Newsletter - 7th July 2017
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All successful family historians - and you probably wouldn't be reading this newsletter if you weren't one of them - have learned to cope with mistakes, whether transcription errors, incorrect ages on the census, the wrong father's name on a marriage certificate, or any of the other traps that are waiting for the unwary.
But have you ever considered that mistakes can be an asset, as well as a liability? For example, the GRO's new online death indexes give the age at death, but whilst it's always supposed to be the age in years, sometimes it's the age in months, days, weeks, or even hours.
On the face of it this is a major problem - but because the contemporary GRO death indexes began to show the age at death (always in years) from 1865 onwards, we've actually got a little more information available to us than before. For example, a child shown who died at the age of 1 according to the original indexes might be shown as 20 in the next indexes - so we can easily work out that the age shown in the register must be 20 months.
Of course, you'd get this information and more if you bought the death certificate - but perhaps this additional detail will enable you to work out that it's actually the wrong death entry? That's £9.25 saved, all thanks to a mistake.
Sometimes what we learn is more subtle, but even more useful - for example, misspellings of our ancestors' names, especially their surnames, could reveal how they pronounced them. My 18th century Calver ancestors often appear in the Suffolk registers as Carver, even though the two surnames aren't interchangeable (they have very different origins). So I know how my ancestors pronounced their surname, even though they died long before sound recording became a reality.
Birthplaces on the census are often wrong - for the simple reason that people didn't always know where they were born. So they give the name of the place where they grew up - the earliest home they can remember - which might be where they were born, but often isn't. How can knowing where they grew up help you find their baptism? Well, it might enable you to find them living with their parents on an earlier census - and that census is very likely to give the correct place of birth (since mothers rarely forget where they were when they gave birth to their children).
And then there are the cases in which our ancestors deliberately provided false information - but someone else made the mistake of believing it.
The most common example is the age of the bride or groom in the marriage register (which, of course, was only shown after 1837, when civil registration began in England & Wales). Whilst it always seems as if they did it to confuse us, the reality is they didn't - nothing could have been further from their minds. Were they trying to fool their spouse or the vicar - or even the witnesses? If you can figure this out it might give you some insight into your ancestor's life, both before and after the wedding.
Boys signing up for the military may have claimed to be older than they were, either to get higher pay, or to increase the chance that they'd get to fight the enemy; men signing up may have said they were younger. One of my relatives did both, but clearly must have regretted signing up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War because, according to his service file - which was uploaded to the website of Libraries and Archives Canada in the last week - he died of a self-inflicted wound.
Servants may have lied about their age to a prospective employer, either to increase their chance of getting the job, or to secure higher pay - teenage girls who worked as live-in servants are often shown on the census as older than they really were.
And in the 1911 Census many people answered the new questions relating to children incorrectly - the questions only applied to married women, but many husbands and widows filled them in. Whilst the enumerators often - but not always - spotted these errors and scored through the entries, they can still be read. My great-grandfather gave the figures for both of his marriages - in total, not separately - which made it much easier to identify missing births.
To celebrate Canada Day - which this year marked 150 years since the passing of the British North America Act, which brought together the Canadian colonies (the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) in one dominion - I'm offering new members who live in Canada a free 6 month subscription.
This offer ends on Monday 10th July, so if you know of any family historians in Canada, now's the time to tell them about LostCousins! This link will take them to a page with full details of the offer:
Note: existing members in Canada were mailed directly last week - there was also a celebratory offer for them.
I've just counted up how many 'brick walls' there are in my tree, and it comes to precisely 100!
This demonstrates how far I've come in the past few years, thanks largely to parish registers for Hertfordshire, Devon and Kent coming online at Findmypast - the last time I counted up methodically the number of 'brick walls' was less than 50.
The next series of advances will very probably come from DNA, primarily through Ancestry - I've already made progress on several of my oldest (which actually means 'most recent') 'brick walls', and I've still got thousands of matches to analyse.
