I was very pleased to hear from Anthony Adolph this week, about his new bookIn Search of Our Ancient Ancestors: from the Big Bang to Modern Britain, in Science and Myth especially as I had just been reading all about it in Your Family Tree Magazine and was intrigued as the magazine review called it ‘unusual and fascinating’.
According to science, life first appeared on Earth about 3,500 million years ago. Every living thing is descended from that first spark, including all of us. But if we trace a direct line down from those original life-forms to ourselves, what do we find? What is the full story of our family tree over the past 3,500 million years, and how are we able to trace ourselves so far back?
From single celled organisms to sea-dwelling vertebrates; amphibians to reptiles; tiny mammals to primitive man; the first Homo sapiens to the cave-painters of Ice Age Europe and the first farmers down to the Norman Conquest, this book charts not only the extraordinary story of our ancient ancestors but also our 40,000 year-long quest to discover our roots, from ancient origin myths of world-shaping mammoths and great floods down to the scientific discovery of our descent from the Genetic Adam and the Mitochondrial Eve.
In Search of Our Ancient Ancestorswill tell you where you come from, before the earliest generations of your family tree that you can trace using records. It also saves you having to think any harder about what to buy for your family and friends this Christmas!
I do hope you will enjoy it. Anthony Adolph.
Anthony Adolph’s book is available from the publishers, Pen & Sword books, and all good booksellers.
Last Thursday night, on BBC TV, saw what many people on my facebook page are saying was the best programme in the 12th UK series of Who Do You Think You Are so far. The subject was Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent who made the news himself in June 2004 when he was shot six times and seriously wounded by al-Qaeda sympathisers in Saudi Arabia.
It was his maternal family tree, that was the subject of the one hour show. It would seem to have delighted those viewers that have commented on social media because, while it did pick out certain key ancestors to look at in more detail, the episode went on to trace Frank’s line as far back as the research would take them. This happened to be to William the Conqueror himself and so it more than validated the family story, that Frank had heard as a child from his mother, that they were descended from the Normans.
You certainly couldn’t have wanted to find a better ancestor than the Norman King, if you were trying to prove that your family came over with the Normans! Without any shadow of a doubt William, Duke of Normandy, is one Norman that no one can dispute arrived in England at that time.
The satisfaction of being able to trace one generation back to another and then back to another, and so on for 31 generations, is something that very few of us can have the gratification of being able to do. Yet I was asked by a contact this weekend if I had noticed that it was often a pretty zig-zag line that was taken. The lineage, they had spotted from the pedigree shown on the screen, would meander back though the mother of an ancestor and then her mother. The next generation back was again via the female line and then, perhaps, the male branch for a couple of generations before going up the female line again.
“How could the Herald at the College of Arms have told Frank that he was directly descended from William the Conqueror?”
“Because he is!” I replied, nonplussed. “A direct line does not mean everyone has to have the same surname and be descended from the male. Women are just as important as ancestors to us all.”
I believe that this is a mistake that many may make in their family tree research. Unintentionally concentrating on charging back up one line following the father, the grandfather to trace the surname back. This can even happen if our quest started with a woman.
It takes two to create an offspring and the child, we know now, receives half their DNA from each parent. So take time to investigate some of your female lines and see where they take you. You too may be as lucky as Frank Gardner in your discoveries.
TheGenealogist website’s researchers have also turned up an interesting fact about the journalist’s dad.
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
I’ve been having a lot of interesting fun playing with the many maps on the National Library of Scotland site. NLS give access to some historic high-resolution zoomable images of over 91,000 maps of Scotland and beyond.
Initially I was using it to superimpose the old OS 1:10K 1900 map on to the modern satellite image of the plot of a long demolished ancestors house in Fife (see the hatched building in the image on this page). By using the slider, that changes the opacity, I was able to see exactly where the house had been in relation to the ground today. All that remains are the stables and the farm buildings that make up part of the modern farm and no sign from the air of the villa that once stood on the plot.
It is not just maps of Scotland that can be found on this brilliant website as I was able to select an English county and chose between different series of the Ordnance Survey and the modern hybrid view from the air for a village in Leicestershire that I was interested in not to mention the coverage for London.
The better family historians will always try to gather together as much information on their ancestors as possible so as to be able to place their forebears squarely into the contemporary environment in which they lived.
The bare genealogical facts of names, dates and places go only so far to build a family tree, whereas finding out about the social and physical landscapes of your past family’s lives can help you to understand the challenges that faced them.
Landscapes can and did change over time. The enclosure of land and the movement from rural employment to working in the cities, as the industrial process grew had an affect on past generations. The building of the railways and roads, which may have disrupted their lives as well as provided new communication routes for them to travel down can often be seen by looking at various map series over time.
