Category Archives: Family History Tips

Talk: Researching Your Great War Army Ancestors. (Includes details of my other 2020 talks)

Heads up about my forthcoming talk on 4 March at Leeds Central Library.

Based on my groundbreaking book The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about rugby league players who died in World War 1, the talk investigates the stories behind some of the men. It will also be packed with tips for researching your own Great War Army ancestors.

The book, co-authored with Rugby League writer Chris Roberts, has received widespread acclaim, locally and nationally, in print and on radio. The reviews include:

The talk will take place in the Leodis Room, starting at 1pm. It will last for one hour, with opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are free and available through Ticket Source. You can also contact the library direct on 0113 378 5005.

This is one of a series of talks I give. The others scheduled for 2020 are:

  • Blogging for Family and Local History; and
  • The Home Front: the White Lee Explosion of 1914

For more details about these talks please contact me at: pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com

That’s also the contact if you would like to buy a copy of the book. The price, including p&p within the U.K., is £14.99. It is also available direct from the publisher, Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. It is also stocked at independent Leeds bookshop, Philip Howard Books. And it’s also available from the normal retail outlets.

Will Your Family History Research Die With You?

What plans have you made to preserve for your family history research after your death? That’s a question I posed nearly two years ago. Dealing with life from cradle to grave and beyond, you’d think this would be something family historians, more than most groups, were on top of.

Wrong.  Almost half of those who responded said they had no plan in place. Reasons for this varied, including no-one in the family was interested; the researcher had no close relatives; or even simply a case that they had never given it a thought. Surprisingly, this latter response didn’t apply only to those new to family history. I guess we don’t like to think of a time when we’re not here!

What will become of my research is something I’ve considered ever since. Not least because I was one of the ‘no plan’ cohort. I guess I hoped it would all be OK. But, thinking about it, it isn’t fair to let my relatives and executors sort it out. In addition to their grief, they will have enough practical arrangements to deal with. And under those circumstances, there is a possibility it all may be thrown away as the easy option. So, I need to take responsibility and make things easier for them. It’s up to me to decide what I want to happen to my research…including if I’m happy for it to be destroyed.

The bottom line is I don’t want it to end up in the bin after I’m gone. And I expect many other family historians, one-name and one-place ‘studiers’ feel the same about their work. That means making plans now.

For some, the emotional and personal aspect of family history research means the ideal solution is to bequeath it to an immediate family member…assuming there is someone eager and able to take it on. Although conversely, does this ultimately rob them of the pleasure of research? That’s another dilemma.

In the case of a one-name study, there may be someone else willing to continue researching that name.

But beyond that, there are other alternatives. In this piece I’ve put forward some of these wider options.

Three key points from the outset.

  1. You need to check that the individual(s) and organisation(s) who you intend leaving your research to are happy to receive it. They simply might not have the space or resources to house it. If it’s an organisation, it may not be suitable for them. And, particularly if it is an organisation, it’s only fair to make sure your donation is going to be in a format acceptable to them. All this requires planning. Which leads on to the second point.
  2. If possible, do make sure you have properly organised and labelled your research. That’s one of the reasons for including in my 2020 New Year’s Resolutions the commitment to review all my research and ensure full source citations are included. Then I need to make sure it’s stored in an organised, logical manner. That means it’s far easier for it to be passed on, and those looking at it in later years can fully understand the sources used, any gaps with them, and the arguments underpinning the conclusions. And finally;
  3. Whatever you decide, do formalise it by including it in your will. In addition, do make sure several people know this is your wish. You don’t want it ending up in the skip before the will has been executed.

So what are the wider options?

Many family history societies have library sections which take donations. Some will have established formal donation policies. It’s worth making contact to see if your research is something they would be interested in, especially if it fits with the area they cover. 

Check out local history societies too. Again they may have a library section to accommodate research, or even an active website where they can share information about local families.

It may be worth contacting your local Council’s library department, particularly if there is a main local studies library, or if the various branch libraries specialise in local history themes. It is worth bearing in mind, though, the funding pressures facing libraries. Many have downsized or closed in recent years, with reference sections being particularly squeezed. 

Depending on the type of documents you have, would a local archive be interested?

