Newsletter – 5th October 2020
The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 24th September) 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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It's generally thought that Neanderthals, a close relative of homo sapiens died out around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago – but nobody knows precisely why, and some argue that interbreeding with modern humans resulted in them being assimilated into a larger population. Modern humans of European origin have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, and it's possible this broadly reflects the relative sizes of the populations.
One of the many hypotheses is that Neanderthals were less resistant to diseases, and this idea has been given new life by recently published research which indicates that people with certain Neanderthal gene variants are more vulnerable to COVID-19 (see this article for more details). Whilst Neanderthal DNA can only explain a small fraction of the differences in outcomes for modern humans, it seems perfectly possible that it was their susceptibility to certain coronaviruses that led to the demise of the Neanderthals.
Apologies for the late notice (partly caused by my laptop going into 'sleep' mode overnight despite being powered from the mains), but better late than never….. this weekend Ancestry.com.au has been offering free access to Australian and New Zealand records – the offer ends at 11.59pm AEDT on Monday 5th October, so follow this link without delay!
In July the Scottish government decided to postpone the census planned for 21st March 2021 until 20th March 2022. But if you were to read this page on the official Scotland's Census website you’d get the impression that the census had been planned for 2022 all along! If you compare what's currently written there with this snapshot of the page from earlier in the year you'll see that someone has used search-and-replace to change the year: clearly it doesn’t make any sense to say that "The programme closed in March 2014 following a recommendation to hold a census in 2022" since the original plan was to hold the census in 2021, 10 years after the 2011 Census.
The Government originally planned to bring into force the changes in marriage procedure enacted by the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 before the end of last year, but even though we are now approaching the end of 2020 they still haven’t happened.
And that's a good thing for genealogists, because one of the changes is to abolish marriage registers as we know them – in future the happy couple will sign a form, not a register, and the information on the form will be used to create an entry on an electronic register.
One saving grace is that churches will still be able to keep a record of marriages, though it won't have the same legal status - only registrars will be able to issue marriage certificates (the effects of all the changes are summarised here). One of the drivers behind the new legislation was the decision to provide for the names of mothers to be included on marriage certificates – now you can see why I wasn't prepared to lend my support to that petition!
Note: these changes affect England & Wales: Scotland and Northern Ireland already have a similar system in place.
Until November 2016 there was only one set of GRO indexes for England & Wales, the quarterly indexes that were compiled soon after the end of each quarter. Many family historians, myself included, had the privilege of handling the original handwritten index volumes at the Family Record Centre, or at one of the previous locations where they could be inspected by members of the public, such as Somerset House or St Catherine's House. Some of the handwritten volumes were replaced with typeset printed copies when they deteriorated; later indexes were typewritten.
The information recorded in the indexes varied over time - for example, the age at death wasn't shown in the Death indexes until after 1865, and the mother's maiden name wasn't recorded in the birth indexes until the third quarter of 1911. Middle names were often abbreviated to initials. It's fair to say that the paucity of information in the early indexes often made it particularly difficult to identify the correct entries, leading to frustration for researchers and disappointment when the certificate turned out to be for the wrong person.
It’s these original quarterly indexes which have been transcribed by FreeBMD, Ancestry, Findmypast and other sites, and the images you see are typically scans of microfilmed pages. Transcription errors can be identified and rectified by referring to those images.
In November 2016 the GRO launched indexes of historic births and deaths which had been newly compiled from the registers they hold. Because they were compiled 'from scratch' it meant that errors and omissions in the original quarterly indexes were unlikely to be repeated, but inevitably new errors and omissions were introduced instead.
But the biggest benefit is the inclusion of information that was omitted when the original indexes were compiled - every forename is transcribed in full, and in the birth indexes the mother's maiden name is shown from 1837 onwards (provided she was married to the father of the child). In the death indexes the age at death is shown from 1837 onwards - another significant improvement.
Things to bear in mind when using the new indexes:
But despite the flaws in the new indexes they've proved amazingly useful, allowing researcher to reduce or even eliminate the possibility of ordering the wrong certificate - and sometimes providing so much information that it isn’t necessary to order the certificate at all!
