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.

Why Can’t I Find … Birth (1)

This series of posts will concentrate on why you may not be able to find a given person’s birth record. By that, I include not just birth certificates, but also baptism or christening records, family Bibles, and newspaper announcements of births. Only as a last resort would I accept a census record as proof of birth, not least because precise dates of birth are not given in census returns.

So, first reason you can’t find that birth? The name you know your ancestor by is not the one on the birth certificate.

Have a look at this series of entries. These all relate to my 2nd-great grandfather, but what conclusion would you reach as to his actual name? I generally accept the earliest known document as the correct name, with other names as alternates, but in this case should I put a different name? Feel free to give me feedback on this.

The earliest known record is the baptism register from 1835, where the father’s AlfredGreen1 occupation is given as a publican. And, of course, this was before civil registration began in 1837, so in terms of the date, this is as close as I am going to get.

Next, the census entries for 1841, 1851, and 1861, each of which gives a different name. I find the 1861 census to be the most interesting, given the way the enumerator went about recording the names.

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And finally, his marriage entry. AlfredGreen5

So, what conclusions would you draw about his name? Note that there are small details interwoven between the various documents, such as the occupation of his father, or the fact that his maternal grandmother is listed in the 1841 and 1851 censuses, which help to paint a more detailed picture.

Whatever conclusion you reach about this man’s correct name, I think you will agree that if I had restricted my searches to the name on the marriage certificate, I likely would not have found the other records, except maybe the baptism record.


Who Is Joseph Rogers?

Rogers1While I would like to think that I am fairly successful at family history research, that is only true in general terms. And this blog is not always going to be full of success stories. This post is a case in point. Despite more than 50 years of looking, I really don’t know anything much about this guy. So who is he? And why have I been looking for him?

Well, to put it bluntly, he is my maternal grandfather – my mother’s father. I know his name, and approximately when he was born. I have his medals card, and can therefore trace his military career (he served in the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Machine Gun Corps before re-enlisting in the Glosters). I have his marriage certificate Rogers2to my grandmother. I even have a newspaper article about a court appearance in 1925, shortly after he left her. Finally, I have his re-enlistment paper. You may think this sounds like a lot of information, but it really is very little.

It would be nice to have full access to his army records, but alas, they were destroyed by enemy action during the 2nd World War. It’s ironic, really, because my other grandfather, who I can easily trace in public records, served in a different battalion of the same regiment, and his records survived.

I don’t really know his birth date. Family tradition says 23 November 1890. His marriage certificate suggests 1890, but the re-enlistment papers give credence to the idea that he was born in November 1888, possibly in Galashiels, Selkirkshire. But there are no records to show that he was born within 5 years of those dates anywhere in the United Kingdom.

It’s as if he made everything up. Perhaps he did. And without a birth certificate I have nothing to show who his parents were. Yes, I know the marriage entry gives a father’s name, but if he lied about everything else, why would I believe that name is correct? As a result, a full quarter of my family history is unknowable. There’s always an outside possibility that DNA might help.

Always Check Originals

One of the things I stress a lot is the need to check original documents. And yes, I know that is not always possible, but it is in the vast majority of cases. There are two huge reasons for this. One is so that you have evidence to back up your findings. The other is to help your research: no matter how well you phrase your online search, you often have to rely on a transcription that somebody else made which may not be accurate.

Take my search for Henry Dodwell, for example. I had to be able to find him in the 1891 census, for example, right? Actually, that was a resounding No until I started researching his brother Walter George Dodwell. Originals1Here is the actual census entry for Henry from the 1891 census for Cheltenham. Notice that there are three people living in the household. What I want you to do is to look very carefully at the census and try to transcribe it for yourself before reading further. It’s good practise, if nothing else. Once you’ve done that, read the rest of this post.

So, how did you do? I think it reads “Henry Dodwell son married 31 Sergeant Royal Marines born Cheltenham.” Obviously I have expanded the information a little, but that is essentially what it says.

So, how did the big four family history research sites do? Not one of them got it right. I’d be hard pressed to say which one of them did the best job. Now, admittedly, it’s an old style of writing, and the age is easy to misread, but a son born when the father is only 2 years old? At any rate, here are the results, and I will leave it to you to judge for yourself. I think I might go with Ancestry if only because they are the only one to get the age right. I’m just glad I looked at the original.

Here’s Ancestry: at least they got the age right, and the place of birth, but Harvey? And no occupation in the search results.Originals2

Here’s Find My Past: right name and occupation, wrong age, and incomplete birthplace.Originals3

Here’s FamilySearch: right name, wrong age, incomplete birthplace and no occupation.Originals4

And finally, My Heritage: wrong name and age, no occupation or birthplace.Originals5


Finding Mary Hornsby

I was recently able to uncover the identity of one of my 3rd great-grandmothers. Of course, I still have more to do, like finding her baptism record, but at least now I have a definite last name. I have been looking for her, on and off, for about 40 years. Actually, it’s ever since I found out that her son, Edward Taylor, my 2nd great-grandfather, was born in Burford, Oxfordshire.

I already had a name for his father from his marriage to my 2nd great-grandmother inHornsby1Prestbury, Gloucestershire in 1856 when he was a widower aged 36. I also knew from the 1861 census that he was born in Burford. Finding his christening there on 30 April 1817 was easy enough. It even confirmed his father’s occupation, which has helped to trace the family line through 4 generations.

