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:
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.
It’s the end of January and I’m still eating my way through my Christmas chocolates. As I do so I can’t help but compare them with my family history research.
Each box and tin contains an overwhelming selection. One temptation is to dive in and, without any planning or forethought, work your way right through the entire box. That can be true of family history. A scattergun approach, jumping from one tempting ancestor to another. It’s great to start with, but ultimately it becomes less and less satisfying.
The other similarity is that often in that box or tin, some flavours and types are your favourites. You may be like me and go for them first (coconut is my personal weakness). The least tempting I leave till the end, and then I’m faced with nothing but a heap of orange creams which I must force myself to eat (it has to be done). Again, family history research can be the same. You have your favourite ancestors and these are the ones you go for first. You can’t get enough of them. Other ancestors, for whatever reason, don’t hold the same interest. These are the ones left for another day. And when you do pick them up, they’re not very satisfying.
On the same theme some chocolates are expensive. Others have more substance. Or they may have multiple layers and taste sensations. These could be your wealthy ancestors, or your ancestors with lots of associated records or the ones with really fascinating and varied lives.
My final comparison is that you can have too much of a good thing. It’s that end of January feeling when eating chocolates becomes a huge chore rather than a great pleasure. Personally I’m at the stage of not wanting to see another chocolate, but I feel I must plough on. And yes, hard as it is to believe, that can happen with research too. Family history morning, noon and night can leave you jaded by it all. That initial enthusiasm can wear off. So it’s good to have a break from it, even if only for a week or so. Then, like chocolates, you can return to it with renewed enthusiasm!
Actually, in hindsight, I may have eaten far too many chocolates this month. And done too much family history too (only joking). Which is why I’m having such fanciful thoughts. Normal service will be resumed in February.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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!
31 May 2019 marked the end of a huge chunk of my life over the past few years. I was at the Society of Genealogists in London for the award of my joint Pharos Tutors and Society of Genealogists Family History Skills and Strategies (Advanced) course certificate.
A bittersweet moment, it was the culmination of a couple of year’s hard work undertaking the various modules, the end of year one exam and a year two project. And even before that I had spent three years completing the Intermediate course.
Yes, submitting my final assignment last autumn and receiving my marks (a Distinction) just before Christmas were phases of the end. But the award ceremony was the moment which finally put a full stop on this period of formal learning
It was also wonderful meeting those who also undertook this learning journey, be it my fellow students or the ever-patient tutors who taught us along the way. I’ve learned so much through these courses and become a better genealogist as a result. They’ve also laid the foundations for my future continuing professional development.
But at the same time it was also a sad moment. Saying goodbye to everyone. Finally recognising that this phase of life was over and that the regular routine of formal learning had ended.
But has it?
Whilst the formal assessed courses are at an end, as part of keeping up-to-date with genealogical developments I will forge on with my personal programme of learning in order to continue to offer the best possible service to those who put their trust in me to research their precious family history.
For me family history is more than a series of names and dates. I want to try paint a picture of my ancestors lives, their wider family network, the times in which they lived and the communities which shaped them. For many, records are the only way to build up this picture. For others their lives are still within living memory, either first hand or indirectly through others.
Edith Aveyard is my maternal great grandmother and the reason for my one-name study choice. I never met her, but through many hours talking to mum I do feel I have some sense of her character which goes beyond the records.
Born in East Ardsley in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 20 March 1879 she was one of the nine children of Wesleyan Methodist Abraham Aveyard and his wife Sarah Jane (née Broadhead). Her siblings included Peter (1873), Thomas Henry (1875), Bertha (1887), Amos Hartley (born 1881, died 1884), Paulina/Pauline (circa 1884), Eliza (1885), Caroline (1887) and John (1889). Abraham, a coal miner, spent several short spells between 1894 and 1908 in Wakefield Prison for debt.
Family census and various birth, baptism, death and burial records show that by March 1884 the family moved from East Ardsley to Morley. Sometime between May 1887 and March 1889 they shifted to Drighlington but by the mid-1890s they were back in Morley. All were coal-mining areas, so provided employment opportunities for Abraham and his eldest sons.
Edith married coal miner Jonathan Rhodes at Woodkirk Parish Church on 14 August 1897. They were both 18 years old. Edith did not sign her name in the register. Mum recalls that she could never write – yet she could read a horse-racing card well enough in the newspapers to enable her to put on a bet!
