instantly available with the click of a few keys;
  • The register pages supply the birth, marriage and death certificate details thus saving researchers €4 a certificate;
  • The information provided may lead to wider family. I quickly noticed that a good number of births were not registered by the parents. Far higher than I anticipated. Many entries were by people described as “present at birth”. For example a couple of my Callaghan births were registered in this manner by a Patrick Callaghan. Tantalisingly in these instances no relationship details were supplied. Possibly the baby’s grandfather or potentially an uncle, so extended family clues. However some entries do give the precise relationship details. I’ve seen sisters and grandmothers identified. So you may strike lucky;
  • You can include the mother’s maiden name in the advanced search option for births. And these fetch results earlier than the 1911 norm for England and Wales GRO searches. However I would not go so far as to say I to trust equating negative results to no results; and
  • There are entries for Northern Ireland Registration Districts. I’m not sure if these are limited to pre-1922 and how complete these are. So even if your ancestry is from the North, the records are worth checking.

In summary, despite its flaws this is a brilliant resource. It is a wonderful companion set to the free NLI Catholic parish register release of 2015. And a massive thank you to the Irish authorities for making Irish Soldiers Wills 1914-1918, the Irish 1901 and 1911 census, and other datasets, also available free of charge via the National Archives of Ireland’s genealogy page.

It is worth comparing with the “pay” attitude for similar information in England and Wales. A prime example being the £9.25 extortionate charges for similar civil registration information, with seemingly very little progress made since the 2015 Deregulation Act which was supposed to pave the way to providing this information in an uncertified, lower cost form. Or the £10 charge for a World War 1 soldier’s will in this centenary commemoration period.

5 October 2016 update:

I have now received a response from Irish Genealogy to my query on errors. They will be adding a mechanism for error reporting, but no indication of timescale.

In terms of coverage they confirmed the General Register Office are currently working on updating further records of Marriages dating back to 1845 and Deaths dating back to 1864. These will be included in future updates to the records available on the website.

Which Type of Family Historian Are You?

After several years immersed in family history research, along the way I’ve also observed my fellow researchers, and I include myself here. As a result I’ve identified several breeds within this species. Some are clearly pedigrees displaying one single personality trait. Others are more of the Heinz 57 variety, displaying a cross section of characteristics to varying degrees, depending on their inherited DNA.

Which Type of Family Historian Are You?

The categories I’ve identified are by no means exhaustive. I have listed them below, along with their core characteristics.

The Gatherer: This grouping is more concerned about how far back they can go and how many individuals their tree can hold, rather than in-depth individual stories of ancestors. It’s a contest, a badge of honour. Who can get back the furthest. Who can collect the most. What their tree lacks for in substance, they more than make up for with the thousands of names and dates populating the multiple branches. So many names it makes it difficult to distinguish the wood from the trees.  

The Gatherer

The Treehopper: These individuals hop from one public tree to another culling data. The Treehopper doesn’t evaluate this data to see if it is indeed their family. And they are oblivious to errors such as children born before parents and centuries old Methusalahs. Their philosophy is “it’s on the internet so it must be true“. 

There is much cross-fertilisation amongst the Treehopper populace, so the errors become self-perpetuating. 

The Plunderer: These folk are similar to the Treehopper breed in that they cherry pick data from others. But they are far more discerning. And they are not averse to passing the research off as their own. 

The Fortune Seeker: This bounty-hunting bunch are only interested in proving their connection to rich and famous. The richer and more famous the better. Their ace would be to have a link to royalty. A dinner-table topic to dine out on forever, whilst polishing their collective tiaras. 

The Fortune Seeker

The Carnivore: This sub-species is only interested in their meaty, gory ancestors. They wallow in the deepest, darkest entrails of their family history. Ordinary lives are not worth spending time researching. These individuals thrive on the blood-lust of murderers, criminals, victims, bigamists, incest intrigues, gruesome deaths, disasters and tragedies. The grislier the better, in order to feed their passion. 

The Nurturer: Always putting others before themselves, these kindly souls spend so much time helping others in their family history quest, that their own research is sadly neglected. They make occasional efforts to tend and grow their own tree, only to succumb once more to the cries of help from others. 

Whilst they do love assisting the more juvenile researchers in their midst, their plaintive moans of despair at their lack of personal tree-time can occasionally be heard echoing in archive corridors.

The Wanderer: These are the free spirits of the family history world. Or perhaps that should read the most easily distracted? They set off on one path, but part way through their research something more interesting attracts their attention and they change direction. They then spend hours wandering down this new road, before realising they’ve been diverted. Not to worry though. They’ll get to their destination eventually, but with lots of exciting adventures along the way. 

