Newsletter - 29th October 2016



MASTERCLASS: finding birth certificates

Have I knocked down my oldest 'brick wall'? You be the judge....

Get a free 1 month Findmypast subscription when you test your DNA

Should you take a DNA test?

Some common misconceptions

What your DNA results will and won't tell you

Things to do before you buy a test

DNA success: Marina's tale

DNA story: the migrant from Aleppo

Digging up the ancestors

Burial mounds are back in fashion

Former England cricketer reaches 105 not out

The born again Texan

FFHS needs a helping hand - are you interested?

Did you find my email in your spam folder?

Peter's Tips

Stop Press


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MASTERCLASS: finding birth certificates

It's very frustrating when you can't find an ancestor's birth certificate - but often the 'brick wall' only exists in our imagination. Let's look at some of the key reasons why a certificate can't be found....


·        The forename you know your ancestor by may not be the one on the birth certificate
Sometimes the name(s) given at the time of baptism would differ from the name(s) given to the registrar of births; sometimes a middle name was preferred, perhaps to avoid confusion with another family member, often the father. Although it was possible to amend a birth registry entry to reflect a change of name at baptism, most people seem not to have bothered.

There can be all sorts of reasons why a different forename is used - one of my ancestors appears on some censuses as 'Ebenezer' and on others as 'John' (which I imagine was the name he was generally known by). In another family the children (and there were lots of them) were all known by their middle names.

·        Middle names come and go
At the beginning of the 19th century it was rare to have a middle name, but by the beginning of the 20th century it was unusual not to have one. Some people invented middle names, some people dropped middle names they didn't like, and sometimes people simply forgot what was on the birth certificate.

For example, one of my relatives was registered as Fred, but in 1911 his father - my great-grandfather - gave his name as Frederick.

·        The surname on the certificate may not be the one you expect
If the parents weren't married at the time of the birth then usually (but not always) the birth will be recorded under the mother's maiden name (the exception is where the mother was using the father's surname and failed to disclose to the registrar that they weren't married).

Also bear in mind the possibility that the surname you know your ancestor by was his stepfather's name - this could apply whether nor not the child was born outside marriage.

·        You're looking for the wrong father
Often the best clue you have to the identity of your ancestor's father is the information on his or her marriage certificate. Unfortunately marriage certificates are often incorrect - the father's name and/or occupation may well be wrong. This is particularly likely if your ancestor never knew his or her father, whether as a result of early death or illegitimacy. Not many people admit to being illegitimate on their wedding day - and in Victorian Britain illegitimacy was frowned upon, so single mothers often made up stories to tell their children (as well as the neighbours).

Whether or not the birth was legitimate young children often took the name of the man their mother later married, so always bear in mind the possibility that the father whose name is shown on the marriage certificate is actually a step-father.

·        You may be looking in the wrong place
A child's birthplace is likely to be shown correctly when he or she is living at home (few mothers are going to forget where they were when they gave birth!), but could well be incorrect after leaving home. Many people simply didn't know where they were born, and assumed it was the place they remembered growing up.

The most accurate birthplace is the one given by the father or (especially) the mother of the person whose birth you're trying to track down; the least accurate is likely to be the one in the first census after they leave home.

·        You may be looking in the wrong period
Ages on censuses are often wrong, as are the ages shown on marriage certificates - especially if there is an age gap between the parties, or one or both is below the age of consent (21). Sometimes people didn't know how old they were, or knew which year they were born, but bungled the subtraction; ages on death certificates can be little more than guesses, or may be based on an incorrect age shown on the deceased's marriage certificate. Remember too that births could be registered up to 42 days afterwards without penalty, so many will be recorded in the following quarter - and they could be registered up to 365 days afterwards on payment of a fine.

In my experience, where the marriage certificate shows 'of full age' it's often an indication that in reality they were under 21!

·        The birth was not registered at all
This is the least likely situation, but it did happen occasionally - most often in the first few years of registration, though it wasn't until 1875 that there was a penalty for failing to register a birth.

