Newsletter - 21 February, 2010
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The edited version of the Electoral Roll which is sold by local authorities to businesses and other organisations may be abolished - a Government review has come to the conclusion that it should be scrapped.
I've found several living relatives using the Electoral Roll, and if this opportunity were to be closed off it would be a serious hindrance to finding more. It's true that a significant number of people choose to be omitted from the version that is published, but nevertheless I can't think of any other publicly-available resource that records as high a proportion of the current population. Considering that the GRO's Traceline service was discontinued 2 years ago it would be very annoying if this other avenue were to be closed off so soon afterwards.
Unfortunately this issue came to my attention only recently, and the consultation closes on Tuesday 23rd February. Please take a look at the consultation document and submit your views by email before the deadline.
The Competition Commission is likely to clear the takeover of Genes Reunited by Brightsolid, the company that owns findmypast - their preliminary judgement requests any objectors to state their case by March 11, otherwise the judgement will become final.
This is good news! Many serious family historians have removed their trees from Genes Reunited because of the problems with 'Hot Mismatches' (as one member called them in an email recently), and whilst I don't have any idea what plans Brightsolid might have for Genes Reunited, almost anything will be an improvement.
I recently received a disturbing email from a member who had posted their family tree at a leading website (though not one of the two mentioned in the preceding article). It seems they discovered that - even though their tree was designated private - some of the information in it had been copied by another user of the site.
I'm all for relatives sharing information - but only when both have agreed to this. That's why at LostCousins nobody apart from you and me, not even the relatives you're linked with, can see what you've entered on your My Ancestors page, and why when you find a new relative you have to wait for them to agree to correspond before you can send them information. After all, there are few things worse than sending a long detailed message to someone you've discovered, then hearing nothing. Did the other person take the information and simply add it to their tree? Did they even get the message? Have they changed their email address and forgotten to tell the website?
Because I'm a family historian myself, LostCousins was designed with all these concerns in mind. At most sites, if someone doesn't reply to a message you've sent that's tough luck, because they won't do anything about it. They won't even tell you if the other person's email address has stopped working.
But at LostCousins I'll investigate personally, and do everything I can to elicit a response. Sometimes I track someone down through the person who referred them to the site, or another cousin they've been linked with; sometimes I find them using Google, or by looking them up in the telephone directory.
Researching ancestors who lived in England & Wales is usually fairly straightforward until we get back to 1841, the date of the first census, and 1837, the year that civil registration began. But then it becomes much tougher, for a number of inter-related reasons. In this masterclass I'm going to first talk through the problems, and then explain how I would generally hope to overcome them.
When we're researching after 1837 we can refer to the GRO indexes, which (in theory at least) list everyone who was born, or married, or died in England & Wales, and when we get to 1841 we can refer to censuses which (again in theory) list everyone in the country on a certain night. Best of all, those indexes and censuses are available online, so anybody anywhere can get access to them. Before 1837 parish registers are the best sources of early information, because most people were baptised, and most of those who have descendants got married - but even though the vast majority have survived, the registers are scattered across the nation. In most cases the original registers are held by the county records office, which means you cannot go to one records office - or even the National Archives - and expect to find all the baptisms for (say) 1812.
Many registers have been transcribed, usually by volunteers, and in some cases the transcriptions have been made available online. However you can't just go to one website and search through every parish register that has ever been transcribed, because some transcriptions are available at one site, some at another - and even if you have the time to visit them all, many of the transcriptions are only available at subscription sites, so you may not be able to access them. Furthermore, some of the transcriptions are only available on CD ROM or on microfiche.
Faced with such an unfamiliar situation some researchers just give up - research pre-1837 is so different that they are scared to even try. Some try, but fail - either because they don't fully understand how best to make use of the available resources, or because they don't realise just how much is available to them.
Because of the way that records are scattered across the country, across the Internet, and across different media, it's tempting to adopt an unfocused "where shall I try next" approach. Now, I'm not a professional genealogist, but one thing I do know is that professional genealogists always search logically and methodically, and above all they record where they have searched and what they have searched for. I can't count the number of times members have written to me saying they've searched everywhere for a certain baptism, yet when pressed they can't tell me which parishes they've searched, which periods the searches covered, or even - in some cases - precisely what surnames and spellings they looked for.
Here's what I do....
