Newsletter - 29 January 2012



MASTERCLASS: finding birth certificates

1911 abduction fears exaggerated

Census hoax email prompts ONS warning

Could you spot a fake heir hunter?

Your life in their hands

British Newspaper Archive proves too popular!

Electoral Rolls disappoint

Using the Address Search at findmypast

"On the Street Where You Live"

More clues from newspapers

Do you have ancestors from Kent?

When was your grandfather born?

Don't leave it too late!

Peter's Tips


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MASTERCLASS: finding birth certificates

It's very frustrating when you can't find an ancestor's birth certificate - but often the 'brick wall' only exists in our imagination. Let's look at some of the key reasons why a certificate can't be found....


         The forename you know your ancestor by may not be the one on the birth certificate: sometimes the name(s) given at the time of baptism would differ from the name(s) given to the registrar of births; sometimes a middle name was preferred, perhaps to avoid confusion with another family member, often the father. There can be all sorts of reasons why a different forename is used - one of my ancestors appears on some censuses as 'Ebenezer' and on others as 'John' (which I imagine was the name he was generally known by).

         Middle names come and go: at the beginning of the 19th century it was rare to have a middle name, but by the beginning of the 20th century it was unusual not to have one. Some people invented middle names, some people dropped middle names they didn't like, and sometimes people simply forgot what was on the birth certificate. For example, one of my relatives was registered as Fred, but in 1911 his father - my great-grandfather - gave his name as Frederick.

         The surname on the certificate may not be the one you expect: if the parents weren't married at the time of the birth then usually (but not always) the birth will be recorded under the mother's maiden name (the exception is where the mother was using the father's surname and failed to disclose to the registrar that they weren't married).

         You're looking for the wrong father: often the best clue you have to the identity of your ancestor's father is the information on his or her marriage certificate. Unfortunately marriage certificates are often incorrect - the father's name and/or occupation may be wrong. This is particularly likely if your ancestor never knew his or her father, whether as a result of early death or illegitimacy. Not many people admit to being illegitimate on their wedding day - and in Victorian Britain illegitimacy was frowned upon, so single mothers often made up stories to tell their children (as well as the neighbours). Whether or not the birth was legitimate young children often took the name of the man their mother later married, so always bear in mind the possibility that the father whose name is shown on the marriage certificate is actually a step-father.

         You may be looking in the wrong place: a child's birthplace is likely to be shown correctly when he or she is living at home, but could well be incorrect after leaving home. Many people simply didn't know where they were born, and assumed it was the place they remembered growing up. The most accurate birthplace is the one given by the father or (especially) the mother of the person whose birth you're trying to track down; the least accurate is likely to be the one in the first census after they leave home.

         You may be looking in the wrong period: ages on censuses are often wrong, as are the ages shown on marriage certificates - especially if there is an age gap between the parties, or one or both is below the age of consent (21). Sometimes people didn't know how old they were, and ages on death certificates can be little more than guesses. Remember too that births could be registered up to 42 days afterwards without penalty, so many will be recorded in the following quarter - and they could be registered up to 365 days afterwards on payment of a fine. In my experience, where the marriage certificate shows 'of full age' it's often an indication that they were under 21!

         The birth was not registered at all: this is usually the least likely situation, but it did happen occasionally - most often in the first few years of registration, though it wasn't until 1874 that there was a penalty for failing to register a birth.

         The GRO indexes are wrong: this is also quite rare, but did happen occasionally despite the checks that were carried out.


How can you overcome these problems? First and foremost keep an open mind - be prepared to accept that any or all of the information you already have may be wrong. This is particularly likely if you have been unable to find your relative at home with their parents on any of the censuses.


Obtain all the information that you can from censuses, certificates, and other sources (such as Army records): the less information you can find, the more likely it is that the little you already have is wrong or misleading in some way. For example, if you can't find your ancestor on any censuses prior to his marriage, you can be pretty certain that the information on the marriage certificate and later censuses is wrong in some material way.


Don't assume that just because something appears in an official document, it must be right. Over half of marriage certificates I have seen include at least one error, and as many as half of all census entries are wrong in some respect (I'm not talking about transcription errors, by the way). Army records are particularly unreliable - one of my relatives added 2 years to his age when he joined the British Army in 1880, and knocked 7 years off when he signed up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914.