For a long time that is where it stood. I was able to find a couple of siblings, but that was all. His parents weren’t married in Burford, and that was my dilemma. If I couldn’t find a marriage I wouldn’t know his mother’s family name. I had his location in 1841 and 1861, but in 1851 he was elusive. I was convinced he was in Gloucestershire. After all, he and his first wife had children in Charlton Kings between 1838 and 1853.

Eventually, looking further afield, I found Edward Taylor in Stepney, of all places, Hornsby2staying with a previously unknown sister who was born in Stow (or Stow-on-the-Wold) in Gloucestershire. The birthplace, age, and occupation for Edward matched, so I knew it had to be correct. (Incidentally, I still don’t know who Harriet is.) Once I had narrowed down the likely parish of marriage, the rest Hornsby3was relatively easy. Lo, and behold, the marriage between Edward Taylor’s parents. And the marriage entry even has their signatures!

As I mentioned at the beginning, I still have work to do, but it gives a sense of accomplishment to find something that has been elusive for so long. I’m sure I could have found it sooner, but I had such a lot of low-hanging fruit that I picked that first.

Now, if only I could find my maternal grandfather…

Data Entry – Places

Now, just as with personal names and dates, it is important to be consistent. But it is also important to avoid unnecessary abbreviations. For example, a lot of my people come fmaps4rom Gloucestershire. But if I search for Glos (an abbreviation) as the county, or GLS (the Chapman code) for the county, how much data am I likely to find? No, it just makes sense to enter Gloucestershire as the county. And Salop or SAL for Shropshire makes no sense when wading through an online search. So, I am being practical when I advise using the full name of the county.

Now, most people are going to get back before 1801, or even 1707. Why are those years significant? Well, prior to 1707 there was no United Kingdom of Great Britain (known as Great Britain) and prior to 1801, there was no United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (known as the United Kingdom). Let’s be honest, my research is almost exclusively in England. I get no substantial benefit from using the terms Great Britain or United Kingdom in my searches. I figure that the line of least resistance (and most search results) is to search for towns and counties in England, not GB or the UK. By the way, I place the street address in the place details rather than making it part of the place.

Now, I fully realize that this blog is about family history research in England (and Wales). But, being realistic, how many people have relatives who only live in England? Maybe a few who are only interested in their direct line, but you’re no going to find many cousins to share the load going that route. But if you also research collateral lines then you will inevitably be doing some research outside England. Perhaps one branch of the family moved to Canada, for example, another to South Africa, and another to Australia. Maybe even Scotland or Ireland. All of that being so, it makes sense to have a system in place for recording places outside England as well.

But you can’t completely escape the historical boundaries when you search in other maps5countries. For example, the United States of America did not exist prior to 1776, while states, territories and counties have been divided and subdivided, such as Virginia and West Virginia, or the Utah Territory, parts of which went to make up the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. Bear in mind, the last states (Alaska and Hawaii) were added in 1959.

So what was it before 1776? British North America, but if you feel that is too long, use some kind of abbreviation, but do it consistently. Typically, you need town, county, state and country for the United States, but you may only need the town, state (or territory) and country for Canada and Australia.

Data Entry – Dates

I’ve started, so I may as well finish. How should you enter dates? This is much less dates2critical than how you enter names of people or of places. You are not very likely to search for an exact date, after all is said and done. For internet searches, a year will usually suffice, or even a spread of years; plus or minus 2 years, for example. Even so, it is still important to avoid confusion in your work and presentation of data. Half the battle, of course, is knowing that there could be confusion.

You may well think that you are not going to be confused, and that is probably true. But unless you intend to keep all of your research private, and share with nobody else, ever, you should bear it in mind. You may wonder how dates can be confusing. Consider this: what date does 3/6/1820 represent? Is it, for example, the 3rd of June 1820, or March the 6th?

A lot will depend on where you live. When I moved to the United States, it took me several years to really get my head around the idea that 3/6 meant March 6th. My own opinion is that it is more logical to look at a date as going from the smallest increment of time (day) to the longest (year). Day, month year just seems to make sense. But to avoid confusion, I don’t use numbers for months at all in my family history. (I even avoid using them at work!) Saying 3rd June 1820 simply removes all doubt.

But did you know that years can also be confusing? What if you see a date like 14th October 1714/15? Would you assume that the person who wrote it was not sure of the dates_1year? In the parish register, it’s not as if the vicar wouldn’t have known what year it was. So what’s up with that? It’s actually to do with the Gregorian (as opposed to the Julian calendar. And because Great Britain delayed so long in adopting the Gregorian calendar the date changed from 2 September 1752 to 14 September 1752 overnight. There were even protests about the government having stolen 11 days.

But that’s not as bad as Russia, for example, where they “lost” even more days, and the current calendar was not adopted until 1919, a year after the October Revolution. So the October Revolution of 1917 (3 October 1917 Julian) really took place on 7 November in the current calendar.

It gets even more complicated if you have Quakers, Jews, or Muslims in your tree, but that is way beyond the scope of this post. Bottom line: dates are not as simple as might appear at first glance, and as with names of people and places, be consistent.

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.