Newsletter -  12th January 2018



Apologies for absence

Who do your friends think their ancestors were? EXCLUSIVE

When is a source not a source?

The wrong baptism

Why you should look through parish registers

Have you taken a DNA test recently?

Genes Reunited offer half-price Platinum subscriptions

Two year degrees? It's déjà vu all over again!

Review: At Home: a short history of private life

Review: Post-Truth

What am I reading now?

Peter's Tips

Stop Press


The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous newsletter (dated 11th December) click here; to find earlier articles use the customised Google search below (it searches ALL of the newsletters since February 2009, so you don't need to keep copies):



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To go to the main LostCousins website click the logo at the top of this newsletter. If you're not already a member, do join - it's FREE, and you'll get an email to alert you whenever there's a new edition of this newsletter available!



Apologies for absence

I'm very sorry that this year I was unable to publish my usual Christmas newsletter - unfortunately my broadband connection went down on Monday 18th December and wasn't reliably working again until the evening of Saturday 30th December. Whilst I was able to respond to individual enquiries using a mobile broadband connection it simply wouldn't have been practical to send out emails to the more than 64,000 members who are on my newsletter mailing list.


Note: the operation of the LostCousins website was completely unaffected - the site is professionally hosted and regularly backed-up.


Although this is the first newsletter of the year I have previously been in touch with members in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK about matters of possible interest to them - that alone required me to send more than 50,000 emails! I'm repeating below what I told members in the UK as it's an innovative concept that bears repetition….



Who do your friends think their ancestors were?

Back in 2004 there was a big increase in people researching their family tree, and whilst it would be nice to be able to say that it was a result of LostCousins launching in May of that year, that would be 'fake news' - the reality is that the first series of Who Do You Think You Are? that autumn provided the real impetus.


Now it's DNA testing that gets all the attention - people who know little or nothing about their family tree seem to be intrigued by the idea that a simple test could provide them with answers. But as we all know, DNA testing is of little value unless it is backed up with 'proper' research - and somehow we have to get that message across, otherwise the disappointment could turn them off family history for life.


I can't do it on my own - the people I need to reach don't read this newsletter. But you do, and I'm sure you have many friends who've expressed a passing interest in their family      tree. That's why I decided it was time to enlist your help - and I'm glad to say that Findmypast were delighted to support this initiative by providing prizes as an added incentive for you and your friends.


You'll find all the details here - thanks for taking part. Please note that because are providing the prizes it's only open to entrants from the UK, but if this initiative is successful I'm sure it will be repeated around the world.


When is a source not a source?

Have you noticed that an increasing number of erroneous entries in online trees are apparently backed up by information from one or more 'sources'? Most public online trees are full of dodgy data, but it's only in recent years that many of the mistakes have been given superficial credibility by references to sources.


Census entries are often cited as sources of birth information even though ages and birthplaces in the census are notoriously inaccurate, but they're not going to fool an experienced researcher (nor are references to other online trees); often a glance at the census entry will show that it's not even the right family! What could, however, cause all sorts of problems is the wrong baptism or marriage entry, because it can send others on a wild goose chase.


No matter how carefully compiled, online trees rarely tell you what research has been carried out, and what the reasoning is behind the choice of that particular entry. Most seasoned researchers will know the Sherlock Holmes quote "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" but it's a hard maxim to apply in genealogy, because we're usually working with incomplete and inaccurate records.


The wrong baptism

One of the worst things that can happen to any family historian is to discover that you're barking up the wrong tree (even worse is to be researching the wrong ancestors and not discover this!). The important thing to remember is that Sherlock Holmes not only considered the evidence, but also the lack of evidence - remember the dog that didn't bark in the night?


How do you decide which baptism is the right one? Do you list all the possible entries, then choose the one that's the closest fit? Or do you always have in the back of your mind these other possibilities:



From 1813 onwards the occupation of the father was routinely recorded in the baptism register (you might find it mentioned occasionally before that date - it largely depends on the habits of the vicar); this can highlight cases of mistaken identity. Before that date there are also many entries where the mother's name wasn't shown, or was shown incorrectly - it's far less common for the name of the father to be wrong, though it can happen.


Always remember that whilst we consider parish registers to be primary records baptism and burial register entries were generally written up later, either from the sexton's notebook or from the incumbent's own notes. The neater and more consistent the handwriting (and the inking of the nib) the more likely it is that you're looking at records that were compiled at a later date. Sometimes it isn't obvious with online registers whether we're looking at the original registers or Bishop's Transcripts, though you can't assume that the original registers are always more accurate - sometimes corrections were made, or omissions rectified, as the BTs were being copied out.


Even when you've found an entry that you're certain is the right one, you shouldn't relax completely until you've found evidence that puts it beyond doubt. Sometimes this will come from a distant cousin, from a will, or a marriage register entry (if only the names of witnesses were indexed it would make all of our lives easier!). But these days it's most likely that it will be a DNA match that provides the confirmatory evidence.