It was a marriage which did not meet with the approval of Jonathan’s parents, William Burnley Rhodes and Elizabeth. Mum has the impression they thought they were a ‘cut above’ Edith’s Aveyard family. Perhaps Edith’s father’s periods in jail were central to this belief. However, the marriage was one of necessity as Edith gave birth to a daughter, Alice, less than four months after the wedding.
The couple settled into married life and their home at Healey Croft Terrace, East Ardsley, near-neighbours of Edith’s brother Thomas Henry Aveyard. It was here the couple’s other children were born: Ethel (1899), Oliver (circa 1902), William Henry Bastow (circa 1903) and Pauline (1905).
But life was not without its difficulties. Jonathan was not a well man. A diabetic in the pre-insulin era, he was carrying out the physically demanding job of a coal hewer. And then tragedy hit. First youngest son William died at the Healey Croft Terrace home, on 4 June 1907, struck down by meningitis when only four-years-old. He was buried in the churchyard at East Ardsley St Michael’s two day’s later. Then, shortly after moving to Morley, the couple’s other son 8-year-old Oliver was killed on 8 October 1910 after being knocked down by a motor car on Britannia Road. It’s an incident which I wrote about here. He was buried alongside his brother on 11 October 1910.
By 1916 the family had left Morley and were living in Hanging Heaton. Daughter Alice married Willie Boynes in the Sunday school at Hanging Heaton on 16 April 1916. The school had been given a special licence to hold marriages by the Bishop of Wakefield.
The somewhat unusual venue was because the parish church of St Paul’s Church at Hanging Heaton was gutted by fire after a lightning strike in the early hours of 17 February 1916. Initially, given this was the midst of the Great War, the crowd watching the destruction of this landmark church, speculated that the cause was ‘German incendrianism.’
The Million Act church of St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton, was built originally between 1823-1825 as part of the church building programme sanctioned in the wake of Wellington’s 1815 victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. It was on a dominant hillside position, and the flames were visible for miles around. The High Street home of the Rhodes family was a matter of a few hundred metres away.
High Street, Hanging Heaton today. The old Number 67 where the family lived no longer exists. Photo by Jane Roberts
The fire was spotted at 4.10 am by Sam Pleasants. But, with only one telephone available in the vicinity of Hanging Heaton, summoning help was not straightforward. The Dewsbury Brigade received a call at 4.23am and, according to the Rev. W.E. Cleworth, they were working with the hose on the blaze before 5am (Batley News, 19 February 1916). The Dewsbury Reporter of the same date also stated:
Great praise was bestowed upon Dewsbury Fire Brigade for the very prompt manner in which they responded to the call and the general adaptability they displayed.
The Batley News report went onto say the Batley Brigade did not receive a request to assist until 5.15 am. This delay was criticised as being detrimental to efforts to save the church. The Leeds Mercury of 18 February in its report mentions the Dewsbury Brigade was speedily on the spot, but states Batley’s arrival was delayed for some time at the toll-bar gate at Grange Road. No mention of the problems being down to contacting them.
Later published accounts state that both the Batley and Dewsbury Fire Brigades were delayed in attending the conflagration. These too do not mention the lateness in getting the call through to Batley. Rather they say precisely because of the church’s steep hillside position, the horse-drawn engine from Batley could not access via the direct route up the hill. Instead it had to go via Grange Road where the Toll Keeper, when he eventually was roused from bed, argued about the toll for fire engines. The Dewsbury Brigade were held up because they could not enter the area without the permission of the delayed Batley Brigade. And when they were both finally in position, at the same time, initially they had no water.
Whatever happened with the Fire Brigades, the main point is the flames, fanned by a strong wind, took hold and the church was beyond saving. Its rebuilding was not authorised until 1920, and it was finally rededicated on 17 November 1923.
The vulnerability of the building to lightning strikes was highlighted just prior to the rededication. Building work completed, on Saturday 7 July 1923 it was once more struck by lightning. The top of one of the pinnacles was completely shattered, and a small fire broke out. Fortunately residents witnessed the event and acted swiftly. The blaze was quickly extinguished with buckets of water. This particular storm caused death and destruction across Yorkshire.
On a broader family history note, amongst the things salvaged from the 1916 inferno were the parish registers! One of the ‘rescuers’ of these precious documents was the verger, who also lived on High Street.
Despite the destruction, sightseers who flocked to view the ruins were allowed to enter the devastated building just over a week later. The Batley News of 26 February 1916 described:
…streams of humanity that flowed to the scene of the fire-wreckage was like unto the multitudes on the days of Lee Fair, [the country’s oldest chartered fair which dates from at least the early 12th century and is held at West Ardsley] a big football match or a big festival.
It is hard to imagine Edith and her family not being amongst these streams, given their proximity to the church. It was there nearest place of worship too, Edith clearly not adhering to her father’s Wesleyanism. She married in the Established Church, and her children were baptised in it.
In 1919 middle daughter Ethel married James Delaney, a Batley Catholic of Irish descent. Serving as a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, and latterly as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers, he was discharged from the Army in October 1918 no longer fit for service. He died in the East Lancashire Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home at Park Lane, Kersal on 27 January 1928. One relative seems to think Ethel, who had nursed her husband, was so low in the aftermath of her husband’s death she could see no point in living. It was Edith who prevented her carrying through with her threat. I’ve found no evidence to back this up as yet. Perhaps I never will.
Once Ethel married, the only daughter remaining at home was Pauline. They were still in Hanging Heaton, but now at 20, Kirkgate. On 6 March 1921 she was by her father’s sickbed whilst her mother, Edith, briefly nipped out. It was whilst she was away that Jonathan died. His funeral took place at East Ardsley St Michael’s where he was laid to rest with his young sons on 9 March 1921.
Kirkgate, Hanging Heaton. Number 20 is now a modern house. These are the nearest old houses. Photo by Jane Roberts
Edith re-married on 25 February 1922. He husband was 38-year-old motor driver William Henry Ellis, a bachelor. Mum knew him as uncle a Bill. St Paul’s Hanging Heaton was not yet rebuilt, so the wedding took place in the Church Hall which had replaced the Sunday School as the building licensed to conduct services.
The Rebuilt Church of St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton. Photo by Jane Roberts
By 1939 bus driver Bill and Edith had moved to Upper Camroyd Street in the centre of Dewsbury. The location suited her perfectly. A stone’s throw from the huge market, and with access to a full array of shops, it was also near the pub where she could pop across to get a pitcher of beer to take home. Subsequently Edith moved a couple of streets away from Upper Camroyd Street to one of a pair of cottages in Battye Street.
It was the same town in which married daughter Pauline now lived with husband John, so mum has plenty memories about her broad Yorkshire-speaking grandma.
A diminutive woman, mum remembers her as being ‘a bit to a tartar‘ who would stand no nonsense from her grandchildren. She recalls a couple of examples. Her grandma had a horsehair settee. Mum, as a child in her short skirt, remembers sitting on it and the fibres pricking into her legs. Despite the discomfort she would sit rigid, as no way would her grandma allow any fidgeting. On another occasion Edith came to look after her grandchildren whilst Pauline and husband John were away. The children were not allowed to open any drawers in their own house!
Yet she was always more lenient with mum’s eldest brother, Jack. And when one of mum’s sisters married, she offered to partition her bedroom down the middle with a curtain so she could live there with her new husband. The offer was declined.
Mum’s other memories include when she first started work. Her job straight from school was at Luke Howgate’s in Dewsbury. The firm still exists today. It manufactures for the funeral trade and mum worked on simple soft furnishings for coffin interiors. She would pop in from work for a Friday fish and chips lunch with her grandma and uncle Bill. Edith was thrilled with her granddaughter’s new job and would ask endless questions about it, whilst imparting her considerable knowledge of the funeral trade. She spoke from personal experience. Besides informally helping bring babies into the world, she also was called upon to lay out the dead in the neighbourhood. She even had her own personal laying out drawer ready for her own death – and her grandchildren were not allowed to open this either!
Uncle Bill died in 1956. Edith died at Staincliffe hospital on 24 October 1957 as a result of cerebral arterio sclerosis and old age. She was buried alongside her first husband, Jonathan, and sons William and Oliver in the unmarked East Ardsley grave.
Her Battye Street home as long since gone. The cottages were demolished. On the very spot where they stood is the Chapel of Rest for George Brooke’s, Funeral Directors. It somehow seems fitting.
GRO Birth, Marriage & Death certificates – various;
Yorkshire Baptisms, Marriages & Burials via Ancestry.com Church of England Parish Register Collection. Original data at West Yorkshire Archives;
Abraham Aveyard, HMP Wakefield Records, via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Prison Records, 1801-1914 [database on-line]. Original data at West Yorkshire Prison Records. Reference C118: Wakefield Prison. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield, England;
Censuses 1881 to 1911 accessed via Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast;
1939 Register accessed via Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast;
Newspapers as indicated;
Pauline Hill’s recollections – conversations with Jane Roberts, February 2019;
A date for your diary: 5 February 2019 is Transcription Tuesday.
This annual event, launched by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in 2017, promises to be the biggest yet and it’s your chance to be part of it.
As Sarah Williams, the magazine’s editor, says:
The internet has transformed family history but the documents that are going online need to be transcribed or indexed to make them searchable, and for many projects the only way that is going to happen is with the help of volunteers……We hope to see hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers from across the world join together and give something back to family history.
Three projects, covering three distinct record sets, form this year’s event:
Transcribing a book covering railway worker accidents between 1901-1907 in just 24 hours. This Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants volume, the forerunner of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), records accidents and legal cases involving its members. It is a strand of the Railway Work, Life and Death project, and is being carried out in conjunction with the University of Portsmouth, the Modern Records Centre based at the University of Warwick and the National Railway Museum (NRM). The tome will make a potential 2,150 railway worker records widely available.
Sample page from the railway accidents book that volunteers will transcribe on Transcription Tuesday 2019 CREDIT: Modern Records Centre
Warwickshire witness statements from the county’s quarter sessions. This is a part of Warwickshire County Record Office’s Warwickshire Bytes project encouraging volunteer participation in indexing records held by the archive; and
A range of parish registers in association with FamilySearch.
There are so many reasons to take part in Transcription Tuesday. It is your moment to be part of something big; it is an opportunity to give something back to the wider family history community; it is a chance to make more accessible to families the lives of thousands of ancestors; it could help you improve one of the core skills of a family historians – reading and transcribing original documents; and you never know, if you have a railway ancestor, Warwickshire roots or the parish records relate to your ancestral homelands you may be lucky enough to find yourself uncovering part of your family history!
2018 was a World Cup Year. Did I get the golden boot, or were my aims well wide of the mark? Time to see if I achieved my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions.
I had five genealogy goals for the year. So here goes.
Work on my Aveyard One-Name Study (ONS): Despite still working on data collection, I reckon on balance this was a success. I did a deep dive into my West Ardsley Aveyard family as part of Resolution Number Two. As a result, I have forged ahead with collecting parish register data, looked at various Borthwick Institute wills and marriage licences, and managed to disentangle the pre-1800 Aveyard branches. The latter is no mean feat, and I will be posting more about this in 2019.
Complete my Pharos Tutors Family History Skills and Strategies (Advanced) Course: Yippee!!!!! I’m thrilled to say not only did I complete the two-year course and construct my project around my pre-1800 Aveyard family, I passed with a Distinction. It has been a tough, but rewarding, two years. I’ve learned so much and met some fantastic people along the way. I’m now enjoying putting all I’ve learned into practice. And amazingly I fitted it all around researching and writing a definitive, major Rugby League history book! Resolution Number 3.
Finish my Book Research: Not only did I complete my research into those Rugby League players who perished in the Great War, but The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union was published in September. It involved far more work than I ever envisaged. But this labour of love has been an overwhelming positive and my biggest work-related achievement EVER. Those eve of war players have finally been recognised by the sport’s national body (the sport never had a Roll of Honour). And for the Armistice Day Centenary Test against New Zealand the current England team read out their names.
In recognition of our work, in November Chris (my husband and co-author) and I were invited as special guests of the Rugby League to the Annual Dinner of the All Parliamentary Party Rugby League Group at the House of Lords. We’ve given several book talks too.
But above all the personal recognition, the names of those players are now out in the public domain.
Personal Research: No hiding place. I only started researching the origins of 4x great grandfather Abraham Marshall on 23 December. My potential Lancashire links are therefore still shrouded in mystery. And it all goes to show that I spend more time on researching other people’s families than I do my own.
Attend a mixture of Conferences, Lectures, Family and Local History Fairs and Talks: I committed to six family-history events and I said I’d champion the work of Family History Societies. I reckon by all measures I’ve overachieved. Not only did I attend the Secret Lives conference, I also went to many other events and talks. These included the Family History Show at York as well as talks at Leeds Central Library, West Yorkshire Archives and various family and local history groups. But I went one step further. Towards the end of the year I took on the role as editor of the Huddersfield and District Family History Society quarterly Journal. My first one is due to be distributed in January 2019. I can therefore safely say this is another resolution achieved.
In conclusion, it has been a fantastic year with some major achievements. I really do not think I will ever have a better one. I’m thrilled I achieved 4 out of 5 my resolutions, especially given the challenging nature of some. Ironically, the more difficult the resolution the better I performed. So although I missed one goal it was certainly not a turkey year, I reckon it’s definitely a silver boot standard!
As part of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions I set myself a pleasant task to attend a variety of Family History events. The Family History Show at York Racecourse was high on my ‘must-do‘ list, as it’s around three years since my last visit. It did not disappoint.
Organised by Discover Your Ancestors Magazine and sponsored by S&N Genealogy Supplies and The Genealogist.co.uk, it has dropped “Yorkshire” from its title of years gone by. This is a reflection that, although having a distinct Yorkshire flavour, those present represent a far wider geographical spread than “God’s Own County“.
In this Armistice Centenary Anniversary year military exhibitors were understandably highly visible, including researchers, the Imperial War Museum (Lives of the First World War) and York Army Museum. To my delight representatives from the Green Howards Museum were there promoting their Ribbon of Remembrance Project. It was fabulous to see their exhibits, including original 1911 Militia and Volunteer registers which left me wondering what became of those named. On the other hand my husband, in trying on a 1908 German Pickelhaube, demonstrated the increased head sizes a century on. This is something I experienced in a previous job a couple of decades ago with bearskins – the frames of previous eras needed stretching to fit the heads of late 20th century guardsmen.
But the highlight of my Green Howards visit was talking about one of my Rugby League men and discovering a new photograph of him which the Museum have given me permission to use in my forthcoming book.
The MoD were there too. At the final Who Do You Think You Are? Live last year there was the hint of an imminent announcement about post-1921 Army records, with my hope this might mean digitisation in some form. I asked today and apparently this is facing obstacles which have slowed down progress, with legal issues (presumably Data Protection) playing a part. So we could be waiting a few more years yet before news on this front.
The show also featured some free talks, which I didn’t get the chance to go to because I was far too busy catching up with people. For me the opportunity to chat to folk who share my passion for family history is a now central part of attending these events.
One notable family history absentee given the current sales pitch was DNA. If it was being promoted I failed to spot it. A full list of exhibitors is here.
As per my 2015 visit findings, the show wasn’t on the huge scale of my first visit many years ago when the stands spread over several floors, including big hitters such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, and you were cheek to jowl with eager attendees. Perhaps that’s a sign of the changing times of family history research whereby the false assumption is that everything is online and there’s no value in anything beyond your keyboard, which means attendance at fairs has correspondingly declined.
However it did mean today’s offering was far more relaxed. It meant you really had the opportunity to have unpressurised conversations and find out as much as possible from exhibitors, learn what is out there and get involved in the genealogy community generally. And in my stint on a stand I certainly appreciated being able to devote full attention to those seeking information. But don’t get me wrong, there was still a steady stream of people.
I did make purchases too, including an inevitable book. No longer content with genealogical facts, I opted for a bit of family history fiction – of which any of us bitten by this bug will have frustrating experience of. But this time mine was in the form of a Nathan Dylan Goodwin “Forensic Genealogist” series book – so an escape from research. Now to find time to read it!
I’m feeling a little lost. This is the time of year when my thoughts would be turning towards planning my ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ adventure. But, as was announced last year, this is a show that won’t go on. Yes, the writing may have been on the wall with the massed ranks of so-called chuggers, aka charity muggers, in evidence last year. Stand space was expensive making it difficult for genuine family history organisations to have a presence. Even The National Archives gave it a miss. Is this a sign the popular interest in family history research has plateaued and is perhaps on the decline?
