I have to say that when I read this month’s Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine that I was a bit taken aback with the review of the four major sites.
Ancestry.co.uk, Findmypast.co.uk, GenesReunited.co.uk and TheGenealogist.co.uk are tested by a panel for the magazine.
I am a regular user of three of the websites as there are times when data can be found on one that is not on the others. Also, when searching for a person who has been illegibly recorded in the original records, and so posing a headache for the transcribers, one site may better identify your ancestor than on the others.
Sometimes Ancestry’s interface can be a bit overwhelming, as I have found in showing new users how to find their ancestors using this platform. Drilling down with the Card Index helps greatly.
I was very surprised, however, that Findmypast got such a high rating in the magazine review, after all the problems it has had this year with its new interface. I completely understand that there are good reasons for the new platform, which enables them to continue to expand the records available. Yet we have all seen the reports of disgruntled customers who feel the customer service was not what they had expected when they voiced their concerns. So why wasn’t this reflected in the article? FMP actually comes out highly for Navigation and search in the piece.
As a blogger I continue to post news about FMP’s data set releases on my site, along with those of the other providers, only to then receive emails and comments from FMP users expressing their frustration with the site. And I am completely independent of FMP!
Returning to the review article, I was also disappointed to see several wrong statements made about The Genealogist website which I feel I have to mention in the cause of fairness.
Firstly, it has been possible for as long as I can remember to simply use the “?” icon on this website to report an error and yet the reviewer states bluntly that it “wasn’t possible to flag up transcription errors”. On the contrary!
I also can not agree with the reviewers, who indicate that this website “promises more than it delivers” and that it is “possible to form an inflated impression of the content contained based on the marketing”.
An example given by one reviewer is the number of newspapers and magazines on the site. The article erroneously makes out that the data is less than it really is. I have found that TheGenealogist site has a lot more than just the two newspapers that their reviewer was able to find. I make it 15!
One of the contributors reported that, when searching, you couldn’t group all the census years together and she says that you have to examine them year by year. Again this is just plain wrong as all you need to do is use the Master Search which will allow you to do this!
I have always enjoyed reading Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, but this article perplexes me in its bias. What is going on here?
I’ve got some advice for you to break down a brick wall.
Have you been stuck trying to find an ancestor?
Thought you might have been!
Maybe what I relate below will help you too.
The thing was that some while back, I was getting quite frustrated by being unable to trace a person in the records.
I was completely stuck finding this person’s birth, marriage or death and I had tried looking online and off without any luck.
Maybe you are in this position too?
What broke the problem for me?
Well it was avisit to a Family History websitewhile surfing forkeywordsto do with the ancestor and then a little bit of time spentbrowsing the transcripts featured on the platform.
There were some other factors, such as trying different spelling variations of first and second names, as advised by my family history teacher at the time and a visit to an archive.
What it boils down to is using a bit of lateral thinking in our family tree research and most importantly finding out about alternative records to the ones that we might have already used.
The family branch that has presented me with the most frustrating problems has been that from Devon. I was fine going back through the census years, 1911, 1901 and so on back to 1841 but then it became more of a problem.
Perhaps this story resonates with some of you to?
I had figured out that my 3x great-grandfather was called John Thorn. This was provided in the information he had given to the census enumerators over the years, along with the fact that he had been born in about 1795. His wife, Elizabeth, had been born about 1798.
As I belong to The Society of Genealogists I took a trip to their headquarters in Goswell Road, London knowing that they have the largest collection of Parish Records in the country on microfiche. They’ve also got some transcripts of parish registers in their library, which I thought may be worth looking at.
If you are in the area I highly recommend you visit the Society of Genealogists.
Unfortunately for me, at the time of my research, the Dartmouth parish records were not on microfilm at the SoG. But I was over the moon to find a great selection of Devon Family History Society booklets for marriages taking place in the churches of the town, including St. Saviour’s, Dartmouth. Browsing one book for any likely ancestors I spotted that on 13 April 1817 one person called John Thorn got married to an Elizabeth Sissell.
I opened up the internet and began searching using my new lead. My mission was to hunt down any evidence that this was the marriage of my ancestors.