The Wanderer

The Aestivator: This is the spring/summer version of hibernation. During the, hopefully, good weather of these seasons aestivators concentrate on other hobbies and activities. The weather is too nice to be stuck indoors, at home or in archives, researching. The only trees they tend during this period are the ones in their gardens. The only nod towards family history research may be the occasional ancestral cemetery or location visit. Essentially they have entered a phase of genealogical torpor.

They emerge from their aestivation with renewed energy and enthusiasm, ready to conduct their desk-based research during the cold, dark, wet months of late autumn/winter. 

The Night Predator: These researchers burn the midnight oil. The daylight hours are eaten up by family and work demands. Once the children are safely tucked up in bed, partners craftily diverted and work consigned till tomorrow, the Night Predators’ family history papers come out and their computers are fired up. Time looses all track. One more minute becomes one more hour. Bed is but a distant port of call. The clock chimes an inconvenient 1am. Dawn brings its own dawning realisation, “I sleep to research more effectively.” Sleep, therefore, is an unwelcome, but essential, research interruption. And so eventually the Night Predator drags them-self wearily to bed, mind whirring on finds and strategies, counting ancestors not sheep.  

The Night Predator

The Protector: This group are the guardians of their family’s history. They unearth all aspects: good, bad and indifferent. They critically analyse and evaluate their research, recording it for posterity. They delve into all aspects, and historically and locally contextualise the lives of direct line and collateral ancestors. They collect, preserve, share, treasure and protect their finds to ensure no lives are forgotten. They engender a sense of family continuity.  

However be warned, their sheer single-minded obsession and enthusiasm may occasionally be too much for living family members. They have been known to bury their heads in their hands or flee for cover at the prospect of more quizzing or yet another tale from the Protector.

The Scavenger: These phenomena pull disparate facts swiftly together in a haphazard manner with no regard for considered research or truth. If someone has the same name, well that first match they encounter must be “The One“. No matter they may be from a totally unrelated parish, sometimes hundreds of miles away, there are multiple alternatives, or there are other irregularities. 

Time, history, geography, facts and other options are minor inconveniences, swiftly ignored or dismissed. The Scavenger relies on gut instinct at best. At worst they ram the wrong shaped piece in their family history puzzle and move on.

The Specimen Collector: This category has a sole focus on direct line ancestors only, so four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 2x great grandparents and so on. They can really put these ancestors under their genealogical microscope or magnifying glass to probe and delve into their lives in minute detail, without the overwhelming distraction of collateral ancestors. The downside is this researcher may miss breaking down a brick wall which may come from looking at these collateral lines.

The Specimen Collector

The Hunter: These individuals love the thrill of the ancestral chase. Nothing is more satisfying than a visit to the archives or a day spent surfing family history websites. 

Their homes are filled with hastily jotted notes on the back of discarded envelopes and scattered pieces of paper. They have multiple notebooks on the go at any one time, because they misplace the one they’re working on so swiftly grab another. Finds will be properly recorded another day …..maybe. For the time being it’s all retained in the head. Occasionally an overwhelming urge to put things in order overcomes these people. But it’s a temporary blip and instinctive habits are quickly resumed. For them it’s a case of nature over nurture. 

The Hunter

The Grazer: A solid type, who munches steadily and evenly paced through their family history feast. Day by day, piece by piece. Neither obsessively or frenetically. It is a lifetime’s work, no need to rush. It’s there to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed.

Which one(s) am I? Well that’s for me to know and you to wonder. But all theses different elements and people combine to create the wonderful discipline, interest, hobby, livelihood and obsession that is family history.  

PS – This post is prompted by a bit of end of school holiday giddiness. Any other suggestions are most welcome. 

Sources:

Hidden Names: Indecisive and Tricky to Downright Confusing Ancestors

I remember well my husband and I spending hours pouring over a book of baby names throughout my pregnancy trying to decide on boy/girl options for the impending arrival of our little bundle of joy. OK, not so much him as me.

We were sure of our choices for a boy – William Patrick. Less so for a girl. Alice was the early favourite, although we were not entirely convinced. That was until our daughter arrived and within minutes we did a sudden about-turn to Amelia Grace. This was way before Amelia featured in the annual top 10 lists of baby names produced, so we were not swayed (or should that be put off?) by popular opinion. Then it was down to the Registry Office to make her official, like generations of parents before.

My well-thumbed book of Babies Names

But it’s not always that straightforward. What happens if you change your mind after the official form filling? If you decide after all it wasn’t the right choice? Perhaps the parent doing the registering put down the wrong name, or an “unagreed” one.

