Family History is About Real People

Family history is about people. Or, at least, it should be. But not just any people. These are your forebears. These are your relatives. You share their DNA. They are real flesh and blood people. OK, that last one isn’t completely correct if they’ve died, but they were still people who walked and talked and had their own relationships, just as you do. Some, of course, would say that family history is just like regular history – just a bunch of dry facts and boring dates and places that nobody could possibly remember, or even want to.

I would disagree. But what makes the difference between boring and fascinating? I would suggest that it is the stories and the images. For example, when I think of my gran,

I form a picture of her in my mind which, in turn, brings back all of the pleasant memories associated with her life. She was born 9 Feb 1885 in Cheltenham, she died on 13 Aug 1976, and was widowed in 1942. Those are facts, but they are not who she was, and nor do they define her life. Rather, they are simply reference points for her story.

Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered for who you are rather than the basic facts of your life referenced by birth, marriage, and death? And if it’s true for you then you have a responsibility to bring your forebears back to remembrance through pictures and the written word. (If you’re really lucky, the spoken word as well.)

What about those ancestors and cousins who you never knew in life? What are you going to do to bring them to life? Try these hints:

  • Newspaper archives (such as the British Newspaper Archive).
  • Research the history of the area they lived
  • Research their occupations as stated in a census? How and why might they have changed over time?
  • If they moved around over time, try to work out why.
  • Contact cousins who have already researched them. They may have pictures and other information.

Data Entry – Names

First, let me state that there is no absolute standard for data entry in family history – at the end of the day what’s important is that your system works for you, and not against you. As such, while these are guidelines only, I would like to think they comply with common sense. This post just covers how names of people ought to be entered, but I will post later on entering names of places and dates. As you know, I like feedback, so if you have different opinions, let me know. But if you disagree, please give me a reasoned argument for why.

Third party genealogy programs, and most online genealogy websites, have separate Alternate1fields for title, given name, surname, suffix, and aliases (also called nicknames or AKAs – initials for also known as). It is important to use these fields consistently, and preferably as intended.  Examples of titles are Reverend, Elder, Captain, Major, and so forth. But Miss or Mrs. are not regarded as titles, and should only be used if mentioned in the records. Even then the best place for them is in the alias field.

Why? Because most software search queries are going to grab the name field for the search. For example, if the given name contains Elizabeth (Sally), then Elizabeth (Sally) is what will be searched for. Most search engines ignore special characters like parentheses, but even so, you don’t really want to search for Elizabeth Sally in official records if Sally is only a nickname. Variations of a surname should also be entered in the AKA field for similar reasons.

Many people enter Unknown in the name field when the name is unknown either in whole or in part. Something similar is FNU (first name unknown or GNU (given name unknown). That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but should you do this? The answer is no.

Why? When using paper, that may be acceptable, and many genealogical recording standards stem from methods developed long before current technology. But standards Unknown1need to evolve as technology evolves. Think about it. Somewhere out there in the information world (you’ve heard of the internet of things, right?) at some point in time  the missing name may be identified. It may even get posted online somewhere.  But remember, when you perform a search on an ancestor, what is written in the name field is usually used for the search. Searching for Unknown Brown (or FNU Brown) will not return meaningful results. It’s the same thing with entering nicknames.

Bottom line. Your data entry should reflect how well you are likely to find the information you are seeking.

Parish Registers – What They Are

Parish records are pretty much essential when it comes to family history research. I actually got involved in research when I was 13. My father had the idea of taking me to the Gloucester City Library, which housed Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs). Now, BTs are not parish records, just copies of them, but similar nonetheless. I loved the ability to touch and hold the records in my hands, as well as the detective aspect of the research. I’ll do a separate post on BTs, but thought you’d be interested in that experience of mine as a young boy more than 50 years ago.

Parish registers contain information about baptisms, marriages and burials within the parish. If you;re lucky, you may even get access to the banns books. You won’t find anything earlier than 1538, and you probably won’t find very much at all from the Great War (First World War) onwards, but that still leaves you nearly 400 years of records to sift through. Admittedly, a lot of records were simply not kept during the Civil War, especially in areas held by Parliament, and many records have also been lost to mould and rats due to poor storage conditions, but enough is left to make the search worthwhile.

All of the examples I will give here are from Maisemore in Gloucestershire, but you will likely find similar things in the area you are researching if they are online. And I will make another post on how to get at theses records online.

