Newsletter - 9 September 2012
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I have received a detailed response to the Freedom of Information request I submitted last month, and it makes interesting reading. The full document should be available on the Home Office website shortly, but here are the important points:
Note: it's worth remembering that even if the project had been completed, the GRO had no plans to put the registers online (as they are for Scotland). The digitisation project was undertaken for the convenience of the GRO, not the convenience of users like you and me!
It's hard to imagine that the GRO would spend £25 million or more in order to realise a saving of just under £1 million at a time when government departments are under pressure to cut their expenditure. So if they continue to look at the problem in the same way that they have until now, it's unlikely we'll ever get what we want.
But as you'll know if you tackled the challenges I've set in my recent newsletters, solving problems often requires lateral thinking. In fact, in my very first challenge there's an example of how the GRO could solve their problem!
You may recall that the June challenge focused on the family of a builder called George Long. When he died in 1915 he left £12,770 - a fortune for those days - even though he had a large family and an estranged wife to support. Judging from the way that the family moved around it seems that like most Victorian builders he would build a few houses at a time, then use the proceeds from their sale to build some more.
How can we relate what George Long did to what the GRO ought to do next? The first thing is to recognise that the partially digitized records are a valuable asset, rather like an empty plot of land - the second is to figure out how that asset can be built upon using only the limited resources available, so that it can generate a profit.
Let's step back for a moment. Right now, when you or I want to find a birth, marriage, or death that took place in England or Wales, the first thing we do is look up the GRO indexes - whether at FreeBMD, Ancestry, findmypast, or one of the many other sites that have online copies. Clearly the GRO doesn't get any return when we use the indexes at FreeBMD, but it might surprise you to know that they don't get paid even when we look up the records at subscription or pay-per-view sites. This means that currently their only source of revenue is the sale of certificates - and whilst we may think of them as expensive, the fact is that right now the GRO barely covers its costs, so there's little or no profit to fund new projects.
Would you invest in a venture like that - a business with only one, barely-profitable, source of revenue? I certainly wouldn't - and yet as UK taxpayers we have invested over £8 million in a digitization project that was put on indefinite hold when it was barely halfway through. There must be a better way of doing things!
George Long wouldn't have built a row of half-finished houses - he'd have built half as many in the first place and finish them before the money ran out, so that he could sell them and use the proceeds to develop the rest of the land. I bet you that if he was around today his advice to Sarah Rapson, the Registrar General, would be "Forget the rest of the records for now - focus on generating income from the work that's already been done, because that income will help pay for the rest of the project."
I'd pay to search a more detailed index, wouldn't you? And I'm sure that Ancestry and findmypast would fight tooth and nail to get an exclusive contract, rather like two buyers who have fallen in love with the same house and are each determined to outbid the other. (That's something that George Long would definitely have understood!)
It would be so easy for one of the big genealogy websites to turn the data that has been collected into an index because they already have the infrastructure. But think of the enormous benefits it would bring to family historians - so many 'brick walls' would come tumbling down if the age at death was in the indexes from 1837, rather than from 1866, and if we could search the death indexes by the name of the informant, or the birth indexes by the place of birth. And, particularly when you think about the births that were registered with no forename, wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to search for births using the parents' names?
Once the GRO has a new source of revenue it will be possible to recommence digitizing and transcribing the remaining records. I'd suggest they start with the early marriages rather than finishing off the births and deaths, because there's so much potential for family historians to solve mysteries and fill gaps in their family tree by searching on the father's name and occupation, or the names of witnesses.
It's such a good idea that there has to be a catch - and I already know what it is. The GRO will claim that they don't have statutory authority for what I'm proposing, even though it's only a small step from what many local registrars are already doing.
But will that prevent it happening? I can't believe that the government will let the GRO's obsession with red tape put paid to a sound project that will not only generate revenue for the GRO without any up-front investment, but also provide employment for British workers. They might even hope to get a few extra votes from grateful family historians in 2015!
Last month the Irish Ombudsman issued a damning condemnation of the restrictions imposed by the GRO Ireland on access to the registers of births, marriages, and deaths.
You can read her report here; whilst it isn't directly relevant to the situation in England & Wales, it certainly illustrates the increasing tension between family historians and the civil registration authorities.
Knowing what to believe and what not to believe often makes the difference between knocking down a 'brick wall' and knocking our head against it. In recent newsletters I've written about the likelihood that some of the information on a marriage certificate is incorrect - but this time I'd like to turn to censuses.
The information on the 1911 Census is certainly more reliable than on previous censuses - after all, we can see our ancestors' handwriting, so the possibility of errors introduced by the enumerator has been eliminated - but it's still riddled with errors. Some of them are the result of carelessness or low levels of literacy, and some can no doubt be attributed to a poor memory, but others must be a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Where incorrect information has been provided deliberately, whether on a certificate or a census form, the first question I'd want to ask is "Who was it intended to fool?". If the bride or groom knocks a few years off their age does this mean that they've lied to the person they're marrying, or is it simply intended to stop others - parents, friends, the vicar - commenting on the age gap?
The other day I came across a census form on which the head of household had written the precise birthdate of every member (other than his stepson, whose birthday he clearly couldn't remember). Does that make the information provided more or less believable?
I suspect that, like me, you'd be more likely to believe someone who gave their birthdate as June 14, 1851 than someone who merely said that they were 60 years old on the day of the census. But Robert Scattergood, who provided both pieces of information when he completed his census form in 1911 was lying - neither his age nor his birthdate was correct (he was actually born in 1846).
Note: if you want to look up the household the references are PN9657 SN486.
It wasn't only Robert's own age that was wrong: he said that his unmarried daughter Jane Beatrice Scattergood was 33 years old, having been born on February 22, 1878 - but in fact she was born in 1874 (as you can see from the 1891 census, where she was a visitor in the Stowers household).
In 1903 Robert Scattergood, a widower twice over, married Cecile Marion Bunnett, a widow. I strongly suspect that he lied to her, both about his own age and that of his daughter Jane, because he was worried about the age difference. When Robert and Cecile married she was just 34, whilst Robert was approaching his 57th birthday - and daughter Jane's real age was 29, only 5 years younger than Robert's new bride.
Clearly this pretence had to be kept up in 1911 - Cecile was bound to see the census form, as Robert would be out at work when the enumerator came calling - and since when Robert died in 1920 the age shown on his death certificate was just 70, it seems likely that Cecile never found out the truth.
Postscript: a few months after the 1911 census Jane Beatrice Scattergood married Leonard J Bigington, who at 30 was 7 years younger than she was. However, I'm fairly sure he didn't know that, because when she died in late 1947 her age was recorded as 70 years.
Note: the key lesson from this example is that the inclusion of precise birthdates didn't make them any more accurate. The accuracy was spurious.
Many of the genuine mistakes in the 1911 census were the result of confusion resulting from the new questions - the fertility census. Several of my ancestors made the same mistake as Robert Scattergood, and entered the answers opposite their own name, rather than their wife's - and one of them gave the figures for both his marriages, which was very helpful as it confirmed my suspicion that his first wife had given birth to children who died in infancy.
Earlier this week a LostCousins member asked me to take a look at the 1911 census schedule for the Wright family of Leeds (PN26957 SN130), because she couldn't work out who the final two members of the household were. It didn't take me long to figure it out - how about you?
Tip: you won't find this census schedule at Ancestry using the references I've quoted because they have omitted the Schedule Number from their transcription. But you will find it by searching on the Piece Number and the family's surname..
I'm continuing to receive examples of marriage certificates with errors - and, of course, these are only the ones that were eventually untangled by the members concerned (there must be many more which are still unresolved).
Mary told me about an error on her own mother's certificate:
My mother married in 1946 and often commented that her marriage certificate was 'wrong' as it stated that my paternal grandfather was deceased. This was clearly not the case as he appears in the wedding photos and in one he is stood next to the vicar who must have been having a bad day, as he knew Grandpa personally. Two years ago a friend met my mother and asked mother why she had never had the certificate corrected. Mother's response was that she was too embarrassed.
Although I had to jump through a few hoops including an appeal to the Registrar General I did manage to get a correction comment on the certificate before Mum passed away.
Well done, Mary! By the way, there's an example of a corrected certificate later in this newsletter.
John wrote to me with two examples from his tree, one from Scotland and one from Wales:
My grandfather was a Police Inspector in Glasgow. When my grandmother died in Dec 1934, the family lore is that Granddad Simpson told his daughter Daisy, who was then 18, that she now had the job of being the woman of the house. By all accounts Daisy was quite headstrong, so she declined the proposition and left home!
Nine months later (Sep 1935) Daisy then married Daniel O'Brien in Glasgow. She describes her father wrongly as "John Simpson, Law Clerk (deceased)" but her mother correctly as "Janet Simpson, m.s. Guthrie (deceased)". Presumably this was because of the fall-out with her father, and perhaps because she did not want word getting back to him that she was marrying - especially as I suspect Daniel may have been a Roman Catholic, which would not have gone down well with my grandfather.
Sadly, Daisy's marriage cannot have lasted, as in Dec 1936 she married Ali Mohammed. Again, her parents were named as "John Simpson" (no mention of his being deceased!) and "Janet Simpson m.s. Guthrie (deceased)". Unfortunately, Daisy seems not to have divorced Daniel before marrying Ali, describing herself as "Daisy Simpson, Spinster". Inevitably, in 1940 she was sentenced to one month's imprisonment for bigamy, and her marriage to Ali was nullified by the Sheriff Court!
By then Daisy seems to have been estranged from most of her family, and I have found no trace of her for the next 40 years. I believe that she died in Leeds in 1980 under the name Daisy Coleman, as the death registration shows the maiden surname (Simpson) with date and place of birth (about July 1916, Scotland) - this corresponds to "my" Daisy Simpson and to no other Scottish birth of the time. However, I have not found any record of her marriage to the informant (Thomas Coleman) so perhaps she had decided twice
was enough. (Or possibly there are some other wrong certificates out there ........!)
(2) My great-grandfather was William Golding Marsh (1840-1921). He was born in Wiltshire, but seems to have moved to Wales in the early 1860s, probably for work reasons. He married my Great-Grandmother Mary Perry in Apr 1865 in Abersychan, Monmouthshire, and they subsequently moved to Barrow-in-Furness, which was then developing as an industrial town drawing people from all over the UK.
However, the Certified Copy of the 1865 Marriage Registration, and all references in GRO Indices, BMD searches etc, show that he was married under the name of William Marsh Golding! He does seem to have signed it as that himself (at least there is nothing on the Copy to suggest otherwise) but Mary and the two witnesses made their marks, so possibly William's literacy was not great. Perhaps a look at the actual document in the local Register Office might throw more light on what happened.
Because William was in Wiltshire in 1861 but in Barrow-in-Furness in 1871, it took a bit of lateral thinking to discover that he had got married in Wales in 1865! Fortunately the subsequent censuses show his eldest daughter Elizabeth as having been born in 1865 in Trevethin, Monmouthshire, which allowed me to search for Mary Perry's marriage (without using William's surname) and this brought up the marriage registered in Pontypool.
It's not just marriage certificates that can be wrong - my grandfather was always known as Harry John Buxton Calver (Buxton was his mother's maiden name), but in the GRO indexes and on the copy of his birth certificate that I obtained from the GRO his forenames are recorded as Harry Buxton John. Was it a mistake at the time of registration, or did the registrar make a mistake when copying the entry for the GRO? It will cost me £10 to find out!
As I've recently written a series of articles about the frequency of errors on certificates, especially marriage certificates, I was very interested to receive the following note from a former Church of England clergyman (who asked me to state that it's possible there have been some changes in procedure since his retirement). I'm sure you'll find it as interesting as I did.
1.† When a clergyman takes the details from a prospective bride and groom he can only record what they tell him.† He may use his noddle and query this or that, but in the end it is their responsibility to speak truthfully - if they know the truth.† The system of Banns and Licences, and the questions to the bride and groom during the ceremony, are an attempt to verify the ability of the two parties to be married, for this very reason.† As are, or were, the restrictions on the time of day - we must be able to see the bride and groom to check that they are who they say they are.
2.† The clergyman may make errors when filling in the registers (technically this should not be done until after the ceremony, but in my experience is usually done beforehand unless for some reason the Registrar is present and does the job him or herself).† There are set procedures for correcting mistakes.
3.† The church is issued with two registers which are kept in parallel.† I had to deal with a case in which the register entries for a given marriage (officiated by my predecessor) were different.† The Registrar made me interview the witnesses (who were fortunately obtainable) to ascertain the correct information.† It was time consuming, and then difficult to achieve the necessary corrections in the registers themselves.† And people wonder what clergy do all day!
4.† Many clergy seem to have and to have had, a cavalier attitude to the keeping of registers - "I was not ordained to be a civil servant" sort of thing.† I have had to deal with registers which were an illegible disgrace.† Church registers are never inspected by any outside authority, and they should be on a regular basis.† Once I realised the foregoing during my first curacy, I wrote in the registers in BLOCK capitals - and wrote along a ruler as draughtsmen do, and when I see registers now available on Ancestry I am eternally grateful that I did this and kept it up all through my register writing days.
5.† The records kept by the GRO come from the quarterly returns sent in by the clergy.† So, if you have a clergyman, or woman who cannot write legibly [when] copying his or her own entries of the past three months, the opportunities for error are immense.
There are procedures for correcting errors, but it's rare to come across a certificate which incorporates such changes, so when John sent me a copy of a certificate from his family tree I knew at once that other readers would be interested in seeing it:
Was the bride unaware of her true origins? This seems unlikely, as on the 1911 Census there's an Emily Croucher aged 17 living with her parents William and Emily, but working as a domestic servant. Could she have been employed by a family called Novelle, I wonder?
Note: in the 1891 Census her father is recorded as John W Croucher. His occupation is General Labourer in both years.
Why did she choose to marry under a different name? Was she trying to conceal the marriage from her parents? In 1911 2 Apple Market, the address she gave, was a confectionery shop, occupied by the proprietor and an assistant - so it seems likely she had left home and was making a new start.
However there are many unanswered questions. What prompted the decision to set matters right in 1928? And who was Edmund James Kirke, the co-signatory of the Statutory Declaration?
Where did the Novelle surname come from? It is quite a rare surname, mostly found as Novell, although I noticed that many of the occurrences on the 1901 Census are in Surrey or Sussex. If the surname had been invented by the bride herself, what was she trying to hide? And is it a coincidence that it was in 1914 that the composer Ivor Novello became famous with the publication of Keep the Home Fires Burning? (By the way - it wasn't his real name, either.)
This isn't a competition, but if you can shed some light onto this mystery, do please let me know!
Quite a few of my ancestors were baptised or married at the parish church of St George-in-the-East in †London's East End, but it was quite by chance that I discovered a wonderful introduction to the registers† on the church's own website.
Whether or not your ancestors come from London you'll find that it provides a fascinating insight into register entries, including what might go wrong. For example, it highlights three instances in 1857-58 where the vicar refused to carry out a marriage on the grounds that the groom was planning to marry his dead wife's sister - a prohibition that was not lifted until 1907 - and there are other examples of marriages that didn't take place.
It also discusses the mistakes that were made, and later corrected. For example, at the marriage in 1856 of William Keith and Matilda Bentley, the groom's father was named as Thomas Keith - but in 1868 the register was corrected in the presence of the couple to reflect his correct name, which was William.
What's particularly fascinating about this guide is that you can look up the register pages online and see for yourself what happened (they are part of the London Metropolitan Archives collection at Ancestry). There are two parts to the guide: you'll find the first part here and the second part here.
This week Ancestry added the Dorset Tithe Apportion and Maps Collection, which covers the period 1835-1850. Even if, like me, you don't have any family connections with Dorset it's an opportunity to discover how tithe maps might help you in your research.
Meanwhile Ancestry are hard at work digitizing the parish registers held by the Surrey History Centre in Woking; this project will eventually expand to include other records, including land tax records, and electoral registers.
Although there has been no official announcement, a LostCousins member was told recently by a Customer Services representative that findmypast.co.uk would "probably" offer a worldwide subscription this autumn.
This would be a very welcome enhancement - whilst the Pioneer subscription at the US-based findmypast.com website was so cheap that I bought one myself, I haven't found the US site nearly as easy to use as the UK site.
Tip: you can find the latest news on the findmypast.co.uk website by following this link.