·        The GRO indexes are wrong
This is also quite rare, but did happen occasionally despite the checks that were carried out.


How can you overcome these problems? First and foremost keep an open mind - be prepared to accept that any or all of the information you already have may be wrong. This is particularly likely if you have been unable to find your relative at home with their parents on any of the censuses.


Obtain all the information that you can from censuses, certificates, baptism entries and other sources (such as Army records). Sometimes it will be worth buying certificates for all of the children - one member told me that she only found her ancestor's real surname on just one of the birth certificates for his eight children - but start with their baptisms, as this is a much cheaper option (though, of course, the information won't necessarily be the same).


The less information you can find, the more likely it is that the little you already have is incorrect or misleading in some way. For example, if you can't find your ancestor on ANY censuses prior to his marriage, you can be pretty certain that the information on the marriage certificate and later censuses is wrong in some material way.


Don't assume that just because something appears in an official document, it must be right. Around half of the 19th century marriage certificates I've seen included at least one error, and as many as half of all census entries are also wrong in some respect (I'm not talking about transcription errors, by the way). Army records are particularly unreliable - one of my relatives added 2 years to his age when he joined the British Army in 1880, and knocked 7 years off when he signed up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914.


Some people really were named Tom, Dick, or Harry but over-eager record-keepers might assume that they were actually Thomas, Richard and Henry. My grandfather was Harry, but according to his army records he was Henry (just as well he had two other forenames, which were recorded correctly, otherwise I might never have found him).


Consider how and why the information you have might be wrong by working your way through the list above - then come up with a strategy to deal with each possibility. Sometimes it's as easy as ordering the birth certificate for a sibling to find out the mother's maiden name; often discovering when the parents married is a vital clue (but don't believe what it says on the 1911 Census - the years of marriage figure was sometimes adjusted for the sake of propriety).


If you can't find your ancestor on any census with his or her parents then you should be particularly suspicious of the information you have - it's very likely that some element is wrong, and it is quite conceivable that it is ALL wrong.


Middle names that could also be surnames often indicate illegitimacy - it was usually the only way to get the father's name on the birth certificate. Unusual middle names can provide clues - I remember helping one member find an ancestor whose birth was under a completely different surname by taking advantage of the fact that his middle name was Ptolemy!


Make use of local BMD indexes (start at UKBMD), and don't forget to look for your ancestor's baptism - sometimes we forget that parents continued to have their children baptised after Civil Registration began. Consider the possibility that one or both of the parents died when your ancestor was young - perhaps there will be evidence in workhouse records. Have you looked for wills?


Could the witnesses to your ancestor's marriage be relatives? When my great-great-great grandfather Joseph Harrison married, one of the witnesses was a Sarah Salter - who I later discovered (after many years of fruitless searching) was his mother. Her maiden name wasn't Salter, by the way - nor was it Harrison - and it was only because the Salter name stuck in my mind that I managed to knock down the 'brick wall'. Another marriage witness with a surname I didn't recognise proved invaluable when I was struggling with my Smith line - he turned up as a lodger in the census, helping to prove that I was looking at the same family on two successive censuses, even though the names and ages of the children didn't tally, and the father had morphed from a carpenter to a rag merchant.


Finally, remember that you're probably not the only one researching this particular ancestor - and one of your cousins may already have the answers you're seeking. So make sure that you have entered ALL your relatives from 1881 on your My Ancestors page, as this is the census that is most likely to link you to your 'lost cousins'.


Have I knocked down my oldest 'brick wall'? You be the judge....

I've always been guided in my research by the words of Sherlock Holmes: "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". But it isn't easy to put into practice: whilst as family historians there's nothing more satisfying than adding another ancestor to our tree, we can't always find incontrovertible evidence - so at what point do we stop looking?


My oldest 'brick wall' is my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Burns, who married William John Pepperell in Stepney in 1859 - I obtained a copy of their marriage certificate from the local register office almost exactly 14 years ago.



