“Can you find my ancestor?” this old friend asked, pointing at the computer.
I took a look at the record set that they were using and broadened the date search out another +/- 5 years for them.
With a triumphant smile I replied: “Well I can if I look for them in the right year!”
“But they weren’t supposed to have been born then!” they indignantly said.
My friend was at the end of their tether. They has been looking for their ancestor for ages and they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find them.
Looking in the wrong year is a quite common mistake to make and can really throw you off the track. Perhaps you are acting on some family tale, or a written note that is the ‘received wisdom’ in the family? Sometimes people seem so sure about a date in their past that they can be really adamant about it. Always treat a date as a clue to something until you have found the primary source that backs it up.
I saw a date, written down by a close relative of mine, that said that my great-great grandfather was born in a particular year. A check for the date of his birth required me to do a search for five years either side until I eventually found his correct date in the indexes, rather like in my friend’s example above.
The provider of the information had simply got their memories mixed up. The lesson is always try to confirm the information given to you by others by also checking the primary sources, before putting them into your family tree. If at first you don’t have luck try looking either side by 2 years, then 5, then 10 – increasing your date range out if need be.
If you want to discover your elusive English/Welsh ancestors then learn more about how to research and where to find the records and resources.
“Give me a tip on how to break down my brick wall!” said the old fashioned letter I received in my post box.
“Just try to focus your attention on one bit of information that you want to find out about and stop chasing all the other results about your ancestor!” I replied in my note back, “at least until you find the answer to your burning question.”
What I meant by this, and explained further in my reply, is that so often we set out to find something about an ancestor but get distracted. When we enter the person’s name, into the search box on the data site, all the other records that are presented to us can be a distraction. Like the proverbial kid in the sweet shop we go off dipping into this one and the next and soon we have strayed from what we went onto the site in the first place for.
So if my correspondent’s brick wall was where their ancestor lived in a certain time period, then that is what they should zoom in on while leaving all the other records to one side and pursue this goal.
The writer of the tips article does advise you to save any other interesting information that you have turned up to go back to and look at later, but they strongly advise against getting sidetracked.
Keep working on the one piece of information only and if the records you are looking through turn up nothing, tweak your search again and again until you are satisfied that you have explored every angle.
I do love the data websites that allow you to Search All Records, as sometimes it is exciting and useful to use this option; but when we have a brick wall to smash down our best option is often to restrict our search to a particular database and then try various spellings and other variations to see if we can tease out the information we require. There are other techniques that you can also use as well, but this is a really good place to start.
I hope this idea helps someone this week get past a logjam in their research.
Hit a brick wall with your English/Welsh ancestors?
Learn how to discover where to find the many records and resources that will help you to find your forebears.
My interest was in the Portsea Workhouse, an institution in which my 3 x great-grandmother, Martha Malser, had died as an inmate in February 1870 aged 70. While the History Centre have the workhouse Creed registers from 1879 to 1953, which served as admission registers, the earlier records have very sadly not survived. This being the case meant I was unable to do any personal family history research this time.
I was, however, able to call up the Board of Guardians minute books for the time that my ancestor was living under their care in her old age. While not giving me any direct references to Martha it was an extremely interesting bit of research as it gave me a flavour of the organisation and an insight into its operation. For others, this could be a goldmine of family information.
These Board of Guardians minute books are a very name rich set of documents for those with ancestors who were officials, or who worked for the workhouse. Names were also recorded for suppliers to the institution of food, clothing, coal etc. This could be another opportunity for some researchers to find their family members mentioned, although often the supplier was simply noted by his surname alone. So you may see Jones £2 3s 6d, or Smith £0 4s 8d.
I read about the appointments made for named schoolmasters, matrons and various other officials to the workhouse. The records detail the taking of references for these people and the salaries that the Union would pay the successful candidates.
There was an interesting entry where the Board set out the duties they expected of the new clergyman. The number of days he was required to attend to the inmates spiritual needs, inside the workhouse, and the Eucharist services that he should provide for the workhouse inmates on the Sabbath.
Perhaps the most useful information for family historians, contained within these Board of Guardians minute books, was the records of people receiving “out relief”. Those who had become sick and were able to get some parish relief while not having to enter the workhouse. If your ancestor had fallen on hard times then these entries would give you both a surname and a first name, a place, the amount of out relief and also the reason for receiving the payment.
Most of the sicknesses that I read were general, such as “confinement”. I did read of some injuries such as back and leg, which would be expected of working men and women, though I did note one case of syphilis! Presumably this person was considered to be worthy of the care of the parish, so perhaps they were innocently infected with the disease.
I was at a function recently and on my table was an enthusiastic family historian who had been tracing his family tree for many years. Next to him was the inevitable sceptic who tried to put us both in our place by saying just how boring she thought “gathering a load of names and dates was”. I didn’t enquire what her hobby was, or even if she had one at all.
