Newsletter - 16th March 2020



Society of Genealogists closed until further notice BREAKING NEWS

Living history

We're all in this together

Our ancestors faced a deadly virus - almost all of them survived

Why was it called Spanish Flu?

I've self-isolated before

RootsTech London postponed by a year

When NOT to test your DNA

Last chance to save on Ancestry DNA ENDS TUESDAY

Why I write Masterclasses

Are you an adoptee?

Review: Tracing Your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums

Peter's Tips

Stop Press



The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 12th March) 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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Society of Genealogists closed until further notice BREAKING NEWS

This afternoon I received the news that the Society of Genealogists is closing its London premises to visitors until further notice.


To find out more see the Coronavirus Update page on the SoG website.



Living history

According to Wikipedia "Living history is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time."


But for me, those two words have an alternative meaning. 'Living history' is also about being alive at a time when we know that what's happening around us will feature in the history books - I first had that feeling during the Suez Crisis (even though I was just 6), and it returned at the time of Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, then again a year later when President Kennedy was assassinated..


More recently I experienced it on 17th January 1991: I was in California and switched on the TV just as Operation Desert Storm launched - it was riveting, but it was also scary, because nobody knew how it would play out..


And we're definitely living history at the moment - the novel coronavirus presents a threat to the world population that we will overcome, but only by pulling together.



We're all in this together

Unless you live on a remote island and are totally self-sufficient you're at risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus that is sweeping around the world. No doubt in the years to come there will be some who say that governments should have done this or that - and some of them will be right, but most of them will be ignoring the political realities.


I was born in 1950, a few years after World War 2 ended, and it was hard not to admire the way that the British population had come together in order to beat Hitler. (Of course, in those days I knew nothing about my German ancestry, so I never considered the possibility that it might have been much the same for civilians on the other side.)


When the 1939 Register for England & Wales was published a few years ago we were reminded of the fact that many of the evacuees who were sent away to supposedly safer areas were back home in early 1940. The first 8 months of the war were known as the Phoney War, because much of the populace was unaffected by enemy action. It ended on 10th May 1940 when Germany marched into Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.


Ernest Cawcutt's notebook, a wonderful contemporary document that I 'rescued' from an auction last year records an air raid warning in London on 24th June 1940, and lists sporadic bombing raids during August, including a damaging attack on Croydon Airport on the evening of 15th August - but the devastating bombing campaign against London, known as The Blitz, didnít begin until 7th September 1940, more than a year after Britain and France declared war on Germany.


It isnít surprising that some became sceptical about the restrictions imposed on the civilian population in the early months of the war, and that's what governments are trying hard to avoid in the present crisis. Crack down too soon and there is the risk that people will become cynical and careless; delay and people will find a scapegoat rather than hold themselves accountable for their own recklessness. If there was ever a time for us all to act responsibly and encourage others to do the same, this is it!


Note: as I was writing this article I saw the news that the BBC is delaying the abolition of free TV licences for over-75 by two months, from 1st June to 1st August - this is a step in the right direction.



Our ancestors faced a deadly virus - almost all of them survived

Towards the end of 1917 pathologists working at the British army camp at …taples, close to Le Touquet in Northern France, reported a deadly virus - later identified as a type of influenza. The camp is thought by some to have been the epicentre of the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept around much of world in 1918-19; others trace the outbreak to army camps into the US; a third theory is that it came from China, and was carried to the US by migrant labourers. Plus Áa change!


Nobody knows how many people contracted Spanish Flu, but a figure widely quoted is 500 million, out of a world population of around 1.8 billion. Nor does anyone know how many people died as a result - the estimates range from 17 million to as many as 100 million - but the chances are that it was more than were killed during the Great War (that figure has been estimated as 20 million, about half of whom were civilians - see this analysis for more details).


And yet we wouldnít be here today if most of our ancestors hadnít survived!



Why was it called Spanish Flu?

During WW1 newspapers were subject to censorship, which made it difficult for the media on both sides to report on how their allies were affected.


But Spain was a neutral country, so newspapers were free to write about the outbreak there - and that is said to be how it acquired the name 'Spanish Flu'. King Alfonso XIII of Spain was one of the first high profile figures to contract the disease - he recovered.


Note: Alfonso was proclaimed King on 17th May 1886, the day of his birth - this unusual timing came about because he was the posthumous son of Alphonso XII, who had died the previous November, just before his 28th birthday. His mother, Maria Christina of Austria served as regent until his 16th birthday. In 1906 Alfonso married Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenburg, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and niece of King Edward VII.


Searching at the British Newspaper Archive the first mentions I could find of 'Spanish Influenza' or 'Spanish flu' were in June 1918. On 1st June the Liverpool Daily Post was telling readers that hundreds of thousands of people in Madrid had contracted the disease, theatres were closed, and because of a lack of staff only one telegraph office was still functioning.


Later that month reports of the disease in the UK started to appear - the article on the right (from the Dundee Evening Telegraph of Friday 28 June 1918) demonstrates the level of concern.


Image © D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD


You can read more about Spanish Flu and the newspaper reports of the time in this BBC article, which focuses on Belfast - one of the first hotspots.


If you are in the UK you might like to note that BBC2 will be repeating a docudrama about the 1918 flu pandemic at 15 minutes after midnight tonight (ie the early hours of Tuesday morning). After that it will be available on BBC iPlayer. I haven't seen it yet - I'm merely relaying the information.



I've self-isolated before

In early 1956 I was diagnosed with Scarlet Fever, a potentially fatal contagious disease. I was kept at home for many months and though my parents had to send regular samples for testing, the only times I went out the front door were to visit Ilford Isolation Hospital for further tests. (Despite the name, the hospital was located in Chadwell Heath, close to where we lived, so getting there was easy - and luckily I was never required to be admitted.)


I don't remember very much from that period - other than the process for the collection of samples, which I'm not going to go into here! But I got through that period of near isolation, and I'll get through this one.


Tip: reports from Medical Officers of Health for London from 1848-1972 are available free online when you follow this link



RootsTech London postponed by a year

At the end of February it was announced that RootsTech would be coming back to London in 2020, following a successful inaugural event in 2019 - but just 2 weeks later the impact of COVID-19 on the genealogy world became apparent when FamilySearch announced that the event would be postponed until 2021.


Will other events be cancelled or postponed? Undoubtedly there will be some that donít take place, but unless there is a government ban in force it will be up to individual organisers.



When NOT to test your DNA

Although over the course of a year only a small fraction of the articles in this newsletter are directly related to DNA testing, I know that some readers have gained a different impression - perhaps because the three letters D-N-A readily stand out when glancing through the table of contents.


Those of you who have an aversion to DNA will be pleased to know that are circumstances in which DNA testing is unwise - indeed, even Ancestry and 23andMe, the two biggest providers of consumer DNA tests advise against it. You can read what Ancestry say here.


It's not a great secret but itís something I havenít bothered to mention in the past because I imagined the likelihood of it occurring was so small. However last week I received an email from a member who wrote:


"I have a DNA match as 2nd-3rd cousin for someone whom I can find no genealogical kinship with, but she had a bone marrow transplant from a 2nd cousin of mine."

This isn't a surprise - the only surprise is that the recipient of a bone marrow transplant would choose to test. People know whether they have had bone marrow transplant; if they take a DNA test despite being warned not to, there is bound to be a confusion.



Last chance to save on Ancestry DNA ENDS TUESDAY

Ancestry's offers in the UK and Australia run out tomorrow (Tuesday 17th March), but they've also launched an offer at their US site which continues until Wednesday 18th March. All prices quoted exclude shipping but bear in mind that shipping works out cheaper when you order more than one kit.


(If there are any more offers announced before the next newsletter I'll update this article accordingly.)


Please use the appropriate link below so that you can support LostCousins (you may find that you need to log-out of Ancestry, if so click the link again). †††††††††††††††††††††††††† UK only - REDUCED FROM £79 to £59 †††††††††††††††††††††† Australia & New Zealand - REDUCED FROM $129 to $89††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† USA only - REDUCED FROM $99 TO $59


Tip: you donít need to decide who will be testing before you place your order - you can make your mind up at any time.



Why I write Masterclasses

This newsletter goes out to over 67,000 family historians - and much as I'd like to, I cannot possibly help every single reader individually.


That's why I create Masterclasses, articles that incorporate everything that I know about a particular topic - or, at least, the bits that you need to know about. The best example of the latter is my DNA Masterclass, which deliberately omits things that I know (from my long experience of working with DNA) will cause confusion and lead to time-wasting.