Local marriage certificates are much more reliable than those obtained from the General Register Office because they're originals - they show our ancestors' signatures, as well as those of the witnesses. But that doesn't mean that they're perfect - on Mary Ann Burns' marriage certificate her father is shown as James Brown deceased, an error by the vicar that put me off the scent in the early years (because it suggested she was illegitimate). It was only when I checked the entry in the church copy of the register that I discovered the mistake - her father was clearly shown there as James Burns deceased.


Although Mary Ann was recorded as of 'full' age (ie over 21) at the time of her marriage I was sceptical - the groom's age was also shown in the same way, and I knew for certain that he was only 20. Mary Ann's ages on the censuses from 1861 to 1901, and on her death certificate, suggested that she was born between April 1839 and April 1841 - which meant that her birth ought to have been registered (since civil registration began in July 1837). But where?


On the censuses she gave three different birthplaces: Poplar (1861 and 1881), Tower of London (1871), and Shadwell (1901) - all three of them in east London and close to the River Thames; no birthplace was specified in 1891. But I eventually managed to eliminate all of the births in that part of London, leaving me wondering whether her birth had been registered at all. Or perhaps she was born somewhere completely different - many people on the English censuses with the surname Burns had been in born in Scotland or Ireland (and when more recently I got several DNA matches with people whose ancestry was partly Irish it encouraged me to think further along those lines).


When Ancestry put the registers held by the London Metropolitan Archives online in 2009 I had renewed hope: even if Mary Ann's birth hadn't been registered, surely I'd be able to find her baptism? But sadly there were no new leads.


However, from the very beginning there had been on my list of births a Mary Ann Margaret Burns whose birth was registered in Islington, north London, in the first quarter of 1841. From the 1841 Census I knew that her father was James Burns, a printer, and although I hadn't found the family in the 1851 Census I did spot that in 1847 a James Burns aged 29 had been buried at St Mary, Islington. But, as for many of you, the amount of time I can spend on my tree is limited - so I had to put my research to one side.


When I eventually returned to the problem this week I realised that Sophia Burns, the mother of Mary Ann Margaret, had remarried just before the 1851 Census to a widower (Joseph Lacey) who had several children from his first marriage. But most interesting for me was the discovery that Mary Ann had a sister, Sophia, whose birth was registered - also in Islington - in the first quarter of 1843. In itself this didn't make it any more likely that Mary Ann Margaret Burns was my ancestor, but when I discovered Sophia's marriage in 1872, then found her on the 1881, 1891, and 1901 Censuses I became gradually more confident.


What was it that I found so encouraging? It was the fact that the censuses gave Sophia's birthplace as Lambeth (south London) in 1881, and Shoreditch in 1891 and 1901 - and two of them showed her to be a little older than she really was. If Sophia didn't know that she was born in Islington, and wasn't sure of her age, it seemed quite reasonable that her sister Mary Ann would also get it wrong  - indeed, many people give as their birthplace the location where they remember growing up.


So I'm cautiously optimistic that I've identified my ancestor - but will I ever find any proof? There may be no documentary evidence that has survived. Mary Ann Margaret Burns does appear in a public Ancestry tree, but there's no information about her marriage or her death.


Fortunately there is a solution, and it's one that I couldn't have dreamt of in 2002: DNA can furnish proof when the trail of evidence runs out! All I have to do is find some descendants of Sophia Burns (née Yeomans, later Lacey) and establish whether there is a match with my autosomal DNA, or that of one of the many known cousins who are also descended from Mary Ann.


Get a free 1 month Findmypast subscription when you test your DNA

Family Tree DNA have a special offer - for $89, just $10 more than the price of their standard test, they're offering the Family Finder autosomal DNA test, the Warrior Gene DNA test, and a One Month Premium subscription to (the equivalent of a World subscription at other sites). I understand this offer is tied in with the release of a film called Assassin's Creed.


The value of the Warrior Gene test is debatable - if you've read Adam Rutherford's book (which I reviewed here) you'll know that he doesn't believe that there's sufficient evidence to link the gene to violent behaviour - but the Findmypast subscription is easily worth $10, even though monthly subscriptions don't provide access to Findmypast's flagship dataset, the 1939 National Register for England & Wales.