The oldest records are often in Latin, or a mixture of Latin and English. Coupled with an often spidery hand, they can be difficult to read and interpret. Take this example fromMaisemore11538, the very first entry in the register. It says “Anno Domini Secundum curium computationem eccleciae MDxxxviij Imprimis Johannes Fortie sepulte fuit xxi die May” which translates roughly as “In the Year of Our Lord according to the calculation of the church 1538 First, John Fortie was buried the 21st day of May.” You very quickly get used to what the words mean.

It took a while, but  registers eventually began to be kept just in English. In Maisemore, that was not until 1734. Here is the first record in English. I think the writing is clear Maisemore2enough that it does not need to be written out, although some of the letter shapes are a little unfamiliar.

It was common to record Baptisms, marriages and burials in separate books. By 1754, marriages were supposed to contain more information. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get theMaisemore3banns of marriage information, as in this example. Note that John was able to sign his own name, whereas Mary had to use a mark.

Finally, the Act of Parliament known as Rose’s Act required baptisms, marriages, and burials to be recorded on preprinted and numbered forms. In a way, this was something Maisemore4of a disappointment, because Rose had wanted much more comprehensive information to be recorded, such as full names of parents including maiden name of the mother, the names of the grandparents, and the actual date of birth of the child. Even so, it’s nice to have the additional information such as the father’s occupation and place of abode.

One final change for parish records was the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836. As a result of civil registration, the marriage register now contains the exact same information as the marriage certificate. That’s not very helpful for those marrying outside the Church of England, but very rewarding if they did.


I sometimes wonder at the different occupations listed in the various censuses. Not, I hasten to add, because my ancestors and their relatives had very unusual occupations. Far from it. The vast majority had the designation of agricultural labourer (commonly abbreviated to Ag. Lab) or domestic servant. That doesn’t leave much to the imagination, although it does leave open the question of the precise type of work they actually did. No. But my curiosity is often piqued by some of the other names listed on the same page as them.

For example, how about this entry from the 1841 census? I am not even sure that I can Occupations1make out exactly what the words are. Well, the first word, at any rate.; the second is clearly “weaver.” I’d like to say “stocking weaver,” but that first word looks more like “hockery” or “slockery.” “Hickory weaver” would make sense if he wove hickory into sections of fencing, but that still doesn’t look right. End result? I have no idea what this occupation is. Now, part of this is simply the difficulty of reading old scripts, but I just cannot work that one out at all.

Some other unusual occupations I have come across? Well, Schrimpschonger comes to mind – bonus points if you know what that needs without resorting to an internet search!. And, of course, there are those occupations which are different as between countries, even though they both, ostensibly, speak English. So, an American researching English ancestry may have no idea what a charwoman is. And, although fairly archaic, I would venture to suggest that just about everybody in England would know what that is.

These odd occupations can be found in many places. Baptism records, marriage records, census returns and so forth – even newspaper articles and job ads. Most are easier to read then the above example, but not necessarily any easier to understand, so here are a couple of websites to help. The first is about Victorian occupations from the 1891 census. The second is a curated list of occupations taken from the censuses between 1841 and 1911.

Turn Genealogy into Family History

family_history1The difference between genealogy and family history is subtle. Many people tend to use these terms interchangeably. I know I do, and in most situations that is not a problem. Even so, they are different. Genealogy is the study of your family lineage and is usually very precise. It documents birth, marriage, and  death records. It also links people to the preceding generation. Family history, on the other hand, while it does include genealogy, is (or should be) a lot more than that.

To put it another way, family history includes anything that helps to preserve a family legacy such as video and audio recordings, family stories,  pictures, and so forth. Collecting all this information is what builds a family history. Anything else is just facts and figures. Here are a few questions you ought to ask:

  • What did your ancestor do? What was his job?
  • How did she live?
  • Where did they move to?
  • What historical events did he witness?
  • What events occurred in her community that influenced the decisions she made?
  • Why did they migrate?

Collecting all of this information – and turning it into a story – is what builds a family history.

One of the best ways to get other members of the family to show an interest and share your love of family history is to bring alive your ancestral family.  Nobody is really enthralled by knowing that your great grandfather was born on this date and place and died on that date and place.  That can be boring, especially to the rising generation.  Your ancestors were people who lived lives in much the same way that you do with your family, so make sure you tell their story in an entertaining way.

