We all love it when we have identified a new ancestor and can then add them to our family tree to fill that annoying gap that once blighted our research. The sense of satisfaction to jump back one more generation can sometimes blind us, if only for a second. Unfortunately it can be for longer!
All to often we can be lead down the wrong path by spotting a person with the same name as the one we are seeking. By adding this likely person into our family tree, and then researching back from them, we have effectively grafted on to our own tree a branch of someone else’s which has no real right to be there.
I almost got caught out with one of my own ancestors who was responsible for a long standing brick wall of mine. I had already identified the marriage of this individual in a Plymouth church in 1794. From the parish register entry I had her name and that she was “of this parish”. Naturally I hoped that I could find her baptism and then the marriage of her parents and so go back through the generations in the city. Sadly, in this instance, when she declared she was of the parish it meant little more than that she was living there at the time. In a place, such as Plymouth, we have to be aware that such a conurbation would have attracted people in from the surrounding towns and countryside, as well as by sea.
I worked out a possible birth range from her marriage and searched Plymouth with no joy. I then widened the search to the whole of the county and was rewarded with a person with the correct name being born in North Devon. At this point I experienced the rush associated with the belief that I was on her trail! Unfortunately, by checking for marriages in the area, I found that this woman married someone else a year after my own ancestor with the same name married in Plymouth.
The fact that our ancestors were happy to chose from a small pool of forenames makes family history research harder and so anything that can make things easier for us should be welcomed. Or should it?
I am referring to the temptation to take a suggestion from an online family tree, or these days the clever matching software that online data websites boast, and simply click to add the suggested person to our tree without checking the evidence backs us up. Some people say that we should aim to find two or more sources as evidence for a particular fact. I read that Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogist has said that she believes that it’s the quality not quantity of your evidence that counts. This I think is very sound advice. So look at the facts and decide how much weight you truly can give to it before adding it to your family tree.
To learn more about tracing your English or Welsh family History you may be interested in my online course:
Sometimes we think we know everything about an ancestor, we have their birth details and have bought the birth certificate. We trace them to their marriage and then their death, adding the proof of these vital events into our family tree. We then flesh out their story by finding some interesting facts about where they went to school, what they did in the war and so on. But sometimes we can get the story wrong when we jump to conclusions or listen to faulty accounts.
This week I was checking a fact about a person in my own family tree, a man who had been born in 1886 and married his first wife in Richmond, Surrey in 1909. I have vivid memories of him from my childhood as my to me he was known as “Grandpa”. In reality he was my step-grand father, having married my grandmother after WWII when they had both lost their respective spouses.
It was while I was trying to find out some more about his time as an architect, in pre and post-war Singapore, that I came across a conundrum. It was a newspaper cutting announcing his wedding to a Monica Mary Evans in 1921 at the Presbyterian church in the British colony. My childhood recollections were that he had divorced his first wife and then, having had a change of heart, remarried her. I never registered that in between this he had been married to another and so the faulty account that I was listening to was my own, internal, telling of his family story!
By the time of the Second World War Grandpa was married to his first wife again. In the escape from Singapore I knew that he had managed a perilous journey as a 56 year old civilian, his ship having been sunk by the Japanese. Somehow he got ashore in Sumatra and from there he escaped to India.
Mary Ellen Brewer, his wife, however, was not so lucky.
On being ordered to leave Singapore, before the fall, she had joined a ship containing women and children which was sadly sunk. She too made it ashore and with others set out on yet another ship only to be sunk by the Japanese enemy on the night of the 17 February 1942 and so lost her life. If I think really hard, as to what I overheard as a small boy, I do recall him mentioning a Monica in small talk with other adults. The conversation being none of my concern, I just thought that Monica was his first wife’s nickname. My recent research, however, has disproved my previous belief.
Frank Brewer’s first wife had the Christian names of Mary Ellen while my grandmother’s were Mary Helena. I was therefore confused by this marriage to Monica Mary.
At first I wondered if Monica was a pet name, as he always called my grandmother “Nell” and so it would not have surprised me if “Monica” had been a familiar nickname as well. But now I was being presented with the full name of Monica Mary Evans and from my earlier research I knew that he had married Mary Ellen Cousins, not Evans, in England back in 1909. Thus this was not the remarriage I had heard mention of.