For those of you researching your English/Welsh family history and have hit a brick wall, maps are covered in more detail in a module of the Family History Researcher Academy.
Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources which can be used to find your elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,
You may have been watching the BBC’s dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” on television. The lead character in the book and television series, is Thomas Cromwell a man born into a working class family who rises to be the right hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, at one time King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. Cromwell managed to survive the fall from grace of Wolsey and went on to become the King’s Chief Minister until his own downfall.
The connection between this man and we family historians, with ancestors in England and Wales, is that Thomas Cromwell is responsible for the fact that we are able to trace many of our ancestors back in the documents created by the parish churches across the land.
The Parish registers for baptisms, marriages and burials, were first introduced into the Church of England in 1538 by Cromwell as Henry VIII’s Vicar General and Vice regent, a position that gave him power to supervise the church.
Cromwell required that every parish church was to acquire a sure coffer (that is, a parish chest) within which their records could be securely stored. While the parish chest was not a new idea, they could have been found in churches up and down the land all the way back to medieval times, what was new, in Tudor times, was the notion that Cromwell dictated that accurate records were to be kept and the responsibility to do so was placed on the parish officials to keep these records safe.
The parish chest were often no more than a hollowed out tree trunk that was secured with three locks. The keys were to be kept by the Bishop, the Priest and by a religious layman.
By the mid-1500’s the parishioners in every parish of the land were instructed by law to provide a strong chest with a hole in the upper part thereof, and having three keys, for holding the alms for the poor. Another chest may have been used to keep safe the church’s plate and this or the first chest would also double up as a place where the parish registers and other parish documents could be kept safe. In some places only one chest would have sufficed for both purposes, while in other parishes two or more may have been used.
So the debt we owe to Thomas Cromwell is that he introduced parish registers, some of which have survived pests, fire and flood back through the generations and provide us today with names of ancestors stretching back generations.
I have had a very productive weekend, from a family history point of view.
I’ve found out about a mysterious Uncle, by marriage, who had been almost airbrushed out of a family’s story. I made contact with a relative of his, who was unknown to the first family, and so discovered part of the hidden story.
I still love it when something like this happens, but a word of warning, others may not be so happy with you.
When, by shear persistence you manage to force open that dusty old metaphorical cupboard into which they, or previous generations, have bundled the skeleton you may not be appreciated for doing so.
When ever I take on a commission, to look into someone’s family tree, I try to warn them that they need to be prepared for the possibility of something hidden and the upset it may cause by crashing out into the open.
In this case it is not a great scandal, as far as I can see. But in a past occasion I have had one skeleton cause elderly relatives, of the principal subject, wish that I had never gone poking into the recess and bringing out into the daylight the things that they believed should have stayed in the dark. I got the blame fair and square for discovering the truth that time!
Sometimes a family story may have been spun to hide the inconvenient truth. By following the traces that our ancestors leave behind in the myriad of records, all of which are there waiting for us to go and research within, the true facts can emerge.
Perhaps it is a lesson that the best thing is to tell the truth in the first place and just accept that human beings mess up and they live complicated lives!
If you want to find more ancestors then you need to know about the many different record sets that they may be lurking within. You need to know how best to use the documents and where to find them.
If you are serious about discovering your family history then why not spend the winter nights looking for them? But first you need to know where to look.
I am making available again, on a special offer of a FREE month’s trial, my extremely well received course on English/Welsh Family History.
This week’s Who Do You Think You Are? on the BBC was a bit more traditional in tracing Mary Berry’s family back through various record sets. From what I can see, on the forums and on facebook, this has please many people who don’t like the recent trend of just one ancestor being looked at in a programme in more depth.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this week’s, with Mary Berry being a great choice to investigate with some interesting ancestors that made use of a large number of resources from the family history researcher’s tool box.
In defence for those other programmes, with the single subject, I would just like to say that one of the points that I was taught (and which I myself now teach in my own family history course) is that family history involves looking at the social context of our ancestors, as well as collecting names, dates and details.
We need to understand the world in which our ancestors lived and what was happening to make them be the people that they were. Perhaps these editions were simply trying to show this and in the confines of an hour long programme this naturally excluded all the other generations that would appear on the celebrity’s family tree.
That said, it would seem that the popular vote is for the later type of WDYTYA? Viewers from the genealogy pages on facebook would prefer to see a family tree being traced back and a little bit of detail being fleshed out on the poor unfortunate person who had fallen on difficult times or who had shown great grit.
As long as when we come to research our own family tree that we don’t make the mistake of simply collecting names, dates, perhaps an occupation and place or two and then move on to the next generation without thinking a little about the social context of our ancestors, then my vote is also with the Mary Berry type of programme, but only narrowly in favour!
