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.
I was back in the area of Jersey where I grew up today.
It was not my family history that I was researching, but ancestors belonging to someone else.
I had received a request to take a photograph of the house in which my contact’s forebears had lived and so I went to my computer and opened TheGenealogist.co.uk and looked up the head of the household in their Channel Island records.
This site has some “Jersey Almanacs” which are very useful trade directories for the islands and soon I was on the trail.
The Genealogist also has the full run of census data and images, which I next used to quickly find the person in question.
Unless you are new, to family history research, then you will be aware that the census collections are also available on Ancestry and Findmypast as well. I tend to use all three sites, as sometimes the transcription on one may help me better locate a person with a difficult name spelling.
In the 1901 and 1911 census it was quite plain that the family in question lived around the harbour at St Aubin, in the parish of St Brelade. The census in each case clearly gave the name of the house, though it was different in 1911 from 1901 so there was the possibility that the family had moved a very short distance. Either that or they had changed the name of their house.
So a simple task, you may think. All I had to do was pop along to the road in question and snap a building. Even if the house name was no longer visible, or had changed, there was bound to be a property in the road that had retained its name and I could use as a reference point. All I would need to do is count down the houses from that one.
Oh that it was so easy! You see the harbour front has some alleyways off it and these had different road names today from the ones used in the census. It seems to me that the parish has gone back to using the older French names for these roads from the Anglicised ones used in 1901 and 1911.
Another problem was that off these alleys were some semi-detached cottages, some of which are reached via foot paths. Also there were a set of steps, leading up to the steep Market Hill that rises behind the harbour, on which three more un-named cottages perched.
Both of the census records ignored the Methodist Church, that sat in the middle of the harbour frontage between one of my reference properties, as is to be expected if it had no residents to be counted. But it was also obvious that, in times past, some of the other buildings would have been warehousing, or other uninhabited commercial buildings and so these too were not enumerated. This made my task of counting down the houses to the ones for which I was searching, difficult.
I consulted the “Description of the Enumeration District” as in some cases this can give you a good idea of the enumerator’s walk. In this case it mentioned the names of the roads, in general, but did not explain how he had dealt with buildings set behind each other or to the side.
By finding some more reference buildings, that is those that have retained their names through to today, I was able to tie down the house in the 1901 to being on one plot. I am not certain that it is the actual building as it may well have been built later, it not having many of the period features of its neighbours to give away its age.
So only a partial victory for family history research this week, but the Description of the Enumeration District can be a useful tool elsewhere and browsing through a road on the census can often be illuminating in other ways. Sometimes you may find more members of the family living close by and a child missing from one house in its grandparent’s or Aunt and Uncles. I remember finding this in my own family in Plymouth.
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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.
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This week I have been musing upon one of my to-do-lists! I am keen to get back a generation of Thorn’s from Devon, but as yet I do not have enough information to make the break through as to who were my 5x great-grandparents and when and where were my 3x great-grandparents, John and Sara, born?
As more and more datasets are released on the various online subscription sites, however, I periodically revisit this brick wall of mine.
John Thorn married Sarah Branton on the 12th January 1794 at Charles Church in Plymouth. The bride was of that parish and the groom was a â€œmarinerâ€ with no mention of which parish he was from. I have wondered if this meant that both bride and groom were of the same parish, or did the vicar simply omit to record where John Thorn sailed in from in a busy maritime city such as Plymouth. I have no evidence either way, all I know is that they married after banns had been called and in the Parish Register for Charles Plymouth in the year 1794 and their marriage entry is No: 60.
On the 28 September 1794, however, their first born son John Branton Thorn was baptised at St.Saviours Dartmouth (IGI C050791) which suggests that they moved to this Devon coastal town just after they got married. Was this a case of returning to the groom’s town to live? Or was it where his job took him?
Working back a generation I would now like to identify John’s baptism and then his parents marriage and baptisms. First I need to know John’s age as this information is not given in the marriage register. That is a typical state of affairs for an English Parish Register where very sparse amounts of detail are given. The exception is for the entries to be found in a Dade or Barrington style Church Records, which are named after the clergymen who tried to introduce more fulsome registers, having some success in Yorkshire for a period.
Back to the subject ofÂ John and Sarah Thorn in Devon. By searching in the microfiche records of church registers for Dartmouth, at the Devon County Record Office at Moor Hall in Exeter, I have now discovered the burial of one Sarah Thorn of Townstal (the name given to the Parish of St Clement in Dartmouth and the mother church of St Saviours) on June the 21st in 1818 at the age of 50 in the St Saviours register for 1818, entry No:190.
I went back through the registers and the Bishop’s Transcripts for 1811 for Townstal and I then found one John Thorne buried on May the 19th 1811.