Nationally, organisations such as the Society of Genealogists (SoG) take donations. Their collections policy states they welcome “original work and papers of genealogists and family historians as well as material primarily of genealogical interest which other archives are not interested in.” More details about donating to the SoG are here.

If you have a one-name study check out the Guild of One-Name Studies, and their page which explains more about preserving your study, including an example will codicil. 

Ultimately, it may be that your research covers a number of distinct areas, and is best split between multiple organisations. But, if so, even more reason for you to do the planning now. 

There are other things to consider when bequeathing your research, particularly to an organisation or repository. These include asking yourself if they are likely to be around long-term to ensure your work is preserved. With so many organisations struggling due to cut-backs or falling membership numbers, their future viability is a genuine factor. If so, can you include provisions for that eventuality? For example, will your donation be classed as a permanent gift, or is a loan possible?  If your aim is to ensure your research is made available to others after your death, will the recipient be able to deliver that level of accessibility? And would you want access to be free? Also, because there is a financial cost to the organisation in cataloguing, storing, conserving and making available your research, do consider making an accompanying monetary bequest.

Finally, there are some practical steps you can take to share and disseminate your work in your lifetime. These include blogging, creating a website, having a family history FaceBook Page, uploading a public version of your family tree (e.g. via Ancestry or GenesReunited), sharing information with relevant one-place or one-name studies, or even writing a family history book and distributing copies to relatives. But some of these may lead to whole new topics…not least around preserving your digital legacy! 

Hopefully this has given you some ideas. As for me, I’m leaving everything to an interested family member. I’ve also got my blog which includes some family history tales. And in 2014 I wrote and distributed my paternal family history book (which now needs updating). Which reminds me, I must do one for my mum’s side – something I’d overlooked until writing this post. Family history is never done!

The Civil Service Marriage Bar – Attitudes to Women and Work in the Mid-20th Century

I love Call the Midwife. A recent episode, set in 1965, about illegitimacy and the pressure on single women to give up their baby (or marry) really does give pause for thought about attitudes towards women in society generally, even within living memory.

It got me thinking wider about beliefs about the role of women in the middle part of the 20th century, particularly married working women. Certain jobs today are perceived as traditionally female occupations. As a former civil servant, I have an interest in this work area. Civil Service jobs, particularly junior administrative and clerical roles, may fall within this traditionally ‘female’ category. But perhaps that impression may not be quite as it seems.

Today 53.9% of the UK Civil Service are women, of all relationship statuses. However, in the not-so-distant past, this was not the case. Until the Great War, it was a male-dominated profession. Yes, the labour vacuum created by the two wars did result in the influx of female workers. But the position was far more nuanced – particularly with regard to marital status. The way the Civil Service was structured and operated in the mid 20th century was transformed totally by the end of the century.

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, a ‘girl clerk in a war-time organisation’  – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//41/media-41026/large.jpg

One key factor influencing Civil Service employment in the early and middle part of the 20th century, which may not be obvious today, was the distinction between established and unestablished Civil Servants. Linked to this was a marriage bar for established female Civil Servants, a ban imposed by the government.

It meant married women couldn’t become established (permanent, pensionable) Civil Servants [1], and single women who were in the established cadre had to resign when they did marry, unless granted a waiver to continue. This waiver was an exceptional occurrence, with only eight of these granted between 1934 and 1938. In effect, married women were second-class citizens.

The Civil Service position regarding married women working in permanent roles was not unique. Similar restrictions on the employment of married women applied for a wide range of professions, some of these also traditionally viewed as suited to women. These included the post office (part of the Civil Service until the 1960s), banking, teaching and nursing.

The reasons for having this restriction included the view that it was the woman’s responsibility after marriage to look after her husband. Marriage was, in fact, a career in its own right – albeit unpaid! In 1944, when the marriage bar issue was under discussion by the Union of Post Office Workers, one representative argued:

In this country we have always held that a woman’s place is in the home.

This from someone in an organisation championing worker’s rights!