As I wrote this post today I was casting my mind back over the show and counting off the data sets and resources used for which I have modules in my Family History Researcher course.
There was also Christopher Berry Junior’s wife and 6 children who ended up in the workhouse with some of the children dying while inmates, but the segregation that would have taken place between children and parent was not mentioned. See my module on the Workhouse.
Mary Berry was shown the Trades Directory and especially the one that her ancestor had published. In my course I have a module on Trade Directories written by Mary Bayley of TheGenelogist that uses that website’s great resources to explain their usefulness to the family historian.
Mary Berry had an ancestor of the same name as her who was identified in the GRO vital records as having had a number of illegitimate children. The Parish Registers also confirmed this fact. I delve into these three areas in separate modules on the Birth Marriage and Death certificates (lesson 2), the Parish Records (5 and 8) and Illegitimate children (21).
Then there was old newspapers (lesson number 42), Bankruptcy (lesson 29), apprentices (lesson 15), death records (lesson 25) and probably more!
If anyone is new to our fascinating subject, or is a seasoned family history researcher who would like to be refreshed on English/Welsh researching then I have a £1 trial for two weeks on offer at the moment.
I was having a chat with a professional genealogist recently.
During the discussion I mentioned a particular brick wall that I had in my family tree.
“When was the last time you reviewed it?” he asked.
“Ah, I see what you mean!” I replied. “It is over six months since I sent it to the back burner and concentrated on other easier to find people.”
It is a lesson that even I forget to do and that is to periodically go back and see if, with new information you can now make some progress.
New record sets may have become available in the time since you last looked at your ancestor. It may be the release of yet more transcripts by Family History Societies, or those of the genealogical retailers that can now aid you. New parish records may have been uploaded to the likes of Ancestry, TheGenealogist or Findmypast.
Your ancestor may appear in one of the more diverse data sets that the subscription sites are releasing such as the Tithe Records on TheGenealogist, new occupational records on Ancestry, or The British in India records on Findmypast.
It is not just the case of reviewing the recently released documents on the subscription sites, that I am advocating. Take a look again at sets you may already have used. Perhaps, in the light of your experience and any new found knowledge that you have gained since last you looked, the answers may now be clear.
With my friend’s advice I set about looking again at a brick wall that I had in Devon.
In 1794 I have a John Thorn marrying a Sarah Branton in Plymouth in the parish of Charles on the 12th January. This John Thorn is not listed as being of the parish, yet his wife is.
They then move quickly to Dartmouth where their son, also called John is born with the child being baptised on the 28th September of the same year. In the marriage register, in Plymouth, John Thorn Senior was listed as a mariner and so it does not surprise me much that they pitch up along the coast at another port. But then what happens to them?
We are taught to always kill off our ancestors as good practice. In my case I had not found the death records for John Thorn Senior, nor of his wife Sarah. I had an inkling that they probably settled in Dartmouth, as the line remains there for another two to three generations, but I did not know if they stayed or not.
Since reviewing my notes on the searches I made, in the parish records at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter, I have now realized that I had indeed found a possible burial of a John Thorn in Dartmouth in January 1810, but had not entered it into my family tree.
The page from the parish of St Saviour’s, Dartmouth, had helpfully given me the information that this particular John Thorn was only 41 at his death This means he could be a candidate for the marriage in 1794, as he would have been 25 in that year.
When I last looked at the parish records, on the visit to the Devon Heritage Centre (previously the County Record Office), I had been disappointed not to have found the burial entry for his wife Sarah in the same parish and so I had put this line of enquiry aside.
But now, as I looked back at my notes, I see that I had also done a thorough job and looked at all the other churches in the town. I had found, among all the people buried in Dartmouth, and with the correct surname, one Sarah Thorn aged 50.
This Sarah Thorn is buried at the Parish church of St Clement’s, Townstall, Dartmouth on the 21st June 1818. At 50 she would have been born in 1768 and so she may well have been the wife of John, who was buried 8 years prior in the daughter church of St Saviour’s that is closer to the port.
Looking back at my visit to the record office I can recall that I finished my trawl of the parish record microfiche as a deadline for me to leave approached. I had a flight to catch from Exeter Airport and a connecting bus from outside of the Met Office to get me there. In my rush I had noted down the finding but had not looked at it in the right frame of mind. So perhaps here is another reason for reviewing your brick walls.
Now that the Devon Parish Records are on Findmypast I was recently able to go back and look at them at my leisure. This time without the pressure of missing a flight and so I can hypothesize that these two individuals are very possibly my direct ancestors.