Consider how and why the information you have might be wrong by working your way through the list above - then come up with a strategy to deal with each possibility. Sometimes it's as easy as ordering the birth certificate for a sibling to find out the mother's maiden name; often discovering when the parents married is a vital clue.


If you can't find your ancestor on the census with his or her parents then you should be particularly suspicious of the information you have - it's very likely that some element is wrong, and it is quite conceivable that it is ALL wrong.


Middle names that could also be surnames often indicate illegitimacy - it was usually the only way to get the father's name on the birth certificate. Unusual middle names can provide clues - I remember helping one member find an ancestor whose birth was under a completely different surname by taking advantage of the fact that his middle name was Ptolemy!


Make use of local BMD indexes (start at UKBMD), and also look for your ancestor's baptism - sometimes we forget that parents continued to have their children baptised after Civil Registration began. Consider the possibility that one or both of the parents died when your ancestor was young - perhaps there will be evidence in workhouse records. Have you looked for wills?


Could the witnesses to your ancestor's marriage be relatives? When my great-great-great grandfather Joseph Harrison married, one of the witnesses was a Sarah Salter - who I discovered (after many years of fruitless searching) was his mother. Her maiden name wasn't Salter, by the way - nor was it Harrison - but I'll save the story of how that particular mystery came to be solved for another time!


Finally, remember that you're probably not the only one researching this particular ancestor - and one of your cousins may already have the answers you're seeking. So make sure that you have entered ALL your relatives from 1881 on your My Ancestors page, as this is the census that is most likely to link you to your 'lost cousins'.


Note: this is a revised version of an article first published in April 2010; it covers such important issues that I think it's worth repeating, especially since there are nearly 10,000 new members who have joined since then.


1911 abduction fears exaggerated

If you stumbled across the census form of Mr Richard Woodward of 4 Avon Road, Drayton Park, Highbury you might be surprised to see that he records his wife and daughter as having been abducted. Had they been kidnapped or were they, perhaps, abducted by aliens (HG Wells had published War of the Worlds only 13 years previously)?


All is revealed in a recent findmypast blog entry, which includes a full-size scan of the census form. Click here to find out what really happened....


Census hoax email prompts ONS warning

A century later, and the census is still the subject of hoaxes. The Office for National Statistics issued a warning on Friday about a hoax email headed 'Population Census: a message to everyone - act now' which has recently started to circulate. Click here to see the announcement on the ONS site.


Could you spot a fake heir hunter?

Whilst we're on the subject of scams, I wonder whether you can tell me which (if any) of the following three heir hunter websites are scams? There's a free LostCousins subscription for the member who comes up with the right answer and gives the best explanation.


Heir hunter number 1

Heir hunter number 2

Heir hunter number 3


Send your entries to the usual address (the one I used when I told you about this newsletter) to arrive by Monday 6th February at the latest. Please head up the email "Spot the scam" followed by the numbers of any sites that you think aren't genuine, and include succinct reasons for your verdict in the body of the email.


By the way, I should point out that nearly all of the members who contacted me following my article in the last newsletter had been contacted by genuine heir hunters (as I was), and in most cases had already received an inheritance (as I have). The amounts of money received varied from under £100 (in my case) to over £100,000! I will be writing at length about my experiences and those of other members in a future newsletter, and I believe it will be a useful primer for anyone who is contacted by heir hunters in the future.


Your life in their hands

This was the title of an article in New Scientist magazine recently which revealed changes in the way that Facebook works. I realise that most people reading this aren't ardent Facebook users, and some of you may never have visited the site - but there are some good reasons for all of us to be concerned about what's happening.


The new Timeline feature updates a user's Facebook profile by sorting everything they've ever done at the site into reverse chronological order. In itself that's not a major change, but Facebook is also allowing people to go back in time, adding information about past events in their life. In other words, your entire life history could be on Facebook.


If you're not a Facebook user you might think this is irrelevant - but what about your friends, cousins, nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren? You can bet that some of the things they'll post will relate to you.