There are many readers of this newsletter who have been researching much longer than I have, so I'm sure some of you have many more than 100 'brick walls' - where do you see your breakthroughs coming from, I wonder?
Note: although the term 'brick wall' is sometimes used more widely, I only use it where there is a 'brick wall' that stops me getting further back on one of my ancestral lines (most 'brick walls' exist because I can't find a direct ancestor's baptism). Frustrating though it might be not to know what happened to a relative from a collateral line, when an ancestor died, or where they were buried, I don't count any of these as 'brick walls', so please bear this in mind if responding.
In the last issue I reported that Salvador Dali was going to be exhumed in order to carry out a paternity test - and asked readers "given the chance, would you have one of your ancestors exhumed for DNA tests, and if so, which one and why?".
Many of those who responded argued that it would be disrespectful to exhume our ancestors simply to satisfy our own curiosity. But what if the remains were going to be disturbed anyway?
Every year thousands of old graves are disturbed and the bodies moved just so that cemeteries can fit in more new graves. In some instances cemeteries are completely cleared to enable redevelopment of the site - perhaps turning it into a car park or supermarket. Whilst none of us would want our ancestors to be disturbed in this way, surely it would be better if when it does happen, their DNA was tested? At the moment this simply doesn't happen.
Michelle would have liked a DNA sample from her great-great grandfather, Andrew Reis - who was said by his wife to have been born in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1816. The fact that his name had clearly been anglicised didn't help, and this 'brick wall' had been frustrating Michelle for a quarter of a century.
Fortunately it wasn't necessary to dig him up after all - Michelle had recently had a DNA match with a cousin who also had Swedish ancestry, and while we were corresponding earlier this week Michelle's cousin came back with the solution to the mystery. Not only was Michelle's 'brick wall' comprehensively knocked down, the information she was able to provide solved a mystery for her Swedish cousins, who had an Anschel von Reis in their tree who seemed to disappear off the face of the earth!
It's good to know I'm not the only one who has been knocking down 'brick walls' using DNA.
In 2014 Donna Price reported her biological parents to police after discovering that they were siblings, half-brother and half-sister. You can read about it in this Independent article.
As you'll know from my articles about cousin marriages, relationships between relatives heighten the chance of genetic defects in the offspring - and the closer the relationship the more likely this is. But whilst a relationship between half-siblings sounds much worse than one between an aunt and her nephew, the amount of DNA they share is the same, so I would expect the risks to be similar (though I haven't done the calculations).
Tip: if you upload your atDNA results to GEDmatch you can find out whether your parents were related - it's one of the many free features of that site.
This week England's Chief Medical Officer said that cancer patients should be routinely offered DNA tests now that whole genome testing has come down in price to under £700.
Although we're a long way from a cure for cancer, DNA testing can help determine which patients are most likely to respond to a particular form of treatment - this is important, because many of the treatments have unpleasant side-effects.
Already over 31,000 NHS patients - some of them cancer sufferers - have had their entire genome sequenced. Over time, building up a larger database will help researchers to find cures for some cancers, but the immediate benefit will be better treatment.
Of course, there's always a scaremonger somewhere on the horizon, and in this case it was a tabloid newspaper which published an appalling article whose only effect will be to harm cancer suffers and cause additional worry for their relatives (which is why I am not going to name the newspaper or publish a link to the article).
Goodness me, we've been providing blood samples to doctors and nurses for decades and they all contain our DNA - as do the samples taken during biopsies. Is someone with cancer really going to worry about the remote chance that their DNA results end up in the wrong hands? Even if they did, why would it matter? After all, we're giving away samples every day, in our sweat, our saliva, in the hundreds of little flakes of skin that slough off as we go about our everyday lives.
I can understand why some people are reluctant to take DNA tests for genealogical purposes - there's always the risk that a skeleton might fall out of the closet - but what cancer sufferer would turn down a test that will help to determine the best course of treatment, and by so doing either prolong their life or make it more pleasant?
