Newsletter – 20th November 2023
Time to take that DNA test! LOWEST PRICES OF THE YEAR
Stop Press FINDMYPAST OFFER
The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 15th November) 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!
It can be very frustrating when you're up against a 'brick wall' in your research, but it's impossible to research your family tree for any length of time without running into them – in fact, the longer you research the more 'brick walls' you'll have (I have well over one hundred, but if you’ve been researching longer than me you could well have many more). You won’t get past a ‘brick wall’ by venting your anger, but you might if you follow the advice in this Masterclass.
What is a ‘brick wall’?
Some people talk about anything that blocks their path as a ‘brick wall’, but most researchers consider that a ‘brick wall’ is something that stops you going back to previous generations on a particular ancestral line. So not knowing what happened to great aunt Molly might be frustrating, but it isn’t a ‘brick wall’.
For me, a brick wall is something that stops me getting back any further on a particular line. So being unable to find an ancestor's death or burial place is rarely a brick wall, but being unable to find their baptism or marriage often is.
Is it really a 'brick wall'?
But before turning to the question of how to get those brick walls tumbling down, it's important to distinguish between real brick walls and the imaginary ones we create for ourselves. For example, if there are sources of information that you haven't searched because you don't have the right subscription or don't live close to the relevant records office, it's not really a brick wall that's blocking your path.
Of course, we all have limited time and money, but there are usually routes we can take if only we stop and think for a moment - these might, for example, include free access to subscription services at your local library, record office, family history society, or LDS Family History Centre. Of course, sometimes the records you want to search are only available at an archive that's thousands of miles away - but even then you've got the option of employing a researcher, or contacting a friend or cousin who lives nearby.
SOURCES YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE CONSIDERED
For most of the period before the commencement of civil registration (1837 in England & Wales, 1855 in Scotland) copies of parish register entries were supposed to be sent annually to the bishop or archdeacon. Bishop's Transcripts (generally abbreviated to BTs) are useful for many reasons, for example:
However, there are some pitfalls to look out for:
Most of my ancestors didn’t make wills or, if they did, the wills didn’t go to probate – so haven’t survived. But even if your ancestors didn’t make wills themselves they may have been mentioned in the wills of others, and if you’re particularly lucky there will be an index to beneficiaries that you can search (check the websites of the local record office and the local family history society).
Local or specialist websites
There are some phenomenal resources that have been compiled by family history societies, local history societies, projects of all kinds, and individual researchers. For example, as a member of Essex Society for Family History I can refer to the indexes of Poor Law records for the county that have been compiled by volunteers. At a more local level the Earls Colne database, which was constructed by a team at the University of Cambridge between 1972 and 2002, contains a large part of the surviving records of a single Essex parish over the period 1380-1854.
TECHNIQUES THAT ARE WORTH TRYING
Family reconstitution or reconstruction
When researching prior to 1837 we're often faced with the problem that there are lots of people with the same surname in a few adjoining parishes, which makes it very difficult to identify who a particular register entry is referring to. Burial registers are particularly problematic, since there's often no indication of the age of the deceased, but baptism registers which only give the name of the father, or give the wrong name for the mother (an annoyingly common occurrence) are also a hindrance.
Sometimes the only way to make sense of the entries is to take all the entries for a particular surname and apportion them amongst the families who were known to be living in the area at the time - it's like the overlap between a One-Place Study and a One-Name Study. It may be necessary to draw on records other than parish registers - later census and marriage records can provide insight into happenings in the early 19th century, even though the information can't be assumed to be correct (birthplaces and ages in censuses are often wrong, whilst ages and fathers' names on marriage certificates are equally unreliable).
But when you've checked all the readily-available records, what next? One approach is to find others who are researching the same line, which is where LostCousins can help: make sure that your My Ancestors page is as complete as possible. Finding relatives who are researching the same families can lead to all sorts of discoveries - even someone who isn't as experienced as you may well have some clues that you don't have.
Tip: most researchers tend to spend more time working on their direct paternal line than any other - partly because our ancestors in that line bear the surname that WE were born with, and partly because following a single surname made life a lot easier in the days when we had to rely on microfilms and index cards. So when you're researching one of your many other lines, finding someone for whom that line is their direct paternal line is almost always good news - even though they might otherwise not have as much experience as we do.