Regretfully, with the paucity of information to identify someone contained in the pages of most parish records, I can not be completely sure. As with anyone with a common name there is always the possibility that they are simply namesakes.
If you would like to learn more about Death records, parish registers or good practice in doing English/Welsh family history then take a look at joining the Family History Researcher.
There is a special trial offer price of £1 for the first 2 weeks at the moment. Click the banner below.
Not so long ago we just never heard of DNA being used in everyday situations. And then suddenly every detective story on TV seemed to mention the suspect’s DNA being collected from the crime scene.
In the world of family history, DNA has also emerged into the main stream. Today if you want to prove that you are descended from a certain line then you may be able to use genetics to prove it.
But then there is the shorthand that is used that can confuse us a little. You may have heard people talking about “snips” or SNPs and STRs and wondered what this has to do with anything!
I will now attempt to explain what I myself was uncertain of until I attended one of the talks by an academic at last year’s Who Do You Think You Are? Live show and then found it explained again in chapter 12 of Anthony Adolph’s book Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors. Pen and Sword 2013
Chromosomes are made up of special proteins and DNA. DNA is composed of numerous base-pairs of nucleotides all arranged in a double-helix shape.
In every human cell there is a nucleus that contains twenty-two pairs of chromosomes that bear autosomal DNA and one pair that decides on the gender of the human. The two sets of chromosomes are reduced down to one in a process of myosis that produces eggs in females and sperm in males.
When a man and a woman have a child the male passes on the one set of his chromosomes and mixes with the female’s one set and so the next generation inherits from its parents.
It is a complex process that causes some slight changes or mutations which are known as genetic polymorphisms. Some of these mutations include single nucleotide polymorphisms which are often abbreviated to the letters SNPs.
A single tandem repeat is known as a STR.
SNPs and STRs do not, it is believed by the scientists who understand such things, carry any useful codes needed in the creation of ourselves, but they are there.
Individual genes have two or more possible states of being and these are usually referred to by the letters A or T and C or G.
An SNP is a change detected in a gene’s state of being from, say, A to G and you may see it being called a â€œunique event polymorphismâ€. Once a SNP has occurred it will now stay the same as it is passed down the generations and so you can see how this can act as a reliable marker for â€œdeep ancestryâ€ haplogroup testing.
So what about STRs?
They are a bit different. STRs occur in a different part of the chromosome and they are a series of multiple changes caused by the addition or subtraction of the number of base-pairs. So by counting these base-pairs the DNA company get to a numerical code. The great thing about these mutations is that they occur over a shorter time than the SNPs do and so they can change over shorter spans of generations.
Y-STRs are taken specifically from the male Y chromosome and are only passed down by the father, making the Y chromosome in any paternal line practically identical.
What we are presented with is two complementary sets of results: SNPs define a person’s haplogroup, or the group of people that share the same markers that can go back many thousand of years. The second is the smaller group of people that share the same STRs who are related to each other over the last couple of thousand years or less.
The second exception is mitochondrial DNA (mt-DNA). This is only passed down from a mother to her child, but which only her daughters will pass on. This means that we have a definite marker for the female-line, in other words the mother’s mother’s mother’s (and so on) family.
As we get closer to Christmas I have noticed that www.familytreedna.com are offering money off their packages for the holiday season. Do you know anyone who would like to have a present of a DNA test as it would seem to be a good time to buy?
Disclosure: Links are compensated affiliate links.
Finding a criminal in our past family can embarrass some of us, while others are simply tickled pink to think they are descended from a rogue or two. This is especially true when the criminal ancestors are a few generations back and so not too frighteningly near.
One of the problems, for the family historian, is that any black sheep in our family were probably not too keen on giving their true name when apprehended. So when searching for them on census night they may be frustratingly missing, unless they are locked up by courtesy of His or Her Majesty in one of the crown’s prisons.
Census records for Wormwood Scrubs, Parkhurst, Pentonville, Strangeways and Dartmoor are available in the normal census collections at Ancestry, Â Findmypast Â andÂ TheGenealogist.
You may also come across the census records for the county gaol, such as the one in Exeter for the County of Devon.
I was looking this week at some of the online resources for criminal records such as the England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 at Ancestry.co.uk. These register books include a brief bit of information from the Quarter Session Trials.
I didn’t manage to identify an ancestor but I got drawn into wondering about the story of a person with my surname from my ancestor’s county who in 1834 at the age of 43 was sentenced to be transported for 7 years for larceny.
And then there was one Janus Majaval, aged 22 and sentenced to death along with several others at the Devon County Assizes on the 19th July 1845. All the condemned men carried Iberian sounding names and their crime was Murder on the High Seas.