Family Tree Questions Answered from a Visit to Ancestor’s Home Town

The Mouth of the DartI am still fresh from a visit to my ancestor’s home town and although I have been there before, I have still come back with some more answers to add to the story of my forebears.

It is all very well to sit at one’s computer and look at the census documents online or to pour over maps of the area, but there is often more to be gained by taking a look at the physical location where our ancestors lived, worked and played.

Many of my readers will know that my paternal line is from Dartmouth in Devon and I have a 2x great-grandfather that spent 40 years of his working life on the river Dart as the steersman and then Captain of the railway ferry that crosses from Kingswear to Dartmouth.  Today it is the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company that runs the heritage railway from Paignton to Kingswear, but in my great-great-grandfather’s time it was the South Devon Railway Company from 1866 until it amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1876.

I decided that this time I’d arrive by train and then cross the river on the modern equivalent of my 2 x great-grandfather’s ferry. Not exactly walking in his footsteps but traveling in his wake, perhaps? With me I had the print outs of the various census data, a map and also some of the birth, death and marriage certificates. My aim was not only to see the roads, where they lived, but also to find the houses they occupied and to visit the churches where they married, baptised their children and were buried. I have come back with many photographs to flesh out the family history story and have touched the ancient font in which some would have been christened.

Consulting with my copy of the 1901 census, I set off for the road where he had lived. There were many houses on that street and I did not know which was the one that he had occupied in that year.

Many people make the mistake of reading the first column of the census as being the house number, when it is actually the schedule number. It is in the next column that the name or number of the house is written but in some cases, including for my Dartmouth family, the enumerator did not give numbers to the various houses in the street. I have a census page in which only the name of the street is written and then duplicated for each separate household without any means of telling which building they occupied.

For 2 x great-grandfather Henry Thorne the census gave me the name of a road which climbs up the hill from the town, but no number. His last will gave me the name of a road, that runs parallel to the one named in the census but again with no number! His Death Certificate gave the name of a house, but no street and so I was flummoxed as to where exactly he had lived until, on my recent visit, I walked the length of the road.

As luck would have it, in a development of Victorian terraced houses, with bay windows looking out over the road named in the will – but in a walk way continuing up from the road named in the census – I found a likely house. Letters painted in the window light above its front door matched the name on the death certificate. It is almost certainly his house and so I took my photograph and went in search of where his parents’ (my 3x great-grandparents) lived down in the town.

Dartmouth Family Tree Researcher finds Ancestor's houseIt is not always possible to visit the home town of one’s ancestors, as I have been fortunate enough to do and so the next best thing is to use the technology that Google Maps provides us with in its very useful Street View facility. With this service you can walk the roads in virtual cyberspace looking from left to right and up and down by using the navigation control on the left top of the window.

 

Has anyone got similar stories? Leave a comment below.

 

 

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More Questions than Answers when researching the Family Tree!

Do you ever feel that there are more questions than answers, when researching your family tree?

It seems to me that the more answers we seek, to questions about our ancestors, often trigger more queries about them. This is a bit how I feel this weekend, after I’ve returned home from a visit to Devon this week.

I called in at the Devon Family History Society’s “Tree House” in Exeter where I was able to spend a profitable few hours reading the files that they have on families with the surnames I am researching. I was also able to look at what they had on the parishes I was interested in, so giving me some added background to the places where my ancestors lived and worshiped. I came away with a set of useful printouts, for 30 pence each, from a search of their database for records of the persons I was seeking information on. This would save me much time at my next stop, the Devon County Record Offices in Exeter when looking in the parish register microfiches.

 

Devon County Record Office
Devon County Record Office

I have visited the County Record offices before and had find it was easy to go off on side tracks, so this time I had come prepared with a set of answers that I was seeking from the records held there.  As always, however, simply by searching the documents and the microfiche of baptisms, weddings and burials, together with the microfilms of Bishop’s Transcripts gave me new lines of inquiries to make. In the course of looking for one ancestor I would spot instances of the family names cropping up in the documents and make a note of the details on my pad of paper.

While I was looking at parish records, for Dartmouth’s three C of E churches, in the hope of finding the burial of one ancestor, then I came across burials of the children of another. I saw a rapid succession of children of my three times great grandparents being baptized and buried by the established church and I wondered if this may explain why the next six are all baptized in the Presbyterian chapel in the town. But this doesn’t explain why one child, who died in 1827 aged 4 years old, is buried by the Church of England in January of that year, while his brother was christened by the minister of the Flavel Presbyterian Church in April 1826, in the year before the death of the first. From a search of BMDregisters.co.uk I have found that all further siblings are christened in that nonconformist church.

