Newsletter - 27 July 2012
Findmypast offer ENDS MONDAY
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As the 2012 Olympics begins I've been thinking back to the last time the Olympic Games came to London, in 1948. The 1948 games have been called the 'Austerity Olympics' - so not so different to today (although what passes for austerity now would have been regarded as luxury back then).
I'd like to share with you three photographs from the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympics which show my grandfather's cousin Sir Frederick Wells (my 1st cousin twice removed). Mind you, he was no more of an athlete than I am - he was there because he was Lord Mayor of London from 1947-48.
Two of the photographs show him holding the Olympic flag in front of more than 100,000 people in Wembley Stadium; the other photo shows him sitting in the Royal Box (between the Shah of Iran and Princess Margaret, the late sister of Queen Elizabeth II). There's a larger and better quality version of the first picture here.
I won't be at the Olympics, though I do have tickets for the Wheelchair Tennis at the Paralympics - that should be amazing!
Note: my grandfather was also called Frederick Wells - but he never aspired to such great things, and spent his entire working life as a boiler maker (working for another rich cousin). After 47 years he retired on a pension of just £1 a week! I never really knew him (I was just 4 when he died), but I'd like to think that he'd be proud of what I'm doing to bring families back together.
The exclusive offer I have arranged for readers of this newsletter ends at 11.59pm (London time) on Monday 30 July. Full instructions were given in my last newsletter here - follow them to the letter to ensure that you qualify for a free LostCousins subscription!
Following my article article about the way the General Register Office (responsible for civil registration in England & Wales) is falling behind other countries, including Scotland and Northern Ireland I received numerous supportive messages, including this one from John in Leicester:
"Your latest newsletter carries the usual interesting mixture of items, but I was particularly drawn to the piece about the GRO.
"Reading what Sarah Rapson actually says in her article about the office's 175th anniversary, it is very noticeable that there is nothing about future developments; it's basically a history lesson which lauds yesterday without considering today or tomorrow.
"It will take only a very small further drop in sales of certificates, or an equally small rise in costs, for the GRO to return to a deficit position when, no doubt, more price rises will be imposed; the inevitable cycle of increased prices resulting in reduced sales will then be repeated. Given how little their services have changed since 1837, I fear they will have to be dragged into the 20th century before the terrors of the 21st can even be contemplated, let alone embraced.
"How is it that this nation, which was once at the forefront of all such innovation, is now falling so far behind?"
John also sent me a copy of an email he'd sent to the GRO asking when their web page Modernising Civil Registration was going to be updated. When I checked today the last posting (from November 2011) stated that "During the financial year 2011/12 IPS will decide the future plans for the digitisation of its remaining records."
Since the 2011/12 financial year ended nearly 4 months ago, I'm sure we'd all like to know what has been decided. Or as mere customers of the GRO are we to be kept in the dark?
Thanks to Chris Paton for the information that over 830 Scottish directories are available through the Internet Archive, even more than you'll find at the National Library of Scotland's website (as mentioned in my last newsletter).
Note: Chris Paton has one of the best genealogy blogs around - you'll find it here.
Late yesterday Ancestry released a collection of Lancashire parish registers with over 2.8 million entries. The links below will take you to the new datasets:
I have had very little time to check these records out, so I don't know how accurate the transcriptions are, nor how comprehensive the collection is (I didn't find ANY relatives from my Lancashire branch, but perhaps they lived in the wrong part of the county). I'd be interested in feedback from members with ancestors from the area.
I reported in my last newsletter how a member had a terrible experience at the Probate Office in London, and this prompted an email from another member who had a similar experience at the Liverpool Probate Office when a very small penknife was discovered on her keyring.
It's ironic that an 11 year-old boy can get on a plane from Manchester to Rome without a ticket, boarding pass, or passport (see this BBC news report), yet family historians get treated like terrorists!
Since my last newsletter less than two weeks ago nearly 200 more people have signed up as organ donors through the Save5 campaign, but I'm told that only 6 specifically mentioned that they'd heard about the campaign through this newsletter.
I'm sure that it isn't a true reflection of the numbers - do please mention LostCousins when you email Save5.
One of the biggest pitfalls for us researchers is our trust in authority - if we see an official document, we assume that it's correct. But the fact is, even government officials make mistakes - and that assumes they're given the right information in the first place!
We'd all like to believe that the birth, marriage, and death certificates we've acquired - at considerable expense - are always correct, but when it comes to marriage certificates that's very unlikely to be the case.
I'm not talking about modern certificates - the information on them has usually been verified - but 19th century certificates. Nowadays we have to prove our identity and our age (see this web page), but that hasn't always been the case.