Bring them back to life by adding historical events that took place during their life. It is easier to motivate family members if they know that great-great grandfather was born just after the (American) Civil War, or that your great grandmother was a suffragette.  Their birth and their death information is only part of telling their stories. What were their lives like when these events were occurring?

Ancestry has done a pretty good job in this regard. For example, consider these screenshots from my grandmother’s Ancestry page. It starts off with an editable synopsis

of her life and also shows how I am related to her. Next, there is a map showing where events that occurred in her life. And the life events are interspersed with other events, such as this one of the Women’s Social and Political Union. And the gallery shows all of the pictures and documents I have gathered.

There are other websites that can also give you events relevant to the period in history you are looking at., for example offers a listing of many major events, although it does not cover every single day. It does not cover anything on my date of birth, for example, but it is still pretty comprehensive. Newspaper archives are also excellent for gleaning information, especially events local to your family.


I know I tend to talk about research and documents more than I do about other things, like memories. So how about something that will help with both? Maps should be an important part of your genealogy toolkit. In fact, they are irreplaceable, especially if you live far from the locations you are researching. They are at their most helpful when they show the geography and/or political boundaries as they existed when your ancestors were living. Today, I’m going to mention two such tools that are very useful.

Let’s start with Google Earth Pro. Starting 30 January 2015, Google has made the professional version of Google Earth available for free. It used to cost $399.00 a year, so it’s great value.  Here are some instructions on how to download and install it.

We are all familiar with Google Maps, I’m sure. Great for getting directions and finding your way around, and it’s more accurate than Apple’s map feature which, frankly, I have turned off on my iPhone. But Google Earth Pro is so much more powerful, and has the Maps2ability to overlay historical maps so that you can see how the area may have looked when your ancestors were alive.

I especially like the fact that you can get pictures of buildings using the street view. Like Maps1this one of the house where I lived from about age 4 to age 7. This is where I learned to ride a bike, and where I first had piano lessons. But, wouldn’t it be great if this were a picture of a house where your ancestor lived, even if it now has some modern touches?

Next, the National Library of Scotland. You may find this recommendation surprising since most of my research is in England, but it also includes maps for England & Wales. maps3In fact, it goes even further afield, with maps of World War I trenches in France and Belgium, for example. Not only that, but the search tool allows you to search anywhere in the world. It’s fair to say, though, that its main focus is on Great Britain (despite being a Scottish website). One nice feature is the ability to choose an historic map overlay. You can change the transparency of the overlay to switch between today’s view and the historical view.

And, while that is all well and good, how can maps help with research and memories? Well, a few things spring to mind. For example, two people from villages 20 miles apart get married. How might they have met? Perhaps there was a market town roughly half-way between the two. Also, with a contour map you can get the feel of the countryside, such as how steep the hills are and how good the grazing might be as a result. Can’t find a baptism in the parish you think somebody is from? Grab a map and look for other villages within a 5 to 10-mile radius where they may have lived.

1939 Register

I love documents, so having a whole new set of documents to explore is exciting. What I am referring to is the fact that the 1939 Register of England & Wales is available online, and has been since February 2016. So, what makes it so exciting?

Well, for one thing, nobody was expecting it to be available until 2040, 100 years after it was compiled, so it’s 25 years earlier than expected. For another, it was used for various purposes. Initially, it was used as the basis for issuing national identity cards for the 1939_2duration of the war (although they were not phased out until 1952 – my two older sisters had them, but not me). As such, the Register includes dates of birth which are often difficult to find without forking out a bundle for an official birth certificate.

Unlike a census, it was also a working document, and changes were made to it over time. For example, you will often see entries for women who married or divorced and changed their names as a result, so you may get hints as to the spouse’s last name  1939_1written right into the Register. See, for example, this page. The information written in red and green makes it so much easier to find Norah’s marriage to William E McTrusty, and Phyllis’s marriage to James H Smith in the marriage index than looking through a bunch of entries and wondering who the spouse might be.

It was also used as the basis of the National Health Service Central Register long after the 1951 census came along. Remember, censuses were not working documents, which underlines the fact this was not a census. For some interesting information about the 1939 Register and its various uses and idiosyncracies click see this article from the Lost Cousins website.

At first, the Register was only available through Find My Past, but in February 2018, My Heritage allowed searches (but no images), while Ancestry made both available a few months later. Click one of the above links to go straight to the search page for the 1939 Register for each site.