The document makes it all more clear when it states in the list of passengers who were lost was one “Mrs. Mary Ellen “Nell” Brewer who married Frank Brewer [born 1886] in London in the early 1900s [ he then appears to have married a Monica Mary Evans in Singapore in 1921 but she died in 1925 – source ‘Straits Times’ – and by 1929 passenger lists show him again married to Mary Ellen, they had a daughter Eileen who married in Singapore in 1933, after the War Frank married again to a Mary Helena according to 1960 passenger lists – source JM]”
I then had an a-ha moment. Mary Ellen was also known as “Nell”. So when I had seen reports of Nell Brewer in Singapore these referred to the first Nell and not the second. Likewise I had thought that some confusion had crept into newspaper reports with the similarities between the names Mary Ellen and Mary Helena, but it was my wrong assumptions!
The first lesson that I have learnt is never assume that a family story is a hundred percent correct, as my own jumbled recollection of my grandfather’s story shows.
Secondly, just because you see one person appearing in reports with the nickname you expect do not assume that this is the person you think it is as it is perfectly possible for two wives to share the same pet name and even the same, if very slightly different, first names!
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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.
I was at a function recently and on my table was an enthusiastic family historian who had been tracing his family tree for many years. Next to him was the inevitable sceptic who tried to put us both in our place by saying just how boring she thought “gathering a load of names and dates was”. I didn’t enquire what her hobby was, or even if she had one at all.
I did surprised her, however, by agreeing and saying that one of my mantras that I repeat often in my contributions to the Family History Researcher Academy course is to find out about the lives, work, environment and social conditions that existed at the time that your forebears were alive.
If you have discovered, from a search of the census, that your Great Aunt Jane was in service in a large house then I would make an effort to go and visit the below stairs of a similar property. There are quite a few National Trust houses that meet the bill. On a visit to Erdigg in North Wales, this was exactly what I did. There the upstairs and downstairs were beautifully presented to give a feel for what life was like for our ancestors living in both levels of society.
As a worked example of what I teach, let’s consider my ancestor Henry Thomas Thorne. From the census of 1861, accessed on TheGenealogist I am able to discover him working in the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth where he is employed as a rope-maker at H.M.Dockyard.
This weekend I had the chance to visit Portsmouth and not only go to the church where he married, but also to tour the Historic Dockyard and see an exhibit explaining how men like my 2x great-grandfather and his colleagues created the cordage that the Royal Navy of the time required for its ships.
I had previously obtained a copy of my ancestors’ wedding certificate from the GRO, having found their details in the Births, Marriages and Death Indexes that are available on various websites.
On this visit to Portsmouth I could now walk in the footsteps of my forebears on their wedding day the 5th February 1859 at St Mary’s, Portsea Island.
I could go on board H.M.S. Warrior, an actual warship from the time period (1860) and see how the cordage that he made was used on this ironclad steam and sail man-of-war.
And I could see the tools that Henry would have used everyday, in the exhibition piece there.
This story of my weekend excursion illustrates how I use the information that I discover in the records as a springboard to go on and find social history museums, or even the actual places that my ancestors would have gone to, and so build my family’s story.
If you haven’t moved past the gathering of names and dates stage in your family tree research, then I urge you to start doing so now.
I was asked this week to find out what I could about a man that was never talked about in the family.
Intriguing, I thought!
The subject had married the contact’s aunt in 1943 and fathered three children before, at some time, becoming estranged and then divorced from the aunt.
What little I had to go on was that in the Second World War the man was a British officer in the Indian Army. We didn’t know his date or place of birth, where in the U.K. he was from or any other family details.
To make things a bit more difficult he had always used a nick name “Ron” that was not the short form for his actual first name. Luckily for me, we did know the full name of the subject and to preserve anonymity I am going to refer to him here as Vincent Martin Edwards (not his real name).
Before the independence of India, in 1947, the Indian Army was an important component of the British Empire’s forces and made a significant contributions to the Second World War effort. After independence the records of officers, such as my man, have been deposited at the British Library in St. Pancras, London and so this was my first port of call.