Doing a search-engine query for Dartmouth + family history steered me towards the Dartmouth-history.org.uk website belonging to The Dartmouth Archives. I discovered that this voluntary organisation had a really broad family history section and included a number of transcribed baptisms, burials, marriages and census records.
I could read the very same information, as I had seen at the SoG in London, on this niche site. The data began in 1586 and ran to 1850 and there was the marriage of John Thorn to Elizabeth and this time I noticed that the witness were given as John Adams and Sunass (sic) Sissell.
At the time I made an assumption that this last person was more than likely some member of the bride’s family. Could it perhaps be the father of the bride?
But that name “Sunass” just didn’t seem likely to me. Now I know that it was the best guess by the transcriber as it couldn’t be read properly in the original record.
From the information I knew that they had signed with a mark, thus they were illiterate and so the first name and the second had not been written down by the ancestors themselves.
When you are doing your own research you should bear in mind that our ancestors may not have had the ability to read or write and the minister may have interpreted the name as he had heard it said to him. In my ancestor’s case the surname “Sissell” could possibly have been “Cecil” or something entirely different. Consider saying the name with the regional accent and seeing what you come up with.
As for Sunass – at this point I was clueless!
The Dartmouth Archives website had not got any early enough christening records for John and Elizabeth and so I went over to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) website or FamilySearch.org and here I did a search for Elizabeth’s christening.
I was rewarded by a lead to a baptism in one of the other churches in Dartmouth, St Petrox, on the 16 September 1878. This child was the daughter of James and Sarah Sissill and she was christened Elizabeth Gardener Sissill.
You may notice that the spelling had changed to Sissill with an “i” and not an “e” again pointing to the vicar writing it down the way that he heard it.
I now jumped to a conclusion that the witness to Elizabeth’s marriage could have been her father “James” and this has been interpreted as “Sunnas” because a flowing “J” for James had looked like an “S” to the transcriber and the other letters had been misread as a “u” for an “a” and the double “n” as an “m”. All easily done.
So what I am emphasising here and I continue to do so in modules from my Family History Researcher Course, is to be wary of names and the way they were spelt. If you keep this in mind then some of the logjams we find in our research can be got past.
This breakthrough I had was down to finding that Dartmouth has an active family history website and then using their indexes in conjunction with other internet resources, such as the LDS site.
The first learning point is that you should always find out what other research may have been done, for the area your ancestors came from.
If you find a family history society, or local interest group with a website, can any of their publications or website pages help you with your quest?
Secondly, always keep in mind that names were misspelled in many records. In my own family research I have had to think of other spellings for the Sissells, and indeed names that may have sounded like Sissell in order that I may trace this line back further and break down the brick wall.
I have made some fantastic strides in my family tree research and it is mostly down to learning as much as I can from other’s experiences and finding out as much as I can about what records and resources are available.
Last year I put together some modules for a course of 52 guides, aiming at passing on my experience. Perhaps they can help you become a more knowledgeable researcher?
I had some professional genealogists and data providers also contribute to the project to make it well rounded.
As you have come to this page I am sure that you must have an interest in family history and I am betting that you to have some brick walls to knock down as well. So take a look at the report below that is based on some of the material from the Family History Researcher course…
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.
I’ve been looking at some of my rural ancestors from Devon this weekend.
I found that they mostly had long lives, provided they survived through their childhood.
For example, one agricultural labourer (ubiquitous Ag.Lab in the census) reached his 91st birthday. Others died well into their late 80s.
By tracing the baptisms, of my direct ancestors in the parish records, I noticed that in the year 1830, before the census officials introduced the term Ag.Lab into general use, that my ancestor John Jarvis of South Huish, was recorded in the register for his son’s baptism as: Husbandman.
A husbandman is, according to the Oxford dictionary online: a person who cultivates the land; a farmer.
Origin: Middle English (originally in northern English use denoting the holder of a husbandland, i.e. manorial tenancy): from husband in the obsolete sense ‘farmer’ + man. Oxford English Dictionary Online.
So then I wondered how much, if any, land he may have had as a tenant and how could I find this out. The answer was the tithe maps, of course.
A quick online search and I discovered that Devon has a project to put the tithe apportionment documents and eventually the maps on the web.