In my experience the information most likely to confuse is the father's name and occupation. For example, when Gifford Few (the subject of my most recent challenge) got married his father was shown in the register as "William Few, Gentleman". From that description many entrants assumed that (a) he was a 'gentleman' and (b) he was still alive. In fact, neither seems to have been the case - he was a porter when he himself married in 1854, and there's no evidence that he was still alive in 1880 when his son married.
When the bride or groom's father is shown on the marriage certificate as 'deceased', then they probably are - but the fact that the word 'deceased' is missing doesn't mean they were still alive. It might, but then again, it might not.
Similarly, the occupation shown may not be a true reflection of how the person spent their working life. It's not only in modern times that people have changed careers - in the 19th century they had to take what work they could get. Of course, you won't usually see someone switching from one highly-skilled trade to another totally unrelated profession, but my great-great-great grandfather was a tailor in the 1851 Census, a pork butcher according to his daughter's marriage certificate in 1853, and a dock labourer on his death certificate in 1868!
But there's also a tendency to make the occupation somewhat grander than it really is: ag labs become farmers, and seamen become ships' captains; someone who has no occupation - perhaps because they are deceased - becomes a gentleman.
That's bad enough - but what if the name shown is wrong? It might be nothing more than the addition of a middle name - but it's not unusual for someone who was very young when their mother remarried to give the name of their stepfather (who may be the only father they can remember).
And what about illegitimacy? I've seen estimates that 10% of children born in Victorian times were illegitimate, but you won't see gaps in 10% of the marriage register entries - nobody would want to own up to being illegitimate on their wedding day.
Of course, many people didn't realise they were illegitimate - often a mother would invent a fanciful story to explain why a child had no father. Such stories may even have been supported by a photograph, perhaps of a soldier in uniform, or a sailor carrying his kitbag.
Always ask yourself the question, what would you have done in their position? Remember that illegitimacy and 'living in sin' were so stigmatised in Victorian times that unmarried mothers would usually wear a wedding ring.
Don’t fall for the argument "so-and-so was so religious, she would never have had an illegitimate child". Perhaps she was over-compensating for things she had done in her youth?
One of the key principles of quantum theory is that you can't ever know everything about a particle - the more you know about one aspect, the less you know about another.
In the 1930s the physicist Erwin Schrödinger created the paradox that you may know as Schrödinger's Cat, the cat in a box which is both dead and alive - until we open the box.
I try to think about family history in much the same way - I like to keep an open mind about whether the information I have is true. Most people believe what they want to believe, then selectively seek facts that will confirm their beliefs - whereas I aspire to a more open stance, seeking not only confirmation, but also denial.
This may be hard to achieve, but it’s nevertheless well worth trying. After all, the cost of making a mistake is very high - we could end up researching the wrong line entirely!
I don't have my tree online - for reasons that regular readers will be aware of - but I know that a number of members also use the Genes Reunited site to search for 'lost cousins'.
Recently I've had some emails about the changes they've made to their online tree - which it seems haven't met with universal approval. Now, since I don't have any personal experience I can't tell you whether the changes are good or bad - but I'd be interested to know what you think about them.
There have been over 300 entries for the July challenge, twice as many as for any other competition in the history of LostCousins!
About three-quarters of entrants found the right household, though not all of them came up with sufficiently convincing evidence. Remember, when you're researching your own tree you won't have someone to tell you when you hit upon the right answer, so finding evidence to support your hypothesis is absolutely crucial!
You can still send in your solution, but you won't be considered for the prize - the winner will be chosen from the entries received up to July 26. As you can imagine picking one winner from that many correct entries is a REAL challenge - but I'll let the winner know as soon as possible, and announce the result in my next newsletter.
Tip: don't stop looking for evidence when you find the first piece that supports your hypothesis- and be sure to look for evidence that disproves it as well. If you've watched as many crime dramas as I have you'll know how important it is to keep an open mind, even when there's an obvious culprit!
Breaking down 'brick walls' that have already been solved is the best possible training for breaking down the 'brick walls' in your own tree - because the techniques you learn can be applied to many different problems.
But finding great challenges isn't easy. Not only must they have been solved before, they must be solvable using only online resources in a finite time. And there mustn't be any 'spoilers', such as online trees that give the game away.
If you have broken down a 'brick wall' in your tree that you think might make a good challenge for other members who are seeking to hone their skills, please send me brief details.
Tip: if you have 'brick walls' that you haven't solved, why not share them with your cousins - sometimes a fresh pair of eyes will see things that you can't? You'd be amazed how many of the people who write to me asking for help haven't taken the obvious first step of completing their My Ancestors page so that I can link them with the members who are their cousins!
This where any last minute amendments will be recorded or highlighted.
I've been so busy dealing with all the entries to the Gifford Few challenge that I haven't been able to compile my usual Peter's Tips column - but don't worry, it will be back in the next issue!
© Copyright 2012 Peter Calver
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