First I gather all the evidence that indicates - no matter how obliquely - where and when my ancestor is likely to have been born. Sources of information will often include early censuses, marriage certificates, and death certificates - all of which can be helpful, but can also be misleading. Many people didn't know where they were born, so at best the birthplace they gave when the enumerator came round is the place - or one of the places - where they grew up. Some people didn't know how old they were - they might have known when they were born, but that isn't the question on the census form. (It asks for their age, and not everyone was capable of subtracting one year from another, particularly if the years were in different centuries - even I get the sums wrong sometimes.)
My second step is to search the IGI at FamilySearch; the IGI has more parish register entries than any other website, and yet it's free! Now and again I'm lucky enough to find someone who looks as if they may be my ancestor, and has a sufficiently rare name that there are unlikely to have been two of them around in the same place at the same time. However, not many names are that rare - many of the surnames we now think of as rare were once quite common in certain parts of the country. By the way, if you're not confident that you know all the ins-and-outs of the IGI then I recommend you read my articles on the Help & Advice page - it's one of the most misunderstood resources there is.
The next step is one that many people miss out - to their cost. I use a 'parish locator' (such as the free ParLoc program) to get a list of all the parishes around the town or village where I believe my ancestor to have been born. Usually I use a 5 mile radius, but in London that could give you a list of 100 or more parishes - so a radius of 1 or 2 miles might be more appropriate there. Next I check each of the parishes on the list against Hugh Wallis's invaluable website to find out which of them are included in the IGI (see the article 'Unlock the Secrets of the IGI' on the Help & Advice page if you're not familiar with batch numbers).
You may be lucky, and discover that all of the parishes are included in the IGI for the relevant period - in which case you can be fairly confident that a search of the IGI will indicate whether or not you're looking in the right area. If your initial search found someone with the right name, but it was a fairly common one, now would be a good time to look for the baptisms of siblings and the marriage of the parents to see whether everything 'adds up'. Looking for baptisms to the same parents is absolutely crucial, not just because it might lead you to some collateral lines, and eventually to some 'lost cousins', but also because it can increase or decrease your confidence in the entry you've already found.
If you've trawled the IGI without success, another place to try is FreeREG: although the coverage is patchy, you might just find that some of the parishes you're interested in are included - and at least it's fairly easy to see what is and isn't there. Next stop for me would be the Internet Archive, another free site, where a search for (say) 'Kent parish registers' brings up a long list of registers that have been printed in book form and digitised for all to see (you'd pay to see some of these records as subscription sites!). Another similar site is Google Books - although there is a big overlap between the two - and a straightforward Google search is always worth trying, as quite a few individuals have transcribed parish registers and posted the results on their own websites.
Check the local records office - perhaps like Essex Records Office and Medway Archives they have posted their registers online (not transcribed, but at least they are at your fingertips - and free). Of course, if you're within striking distance of the records office then there's no substitute for visiting in person - but check first what's available online so that you don't waste your time there looking up records you could have searched from the comfort of your own home.
If you live close to London visit the Society of Genealogists website, to find out what's in their library - they have an amazing collection, including many unique resources, and even if you're not a member you can visit on payment of a modest fee. Then see what else is available from the local family history societies (yes, there's often more than one covering a particular area); few have records online, but many sell CD ROMs and microfiche, whilst a few offer free lookups for their members.
Next I visit subscription sites. It isn't always easy to find out which parishes are and aren't included in their collections, and that's a good reason to leave them until the end. I personally prefer the way that findmypast organise their records, but I know that some people feel more at home with Ancestry's way of doing things. Both could make it easier for users - I frequently get lost at Ancestry and have to start again from the home page!
Finally, if all that hasn't produced what you're after, you may have to visit the records office in person or pay a researcher to go there on your behalf. It's usually cheaper to use an independent researcher rather than the records office staff, but whoever you use may be able to suggest some alternative lines of enquiry if their search is unsuccessful.
This article will be posted on the Help & Advice page so that it is available as a permanent resource.
I've just received from New York a copy of the death certificate for my great-uncle, who died in Brooklyn in August 1893 at the age of 20 - just 5 weeks after his arrival in the USA. It turns out that he died of typhoid, which in those days killed around 300-400 New Yorkers each year.
Mary Mallon, otherwise known as "Typhoid Mary", had emigrated from Ireland to New York in 1884, although it wasn't until 1907 that she was identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid, who could infect others without suffering from the disease herself. According to an article on the Science Museum website she worked as a household cook, and left a trail of illness wherever she was employed; I also found the article at Wikipedia interesting.