Sometimes simply starting from a different place on the tree can make all the difference. For example, a few years ago I obtained the will of my great-great-great-great aunt's husband - which referred to the son of his sister-in-law (another of my great-great-great-great aunts) but didn't name him. I knew that she wasn't married at the time the will was written, so it was obvious that the child was illegitimate - and suddenly I realised who that son must be (and that the father shown on BOTH of his marriage certificates was nothing but fiction).
Even though it didn't break down any of my own brick walls it was a ground-breaking discovery for the hundreds of descendants of that child (now confirmed as my cousins), because it revealed who the mother of the child was, and at the same time prevented them from expending more effort trying to find a non-existent father. Starting from where they are on the tree there would have been no reason for them to ever obtain a copy of that will - it was only when they connected with me, their 5th cousin, that the mystery could be solved.
There are many other examples from my own tree that I could cite, but there are just as many situations where I've been helped by cousins who have clues that I wouldn’t have found in a million years (DNA matches are particularly useful).
Tip: it doesn't matter how distant your cousins might seem - all of them share your ancestors, and that's what is important!
DNA testing is a bit like Marmite – some people like the idea of using technology to inform their research, and some people don’t. But whether you like the idea or not, you can’t ignore the fact that your DNA (and the DNA of your cousins) provides evidence of who your ancestors were - evidence that can’t be faked.
The great thing about DNA is that it can not only solve mysteries, it can verify the records-based research that you’ve already carried out. Sometimes we’re 95% (or even 99%) certain that we have the right baptism but can’t find evidence that will prove it beyond all reasonable doubt. Of course, the flipside of this is that very occasionally you’ll discover that you’ve been researching the wrong line, whether because of marital infidelity or sloppy record-keeping. Far better that you research your own ancestors and your own brick walls than someone else’s!
Even if you don’t understand how it works, DNA can still work for you. But whether you understand it or not, if you don’t follow the simple steps in my DNA Masterclass you’re not only throwing your money away but wasting your time. Almost all of the many breakthroughs I've made in the last 6 years have been the result of clues and inferences gathered by testing my own DNA and that of consenting cousins, but it is the mistakes I made in the previous 5 years that I want you to avoid!
TRY THINKING ABOUT THE PROBLEM DIFFERENTLY
The discovery described in the previous section depended on spotting the link between seemingly unrelated information from three different parts of my tree. Making such connections usually requires us to have a very ambivalent attitude towards the information in our tree: in other words, we always have to have in the back of our minds the possibility that what we've been told, or what we've read in a register or on a certificate isn't true - at least until we have found so much supporting evidence that we have to accept its veracity. As I mentioned in the previous section, it’s rare that we can be 100% certain unless we have DNA confirmation – even if we've found all the right records, the records could be wrong.
Whilst we all know deep down how unreliable family stories usually are, somehow we fool ourselves into thinking that our family is in some way different. Our bias is even more evident when it's someone we actually knew: "My grandmother was so religious, she couldn't possibly have given birth to an illegitimate child" is a fiction I've heard more than once since I started helping LostCousins members to knock down their brick walls nearly 20 years ago.
Occasionally we know where the information that will break down a particular brick wall is likely to come from. For example, there were a lot of people waiting for the 1911 Census to be released because it was the only way they could find out where their grandfather or grandmother was born, and no doubt there are others hoping that the 1921 Census will provide the answer they're seeking.
Similarly, you may know that the parish registers for one of your areas of interest are due to go online, or are being indexed by the local family history society – either of which would make it far easier for you to search.
If you have a pretty good idea that the answer to a puzzle is going to be revealed by the release of new data, why continue to expend effort? Surely it's better to use your energies and expertise to solve problems that don't have such a neat solution?
Be alert, be lucky!