Things to bear in mind when reporting 'errors' in the new indexes:
Why it's better to search the birth indexes at Findmypast
Although the birth indexes at Findmypast are based on the original indexes, in many cases they've added the mother's maiden name, even before 1911 - presumably taking this additional information from the new indexes.
If you've used the GRO indexes you'll know that the search is limited and inflexible - for example you can only look for males or females, not both, and you can only search a maximum period of 5 years. Findmypast doesn’t have these limitations, so it's particularly useful if you're looking for several children born to the same parents, perhaps over a period of 20 years or more (since one search at Findmypast could do the job of 8 or more searches at the GRO site).
Another advantage of searching at Findmypast is being able to search by county, something you can’t do at the GRO site. You can even choose multiple counties (particularly handy if your ancestors lived near the county border), or multiple registration districts - something else that you can’t do at the GRO site.
Follow this link if you want to experiment - you'll be amazed how much you can find out with a free search!
One of the first things I discovered when I started researching my family tree was that I had German ancestry on my mother's side – but it was only very recently that I was able to pinpoint where in Germany any of them had come from. There are many German records online, but if you thought deciphering English wills was difficult, try reading German handwriting!
Fortunately help is at hand: FamilySearch are running a series of free webinars using Zoom. To find out more follow this link to the FamilySearch and click October Month Schedule (or click here to go straight to the PDF document). The handwriting seminars run from Monday 26th October through to Friday 30th October, starting at 10am MDT each day (that's 5pm BST if you’re in the UK). But I won't be waiting until Monday 26th to get started because on Saturday 24th there are three other seminars that will be of interest to many with German ancestry. I'm particular interested in the one at 12.45pm MDT on Württemberg Family Books, as that's where one of my ancestors originated.
There are some names that, when you come across them in the records, you feel you have to research them, if only to confirm that it isn’t a weird typo. Iddo Smetheaham Peters is one of those names
Image © Copyright. Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, used by kind permission of Findmypast
Iddo said "I do" for the second time at the age of 29, in the very church where he has been baptised, and where his parents had married; almost exactly 5 years later he was buried at Ford Park cemetery in the same parish. He may have travelled the world in the Royal Navy, but he kept coming back to Plymouth. His first marriage wasn't in the same church, but it was in Plymouth.
Further research revealed that 'Iddo' is derived from a Hebrew word meaning 'mighty'; Smetheaham (or Smetherham) was his mother's maiden name.
Over on the LostCousins Forum we've been discussing the problem of variations in surname spellings. Until the 19th century nobody gave two hoots about spelling, so variations in the spelling of surnames are not only common, they’re almost inevitable. Some arose as the result of clergymen not being familiar with local surnames and misunderstanding the accent; many are the inevitable result of there being several variations which most people would pronounce in the same way, for example 'Wallis' and 'Wallace'.
Illiteracy was a factor, but it isn’t the sole cause of the confusion: my great-great-great grandfather married twice, in 1817 and 1827, and signed his name both times – but the spellings were quite different. In each case the spelling he used matched what the officiating cleric had written in the register, so did he simply copy that spelling? I may never know.
Then in 1894 the birth of his great-granddaughter, my grandmother, was registered under one spelling, but when she married in 1915 he used a different spelling. All of the members of her family changed the spelling around the same time, but even today other branches of the same family use different spellings.
You don’t need to be a member of the forum to read what others have written – you'll find the discussion here. But if you've been invited to join the forum (check your My Summary page to find out) you should do so, as this will not only allow you to contribute to discussions started by others, it will enable you to start discussions of your own.
Note: please do not write to me about this or other forum topics – if you're a member of the forum you should post any comments of questions there, and if you're not you should join (assuming you've been invited). If you haven’t been invited then my advice is to focus on qualifying (something that most people reading this could do in an hour or less). Forum membership is free.
DNA doesn't lie; people do
Jermaine in Australia wrote to tell me about her experiences with DNA (all names have been changed):
"I have done a DNA test, under pressure from my daughter. One of my brothers, Bruce, 72 yrs. old, also did his under pressure from his children, his was a birthday gift.
"Oh dear, what a load of family secrets came out. Both parents apparently had affairs that resulted in children: I discovered a half-brother here in Australia, a very unhappy man (my father was in the Merchant Navy so heaven only knows if any other matches will turn up.). Then Bruce discovered that his father was an Italian - and to top it off, other members of the family already knew, and had kept it from him until he discovered it himself through the DNA test!