Of course, it's unlikely that my great-uncle ever met Mary Mallon - but this story did get me thinking about the "Typhoid Marys" and "Typhoid Johns" that I've come across during my researches. You know the ones I mean: the sloppy researchers who include incorrect data in their family tree, then spread it around so widely that before long it becomes the generally accepted version of the truth. Bad research is like a virus - it spreads uncontrollably.
The only way to guard against this disease is to note the source of every item of information in our tree so that anyone we pass information to knows where it came from, and can verify it if they wish.
The Australian Newspapers site, part of the National Library of Australia has digitised 5 major Australian newspapers for the period 1803-1954, and there are many more newspapers on the way. As with so many Australian resources it is free, but the best things about this site are being able to search within the results of a previous search, and the facility for users to correct errors that they spot.
On the subject of Australia, I noticed recently that Ancestry.co.uk now has over 2 million records relating to convicts who were transported to Australia. However it seems that to get access them you will need Worldwide membership, which costs a staggering £155.40 per annum, or £18.95 for a month.
When I was researching my wife's Welsh ancestry I came across the Welsh Mariners website of Dr Reginald Davies, who has a database of over 23,500 Welsh merchant mariners who were masters, mates, or engineers (there's also a smaller index of Welshmen who were in the Royal Navy around the time of the Battle Of Trafalgar, including 600 who were serving at the time of the battle). Another key resource for merchant mariners - and not just from Wales - is the index of Crew Lists at findmypast, which includes around 270,000 individual records for the period 1861-1913; whilst this is only a small percentage of a total, because a seaman might appear on two crew lists for each year of service, the chance of your relative being listed is higher than you might think.
There's been an excellent response from existing members to the addition of the Ireland 1911 census to the list of censuses supported by LostCousins, and the next step is to encourage new members to join and enter their relatives. Announcements have been sent to all the family history magazines in Britain and Ireland, but I'd appreciate your help in circulating the news to anyone you know with relatives living in Ireland in 1911 - I suggest you refer them to the article Using the 1911 Census of Ireland on the Help & Advice page, which tells them all they need to know.
Malcolm recently wrote to complain about the way that the GRO now sends out certificates - folded instead of flat. It's obvious why they have made the change- it keeps down the cost of postage, at least within the UK. But there's nothing quite like a pristine unfolded certificate, is there?
Actually, I'm in two minds about this change - because when they did send them out unfolded, my certificates would often arrive badly creased or even torn after their journey through the post, whereas since the system changed this just hasn't happened. And it's arguable that because they aren't original documents - they're not even facsimiles of the original certificates - surely all that matters to us as family historians is the information they carry?
Because it's so easy to look up the births, marriages, and deaths of our relatives in the General Register Office indexes it's easy to forget that parish records can be equally valuable after 1837. Why pay £7 for a marriage certificate when you can get a copy of the church register entry for next to nothing? After all, the church register entry gives the same information and you get original signatures - which you will NEVER see on a GRO certificate. Since Ancestry made available the London Metropolitan Archives database of parish registers I've found the marriages of over 50 of my relatives - just think how much I might have spent on certificates!
Do you use a mobile phone? Vodafone Sure Signal guarantees that you can get a signal when you're in your home phone - by giving you your own base station, which connects to their network using your broadband connection. They'll charge your £5 a month for the privilege and you'll still pay the normal mobile rates for any calls that you make - even though they're using your broadband connection to provide the service. If you can't get a good Vodafone signal where you live, my advice is to switch to another provider - DON'T pay 3 times for the same calls!
In my Masterclass article I mentioned the free ParLoc program which tells you which parishes are within a given radius of the place you specify. But that's not all you can do - it will also calculate the distance between any two parishes, which is very useful when the place names don't appear on modern map, as is often the case. (Note: although I've been using ParLoc myself for many years, it was an email from Adrienne that prompted me to write about in the newsletter - thanks! Do you have any tips of general interest to LostCousins members?)
Google are undertaking a major project to digitise tens of millions of out-of-print books, and there are millions already online. As one LostCousins member wrote "I searched it recently for one ancestor of mine and found him in the 1837 electoral register, his votes cast in an 1841 election (he didn't bother voting) and a mention of him in a book as a witness to the Corn Riots in 1816. Absolutely fascinating stuff." Like Paul you might discover something you never knew about your family - I certainly did - so why not give Google Books at try?
This is where updates or amendments will appear.
That's all for now - I hope you've found some of it relevant to you and your family tree. Please do keep sending in your comments and suggestions for future issues.
Copyright 2010 by Peter Calver & Lost Cousins Ltd except as otherwise stated