For example, I already use Facebook to track down members whose email address no longer works so that I can tell them that a cousin of theirs wants to get in touch. Very often the person I'm looking for isn't an active Facebook user, so sometimes I look for their children instead. How do I know who their children are? By looking them up in the Electoral Roll - it's usually obvious which members of a household are parents and which are children of 18 or over. Most of the time there will be some snippet of information that one of the children has posted that identifies their parent as the person I'm trying to track down.


But can you imagine how much easier it will be when the children start adding in information about their early lives? The chance of their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles remaining anonymous will be far, far lower - but it's not just about privacy, because your security (both physical and financial) could also be at risk. Suppose that itís obvious from your daughter's timeline that the family goes away at the same time every year - imagine how useful that information would be to a burglar!


Think too about the information that banks ask for so that they can verify your identity. These days they don't ask for your mother's maiden name any more, but about your first school, first pet, and where you were born. You might not post any of this information online, but can you be absolutely certain that nobody else will?


British Newspaper Archive proves too popular!

A number of members have reported problems with the British Newspaper Archive website running very slowly, and in at least one case this prevented the member concerned spending all of the credits in the 2 Day package they purchased. I suspect that one of the problems is that a site like this inevitably appeals to much wider range of people than a dedicated family history site.


There are two ways you can combat the problem - one is to do as much as possible of your searching outside peak times, the other is to bookmark articles before subscribing (thanks to Shirley, who was the first member to suggest this).


Some members have also reported problems downloading and printing records, and complained about the poor quality compared to what they see on the screen. Indeed, at the Genes Reunited site (where the British Newspaper Archive is available as an 'Add-on' subscription) there doesn't seem to be any way at all of downloading or printing the articles.


However, I've had no problem saving and printing the articles I'm interested in. First I view the article on-screen at the largest possible size, then I press the Print Screen key to copy the entire screen to the clipboard. Next I paste the contents of the clipboard into Irfanview, the free graphics program that I use constantly. Finally I use the mouse to select the part I want to save and/or print, and choose Crop Selection from the Edit menu.


Electoral Registers disappoint

Some members have also written to me complaining about the large number of transcription errors in the London Electoral Registers recently released at Ancestry.


As regular readers will know, I prefer to use findmypast when I'm searching records that are available at both sites - I find the site easier to navigate, and the searches more reliable - but that didn't stop me from coming to the defence of Ancestry over the Electoral Registers!


It's true that there are many errors, some of which look completely stupid (such as road names being indexed as if they were the names of people) - but that's almost inevitable when such a diverse set of documents is converted into text by machines using Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. Because there are nearly 140 million names, equivalent to 5 or more England & Wales censuses, it would have been extremely expensive to transcribe the records by hand - so costly, I suspect, that it could never have been financially viable.


Whether they might have done a better job we'll discover when findmypast begin to release the British Library collection of Electoral Registers later this year - but in the meantime I wouldn't worry to much about the errors because people generally stayed in the same place for a few years, and if one of your ancestors was living at the same address in 1894 and 1896, the chances are that she was living at the same address in 1895, even though you might struggle to find the entry.


Tip: some of the Electoral Registers have street index at the front.


Using the Address Search at findmypast

I first started to look at findmypast - then known as 1837online - as a serious competitor to Ancestry was when I discovered that it was possible to search the censuses by address. So often we know - or think we know where our ancestors were on census night, but can't find them because of errors in the data.


A useful trick when you're searching for a street is to add a wildcard at the end of the street name. For example, if you search for OXFORD ST you get 62 results, but when you search for OXFORD ST* you get 209 results.


I don't know whether this is a bug or an undocumented feature, but it sure makes sense to add that wildcard character!


Tip: although it implies on the Address Search form that you must complete the Residential Place box when you use a wildcard in the Street Name box, I discovered that in practice this isn't always necessary. Experimentation suggests that so long as there are 6 or more characters before the wildcard you needn't worry about the Residential Place (except to cut down the number of search results).

"On the Street Where You Live"

In the March 2012 edition of Your Family Tree, which arrived on my doormat yesterday, there's an article by LostCousins member Celia Heritage, who runs Heritage Family History and is once again giving a talk at Who Do You Think You Are? Live. (Indeed there are numerous LostCousins members who will be giving presentations this year - I stopped counting after finding 6 on the first day alone!)


Entitled "House records", Celia's article explains how to build up a more complete picture of our ancestors' lives by researching the places where they lived, using sources such as Hearth Tax listings, manorial records, tithe maps, and the Land Valuation Survey of 1910.


This reminded me that some of the records we use to research our ancestors can also be used to research the places where we live, sometimes even the house where we live. For example, I've found quite a few articles in the British Newspaper Archive which relate to the street where I live - and not only do I know from the censuses who was living in my house in 1911, I also know from the 1910 survey what the rent was!


If you live in London you may be able to use the London Electoral Registers to find out who lived in your house in the early 20th century - and hopefully many more of us will have that opportunity when findmypast digitise the British Library collection of Electoral Registers.


Note: if you're wondering why it sounds familiar, On the Street Where You Live was a song from the musical My Fair Lady.


More clues from newspapers

There's a lot than newspapers can tell us that perhaps isn't immediately obvious. For example, you'll probably find mentions of the schools and churches they attended, and in many cases the firms that they worked for.


Sports and hobbies could also provide useful leads - for example, if you know that an ancestor took part in amateur dramatics, and can identify the society, you'll probably find articles about the performances they gave - and even though your ancestor might not be mentioned by name, at least you'll have a better idea of how they spent their time.


Perhaps we'll never know as much about our ancestors as future generations will learn about us from the archives of Facebook (or whatever succeeds it), but that shouldn't stop us searching!


Do you have ancestors from Kent?

Findmypast have just announced that in the next few weeks they will putting online scanned copies of parish registers for the Archdeaconry of Canterbury, over a quarter of a million images with more than a million entries.


This launch has been timed to coincide with the imminent closure for refurbishment of the Canterbury Cathedral Archives, but I don't know when the records will be indexed.


Note : if you have ancestors from Kent, Surrey, or Sussex you might find some useful information at The Weald, which was recommended to me by Muriel, who is one of LostCousins' greatest supporters.


When was your grandfather born?

Only one of my grandfathers was born before the 1881 Census, so I was impressed when an old schoolfriend told me that his grandfather was born in 1840 - but a few days ago I read an even more impressive story in Dick Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter.


John Tyler was born in 1790, and became the 10th President of the United States in 1841; his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler was born in 1853, when John Tyler was 63 years old. Lyon's son Lyons Junior and Harrison were born in 1924 and 1928 respectively - and are still alive today, 222 years after their grandfather was born!


I have to go back 5 generations in my tree to find an ancestor who was born before 1790, but perhaps a LostCousins member reading this can beat the Tylers' incredible record. If you or one of your living relatives have a grandparent who was born before 1790, do please get in touch.


Don't leave it too late!

This article was written by William J P Turner, a LostCousins member, and an experienced family historian


A few years ago, my Great Grandmother died. Since her death, I have (naturally!) aged, and so, as a result, I have developed many questions in my head that I wish I had asked her before it was too late.


These questions are mainly concerned with her own grandparents. The older the relative, the more likely they are to give details on earlier ancestors - not rocket science perhaps, but nevertheless it is something that we often overlook. We can get so involved with parish records and censuses that we forget that there is so much more that we can find out about our ancestors simply by asking our elderly relatives. I began tracking down my elderly relatives to locate new information before it was lost forever. After all, the census will be around forever, but 97 year old great aunt Hilda won't!


A cousin of my grandfather told me that my great, great grandmother "walked with her right arm swinging, and her fingers wiggling" - this is something that no census form will ever tell me. I then began to contact other individuals who could shed light on my ancestors - and not just people I am related to.


It is truly amazing how many people can aid in your research: for example, if your grandmother was a member of the Salvation Army contact her local branch, because some members may still remember her. Talk to local history groups - you may find that relatives (or even direct ancestors) were recorded on tape at some point in the past, perhaps for a 'Village Voices' book. If you're lucky, as I was in the case of my great grandmother, the recording will still survive.