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, ‘preparing the evening meal – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//41/media-41031/large.jpg

It was also perceived that women became less efficient employees once married, as their minds were no longer wholly on their job. They also needed time off to have children, and were unpunctual or absent because of their family responsibilities. Linked to this was the belief that it was the fundamental right of a man to be the provider in his own home. Working wives somehow shifted this balance, emasculating their husbands. Furthermore, married working women reduced employment opportunities for men, and this contributed to male unemployment. These women also took jobs and promotion opportunities away from single women, who needed work more than their married (and supposedly financially supported) sisters. And perhaps I’m being cynical here, but it also saved money. Pay was linked to time-served progression. Forcing women out on marriage meant their progression up the pay scale was curtailed.

But attitudes slowly shifted as the Second World War drew to a close, and practicalities were weighed up. Banishing a whole section of the female population to the kitchen again, and denying them rights to a full working life, was becoming an increasingly difficult line to hold. Once more, women needed to plug wartime labour market gaps, and stepped up to the plate effectively. There was also a growing realisation that the experience, ideas and contributions of a whole section of society was being denied. Female university graduates were put off from applying for jobs with no long-term prospects. Arguments were put forward that married female employment was not a cause of male unemployment, and pulling a whole section of women out of the workforce was not the answer. The push for equality, and freedom of choice, therefore gained traction, despite ingrained prejudices. And, ironically, labour-saving devices around the home helped too, freeing time and opening up the world of work to more women.

The marriage bar was gradually removed from 1944 onwards (this was the date the wider teaching profession lifted the restriction). The Civil Service was only slightly behind the pace – it was becoming increasingly untenable for government to continue with the policy. For well over a decade, the restriction on married women working in the established Civil Service had been under discussion. It had a Marriage Bar Committee investigating various aspects associated with the policy, both pros and cons. There was even a National Whitley Council report on the subject. The decision could no longer be kicked into the long grass.

The marriage bar was finally abolished in October 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and 1973 for Foreign Service employment. More details about this are at here.

In his explanatory parliamentary statement on 15 October 1946, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, said:

In future, married women will not be ineligible by reason of their marriage for appointment to established posts in the Home Civil Service, and women who remain in the Service will be required to comply with the normal conditions and practices of their employment, including regular attendance, the working of overtime when necessary and the acceptance of the liability to transfer within the United Kingdom and outside it. Those who, on account of domestic responsibilities or otherwise, are unable to comply with these conditions will not be retained in Service.
The abolition of the marriage bar will take effect today. It will not give any right of reinstatement to women who in the past have been required to resign from the Civil Service on marriage. Marriage gratuities will be paid [2], as hitherto, to women who voluntarily resign from established Civil Service posts on marriage.

However, the opposition to the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service and elsewhere continued to be aired well into the 1950s. For example, at the Civil Service Conference of 1950, a motion to re-introduce it was defeated by 7,348 votes to 5,454.

The arguments for its re-imposition focused around easing the redundancy threat facing established officers, particularly married men. Questions were also raised about the future shape of the Civil Service. The implication being this was a step on the slippery slope to employing married women with children. It raised the question:

What kind of Civil Service are we building up? Next we’ll be asking to requisition playpens so they can bring their children into the office.

There were even cartoons depicting the chaos of infants in the office.

And some were unhappy at the potential job competition faced by single women from their married counterparts. Men clearly had an ulterior motive for espousing this view, although some single women did put it forward too.

An illustration of the denial of jobs for unmarried women argument was seen at the Union of Post Office Workers Annual Conference of 1953. This was a union which had campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service. Yet at their 1953 Conference, attempts were made to seek reimposition of the ban on married women in the Post Office. Those in favour here claimed it was unfair that single women who had dependents were being denied an income, whilst married women were able to afford TV sets and washing machines from their dual family income. The Conference contained the immortal lines of one speaker:

Do not let us have girls standing in unemployment queues while their married colleagues are going about looking like bookies wives.

However, the situation of married women working did gradually become tolerated and accepted.

By 15 September 1958, The Times, in a feature on Whitehall Women, focusing on Administrative Class (senior hierarchy) rather than the more junior Executive, Clerical and other Officer Classes, was extolling the opportunities in the Home Civil Service for suitably qualified women, stating that:

…the State is an enlightened employer recognising by generous maternity leave that a married woman may have children in the course of her career and arrange her life so she can have the best of these two worlds.

It went on to cover advantages such as annual leave, a five-day week, the prospect of travel to places such as Paris, Bonn, Geneva and Washington, and, from 1961, equal pay with male colleagues. This was all aimed at enticing more female university graduates to apply for a Civil Service career.

Yet even in this article there was the whiff of sexism, with lines such as:

If they are attractive, as well as having good brains, “they are most useful” to quote an official “in swaying meetings.”

Despite the example set by government for Home Service Civil Servants, the marriage bar continued formally and informally in the private sector even beyond the 1950s. For example, Barclays Bank did not abolish it until 1961. And there was still a bar in place for Foreign Service Civil Servants into the early 1970s.

So it is well worth considering this specific restriction on the employment of women when investigating the occupations of your female ancestors. Did such a restriction play a part in their career choices, even the choices for university graduates? And did it also play a part in prematurely ending their working lives, effectively forcing them to leave their jobs and work colleagues? And imagine how that felt, cut adrift from the familiar routine of their lives, their friends and daily interactions, let alone the monetary impact.

It also is worth considering that the Civil Service wasn’t structured as now – it contained two classes of workers: established (which is probably what we regard today as the Civil Service) and unestablished. And very different terms and conditions of employment existed when compared to today. Even if jobs and professions continue today, do investigate the terms and conditions which existed for your ancestors. You may be surprised.

Finally, the marriage bar and societal attitudes towards it, provides yet another fascinating insight into the lives of our female ancestors, and the job choices they had. And it is another example of the pitfall of using 21st century eyes to view the lives of our ancestors, and their work (and life) options. Many did not choose to give up work, they were in effect forced out because they married and their job did not permit them to continue under these circumstances.

Notes:
[1] The Civil Service structure, and its strict recruitment and promotion procedures, was a complex system. In addition to established permanent Civil Servants, there existed another tier of unestablished employees. The unestablished Civil Service were essentially supposed to be non-permanent staff, not subject to the superannuation act. They were meant to plug gaps such as those created during wartime, or through seasonal fluctuations. They could be easily dispensed with when conditions changed, thus protecting established staff from the threat of redundancy. Recruitment of these temporary staff tended to be on a Departmental level and not as a result of stringent centrally imposed examinations. It was therefore a concern that if these unestablished workers did gain entry to the established ranks (which could happen) they would not match the rigorous intellectual standards attained by examination entrant Civil Servants. Nevertheless there was some blurring, with an increasing tendency for unestablished posts to become temporary in name only without the benefits of permanency. This in itself resulted in pressure for change. However, even as late as 1 January 1965 there were approximately 159,000 temporary non-industrial civil servants.
[2] These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.

Sources:

Five Tips for a Family History Cemetery Visit

Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.

Lottie Oddy’s Batley Cemetery Headstone – “who met her death by the fall of the cliffs at Bridlington” – Photo by Jane Roberts

Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).

Ralph Edon’s Headstone Inscription at Masham Giving Some Occupational Information (Late Surgeon, 35th Regiment) – Photo by Jane Roberts

They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.

Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.

And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.

I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism. 

Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point. 

See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas. 

Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.

Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones. 

Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.

When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period. 

Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!

Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.

And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.

Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera.  If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken. 

Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.

Front and Back of the Hallas Headstone at Kirkburton All Hallows – Photo by Jane Roberts

Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.

Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues. 

Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.

Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.

Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.

Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.

Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk

It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!

Ten Things You Wish You’d Known Before Starting Your Family History

Many will be starting their family history research in the New Year. That’s the time of year I embarked on my quest many moons ago, when my brother bought me some books as a Christmas present.

The other day I got to thinking about the mistakes I made in those early days, and the advice I wish I’d been given at the outset. Here are 10 tips I wish my younger genie had been given.