Virtually every parish, from the beginning to the middle of the 1800s would have had tithe maps drawn up for their area. Accompanied by the apportionment records, which is the key to the tithe map. It tells the researcher who owned what pieces of land, what it was used for and the amount of payment due. The schedule is divided into columns:
1.Â Â Â Landowners
2.Â Â Â Occupiers â€“ if the landowner, this is shown as â€˜himselfâ€™, otherwise the tenantâ€™s name is given
3.Â Â Â The plot number referring to the tithe map
4.Â Â Â Name or description of the land, premises or field
5.Â Â Â State of cultivation e.g. arable, meadow, pasture, wood, garden, plantation
6.Â Â Â The size â€“ in acres, roods and perches
7.Â Â Â The money due to the Vicar
8.Â Â Â The money due to Impropriators
9.Â Â Â Any further remarks.
So what is a tithe?
The word literally means one-tenth. For centuries past the people were required to pay annual tithes, to their local parish church, to support it and its clergy.Â To begin with tithes were paid “in kind” which meant parishioners handing over one-tenth of their produce (corn, hay, vegetables, eggs, wool, animals, fish, flour etc.) As you would expect this made tithes unpopular.
In the 16th century the monasteries were dissolved and a great deal of former church property, including the rights to tithe, now passed into the hands of private individuals (‘Lay Impropriators’).
Those tithes that were now due to be paid to the Church of England still caused problems. There were no end of disputes over the values of land, processes and produce. On top of this was a reluctance by members of the other religious denominations to be forced to pay their tithes to the established state church.
To bring an end to these disputes, the Tithe Commutation Act was passed in 1836. Tithes were to be based on land values and converted to an annual money tax known as â€˜corn rentsâ€™ or â€˜tithe rent chargesâ€™. To get rid of the problem of variations from locality to locality the Tithe Commutation Act now fixed the payment based on the average price of wheat, barley and oats.
What did I find about John Jarvis?
Well there is certainly a man of this name listed in the ownership column along with that of the Earl of Devon who appears many times along side the names of others. John Jarvis was not, however, the occupier of the Orchards and arable land. This was a neighbour whose occupation on the census page is denoted as a Farmer.
So assuming that, in this tiny Devon hamlet, I have found the correct John Jarvis, then it would seem that he worked as a farm labourer, while renting out his own land to the farmer.
One of the lessons in my English and Welsh Family History course covers rural ancestors. Read more about this beginners to intermediate course here:
Don’t rely on the Internet only, I was once advised, go and look in the County Record Office for the actual records, you may find something else interesting there that you won’t be able to see online.
Since that day I have become a fan of our various archives and I believe that we need to support them by visiting when possible.
Usually a Record Office will also preserve a great deal of other archival material such as the records from independent local organizations, churches and schools. There may be papers donated by prominent people from the community, leading families, estates, companies, lawyers and more.
Some County Record Offices are also the Diocesan Record Office for the area and hold the ecclesiastical historic records as well. In some of the larger cities the local government may run its own City Record Office on the same principles as a County Record Office.
Archives may have been acquired by the record office either through donation from the original owner, or the documents may be deposited for safe keeping on long-term loan.
All of which may, or may not, be useful to you in finding out the story of your ancestors. But if you don’t go and look you will never know!
From the family historian’s point of view, the record office is a goldmine of original research documents which are valued as primary sources in the tracing of our ancestors.
The staff can offer direct access to documents or microfilmed copies in their public search rooms and provide a secure and supervised comfortable environment for research on these treasured documents.
So don’t just rely on the Internet, good as it is, but get out there and plan a visit to a record office or other archive this spring!
I am putting together an email course that teaches beginners about English and Welsh Family history. The tutorials are downloaded from a link that I send members weekly and one of the lessons will be on the subject of archives and repositories that I have written about above.
If you are starting out in tracing your English and Welsh ancestors and are finding that your forebears are hiding from you, behind those brick walls that we all encounter, then why not join me to learn how to get around those problems in Family Tree research?
Many of us, researching our family trees, come up against the inevitable brick wall of forebears that don’t appear in the documents in the places where we expect to find them. Sometimes this can be because they have been recorded, but the spelling of the name differs each time an official makes an attempt to write it down.