And, dare I say it, maybe the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has struggled occasionally with who it thinks it is in recent series. Yes, there are some gems of episodes. But it doesn’t seem to hold the same thrall of its early days. The BBC have also seemed happy to tinker with scheduling, to the detriment of viewing continuity, possibly an indication of where it now stands in their pecking order. No longer a flagship viewing offering? But is that in part because the format needs a shake-up?
Also has the series encouraged the belief family history is quick and easy? The big Internet and associated ‘it’s all a mouse-click away.com’ con, which in turn fostered the ‘fast-food family historian’ in us all to some extent. That attitude led to some of the more informative talks at last year’s ‘Live’ show, such as ones about genealogical proof, being a step too far for some of the audience. It’s too much like hard work, all this checking, corroborating and building a body of evidence.
I personally feel the absence of a national show has left a huge void in the British family history calendar of events. But maybe that’s because I’m a tad family history research obsessed. I’m going to miss its social aspect, the chance to see what’s out there beyond my own family history interests, the informative talks to improve my skill set, not to mention the opportunity to grab a book bargain or subscription discount. I’m seeking out alternatives, from the ‘Secret Lives’ conference to local and regional events and talks. One source to find out what’s on is GENEVA, an online calendar of GENealogical EVents and Activities.
On the same era-ending theme, earlier this month the final edition of ‘Your Family History’ magazine plopped on my doormat. Or should I say I dashed to the newsagent to buy my final copy, as my subscription expired the previous month and no reminder to renew was sent? For 15 years, initially under the title of ‘Your Family Tree’, it has provided information, advice and tips for the family history community from beginner to the more advanced. But time has been called on the publication. Reasons cited for its demise included rising costs and competition from the Internet. This competition presumably extends to digital media, blogs, podcasts and the like. But again I’m left wondering if the appetite for family history research has levelled out.
The family history landscape is changing. In reality it has always been a constant evolution. But the Internet is the real game-changer in recent years, considerably speeding up the process.
I started my family history journey probably just after the launch of ‘Your Family Tree’ (as it was called then). Back then it was old fashioned painstaking research methods. None of this ‘everything only a mouse click away’ belief, too often implicitly peddled by T.V. programmes and family history subscription sites now. Online subscription-based genealogy database services were in their infancy. IGI and FreeBMD were my high-tech, online ports of call. Microfiche and microfilm readers, Family History Societies and visits to local libraries and archives provided my gateway.
I well remember the days of going to my local library and scrolling through the census. Ditto for parish registers. I’d even plan holidays to visit archives in family associated locations in order to fit in a few hours research. This for basic record sets like the census or parish registers, things we take so much for granted today. Hard to imagine, but it wasn’t online and neither did it come automatically with a helpful searchable index. If you were lucky the local Family History Society might have compiled an index booklet. Or maybe an antiquarian publication had reproduced them. But, as the Family History Society exhorted, you still needed to check the original document.
But in the main you were ‘indexless’, and it was the long job of scrolling through filmed copies of the census, or going through the parish register microfiche by microfiche noting down all occurrences of family surnames. And maybe repeating the process, as research turned up a new surname to track in the same parish….several times over. But that way, you did get to familiarise yourself with the records, the community in which your ancestors lived and the writing!
It’s hard to imagine that this was how we did family history only a few years ago. Today, subscription genealogy services are in constant competition to get the next big dataset online. This is today’s gateway to family history. Yes, it is brilliant there is so much out there to tempt people into the wonderful world of family history. It’s making family history more accessible. And it can save masses of time in travelling up and down the country on archives visits. But in the race to get it all online, clear source referencing along with precise coverage dates, seems to have been dismissed. For instance the unwary may assume Ancestry’s West Yorkshire Parish Register collection includes all parishes. It doesn’t. But finding out what is there, and the years covered, is not an easy task. And transcribing errors may in turn lead to false negative results.
In a way it’s become too big, too unwieldy and the race to ‘chuck stuff online’ has meant it’s been too organisationally chaotic. For many there’s that initial flurry of interest, but it all tails off. And make no wonder people give up. It can be like plaiting fog. Especially when you don’t fully understand what’s there in the first place. I’ve heard people admit to it. They start off enthused but then they soon find it all too overwhelming and lose track (and interest) in what they’re doing.