"I now understand why my mother said 'mind your own bloody business' and refused to give me any information at all when I asked questions when I first started to get interested in family history. Got to have a sense of humour to survive!"
As family historians we're used to discovering skeletons in the closet, but when they're so close to home it can be unnerving. But better, surely, that we find these things out ourselves, rather than our children or grandchildren unearthing the truth and spreading it all over social media.
In this month's Oldie magazine (October 2020, p.16) Germaine Greer repeats a comment she made at the Hay Festival in 2015, criticising the fact that the birth certificates for Elton John's adopted children show his husband David Furnish as the mother.
The two boys were born in the US to an unnamed surrogate, and the situation there might be different, but I thought it would be instructive for readers to take a look at the paperwork that's issued in respect of adopted children in England. This PDF document sets out the procedure, and although it refers to birth certificates, the examples provided are of a short birth certificate and a certified copy of an entry from the Adoption Children Register:
Note that a short Birth Certificate doesn’t give the name of either parent – indeed, it doesn’t even indicate that the individual was adopted. The certified copy of the entry from the Adopted Children Register does give the names of the adoptive parents, but they’re not described as 'father' or 'mother' – that's left to the imagination.
LostCousins member Joan in Canada contacted me this week with a wonderful story about how her friend Judy recovered some very important family photo albums that had been lost during a house move. Here's the story in Judy's own words:
"My parents lost a box of photo albums in a move 23 years ago, and they were recently returned to us! Apparently, the box never left the moving van. The van went from dropping off my parents' stuff to another house in Austin and loaded up another family’s stuff and took it to Ohio. The family was there a few years and then moved to Utah.
"They did not open the box until 2015 [and that's when they discovered the photo albums]. They tried several times to find out who the albums belonged to but had no luck. Recently they wrote to our hometown newspaper because Mom had put some articles about their florist and nursery business in the albums.
"Long story short, a long-time family friend who still lives in Burnet saw the article and recognized my parents’ photo which was included."
"This is a small selection of the recovered photos, the oldest dating back to about 1906 shows my grandmother as an adolescent. The man in uniform is my father just before going to England in 1943 until D-Day, when he landed on Omaha Beach. I was born 5 weeks before D-Day but did not meet my father until I was 18 months old. The baby photo with the doll [far left] is me. The doll was one my dad sent me from Belgium that I still have, 76 years later! The young blond girl Is my mother
with her doll, circa 1932.
"This is not anything really connected to the lost photos, but you might find it interesting. The censors were brutal in Dad’s letters because the soldiers’ whereabouts were top secret, of course. But, one day, Mom received a letter from a wonderful woman in Weston-super-Mare who told her where Dad was. He and a buddy had been Invited to Christmas dinner at their home, and the Rendell family sort of adopted Dad. Mrs Rendell would mail uncensored letters from Dad to Mom, and she continued to write to Mom and to my grandparents. In fact, Dad was at their house when he got the letter about my birth!
"My baby book has a letter from Mrs Rendell to “Dear Baby Judy” in which she tells me of Dad’s happiness at becoming a father, and she quoted him as saying something like, 'now that my baby is here and my wife and baby are good, I’m ready to go fight the Nazis!'. Mrs Rendell knitted and stuffed a toy penguin and sent it to me. I have another photo with the penguin, but not with me here. (My husband and I got 'stranded' by Covid-19 and decided to stay put until we feel safe enough to fly home.
"When I was 12, I got Mrs Rendell’s address from the letter in my baby book and wrote to her. We became pen pals, and after college, when I was a young teacher, I went to Weston-super-Mare to visit and fell in love with both Mrs Rendell and her husband. I continued writing to them and visiting them until they both passed away. I called them my English godparents and grieved their loss with many tears."
Thank you Judy, and also Joan for bringing this story to my attention. I know how devastating it can be to lose an entire collection of family photographs – my aunt's photo albums were stolen in a burglary, and never recovered. Thank goodness Judy and her family got back their photo albums eventually – and what a wonderful story about her English 'godparents'. I wonder how many other GIs made similar connections?
Note: the title of this article was inspired by the storyline in the latest Esme Quentin genealogical mystery from the pen of Wendy Percival – you can read my review here.