I will now pass on some of my favourite interviewing tips. The first is that elderly relatives may be difficult to interview - some will find it hard to hear, understand or interpret your questions. Often a question needs to be asked in a certain way to elicit a response. For example, if you wish to know the answer to the question "What was your mother's date of birth?" asking that question straight off might not work, as not everyone can rattle off dates at the drop of a hat. Instead, it may be wise to rephrase the question with some common sense. Pull your question apart, and see if there are any obvious ways to make the question more approachable and less puzzling. For example, you might ask, "When was your mother's birthday?", then "How old was she when she died?", and finally "What year was that?" in order to find an exact date and year of birth.


The second tip is: always ask if you can make copies of any documents and photographs they may have. Incidentally, I would advise you to take some photos of your own along, not only to get ancestors identified, but also to trigger your relativeís memories.


Thirdly, unless really specific information is required, always try to make questions as general as possible, otherwise you might miss hearing stories about people and events of which you know nothing. All stories are valuable in their own way, and even if they don't seem relevant at the time, they may come in useful later on your research.


Finally, try and spend most time with the oldest members of your extended family, particular those you have very little contact with.


Peter's Tips

Before Christmas I suggested that members in the UK take advantage of the 5% discount that WH Smith are offering on books of 1st and 2nd Class stamps when you order online (and postage is free when you order 4 books or more).


But what I didn't realise until recently is that in April the cost of 2nd Class stamps will be rising dramatically, from the current 36p to between 45p and 55p (with all the indications that the new price will be closer to the top end of the range). Even if 2nd Class stamps only go up to 50p, that's nearly 50% higher than the price you'll pay when you take advantage of WH Smith's generosity (can you think of any other investments that offer such a high return?). However, you'll have to be quick, because the offer is due to end on 31st January.


Note: 1st Class stamps (currently 46p) could go up even more - but by the time the new prices are announced WH Smith's offer will be long over, so my advice is to buy some of each - that's what I've done.


I've already made my first jam of 2012! One of my favourites - Tomato with Lemon and Ginger - it was prompted by Tesco's decision to heavily discount packs of cherry tomatoes (which I find make the best jam). This is an appropriate opportunity to announce that I plan to run another jam-making competition in 2012 - so if there's any possibility that you might enter, make sure you save some small jars (to keep down the cost of postage).


Great news! It's once again possible to save £10 on the price of a new Kindle, by ordering it from Tesco Direct. Simply click here and enter the discount code TDX-7PKF at the checkout. By the way, you can use the same code to save £10 on ANY online order of £75 or more, but whatever you buy you'll have to be quick, because the code expires on 1st February.


Some of the energy suppliers in the UK have cut their prices, but others haven't - and even if a price cut has been announced it may not affect every tariff. When I want to know whether I'm getting the best value I use the Which? Switch website, because it's not only a free service but an impartial one. They reckon that the average person who switches saves over £230 a year - which is enough to pay for subscriptions to two of the major genealogy websites!


Every time I visit the Amazon site I check the price of Family Tree Maker 2012 Platinum. At £29.99 it's by far the cheapest way to get a 6 month Premium subscription to (six individual monthly subscriptions would cost £77.70, and even if you divide the price of a 12 month subscription by 2 it still comes to £53.70). So far, I'm glad to say, no change - unlike last year when the price of the previous edition went up and down (mostly up) like a yo-yo! I've already got my copy, though I won't need to activate the subscription until July - if I delayed and the price went up I'd be kicking myself!


By the way, I keep getting emails from members asking me "If you don't recommend the Family Tree Maker software, what program do you recommend?". For nearly 10 years I've used a program called Genopro, which does exactly what I want. Of course, whether or not it will do what you want is another matter, but if you follow this link there's not only a free trial but also a 10% discount for LostCousins members.


Finally, as many of the items in Peter's Tips aren't directly related to genealogy, I'm thinking of setting up a separate website (how does sound?). That doesn't mean that there won't be a tips column in the newsletter, but it will allow me to go into more detail (and feature more offers) without boring overseas readers, for whom many of my tips aren't directly relevant. What do you reckon?


Stop Press

On Wednesday February 1 the WH Smith website was still offering books of stamps at a 5% discount, but I don't know how long this will continue..


Please keep sending in your news and tips - many of the articles in this newsletter result from suggestions from readers like you!




Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2012 Peter Calver


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