Monday, 25 July 2016

The problem with online genealogy research

Today I had an email from Familysearch telling me of my links to various Mormon pioneers.  They had linked them via the very rudimentary tree I had put on the site to illustrate a talk I gave last winter on using Familysearch's new features.  Extrapolating from other trees on the site they had given my ancestor two different sets of parents and thus two different links to Mormon pioneer families.

Fascinating as this is, the fact remains that I had not put my ancestor's parentage on my tree because I have not yet satisfied myself as to which, if any, is correct.  Certainly one of the allocated sets of parents is definitely wrong as their son died as an infant.

Genealogy as "best fit"

Genealogy is usually a matter of "best fit".  As you get further back in time corroborating sources may not have survived even if they existed in the first place.  The world of Internet Genealogy, morever, lulls the researcher into thinking that the result pulled up by the search engine or hint is correct.  The absence of detailed information about its source - its gaps, limitations, scope and purpose - on many genealogical sites compounds this, particularly without benefit of local knowledge on the part of the researcher.

"The truth is out there" - original records

There are many original records out there in archives and record offices which could possibly give the lie to your careful genealogical conclusions.  As a professional researcher my fear is always that I have missed that obscure but vital record in my otherwise thorough search.  Many times when researching for clients I have found that their original assumptions although carefully researched were incorrect - sometimes the proof of an ancestor's lineage consists of proving that they are not someone else!  Looking at the "small print" of a person's life - taxation returns, rate books, parish relief, tithe apportionment - and basic common sense - a mother does not usually give birth twice in 6 months in 2 different places a long way apart - are some of the keys to demolishing brick walls.

Genealogy "do-over" - find new sources

The genealogy "do-over" is in part a recognition of this fact.  What seemed a logical assumption in the early days of your research may now be disproved in the light of greater experience and knowledge of other sources.  More records being digitised and put online are giving all of us access to a vast variety of sources but there is still so much more out there - on microfilm and as manuscripts in archives, record offices, university special collections, libraries and even on ebay.

Don't rely on the Internet as it is only the tip of the iceberg.  I spend my working life researching in  archives finding new and interesting sources of information for clients.  I am constantly amazed by what is out there in vaults somewhere, sometimes only accessed via manuscript catalogues.

Some records have not survived

Equally I am frustrated by what has not survived.  When I think about

Friday, 1 January 2016

Genealogy lab rats in a Maze

I'm taking a break from preparing a talk on using the familysearch website for a local family history group next week to write this.  In fact the research for the talk has in part inspired this, together with the commotion caused by the announcement that Family Tree Maker is to be axed.

I am not a great fan of family tree software although I do use it for my work.  I have not yet found a program which meets all my needs - in particular the fact that sometimes there is no clear cut ancestor but several candidates.  Whilst you think that one is the most likely you need to explain why and where else you have looked.

Genealogy and best fit

Genealogy, particularly the compilation of a family tree, is most often a "best fit" for the situation not an absolute certainty.  We talk about the need for 3 proofs for each fact but the reality is that the further back you go the less likely you are to find them.  Parish registers for instance tend to become less informative in their entries and there is no certainty that they are all that complete or accurate.  (Oh that sinking feeling when attached to a section of sparse entries or a gap you see a note saying that the vicar had been failing for some years and that his successor had attempted to reconstruct the registers from what loose papers he had found.)

There are other sources which if they have survived can be used but if your ancestor did not make a will, own land, appear at the manorial court, receive poor relief, act in an official capacity within a parish or sell them goods, appear at the quarter sessions, serve as an apprentice or in the militia you may not find evidence of them.

Careful analysis

Each record you do find needs careful analysis in context.  Is the William Varley married to Mary really the one you are looking for?  In a large parish there may be 2 or 3 William Varleys and at least 2 may have married a Mary.  You often need to try and eliminate the others in order to find the most likely.  AND you may need to trace back the possible lines in the hope of finding facts as to the relative status or wealth, family names, residence etc to help you make your eventual decision.

How can you document all this in a family tree program?

Online trees

Which brings me to my beef with online trees.  Specifically those hosted by commercial database websites offering digitised records.  Most of these offer suggestions as to other likely records which appear to match the person in your tree or the one you are searching for.