In a way, the Internet may have curiously decreased knowledge too. There doesn’t seem to be the same willingness to trawl through a parish register, the Quarter Sessions or a Borough Court register to check for yourself. It’s too much like hard work. Yet there are times when this is necessary. For many it now needs to be the quick click, instant gratification of an online search and move on without evaluating whether it’s right or wrong. And hey presto I’ve got a tree going back to 1066!
A corollary is because so few are prepared to put in this painstaking work, the amount of time it takes is not appreciated. For so many there’s no interest in finding out about the variety of records, what they can and can’t do, what pitfalls there are, and what alternative sources exist to plug gaps. Which is why the demise of knowledge-bringing magazines such as ‘Your Family History’ is such a loss.
I’m forever seeking out information and knowledge to develop my family history skills: be it reading, both online and traditional books and magazines, as well as attending talks, webinars, podcasts and formal learning courses. I’m currently signed up to a series of Guild of One Name Studies monthly webinar. There are so many sources of learning out there if you look. And by doing them and improving your knowledge, you’ll be amazed how much you learn which in turn will lead to more accurate family trees, and hopefully breakthroughs. But that’s the point: you have to know the limitations of online sources and actively seek out knowledge beyond the confines of your computer. And by seeking out this wider knowledge you become more acutely aware of the computer pros and cons.
And yet there still seems to be only a passing realisation that not everything is on the internet. There is so much more in archives waiting to be explored. Much of it will never make it onto these online providers such as Ancestry, FindMyPast or The Genealogist because it is not commercially viable. Who for instance would be interested in churchwarden accounts, Vestry minutes, charity records, manorial documents and the like for some obscure location? But often these documents may help prove a link.
Bottom line, these companies are only interested in what makes money. After the 1921 census, what will they use to generate income and fresh interest? Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why price structures are amended; why Ancestry is putting its more recently acquired UK military datasets not on Ancestry.co.uk but on sister-company Fold3, in order to get another subscription stream; and why there is such a push on DNA testing as an alternative cash-cow. I’m not against DNA testing per se. It has a place. It is another tool. But there is perception peddled that it’s a quick root to a fully formed family tree, with no research required.
By the same token cash-strapped Councils, looking to make savings, are cutting back archives opening hours, or even closing them, because so much is online. Read the same for local libraries. It’s an easy excuse for them to use in order to reduce costs. And so it’s all online becomes a self-perpetuating myth.
Which is why I think David Olusoga’s recent BBC2 series ‘A House Through Time’ was such a refreshing change. Not only was it interesting, engaging and informative, it was a new way to introduce people to family history. It didn’t propagate the ‘it’s all online’ impression. And it wasn’t afraid to admit some people were difficult to trace and the trail went cold. Hopefully it has reached out to, and inspired, a new set of family historians, those seekers and keepers of documented, accurate ancestral truth, memories and knowledge.
My 2017 blogging year didn’t go quite as planned. Two posts a month was what I promised. And with 33 for the year I ever so slightly overachieved. So unplanned in a positive way. This number was down significantly on my 2016 total of 60+ posts, but deliberately so. I continue to enjoy researching and writing. I also find the process helps me to focus on, and review, my personal family history research. But keeping volume up, alongside quality and interest, is a tricky balance. Hopefully I achieved that balance in 2017.
I accidentally stumbled into this blogging lark. My blog started in April 2015. In those first nine months it had a tad over 2,900 views. In 2016 it grew to 12,163. So how does 2017 compare?
The Headlines: Despite the reduced output my blog did not suffer. It had 20,649 views. I feel slightly giddy and ever so grateful that folk actually looked at my random stories and thoughts about family and local history. In 2015 I averaged roughly about 322 views per month. In 2016 this grew to over 1,000 per month. Roll forward to 2017, and it achieved over 1,700 per month.
My Best Day: 28 July 2017 had an amazing 662 views. For hard-core bloggers that’s not many, but I feel hugely privileged so many people took the time out to engage. Sunday is now my most popular day, with 22% of views. And, once more, the golden hour is 8pm.
How Did They Find You? Facebook was the primary referrer with over 5,000 clicks leading to my site. Search Engines accounted for almost 4,000.
Where Did They Come From? The global reach of WordPress continues to astonish, with views from around 80 countries. Unsurprisingly, as I’m based in England, over 13,000 were from the UK. Almost 4,000 reached me from the USA. But I had views as far afield as Rwanda, Fiji, Venezuela, Albania and Lebanon (one from each of those countries). So if you’re reading this a huge thank you!