While at the Devon County Record Office I was able to examine the books deposited from that Presbyterian church, but could find no mention of my ancestors remaining members in this chapel in later years. The books, that I was able to see, did not go back as far as the time of the christenings in my family, but they did contain lists of members of the church which could be very useful to others researching Presbyterian forebears in Dartmouth.

One of the questions that I had wanted to answer, from my visit to the County Record Office, was did my four time great grandparents stay in Dartmouth? They can not be found in the 1841 census. Now that, I assumed, was because they had died before it was taken. I did indeed find, by working back in years through the burial registers of the parish church, the entry for a likely pair of candidates with the right names and ages that would have made them 25 and 26 on their wedding date in 1794. Yes, this is only supposition that I have found the right Thorn’s in Dartmouth as rather frustratingly there are others with the same Christian and surname as my male ancestor in the town. But these two are the closest matches for the facts that I have.

So the lesson is to embrace the discovery of the new questions, that will need answers to in due course. Yes, I went to Devon seeking the answer to one thing and came away with semi-answers and more family history questions to explore. But this is a good thing as it gives me more avenues to research and more information to seek out. It may seem like the jigsaw puzzle is becoming more complicated, as more pieces are being placed on the table in front of me, but in the end a better picture is emerging of my family history. And for that I am excited!

The Mouth of the River Dart.
The Mouth of the River Dart.

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What Did Your Ancestors Do?

When we consciously decide to do Family history, as opposed to Genealogy, we set out to flesh out our ancestors lives a bit. We do this by seeking to understand what they did for a living, what the environment in which they lived and worked in was like and the social conditions that prevailed on them at the time.

My Devon ancestors are a mixture of Agricultural Labourers, Mariners, Small Businessmen and the like. Their work is very often dictated by where they lived. The countryside dwellers in and around Bigbury and South Huish worked on the land. Those that inhabited Dartmouth made a living on the river and at sea while those from Plymouth ran shops and small businesses. Not surprisingly none of them were coal miners or textile mill workers.

At the Society of Genealogists (SoG), in London, there is a good amount of material to help family historians research ancestors occupations and much of it is to be found in the Upper library at 14 Charterhouse Buildings. Although not all the material is exclusively on that floor, it is a good place to start as Else Churchill, the Genealogist at The Society of Genealogists pointed out in a talk I attended there last year.

With the “Ag Labs”, as we have come to call our Agricultural Labourers after the 1841 census introduced this shorthand way of describing them, there is a book that can be purchased from the SoG shop called My Ancestor Was an An Agricultural Labourer which explains what their lives were like and points the reader towards some source material that could be used apart from the census data.

Returning to the question in the headline of this article: What Did Your Ancestors Do? Finding the answer to this question will probably depend on what status they were and what and when they carried out their trade, profession or calling.

As some professions and crafts became more regulated then lists of those qualified to make a living from the activity will have thrown up records. Family historians can have recourse to Trade Directories, Apprenticeship lists and so on to try and find their forebears. Professional men, such as Medical men and Lawyers are going to be better documented than others. The SoG have extremely good runs of lists for these professions as well as those, such as Chemists and Apothecaries, who modelled their professional standards on the former class of practitioners, with the sanction of being struck off from the register to practice.

The Law list’s at the SoG include Barristers, London Attorneys and Provincial Attorneys back into the eighteenth century. The medical directories only really start in the 1850’s with the formal registration of these professions but I did find in their catalogue A directory of English country physicians 1603-43.

Men who were Officers in the Army or Navy can be found in the run of military lists on the upper library floor along with a great collection of Regimental Histories and Medal Rolls.

Some enlisted men can be located by using the Findmypast Chelsea Pensioner 1760 to 1913 data set and the Militia Service Records 1806-1915. Look in the county record office for the Ballot Lists of those men eligible to serve in the local militia from the 1750’s to Napoleonic times (1799 to 1815).

What if your ancestor went into trade by serving an apprenticeship? Else Churchill, explained that apprenticeship records are better documented before 1800 than after. A tax levied in the 18th century caused records to be kept and they are to be found today at the National Archives IR1 series and they are indexed by the SoG and can be found in books in the upper library. Another database is on Ancestry. The SoG has another excellent book called My Ancestor was an Apprentice which may help.

If your ancestors served an apprenticeship in one of the larger towns, or boroughs, in order to become a freeman and gain the entitlement to vote, then look for the records for the town/borough at the county record office. Ms Churchill pointed out that the more likely scenario would be that your ancestor would have served their apprenticeship within a family and there would be no record as the tax was not applicable within a family apprenticeship.

A possible record that may be found is where a child is apprenticed by the parish to make them less of a burden on the parish. Typically the age of the apprentice is much younger (7 or 8yrs old) and husbandry or housewifery. If the records survive they will be in the Parish Chest material.

This is only a short look at this subject and I will return to it in a further article here.

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The Genealogist - UK census, BMDs and more online



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Beware of Shared Family Trees!

Hugh Wallis onlineI was taking my research, of a branch of my tree that I have never really looked into before, a stage further.

It was the family of the Master Mariner that I had identified in Findmypast’s records of merchant navy records online that I looked at last week. I had traced back my 2 x great grandparents to their marriage in Portsmouth in 1859 and found that her family were living in that maritime city at the time of the 1851 census. Having failed to identify them in any of the other census from the UK, I then took a look at the LDS familyserch.org website to see if I could find marriages and baptisms for the parents. Now the results here were equally sparse. I did, however, find a marriage in St Thomas’ church Portsmouth for what I believe to be my great-great-great grandparents. From the census of 1851 I had got the Christian names of the family unit and my 3x great grandparents appeared to be called John Malser and Rosanna Craydon and John was born in 1811.

I thought I was on track until I tried to research back these families in Portsmouth. At present I have no leads from the online websites for the Craydon branch. What I did find was a possible baptism, from some Hampshire Genealogical Society transcriptions on the findmypast website for St Thomas’ Portsmouth. This gives the baptism date as being 1809 and so I can not be sure that I have found the correct man, but he is certainly a possibility.

We are all aware, in the family history community, how dates of birth in the census records can often be recorded incorrectly. This is where the subject wishes to massage their age slightly for some reason, simply doesn’t know their age, or in the case of the 1841 census the age is rounded down to the nearest five years for anyone over 15. Likewise we know that errors creep into transcriptions when they are copied and so that information contained within them may not be correct. So what I am left with is a tentative branch to my tree that awaits further investigation by looking at original, or at least microfilm copies of, parish records when I am able.

Before leaving this new line I decided to enter my newly discovered ancestors into a search engine. I quickly found a family tree that showed a link from the Malser’s to my parental family line, the Thorn’s. Here, however, it claimed my 2 x great grandmother was the daughter of a differently named set of parents from those that appear in the one census return that I have found. If I had done my research the other way around and had decided to put into my tree the information that was published on another’s tree without checking to a primary source, then I could have unintentionally introduced errors into my tree. As it is all I have is some leads that also need to be checked against the primary source, when time allows, but at least I have one census that has sent me in the right direction.

The names on that other tree could be different for all manners of reasons. They could be nick names, a case of remarriage or just plain wrong. Always check your ancestors back to a primary source before you can be confident that you have found your family.

 

 

Take your family history further by considering a subscription to these websites:

 

The Genealogist - UK census, BMDs and more online



Disclosure: The Links in the above are Compensated Affiliate links. If you click on them then I may be rewarded by Findmypast.co.uk or The Genealogist.co.uk should you sign up for their subscriptions.

 

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Merchant Navy Records Online for Family Historians.

I’ve been browsing the Merchant Navy records on Findmypast and came across a definite ancestor and one or two possibles this afternoon.

Findmypast have released another batch of Merchant Navy data on their website and I believe that they now boast 350,000 records of merchant seaman stretching from 1835 up to 1857. For the first time we are now able to view this important 19th century set thanks to a partnership that they have with the National Archives.

What I noticed, from my searches, was that the details contained in them can vary somewhat. In some you will get a name, an age, a place of birth, physical descriptions of your man, the ship names and the dates of voyages.

In one image that I was looking at I was intrigued to find the description of one John Thorn as being a Distressed Seaman! What on earth did this mean, I wondered? I had images of someone who was standing on the deck and showing certain signs of emotion. Then I thought of ships in distress and wondered if he was a survivor of some disaster.

A quick detour over to the National Archives website (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) found me a guide that explained abbreviations. It would seem that a Distressed British Seaman is one who is left without a berth, ill or without funds in a foreign port!

The ancestor that I have definitely identified as belonging to my family tree is one John Malser from Portsmouth. His daughter, Ellen married into the Thorne family and so he is my 3x great grandfather. As luck would have it, however, his record is one of the more sparse ones and only furnishes me with his name, his age of 35 and the fact that he sailed in 1845 and part of 1846 the other codes I have yet to understand in spite of looking at further guides on the National Archives website.

These records are great to flesh out the bones of a family history and provide me with another avenue to research.


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