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Newsletter – 20th December 2023



Wills consultation raises key questions HOT TOPIC

Why collaborating with cousins matters – even to someone like you!

How to connect with more ‘lost cousins’

More great competition prizes to be won

A Christmas gift from The Genealogist EXCLUSIVE OFFER

Who Do You Think You Are? magazine EXCLUSIVE OFFER

DNA for Christmas ENDS SOON

Update: how to identify unknown ancestors using DNA

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The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 8th December) 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!



Wills consultation raises key questions HOT TOPIC

On Friday the Ministry of Justice published a consultation on the future of original wills (and supporting documentation) from 1858 onwards. But first, let’s remind ourselves about earlier wills….


Surviving wills prior to 1858 are held by The National Archives, or in records offices around the country. My ancestors were poorer than most, but nevertheless some of them made wills which went to probate. For example, John Calver, the youngest brother of my great-great-great-great grandfather William Calver, was a mere coachman for one of the local gentry – but nevertheless he made a will which went to probate after he died in 1854.


Most family historians with ancestors from England & Wales will be familiar with Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills which are online at Ancestry and The Genealogist – however what we see are not original wills, but digital scans of black-and-white microfilmed images of the registered copies of the wills. The National Archives does hold original wills (or in some cases copies of the originals made under supervision during the probate process) in PROB 10 – for example, the will of my coachman relative will be in PROB 10/7019 – but so far I’ve never felt the need to view the originals as it would involve a trip to Kew.


In 1858 the system changed – instead of wills being proved in a multiplicity of church courts the Principal Probate Registry was established. When I began my research I sent off a number of cheques for £5 to obtain photocopies of wills, if they existed – but these days you can order them online for just £1.50, and if a will has already been digitised you’ll get to see it within a matter of hours.


According to the consultation paper, which you can download here, it costs about £4.5 million per annum to store the paper copies of wills and accompanying documentation – and this sum is likely to increase year-by-year. It is suggested that if all of the wills were digitised it would not be necessary to keep the original documents – and the purpose of the consultation is not only to ask for comments on that proposal, but also to solicit other suggestions involving the public and/or private sectors.


Of course, if money was no object we’d want everything to be kept. Similarly, in an ideal world we would all go to The National Archives to view our ancestors’ original wills, rather than relying on scans of microfilms of registered copies – but I don’t and I suspect most of you don’t, either. In the real world tough decisions have to be taken.


Please download a copy of the consultation and, when you have had a chance to read it through, post your thoughts here in the LostCousins Forum.



Why collaborating with cousins matters – even to someone like you!

There’s an old story, first recorded in 1256, that a great ruler was so impressed by the game of chess that he offered the inventor a reward. The inventor asked for a seemingly modest prize: 1 grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, 2 grains on the second square, 4 grains on the third square and so on, doubling each time. But were the story true the entire world production of wheat until now, and for hundreds of years to come, would have been required to satisfy the inventor’s request!


Family trees work the same way. Each of us has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents – and so on, until at some point in the 1500s there are 10,000 ancestral lines clamouring for our attention. Or there would be, were we not up against ‘brick walls’ in earlier centuries. Even so, anyone who has been researching as long as the average LostCousins member is likely to have identified somewhere between 100 and 500 ancestral lines – and, of course, each of them ends in a ‘brick wall’. Sometimes ‘brick walls’ can be knocked down simply by being patient – perhaps waiting for parish registers for a particular county to become available online. ‘Brick walls’ in the last 250-300 years might be solved with the help of DNA. But mostly they get knocked down by good old-fashioned research.


Even if you have only 100 ‘brick walls’ in your tree you can’t devote more than 1% of your genealogy effort to each of them, and in practice most researchers tend to focus on just a handful – they might be the most recent ‘brick walls’, or they might be the most intriguing ancestral lines but, whatever the reason, at any one time there are scores (or even hundreds) of your ancestral lines that aren’t getting your attention.


This is in no way a criticism – as I pointed out recently there are only 8 days in the week, and we do have to get on with our lives. Family history might be very important to us, but we can’t devote all of our time and all of our effort to researching the past – our ancestors would be appalled!


Fortunately there IS a solution. Yes, the number of ancestors doubles for every generation we go back, but the number of descendants also gets larger – the further you go back, the more family historians there are who are descended from a given ancestor. In fact, the number of descendants increases much faster than the number of ancestors.


Consider this: whilst not everyone is interested in family history, there are more viewers in England who watch each Who Do You Think You Are? programme than the entire population of England in the mid-1500s (which is as far back as we are ever likely to get back on most of our ancestral lines). Look at it another way, if you divide the population of England in 1558 (the year Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne) by the number of LostCousins members who receive this newsletter, it works out at well under 50 Elizabethans per member. (Yes, I know we all have ancestors who weren’t English or even British, but it puts things into proportion.)


Do you remember that earlier on I mentioned that we each have around 10,000 ancestral lines in the 1500s? Well, the only way that can be reconciled with the figure of 50 Elizabethans per newsletter reader is if each of those Elizabethans is shared, on average, by 200 readers of this newsletter!


In conclusion the more experienced you are, and the further back you have researched, the more important it is to collaborate with your ‘lost cousins’ – otherwise you can’t possibly honour all of your ancestors.