I know from my visits to the British Library that they have runs of the Indian Army lists on the shelves of The Asian & African Studies Reading Room on Floor 3. A look in one of these, for the war years, should provide the officer’s number that can then be used to locate his service records that are held there, but not on open access.
From research that I have done in the past at St.Pancras I know that access to the service record for someone of this era would more than likely be restricted to the next of kin. All I wanted, however, was for one of the staff to look inside the document folder and to provide me with the date and place of birth of Vincent Martin Edwards and so I shot off an email request.
In amazingly short order I was emailed back with the answer: Streatham, 22 February 1919.
Meanwhile I had found the marriage details online for the couple at Findmypast in their British India Office Ecclesiastical Returns. The bride and groom were both 24 when they married in a church, in India and so I had confirmation of a birth date of 1919.
Turning to the online Birth, Marriage and Deaths, that are widely available on the internet, I went in search of the birth of Vincent Edwards for that quarter. These should be held in the records for the district of Wandsworth and so all I had to do was find the reference and order the certificate from the GRO.
Ever think things are going too well… that they are just a bit too easy?
The rapid reply from the British Library, the exact date and place?
Yes, that’s right! There were no records for Vincent Martin Edwards in that area for that date.
I began to expand my search to the neighbouring districts and found a Vincent Edwards in Camberwell for the first quarter. Perhaps this was my man? Was he born just into this district, I wondered, as it is not that far away on the map.
Now you may have heard the mantra “Always kill off your ancestors” that is try and find their death and in this case it only took me four years in the same Camberwell district to find the death registered of this namesake. This Vincent Edwards only had a life of 4 years, so couldn’t be my man.
So if the district was not wrong what about the date, not withstanding the supposed corroboration of the year from the marriage return?
I went back to the Wandsworth BMDs and began checking for the birth in the years either side for 5 years at a time. Result: a Vincent M Edwards born in 1920, so now we know he had exaggerated his age on his Indian Army records and at his marriage as well! Perhaps he had joined up before he was supposed to, as people did this in war time.
The lesson is to always treat dates with healthy scepticism until you get the primary record to prove them. I have ordered the certificate and await it with interest. From it I will be able to see such details as the Father and Mother’s names (The mother’s maiden name was added to the births, marriages and deaths index (BMD) held by the GRO from the September quarter of 1911).
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…
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As they say in their press release “The new 1 month subscription is brilliant value for money. Not only is it less than half the price of The British Newspaper Archive’s old 30 day package, you can also view more newspaper pages.”
As someone who loves to read the articles in old newspapers and to sometimes hit upon a nugget about an ancestor I am really please to see the The British Newspaper Archive has reduced the price. Well done! This will help me in my Family Tree research while saving me some money.
The new price for a 1 month subscription is £9.95 opposed to the old price of £29.95. With the new package you can view as many newspapers as you like, subject to their standard fair usage policy of 3,000 pages per month. which is much better than the previous 600 newspaper page limit.
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You can currently search 7.7 million newspaper pages at The British Newspaper Archive, with thousands more added every week.
Disclosure: Above links are compensated affiliate links.
At the largest Family history show in the world, Who Do You Think You Are? Live in London, I decided to ask the expert on the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives for his tips on researching your family tree. I was looking for some material to include in a module of my courses on English/Welsh family history in which several experts advice will be collated for students.
As I’m feeling generous I’m going to share this piece with you for free here in this blog post today.
For those people who are starting to do family history, then one of the most important things is to take notice of anything that you are told by your relatives. Because, although the information may not be 100 percent true, there is always something that somebody will know that can help give you an idea as to where to go on and find other records.
It’s important that you afford the information in official documents with a certain level of importance. Although that information recorded is only as good as that given by the informant at the time. So beware that any information on a birth certificate, or a census record, can be wrong from day one because the person supplying it didn’t want the officials to know the real truth.
This can confuse people doing their family tree research. The best way of proceeding is to make sure that you look at every type of document available to you. So look at a civil registration certificate. Look at a parish register. Look at a census; try and get a will and look at anything else that will give you the full details relevant to that particular individual.
Doing your family history research that way you’re able to build up a fuller picture.
As you progress you will find that it becomes more complex and you’ll find that you may hit brick walls. You may find that you have conflicting information on an ancestor and that in some instances it’s going to be necessary for you to actually go along and work different lines of the family, investigate different individuals.
What you have got to do is make sure that you eliminate those people that aren’t part of your family. Its ever so easy to go down a wrong line because you haven’t been clear enough in making sure the family or the individual that you have is the right person. And sometimes that’s beyond the experience and the expertise of the average family historian and that’s where you need to talk to the professionals.
That’s where members of ARGA, The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives can help because they are accredited researchers. They have proven their ability to do this type of family research and while they might not be able to find all the answers, they are better placed than many of us to do so.
The reason why even a professional may draw a blank is that if an ancestor didn’t want to be found in officialdom, then they wont be! Irrespective of how good you are and how through you are, this may sadly be the case. Having said that, however, you stand a better chance with using a professional because they perhaps know a little bit more of the overall number documents that they can use to do just that.
When conducting family tree research, obviously the more information you have, the better; thatâ€™s why millions of family history search terms are typed into google every single day. In fact, it has never been easier to find all kinds of ancestry data online including birth, marriage and death records, maps, old photographs, news archives, military records and much more.
By starting with what you know about your immediate ancestors, those at the beginning of their search can start using googling their family tree right away. Here are some tips that will help you get the most out of google when it comes to investigating your ancestry online.
Google Search Tips
When googling your family history, there are a few things to remember in order for you to narrow down the results to those most relevant to you. These include:
1. Always put the most important information at the start of your search term as this will help order the results into those that are most relevant.
2. Use quotation marks on proper names and exact match phrases. For example, searching â€œLouis Mathersonâ€ will come up with page results that show that exact combination. If you type in Louis Matherson without quotation marks, then you may get results for Joe Matherson or Louis Simon.
3. Exclude unwanted results using a minus sign. For example, if you know that there are two towns in the country called â€˜Gillinghamâ€™ then you could type in â€œGillingham â€“Kentâ€ in order to tell google that you meant the other Gillingham in Dorset. However, adding a minus sign can in some instances also minus pages that refer to both Gillingham in Dorset and Gillingham in Kent, so make sure you careful about what you eliminate.
4. Googleâ€™s search algorithms do take into account synonyms, but you can search for additional synonyms by typing the tilde symbol (~) before certain words such as â€˜~graveyardâ€™ which will display results for â€˜cemeteryâ€™,â€™ churchyardâ€™, and â€˜memorialâ€™.
5. If you have found a page with a long list of names and you want to find the relevant information quickly, you can type ctrl + alt and â€˜fâ€™ and it will bring up a search box in the corner of that page. Simply type in the name you are looking for and the webpage will highlight the matching text within the document instantly.
6. If you want to search a surname, but youâ€™re not sure on the correct spelling then you can use the wildcard symbol (*) which will tell google to accept any consecutive string of characters that appears after the asterisk symbol.
7. If your search takes you to a â€˜file not foundâ€™ error message, this could mean that the page you are looking for is no longer updated (amongst other reasons). But never fear, you can still search for that information by looking for search results that have the word â€˜cachedâ€™ at the end of the description and URL.
Finding Free Genealogy Resources Online
Historical documents are being digitized and added to the internet regularly, so it is always wise to do a quick scan of the latest genealogy news websites. That way you can see if anything has been added that might prove useful to your own investigation.
You may also want to seek out genealogy forums and message boards to see if a distant family member has previously conducted family history research that may be of some relevance to you. However, be wary of using other peopleâ€™s research in your studies because they may have got some of their information wrong. Always double check anything you do decide to include.
Many popular genealogy subscription sites such as ancestry.com allow users a free-trial of their resources, so it may be a good idea to sign up and see what you can find even if you canâ€™t afford the subscription fee.
Historical records will make up the bulk of your investigation, however, you may also want to include interviews with relatives (some maybe more distant than others) in order to add â€˜colourâ€™ to your report. Use social media and people finding services to track these family members down and send them a draft copy. You never know, it might prompt them to start an investigation of their own and you may be able to share your efforts.
So there you have some tips that will help you search effectively online when conducting family tree research. If you have any other relevant tips, please leave a comment below.
Elise Leveque is a freelance translator and blogger from Bristol. She is currently in the throes of putting her own family tree together.
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.