Brick Wall buster tip 1. Can’t find anyone of that name? Try searching for variants as in the past spelling was not an exact science.
This week I was revisiting my ancestors who married in Gloucester and then went on to have a daughter baptised in Devon that eventually married a Thorn and so perpetuated the Thorn/Thorne line that leads down the tree to me.
One of the problems that I have with this branch is that they were not literate and had no idea of how to spell their surname. The evidence is in the parish register for Dartmouth, where I first pick up the female line. Both parties, to the marriage between the Thorns and the Sissells made their mark and did not sign. The register gives me the name of the father of the bride as James Sissell as he makes his mark as a witness.
Elizabeth Gardiner Thorn, as she becomes on her marriage, is eventually buried in Dartmouth and I can trace her in the census records and on her death certificate as having been my 2x great-grandmother, from the names of her family in these records. This is how I know that I am investigating the correct person.
Researching the christening of Elizabeth backwards, in the IGI on familysearch.org, I find that she was given the name of Elizabeth Gardiner Sissill and I also find the marriage of a James Sysal to a Sarah Gardiner in 1780 in St Nicholas’ church Gloucester.
So now I have three versions of the spelling of their surname, Sissell, Sissill and Sysal, but it is only the beginning!
I found that Elizabeth had a brother, Thomas, though at his christening the vicar entered his surname as Sizzall in the parish registers.
Turning my attention to the deaths of Elizabeth’s parents – as any good family historian always will try to kill off their ancestors – I have only just had some luck after my visit to the Devon Family History Society’s Tree House in Exeter and to the County Record Office to look at the microfiche copies of parish records.
I had no idea if James and Sarah had remained in Dartmouth of whether they had moved on, or even back to Gloucester.
With the aid of the various printed booklets of transcripts, from the DFHS, I was able to identify a Sarah Sisell (the fifth version of the surname) buried on March the 17th 1831 in the St Saviour’s burials transcripts and a James Saissell (sixth version of the spelling) buried on the 5th January 1835 in St. Saviour’s Dartmouth. Then I could look at the relevant microfiche copy of the register, in the County Record Office, to confirm the transcript was correct.
Spelling was so much more fluid in our ancestor’s day. Indeed the words “Burials” “Marriages” and “Baptisms”, at the top of the pages in the very same register, changed form throughout the different years!
I can only assume that all the variants of the surname, as recorded above and said with a West Country accent, could have sounded much alike to the hapless vicar whose registers display the fact that spelling was not fixed, as it has become today.
Sometimes genealogy can be very frustrating! You can use all the correct procedures to find your ancestors in the data bases and yet they still stubbornly remain hidden from you. A vital document has been destroyed or lost sometime long ago and this vital link in the chain is broken and you are left floundering around wondering where to turn next.
This weekend, 24th to 26th February, I had hoped to be able to visit the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia and to report back to my readers on the latest in techniques for carrying forward our research, advice from some of the experts that I would have interviewed on video, new databases to search and news from the subscription sites. Regretfully I have been foiled by a bank of fog in the English Channel that has cancelled flights from my home in Jersey to London since Thursday!
A huge disappointment for me that my travel plans were scuppered, but this got me thinking about just how easy we modern travellers normally have it. So what if I have been hanging around for three fruitless days waiting for my half-an-hour flight to the capital, that never materialised? In the past our ancestors travel was often long, sometimes dangerous and undertaken with some trepidation. I am hugely impressed by some of my seafaring ancestors that braved storms, disease and long periods separated from home and family. What this does is bring into context the pitifully small inconvenience to me that I have lost the chance to do something that I had been so looking forward to. Yes I am fed up, but I believe that I am so lucky to be living today, with all the conveniences I have, even when sometimes they just don’t or can’t operate.
Having said that, however, this still doesn’t detract from the deep fascination that I have with my forebears and their past.
So what has been happening at the WDYTYA? LIVE show?
I noticed that Ancestry.co.uk has been streaming live from their theatre in the show this year. Unfortunately the download speed has given me some problems, so that I couldn’t watch the reports properly.
