Newsletter – 29th July 2020
The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 23rd July) click here; to find earlier articles use the customised Google search between this paragraph and the next (it searches ALL of the newsletters since February 2009, so you don't need to keep copies):
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I discovered today that Ancestry are now quoting 'late August' as the changeover date for their new DNA matching, which will – amongst other changes – exclude segments of below 8cM, and this eliminate matches where only 6cM or 7cM is shared.
It's an opportunity for Ancestry users to investigate and/or save their smallest matches by adding notes, sending messages, or adding them to a group. Of course, a significant proportion will be spurious matches (which is one of the reasons Ancestry plans to remove them), and there will be many that don't have tress, or have very small trees that are of little practical use.
The best way to save the matches that might make a difference is to follow the two key strategies outlined in my DNA Masterclass, then add a note to those matches that might be of future interest..
I'm glad to say that, to the best of my knowledge, none of my extended family have been infected by the novel coronavirus, but it would be too much to hope that all of the 68,000 readers of this newsletter could say the same.
Nevertheless, we know that family historians are less likely to suffer from dementia – I wonder whether the same might be true of coronavirus? I'd like to think that we're more thoughtful, and hence more likely to take precautions than the average member of the population – but is that just wishful thinking?
Note: I read this week that bald men are more likely to be hospitalised – thank goodness I don’t take after my father in that respect.
We tend to use the terms 'maiden name' and 'birth name' interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference – someone's maiden name is the name they were using immediately prior to their first marriage, which isn’t necessary the one they were given at birth.
One reason for the confusion may be the way that the French word 'née' (literally 'born') is sometimes used as a synonym for 'maiden name'. Of course, most of the time people do use the same name between birth and marriage, which is perhaps why we can be lulled into a false sense of security – and why we're sometimes unable to find an ancestor's birth registration. You may recall that in the last newsletter I wrote about my relative who is recorded as Florence Bright Harris in the birth indexes, but as Florence Bright in the marriage indexes, her parents having married 3 years after her birth.
As I've had a number of emails recently from members unable to find their own relatives' birth registrations I thought it would be a good idea to update my Masterclass on finding birth certificates…..
Note: this Masterclass focuses primarily on England & Wales but many of the principles can be applied in other countries
It's very frustrating when we 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
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. Many of our ancestors, especially females, were known by pet names: Betty, Molly, Polly, Peggy, Fanny, Lottie, and Nell are some of the most common.
And sometimes a birth was registered without a name – not every entry in the birth indexes that appears merely as 'Male' or 'Female' relates to a child who died shortly after birth (though sadly many do). Although it was possible to amend a birth register entry to reflect a change of name at baptism, most people seem not to have bothered – which is why almost all birth certificates have a diagonal line drawn through the box in column 10.
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). In another family the children (and there were lots of them) were all known by their middle names. Sometimes our ancestors' memories played tricks - my great uncle was registered as plain 'Fred', but in the 1911 Census his own father gave his name as Frederick.
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.
A relative of mine named Emerson Read, gave his son the name Emerson Cornwall Read, presumably in homage to Emerson Cornwall, a local dignatory – and in later records (as well as many family trees) the father retrospectively acquired the middle name Cornwall.
A middle name that looks like a surname is often a useful clue
If the mother of an illegitimate child wanted the father's surname to be shown on the child's birth certificate the only way to do this was to name the child after the father. However that doesn't mean that everyone who has a surname as their middle name was illegitimate – often it was a way of remembering a family surname.
My grandfather was Harry John Buxton Calver – his mother's maiden name was Buxton; however I don’t have any other Buxton ancestors, because my great-grandmother was the illegitimate child of a widow.
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 indexed under the mother's surname (which might or might not be the name she acquired at birth); the main exception is where the mother was using the father's surname and failed to disclose to the registrar that they weren't married. In the early days of civil registration some illegitimate births were indexed under the surnames of both parents (the examples I've seen are from the 1840s), but this anomaly was corrected when the GRO recompiled the indexes in the 21st century. In modern times many births are indexed under more than one surname.
Tip: comparing the entry (or entries) in the quarterly birth indexes against the corresponding entry in the latest GRO indexes can be instructive.