Often it's serendipity that leads to the solution - though we still have to be alert to that possibility. For example, the surname of a visitor staying with my great-great-great grandparents at the time of the 1851 Census seemed vaguely familiar, and I eventually realised that it was the name of a marriage witness whose signature I'd had difficulty deciphering some years before. This enabled me to confirm that I'd found the right Smith family on the census, so I was able to take the line back another generation - not easy with such a common surname, especially since the father had changed his occupation from 'carpenter' to 'rag merchant' and some of the children's names and ages were different.
Read around the problem
Seek out inspiration. Read as many family history magazines as you can, and especially free newsletters - not just mine, but also the blogs of knowledgeable people with lots of connections like Chris Paton. The articles in society journals might seem irrelevant to your current research, but the information you glean could well solve one in the future, perhaps in a different county and a different part of your tree.
Join the LostCousins Forum if you've been invited (check your My Summary page - over half the people who have been invited haven't joined yet). Listening to how other people knocked down their brick walls may inspire you to knock down your own.
Sometimes the solutions arrive before the problems – we usually refer to it as 'experience'.
Rather than bang my head against a brick wall I often choose the 'do nothing' option. That's right, instead of running round like a headless chicken I put that particular problem to one side and focus on another part of my tree, or else on writing a newsletter. It's amazing how often some small discovery I make when researching the articles in my newsletter provides an insight into how I might solve a problem that I've filed in the 'too difficult' drawer.
To be really successful we have to be flexible not only in the way we do our research, but also the order in which we do it!
Make use of ALL the resources available, even if it costs you money! You might resent paying money to big companies but they wouldn’t get that big if they didn’t provide a valuable service.
If you’re an experienced family historian you will inevitably have dozens of ‘brick walls’. One of them will be on your direct paternal line (the line that goes up the far left-hand side of your tree), one will be on your direct maternal line (the line at the far right) – but all the rest will be on the lines in between. The only type of DNA test you can take which will tell you anything about the lines in the middle of your tree (which, after all, is where all but two of your ‘brick walls’ are) is an autosomal DNA test. So you won’t be surprised to learn that ALL of the major companies that provide DNA tests offer autosomal tests – and in most cases these are the only tests that they offer.
Typically autosomal tests can help with ‘brick walls’ up to 6 or 7 generations back. So not all of your ‘brick walls’ will be within reach, though I’m sure you would agree with me that it’s the most recent ‘brick walls’ which are the most frustrating. It’s because of this limitation that I advise testing relatives from the earliest surviving generation – even if they are not in your direct line.
Autosomal tests can also help with ‘brick walls’ on your direct paternal and direct maternal lines provided they are within 6 or 7 generations, but there also tests that specifically look at those two lines (and no other). Whilst Y-DNA (paternal line) and mtDNA (maternal line) tests can, in theory, look back many more generations, they are not only more expensive, the chances of them telling you anything of practical value is quite low. You might be lucky – but most people aren’t, and more than a decade after I took those tests I’ve learned next to nothing, despite spending many hundreds of pounds.
For all the reasons stated autosomal DNA tests are the best choice for family historians – but which of the many companies should you choose? Fortunately the decision is clear-cut – there is one company that has sold far more tests to family historians than any other, and the same company has more family trees than any other. Even better, the way in which DNA matches and family trees are integrated means that this company does a lot of the things that you’d have to do yourself if you tested with another provider. That company is, of course, Ancestry. Their tests may be more expensive but believe me, they’re well worth the extra!
Tip: you don’t need an Ancestry subscription to make use of an Ancestry DNA test, but it’ll certainly help – so if you have a cousin who is a subscriber, consider giving them access to your DNA results. Similarly, if you’re the one with the subscription suggest that your cousins allow you to manage or collaborate on their DNA results.
Time to take that DNA test! LOWEST PRICES OF THE YEAR
Black Friday often brings the lowest prices of the year, and that certainly applies to DNA tests from Ancestry UK, as they are discounted from £79 to £49 from noon today until noon on Wednesday 29th November. Prices exclude shipping, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Ancestry pay for shipping BOTH ways.
AncestryDNA® is only £49! Offer ends 11/28
Ancestry Canada also has an outstanding offer starting today, and again it’s the lowest price of the year:
Don’t miss our lowest price of the year. AncestryDNA® is only $69! Terms Apply.
