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Newsletter – 29th January 2024


Why the GRO birth indexes can be misleading

A modern-day foundling

Looking at wills from a different perspective #1

Looking at wills from a different perspective #2

Looking at wills from a different perspective #3

When online data disappears

Last chance to win one of hundreds of prizes ENDS WEDNESDAY

War and peace

Who Do You Think You Are? magazine EXCLUSIVE OFFER

Peter’s Tips

Stop Press


The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 20th January ) 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):



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!



Why the GRO birth indexes can be misleading

You’ll know from previous articles that in the early days of civil registration some births were recorded in a way that you might not have expected – for example, in my first newsletter of the year I demonstrated how one registrar’s use of the word ‘late’ rather than ‘formerly’ had resulted in legitimate births being indexed as if they were illegitimate. Occasionally we can deduce what has happened by comparing the contemporary quarterly index entry (or entries) with the entry in the recompiled GRO indexes, but now that it only costs £2.50 to purchase a copy of the birth register entry, it’s better to make sure.


If you came across this entry in the new GRO birth indexes I doubt you’d think twice about it:




When we look at an entry like this we naturally assume that Pilkington was the father’s surname, and that the mother’s maiden name was Till. And since David Pilkington married my great-great-great grandmother Jane Till at the register office in Witham registration district in 1846, you might well assume that they were Eveline’s parents.


It’s certainly a reasonable assumption if you’ve got nothing else to go on – but you’d only be half right, because this is the GRO birth register entry:



David Pilkington had died aged 76 in 1848, but Jane – who was only 29 years old when she was widowed – didn’t remarry until 1863 – so when she registered Eveline’s birth she correctly gave her surname as Pilkington, and her maiden name as Till. Furthermore the entries in both the contemporary quarterly birth index and the GRO’s online index are correct: the scope for confusion arises only because we’re used to interpreting the index in a certain way, one that doesn’t work when a widow gives birth to an illegitimate child.


Tip: if you found the birth index entry for Eveline before you searched for David Pilkington’s death you might well have assumed that he died after 1850 – and missed the 1848 entry. It’s an example of how one unwitting error can easily lead to another.  


Of course, that’s not the only situation in which we might be fooled by the index entry – when a married woman gives birth the only father who can be named in the birth register is her husband. That doesn't mean the husband has to be named as the father – but it does mean that you can’t tell from the index entry who the father was. Another reason to spend £2.50, just to make sure.


Note: Jane Till is one of my favourite ancestors – at the age of 16 she gave birth to my great-great grandmother Emma Till, then bore three more illegitimate children before she married David Pilkington – who had a daughter old enough to be Jane’s mother. She gave birth to one legitimate child during that brief marriage, so Eveline was her 6th child and her 5th illegitimate child – and when she remarried at the age of 43 in 1863 she was already a grandmother 4 times over. Her 7th child, and 2nd legitimate child was born when she was 45, and by the time Jane died in 1907 in her 88th year she had 17 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great grandchildren. One of these days I hope to find out what happened to her sons, Stephen and Henry, who had a couple of brushes with the law as teenagers, but then seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth…..



A modern-day foundling

On Thursday 18th January a new-born baby, thought to be less than an hour old, was found in a shopping bag left in an east London street – according to this BBC article she is the third abandoned child to be found in the London Borough of Newham since 2019. At the end of the last week a second BBC article revealed that ‘Elsa’ had left hospital and was being looked after by foster parents.


This newsletter article from 2016 includes an image of the 1906 birth certificate for a foundling, and the following month I relayed an appeal from an 80-year-old foundling who was trying to find her birth family – but it was only today that I came across this March 2018 article from the Daily Mail which reveals that she eventually identified her birth parents with the help of DNA on the back of a stamp!



Looking at wills from a different perspective #1

The future of post-1858 wills is in the balance (see this article from last month and follow the link to the consultation). On the one hand, many genealogists consider that original documents should never be destroyed – on the other hand, members of the public who are not researching their ancestors might question whether taxpayers should bear the cost of storing documents indefinitely just in case someone might want to examine them in the future.


I’m an inveterate hoarder – I have bank statements going back half a century, and credit card statements which extend nearly as far. I’ve got bus tickets from the late 1960s, and – thanks to my parents – my school reports, and a drawing I did at primary school in the 1950s. I’ve even got most of the records of my software business going back as far as 1978 – including invoices and other documents (boxes and boxes of them). Few of these things are of any great interest to anyone other than me, so it’s an indulgence – and, I suppose, an expensive one if I take into account how much space they’re taking up.


But I’m unusual, even – I suspect – amongst genealogists. Most people and, especially, organisations are less sentimental – or more pragmatic. You only have to watch a TV programme like Cash in the Attic to realise how little most people care about heirlooms, and the only reason we don’t see them auctioning off the family papers is because they were discarded as worthless long ago. Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few photo albums and other ephemera that were sold off at auction – including the collection of early Victorian family correspondence that I wrote about in December, and this amazing sampler which I was eventually able to return to descendants of the family. If everyone was like me, these things would never find their way onto the market.


When the Ministry of Justice launched their consultation into the future of post-1858 wills I realised that simply objecting to the proposal was a high risk strategy – if we succeeded there was a strong possibility that it would discourage other parts of the public sector from consulting in the future – they would simply do what they’ve done in the past, and destroy records without consultation. And if we failed we’d have little opportunity to shape what happened to the wills, or to other records in the years to come


Since the consultation was largely about the cost of continuing to store the original post-1858 wills I felt that the best way to counter that argument was to attempt to quantify the benefit of keeping them. Currently there is no public access to the original wills – we can only order digital copies, and more often than not they appear to have been scanned from the office copies of the wills, rather than the original documents. They’re also black and white, rather than colour – and I doubt there’s a single person reading this who doesn’t appreciate what a difference colour makes, whether one is trying to interpret parish register entries or decipher the annotations on census forms.


One way to estimate the likely level of interest in viewing post-1858 wills is to look at how frequently original pre-1858 wills are viewed – and as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills, which cover the pre-1858 period, are held by the National Archives (TNA) I submitted a Freedom of Information request to TNA at the end of December.


On Thursday I received a spreadsheet from TNA which listed the number of times each of the pieces in PROB 10 were produced, whether at the request of a member of the public or a member of staff, between 24/05/1999 and 25/12/2023 – a period of 24 years and 7 months. Because wills are filed by year and month of probate it is likely that on each occasion only one will in the bundle was of interest.


I decided to look at wills for January 1847 and December 1857, an 11-year period which ought to provide the best comparator as it immediately precedes the establishment of the Principal Probate Registry. The wills for this period are stored in PROB 10/6436 to PROB 10/7353, and according to Ancestry 89,748 wills were proved during those 11 years. A small number of wills are filed separately, rather than in the main sequence, but this may be balanced out by the inclusion in PROB 10/7353 of a small number of wills for January 1858.


According to the spreadsheet there were 493 occasions on which wills for that 11-year period were produced, either at the request of a member of public or a member of staff – that’s 1 will in 182 over a period of 24 and a bit years, or 1 in 4475 in an average year.


The consultation document doesn’t give a figure for the number of wills and administrations since 1858. I have seen figures of 100 million or more quoted in the press, but these can’t be right – it’s more than the number of people who have died in England & Wales between 1858-2024! The best guide is the number of entries in the National Probate Calendar at Ancestry – there are 20.5 million wills and administrations for the period 1858-1995. About 2.4 million of these relate to the 10-year period from 1985-1994, so it’s reasonable to assume that the current total is around 28 million.


If the rate at which the original post-1858 wills are viewed is the same as for the 1847-1857 wills there would be 6257 (ie 28 million divided by 4475) wills viewed per year. As you will know, the consultation estimates the cost of continuing to store the wills from 1858-2023 as £4.5 million per year at current prices, and if you divide this by 6257 you get a figure of just under £720 for each will viewed.


What we can’t know is whether the researchers who look at those wills could have obtained the information they were looking for from digital scans of the documents. My guess is that in most cases scans would have been sufficient, especially if they were colour scans – after all, the vast majority of family historians rely on scans or microfilm images of parish registers, rather than visiting the record offices that hold the registers and insisting that they are produced from the vaults.


What we DO know is that digitising documents makes them infinitely more accessible.



Looking at wills from a different perspective #2

If you’re planning to respond to the wills consultation – as I hope you will – bear in mind that they’re open to suggestions (as you can see from the following question):



There are two alternatives which immediately spring to mind:


·        Transfer the original documents to the National Archives

·        Offer the original documents for sale (descendants and other relatives could be given priority)


Transferring the wills to the National Archives would mean that the cost of keeping them still falls upon taxpayers, although TNA might well be able to cut the cost of storage. But personally I’m rather taken by the idea that we might one day be able to purchase our ancestors’ original wills – turning something that Is currently a liability into an asset and an heirloom!


Perhaps you have some suggestions of your own? If so, why not post them in this discussion on the LostCousins Forum so that you can get feedback from other members before sending in your response to the consultation?  



Looking at wills from a different perspective #3

In the Ministerial Foreword to the consultation the minister concerned, Mike Freer, writes:


“It is my responsibility to challenge the current system on behalf of taxpayers and to look at

ways of preserving original wills in a more economic and efficient manner”


And yet when I wrote to the Ministry of Justice they were unable to confirm whether, in the event that the proposals went ahead it would be the original wills and accompanying documents that would be digitised. In my view it is disingenuous to talk about ‘preserving original wills’ if that is not what is being proposed. Indeed, there is no information in the consultation about the quality of the digitised copies – the Ministry of Justice were also unable to confirm that the documents would be scanned in colour.


None of the questions in the consultation document invite comments on these important matters, but that does not mean that WE cannot highlight the importance of these issues. I suggest you mention them more than once in your response since it is probable that the responses will be analysed question by question.


If you have obtained a copy of an ancestor’s post-1858 will in the past it’s likely that all you were sent was a copy of the will and the grant of probate – no supporting documents would have been provided because, as pages 15 and 16 of the consultation make clear, there is no statutory duty to produce them for inspection.



Family historians use documents in a very different way from lawyers – we’re trying to get an insight into our ancestors’ lives, and whilst it is hard to predict what we might learn from any documents that accompanied the will, I wouldn’t be happy with such documents being destroyed without first being digitised.


There is surely a good case to be made that the documents submitted by the executors are part of the estate of the deceased, rather than belonging to the government, and that they should first be offered to surviving members of the family? This might be impractical, but it does at least provide a good reason why they should not be destroyed.


Perhaps a random sample of wills and documentation should be evaluated by a multi-disciplinary panel that includes lawyers, archivists, and historians (including family historians) in order to better understand their value to society? The focus should be on benefits as well as costs.



When online data disappears

An argument made by those who object to the destruction of paper wills is that digital information can be lost as a result of changing file formats, or changes in technology.


These are valid concerns, but it’s almost inconceivable that information would be lost because these sorts of changes don’t happen overnight, they take place over a period of years or even decades. An example that is often cited is the BBC’s Domesday project, which used LaserDiscs – but, as I understand it, the problems were more to do with analogue video and still images rather than digital data. Of course, the fact that the BBC chose a proprietary technology that never really caught on didn’t help.


Perhaps the biggest advantage of storing information digitally is the ability to make exact copies without any degradation. This allows the creation of backup copies which are perfect replicas of the original, and in the event that standards change the data can be copied into a different format and/or onto different media without any deterioration.


But what about hackers – can’t they steal data, or make it unusable? They can – but provided you have backups in a read-only format that are kept in a secure location hackers can’t destroy the data. They might attack the system that provides access to the data, so that the data is temporarily inaccessible – as happened last year to the British Library – but that’s not the same as destroying the data.  


The real problem, one that affects all of us, is the risk that we entrust information that is valuable (to us) to a service that is discontinued – sometimes without notice. I wish I’d spent more time downloading data from the Friends Reunited website before it closed down, and that I’d kept copies of more of the emails that I sent or received in the 1990-2003 period. But at least I have copies of everything since then – as well as backups taken at intervals (and stored on multiple types of media).


This BBC Future article was published nearly 3 years ago but the issues raised are still with us today.



Up to 1000 prizes on offer ENDS WEDNESDAY

This year’s competition closes at midnight (London Time) on Wednesday 31st January and in the days following I’ll be emailing hundreds of lucky winners to let them know what they’ve won. Of course, it’s not just luck – the greater your contribution to the LostCousins project over the past 12 months, the more likely you are to win prizes. Adding an extra household to your My Ancestors page could be all it takes to make you a winner!


Tip: you can win more than one prize! Winning an invitation to one or more of the exclusive presentations won’t affect your chances of winning (say) the Findmypast subscription.


Here’s a reminder of the plethora of prizes on offer:




A Findmypast Premium subscription offers exclusive online access to the 1921 England & Wales census, as well as billions of other records from Britain and around the world – including Catholic records that you won’t find anywhere else. The winner will also be able to search more than 73 million pages from the historic publications in the British Newspaper Archive – by far the largest online collection of British newspapers and periodicals the world has ever seen. This subscription has been generously donated by Findmypast.


Tip: Findmypast have recently upgraded their newspaper search – just as well when the number of articles in the archive is approaching a billion!




With the biggest online collection of tithe maps and tithe records, and a growing collection of maps and records from the ‘Lloyd George Domesday’ survey of 1910-15, The Genealogist offers the opportunity to discover records that you won’t find anywhere else.  It’s also a great place to find missing ancestors in the England & Wales censuses, because not only does The Genealogist have better quality images of many census records, there are search features that you won’t find elsewhere.


Tip: although only one person can win the prize, everyone who has expressed an interest is invited to apply to attend an exclusive ‘brick walls’ Zoom talk given by Mark Bayley from The Genealogist. This talk will be at 5.30pm (London time) on Thursday 8th February and you can apply for a place on your My Prizes page (there are up to 100 places available).




I’ve read every single issue since the magazine was first published, and I always learn something new. If you live in the UK (or want to gift a subscription to a cousin in the UK) this is your chance to get a free 13-issue subscription worth up to £69.99 (like many modern magazines WDYTYA? Is published at 4-weekly intervals).


STAR PRIZE: ANCESTRY UK DNA KIT (RRP £79 plus shipping) – donated by Peter

If you’ve yet to take a DNA test, or tested with a different company – as I did back in 2012, long before Ancestry began selling their test in the UK – this is a chance to discover just how much difference an Ancestry DNA test can make. Whether your aim is to knock down  ‘brick walls’, or simply to verify your records-based research using evidence that cannot be falsified, you will be amazed by the results – provided, of course, you follow the advice in my DNA Masterclass.


Or perhaps you’ve taken the test yourself, but would like to enlist the help of one of your cousins. With DNA the real challenge is figuring out which of your matches share each of your ‘brick walls’, and comparing your matches with those of a cousin who shares a particular ‘brick wall’ helps enormously. But don’t choose a very close cousin as they share too many of your ancestral lines – 3rd, 4th and 5th cousins are ideal when you’re trying to knock down ‘brick walls’ that are more than 3 generations back.


Note: If you live outside the UK please nominate a cousin in the UK – should you be lucky enough to win.




As in previous years I have secured the services of some extremely-knowledgeable speakers who are experts in their field. Attendance at the talks is limited to ensure that members of the audience who wish to ask questions are able to do so – whether or not you are invited will depend partly on how highly you have rated the talk on your My Prizes page, and partly on how many entries you’ve made.


Zoom software can be downloaded free of charge, or you can view the presentation in your browser. You don’t need a camera (or even a microphone) but you need to have a screen and speakers. If you can watch a YouTube video and hear the sound, you already have everything you need.


Allow an hour to an hour-and-half for the talk and questions.


How can the Society of Genealogists help you? LATEST ADDITION

Natalie Pithers, the Co-Chief Executive, and Else Churchill, the Genealogist from the Society of Genealogists will be talking exclusively to LostCousins members.


Founded in the heart of 1911, the Society of Genealogists has been a champion of heritage exploration for over a century. Their mission is to help you:



Discover how the UK's oldest genealogy society can help you investigate your ancestors at 10am on Friday 8th March.


Professor Rebecca Probert will be giving an exclusive Zoom presentation entitled Why EVERY family historian needs to know the history of family law at 10am (London time) on Saturday 10th February, and repeated at 5pm on Saturday 2nd March. (This not only doubles the number of places available, it also gives members in North America the opportunity to attend and ask questions.)


Note: invitations for the 2nd March talk will be sent out AFTER 10th February. There is no need to put your name down for the second talk now unless you already know that you will be unable to attend on 10th February.


As the author of Marriage Law for Genealogists Professor Probert is the leading expert in a field that is incredibly important to everyone with English or Welsh ancestry.


Understanding why our ancestors married when and where they did, or why they didn’t marry, is fundamental to our research. Although I have had the privilege of hearing Professor Probert speak on many occasions over the past 10 years, I can honestly say that I learned something new every time – it is such a fertile field of study.


 Dave Annal worked for The National Archives for many years, and is now a professional genealogist and author – but he’s also known to many as the presenter of Setting the Record Straight, a series of short YouTube films which take a new look at old records.


At 10am (London time) on Thursday 15th February Dave will be leading a Zoom seminar on the subject of Misinformation and What YOU Can Do About It.


Incorrect information whether in trees, books, are even parish registers presents a problem that we all have to face, and after showing a brief video we’ll be opening the discussion up to the audience – we want to know what problems misinformation has caused for you, and how you dealt with them. Were you able to persuade someone to change their tree?


I’ve also secured the support of another very popular speaker, Jackie Depelle, who is going to be talking over Zoom about Ideas for Researching Non-conformist Ancestors (one of many topics listed on Jackie’s website).


Did you know that the religious census of 1851 found that around half of those who attended church were non-conformists? For many of us this could explain why we haven’t found our ancestor’s baptism.


Jackie will be speaking over Zoom at 4pm (London time) on Friday 1st March, and there will be an opportunity for those attending to ask questions. I’ll be there – but will you?


For the first time prize-winners can choose from talks given by the husband and wife team behind LostCousins – I’ll be talking about DNA and answering questions from the audience, whilst Siân will answer questions about gardening. You might also get to sees some photos of her garden, if you’re lucky.


Please submit your questions in advance, and keep them short – there is a space for comments against each entry on your My Prizes page.


DNA for Beginners means just that – it’s primarily for those of you who are still wondering how DNA might help your research, as well as which test would be the best one to take, and why (the test that looks best in theory may not be the one that works best in practice). However if you have already tested, but don’t have a clue what to do with the results, you will also find it useful.


I’ll be speaking at 10am (London time) on Wednesday 14th February – which is also our 21st Wedding Anniversary!

Gardening Question Time provides you with an opportunity to put your gardening questions to Siân. As with the radio programme with a similar name, questions should be submitted in advance, so that the best use can be made of the time available. Please enter your question in the Comments section of your My Prizes page – or if you need to submit a photograph of a tree, plant, or garden send me an email headed ‘GQT question’.


Sian will be speaking at 10am (London time) on Friday 16th February.


Remember, unless you log into your LostCousins account and indicate on your My Prizes page which of the fantastic prizes on offer are of most interest to you – you won’t be considered for ANY of them!



War and peace

Nearly 80 years after the end of World War 2 there are still hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs and mines on the seabed around Britain, mostly in the area between East Anglia and the low countries – Belgium and the Netherlands. If they’re left alone they’re safe, but they’re a constant hazard for fisherman, and last year the captain of a fishing vessel died from injuries received when he and his crew encountered a bomb on the seabed in 2020.


See this BBC News article for more information.



Who Do You Think You are? magazine EXCLUSIVE OFFER

I've been a reader of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine ever since issue 1, and I can tell you from personal experience that every issue is packed with advice on how to research your family tree, including how to track down online records, how to get more from DNA tests, and the ever-popular readers' stories. Naturally you also get to look behind-the-scenes of the popular Who Do You Think You Are? TV series.


There's an extra special introductory offer for members in the UK, but there are also offers for overseas readers, each of which offers a useful saving on the cover price:


UK - try 6 issues for just £9.99

Europe - 13 issues (1 year) for €74.99

Australia - 13 issues (1 year) for AU $125

Rest of the world - 13 issues (1 year) for US $89.99


To take advantage of any of these deals (and to support LostCousins) please follow this link.



Peter’s Tips

Reading this BBC article I was surprised to discover that in some parts of Britain the NHS still provides earwax removal – I’ve had to manage without since 2020. Another service under threat is the daily post – first there was speculation that Saturday deliveries might end, then that there might be only 3 deliveries a week. Fewer and fewer letters are being sent, and with the way that stamp prices are rocketing I can’t see that changing.  


Back in 1997 when Royal Mail was publicly-owned (as the Post Office still is today), I bumped into one of the directors at a conference. Email was still a new phenomenon for most people in those days, but I knew that it was a threat to Royal Mail and had come up with a new service that would allow Royal Mail to capitalise on the forthcoming boom in email. Sadly I never got to share my idea – she told me that they had it all in hand, and walked off. It was the same sort of arrogance that postmasters faced a few years later….  


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 2024 Peter Calver


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