A selection of my research record books (see Goal 6)
  1. Talk to relatives…but only if they want to. Don’t push it. Not all relatives will be comfortable with this, particularly if there are skeletons in the family history cupboard. If they do agree to talk, bear in mind the memory isn’t infallible. Names, dates and events may not be recalled with total accuracy. And there may be some air-brushing to glass over uncomfortable truths.
  2. Make a note of all the sources and references for your findings. That includes the document description, location and reference number. If it was accessed via an online search, note the website address, document dataset and search date. Basically anything and everything you will need to locate it again.
  3. Make a note of all searches – negative as well as positive. It avoids unnecessary repeat searches. Note the search date. This helps with online searches. You only need to repeat when the dataset is updated.
  4. Tempting as it is, avoid the scattergun approach. Plan your research strategy. If you plan, you focus. Don’t try do everything in one go. Concentrate on one person, issue, family at a time. Define the problem, and look at which records may help. Work through methodically.
  5. Don’t accept online family trees as gospel. It’s all too easy if you’re new to family history to accept the research of others without question. Do so at your peril – you could find yourself barking up the wrong tree. Do your own research.
  6. Record your findings as soon as possible. Don’t build up a backlog. I started with a card index system which I still continue. I also now record on a family history software programme. But it could also as easily be an ancestral notebook, or downloading forms such as those available on the FamilySearch Wiki. It’s whatever works for you. The key point is you do it, so your research is up to date. you can quickly evaluate it and spot the gaps.
  7. Don’t get hung up on spellings. Literacy levels and accents all impacted. Be open-minded. Some of my family surnames have upwards of 20 spelling variations. Even Christian names could vary.
  8. By the same token be aware that your ancestors were not necessarily consistent with facts. They may have not known their exact birthday. They may have wished to bend the truth. My great grandmother lied about her age to make it appear she was closer to the age of her husband. She and my great grandfather lied in the 1911 census about the number of years they had been married, to cover illegitimacy of children. Your ancestors were human. And humans don’t always tell the truth. So when searching, build up in parameters either side of dates. Question, question, question. And refer back constantly to previous findings,
  9. Join a family history society. Consider courses. Read to expand your knowledge. Ask if you’re not sure. And accept help. We’ve all been there. And genealogists are a friendly bunch.
  10. Finally be aware – family history research could end up taking over your life. You’re never finished.

I do hope these tips help you start your research on the right track!

Guess Who? Photo Frustration

Today I had a spare few minutes to look at one of my mother-in-law’s photo albums. Who was I trying to kid? A few minutes ended up being well over one hour.

It was actually an album which belonged to her mother, Ada Haynes (née Eardley), 1906-2003, given to her with best wishes for 1935 by someone called Eileen. It had been carefully filled. So many people captured in significant moments and happy times. Group shots, individual portraits, smileless Victorians, proud mothers with babies (beaming or otherwise), holiday photos, weddings, posed formal studio pictures as well as more natural images.

So many faces of people long gone … and most of them were nameless and will remain so for ever more. I felt unutterably flat.

I’ve included a few here.

I spent a good while magnifying the names on the War Memorial, cross-matching with Soldiers Died in the Great War records, and then checking against the Imperial War Museum’s War Memorial Register. I managed to work out it was Chesterton War Memorial, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire. The Staffordshire location makes sense, but I’ve no idea why this Memorial was so significant that its image was in such a treasured album.

So my plea is please label your photos. I’d say on the back of the photo itself, rather than on the album page given the tendency for the photos to come loose. No pressing down either when labelling, so as to avoid indentation damage to the image. Use a soft lead pencil, again to avoid damage. If it’s a more modern glossy photo, pencil won’t work. In this case do not be tempted to use a ballpoint pen. Instead use an archival acid-free pen which won’t fade, is waterproof and dries quickly…and do make sure the ink has dried!

As for what to write? Well don’t put Doris or grandma. That’s they type of cryptic clue on the few and far between labels in the album vexing me. Include full names (with maiden name as well for married women), along with the date, location, address, occasion and even ages, if known: Think how many families in the past recycled names! Basically anything to identify who, when, where and why.

And do it as soon as possible after the photo was taken. You know how memory can play tricks. Plus you don’t want to end up with ‘choredom‘ off-putting stacks of photos to label.

Family history research can be frustrating enough without having to play a game of Guess Who? with photographs. Honestly, your descendants will thank you for it.

PS – if anyone can put names to these faces… 😉

Yesterday is History: You ARE Family History

Often when researching family history one major component is missing. You.

As the saying goes ‘Yesterday is History.’ It’s something us family historians often overlook, we’re so focused on earlier generations.

So time to take a pause from all the research and write up your own life story. It is a legacy for future generations of family history researchers – your history, your recollections, and in your words. Your chance to say it as you remember, with all those unique snippets of information, stamped with your personality.Years ago I bought dad a memory journal to complete. He never did. It’s a thing a bitterly regret he never got round to doing. It would have been a precious legacy to all his descendants for ever more, now he’s no longer around to ask. It would have been a much-cherished connection to him and his life through his written words. As it is, I’m the family history recorder, so now his life is viewed through my memories, my prism. One step removed.

And for those with no direct-line descendants this might be even more important.

This is your opportunity to ensure a lasting footprint in your family’s history.

There are so many ways to do it. It’s not like in previous eras where education, cost and social status dictated, and restricted, opportunity.

There is the family history journal method which in theory is the easiest option with all its pre-printed prompts. But you could also write down your life story. There is no need to over-complicate it and create some massive opus, unless you really want to. Family Tree magazine set a challenge recently to write your family history in only 1,000 words. Those 1,000 words could prove of more value than money left in a will, no matter how rough and ready you may feel it is. That’s not the point. It’s the fact it’s down there for posterity.

There’s even the option to do a recording, so not only your words but your voice preserved for ever more (hopefully).

And when you do put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or voice to recorder, make sure the finished product is passed on to your family or the wider family history community. It could be by ensuring relatives have copies in your lifetime. It could be a formal bequest via your will. But whatever and however: Just do it.

The Fair Weather Genealogist – Summer Research Tips

Summer tends to be the time of year when family history research takes a back seat. Who wants to be stuck in front of a computer screen or closeted away in some dusty archive or local library when the days are long and the sun is shining brightly?

The meteorological summer is defined as June, July and August. Here are my five seasonal tips to continue with your family history research whilst making the most of those three long, hot summer months (we can but dream!)

  • Do a bit of ancestral tourism, visiting locations associated with your family history. It could be a street in which your ancestors lived, the school they attended, the church where they married, the cemetery in which they are buried, or even popping into the pub, if it still exists, where a family-associated inquest was held.
  • For me family history extends beyond names and dates. I love finding about the everyday lives of my ancestors, their occupations, leisure activities, transport methods, living conditions, and the health struggles they faced. I also want to try put their lives into the context of local and national history. Summertime provides ample opportunity to find out more, especially on those cooler summer days. It could be a visit to a museum such as the Thackray Medical Museum, the trio of Ripon Museums covering the workhouse, courthouse and police station/prison, Bradford Police Museum, the National Coal Mining Museum, the National Railway Museum in York, Ryedale Folk Museum or Beamish (the Living History Museum of the North). I’ve concentrated on some northern examples here, but there are so many possibilities to choose from up and down the country. It’s definitely worth checking out ones near where you are holidaying, as it’s something which could be incorporated in to a family vacation or a day trip.
  • Outdoor events are another option especially when the sun is cracking the flags, from 1940s weekends to Civil War events with living history camps. These require more seeking out, but they are well worth the effort.
  • Experience the transport methods of your ancestors. Journey back in time accompanied by the evocative smells and sounds of a real steam train, stopping off at stations liveried in colours and signs of a bygone era. In Yorkshire there are plenty to choose from and they’re fantastic for families too. There’s Middleton Railway in Leeds, the world’s oldest working railway; the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, of Railway children fame and taking in historic Haworth with its Brontë associations; the Embsay and Bolton Abbey steam railway in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside; and the North Yorkshire Moors Historical Railway Trust operating between Pickering and Whitby, taking in Heartbeat country. Volunteer-run, these railways offer far more than the wonderful train rides, with offerings including themed events, tours and even hands-on experiences.

Haworth Station in the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway – Photo by Jane Roberts

  • And if you really are struggling to drag yourself away from the beach or the pool this summer holiday season, why not pack some genealogy crime and mystery fiction into those suitcases? That way you can get your genealogy fix through plotting the next research steps of a fictional genealogist and trying to crack the case whilst getting some well-earned rest and relaxation. Four authors of this genre to look out for are Nathan Dylan Goodwin with his Morton Farrier forensic genealogist book series; M. K. Jones who writes about genealogy detectives Maze Investigations; M. J. Lee and his former police detective turned genealogical investigator Jayne Sinclair; and Steve Robinson’s series of books based around American international genealogist Jefferson Tayte.

Whatever you end up doing this summer, I hope it’s a good one.

Family History Search Tips

I make no apologies for posting this advice. If it helps just one person it’s worth repeating it.

Here goes:

  • Do not rely on index searches and/or transcriptions – look at actual documents or digitised images of them;
  • Whenever possible use more than one genealogical dataset provider for any searches; and
  • When searching be flexible with spellings, dates, ages etc.

This was brought home to me yet again recently whilst doing my Aveyard One-Name Study.

Extracting all occurrences of the name from the 1851 census in England and Wales I used both Ancestry and Findmypast. Searching purely on Aveyard, and not including my variant surname searches, the totals were:

  • Ancestry: 206; and
  • Findmypast: 183.

Both providers had results not found by the other one.

I also looked at Haveyard. Ancestry had five results and Findmypast six.

I went through each result individually, checking against the original census images. Some proved not to be Aveyard entries at all. Even individual information within correct entries had discrepancies when checked against the image – ages, occupations, names and relationships incorrect for instance. And there was no correlation with the errors between the providers. As for the quality of images, that too varied. For some Findmypast was far superior; for others Ancestry proved more legible. And some were difficult on both.

In the end I came up with 211 genuine Aveyard/Haveyard entries. This total is purely coincidental in matching the Ancestry total. My 211 included some not found by either provider in the Aveyard/Haveyard searches, but based on my knowledge of names I knew should be there. And this total does not include the Halfyard spelling sometimes used.

To put it simply if I had used one provider for my search and not checked the images I would have replicated errors and had missing entries.

Even my 211 may be a hostage to fortune as I delve more into my Aveyard and wider ancestry, become more familiar with names which should feature based on results from other record sets, and look at broader wildcard searches.

I use this census search as an example. The same principles apply equally for any searches. Only today, finding someone in a 1939 Register search via Findmypast proved impossible. Switch to Ancestry and it was the first “hit.”

Also just because you cannot find an expected result does not mean it isn’t there. It could be simply mis-transcribed, the document could be damaged or pages may have been skipped in the digitisation process. So check the original document, especially if you are relying on one provider for your search. In fact I’d say always go through the document.

In recent weeks I’ve found burials which didn’t come up with a normal search; ships passengers missed off the search indexes; incorrect dates even down to the wrong year; and even a 1912 birth entry on the General Register Office (GRO) website which had the mother’s maiden name totally mangled. I went ahead and ordered the certificate, trusting my instincts (combined with reasoned searching and elimination). It proved the right call. The name was mis-transcribed on the main index, because the document itself had legibility issues and the name was highly unusual.

Another GRO example recently was using Findmypast marriage indexes for 1904. The page number was transcribed as 133 and their marriage finder hint came up with two suggested grooms. Looking at the image, the page number was actually 123. Using FreeBMD, a search on District, Date, Page and Volume sorted it and the correct groom was identified. Needless to say it wasn’t either of the two suggested via the Findmypast search.

The moral of the story is do not rely on indexes, transcriptions and the search algorithms of online genealogy sites; use more than one provider as it is less likely the same transcription error will be repeated on all; always check the image if at all possible; be flexible with your spellings, do not rely on what you think is the established one; and don’t accept negative search results without question.

So from one “old” genealogist, maybe by following these general principles you will have more chance of “meeting” your ancestors whilst you are alive, than in any afterlife!

Don’t Let Parish Register Indexes and Online Searches Lead You Down the Family History Garden Path

It’s so easy to rely on online parish register searches or transcripts and indexes for family history. But by putting absolute faith in them you could be missing out on so much more. Hopefully this post illustrate why you should also invest time in looking at the register itself, or digitised images, and not simply place all your faith in the easier options.

Family History Society transcripts and indexes include the health warning to check against the original register, and it is sound advice. Even if they are accurate, information in the original register may by omitted due to space constraints or because they do not neatly fit in the templates. The same caveats also apply to search results from online providers of family history records.

I finally decided to write about the issue after recently going through baptisms in the Wakefield All Saints register for the 1750s and 1760s and comparing against online search results.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Here are some of the problems associated with not looking at the original registers, and benefits which may be gained from putting in the effort.

  • Registers can be damaged making entries illegible. It may be just for the odd entry, but it could involve weeks, months or even years. There may be periods where the register does not survive, or was never kept. Whole pages may have been omitted during the digitisation process. This may be the reason why the entry you are seeking does not come up in a search or appear in an index, or why if it does there may be transcription errors. Without checking the actual register, or images, you may never know. And by not knowing you may end up with incorrect family history information or be missing out on work rounds like failing to check Bishop’s Transcripts (BT) copies.
  • If you are relying on searches and indexes to find an entry, do not confine your to check the digitised or original parish register image for the entry concerned. Look at the surrounding ones too to get a feel for the register. These checks should include ensuring the parish or church matches against the one identified on the finding aid. This can be a particular issue if a parish church has associated chapelries. Birstall Parish for example had a Chapel of Ease, White Chapel, which had baptism and, eventually, burial rights. This subtle difference is not necessarily picked up if the register itself is not checked.
  • Mistakes in transcribing and indexing. Recently I’ve seen the surname “Wright” mistakenly indexed as “Might“. Doing an online search for the surname, including any of the usual variants just won’t find it.
  • Similarly Christian names can be totally wrong – James instead of Sam[ue]l is one that springs to mind in one of my family baptism searches. Without checking the register I would be led down the garden path for any future references to the child.
  • On this theme, parish register amendments are not necessarily picked up in any searches. Two examples here. An 1816 baptism at Whitkirk. Ancestry has this indexed in searches as “William Illegitimate Pennington” son of Grace. This is wrong. The child was not illegitimate and the entry should be William Hill. There is a note at the bottom of the page of the baptism register stating it is erroneous and Grace was lawfully married to Francis Hill. Ancestry have not picked this up. And there is a similar theme for Wakefield All Saints when William son of William Jennings was baptised on 8 November 1764. The register has an annotation indicating three competent witnesses testified the child was actually called Thomas. Granted a search for Thomas Jennings on Ancestry.co.uk will fetch “William Jennings” in the results, but you need to drill down to find out the full details.
  • The Wakefield All Saints register which promoted this search had several entries in the early 1760s for the birth of illegitimate children with the register noting the name of the father. Some indicate the child was “basely begot not declaring the father.” Others indicate the father in general terms like “a French Man” or “a French prisoner” (and those entries lead to a whole new set of questions). But others will name the putative father, including some with occupations (plenty soldiers) and some even giving his abode. The father is not shown in online searches, you need to view the entry. And if your ancestor was the father you possibly would not know without going through the register.
  • Burials throw up the issue whereby some online searches give no surname for married women and children. Try Ancestry’s collection of West Yorkshire Church of England Burial Registers 1813-1985. In the early decades of this collection this surname omission is rife. Imagine the problem if your ancestor was an Ann, Mary or Elizabeth!
  • Problems with dates. There are numerous examples of this. The wrong number for the day, month, or even the wrong year given. A particular issue is around the pre and post 1752 calendar change from Julian to Gregorian. Many parishes continued with the old style calendar way beyond 1752 in their registers, with the New Year still starting on 25 March. Without checking the parish register you may end up attributing a birth to the wrong year.
  • Going through the registers yourself improves your transcription skills. You start to get your eye in for reading older documents, which only benefits your wider family history research.
  • And finally by going through the register you start to get a feel for the community of your ancestors, the status of various parishioners, occupations in the locality, indications of disease outbreaks, maybe even weather updates and wider events. The Wakefield register is a perfect example of the snippets you can pick up. Between 1760 and 1764, using baptisms alone, there’s an abandoned child, the three children born to different women by a French man/French prisoner. On 13 August 1763 there is the baptism of Richard Brown, a black man from Carolina. And on 4 October 1764 “John Vernon a Black from Antiga [sic] ab[ou]t 22 y[ea]rs old.

Published indexes and online family history database providers are fabulous finding aids and have opened up family history to a much wider audience. But they should be treated as that – finding aids. Using different sources may help overcome the issue. For example a Family History Society booklet may give different information to an Ancestry, FamilySearch or FindMyPast search, some of which may use the BT rather than the parish register. And that is another issue. What is the source used by the online provider or Family History Society? Is it the parish register or is it a BT? It might seem a minor detail, but this too can impact on search results.

So if at all possible check the original register, or digitised images, for yourself. It may surprise you – and could save you a lot of time in the long run.