In Australia and New Zealand you can take advantage of an enormous saving at Ancestry.com.au:
Don’t miss our lowest price of the year. AncestryDNA® is only $79! Terms Apply.
It might surprise you to learn that taking a DNA test frequently causes amnesia. That’s right, people who take a DNA test often forget why it was they tested!
To be fair, it’s not the fault of the test itself – it’s the way that the results are presented. You get a long list of matches (over 10,000 of them when you test with Ancestry), and they’re sorted according to the amount of DNA each person shares with you. So it’s natural to start at the top and work your way down the list, isn’t it?
But you have to ignore that primeval urge and remember WHY it was you took the test – wasn’t it to knock down some of your ‘brick walls’? Experienced family historians like you and me have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ‘brick walls’, each one blocking our way to earlier generations of that line and all the lines that it leads to. Until I took the Ancestry DNA test I couldn’t identify the father of my illegitimate great-grandmother, which meant that 6% of my tree was unknown and unknowable. On the other side of my tree I couldn’t identify the parents of one of my great-great grandmothers – it turned out she had been brought up in the workhouse, where they changed her surname and changed her religion, so another 6% of my tree was blocked off until DNA came to the rescue.
On my direct maternal line I was stuck with my great-great-great grandmother Maria Shearing, who was shown in the 1851 Census as born in Leith, Scotland – but it with the help of DNA I could confirm that she was born in Lee, Kent, opening up another 3% of my tree to exploration. Having confirmed who her father was I was temporarily stymied by another census enumerator, who in 1851 recorded his birthplace as Hatcham, Surrey – very close to where he was living at the time. But thanks to Ancestry DNA matches I could prove that he was born on the other side of the county, in Fetcham – the son of John Sheiring.
So DON’T do the obvious thing and work your way through your list of matches from the top because, unless you have an unknown parent or grandparent, the matches that will help you knock down your ‘brick walls’ are likely to be so far down the list that you’ll never get to them. You didn’t test your DNA to find more cousins, you did it to knock down ‘brick walls’ – so follow the simple, straightforward strategies in my DNA Masterclass and your DNA test will repay your investment, time and time again!
The world’s largest collection of historic newspapers from the British Isles continues to grow. Their original aim was to digitize 40 million pages over the course of a decade, but now the British Newspaper Archives is on course to reach double that number in the next couple of years, having just passed the 72 million mark.
When you bear in mind that a single page might have a dozen or more articles, and a single article could mention numerous names, there must be billions of names in the archive, Those of celebrities and politicians might occur thousands of times, whilst your great-great grandfather only appears twice – but those two mentions will be more valuable to you than all the mentions of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
Findmypast enhance newspaper search
In the past I’ve always recommended the dedicated British Newspaper Archive site for anyone who relies heavily upon newspapers articles as a way of filling in the gaps in their family history. After all, much of what we know about our antecedents comes from censuses, so we’re relying on snapshots at 10-year intervals – it’s a bit like looking at passport photos without seeing the pages that record the countries visited. By contrast local newspapers were published weekly, or even daily, so provide much more information on those relatives who were fortunate – or unfortunate – to feature.
For me, the ‘killer feature’ that the British Newspaper Archive offered was the ability to restrict my search to pages added to the archive after a specific date. By contrast, if I was searching at Findmypast I’d have to plough through the same results every time I searched for a particular relative – I’d have no way of separating out the new additions.
But not any more – you can now sort the results of a newspaper search by ‘Date added’, so that the most recent additions are at the top of the list. It’s not a perfect solution since if you’re sorting by ‘Date added’ you can’t simultaneously sort by ‘Relevance’, but it goes a long way to meeting my needs.
The Legitimacy Act 1926 enabled a child to be classified as ‘legitimate’ when their parents married after their birth:
(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, where the parents of an illegitimate person marry or have married one another, whether before or after the commencement- of this Act, the marriage shall, if the father of the illegitimate person was or is at the date of the marriage domiciled in England or Wales, render that person, if living, legitimate from the commencement of this Act, or from the date of the marriage, whichever last happens.
(2) Nothing in this Act shall operate to legitimate a person whose father or mother was married to a third person when the illegitimate person was born.