In my recent family history I’ve a couple of examples, with unofficial solutions. My grandma registered my dad’s birth. He has a Christian and middle name. Seemingly the Christian name was my grandma’s choice – her dad’s name, Patrick. My grandad wasn’t best pleased when he found out after the deed was done. As a compromise my dad has always gone by his middle name. Something that causes endless confusion when dealing with officialdom, the only time when he’s ever referred to as Patrick. But at least we know about it so it’s not an issue – though it might be for future family historians, seeking him under his every-day name!

And there was a bit of pay-back for my grandma’s trickery. Her next son was born on St Patrick’s day – but she’d already used the name!

I also have a maternal aunt. Looking for her in the GRO indexes is problematical. My grandpa registered her under the wrong name, apparently the name of a former girlfriend. Imagine explaining that one away. Unsurprisingly she’s never used that name, although it is remarkably similar to the one she goes by .

Mind you my grandpa has a tendency to mess up birth registration. To be honest I’m surprised my nana let him do it again after the example of my aunt. But she did. The result is my mum’s birth is registered on the wrong day – something she didn’t discover till getting a copy of her certificate when leaving school, much to her embarrassment. Now, like the queen, she has two birthdays. She chooses, from year to year, which is the most convenient date to celebrate.

I suppose it’s sometimes all too easy to forget when researching your family tree that these are not one-dimensional, generational paper-trail figures. They were real people, with emotions and feelings and lives just as rich, rounded and complex as ours today. So although I shouldn’t have been, it was somewhat of a shock to find even earlier examples when I delved into my family tree and bought those all-important birth certificates. But these were examples where the families concerned actually did something about it through official channels.

Permissible but unusual, you could change to the name registered for a child providing it was done within 12 months. There is a column on the birth certificate indicating “name entered after registration” catering for this eventuality. Normal procedure was that the Minister performing the baptism provided a certificate confirming the child’s baptismal name; if unbaptised, the mother or father signed a certificate. This had to be taken to the registrar or superintendant registrar and a fee paid. So not a light undertaking given the financial and time implications, not to say knowledge in the first place that this was an option.

I’ve discovered two examples in my direct line ancestry. The first is for my 2x great grandmother Kezia(h) Clough. Born in Drighlington on 21 October 1850 she was the 6th, and youngest, daughter of William and Mary Clough (née Burnett). On 12 November 1850 Mary registered the baby’s birth, signing with her mark. Her daughter’s registered name was Emma. However, there is an entry in the name-change column. In this case it indicates the alteration to Kesia (another variation). No date as to when the amendment took place. The baptismal register at St Peter’s, Birstall, shows the child was baptised with the name Kezia on 29 December 1850. So the decision was made relatively quickly.

I’ve no idea why the change of heart. Mary did have a sister named Keziah who died in 1837. But that was over 13 years before the birth of Emma/Kezia, and Mary had two other daughters born after her sister’s death. So ample opportunity to name a daughter after her sister, without an after-registration moment of enlightenment. The reason will forever be a mystery.

Kezia Clough’s Birth Certificate

You might have observed that I’ve alluded to the fact there are variant spellings of Kezia on official documents. Sometimes the alternative Keziah is used. Something else to consider in that elusive ancestor hunt.

The other example is my great grandad Jack Hill. Coincidentally he is the son of Kezia and her husband Joseph Hill. Jack was their third son. Born on on 10 December 1872, Joseph registered him on 13 December, under the name Herbert. The amendment column shows a post-registration change of name to John Herbert. Again nothing to indicate when the change was made. Some months after birth, on 25 May 1873, he was baptised John Herbert at Birstall St Peter’s. So another bit of naming confusion thrown into the ancestral search mix – the diminutive: Jack being a diminutive of John.

Once more no clues as to why the change. Perhaps it was an afterthought nod towards Kezia’s brother John, who died in 1871. Or, the theory I’m leaning towards, is Herbert’s name was too close to the name of his older brother Albert (Bert & Bert), something hinted at in that May baptismal entry where “John Albert” is scored out and replaced by “John Herbert“.

Jack Hill’s St Peter’s Birstall Baptismal Entry

So lots of creative Christian name considerations when on the trail of ancestors:

  • Diminutives, some obvious such as Elizabeth/Lizzie/Betty and Joseph/Joe. Some less so such as John/Jack, Pauline/Polly, Sarah/Sally (yes I have those);
  • Spelling variations;
  • Christian names dropped, and possibly forgotten over time, in favour of middle names; and
  • Names being used for no obvious reason at all, other than to frustrate family history researchers. For example Cissie used instead of the registered name of Sabina (yes, that’s one of mine too).

Sources:

  • GRO birth certificates
  • Baptismal register, St Peter’s Birstall

GRO Picture Credit: 
Extract from GRO birth register entry for Kesia (Emma) Clough: Image © Crown Copyright and posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance.