Happy St David’s Day to my Welsh friends

 

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A Happy St David’s day to all my Welsh friends and readers of this blog.

While many of the records for doing Welsh family history are the same as those for neighbouring England, there are some differences when it comes to researching in Wales, or Cymru as it is known in its own language.

For those of us used to finding our family records in the County Record Offices in England will discover that much is the same in Wales. Researchers will find that records of registration of births, deaths and marriages are exactly the same in Wales as in England, and that the Registrar General’s indexes cover both England and Wales.

The census is the same, except for an extra question from 1891 when all those aged 3 and over were asked whether they spoke English only, Welsh only, or both languages.

Anglican parish records are the same as those for England, and are kept in local authority archives in the same way.

Some of the differences, however, that can cause us to stumble are Common names, the favouring of Patronymics, the Welsh language, and that many families were not members of the Established Church.

Nonconformity, being more important in Wales than in some parts of England, may mean that you find that your ancestors didn’t go to the local parish church. In many chapels the language used was Welsh, and some of the records may also be in Welsh.

Because the country has its own language English speakers may find the place names to be unfamiliar to them.

Another difference, from the English system, is that in England the County Record Offices are (in most cases) the diocesan record offices and therefore hold all the records of the diocese, such as Wills, bishop’s transcripts and marriage bonds and licences, as well as parish records. In Wales, the National Library of Wales is the diocesan record office for the whole of Wales, and therefore holds all the bishop’s transcripts, marriage bonds and licences, and Wills proved in Welsh church courts.

The National Library of Wales or Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru is very important for our research as it acts as the main repository for family history research in Wales holding a vast number of records useful to the family historian – census returns, probate records, nonconformist records and tithe maps, to name but a few, will help at some point during research.

Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources to use to find elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,

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Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources which can be used to find your elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,

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Family History Researcher English/Welsh course

 

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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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Am I really sure about that ancestor?

Family Tree on a computer

In my ancestor research I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of narrow thinking sometimes. Have you?

What I’m talking about here is the occasions when I’ve focused too strictly on what I am sure are the correct facts about a forebear.  I may have been sure that I knew that his or her name had been spelt in a particular way, or that they came from a particular place. Now here is the warning I am guilty of ignoring: Am I really so sure I know the facts?

When we, as family historians, ignore this question then we can so easily cause ourselves unnecessary grief and so much wasted time. Perhaps we were searching in the right place, but were we guilty of searching in the wrong way? What we need to do is to open up our minds to researching in a smarter fashion and often we will be rewarded by finding that record that we were looking for.

Just think how your on-line research could possibly improve if you were always to:

  • keep handy a list of the known surname variants for your ancestor’s name. For example in my family I have names that could be spelt as Thorn, Thorne, Stephens, Stevens and all manner of spelling of Sissill.
  • think about what common first-name nicknames may apply and also any regularly used shortened forms of names. For example Thomas may be written as Thos. Elizabeth as Eliz. or Eliza. and I have found a John as Jono.
  • have written down some of the capital letters that can easily be confused like J and I, for example
  • remember that place names can be confused – in my Devon branch there are two Galmptons very near each other and I jumped to the conclusion that my great grandmother came from the one near to where they lived. Wrong!
  • think about the length of normal life-spans and don’t chase someone with a similar name thinking they are one and the same. What about the date ranges for their marriages, deaths and births of their children?
  • keep notes, or research logs for your family searches so that you keep track of what you have already done.
  • remain aware of the gaps that there are in any particular record collections. If you are searching a particular period and can’t find an ancestor and this time frame also matches a known gap in the data, then this will stop you wasting more time than necessary looking.

So just remember these seven ways to avoid family research pitfalls and don’t make the mistakes that I did in the past!

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