Unfortunately for legal reasons this offer is only available to US residents. You can support LostCousins if you use this link when ordering (or if you don't live in the US this link, which will take you to their main website).


Note: you'll almost certainly find that to take up your 'free' Findmypast subscription you'll need to provide credit card details, to enable them to start charging you the regular price of $19.95 per month after your free month ends. If you don't want to continue untick the 'Auto-renew my subscription' box under Personal Details in the My Account section of the website.     


Should you take a DNA test?

Although I've written extensively about DNA over the past few years I get many emails from members who aren't sure what a DNA test can do for them - or which DNA test to take.


Reasons to consider a DNA test - tick any which apply to you


·         There's a family story which suggests that my ancestor was..... 

·         I have an ancestor who was illegitimate, or whose parentage is in doubt 

·         My ancestor migrated in the late 18th century, or 19th century and I don't know where he was born 

·         I have at least one 'brick wall' in my tree which is more recent than 1750 

·         I have a 'brick wall' which is earlier than 1750 and I have identified a male relative who bears the relevant surname 

·         Conventional research requires judgement; I want to validate what I'm showing in my tree 

·         Because paper records can be wrong or incomplete I need a way of cross-checking my research   

·         I have a theory but there are gaps, so I need independent verification 

·         I want to find 'lost cousins' 


If you were unable to tick any of those boxes, congratulations - you truly are one in a million!


But if you've ticked any at all, then DNA should be able to help! It probably won't give you all the answers, though it should narrow down your options, and it will certainly tell you things that are absolutely impossible for conventional research to discover.


Some common misconceptions

There are many reasons that people give for not wanting to take a DNA test - here some of the most common together with my answers:


DNA testing only works for males, and I'm female

Until a few years ago you'd have been right - the only potentially useful DNA test you could have taken then was a Y-DNA test, and Y-DNA isn't carried by females. But now autosomal DNA tests have taken over - and both males and females inherit autosomal DNA and pass it on to their children.


My DNA is personal - I don't want to give it to anyone

The reality is that we're giving away samples of our DNA all the time - whenever we use a door handle or touch a steering wheel, or when we handle money, use cutlery, drink from a glass or mug, sneeze, discard a handkerchief or a myriad of other things. On average we shed about 400,000 skin cells each day!


I'm afraid of needles and I faint at the sight of blood

There are no needles involved, and certainly no blood. DNA tests for genealogical purposes require a sample of saliva, or a few skin cells scraped from the inside of your cheek using a plastic spatula - in other words, it's a completely painless process.


I don't want to know about diseases that I've inherited

The DNA tests I recommend won't give you any medical information except, perhaps, your chance of having blue eyes. There is a test sold by 23andMe which includes information believed to be relevant to a number of ailments, but it's much more expensive compared to genealogical tests.


I'm worried that my results might end up in the hands of the police

This would require a court order - and, as you'll have seen from the answers above, there are far easier ways for someone to get hold of your DNA. In any case the DNA tests that the police use are very different, because they usually have to work with degraded samples - they look at different parts of the genome. Genealogical DNA tests are optimised for family trees, not crime-solving.


What if I discover that one of my ancestors was illegitimate, or that they were adopted?

Taking a DNA test won't change the facts - but you may well discover that some of the things you thought you knew are untrue. I know they say that "ignorance is bliss", but surely you wouldn't have become a family historian if you didn't want to know the truth?


I prefer to do my research the traditional way

We all feel more confident about things that we're familiar with, which is why there are still some family historians who don't use the Internet, or even own a computer.


What your DNA results will and won't tell you

It might surprise you to learn that the results of your autosomal DNA test will be absolutely meaningless! For example, here are the first 10 lines of my own results:











































And there are another 725,282 lines that look much the same.....


In reality it's only when our results were compared with those of others who have tested that they became meaningful, and even then it takes clever software to figure it all out. Each of the companies which offer tests have their own software, but they can only compare your results against their own customers (the exception is Family Tree DNA, who accept transfers of Ancestry data).


But there are also sites where family historians who have tested with different companies can look for additional matches, the biggest and best-known of which is GEDmatch. GEDmatch also provides a range of tools to make it easier to analyse your matches.


When you get a match at Family Tree DNA or GEDmatch you get two key pieces of information: the length of the longest shared segment, and the total length of all shared segments; Ancestry tell you the number of shared segments and the total length, but not the length of the longest segment. The lengths are measured in obscure units called centiMorgans (abbreviated as cM), but all you really need to know is that the longer the longest shared segment is the more likely it is that it's a genuine match, and the closer the relationship is likely to be.


But just knowing that someone is a cousin isn't enough - you ideally need to know who the common ancestor, and you certainly need to be able to figure out which part of your tree is the relevant one. Up to half of the cousins you're matched will have provided a pedigree or tree, so you might think "That's easy, I'll just look for surnames that I recognise". However, it would lead to a lot of missed matches, as I explained in this recent article - the article that follows in the same newsletter explains that in practice you'd do better to look for places that you have in common.


Things to do before you buy a test

Buying a DNA test isn't like waving a magic wand - you won't miraculously discover the answers to all the questions you wished you'd asked your grandparents when they were alive. Here's a reminder of the key things you ought to do before committing to a test in order to ensure that you're spending your money wisely:



DNA success: Marina's tale

"My husband and I originally had our DNA tested in 2007, then added Family Finder about 2 years ago. About 3 weeks ago a name came up as a match to my husband that I recognized and I knew exactly what the connection was, but what intrigued me was another match with a name I did not recognize, however this person's DNA numbers made him a closer match than the name I did know.  I contacted this person and came upon a fascinating story.


"This man discovered about 17 years ago, when he was sorting through his deceased parents' papers, that he had been adopted - a total surprise to him! He and his daughter set out to try and trace his birth mother. It took them a long time but they finally identified her; unfortunately she was deceased, but he found he had several half-siblings.  The next step was to have his DNA tested on Ancestry.  They got a match of a "cousin". They then contacted Family Tree DNA who said that they could find out if the match was any closer. It turns out that the match was the adopted man's half-brother. Both are 4th cousins to my husband.


"In the past few weeks I have had the great pleasure of sending photographs to this man of his grandparents, great grandparents and other family pictures, along with a few stories about them. It is hard to describe what a joy that has been for me and for him. Hopefully, this story may help convince some of your members to get their DNA tested."


DNA story: the migrant from Aleppo

At the start of the 18th century Thomas Darley (1664-1730), who served as Her Majesty's Consul to the Levant (Syria) during the reign of Queen Anne, bought a colt and had him shipped back to England; Wikipedia records that Darley bought the horse in Aleppo (one of the foals he sired was named after the town).


A Y-DNA study by Professor Patrick Cunningham, chair of Animal Genetics at Trinity College Dublin found that 95% of all thoroughbreds are descended in the direct male line  from the 'Darley Arabian' - this 2005 article in New Scientist reported his work. Of course, most of them will also be descended from him through many other lines.


Note: in Britain all thoroughbreds have been DNA tested since the 2001 foal crop - and there's even talk of extending DNA testing to human children.


Digging up the ancestors

I've just been reading Debbie Kennett's report on Back to Our Past show, which was held in Dublin last weekend - the dates for next year's show have already been announced: 20th - 22nd October 2017.


I won't repeat what Debbie has said - I'd encourage you to follow the link and read it for yourself - but I will just highlight the Earls of Barrymore DNA Project, which according to Debbie is "the first privately sponsored project to extract ancient DNA from ancestral remains". After all, when we test out own DNA what we're really doing is using it as a proxy for our ancestors' DNA - so why not go back to the source?


In practice we can't go round digging up our ancestors, but the authorities which run cemeteries can and do, usually to make room for new burials. The fact that they're allowed to do this without getting permission from descendants is understandable, as over the course of 3 or 4 generations most families have dispersed, but they certainly don't go out of their way to make it easy for those who might wish to object. Typically all they do is advertise the plot numbers affected in the local paper - this may fulfil their legal obligations, but that's as far as it goes.