Not surprisingly the people who follow the steps in the DNA Masterclass rarely need to write to me for help - if I do hear from them itís to tell me about their successes, and to thank me for the advice in the Masterclass.


DNA is a great leveller - we all have very different family trees, but when it comes to DNA the techniques are the same. Only if you are an adoptee and donít know the name of either birth parent is a different strategy required (though only at the outset).



Are you an adoptee?

I still get emails from adoptees which say things like "I'm an adoptee, and donít know who my birth parents were, so DNA wonít be able to help me, will it?".


It's certainly true that your DNA wonít help you to trace the ancestors of your adoptive parents. But when it comes to your birth parents, that's precisely where DNA can help. It's true that ultimately interpreting your DNA results does rely on records, but they're not the records of your birth, they're the records that connect your birth parents to their wider family. So even if you were a foundling, the solution to your parentage is in your DNA!



Review: Tracing Your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums

Until fairly recently people with mental issues were regarded as an embarrassment - in some cases children were told that a parent had died rather than admit that they had gone into an institution.


But up to the early 18th century Bethlem Hospital, commonly known as Bedlam, was the only public institution for the insane in the whole of England, and whilst during that century a number of charitable institutions were founded, the number of places still fell far short of demand. Private asylums helped to fill the gap, but relatively few families could have afforded the cost.


In the 19th century it was a bit of 'postcode lottery' - depending on the area where they lived, someone with mental difficulties who was not a danger to themselves or anyone else might end up in the workhouse, which was a cheaper alternative to an asylum. On the other hand people with epilepsy who were otherwise perfectly normal might find themselves incarcerated in an asylum.


All of us have ancestors and other relatives who had some form of mental illness or disability. My paternal grandmother was in the Essex County Lunatic Asylum at the time of the 1911 Census, having been admitted 8 months earlier after the birth of her first child. She was discharged the day after the census - had she left before the weekend I would never have known about this episode in her life, and I doubt my father ever knew.


My grandmother's sister Florrie had more permanent problems - an 1889 school register entry notes "defective speech", the 1901 Census states "feeble-minded", whilst the 1911 Census records her as "deaf from birth" which would certainly explain the defective speech (though not how she was expected to learn at a normal infants school).


On the other side of the tree my maternal grandfather's eldest child was institutionalised for most of her life, though she was allowed to come and stay with us one night a week. I doubt my family is exceptional - the only difference is that in most families these facts wouldnít have been known - itís only through my research that I've found out about most of them.


Michelle Higgs, author of Tracing Your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums, has written 9 books on social history and you will almost certainly have come across her articles in family history magazines. She writes very sympathetically about the inmates of the various institutions, though I felt a little uneasy about her use of 'mug shots'. The conditions she describes are often appalling - the imbecile ward at the Dudley Union Workhouse had beds so close that they were touching, which meant that the occupants had to clamber out of their beds at the bottom.


But even today people with mental health issues can be treated appallingly by the National Health Service, so when you're reading the book you will find that some people - albeit only a small minority - were treated better in the 19th century than they would be in the 21st century.


There is a chapter on criminal lunatics, and one on mental illness in the armed forces which looks at the way in which shell shock was (mis)treated in the WW1. For many the final chapter on sources of information will be the most useful, though the chance of finding your ancestor's casefile isnít good; admission and discharge registers are more likely to have survived.


I canít say that it was an enjoyable book to read - indeed, in some places it was quite harrowing. But most people in earlier centuries lived in conditions that we would regard as appalling, and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise. If you want to understand what life was like for your ancestors with mental issues, this is the book!†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††



Peter's Tips

Here a few links to pages I've found useful - itís better to have the facts than rely on the scare stories in the press, or the opinions on social media of people whose motivation might be questionable:


Coronavirus protection tips for those over 60 (CNN)


Coronavirus - what it does to the body (BBC)


Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation? (BBC)


Kind Canadians start 'caremongering' trend (BBC)


The Coronavirus, by the Numbers (New York Times)


Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially (Washington Post)


I may add other links over the next few days.....



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......



I'll be in touch again soon - in the meantime please look after yourself, and do what you can to help others.



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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2020 Peter Calver

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