Always look for other baptisms to the same couple (and if you don't find any, consider why that might be - has one of the names been recorded incorrectly?). At the very least finding the baptisms of siblings will help to pinpoint when the couple might have married - and in the case of the mother, when she might have been born (since it was unusual for women over 47 to give birth).


I've had to tell two of my cousins that they were researching the wrong line, and in each case it was because an ancestor had been baptised late. I was fortunate to be researching from a slightly different perspective, so didn't fall into those traps, but I realise I'm not always going to be so fortunate - every time a DNA match provides a crosscheck for part of my tree I breathe a sigh of relief!


Why you should look through parish registers

I recently had an email from a member who had spotted the wording "sent into court" beneath the entry for an illegitimate child in a baptism register, and wondered what it meant. Would you have known the answer?


I hadn't come across this precise wording before so I did something very simple, but amazingly effective - I glanced through the register to see whether those words appeared below any other entries. Well, as you've probably guessed, I did come across the same wording elsewhere in the register - and always at the same time of the year. Clearly the note signified that copies of the preceding entries had been sent to the Bishop or Archdeacon, and didn't bear any relevance to the specific entry that preceded it - the fact that the child was illegitimate was just a 'red herring'.


Many similar puzzles can be resolved simply by looking through the register - but you'd be surprised how few researchers routinely do this. Are you one of them?


Have you taken a DNA test recently?

Millions of researchers, and thousands of LostCousins members have recently purchased DNA tests, some for themselves and some for cousins. If you have tested your autosomal DNA (eg Ancestry DNA or Family Finder) please update your My Details page at the LostCousins site to reflect this - you'll find the relevant section at the bottom of the page (remember to log-in first - I know it's obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't, then wonder why they can't find the page they're looking for).


When it comes to DNA results, some people - even a few readers of this newsletter - seem to think that the ethnicity estimates are the results that matter. The reality is that you may as well ignore them - in my opinion they're for amusement only.


The results that actually matter are the matches you get with your genetic cousins. If you test with Family Tree DNA you'll get about 1000, but if you follow my recommendation and test with Ancestry you'll get about 10000, maybe more. Are they all really your cousins? Probably not - as many as a third of them could be spurious matches - but it really doesn't matter, because if you follow my recommended strategies you'll be focusing on the matches that are most likely to produce useful results.


You'll find the approach I recommend in this Masterclass - it's realistic, practical, and efficient.


Tip: even if you follow my advice you'll find that analysing your DNA matches is very time-consuming, but you can save many hours of effort by completing your My Ancestors page at the LostCousins site and connecting with your 'lost cousins'.


Genes Reunited offer half-price Platinum subscriptions

Until 21st January you can save 50% on 1 month and 12 month Platinum subscriptions to Genes Reunited. Despite the name, the Platinum subscription doesn't offer access to all of Genes Reunited's records - it's closer to the Starter subscription at Findmypast (whose records they share), or the Essentials subscription at Ancestry. Other record sets are available as add-ons at an extra cost.


So what do you get for £40? 12 months unlimited access to England & Wales censuses from 1841-1911, and transcriptions of the Scotland censuses from 1841-1901; the GRO BMD records from 1837-2005; UK Electoral Registers from 2002-13. Plus the opportunity to search the family trees of 13 million members, and make contact with them, whether they have a subscription or not.


Note: despite what it implies on the Genes Reunited website you cannot view the trees of other members simply by buying a subscription - you can only view them if the owner gives you permission. (In effect Genes Reunited trees are like Ancestry private trees.)


Two year degrees? It's déjà vu all over again!

Last month it was announced that universities in England are to offer 2 year degrees, rather than the usual 3 year courses - but it's hardly new (the University of Buckingham has been offering 2 year courses in most subjects since its foundation 40 years ago).


And whilst I was, in 1969, the first person in my family to go to university that shouldn't have been the case - my Uncle Horace was prevented from taking up the opportunity when he contracted TB for the first time in the late 1920s (though he survived on that occasion the disease finally came back and claimed him in 1935). According to my late father it was normal in the 1920s for the first year of a degree course to be taken before leaving school, so that only 2 years were spent at university - although I've been unable to find any supporting evidence online (or indeed any contradictory evidence).


During World War 2 degree courses seem to have been condensed into two years - or so it appears from the paperwork that one LostCousins member has sent me, which shows his father leaving school in 1943 and graduating (with 1st Class Honours) from Queen Mary College in 1945. I was going to write Queen Mary College, London - but in fact the college was evacuated to Kings College, Cambridge during the war.


You might be interested to see this letter, inviting him to attend an interview:



Far from enlisting him in the Army when he showed up for his interview they sent him away - you see, 8th May 1945 was VE-Day!


Did any of your ancestors go to university between 1914 and 1945 - and if so, do you know how their course was structured? It might seem of little consequence, but whether a degree course lasted for 2 years or 3 will make a big difference when we're trying to retrospectively reconstruct our ancestors' lives from the little snippets of evidence that have been passed down.