Some of these suggestions are more useful than others and some are totally inappropriate.  They need careful consideration in context and with reference to all the known facts.  But there is something about the breadcrumb trail nature of the suggestion process that somehow leads us to suspend our critical faculties and accept the computer's suggestion.  AND TO CARRY ON DOING IT.

I admit I am not immune to this temptation and sometimes it has been quite useful but I do horrify myself that I am tempted to click without thorough checking.  I manage to stop myself and step back but I do this for a living.  If it is hard for me to step back what hope do beginners have?

The Ancestry app for my tablet is the worst.  It is far too easy to click without thinking carefully.

Genealogy lab rats

So when did Genealogy become a computer game?  It should not be something a machine researches for us.  We should be in charge with a research plan, analytical faculties and family knowledge.

We are not genealogy lab rats working round a computer generated maze although it can so easily feel like it.  We are being steered towards using online trees and may have to pay for the privilege.  How can we accept other online trees as correct given the perhaps suspect nature of their generation?

We all need to step back out of the maze and think about where genealogy in the digital age is taking us.  Is it using us or are we using it?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Are genealogy "do-overs" worth it?

The genealogy "do-over" is this year's buzz-word - to discount your previous research and start again with the benefit of the increased availability of digitised records and of course your much greater genealogical experience.

When I took the plunge and became a professional genealogist just over 5 years ago I immediately felt embarrassed by some of my numerous personal research files.  To be fair some were from the very beginning of my family history research and borrowed quite heavily from online trees and other people's research - which in my naivete I had assumed were correct as they were so much more experienced than I was at that time.  I had also not been as meticulous as to sources and analysis as I am now.

So as time permits (and usually during insomniac nights huddled over the computer and bundled up in a duvet) I have gradually been reviewing my previous research, checking it over for accuracy and sense, adding in images of documents, drawing up plans for further research and taking the time to fill in the background to each individual's story.

This was the case recently with William Fretwell my great grandfather whose file I hadn't touched for nearly 10 years.

William Fretwell

William was born in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire (D H Lawrence country) in around 1843 and was originally a coal miner but had lung trouble so switched to being a painter and general labourer.  His first appearance is in the 1851 census in Tinsley Park in Yorkshire.  I had found his baptism in Eastwood on 26 May 1843 the son of Samuel and Mary Fretwell and this didn't quite fit in with his 1851census age of 10 years.  I hadn't been able to find a likely birth registration in the GRO birth registration indexes so I didn't have a birth certificate for him.

I had found a registration for a William Fretwell in 1841 and had sent off for the birth certificate expecting it to be correct and it was for his nephew - the illegitimate son of his sister Mira.  My nose began twitching as I reviewed this - could William not be the son of Samuel and Mary after all?  Was he his "sister"s son instead?  I set out to disprove this and made a list of all the children of Samuel and Mary from the baptisms in Eastwood and in the various censuses with a view to matching them all up with birth registrations, burials etc.

The first item in favour of this new theory was that the sister who had the illegitimate son was living next door to her parents in 1851 and was now married with no sign of a son William.  In addition there was the existence of another son to Samuel and Mary - apparently born  about a year later than William - who also appeared in the 1851 census.

This son Job was baptised in Eastwood on 7 January 1844 whereas William was baptised on 26 May 1843 in Eastwood.  Both were attributed to Samuel and Mary.  Now it was just possible that if Job was early and William had been born some time before his baptism the requisite 9 months between pregnancies would apply but although possible was it likely that they were in fact full brothers?

Birth registration index entries

I searched again in the GRO birth registration indexes using and, with greater experience now in search strategies, searched only on the surname Fretwell within the Basford registration district for the period 1840 to 1850.  This brought up the following interesting entries:

Male Fretwell registered March Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 481
Job Fretwell registered June Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 456
William Fretwell registered December Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 426

William Fretwell registered September Quarter 1843 Basford vol 15 page 437

I had already ordered the 1841 certificate for William Fretwell which turned out to be Mira' s son.  I couldn't remember why I had discounted the 1843 entry.  Perhaps I had reasoned that it was too late for a baptism in May 1843.  The usual wisdom is that births come before baptisms but does this apply with the GRO registration index records?