Source Interpretation

When you find a source, you need to put your best effort into interpreting it. I know that sounds obvious, but we often miss simple information, or don’t look at it in the right way. I had a situation very recently when, out of the blue, I had an email asking me how sure I was that Constant Comfort Underwood was a girl. Simple question, but the answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Looking at the name one might reasonably think that it’s a girl, right? I mean, we are much more familiar with the name Constance for a girl, but a couple of hundred years ago it was not uncommon for girls to be named after desirable attributes. It was less true of boys, though. Then again, even today you have names where you cannot easily tell the gender. Take Robin, for example. You can’t get much more masculine than the hero Robin Hood, and the (English) robin is a vicious bird with its sharp beak, but nowadays it is often a name given to girls, so you can’t always tell.

So, I thought that maybe this was one of those situations where I had made a superficial Constant1analysis and made a hasty assumption of the gender. This question came up because FamilySearch had a source attached to Constant Comfort Underwood that indicated this was a boy, and my correspondent wanted to know which was correct. So I had a look and realized that the source being quoted did not have an image. This meant that somebody else had transcribed the source and assigned a male gender.

I then went to the original. That didn’t help either, because it just said “Constant Constant2Comfort of Thos & Mary Underwood.” No indication whether it was a son or a daughter. Still up in the air, then. But what I was looking at was a Bishop’s Transcript. That is a record transcribed by the churchwarden from the parish register and then sent to the bishop as a kind of backup.

An even better source would be the parish register. Lo and behold, I now had my proof. Constant3She really was a girl! “Constant Comfort Dr. of Thos & Mary Underwood.”

Lessons to learn from this?

  • Try to check the best original record.
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from the document.
  • Check that anybody else’s interpretation of the record is reasonable.
  • Document, document, document.

Family History and Computers

I seem to spend most of my spare time doing family history research. Either that or preparing lessons to teach others how to do their own research. No, I’m not a professional researcher, but it still seems appropriate for me to concentrate my writing efforts on how to help others.

My comments about computers may be best received by people who have not fully book2embraced modern technology, like this delightful lady, or by those just beginning their family history journey. I would like to think there will be insights that will help anybody who cares to read these posts. Depending on your elvel of familiarity with technology, though. you may have a pretty steep learning curve. The best advice I can give is to encourage you to keep trying. It’ll grow on you.

Family history research is a lot easier now than it was 50 years ago when I first book1started my journey, but that does not mean that it is easy. There is still a lot of effort involved, but at least you likely will not need to drag huge tomes from the library shelf to look at every page in the hope of finding one tiny nugget of information. If anything, the process is more cerebral now because computers and the internet have given us so much more material than we had access to before. But traditional research in a document repository still has its place.

I often say that family history should be more than a collection of arcane facts and figures. Not only does finding out background information about the family, the neighborhood, local and national politics, and pictures of where your ancestors and distant cousins lived make it more interesting for you, but your children and grandchildren will love that kind of detail as well.

Remember, you will only be limited by your imagination. The information is out there! 

Stories and Memories for Family History


Here is a perfect example of why we ought to write down our stories and record memories and connect them to our ancestors, and how not to do it.

A little while ago I was researching one woman who appeared in all of the available censuses for England & Wales. That’s from 1841 right through 1911. What was interesting was seeing her age in each census. We know they are taken every 10 years, right? But in her case she apparently only aged 9 years between censuses – even before she got married! (I’m guessing she’s the one who gave the data to the enumerator.) But it continued afterwards as well. 

While that is interesting, I then found that when she died, the person reporting the death gave her correct age. So, somebody in the family was aware of the truth (more likely several people). But this gives us some interesting facts to help flesh out her character. She was clearly concerned about what others thought of her appearance, and was sufficiently dominant that her parents, husband, and, later, her children, continued to pander to her – at least, during her lifetime.

Now, I suppose one could say that these conclusions are based on conjecture, but really, isn’t that what most storytelling is? You ask any football fan how a given goal was scored and you will likely get as many variations as there were fans attending the game. Besides, I really warmed to her after I saw what was going on, and it’s so much more interesting than just plain, boring, facts and documents.

So, why am I offering this up as an example of what not to do? Because I did not record this at the time of my research. As a result, I have no idea who I am writing about. I’m sure I’ll come across it one day and will be sure to add the story, but until then I will just have to resolve to be more diligent in my story writing.

At any rate, stories and memories should bring history to life. Don’t know much about a particular family? If you know where they lived you can always research the history of the area and show the type of work they were likely involved in and so forth.