Review: At Home: a short history of private life

Although Bill Bryson is a prolific author, I'd never previously read any of this anglophile American's work, which meant that At Home: a short history of private life was, for me, a very pleasant surprise. There aren’t many books of more than 600 pages that I've had trouble putting down, nor would I usually take a book this size on an airplane in my carry-on luggage… well, I'm sure that by now you can tell that I enjoyed it immensely!


Published in 2010 the book didn't even appear on my radar until I stumbled across a quote from the introduction, in which Bill Bryson was discussing with a friend how many people were buried in a small country churchyard. I must admit I'd never considered why churches always seem to sinking, but the possibility that it's because the churchyard is rising around them seems very feasible.


The one thing you won't learn in the book is which parish church he's referring to, and I can understand why - it's because the author and his family live in the (former) rectory. It's their home around which the book is constructed, though in telling the story of this 19th century house he travels across continents and centuries, helping us to understand how and why houses were built as they were, and in the process telling us an awful lot about the lives of the people who lived in them.


(Note: there are sufficient clues that any competent family historian can work out where Bill Bryson lives, but I feel I'd be breaching the author's confidence if I published the information. What I can say is that his friend's estimate of how many bodies are buried in the churchyard seems to be way out.)


There's so much that I learned through reading this fascinating book - it is a compendium of delightful, and (especially when he describes the history of bathrooms) not so delightful facts. Anyone who reads it will learn a lot, and much of it will be relevant to their ancestors, no matter what stratum of society they came from.


I bought a second-hand paperback copy through Amazon for a few pounds, but it's also available in Kindle format (or as a hardback). As usual you can support LostCousins by using the relevant link below:                         The Book Depository


Review: Post-Truth

Most family historians do their best to establish the truth about their ancestors, good or bad, but a small minority have a hidden agenda - their aim is to prove that a family myth is true, and in furtherance of their objective they'll ignore any evidence to the contrary, no matter how damning. Anyone who has watched Who Do You Think You Are? will know that most of these stories turn out to be completely untrue - so obviously untrue, in fact, that one sometimes wonders how the stories could have passed down so many generations without being challenged.


Fortunately it doesn't matter to most of us if a few so-called researchers choose to delude themselves, unless their bad research propagates as a result of being posted online in public trees - and then it become quite a problem, especially if other users merge their 'findings' with good research carried out by conscientious researchers like you and me.


James Ball's excellent Post-Truth: how BS conquered the world looks at the problem of 'fake news', and highlights how difficult it is to deal with people who aren't interested in facts, or establishing the truth. He also outlines how there are many companies, some of them otherwise respectable, that make a lot of money by promoting or spreading stories which they know, or should know, are false. So whilst it isn't about genealogy, I could relate a lot of what I read to the problems that serious family historians like you and me face almost every day.


We all tend to believe stories that fit our view of the world, and distrust those that don't - which may explain more than half of those who 'retweet' a story, 'like' a post, or 'share' it with their Facebook friends, do so even before they've read it! And it doesn't matter which side of the political divide you're on - it seems we’re all capable of unconscious bias.


The book ends with a series of recommendations, many of them directed at the reputable organisations which allow 'fake news' to flourish by indirectly promoting it - including the BBC News website (if you're outside the UK) and social media sites such as Facebook. So it was a pleasant coincidence that as I was writing this review Facebook announced their plans to make major changes to the way their news feed works, changes that are likely to cost them dearly in terms of income, but could do wonders for their reputation.


Normally I'd recommend reading Amazon reviews to get a more-rounded view of a book before buying it, but in this case it would be a mistake - there are multiple fake reviews designed to discourage people from buying it (some of them referring to topics that aren't even in the book). And if you don't understand why some people might do something like this, well….. you definitely need to read it!


The book is available as a paperback or in Kindle format (I chose the latter); note that you can support LostCousins by using these links, even if you end up buying something else:                         The Book Depository


What am I reading now?

If, like me, you enjoyed Geraldine Wall 's trilogy about professional genealogist Anna Ames you'll be delighted to hear that - contrary to expectations - a fourth book in the series has just been published (I've just started reading it on my smartphone). You can support LostCousins by using these links to purchase File Under Fathers (or, indeed, any other product that Amazon sell):          


You can read my reviews of the first three books in the series if you follow this link. And yes, you should read them in order if you want to get the most out of this fascinating story.


Peter's Tips

Just as I was getting to the end of this issue I was astounded to hear my computer reading my words back to me. It turns out that while I've been busy researching my ancestors (and helping you track down your own) Microsoft have been busy adding new features to Office 365. If you have the latest version you'll find the 'Read Aloud' option under the Review tab.


Another surprise was when I inadvertently pressed the wrong key combination and found that Word insisted on typing block capitals whether or not I depressed the Shift key or Caps Lock. It turns out this feature is enabled or disabled by pressing Ctrl-Shift-A, though why anyone would choose to do this rather than pressing Caps Lock I'm struggling to figure out…..


Note: please don't write to me with your favourite keyboard shortcuts - I already know about far more than I can possibly remember!


Stop Press

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......



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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2017 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?