Surname spellings were not fixed in the 19th century, and some continued to change in the 20th century (the spelling of my grandmother's surname changed between her birth in 1894 and her marriage in 1915). Many surnames of foreign origin changed around the time of the First World War - even the Royal Family changed their name.
Note: don't confuse multiple index entries with multiple registrations – the fact that an event appears more than once in an index doesn’t mean that it is recorded more than once in the register.
You're looking for the wrong
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 well 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).
If the groom's name is the same as the name given for his father you should be especially wary - when you're struggling to find a birth it is a strong hint that the father isn’t who the marriage register says he is. However it might only be the surname that's wrong - illegitimate sons were often named after their putative father.
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 (few mothers are going to forget where they were when they gave birth!), but could well be incorrect after leaving home. Many people simply didn't know where they were born, and assumed it was the place where 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. Enumerators also made mistakes, and sometimes added extra information - for example, my great-great grandmother was born in Lee, Kent but the 1851 Census shows her as born in Leith, Scotland. Clearly the enumerator could have misheard 'Lee' as 'Leith', but he wouldn't have mistaken 'Kent' for 'Scotland'. Another common error made by enumerators was to switch the birthplaces of the head of household and his wife.
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 majority (21 until 1970). Sometimes people didn't know how old they were, or knew which year they were born but bungled the subtraction; ages on death certificates can be little more than guesses, or may be based on an incorrect age shown on the deceased's marriage certificate. 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 in reality at least one of them was under 21 (it was only very recently that vicars were given the power to require evidence of age and identity). Where there was a big difference between the actual ages of the parties the ages were often adjusted to make the gap appear smaller.
The birth was not registered at all
This is the least likely situation, but it did happen occasionally - most often in the first few years of registration, though it wasn't until 1875 that there was a penalty for failing to register a birth. To be certain that a birth wasn't registered you would need to have almost as much information as would be shown on a birth certificate – so for practical purposes it's a possibility you can safely ignore.
It is possible that a birth was registered, but that the registrar did not forward the information to the General Register Office; there are local indexes available for some areas (check the county Resources page at the LostCousins Forum)..
The GRO indexes are wrong
This is also quite rare, but did happen occasionally - despite the checks that were carried out. Fortunately the indexes that the GRO made available on their website in November 2016 were compiled from scratch, so most indexing errors will have been eliminated (although inevitably some new ones were introduced). Tens of thousands of entries are known to be missing from the new indexes.
Tip: check both old and new indexes – both are available free online.
The GRO indexes have been mistranscribed
Transcription errors can prevent you finding the entry you’re looking for - so don’t confine your searching to a single website (none of them is perfect). Bear in mind that the indexes at Ancestry for the period up to 1915 were provided by FreeBMD, so you’re likely to get the same results from both sites, although FreeBMD will have included some corrections that aren't reflected in the Ancestry database. Similarly the indexes at FamilySearch were provided by Findmypast.
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.
If you know who your ancestor's siblings were, can you find them in the birth indexes? If not, then consider the possibility that the parents were unmarried.
Obtain all the information that you can from censuses, certificates, baptism entries and other sources (such as Army records). The GRO's new birth indexes show the mother's maiden name from the start of civil registration - the contemporary indexes only include this information from July 1911 onwards. And don’t assume that the same information will be shown in the baptism register as in the birth register - if the birth was registered before the baptism the forenames could be different. (As I mentioned earlier, whilst it was possible to update the birth entry following the baptism this rarely happened.)
Make use of free searches - the GRO's online index of historic births is completely free, though the search options are very limited, with very poor fuzzy-matching. Furthermore, although maiden names are included from 1837 onwards you can’t search on maiden name only. Findmypast offers much better search options, and you probably won’t need a subscription because a free search provides a lot of information. Although maiden names currently aren't recorded for every birth between 1837-1911, the fact that you can search by maiden name alone is incredibly useful.
The less information you can find, the more likely it is that the little you already have is incorrect or misleading in some way. For example, if you can't find your ancestor on ANY censuses prior to his or her 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. Around half of the 19th century marriage certificates I've seen include at least one error, and as many as half of all census entries are also 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.
