Newsletter – 6th June 2021



What makes a 'brick wall' crack?

Oldest 'brick wall' comes crashing down

Save 25% on Ancestry DNA in the UK ENDS 20TH JUNE

Don’t just read the Masterclass…..

Exporting servants to Western Australia in the 1850s and 1890s

Scottish Roman Catholic registers online

Marriage registers: follow up

An amazing sequence of marriages and other chance discoveries

Adoption stories: forced to give up their child

The last veteran of Dunkirk and D-Day?

Get better results from your newspaper searches

What's available from your local library?

Royal Succession

Realising the potential of DNA: gene therapy

Probability and family history (part 2)

Peter's Tips

Stop Press



The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 31st May) 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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What makes a 'brick wall' crack?

In genealogy a 'brick wall' is something that prevents us taking an ancestral line back any further. When we begin our research we usually have just one or two 'brick walls', but the more experienced we become the more 'brick walls' we have – around 100 in my case, but there are people reading this who have many more.


There are a number of things that can help us to crack 'brick walls', some of which are beyond our control, but most of which are the result of our own hard work and sound techniques. For example:



The putative father of my illegitimate great-grandmother was an apparently happily married farmer whose wife had borne him four sons during their 10 years of marriage. Would he really risk everything for a fling with a young widow?


At first this seemed unlikely, but then I discovered that he had a track record – in 1826 he'd been ordered to pay maintenance to a woman whose child he had fathered. This was a few years before his marriage, but instead of marrying the mother he'd been prepared to leave her in the lurch – I guess that's the sort of person my great-great grandfather was. DNA matches later confirmed his identity: I have multiple matches with descendants of his legitimate sons.


Note: knocking down that one 'brick wall' means that I now have 5 more 'brick walls' further up my tree. But that's how genealogy works!


Connecting and collaborating with cousins who share the same 'brick wall' has always been a good way to crack the problem, but in recent years it has become more important than ever, as the next article demonstrates.



Oldest 'brick wall' comes crashing down (part 1)

For almost 20 years I've been trying to find the birth or baptism of my great-great grandmother Mary Ann Burns. When she married in November 1859 she claimed to be 'of full age' but so did the groom, and he definitely wasn't 21 until the following January (I've found both his birth and his baptism).



On the 1861 census she's shown as 21, and none of the ages she gave in subsequent censuses are consistent with her being 21 or older in 1859, so if she was born in England – and the three different birthplaces she gave on the censuses were all in London – her birth ought to have been registered (though in the early days of civil registration many births weren't).


I couldn't find any evidence of her existence before 1859, which suggested that even the small amount of evidence I had might be wrong or misleading, and some of it certainly was – as you can see, the name given for her father on her marriage certificate was James Brown deceased, not James Burns. This certificate is a facsimile of the entry in the marriage register held at the local register office – and since my ancestor signed it, rather than making her mark, she might have been expected to notice if her father's surname had been shown incorrectly.


© Image copyright London Metropolitan Archives; All Rights Reserved. Used by kinsd permission of Ancestry.


But a few years later, when I was able to view the church copy of the register at the London Metropolitan Archives I found out that her father's surname was given as Burns – which at least removed one element of uncertainty.


Note: that although the signatures are identical, two different people have completed the register entries – did the couple sign a blank entry which was completed later, I wonder?


However I still couldn't track down her birth or baptism, and I was well aware that if she was illegitimate the name she gave for her father at the time of her marriage could be a figment of her imagination – so I looked at that possibility as well.


But it wasn't until 2018 that I got a useful lead – an Ancestry DNA match with someone in New Zealand whose surname was Burns – and significantly it was a match that I shared with a 2nd cousin once removed who was also descended from Mary Ann Burns. I'd paid for my cousin to test, and this match alone justified the expenditure, because it represented more progress than I'd made in the previous 16 years.


Our genetic cousin was descended from a James Burns who would have been just a little younger than Mary Ann – and he too had given his father's name as James. The younger James was a fisherman, and so – according to his marriage certificate – was his father which, since my great-great grandfather (the man who Mary Ann Burns married) came from a long line of fishermen, made the DNA match all the more intriguing. It could also explain how my ancestor Mary Ann was apparently born in London, but my genetic cousin's ancestor James claimed to have been born in Great Yarmouth.