We all know that we shouldn't publish a family tree that includes living people unless we have the express permission of each and every one of them, but it can be very tedious removing the relevant data.
Fortunately there is a free program called Res Privata which will do it for you, and whilst the program is no longer available from the author's website, you can still download it here.
Another challenge is to separate the part of your tree that's relevant to a particular cousin from the rest (handing over a complete tree to every putative cousin greatly increases the risk that your data could fall into the wrong hands). I don't know of any free program that will do this, but I am able to do it quickly and easily using Genopro, the family tree program that I've been using since 2002. There's an article and a brief example of the program in action in my April 2011 newsletter, which you can read by clicking here (the discount for LostCousins members mentioned in the article is still valid, by the way).
It continually amazes me how many researchers, even some who are quite experienced, rely on an online tree instead of having a family tree program that runs on their own computer. Even if you're prepared to accept the risks of storing your data online, no online tree program is as fast, easy to use, or powerful as a program that runs on your own computer.
Tip: if you have an online tree you should be able to download it as a Gedcom file - all good family tree programs will import or export Gedcom files.
Findmypast.co.uk and Grant's have got together to offer 85 free credits worth £10 for anyone who buys a bottle of Grant's whisky with the special promotional label.
A Scottish fisherman has set a new world record by finding a message in a bottle 98 years after it was released - see this BBC News article for more details.
Although I've never put a message in a bottle, I'm always hanging onto things that one day will give someone else an insight into my life - the latest addition is my Paralympics ticket. What are you keeping to interest and intrigue the family historians of the future?
Continuing the nautical theme, I don't think I've previously mentioned Lloyd's Captains Registers, which give details of merchant sea captains and the voyages they undertook. The registers are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but there's some useful information in the online index that you'll find here.
The solution to this 'brick wall' is online now - you'll find it here. However, if you haven't yet tested your research skills on this problem, why not read the article in my last newsletter and have a go? Remember that the only way to get better at knocking down 'brick walls' is to do it!
Note: I was interested to learn that Philip Sankey, who baptised Mary Pike, is a relative of LostCousins member Sue. It just goes to show that you can make all sorts of connections through LostCousins!
My article in the last newsletter was about mothers whose names appeared in marriage registers where the father's name should have been, but it prompted Jackie to tell me about her great grandfather whose first name was Lily! Now, I've come across Lupin before, and there's a male character called Lavender in the book I've just finished reading, but Lily? It wasn't even a temporary aberration - he gave the same name to one of his sons, and two of his grandsons were also called Lily.
Hampshire Genealogical Society's Open Day on Sunday 30 September offers free admission, numerous stands, and the chance to hear Mark Bayley (of The Genealogist) talking about 'Breaking down brick walls', and Celia Heritage (professional genealogist, lecturer, and LostCousins member) on the topic of 'How far did your ancestors travel?'. For more details of the Open Day click here.
Incidentally, I notice that Celia has a new 5-week course starting on Thursday 27 September entitled 'Building your family tree'. Whilst it's aimed primarily at beginners, I suspect a few slightly more experienced researchers will be attracted by the offer of one year's support. The course takes place at Tenterden, Kent, and you can find more details of this and other courses here.
A pilot project carried out by the National Archives has shed doubt on the feasibility of digitizing and indexing the World War 2 records of the Home Guard, the civil defence organisation that inspired the classic BBC comedy series Dad's Army.
As many as half the records may relate to personnel who were born less than 100 years ago, which would mean that publication would contravene the Data Protection Act. In Durham, the area chosen for the pilot, half the volunteers were under 27, and 28% were under 19.
The simplest solution is to delay the project for 10 years - but this would deprive family historians of the opportunity to access the other 50% of the records. Let's hope that one of the big genealogy companies is prepared to take a long-term view and digitize the records now.
You may have come across headstones with photographs of the deceased built-in, but according to a news report in the Guardian newspaper, the latest fad is to have QR codes that provide an instant obituary for anyone with a smartphone.