I did surprised her, however, by agreeing and saying that one of my mantras that I repeat often in my contributions to the Family History Researcher Academy course is to find out about the lives, work, environment and social conditions that existed at the time that your forebears were alive.
If you have discovered, from a search of the census, that your Great Aunt Jane was in service in a large house then I would make an effort to go and visit the below stairs of a similar property. There are quite a few National Trust houses that meet the bill. On a visit to Erdigg in North Wales, this was exactly what I did. There the upstairs and downstairs were beautifully presented to give a feel for what life was like for our ancestors living in both levels of society.
As a worked example of what I teach, let’s consider my ancestor Henry Thomas Thorne. From the census of 1861, accessed on TheGenealogist I am able to discover him working in the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth where he is employed as a rope-maker at H.M.Dockyard.
This weekend I had the chance to visit Portsmouth and not only go to the church where he married, but also to tour the Historic Dockyard and see an exhibit explaining how men like my 2x great-grandfather and his colleagues created the cordage that the Royal Navy of the time required for its ships.
I had previously obtained a copy of my ancestors’ wedding certificate from the GRO, having found their details in the Births, Marriages and Death Indexes that are available on various websites.
On this visit to Portsmouth I could now walk in the footsteps of my forebears on their wedding day the 5th February 1859 at St Mary’s, Portsea Island.
I could go on board H.M.S. Warrior, an actual warship from the time period (1860) and see how the cordage that he made was used on this ironclad steam and sail man-of-war.
And I could see the tools that Henry would have used everyday, in the exhibition piece there.
This story of my weekend excursion illustrates how I use the information that I discover in the records as a springboard to go on and find social history museums, or even the actual places that my ancestors would have gone to, and so build my family’s story.
If you haven’t moved past the gathering of names and dates stage in your family tree research, then I urge you to start doing so now.
I watched the Sir Derek Jacobi episode of Who Do You think You Are? with great interest this week. The television researchers showed us that although the famous actor was born into a South London family of humble stock, he was descended from a Huguenot ancestor of status. Joseph De La Plaigne had been imprisoned in France for his protestant beliefs, before making his escape to England in his sixties.
It gave me great delight to find the TV programme showed Sir Derek a copy of his illustrious forebear’s will, as I too had discovered this very same document when looking around the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills on TheGenealogist’s website.
Many people from all stations of society, including some whom we would not have expected to have, made wills and so it is certainly worth taking a look to see if your ancestors left one.
Before 1858, England and Wales were divided into two provinces. The largest and most influential was Canterbury, which covered the South of England up to the Midlands and also Wales. The other was York, which covered Durham, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, and the Isle of Man. The two provinces of Canterbury and York each had their own Archbishop, and were divided into several dioceses. Each diocese had a minimum of two bishops, and these dioceses were also divided again into archdeaconries.
All wills, up until 12 January 1858, had to be proven in a church court to ensure that the will was legal. Wills were proven in over 250 church courts across the country, and the records of these are now stored mostly in local record offices.
For more on wills there is a module that reveals more about the subject inside the Family History Researcher Academy course on English/Welsh Family History that is available from the link below. The course takes the student from beginning researching their English/Welsh ancestor to deal with many intermediate level lessons such as wills and much more.
Did you watch the Paul Hollywood programme in the 12th series of Who Do You Think You Are?
I thought it was a great show to start the new series off. Paul came across as a genuine normal guy who like many of us wished he had taken the time to speak more to his relatives about the past before they sadly died.
Even though one of the main lessons in my Family History course is to talk to your relatives and jot down what they tell you, as a basis for then trying to substantiate their stories with research in actual records, I too am guilty of not having done this before it was too late with some of my own family.
In this week’s TV show Paul Hollywood, from The Great British Bake Off, was taken back to his grandfather’s WWII experience in North Africa. It was here that his grandfather Norman Harman (1913 – 2003) had been sent as soon as he had completed his training. At Medjez el Bab in Tunisia, Norman’s Light Anti-Aircraft division were protecting the infantry from enemy air attacks at the time of the major Allied offensive to take Tunis from the German forces. With the enemy throwing bombs and missiles at them it was hard on these men.
From there Paul travelled to Italy, where he learnt about how his grandfather was part of the landing force that became trapped on the beaches at Anzio for four months, surrounded by Germans and all the while under constant aerial bombardment. Paul gets to see the landing area where his grandfather and the other men would have felt like sitting ducks, with death and devastation all around them. Norman and his comrades finally managed to land and their gun was then transported five miles inland. Unfortunately for them the regiment was soon surrounded by the enemy in a dangerously exposed area. Huge numbers of men had no choice but to dig themselves into 7ft long fox holes and spend months trapped, coming under repeated German shell attacks.