How to connect with more ‘lost cousins’

You might think that using the 1881 Census is a pretty poor way to connect with cousins who share your ancestors in the 1500s? Well, here’s the thing – someone who shares some of your ancestors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries also shares the same proportion of your ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Note: at LostCousins you’ll typically be connected with 3rd, 4th and 5th cousins – hence your shared ancestors will have been born between 1750-1850. A 3rd cousin shares 1/8th of your ancestral lines, a 4th cousin shares 1/16th of your ancestors, and a 5th cousin shares 1/32nd – that’s about 300 of your ancestors in the 16th century. Those unenlightened researchers who poo-poo links with ‘distant’ cousins need to think again!


Although the 1841 Census is a little closer in time to your ‘brick walls’, it’s better to use the 1881 Census if you possibly can – it’s the only census that we’ve been using since LostCousins began nearly 20 years ago, and the transcription is free online, which means that anyone who has an Internet connection can search for ‘lost cousins’. Nearly 90% of all ‘lost cousins’ are found through the 1881 Census.


However, a good strategy Is to start with all the relatives you know about in 1841, whether you can find them in that census or not, then track each branch and twig through to 1881. In the process you’ll probably add to your family tree, which is a good thing – especially if you’ve tested your DNA, or are planning to do so.


Note: if you can start earlier than 1841, so much the better – but for most of us there is a limit to how much time we can devote to researching collateral lines.



More great competition prizes to be won

Each year there are more and more prizes on offer in my Seasonal Competition, which runs until 31st January 2024. It’s completely free to enter and you don’t have to do anything clever or unusual – simply add census information for your relatives to your My Ancestors page. Last year hundreds of members won prizes, and there will be even more prize-winners this year!


Note: why do we use census information at LostCousins? Because the censuses we’ve chosen are readily available online, and in most cases they’re FREE to access (just bear in mind that it may only be the transcription that is free – follow the advice on the Add Ancestor form).


In the last issue I revealed some of the wonderful prizes you can win in this year’s competition:




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 70 million pages from the historic newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive – by far the largest online collection of British newspapers.


Tip: Findmypast have recently upgraded their newspaper search




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: try the Map Explorer


Last time I also revealed two of the fantastic speakers who will be supporting LostCousins this year, each of them experts in their field:


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.


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?




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 it 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 make it a close cousin as they share too many of your ancestral lines – 3rd and 4th cousins are ideal.


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


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?


Please 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 prizes otherwise!



A Christmas gift from The Genealogist EXCLUSIVE OFFER

Although we’ve had good news about inflation today I suspect that many of us are on tight budgets this Christmas. So I’m delighted that The Genealogist has put together an exclusive low-cost introductory package that will cost less than a posh turkey:



A Diamond subscription provides access to ALL of the records at The Genealogist including the biggest online collection of tithe records and tithe maps, and a fast-growing selection of 1910 Valuation records and maps (‘Lloyd George Domesday’). You’ll also have the opportunity to search for ancestors who seem to be missing from the census at other sites – the enhanced scans and unique search features increase the chances of finding those elusive entries. And then there’s the Map Explorer – which literally puts your ancestors in their place.


The 6 month Diamond subscription alone would be good value for £49.95 (normal price £79.95) but because it’s Christmas The Genealogist are including almost £65 worth of additional digital resources, including a 12 month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine and a chance to attend The Family History Show Online 2024.


To take advantage of this LostCousins Exclusive offer please follow this link – but don’t leave it too long because this offer only lasts until 31st December.



Who Do You Think You Are? magazine EXCLUSIVE OFFER

The TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? began when LostCousins was just a few months old, and for a long time it was required viewing in our household. Nowadays I don’t see it as often, but I do read Who Do You Think You Are? magazine every single month – as I have done since the very first issue.


This Christmas I’ve arranged an extra special offer for UK readers of this newsletter – you can save 50% on a year’s subscription when you follow this link, bringing the price down to just £34.12 for 13 issues. The offer ends on Christmas Day – don’t miss out!



DNA for Christmas ENDS SOON

The best prices of the year are almost always over the Black Friday period, and I’m sure many of you took advantage of the opportunity to save on Ancestry DNA tests. But if you didn’t, there are still significant savings to be made – the current offer could well be the best deal you’ll get between now and next November.


AncestryDNA® is only £59! (UK)


Festive Sale! Save up to $59 on AncestryDNA®. Terms Apply. (AU/NZ)


Save 40% on AncestryDNA! (US)


Festive Sale! Save up to $65 on AncestryDNA®. Terms Apply. (Canada)



Update: how to identify unknown ancestors using DNA

In the last issue I referred to a RootsTech presentation by Dana Leeds which shows, amongst other things, how she sorts her DNA matches using a spreadsheet. What I didn’t make clear is that I wasn’t advocating that you use the Leeds Method – I linked to the video only because it’s a good introduction to some of the issues that we face when we’re trying to knock down ‘brick walls’ using DNA. So what should you be doing in practice?



How difficult is it to identify an unknown parent or grandparent using DNA, assuming you have no other reliable information? It varies enormously – you might have to spend days or weeks of constructing trees for distant relatives – or you might find the answer in a matter of hours. It’s partly down to how close your closest match is, and how much research (if any) they’ve done into their tree.



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I’ll be back in touch very soon – keep an eye on your inbox!


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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2023 Peter Calver


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