I seemed to have found Mary Ann's brother and confirmed the name of her father – but this wasn't enough to knock down the 'brick wall'. As you'll find out in the next instalment, it not only required more help from DNA, but also some key discoveries in Findmypast's massive collection of Roman Catholic records.



Save 25% on Ancestry DNA in the UK ENDS 20TH JUNE

By far the most useful genealogical DNA test you can buy is Ancestry's test. It costs a little more than most, but my experience, and that of many others, is that it delivers 10 times the value – and there are three key reasons for this:



But none of us has unlimited funds to spend on genealogy, so when the opportunity arises to purchase Ancestry DNA tests at a discount it's worth shouting about. Currently UK residents can save 25% on Ancestry DNA tests, but you'll only be supporting LostCousins with your purchase if you use the link below (please note that you'll probably need to log-out from your Ancestry account before clicking the link):


Ancestry DNA (UK only) - £59 plus shipping ENDS 20TH JUNE



Don’t just read the Masterclass…..

Most of the people who contact me for help with their DNA results have read my Masterclass, some of them several times. But hardly any of them have actually followed the advice in the Masterclass, which is not only annoying and frustrating for me, it means they're missing out on the wonderful opportunities that DNA testing provides to knock down 'brick walls' and confirm their records-based research.


I don’t expect everyone to understand the science of DNA – and for someone who is working with DNA for the first time there's even more to get to grips with. That's why I set out clear instructions that anyone can follow, whether they understand why they're going to work or not.


My wife has pointed out that the unhelpful behaviour I've described in this article is typical male behaviour – she compared it with the reluctance of male drivers to look at a map, or stop to ask for directions. My instinctive response was to say that she was talking rubbish, but when I had more of a chance to think about it I realised that she was spot on. So, thank you ladies for doing the sensible thing and following the advice you've been given – and come on chaps, don’t let your ego stop you from succeeding!



Exporting servants to Western Australia in the 1850s and 1890s

As negotiations on a trade deal between Britain and Australia continue it seems a good time to look back one of our greatest British exports – people. A genetic cousin of mine discovered a dissertation entitled The Immigration of Domestic Servants to Western Australia in the 1850s and 1890s – it makes interesting reading.



Scottish Roman Catholic registers online

Findmypast have added over half a million Roman Catholic records from Scotland (mostly the Archdiocese of Glasgow). For details of the parishes included please follow this link.



Marriage registers: follow up

In the last issue I reported that churches in Wales had been asked to hand in their marriage registers, and that – according to my correspondent – they might not even be able to offer ceremonial marriage certificates. However I commented that some enterprising company might have come up with replacement registers, and this was confirmed shortly afterwards, as you can see here. Church House Publishing is the official publisher of the Church of England, and they are also producing 'Wedding Celebration Keepsake Cards' in packs of 10 for £4.50 – you can see a sample here.


Staying on the subject of marriage registers, Frances directed me to this interesting example from Milton next Canterbury, Kent:


© Copyright Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. Used by kind permission of Findmypast.


All of the pages in the register that are online have been similarly defaced, and as the most recent entry is from 1924 it seems likely that the stamp was applied at some point after that date.


At the beginning of the register is this explanatory note:


© Copyright Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. Used by kind permission of Findmypast.



An amazing sequence of marriages and other chance discoveries

Many thanks to Evelyn for pointing out this remarkable story in the Stamford Mercury of 18th December, 1783 (you might need to read it more than once):



Stories of this type are not unusual for the period, but they're usually impossible to verify. In this case Evelyn has been able to identify the parish register entries that support this incredible tale.


Tonya in Australia made a serendipitous discovery – behind an old framed map that her father bought was an English newspaper from 1820, which reported on the inquest into the death of Richard Smithers, a Bow  Street Runner (predecessors of the Metropolitan Police). He'd been killed by one of the anarchists involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy, which some of you will remember from studying history at school.


Smithers was the name of one of Tonya's ancestors – her great-great-great-great grandfather was a Bow Street Runner around the same time. She's yet to prove the connection, but wouldn't it be amazing if poor Richard Smithers turned out to be a relative?


It reminds me of the scrapbook I bought at an auction of household effects 20 years ago – in it I found a newspaper cutting from 1928 which mentioned my uncle, Horace Calver, who I never met (because he died of tuberculosis in 1936). If you come across an old newspaper don't throw it away – you never know what you might find!



Adoption stories: forced to give up their child

Hundreds of women coerced into giving up their babies for adoption between the 1950s and 1970s have called on the Prime Minister to issue an apology – you can read about it in this BBC article.


Much as I sympathise with those women, I wonder if their lives would have been better or worse had they brought up their child themselves? I can't forget how stigmatised illegitimacy was in those days – times have certainly changed!  



The last veteran of Dunkirk and D-Day?

Following the death last month of 98 year-old Alfred White it has been suggested that there's nobody still alive who served in the British army at both Dunkirk in 1940 and D-Day in 1944. Recordings of his recollections are going to be made available through the Imperial War Museum – you can read more here.


He lived much longer than his namesake, Alfred White of Southampton, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, but reportedly died aged just 41 while waiting in a queue at a bank. (I think we've all been in queues like that!)


Note: this weekend, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings,  a memorial opened in Normandy to 22,442 soldiers who lost their lives during the landings and the Battle of Normandy.    



Get better results from your newspaper searches

I know that some of you are researching in historic newspapers for the first time following the recent British Newspaper Archive offer, so you might be interested in a one-hour online talk being offered next month by the Society of Genealogists – you'll find the details here.



What's available from your local library?

I've only once visited my local public library – to access Ancestry at a time when my subscription only covered the UK and Ireland – and whilst I did go to the library in the next town a few times it was only to use their microfiche reader.


And yet the library is one of the resources I use most frequently – because it provides free online access to key resources such as the The Times Digital Archive which has digitized copies of issues from 1785-2014, and The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland which is the most up-to-date and comprehensive work of its kind.


Other important reference works that I can access free from anywhere in the world using my Essex Libraries number include Who's Who, Who Was Who, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (the most highly-regarded of them all, almost always referred to by the enigmatic acronym DNB).


During the pandemic many libraries have provided access to resources that would in normal times only be available using computers sited in the library – these often include some or all of Ancestry Library Edition, Findmypast, and the British Newspaper Archive. But most of the other digital resources are available every day of every year – so find out now what your local library offers. And yes, you can do that online as well!


Tip: some libraries allow you to join even if you don't live in their area.



Royal Succession

Last month I published a chart from 1936 which had appeared in the News Chronicle – and as it generated a lot of interest and comment I thought it would be interesting to link to a chart published earlier this year, one which presents a very different picture.


But if you think that's different, consider how things might look in the future, as a result of the passing of the Succession to the Crown Act, 2013 – this abolished male primogeniture and removed the bar to the throne for those who marry a Roman Catholic. However, it only applies to those born after 28th October 2011 – it won't affect the rights of anyone born before that date so, for example, the Duke of York and Earl of Wessex will continue to rank ahead of Princess Anne, even though she was born before them.


Note: if you think that male primogeniture was discriminatory, the crown of Hanover was inherited according to Salic Law, which excludes females from the succession – that's why Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire, but not Hanover, even though all 5 of her predecessors ruled both.  


Finally, a link to an article about a 92 year-old who has spent the last 2 years knitting a woollen replica of a the Queen's Sandringham Estate. (This lady has form: she previously recreated the Great Yarmouth seafront as it was in the 1970s.)



Realising the potential of DNA

DNA is a wonderful thing – it's the equivalent of a blueprint for life. However if it wasn't for random mutations I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn't be reading – if we existed at all we'd be primitive organisms.


The downside of random mutations is that some are harmful. If they're so harmful that the organism cannot survive to breed then the mutations will die out, but if they only cause problems in certain situations they can flourish. We each have two sets of DNA, one inherited from our mother, and one from our father: if a hereditary disorder is recessive only those who inherit a copy of the problem gene from both parents will suffer, those who inherit the variant from only one parent are simply carriers, who can pass it on to their own offspring.


You may have read in the news recently of a rare genetic disorder for which the National Health Service will be offering gene therapy, in the hope that it will alleviate the symptoms. Although roughly 1 person in 50 carries the gene, the chance of two randomly-selected selected parents both being carriers is 1 in 2500 (ie 50 times 50) – and the chance of them both passing on the faulty gene to their child is only 1 in 4. That's why the disorder occurs in about 1 in 10,000 births.


Note: in the preceding paragraph I talked about the parents being randomly-selected. If they happened to be 1st cousins it's significantly more likely that they'll both be carriers – of this and any other recessive hereditary disorder.



Probability and family history (part 2)

In the last issue I wrote about the importance of probability to family historians, focusing particularly on the way we adjust our thinking according to how common the names are that we're researching, and also the proportion of records that have been transcribed and indexed (so might show up in searches).


This time I want to focus on whether and how we adjust our thinking when new information becomes available. For example, let's suppose that the only information we have about our ancestor's birthplace comes from the census – and that when we review the baptism register for the parish there's only one baptism in the right name around the right time. We'd probably feel fairly confident that it’s the baptism we're looking for – perhaps 95% certain.


Now let's suppose that looking through the census you come across another person with the same name who is around the same age, and gives the same birthplace. Do you feel so confident now? You certainly shouldn’t do – in the absence of any other clues the chances of your initial assumption being correct have just plummeted from 95% to 50% or less.


It may be that one of the individuals has given the wrong birthplace on the census – many people didn’t know where they were born, only where they grew up. Or perhaps the birthplaces are correct, but only one of the children was baptised in the parish church. There are any number of possible explanations, and clearly further investigation will be necessary.


I'm going to end this article with a puzzle which was recently posed in New Scientist magazine (15th May 2021, p.52). A farmer has a sheep which is pregnant with twins. A genetic test finds fragments of Y-DNA in the mother's bloodstream, indicating that at least one of the twins is male – but the question is, how likely is it that the other twin is female? You might think it's 50/50, but are the odds changed by the test result – which has eliminated the possibility that they're both female?


Please post your answers – and your reasoning – on the LostCousins Forum. Remember, if you’re already a member of the forum or have qualified to join there is a link to the forum on your My Summary page at the LostCousins site.


If you haven't qualified yet, simply add more relatives to your My Ancestors page – membership of the forum is a privilege reserved for those who are making a significant contribution to the LostCousins project (to connect cousins around the world who are researching the same ancestors). It isn't a reward for long service – all you need is a Match Potential (shown on your My Summary page) of 1.0 or more, so a new LostCousins member with British, or mostly British ancestry could qualify for forum membership in under an hour. So could the vast majority of readers of this newsletter – it doesn't much matter where you live or when your ancestors left these shores, it's where your cousins' ancestors were in 1881 that matters.



Peter's Tips

I've been a reader of Which? magazine for most of my life, and a subscriber for as long as I can remember, but every now and again they contrive to mislead. This month they published an article about Premium Bonds which I'm sure would discourage most readers from holding them – yet the prizes paid out over the course of a year are equivalent to 1% of the amount invested, or 0.85% if you only take into account £25 prizes. This average return is far higher than the interest on most easy access savings accounts! For a more balanced view of Premium Bonds see this article.


There were a lot of complimentary emails regarding my wife's gardening column in the last newsletter, and more than a few stories were prompted by that article. For example, one member wrote in to tell me about a friend who was born in 1947: her father planted a peony for her, and when her parents died she transplanted it to her own garden, where it is still flourishing 74 years on!


In the past week clinical trials have begun in Britain to investigate whether a third dose of vaccine will provide recipients with greater protection against the COVID-19 virus, and find out how different vaccines work together (you can read more about it here). I'm sure there will be many who will say that it's wrong to even think about giving people in the UK a third dose when there are billions around the world who haven't even had a first dose, however I suspect that most scientists would argue that the more we learn about this virus, and how we can protect people against it, the sooner we'll be able to focus on the problems that aren’t so easily dealt with but cause even more death and suffering around the world.


On Sunday morning the Health Secretary revealed that the current best estimate is that the Indian variant is 40% more transmissible than the Kent variant. If you plug this figure into the equation I published two weeks ago, implies an increase in the R number from 0.8 to 1.12. This fits in the middle of the range for the R number in England, which was 1.0 to 1.2 according to the government's 4th June report.


However the recent rate of growth in cases reported by the Office for National Statistics implies a much higher R number – this is probably due to the relaxation in restrictions and consequent changes in behaviour. My wife and I continue to remain cautious – but we're fortunate in that unlike some, we can both work from home.



Stop Press

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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2021 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? To link to a specific article right-click on the article name in the contents list at the top of the newsletter.