Some people really were named Tom, Dick, or Harry but over-eager record-keepers might assume that they were actually Thomas, Richard and Henry. My grandfather was Harry, but according to his army records he was Henry (just as well he had two other forenames - which were recorded correctly - otherwise I might never have found him).
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 looking up the index entry for a sibling to find out the mother's maiden name; often discovering when the parents married is a vital clue (but don't believe what it says on the 1911 Census - the years of marriage shown may have been adjusted for the sake of propriety).
If you can't find your ancestor on any 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. Tempting as it is to hold on to clues when you have so few of them, sometimes you can only succeed by letting go, and starting from scratch.
Make use of local BMD indexes where they exist (UKBMD links to most local indexes), and don't forget to 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 later discovered (after many years of fruitless searching) was his mother. Her maiden name wasn't Salter, by the way - nor was it Harrison - and it was only because the Salter name stuck in my mind that I managed to knock down the 'brick wall'. Another marriage witness with a surname I didn't recognise proved invaluable when I was struggling with my Smith line - he turned up as a lodger in the census, helping me to prove that I was looking at the same family on two successive censuses, even though the names and ages of the children didn't tally, and the father had morphed from a carpenter to a rag merchant.
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'.
Even when you find the birth certificate the information might not be correct; for example, if the child is the youngest in a large family consider the possibility that the mother shown on the certificate was actually the child's grandmother (see this article for an example). When a birth was registered by one parent the name of the other parent could only be recorded in the register if the parents were married (or claimed to be married); as a result some births registered by the mother named the wrong father, and (more rarely) some births registered by the father named the wrong mother. You can see another example of a birth certificate which names the wrong mother here.
Finally, do you really, really need that birth certificate? Birth certificates are a luxury that – with few exceptions - is only available for births after the introduction of civil registration in England & Wales in 1837 (it was 1855 in Scotland, 1864 in Ireland), so you’re going to have to do most of your research without them.
There's nothing quite like breaking down a 'brick wall' to provide us with the inspiration and enthusiasm to knock down some more. Marilyn in Australia wrote to me many years ago with a simple question about birth certificates, but one thing led to another, and a couple of hours later Marilyn's 'brick wall' came tumbling down!
How would you like to test your skill and judgment by tackling the same 'brick wall'? All you have to do is find the GRO index entry for the birth of Marilyn's grandfather, starting with the same information that she gave me.
"I am having difficulty locating BMD records for my Long family in London about 1850-1920 - my grandfather, born in 1896, came to Sydney in 1920. I have obtained likely looking [birth] certificates from the GRO only to find it is the wrong person.
"My grandfather was Frederick Leonard Long, born possibly on 31 Oct 1896 (or between Aug 1896 and Aug 1897). His parents were George, a builder (born Kensington), and Emily (born Notting Hill); I'm trying to find her maiden name.
"My grandfather's [Australian] death certificate says he was born at Ealing and it says that on the 1901 census too.
"My grandfather's siblings were George Solomon, Elizabeth, Lillian, John, and Rose. The family may have been Jewish. On my grandfather's death certificate it has his father's name as Emmanuel (but it shows George on John's death certificate) and John's death certificate also has his forenames as John Levi. In the 1911 census Rose is Rose Annie but I may have found her 1896 birth as Rose Edie.
"It was only in the 1901 Census that I found the whole family... I can only find Lillian and Rose in 1911 - I can't find either parent or the other children. It is very frustrating!"
You can solve this mystery using nothing but free websites such as FreeBMD.
Knocking down 'brick walls' is fun and rewarding - even when it's someone else's tree - because the experience you gain will lead to even greater achievements in the future! This challenge previously featured in this newsletter in 2012 and 2018, but since thousands of readers wouldn’t have been members then I thought it was worth reprinting. There are no prizes for the correct answer - and you'll know when you've found it, so there's no need to write in.
Tip: solving other peoples' problems is much easier than solving your own, but it isn’t because your 'brick walls' are higher and more impenetrable – it’s because it's harder to be objective when you’re researching your own family.