My mother died from liver cancer in 1976 when she was just 50 years old. It was only three days before she died that the illness was diagnosed - thank goodness the National Health Service has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 40 years. Let's hope that the scaremongers don't win, and that the improvements continue for the next 40 years.
I've just heard that Living DNA are offering discounts to customers in the UK and the US - please use the links below if you want to take advantage of the offer prices:
I'll update this article if and when the offer is extended to other territories, and also if I am able to discover the closing date of the sale. Want to know more? You can see my Living DNA results here.
Tip: the Living DNA test is focused on ethnicity - it aims to tell you where your ancestors are likely to have been living a few hundred years ago, well within the range of conventional records. It's of particular interest to those of mainly European ancestry who have tested elsewhere but are looking for more detail; it won't, however, enable you to identify and connect with your DNA cousins, something that other tests are good at.
I resisted reading Professor Bryan Sykes' bestselling book about DNA for many years because - being a family historian - I don't like it when people mix fact and fiction. But when I eventually started reading the book, which describes how analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was able to shed light onto some of mysteries about the origins of homo sapiens, I realised that the fact and the fiction were carefully separated - and more than three-quarters of the book is based on fact.
Of course, what was regarded as fact in 2001, when this book was published might not be fact today - genetics is a fast-moving field, and Professor Sykes was at the cutting edge. Because mtDNA is easier to recover from historic or pre-historic human remains, and is by far the smallest component of human DNA, it was the DNA of choice in the 1980s and 1990s, when the analysis was mostly done by hand.
Note: it was mtDNA that helped to identify the remains of King Richard III.
But mtDNA tells us only about one ancestral line - whilst mothers pass on their mtDNA to their sons as well as their daughters, only the daughters can pass it on to their own offspring. Go back just a few hundred years and we have thousands of ancestral lines, and whilst they won't all be represented in the DNA of any one descendant (because of the randomness in the way that autosomal DNA is inherited), any one of them could be.
Over half a century ago I read The Kon Tiki Expedition, which told the story of Thor Heyrdahl's epic 101-day voyage on a balsa wood raft - he set out to prove that it would have been possible for the original inhabitants of Easter Island to have come from Peru. But Professor Sykes' analysis of mtDNA suggested otherwise (although I suspect that the story has become more complex as technology has advanced).
Similarly, Professor Sykes demonstrated that most modern Europeans have inherited their mtDNA from one of 7 women - and these are the 'seven daughters of Eve' mentioned in the title of the book. It's certainly fascinating to consider that we can trace our ancestry back to a specific female ancestor, even though we don't know her name - but it's of limited relevance to family historians, since even if you find someone who has identical mtDNA your common ancestor could well pre-date the introduction of parish registers and surnames!
I really enjoyed the book, which tackles a highly-technical topic in a way that makes it accessible to all of us. Just bear in mind as you read it that it was written around the beginning of the century, before the first human genome was sequenced at a cost of around $3 billion (it now costs less than $1000) - things have changed quite dramatically.
My copy came from a charity shop, price 20p, but there are second-hand copies at Amazon.co.uk for a few pounds.
Perhaps the most poignant advertisement I've ever seen was a card put up by a customer in my local supermarket which read "Wedding Dress for sale - never worn". It immediately conjured up a vision of Dickens' Miss Havisham, who was jilted at the altar - and had me wondering if there was a similar tale of woe behind the postcard.
Coincidentally, as I was finalising this newsletter I spotted this BBC News article on the same theme - though it doesn't quite have the same poignancy.
When I was at the supermarket checkout yesterday evening I noticed that amongst the mobile phone SIM-cards on offer was one for GiffGaff - this was quite a surprise, since they normally rely on word-of-mouth to promote the network. But LostCousins members can do better - if you order a SIM online using this link and activate it before the end of July you can get £10 of free credit!
From Monday 10th July until Sunday 16th July you can save 10% on your second and subsequent books when you buy from Wordery and use the code JULYBREAK (the most expensive book on your order will be the one on which you pay full price, but their prices are pretty competitive and they offer free Worldwide delivery).
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......
© 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