Intriguingly the Act also states that “It shall be the duty of the parents of a legitimated person, or, in cases where re-registration can be effected on information furnished by one parent and one of the parents is dead, of the surviving parent, within the time hereinafter specified, to furnish to the Registrar-General information with a view to obtaining the re-registration of the birth of that person”.
Until last week I’d never seen an example of a birth that had been re-registered, but LostCousins member David was able to rectify that with these two images:
It’s interesting to note that the wrong year was shown at the top of the latter certificate – more proof (were it needed!) that officials can make mistakes. Note too that whilst the mother’s occupation was shown in the original birth registration, it was (correctly) omitted when the birth was re-registered.
Incidentally, the couple married in 1929 – so the birth was not re-registered within the 3 month period specified in the 1926 Act.
GRO do the decent thing
Earlier this month I showed you the birth certificate for William Alfred Ridley that Joyce received from the General Register Office in 2001. The date of birth was given as 4th November, but it turned out that the GRO clerk who prepared the certificate had misread the register entry, and that the correct birthdate as 10th November. I suggested to Joyce that in the circumstances the GRO ought to provide a replacement certificate, and whilst they initially demurred, last week she received a replacement in the post.
The primary objective of LostCousins is to connect you to family historians who are researching the same ancestors – your ‘lost cousins’. Of course, as you’ll know from searching online trees, some of the people who have your ancestors in their trees aren’t cousins of yours at all – they’re only related to you by marriage, and it can sometimes be quite difficult to figure out which is which.
At LostCousins it’s done automatically – the software that drives the website works out whether you and the member you’re matched with share a common ancestor. However, for the algorithm to come to the correct conclusion you need to have entered the correct relationship between yourself and each of the relatives you’ve entered.
Does it matter what relationships are shown in the census? For example, if the householder describes a child as his ‘daughter’, when you know for a fact that she is actually his ‘step-daughter’, should you take that into account? Probably not - what matters is the actual relationship between yourself and the person you’re entering – and that doesn’t change just because someone filled in the census form incorrectly.
Tip: if you’re researching on behalf of someone else, even your spouse or partner, use a separate account so that the relationships shown are correct for them. You can have two LostCousins accounts at the same email address provided the passwords are different.
Not sure which relationship to use? There’s a short reminder on the Add Ancestor form but you’ll find more detailed information in the FAQs.
I had mixed feelings when I read this article about the man who caught the former commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Of course it was right that Rudolf Höss should be brought to justice for the horrific crimes against humanity that he had perpetrated, but when I read that his hiding place was discovered only because his wife was interrogated for 6 days, before “she finally broke down” I couldn’t help wondering how brutal that post-war interrogation had been.
I am delighted that until Monday 27th November Findmypast are offering a 25% discount on their 3 month subscriptions as well as their 12 month subscriptions. Of course, the discount only applies to the first payment so if you can possibly manage it, purchase a 12 month subscription and lock in your saving for a whole year. And, as a 12 month subscriber you’ll also benefit from a 15% Loyalty Discount should you opt to renew your subscription, as many of you undoubtedly will.
But don't subscribe
until you've read this special newsletter - there's a bonus on offer for readers of this newsletter!
But don't subscribe until you've read this special newsletter - there's a bonus on offer for readers of this newsletter!
Findmypast.co.uk - Save 25% on 3 and 12 month subscriptions – ends 10am Monday 27th November
Findmypast.ie - Save 25% on 3 and 12 month subscriptions – ends 10am Monday 27th November
Findmypast.com.au - Save 25% on 3 and 12 month subscriptions – ends Sunday 26th November (10am London time on Monday 27th)
Findmypast.com - Save 25% on 3 and 12 month subscriptions – ends 10am London time on Monday 27th November
There could be more offers later in the week – Thursday is Thanksgiving, which means Friday is Black Friday. If so I’ll update the Stop Press, so check back in a couple of days’ time.
© Copyright 2023 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?
Many of the links in this newsletter and elsewhere on the website are affiliate links – if you make a purchase after clicking a link you may be supporting LostCousins (though this depends on your choice of browser, the settings in your browser, and any browser extensions that are installed). Thanks for your support!