Sometimes there are people on the fringes of our family tree who seem to be insignificant and uninteresting – until we look closer. This blog article tells the story of one of them.
This week the Ministry of Justice announced that wills made in England & Wales between January 2020 and January 2022 will be legally valid where the signing of the will by the testator was witnessed over a video link (which would [presumably include Skype, Zoom, Facetime etc). There is more information in this article on the BBC News website.
From next week the Society of Genealogists library will be opening to members only on Tuesdays and one Saturday per month – you'll find more details here.
Although the library is opening only for members, there's an extensive programme of online talks that are open to all, and a few of them are free. If you haven’t used Zoom before it’s a chance to discover how easy it is.
Note: there are some interesting talks here on the BALH website – you can view the slides and notes even if you’re not a member.
How worried should we be about the risk that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be transmitted through books and magazines? The REALM project is primarily intended to support museums and libraries, but the findings might also help family history societies to decide when and how to re-open their libraries.
Last week the project published results of testing that investigated how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus remained detectable on a range of paper and card items. You'll find a brief summary of the results here, but a detailed test report (in PDF format) here.
Further testing is under way, and more results should be available in early August.
It's funny what we remember from our youth – and what we forget. The Lets Look Again website has a wealth of information on products and the firms that made them – fascinating!
Findmypast have released an unusual collection of transcribed records – a recently discovered cache of pawnbroker tickets from Coventry for the years 1915-1923. Some readers will undoubtedly find their relatives in the records – but even you have no family connections with the area you'll find it fascinating to look through the records. Follow this link to find out more.
The gift that doesn't keep on giving
I like giving money to good causes – it gives me pleasure. They don’t have to be charities for me to get that nice warm feeling – there are some organisations that deserve to be supported, because what they're doing is important, because it's helping society. But it wouldn't be nearly as pleasurable if money disappeared from my bank account every year without me having the option to change my mind..
I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way, but I know that very many do - and that's why, when a LostCousins member chooses to support my project to connect cousins who are researching the same ancestors, there's no commitment to keep paying. Yes, you'll get a reminder just before the year is up, but if you ignore it no money will be taken from your credit card or bank account. It's very different from the way that most other sites work.
All of which means that when a LostCousins member does decide to continue their support, it's a conscious decision – and hopefully they get the same warm feeling they did the first time!
I'll be 70 in a couple of months (COVID-willing), so it was heartening to read about the lady who is retiring from running a Gloucestershire bakery at the age of 100! You can read her amazing story in this Guardian article.
When Jeff was given two years to live he had some ambitious plans – you can read his heart-warming story in this BBC article.
I noticed today that the World Health Organisation has picked up on something else that I've been saying for months – they've warned that it’s reckless behaviour by young people that has been causing the recent spikes in infection in many European countries (it wouldn’t surprise me if the same is true in other countries around the world). Though to be fair to the youngsters, we oldies would probably be just as reckless if we'd had as much to drink….
I've managed to pick several pounds of blackberries from the hedgerows this week, and although our apples aren't nearly ready to harvest, there are sufficient windfalls to allow me to make oodles of stewed blackberry and apple – delicious for breakfast, served with 0% fat Greek-style natural yoghurt. It's healthy too - although I add a very small amount of sugar, I rely mostly on stevia for sweetening (it's hundreds of times sweeter than sugar). The big question now is whether the very unripe damson windfalls can be frozen, then used to make damson gin – I guess I may just have to experiment.
This is where any major updates and corrections will be highlighted - if you think you've spotted an error first reload the newsletter (press Ctrl-F5) then check again before writing to me, in case someone else has beaten you to it......
Last July we had record temperatures in Britain – this year we might just make 30 degrees on Friday 31st. Nevertheless our summers are still much warmer than I remember from my childhood – sometimes it was so cold on the beach that I didn’t want to come out of the sea. Happy days!
© Copyright 2020 Peter Calver
Please do NOT copy or republish any part of this newsletter without permission - which is only granted in the most exceptional circumstances. However, you MAY link to this newsletter or any article in it without asking for permission - though why not invite other family historians to join LostCousins instead, since standard membership (which includes the newsletter), is FREE?