Where DNA really comes into its own is in identifying the victims of war, such as the two British soldiers who died at the Somme in 1915 but whose graves were wrongly marked - you can read more here, at the Mail Online website.


Burial mounds are back in fashion

According to this article in The Guardian burial mounds are making a comeback - although I'm not sure that I'd describe a store for cremated remains as a burial mound, whatever its shape.


Meanwhile the Vatican has issued new guidelines relating to cremation: "It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects." You can read more in this BBC News article.


Former England cricketer reaches 105 not out

Tomorrow is not only the day the clocks go back, it's also the 105th birthday of Eileen Ash (née Whelan) from Norwich, who played for England's ladies cricket team both before and after World War 2. She's still driving the yellow Mini she bought for her 90th birthday, and keeps fit with yoga.


I thought at first her age had been exaggerated because her entry in the 1939 Register shows her as born in 1912:


© Crown Copyright Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England and with the kind permission of Findmypast


However I found her parents' marriage in 1909 and her birth in 1911 - both in Islington, just like my putative great-great grandmother. It just goes to show that it's not just transcribers who make errors!


The born again Texan

It's amazing what doctors can do these days - in Texas a baby was 'born' twice, the first time for a life-saving operation to remove a massive tumour, the second time several months later. You can read more about this incredible story here.


FFHS needs a helping hand - are you interested?

The Federation of Family History Societies is looking for a part-time administrator - it's a paid role, working mainly from home, with an average commitment of about 20 hours a week. If you think you might be interested just follow this link.


Did you find my email in your spam folder?

In the last issue I wrote about the problem that many members with BT email addresses have experienced with my emails ending up in their online spam folder even if they had included my email address in their address book and flagged my emails at 'not spam'.


What I'd like to know now is whether any readers with different email addresses are also suffering from this problem? If the email that told you about this newsletter ended up in your spam folder, please let me know.


Note: if you find any email in your spam folder that shouldn't be there (not just one of mine), move it to another folder and flag it as 'not spam'. Thanks!


Peter's Tips

I've written in the past about the many second-hand and refurbished bargains I've picked up at, and now Amazon themselves have woken up to the demand by creating a Certified Refurbished category for "high quality, newly refurbished consumer electronic products at great prices". All products are covered by a 1 year warranty for peace of mind. Although most of the items on offer when I checked just now were smartphones and computers there were also a few kitchen appliances.


I even spotted some of the call-blocking phones that I've recommended and continue to use myself - as those of you who have followed my advice will know, they're absolutely brilliant! When I checked just now you could get a twin pack for £39.99 and a quad pack for £69.99 (with free delivery), and because they include a digital answerphone you don't need to pay for the 1571 service any more. Just make sure the model number begins with 85 or 86 (and not 65 or 66).


Note: I was delighted to read this week that directors of companies that make nuisance calls are to be made personally liable for fines of up to £500,000 (you can read more about the plans in this BBC article).


I made mistake when I reviewed The Death of Tommy Quick in the last issue - I said that although the Kindle version was available from Amazon, the paperback could only be bought direct from the publisher: in fact it should be possible to order the book from any UK bookshop. You can re-read my review here - it really is an excellent book!


Finally, just to let you know that our kitchen worktops will be fitted on Monday - can't wait! (Just hope they look as lovely as they did in the showroom.) But not having a kitchen hasn't stopped me cooking - I've made 6 pounds of delicious Tomato, Lemon, and Ginger jam this week using baby tomatoes I collected from the garden, and I've made another batch of Shepherd's Bullace Gin using fruit gathered in the wild.


Stop Press

I have updated the article on the Family Tree DNA Warrior Gene offer having discovered that it is only available within the US. However their standard tests are available worldwide.


That's all for now - but I'll be back soon with yet more news from the world of family history.


Description: Description: peter_signature


Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2016 Peter Calver


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