In May 1944 and thanks to Norman’s regiment’s extraordinary efforts, the stalemate at Anzio was broken. The next month the Allied armies went on to liberate Rome, but not without the loss of 14,000 lives. Paul’s grandfather brought back from this conflict a visible memento of his terrifying time. He had developed a facial tic that stayed with him until he died.
Researching his line even further back, Paul Hollywood was seen in the Who Do You Think You Are? programme to use TheGenealogist’s ‘family forename search’ to find Alexander McKenzie, a Wood Turner who had come down to Liverpool from his native Glasgow. I was very glad to see that this company’s excellent resource was used by Paul, in place of one of the other two subscription sites who normally always get a look in.
Following his Scottish family line up to Glasgow Paul then found that the next generation in the McKenzie family was a Glasgow Policeman, down from the Highlands, who had a certain amount of trouble avoiding alcohol and was eventually dismissed from the Police force, moved to Liverpool before returning to Glasgow and death in the Poorhouse.
Paul then discovered in the programme that his great, great, great, great grandfather Donald McKenzie, was a Highland postman with quite extraordinary stamina. As a crofter with little land he had to make ends meet with other employment. Donald’s was a post runner. Not having a horse, with which to cover his rounds delivering the mail to 30,000 people, Donald simply ran the 120 miles with the mail every week from one side of Scotland to the other.
With thanks to TheGenealogist for permission to use part of their article as a basis for this post. You can read the full piece, that reveals even more about Paul Hollywood’s family history, by clicking this link:
With the holiday season well and truly in swing, I’m on a weekend in London as you read this hopefully getting my fill of museums and heritage sites.
If you are like me and end up visiting parts of the country that you are unfamiliar with, then I’d recommend The History & Heritage Handbook 2015/16 to you.
Not content with this current short break, I’m also planning another few days in the South of England in September, perhaps going to the Record Offices and archives there. Plus I’ve a visit to the Midlands in the next few months. Back in June I was in Salisbury and saw the copy of the Magna Carta that is on show in the chapter house of the cathedral there and visited some other historical venues while there.
The new History & Heritage Handbook 2015/16 edited by Andrew Chapman and published by Heritage Hunter came out only recently and is invaluable to help people like me make the most of our visits.
The book is a comprehensive guide to almost 3500 places and organisations in the UK , the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
Each of the entries provides the contact details and a brief description, many of which give specific information about specialist collections and all listed across more than 500 pages..
I recommend you use it to
research your family history: as the book includes details of county record offices and family history societies
find thousands of heritage sites to visit on holiday or for day trips
learn about special archives in museums and libraries across the UK, ideal for researching local, social or military history
Hit a brick wall with your English/Welsh ancestors?
Learn how to discover the many records and resources to find your forebears within
The BBC have now revealed the running order in which the Who do You Think You Are? celebrities episodes will be broadcast this coming August, September and October. This is the 12th series in the UK and I for one am intrigued as to what family history stories are going to be revealed.
This perennially popular genealogical TV programme starts with the Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood, whose maternal family will be explored on 13th August. From what I have read it will be concentrating on his grandfather’s war experiences in Tunisia and Africa before jumping back a few generations to a Scottish line of his. Paul’s ancestor was a postman, in the Highlands, who was unable to afford a horse with which to cover his rounds delivering the mail to 30,000 people. Donald McKenzie, instead, ran the 120 miles with the mail every week.
The series will be aired every Thursday evening at 9pm on BBC One, with a one week break in between Derek Jacobi and Jerry Hall’s episodes on 3 September.
Although the schedule may still be subject to change, Frances de la Tour’s story will close the series on 22nd of October.
13 August: Paul Hollywood
20 August: Jane Seymour
27 August: Derek Jacobi
3 September: No episode
10 September: Jerry Hall
17 September: Gareth Malone
24 September: Anne Reid
1 October: Frank Gardner
8 October: Anita Rani
15 October: Mark Gatiss
22 October: Frances de la Tour
Hit a brick wall with your English/Welsh ancestors?
Learn how to discover the many records and resources to find your forebears within
On finding myself in London with some time on my hands earlier this year I decided to pay a visit to Marylebone to see where it was that my 19th century ancestors lived for a short while.
Having found that they had been resident at 19 Paddington Street in the 1861 census for London, by using TheGenelogist’s Master Search, I was keen to take a look at the shop above which they had lived. My ancestor, George Colwill was listed as a plaster, but it seemed he and his new wife were living above a baker’s shop in London. They would go on to become bakers back in Plymouth, where he had hailed from and then grocers and bakers.
On arriving in the busy London street today I was delighted to find that it still held many of the period buildings that I hoped would have survived, at least at first-floor level an above. Being a commercial area the shops fascias had been updated over the years to give a more modern aspect.