Cecil Rhodes, the mining magnate after whom Rhodesia was named, was born in 1853 in Bishops Stortford - the nearest town to the village where I live (and LostCousins is based). The house where Rhodes was born became a museum, and later an arts centre, known as the Rhodes Centre, was built adjoining the house – it was a popular concert venue in the 1960s featuring acts like Cream, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Gene Vincent. However, Rhodes was a controversial figure even in his own short lifetime – he was 48 when he died in 1902 – and eventually, in August this year, the Rhodes Art Complex was rebranded as South Mill Arts (the change took effect on the 206th anniversary of the day that the British army burned down the White House)..
Rhodes inevitably gets a couple of mentions in Stephen Basdeo's new book, Heroes & Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives & Legends. It might seem a strange book to publish at a time when the British Empire and imperialism in general are being criticised right, left and centre – well, left and centre at least – but, as the son of a Guyanese immigrant and his English wife, the author has a wider perspective than most. And tempting though it must have been to pick a handful of 'heroes and villains' and devote a chapter to each, he instead picks broad themes.
For me, and those of previous generations, the British Empire was brought to life through books, such as the works of H Rider Haggard, the ever-popular Robinson Crusoe, and magazines for boys – the empire-builders of the future. The Boys Own Magazine, Chums, and Union Jack were respectable titles, but they were aped by 'penny dreadfuls' such as The Young Briton, Sons of Britannia, and the Boys of England. Others saw it as their duty to spread Christianity to the heathen hordes.
Stephen Basdeo turns to literature again in his concluding chapter, describing how 20th century writers like C S Forester (the Hornblower series) perpetuated the glorious myths of the British Empire even as others like Lytton Strachey (in Eminent Victorians) and E M Forster (in A Passage to India) were exposing its flaws. But he also tells us that the saintly Mahatma Gandhi was guilty of racism in his early years, and that in 2018 this resulted in the removal of a statue of Gandhi from the University of Ghana. On the final page he reminds us that the 18th century writer Henry Fielding (writing about Ancient Greece and Rome) warns us, in Basdeo's words, to take "all the stories about the goodness, bravery, generosity and altruism of historical military men with more than a pinch of salt and a healthy does of downright cynicism".
It's a thought-provoking book, one that will help all of us better understand the world in which our ancestors lived and died. I read the paperback, which has a cover price of £15.99 in the UK (but is currently available at Amazon for about 30% less); there is also a Kindle version for around a fiver. Please use the links below if you want to support LostCousins – thanks!
Now that I'm 70 I don’t feel any different. Well, actually that's not quite true – I have a lovely warm feeling as a result of the kind words and good wishes of the members who took the time to offer their congratulations and say nice things about the work that I do. And some of you weren't just generous in the things that you said, you also bought me a drink for my birthday using the PayPal widget in the last newsletter. (Everyone should have received a personal reply by now – it’s the least I could do.)
Big birthdays don’t come round very often, so as a birthday present to myself I splashed out on a dozen large Kilner jars – just in time for the last of the damsons and the first of the sloes. They weren't cheap but I'll use them time and time again, which is more than I can say for a lot of the rubbish that's sold these days.
In recent weeks I've been heartened by the emails I've received from senior LostCousins members who are still actively researching their late 80s and 90s, but this Guardian article about care home residents who are taking part in a global cycling competition was also reassuring (and just the thing for a pandemic, too).
Well, it's that time of year again…… these days everyone knows about Black Friday - which this year is likely to provide an even bigger bonanza than usual for online retailers – but Amazon Prime Day (in just over a week's time) is a better-kept secret. Only Prime members can participate, but since you can take a 30-day free trial it's potentially open to (almost) everyone who hasn’t previously had a free trial. If you want to sign up for a free trial please use the relevant link below:
But beware - I originally signed up for a 30-day free trial several years ago, but I've continued to subscribe ever since (the same thing happened with Ancestry). Mind you Prime saves me a fortune in delivery charges, and also gives me free access to some excellent TV programmes. I know that Amazon isn’t everyone's favourite company, however for me they have been marvellous.
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© Copyright 2020 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? To link to a specific article right-click on the article name in the contents list at the top of the newsletter.