The answer is no, not always.  You need to formally register a birth no later than 6 weeks after the event or you will incur a fine.  Was this always the case?  1843 was only 6 years after the advent of civil registration and it was not compulsory to register births at this time.  Furthermore it is possible that a birth a few days before a baptism at the end of May could still be legally registered in the first week in July taking it into the next quarter of the indexes.

Could this birth registration be the one I hadn't found before?

More puzzling still was a sole birth registration entry for Job Fretwell in 1841.  Surely this didn't fit with a baptism in 1844?

The only way to resolve this is to order both certificates and await the results.  I could have looked for a corresponding death in the GRO death registration indexes but there were no corresponding burials in the Eastwood church burial registers that I could see.  I am awaiting the certificates with bated breath and fingers crossed.

1851 census

The other bonus of my review of William Fretwell is that I took another look at the 1851 census image in which he appears.  The enumerators schedule page has merely Tinsley Park as the address - no street names - and as usual shows the family's neighbours.  One is his sister and her husband who was a brick maker but the other one is an Engineer from Cornwall.  Now usually engineers do not share the same kind of pit cottages as coal miners and brickmakers.  I looked  at the schedule pages in front of and behind the one for William and his family and there were quite a few engineers so I was curious as to why this should be.

I looked up Tinsley Park Colliery on the Internet and found a Wikipedia entry which said that Tinsley Park Colliery's first shaft was sunk in 1852.  Was this what William's family were doing there in 1851?  Were they helping to start up a coal mine?  More local history research in Yorkshire is obviously needed.

Was the "do-over" worth it?

Was it worth revisiting my research?  Yes of course it was!  Even if the 1843 William Fretwell birth certificate turns out not to be him then I still have my new theory to follow up.  And Job is still a mystery.

It has also opened up a whole new area of background research into the Tinsley Park Colliery and what the family were doing there in 1851.  What induced them to travel to work for another colliery company?  How long did they stay?  They are back in Eastwood in 1861.  Did Samuel his father have some special skills?  Here's hoping the records have survived..............

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Engage Brain when researching please

I’ve recently begun to teach family history beginner courses and it is flattering if disconcerting to have my students hanging on my every word.  I do a homily on “Trust Nothing Check Everything” and one on “Corpse Brides and Bridegrooms” but am about to add another one called “Engage Brain” as it is all too easy when researching on the Internet to coast along with your brain in neutral and to accept facts without questioning them.
Bigamy was not that common

What is worse is when writers in family history magazines seem to do this too.  I’ll not embarrass them by naming the magazine but there it was in a text box recently:

“If an ancestor appears on the census in two houses, it might indicate bigamy”

Well it might but if I was a bookie I’d be happy to give you very good odds if you’d care to bet on it.

There is a much simpler more obvious explanation – they are two different people. 
Okay if it is a very uncommon name the odds are rather greater on the bigamy side than for a common name but consider this.  Did your family come from the area in which they are shown on the census?  Did they all work in one industry?  Is it likely that the Christian names are carried through from generation to generation?

My grandfather was called William and so was one of his sons and three of his grandchildren.  (His great grandchildren being born in an age which called itself modern mostly have less traditional names.)  An uncle and a cousin have William as their middle name.

My Fretwells were miners in Eastwood and I had real problems in the beginning because there are two William Fretwells born in the same year there who (probably) both married an Elizabeth.  (I didn’t send for both certificates as I was pointed in the right direction by a more experienced researcher at the time.)   Two John Thomas Fretwells, also born a few months apart in the same place, caused a headache for both of us until we sorted out that they were cousins not the same person in a bigamous relationship or double counting in the census.  Not that we ever entertained the thought of bigamy at the time.

 Cattle rustling is not the same as poaching the odd rabbit 

Something else which caught my eye in the same issue was an article on crime in the countryside which blithely stated that

  “In 1802 Edward Painter was hanged at Reading for the theft of two heifers from a local fair, presumably in order to feed his family of 10 children”

Now I don’t think the two stolen cows ended up in the family stewpot as the writer seems to imply. Cows are big animals and my Great Grandad who was a butcher in the mid to late 19th century  was reckoned to be out of the ordinary in being able to kill and butcher a cow by himself.   

Those cows would have been stolen to sell on to an unscrupulous butcher and would probably have been upwards of 196kg deadweight.  That  translates to 432 pounds at 10d a pound  (which is the 1801 beef price given in the online version of  “A history of Epidemics in Britain” by Charles Creighton (1891) on ) so that each cow could have been worth about £18 and he stole two of them.  Not exactly petty theft as is being implied is it?
Make yourself a better researcher 

Engage brain, use your common sense and life experience and think about what you are reading. 

Ask yourself -

Does it make sense?  

Is it likely?  Human nature hasn’t changed much.  

Put it in context - what was the culture of the time?  It is useless to apply today’s sensibilities to a different probably much more brutal era.

Put yourself in the situation and think about the mechanics of the thing – how would it have happened?  What would YOU have done?  Think about how you would go about stealing a cow from a market for instance.  Would you have needed an accomplice to handle two cows?  Would it have been an opportunity grabbed or a theft to order?

Being a better researcher is just a matter of thinking.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Dade registers – a genealogical goldmine

However convenient indexes and transcripts of parish registers are (online or otherwise) you should always consult the original entry in case it gives more information.  Dade registers are the most striking example of this.  The idea of the Reverend William Dade, a Yorkshire clergyman, they exist only from the late 1770s until the standardisation of the parish registers in 1812.  They were mainly adopted in Yorkshire although a simpler version exists in Durham and Northumberland known as Barrington registers.

Recording much more information about the antecedents of the person being baptised or buried, one entry can take your research back another two generations.  For example this entry from the Selby (Yorkshire)  Baptisms Register of 1786:

Mary Appleyard 3rd daughter of William Appleyard of Selby Labourer Son of John Appleyard of Seacroft Labourer by Sarah his Wife daughter of Richard Wilson of Berwick at Elmet Labourer
(Her Mother) – Elizabeth daughter of John Emmerson of Selby Labourer by Ann his Wife daughter of William Labourel in the parish of Stillingfleet Labourer
Born February 14th Baptized February 15th (1786)

means that you now not only know Mary’s parents but also her grandparents  -  John Appleyard of Seacroft and Sarah Wilson of Berwick at Elmet and on her mother’s side John Emmerson of Selby and Ann Labourel of Stillingfleet.  You also know her two great grandfathers, Richard Wilson of Berwick at Elmet and William Labourel of Stillingfleet, that Mary was the third daughter to be born to William and Elizabeth Appleyard and that she was baptized the day after she was born. 

Frustratingly sometimes an entry does not contain much information at all  - for example from the same register for 1793:

William Appleyard 2nd son of George Appleyard of Selby Labourer Born September 18th Baptized September 23rd (1793)

Then you wonder just why there is so little information given compared to the other entries.  Was the child illegitimate?  Did the mother die in childbirth?  Did the vicar not ask?  We’ll never know I suppose.

Another frustrating entry can be when the child’s and a parent’s names are given and then “vid ped book 2 page …..” which raises all kinds of questions as to what it means when you are new to these registers.  It is simple once you know – the Pedigree book it refers to is the actual parish register volume so Pedigree Book 2 is the 2nd register book and then you need to look for the relevant page to get the right pedigree (not always easy on microfilm but possible).

I can see that writing down the full pedigree each time would have been quite tedious and I thought at first that cross-referencing each one would have been quite as time-consuming until the penny dropped and I realised that of course the vicar would have been copying from that previous reference in the register anyway.

The entries themselves, because of the extra information they contain, span two pages of the register which means you must take care to match up the two pages properly when viewing on microfilm – the father’s pedigree is given on one page and the mother’s on the other.  The registers were sometimes pre-printed but sometimes the vicar ruled his own columns over two pages and sometimes turned the book sideways so as to use the long side of the pages and ruled his columns that way. 

In 1812 Rose’s Act was passed to standardise the keeping of the parish registers and every register was pre-printed and the same for each parish.  In many parishes the detail recorded was a big improvement on what went before but sadly this meant the demise of the Dade register.   However for that one short period they are a genealogist’s dream so thank your lucky stars when you find one!