Another whacky proposal was put forward nearly 200 years ago - architect Thomas Willson proposed building a mausoleum in the shape of a pyramid 94 storeys high on London's Primrose Hill. Willson reckoned that, with space for 5 million bodies, the mausoleum would solve London's shortage of burial grounds for ever. Projected to cost just £2500 to build, Willson reckoned the mausoleum would make a profit of £10 million when full - but the plan was abandoned in 1829 when Highgate Cemetery was opened. You can read more about Willson's plans here.
In my last newsletter I wrote about the scandalous attempt by Santander to backtrack on a promise it had made to 230,000 small businesses in the UK of "free banking - forever".
After two months of not listening to its customers, the bank finally climbed down on Thursday, no doubt prompted by the potential cost of handling 230,000 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which at £500 each in administration fees could have cost them well over £100 million, quite apart from the time, effort, and loss of goodwill.
The fact that thousands of very small businesses were able to overcome one very large one reminds me not only of the way that Gulliver was tied up in knots by the Lilliputians, but also of the battle between family historians and the General Register Office.
There is one difference, however - what's good for family historians could also be good for the GRO, if only they would see things from a different perspective. They have chosen to tie themselves up in red tape, as the response to my Freedom of Information request makes clear.
†On Monday I was at the Paralympics watching Wheelchair Tennis, and was fortunate enough to bump into Andy Lapthorne, one of the top British players, on my way out of the Olympic Park. Unfortunately Andy had to settle for a Silver medal this time, but I'm sure he'll collect many Gold medals in the future - he's only 21. Coincidentally Andy and I support the same football team, and he lives in the London suburb where I lived in the early 80s - all the more reason then, for him to autograph my ticket!
But whilst the tennis was very exciting, I had other things on my mind - I was two-thirds of the way through In the Blood, a crime mystery based in Cornwall and featuring genealogist Jefferson Tayte.
Every time the players changed ends I'd read another page on my smartphone (using the free Kindle app), but it wasn't until the journey home that I finally reached the end. I can't remember the last time I read a book that I found impossible to put down, and now the challenge will be to delay reading the follow-up, To the Grave, until the next time I take a long aeroplane flight. That is a tough one!!!!
One of the benefits of reading Kindle books on my smartphone is that they're in colour, rather than the black and white of a standard Kindle. So it's quite a coincidence that as I was writing this newsletter Amazon announced three new Kindles, all of which have 7in colour touchscreens and can be used as tablet computers. Even the most expensive UK model is under £200, although in the US they have a model coming out with a larger screen (no doubt that will be more expensive if it ever arrives over here).
I'm not going to be rushing out to buy one because my Kindle Keyboard 3G is absolutely perfect for taking on holiday. The brighter the sunshine the easier it is to read (so I'm more likely to be wearing sunglasses than reading glasses), and it offers free worldwide Internet access, something that no other device offers, certainly none of the other Kindles. It has saved me a fortune in data roaming charges since I've had it, and it's also a useful backup when I'm in the UK but can't get a signal on my phone. True, the 'experimental browser' is a little clunky, and doesn't support multiple windows, but it's perfectly adequate for checking my Gmail or the weather forecast.
Anyway, back to In the Blood - you can buy the paperback here, but it's a LOT cheaper to go for the Kindle version - the current price is just £1.60, and if you go to Amazon.co.uk by clicking one of the links in this newsletter LostCousins will receive about 8p in commission (we'll also get commission on anything else you buy during the same visit). By the way, you don't need a Kindle, a tablet or a smartphone - you can read Kindle books on any PC by downloading the free Kindle for PC or Kindle for Mac software.
Talking of Amazon, Gina in Canada wrote to tell me how she saves a fortune on postage by buying Christmas presents for her relatives in the UK at Amazon.co.uk - and for a small extra charge they'll even wrap and label them (see here for details of this service). I also discovered recently that when you order from Amazon.co.uk you can get free Super Saver delivery to several European countries provided that the value of the delivery if more than £25 (since the eligible destinations include Spain and Portugal it could be a cheap way to send Christmas or Birthday presents to expat relatives).
11/9/12 The Irish Ombudsman is actually an Ombudswoman (sorry, Emily).
I hope you've found this newsletter interesting - if so, instead of writing to tell me, why not use those few minutes to add some more entries to your My Ancestors page? LostCousins exists to link researchers who share the same ancestors - and I can't do it without your help!
© Copyright 2012 Peter Calver
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