Findmypast.co.uk announced that we are now able to search 359,000 records of Merchant Navy Seamen for the period 1835-1857 on their site. These 19th century Merchant Navy records become available online for the first time with this brightsolid company’s work in association with The National Archives.
The background to the records is that from 1835, the central government started to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy, which resulted in the creation of thousands of records that identify individual seamen. The information that these records hold about any of your potential ancestors will obviously vary. Normally, however, they include the name, age, place of birth, a physical description, the name of ship and dates of voyages that the mariner served on. This release adds to the 20th century Merchant Navy Seamen records, which were already published on findmypast.co.uk in September 2011. This means you can now search two centuries of records for your Merchant Navy Seamen ancestors, making it possible for you to trace their service over time.
Nigel Bayley Managing Director of The Genealogist.co.uk talking to me at WDYTYA?LIVE last year.
TheGenealogist.co.uk have now released full transcripts for the final eight counties in the 1911 census.
The release of these counties brings the total number of records to over 36 million on their site and completes the 1911 census project. These census records, only available to Diamond subscribers, have been integrated into their existing search tools, so that you are now able to access the transcripts using their very useful House and Street search tool, their Keyword Master search and also their Family Forename search. This can help enormously to track down ancestors in this set.
Take your family history further by considering a subscription to these websites:
Disclosure: The Links in the above are Compensated Affiliate links. If you click on them then I may be rewarded by Findmypast.co.uk or The Genealogist.co.uk should you sign up for their subscriptions.
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.
For more useful tips to research your Family Tree then download my Kindle book by using the button in the box below.
What a person did as an occupation can very often give the family history researcher a greater insight into their ancestorâ€™s life. It may also be a useful way of distinguishing between two people who happen to have the same name and that you need to work out which belongs in your family tree and which one does not.
Another reason to look into a forebearâ€™s occupation is that it may help you to work out an ancestor’s social status, political affiliation, or migration pattern.
Skilled trades were often passed down from father to son and so having regard to an ancestor’s occupation may also be a useful tool in identifying a family relationship with others who happen to have the same name.
An important point to remember, in your research, is that people’s occupations sometimes changed. I have an ancestor who changed from being a gunsmith to working in a pawn brokers and another who changed from being a cordwainer (shoemaker) to being a boatman on the river. Workers may suffer accidents or simply get ill and so are no longer fit to work in their primary trade. When this happened they were often forced to take on less prestigious jobs as they grow older. Many of our unskilled ancestors would have had a variety of jobs which depended on the season and local trade requirements.
I have wondered about one of my ancestors exaggerating their occupational qualification status in the census returns and I am sure that I am not alone in this! Clearly not everyone would be completely truthful. Just keep in mind that the census collections may exhibit some embellishment as to what your ancestor did; e.g., from Labourer to Mason, Carpenter to Cabinet maker, or from journeyman to Master craftsman.
Names for old or unfamiliar local occupations have the potential to cause us confusion if they are poorly legible in the record we are consulting. A prime example is the similarity between the words ostler (a keeper of horses) and a hostler (an innkeeper) which could so easily be confused for one another.
In a similar manner, some descriptions of occupations may also pose us problems. One of my Plymouth ancestors was a General Commission Agent, another a Merchant in London, but what did they do? I am yet to find out what areas of commerce these two distinct gentlemen worked in in spite of trawling the trade directories. Several trades have regionally preferred terms. For example, “shoemaker” and “cordwainer” have the same meaning in some places.
Finally, we need to remember that many apparently obscure jobs are part of a larger trade community, such as shipbuilding, framework knitting, or gunmaking.
We can look for occupational data in several places. It may be found in the records of occupational licenses, tax assessments, the membership records of professional organisations to which our ancestors belonged, trade, city and town directories, census returns, and civil registration vital records.
There are a number of websites available that explain many of the obscure and archaic trades, here are two that I have found:
Clearly, the occupations that our ancestors carried out on a day to day basis can give the family history researcher an insight into their forbearâ€™s life, as well as providing clues about other family members and the social status of the family. The data may be used by us to distinguish between two people of the same name; but all along we have to be aware that our ancestors may well have been telling little white lies and embellishing their actual job descriptions to the officials compiling the records.