I also loved reading the comments I’ve received indirectly via Facebook and Twitter, or directly on my blog site. Some of these have resulted in new direct family history connections with distant cousins. Others have been from descendants of those named in my research. Again, thank you for getting in touch.
Top Five Posts of 2017: Other than general home page/archives and my ‘about‘ page, these were:
Access to Archives – What Price and at What Cost? This was my reaction to the news that Northamptonshire Archives proposed introducing charges to visit, alongside a reduced number of free access hours. The fact this post received over 1,500 views is testimony to the concern felt throughout the academic and family history communities about this development. The proposal was thankfully shelved. But it shows the ongoing issues we face with access to archives at a time when Councils are facing difficult choices about their priorities in a climate of tight funding.
Buried Alive: A Yorkshire Cemetery Sensation had almost 1,000 views, with its multiple stories of people ‘rising from thedead’. It included a particularly macabre tale from Leeds, with a gravedigger seemingly ignoring knocking from a coffin. It goes to show that the Victorian fear and obsession with premature internment still holds a fascination today.
General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free was actually posted in 2016. But in 2017 it had a resurgence, with its close to 800 views more than doubling its 2016 tally. This post was about a new free source for searching the GRO birth and death indexes (note not marriages) for certain years, one which gives additional search options. It also covered the initial £6 PDF certificate trials. There is currently an extended pilot running for these £6 PDFs, which I blogged about here.
Living DNA: I’m Not Who I Thought I Was dealt with my latest shocking DNA results. I’m 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. No drama there. But imagine the horror this Yorkshire lass felt to discover she has genetic material from the dark side of the Pennines. I did try to kid myself that it couldn’t possibly be Lancashire blood. But a discovery last month via traditional family history research seems to confirm the accuracy of LivingDNA’s results. It points to a 5x great grandmother from Colne. How could my mum inflict this on me?
A Dirty Tale from a Yorkshire Town had just shy of 600 views. The 1852 inquiry into sanitation in Batley proved to be a fascinating peek into the lives of our ancestors, their struggles to obtain drinking water, the issues of sanitation in an increasingly urbanised area, the problems with disposing of the dead and the knock on health effects, with frequent epidemics. All illustrated with examples from the town. Despite the grim and dry(?) subject, the post clearly whet the appetite for this type of local context to family history.
So a real mix of posts ranging from topical family history issues, to DNA and general history and local history tales. This snapshot really sums up what my blog is about. A bit of my family history, interspersed with general genealogical topical updates, and a smattering of local history posts about the lives and times of my ancestors and the communities in which they lived.
The Ones that Got Away: These are a few of my favourite posts which didn’t make the top five:
Death by Dentition looked at teething as a cause of infant death in the 19th century. This research was promoted by the discovery of my 3x great grandmother’s youngest daughter’s death in 1870.
Batman – My Family History Super Hero uncovered the extraordinary persistence of my aged Irish great grandad in trying, and lying, to enlist to serve in the Great War not once, not twice but three times. I discovered his final attempt in 1918 was to join the newly formed RAF. So he, not his grandson (my dad) was the first to serve in that branch of the military.
I also wrote about a couple of murders with local connections. One remains unsolved. Cold Case: The Huddersfield Tub Murder involved a woman of ‘ill-repute‘ whose tragic life and abusive relationships ultimately resulted in her death. The other, Mother-in-Law Murderer, was a tale of poisoning which resulted in the hanging of a Batley woman in 1794.
What Does 2018 Promise? Well, as in 2017, I aim to do two posts a month. I’ve lots of ideas for these, including some in-depth research pieces. In this centenary year of the Armistice, some will definitely have a Great War theme. Others will have a more general family or local history context. And, of course, there will be the occasional topical offering when something big hits the genealogy news. Hopefully these topics remain relevant and interesting, but any other suggestions would be welcome.
The big question, as ever for me, is time. 2018 promises to be a busy year personally and professionally. This may impact on my blogging output, as I do need to focus on my family history client research work, the final year of my assessed genealogy course and my book. I’ll have to see how it pans out.
But whatever my blogging year holds, thank you for reading, engaging and supporting.
Wishing you a happy, peaceful 2018 filled with family history fun!