I also found a John Thorn buried in St Saviours in 1810 (page 19) who was born in 1769. Could any of these be my ancestors?
Looking at baptisms for any John Thorn around the time of 1768/9 or so I see that Find My Past has some Devon Church Records that can be usefully accessed on line. There is none for the date in question at Dartmouth, but one in Dorset may be a possibility.
My next thought is to check to see if I can find the banns book for Charles in Plymouth and also the one for Dartmouth to see if this provides me with any more clues about where John and Sarah came from and to also check now for baptisms using the microfiche at the County Record office in Exeter.
It is a good idea that you periodically revisit any brick walls that you have as new data may have become available and your skills in family history may have improved since the last time you dusted off the problem. In the next few weeks I am planning a visit the County Record Office to see if I am able to push my tree back another generation.
Watch this space!
The family history websites that I find really useful are Find My Past and The Genealogist.co.uk. To take your family history further I recommend that you to consider a subscription to these websites. Take a look now and see what great data sets they have to offer
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I 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.
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My family tree research has thrown up the occasional brick wall when I have excluded the possibility of spelling an ancestor’s name in a different way from what was to be expected.
Just this week I was helping a contact find the death record for one of their forebears and the official death records had listed the deceased using an alternative spelling of the person’s middle name and so throwing some doubt on whether we had got our man or not. In the event the decease’s home address matched the information known about the family home and so it could be confirmed that this was the correct death certificate for my correspondent’s ancestor.
In my own tree I have come up against stumbling blocks provided, on the one hand, by poor transcription and, on the other, by variable spelling in newspaper reports that I had been investigating. One of my ancestors had a reasonably common first and second name, for his time, but he had been given the middle name of Crosland that enabled me to distinguish him from his same named contemporaries. Sometimes, however, he would appear as Crossland with two ‘s’s and other times with just the one. Similarly, one of his sons had been baptised with a middle name of Massy but this could be found in records written as Massey or Massy so adding to the chance of missing him.
Other problems, found using the search facilities of the main look up sites, were with transcriptions. It needs to be remembered that, when searching for an entry in a census, we are actually making use of the transcription provided by the website and not of the actual data written in the census. This would be impossible to use as it was completed in handwriting and so not open to search engines to interpret.
Using the census collections I have had difficulty finding my grandfather, a Hubert Thorne, as he had been transcribed as Herbert. Going back one generation and his father was Sydney, not Sidney and this doesn’t even consider the problems created by the enumerator shortening names such as Thomas to Thos, Elizabeth to Eliza and William to Wm.
Other difficulties arise, in my own family tree, when persons are baptised with a first and middle name and then adopt the middle name as a first throughout their life. To compound it all, there middle name is even used on their death certificate as if it was their first. And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that many of us have nick names that we prefer to be called by!
The point that I am making here, is to always beware of searching with strict parameters for a person’s name when doing your family tree.
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I was pretty confident of this ancestor search. I thought it was going to be a breeze to find the family history records for this family group. I had located the family in the 1881 census through a combination of knowing the names of the parents and the birth dates of the father and mother.
So next box to tick was to find them in the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census for England & Wales, or at least those parties that had survived as there is always the possibility that some may have passed away between censuses.
But straight away the 1891 census proved a problem for me. I search using the head of the household, then his wife and then the children. Nothing!
I wondered if the surname had been poorly transcribed and so I used the option to search on a name that would have been similar, with no result. I then went back to the 1881 and took a look at the street name and town with the intention of seeing if they had stayed put in the ten years between the census being taken but their surname had been incorrectly gathered. This is a top tip that I was given some time back and on www.thegenealogist.co.uk there is a useful tool that allows researchers to search the census by street name. I’ve used this in the past with success, but the whole lane seemed to have been missed out, or had changed its name in the intervening period.
There is also the facility on www.findmypast.co.uk to do an address search and so I tried using that and quickly identified the road as it had been listed slightly differently in the later census. This shows up the beauty of using more than one site to do your research with. If you can’t find a record in one subscription site’s records then remember this tip is to try using another site, because each company will have used different transcribers to produce their indexes and so you may get lucky with your brick wall.
On thegenealogist.co.uk there is another tool called the family forename search that allows researchers to enter a number of the first names from a family.
This is a fantastic way of digging out difficult to find families in the census. With this feature you are able to search for a family that you have not been able to locate using the surname – possibly because of some unexpected spelling variation. You can use the forenames only as a group search and the results can be refined by adding or subtracting a surname or family members.
As many families had a large number of children, the odds of another family in the same county being an exact match is quite remote. It is possible to narrow the search by year and county, if required, and enter up to 6 possible forenames that you would be expecting to find within a family group.
Hope these tips help.
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This means that should you click on them and then go on to decide to buy a subscription to that website I may get paid a small commission for referring you. Take a look at what they have to offer you and if you do buy a subscription from my link then …Thank you!
Some of us are fortunate to have a family bible to refer to as a genealogical resource as we build our family trees. My cousin has our great-great grandparents bible for the Thorne family of Dartmouth, in his possession. Knowing my interest in the subject he sent me a photocopy of the back page where the dates and times of the birth of all their children have been entered by hand.
Other families have bibles that also go on to list baptisms, marriages and deaths as well as the births. Anyone with one of these is indeed very lucky as it would be an invaluable asset to a family historian pointing their research in the right direction. As with all secondary sources, however, it is good practice to go to the official records and check that the dates listed for the events in the bible match the dates reported to the authorities. Errors may have crept in to the family bible list by mistake.
Another tip is to take a look at the date of publication of the bible to see if it is before or around the time of the first entry. If it is later then there is the possibility for someones memory to have played tricks on them in the remembering of past events. A contemporaneously listed family is likely to be more accurate than one that has been recalled later on.
While a good many families would have had one it is by no means certain that a family bible will have survived down the years. Many would have been destroyed because antiquarian booksellers can only sell them as bibles and not as a genealogical record and so a tome that has been written in has less chance of being purchased. Many of the family bibles are also in a poor state when they are found and because they are unsellable they are therefore destroyed by the finder or the auction house.
A check of the search engines throws up several websites that are offering family bibles for sale as does ebay. Realistically, however, it is not very likely that you will find that long lost family bible of yours if it has left your family’s keeping.
The 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.
That great institution, The British Library, is joining up with family history website findmypast.co.uk in a project that I find exciting, as some of my Scots ancestors went out to British India to find their fortunes in the 1860s, while others stayed put in the UK.
What has been announced, by these organisations, is their intention to digitise a veritable treasure trove of family history resources held by the British Library and so making them available to us online and fully searchable for the first time.
To be scanned are the United Kingdom electoral registers that span the century which followed on from the Reform Act of 1832, along with records of baptisms, marriages and burials that have been drawn from the archives of the India Office.
These collections are going to allow us the possibility of tracking down details of our forebears from our computers instead of making a trip to London and the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms.
The British Library houses the national collection of electoral registers covering the whole of the United Kingdom and contain a vast range of names, addresses and other genealogical information, so you can see their importance.
â€œDigitisation of the electoral registers will transform the work of people wishing to use them for family history research,â€ said Jennie Grimshaw, the Libraryâ€™s curator for Social Policy and Official Publications. â€œPrinted electoral registers are arranged by polling district within constituency and names are not indexed, so the process of finding an address to confirm names of residents is currently incredibly laborious. Digitisation represents a huge breakthrough as users will be able to search for names and addresses, thereby pinpointing the individuals and ancestors theyâ€™re looking for.â€
Also to look forward to, in this large-scale digitisation, are records taken from the archives of the East India Company and the India Office and thus my excitement as so many of my Scottish ancestors were employed in the H.E.I.C.S. The data that we are promised relate to Britons who lived and worked in the Indian sub-continent during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to Independence in 1948. Including over 1,000 volumes of births, marriages and burials, together with applications for civil and military service, and details of pension payments to individuals.
Antonia Moon, curator of post-1858 India Office Records said, â€œThese records are an outstanding resource for researchers whose ancestors had connections with British India, whether as servants of the administration or as private inhabitants.â€
We can expect to see five million pages of UK electoral registers and India Office records digitised over the next year. The resources will become available via findmypast.co.uk and in the British Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms from early 2012; online access will be available to findmypast.co.uk subscribers and pay-as-you-go customers â€“ access to users in the British Library Reading Rooms will be free.
Simon Bell, the British Libraryâ€™s Head of Licensing and Product Development, said: â€œWe are delighted to announce this exciting new partnership between the British Library and findmypast.co.uk , which will deliver an online and fully searchable resource that will prove immensely valuable to family history researchers in unlocking a treasure trove of content that up to now has only been available either on microfilm or within the pages of bound volumes. The Library will receive copies of the digitised images created for this project, so as well as transforming access for current researchers, we will also retain digital versions of these collections in perpetuity, for the benefit of future researchers.â€
Elaine Collins, Commercial Director at findmypast.co.uk, said: â€œWeâ€™re very excited to be involved with this fascinating project. The electoral rolls are the great missing link for family historians: after censuses and civil registration indexes, they provide the widest coverage of the whole population. To have Irish and Scottish records alongside England and Wales is also a huge advantage. These records will join the 1911 Census, Chelsea Pensioner Service Records and many more datasets available online at findmypast.co.uk, which enable people to make fantastic discoveries day after day.â€