Sadly, number 19 Paddington Street seemed to be a post war building that occupied a plot that was one in from the corner with Luxborough Street and sat next to a somewhat grander Victorian building.
I wondered if the previous structure had been damaged in the bombings of the Second World War. To find out I went online to do a search of the Discovery catalogue on the National Archives website. TNA’s new search engine not only reveals what is in their own collections, but also combines what use to be the Access to Archives(A2A) with records listed for some of what is held at 400 other archives across England.
Here I found that the City of Westminster Archives Centre held a document called STREET INCIDENTS with the reference of: stmarylebonecdu/2 . What interested me was a line in the result for: Luxborough Street Corner with Paddington Street 11 May-19 November 1941 File: 546.
Recently I have also discovered a brilliant online resource at bombsight.org that allows researchers to see an astonishing interactive map that shows every German bomb that fell on London during the WW2 Blitz.
From this I could see that there was indeed an entry for this bomb and another that fell very close by. The shocking thing about this website is when you zoom out and see quite how many bombs were drooped as a whole on the capital.
www.bombsight.org consulted 19th July 2015 version number (1.0).
If you too have ancestors from London and you want to discover if their home or workplace had been destroyed in the Blitz then take a look now at the interactive maps on bombsight.org. You can filter by Satellite view, Street Map, Anti-invasion sites, 1940s bomb maps and bomb incidents.
Hit a brick wall with your English/Welsh ancestors?
Learn how to discover more records and resources to discover your forebears within
These knowledgeable interviewees include practising professional genealogists, with years and years of experience to offer.
Yet others are from the very highest levels of the online data provider companies, like Ancestry and TheGenealogist.
Listen to the download and learn some plain tips that will simplify the often confusing business of researching English/Welsh ancestors. I am going to give you access to these eight professionals so that you can use their advice to break down several brick walls that you may have.
3. The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) Member. What would the advice be from a professional genealogist practitioner?
Well as many serious professional genealogists belong to this association, I headed over to the AGRA stand and asked a member for his research tips. Points he brought up included the information on documents being only as good as that given by the informant and what to do about conflicting data. There is more to hear in the full interview that you can download here .
4. Families in British India Society (FIBIS) Expert. In family history we often have to think a bit outside the box. Well have you considered that your missing ancestor had moved abroad? With 3 million Brits having gone out to India then if we have a missing forbear it could certainly pay us to take a look at the records from this part of the British Empire. Its not just soldiers, the list of people who went out to work there is long as we hear from this FIBIS expert.
5. Celia Heritage – Professional Genealogist, Author and Family History Teacher introduces us to an often under used set of resources in her piece: Death Records. She explains how to use these records to flesh out the bones of our ancestors lives.
Celia is an excellent and knowledgeable speaker and you can just hear the passion that she has for her subject as she dispenses some gems of advice in the free downloadable audio presentation. Its not just death certificates that Celia brings to our attention in this part of the recording!
6. Dr Ian Galbraith – The National Wills Index explains about one of the best single major sources for family historians when I asked him to talk about Wills and Administrations for this audio.
Ian explains why wills can be an important resource with an average of 10 names per will and with half of them being different from that of the testator. Many people are surprised by the fact that all sorts of people left wills, but you won’t be when you have heard the full interview.
7. Brad Argent – Content Director for Ancestry advises family historians to drill down for the information in the online databases in his contribution to the recording. Brad suggests we use the card catalogue to seek out data sets and then use the advance search facility of “exact”, “soundex” and “wildcards” when we are on this large data provider’s site. His advice is compelling.
8. Mark Bayley – Head of Online Content at TheGenealogist, a site that gives really fantastic value and a very wide range of data, introduces us to a great name-rich resource recently published by TheGenealogist, in association with The National Archives.
What is this important resource for England and Wales?
It is, of course, the Tithe collection.
I have been using this set recently to great effect with my own rural ancestors and so I have included a module in my Family History Researcher Guides about the tithes.
The beauty of this data is that it includes both sides of society, with landowners and tenants being recorded and giving names and addresses. As a pre-census data set it is hugely valuable to us! Listen to Mark explain about these exciting records in the free recording you can download now by clicking the link below.
Now you may be asking why I am doing this for free?
Its because I want to introduce you to a set of guides that I have put together. A series of pdf modules that takes the information I gleaned at Who Do You Think You Are? Live and incorporated it, along with much more content into a year’s worth of weekly written guides.
There are extra contributions from various other professional experts who have penned some of the reports, as well as those modules written from my own extensive experience.
I am guessing that, if you have read this far, you are interested in English/Welsh family history and that you have hit at least one of the inevitable brick walls. The solution is to understand more ways to find your ancestors.
So if you would like to dramatically increase your knowledge then I think you will enjoy being a member of my Family History Researcher Guides. This is a 52 weekly series of guides written in an easily accessible form and you can take a two week trial for just £1 by going here: