Tip: Ancestor’s Place of Birth May Not Be Where They Lived!

In our family tree research we can sometimes become a little blinkered. We find some important vital clue, such as a place of birth for our ancestor, and then assume that this will also be the location that our ancestor was baptised and grew up in.

In an ideal world, of course, the place of birth furnished by our ancestor, in the decennial census or some family document passed down to us, may also be the place in which they were christened in. Just consider for a moment, however, that your ancestor moved about the country. It may have only been a few miles, but even this could be enough to put you off track in finding them in the parish registers for the town in which they reported as their birth place.

Perhaps they were itinerant labourers following work. Consider those that sailed on small boats down the rivers, or those canal workers who moved before getting the child baptised.

Some children, like those in one branch of my family tree, were all baptised on the same day in the same church in a sort of “job lot”. Now what would happen, for any family historian looking for baptisms in the places of birth of the children, if the family had been on the move between child number one’s birth and child number five’s?

In the above example I am imagining that child 1 was born in Gloucester, other children in Bristol, while the last was born in Plymouth. I start my research, from a census record that says that my ancestor was born in Gloucester, but can’t find his/hers baptism or any other records in the Parishes in and around Gloucester as the child was baptised in Plymouth some years later where my seafaring ancestors finally put down roots.

So you can now see that if you have been furnished with a place of birth of your forebear from the census, or another document, that gives your ancestor’s place of birth as town A and you begin to search the Parish registers for this town for their baptism, then you have to consider that they may actually be in the registers somewhere else.

Also, to bear in mind is that the child’s mother may have gone back to her folks to give birth to her child before returning to her husband and her home and then having the child baptised there. What if they were not followers of the Church of England? This is something else to consider.

The tip I am pointing out here is that you must keep an open mind when doing family history otherwise a simple problem may become a brick wall.

 

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Wills & Administrations in English Family History

Wills can be of great use to any family historian for a number of reasons. They can furnish you with names of relatives, give you a description of the property that your ancestor owned at the time of their death and even reveal their favourite charity. Or though in my case I suspected that the charity that my aunt chose to leave the residue of her estate to was really her solicitor’s favoured charity and his suggestion!

Wills are one of the few documents written by your ancestor. For this reason they may give you an insight into their attitudes, social standing and their lifestyle. Perhaps, if you are lucky they can also explain family feuds and even expose scandals.

If, however, you discover that one of your ancestors seems to have been cut out of the will, you should always consider that this may not necessarily mean that they were disinherited. You should be open to considering that other arrangements had already been made for them in the lifetime of the deceased.

Quite a few family history researchers assume it is not worth checking if their ancestors left a will because they think their ancestor’s background precluded them from doing so. It is, however, wrong to believe that only a minority of people from the top of society left wills. Yes, it may be true that most people who left wills had some property of some kind or another. But wills can be found for people from amongst the very widest range of backgrounds.

Whilst it is perhaps true that only a small percentage of the population left a last will and testament, you should remember that for every person who did so means that there will be at least one other person mentioned in the document and this at least doubles your chance of finding a connection to your family tree, even if they are a distant relative.

It is possible, but not all that common, to find a will belonging to your family that pre-dates the parish registers, or even better where parish registers and the other primary sources have been destroyed or gone missing over the years.

You should know that before 1858 wills were generally proved in the church courts. In order to find a will in this time period will need you to have some understanding of the church hierarchy and how this bears relationship to the place or area that you are researching within.

So, what is a will?

It is a formal document stating exactly what a person desires should happen to their possessions after they have passed on. The person making a will is referred to as the Testator and they make a Last Will and Testament. This is actually a joint deed, the Will and the Testament.

Last Will and Testaments became the legal means of passing on one’s property in England in the year
1540. This was because it was only from that date that ‘Freehold’ land could be gifted or “devised” through a will. Before this date a “testament” was legally only concerned with what the law knows as “personality”. this is a term referring to personal property, that is a person’s moveable goods and chattels.

Why wasn’t it possible to pass on land? The answer lies with the fact that interests in “real property”, or the land and buildings your ancestors owned, would descend automatically to the deceased immediate heir. The church law, however, stated that at least one-third of a man’s property should pass directly to his widow as her dower and then one-third to all his children.

In theory these rules could not be broken, however property owners found ways that they could get around them. As an example, whilst “Copyhold land” – land held from the Lord of the manor – could not be left in a will before 1815, it could still be given up or “surrendered” to be used in a will. This effectively meant that it could be left to whomever a person wanted! Other methods of circumnavigating the rule was to transfer one’s property to trustees who would hold it during the owner’s lifetime as per that person’s instructions.

If you are lucky and find your ancestor has left a will you will see just how useful it is to the family historian.

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Manorial Documents in English Family History Research

Ancestral Trails-The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family HistoryI’ve been dipping back into Mark Herber’s book “Ancestral Trails” published by The History Press 2005, looking at the subject of researching back before Parish records started in the mid-16th century. He warns his readers to expect difficulties tracing their ancestors in that time. It seems that before then, you are only likely to come across sporadic references to your ancestors – or perhaps more properly people who could be your ancestors – in wills, tax records or court documents. Herber writes that “… you are unlikely to be able to trace a line of descent in this period (and in particular find documents that evidence that one man was related to another) unless you find your ancestors in property records.”

Now property records can be found for people from various classes, those who were substantial land owners and also yeoman, tenant farmers and labourers. This is why it is said that English manorial documents are perhaps one of the few types of records in which genealogical information about the common man, as opposed to those from the upper classes, is likely to survive from medieval times.

So what was the manorial system?

In the England of the Middle Ages, land was held from the English monarch by a lord and on his land the peasants worked and received his protection in return. Anglo-Saxon society was, as in most of the other European countries, rigidly hierarchical. Social status depended on birth and family relationships. Power was gained through the ownership of land, as this was the principal source of wealth at this time.

After the Norman conquest of England all the land of England was deemed to be owned by the monarch. The king would then grant use of it by means of a transaction known as “enfeoffment”, where land grants or “fiefs” were awarded to the earls, barons, bishops and others, in return for them providing him with some type of service.

There were two sorts of tenure, according to the type of service rendered by the tenant to the lord, free and unfree. Free tenure can then be broken down into different forms again. A tenure in chivalry, for example “tenure of knight service”, would be where the tenant was charged to provide his lord with a number of armed horsemen. Mark Heber in Ancestral Trails points out that this type of tenure was soon commuted to a money payment (or “scutage”). He also explains that among the types of “free tenure” was to be found “spiritual tenure” where divine services, or “frankelmoign” by which a clergyman, holding land from the lord of the manor, would pay his due in prayers said for the lord and his family.”Socage tenures” existed where the tenant provided his lord with agricultural services such as ploughing the lord’s retained land for 20 days a year.

“Villein tenure” or unfree tenure applied to those men known as villeins, serfs or bondmen. This class of tenant was not free to leave the manor without obtaining the permission of the lord. They would be subject to many obligations, some of which were onerous and these individuals held their land in exchange for providing the lord a number of days work in return. This could be, for example, four days work a week -  but the nature of the work could vary depending on what was required.

Manorial Documents are fascinating for family historians, as are will documents that were not the exclusive preserve of the rich. I shall explore this area again in other posts.

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Irish Family History Research Just Got Easier!

Ireland-Genealogy on the webIt’s a well known fact, in family tree research, that Irish family history is more difficult to do, than that of Ireland’s near neighbours, because of a lack of information and the deficiency of census records pre 1901. But this week I couldn’t help but notice several press releases about how three different websites were going to be able to ease that problem for family historians.

Back in March I spotted that Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) had, for St Patrick’s day, updated its Irish Collection. This Ancestry said at the time was “the definitive online collection of 19th century historical Irish records.” It would, they said, make it easier for the nearly one in five Brits of Irish descent to explore their heritage.

In total, there are now more than 35 million historical Irish records on Ancestry.co.uk, including two million comprehensive new and upgraded records from the critical periods prior to and following the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), the single most significant event to drive 19th century global Irish Diaspora.

Next, I came across the news about a smaller enterprise called Ireland Genealogy (http://www.ireland-genealogy.com), this being a fascinating new web site for anyone doing Irish family tree investigation. It has its own database of Irish Pension Record applications, that enables you to lookup information extracted from the missing Irish Census and claims that this will help a researcher save both cash and time.

Their research workers have spent twenty years copying all these written pension applications (green coloured forms) and so giving us access to critical data from the 1841 and 1851 census records for all of Ireland. These pension public records are kept in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (in Belfast) and The National Archives, where they are available on microfilm, but this means that they could be quite tricky to understand as they are in no specific order. What is more, the records data held by P.R.O.N.I. are not indexed, adding to the difficulty of doing your research.

Ireland Genealogy claims that their database, of those pension applications, enables you to now look up this information with ease.

The third Press Release, that caught my eye, was from Brightsolid about the launch of their new website www.findmypast.ie on to the web. With online access, from the start, to over 4 million Irish records dating from 1400 to 1920s and the promise of over 50 million records to be available in the first year to eighteen months, this is a welcome addition to the findmypast family.

There are approximately 80 million people worldwide, who claim to have Irish ancestry, with just over half of this number (41 million) being Americans, the limited resources previously availble to them, to connect with their past, may at last be being redressed.

Findmypast.ie claims that they will carry “…the most comprehensive set of Irish records ever seen in one place, going back to 1400 right up until the 1920s, including the Landed Estates Court Records, the complete Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland and the Directories collection.” They will be offering high quality images of records on this site.

With the addition of these three resources, online, it would seem that Irish family research just got a bit easier.

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Surname Research in British Family Trees

I’ve heard tell that there are over 25,000 different surnames in use in the British Isles today!

When you consider that, until the medieval times, most people would not have had a hereditary last name, this does seem quite a variety. And yet, in family history research, there is the perennial problem of how to research a common surname, indicating that for some of us there would perhaps be a preference for even more examples of surnames to have been added to the total.

If we were to go back to the time before the 11th century, then most of the population of these isles were known by a personal name, or nickname and would not have possessed a surname. The church would have baptised them with Christian names, usually those of a saint, as this was of more concern to the ecclesiastic authorities.

It would have been as a result of the arrival of written documents, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that the need for people to be identified more precisely would have led to the gradual adoption of surnames. The problem associated with the use of nicknames was that they were not fixed. A person could be known by several during the course of their lives and so this was not conducive to the operation of a bureaucracy.

Most surnames fall into one of six types.

There are the Place names derived from towns, areas or perhaps a farm. So we assume that the ex-Formula 1 racing driver, Derek Warwick’s name comes from the town in the Midlands.

The second type is taken from a physical feature. So we have such names as Hall, Westlake, Thorn and my parent’s next door neighbours the Underwoods.

Thirdly there are the surnames that owe their origins to a nickname, or physical characteristic. The likes of Large, Long, Short etc. fall into this category.

Johnson and Richardson are example of the fourth type; those that are from family relationships. Mostly these are from “son of…” but I have to say until I started doing a little research I was unaware that there are some derived from the maternal line, thus the son of Matilda is Tillotson.

A fifth type to consider is that of an ancestor’s occupation. so we have Cooper, Smith, Archer and Baker, to name but a few.

Lastly there are the surnames that are derived from forenames. Alan, Stephens

But this is not all, because there are the surnames that have entered common use in this country that are from elsewhere. So in England you have Scottish, Irish, French Huguenot and Jewish surnames all established and quite common. What is more, surnames may have had several different origins and may have evolved over time, so making the precise definition very difficult.

Surnames may be important to our family history research, but it should be remembered that they are an imprecise science. While many of them may be quite local and remain so even to this day, the chances are that your ancestors moved from their place of origin and so making it more difficult for you to tie them down. It is, therefore, very unlikely that a surname will be able to pinpoint a family’s origin, except in the case of a rare name which owes its existence to a particular location, where the name itself is very common.

Names changed over the years for a variety of reasons, some because the holder was illiterate and it was interpreted to be spelt in one way or another by the vicar, some changed because the holder decided to change it. I am fascinated why my surname, Thorne spelt with an “e” only goes back to my 2 times great-grandfather who in the 1861 census is without the “e” and yet in the 1871 census is with!

So while we all have surnames today, it is by no means certain that yours has not changed through time.

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Tracing Ancestors With a Common Surname

Online-Old-Parish-RecordsThe problem of tracing an ancestor, with a common surname, is one of those brick walls that many of us come up against in our family tree research. When it occurs after the introduction of state run vital indexes, in 1837 for England & Wales and eighteen years later, in 1855, when Scotland adopted the idea, it can be difficult to find the exact person that is our forebear, but at least we have a central index to search. The Crown Dependencies followed suit at different times again, so you will see civil registration introduced into Guernsey in 1840, Jersey in 1842, Alderney in 1850 and Sark in 1915. The Isle of Man beginning compulsory civil registration of births and deaths in 1878 and then marriages in 1884.

But what about searching for a Smith or Jones in the years pre-civil indexes? If you are expecting an easy answer I’m afraid I am going to disappoint, as common surnames do present us family historians with great difficulties to overcome. Having said that, however, all may not be lost.

If the ancestor in question has an unusual first, or middle name, then this may help you enormously to single your likely candidate out from the others. In my own research it was not the actual man I was trying to track down who had the unusual middle name, but his son. I had already made the connection to John Branton Thorn via the prime sources and knew him to be my ancestor. I was now on the trail of five or six John and Sarahs who were candidates for his parents, according to his baptismal details. So which of the various John Thorns who married a woman whose first name was Sarah in various parts of Devon jumped out as a strong possibility? It was the one where the bride’s surname was Branton.

The advice I have been given is to try to tie the person with the common name to one with a less than common one. It could be their wife, a brother or sister and so on and perhaps it is an unusual first name, middle name, or maiden name you can use.

If you are not able to find your ancestor for certain in the church registers, then always remember that the Bishop’s Transcripts may possibly harbour more information than the register did. It is not a certainty that it will, but it is worth a look.

Try using Wills and Admons to see if you can find the possible parents (or a brother, sister or other relation) naming your ancestor as a beneficiary.

Another point to be aware of is that even with a less common surname there can be many problems to overcome in family history research. As spelling of surnames varied so much, until the mid 19th century or later when they became more fixed, and with many of our ancestors not being literate, the clergy often recorded the name as they thought they heard it and so a regional accent is probably responsible for one line of my ancestors being recorded as Sysal, Sissell, Sissill and Sizzall in the church records from 1780 to 1798.

If the person you are researching was born in the years just before civil registration began, but was likely to have died after the death registers began, how about looking for them in these records. You can also use the church burial records, if you know the parish they died in. What about trying the National Burial Index? If you just have a first name and a common surname I grant you that this is not going to be much help to you but if you know the place that they lived then you may be able to narrow down you likely forebears.

On the subject of places, some names can be very common in one area, for example Thorn/Thorne in Devon, but a common name may not be so common in another place.

Advice that I have seen given on other blogs and forums say that you should:

  • Learn as much identifying information as you can about the ancestor you are researching.

So look for family bibles, they can list the names of children. Think about whether there are any other records for the district where your ancestor lived that they may have been recorded within? Taxes, land records, muster rolls, etc.

  • Make a chronology of the ancestor’s life if you can; where did they live for the various events in their lives? Can you identify the street, the town or hamlet for the significant moments in their time-line? If you can then you have a framework to work with.

Common surnames are certainly a problem for family history researchers trying to populate their family tree and sometimes there will be no easy answer. Persevere, however, as more and more records become available there is always a chance that your ancestor may be within one of them.

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