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.

Accessing Parish Records – Record Offices

If you have not been able to find the parish records you need in any other place, you may need to do some old-fashioned searching. Fortunately, that is easier than it used to be with the GENUKI website. The name comes from ‘Genealogy of the UK and Ireland.’

Start off at the GENUKI main page. It displays a map of the British Isles divided into 6 jurisdictions. Click on the country you need.

On the new page, click on the county you need records for. The counties are shown on a map with the historical county boundaries. You should be able to find the county by the 3-digit Chapman code, even if you do not know anything about British geography. The codes for the county names used since 1974 are not used on the GENUKI site. Also, the code for London (LDN) is for the City of London, not for a wider area.

The new page shows the position of the county within the country, with variousro_2categories on the left and right sides of the screen. On the left-hand side, select Church Records. This takes you to the section with information on parish records. In the case of Gloucestershire, for example, it includes information on non-conformist churches, Quaker records, and so forth, as well as links to other sites that may hold parish register copies, such as the Society of Genealogists.

And I cannot finish this post without mentioning the Federation of Family History Societies. Their site is well worth a look, as is theirro_3Really Useful North American Information Leaflet 2018.’

Once you have the basic information in hand, you can contact the local record office in advance of your visit to check that records will be available when you visit, or have somebody else visit on your behalf.

Accessing Parish Records – FamilySearch

Here is how you can access parish records in FamilySearch. It’s not the same as using the other websites, but not totally dissimilar, either. You do not need to be logged in tofs_1 search (only to view the records) but since membership is free, why not start off by signing in? Not a member? Click “Create your free account” on the landing page.

What is really exciting about using FamilySearch (FS) to look at records online is that FS is the biggest genealogical organization in the world. It has far more records than any of the commercial companies. Starting about 60 years ago, they started collecting images by photographing records (only black and white, unfortunately) and making them available on microfilm through Family History Centers worldwide. Not all organizations gave permission, of course, so there is no blanket coverage, but you may also find records not available at the commercial companies.

Although still currently available in Salt Lake City, the decision has been taken to withdraw the microfilm option. Instead, FamilySearch is in the process of turning those images into digital format and making them available online. So, eventually, all the records held by FS for the United Kingdom will be available to view. Unfortunately, they are not all indexed so you may need to do some old-fashioned searching once you get to the record set.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Go to FamilySearch. At the top of the page you will see a Search option. Hover over the word and select ‘Catalog.’
  • Make sure the option to search by place is selected.
  • I would suggest selecting ‘Any’ under availability. You can select ‘Online’ instead, butfs_2this way your search will show whether FS has films that have not yet been digitized. If you search by county, you will likely get a huge list of results, so try searching for specific place names. Click Search.
  • Look at all of the results. fs_3You will need to open up the drop-downs to see everything that was found.
  • In this case, I will click ‘Bishop’s transcripts for Brimpsfield, 1616-1812.’
  • Towards the bottom of the page, under File/Digital Notes look at the format. Whatfs_4you are looking for is the camera icon. If you can only see a film icon, then the microfilm has not yet been digitized. If that’s the case, make a note, and look again later. The magnifying glass means there is an index.
  • Click the camera icon. If you are not already signed in you will be prompted to do so.

Accessing Parish Records – Genealogy Sites

Many parish records are available online, and the best places to look for them are Ancestry, Find My Past, and My Heritage. There’s FamilySearch as well, but I will cover that in the next post. Just bear in mind that there is no simple way to work out where the records you are looking for are kept. They may not even be online at all, so you may need to use several different techniques to find them. And yes, I know these websites I mentioned require a subscription, but you can search the catalog without a membership, and the search results will help you decide whether a subscription to that site would be useful for you.

Ancestry. For my personal research, Ancestry has been a boon. That’s because the counties I search the most have records on Ancestry, including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset. If you already have a subscription you can skip the first step.

  1. Navigate to Ancestry. Scroll to the bottom of the page and select Vital Records under Historical Collections. This will bring you to a search page.
  2. At the top of the page you will see five options. Select Search and then Card Catalog. This will bring up the card catalog search page.
  3. On the left side, select Birth, Marriage & Death.
  4. In the Title box in the upper left, type the name of the county you are interested in and then hit the orange Search button.a_search
  5. You now have a list of collections that contain baptism, marriage,  and burial records for that county, including how many records are in the collection.

Find My Past. The process here is very similar, but the search option is right on the front page of the site.

  1. Navigate to Find My Past.
  2. At the top of the page click Search and select A-Z of record sets.
  3. On the left select United Kingdom (or just England).
  4. On the new page, click in the search box, enter the county you are looking for, and hit your Enter key.fmp_search
  5.  You now have a list similar to that for Ancestry.

My Heritage. This website has a lot of data, one way or another. But it’s focus is not on the United Kingdom. As such it is more limited, but if it has what you need it is just as important as the others. Here is the process:

  1. Navigate to My Heritage, scroll to the bottom of the page, and select “Historical records” under Home.
  2. On the “Welcome to SuperSearch” page, click on “Browse collection catalogue” on the right side towards the top.
  3. On the next page, again towards the upper right, click in the search box, enter the county name, and hit Enter to start the search.mh_search
  4. You now have a list similar to that for Ancestry.

Availability of parish records

Today, I will attempt to give a synopsis of why parish records may have been lost, and also where you may be able to locate those that have survived. For some details, I am indebted to the book Tracing Your Georgian  Ancestors 1714-1837 by John Wintrip. I did say I would explain where you might find the parish records, but I feel it is important for me to explain more about the records first.

With a few exceptions, mostly in urban areas like London, separate baptism, marriage hardwickeand burial registers were not kept.  That is, until 1754, when Hardwicke’s Marriage Act required separate marriage registers to be kept. Most parishes listed the various events separately,  meaning that all the baptisms on a page were in the same place. But if you are unlucky, you will find baptisms, marriages and burials all interspersed on the same page.

Because only minimal information was included, people sometimes had difficulty proving their identity or relationship to another person. biglandAn example would be  trying to establish a right to inherit land or property through a will or intestacy. Perhaps in part prompted by this, Ralph Bigland wrote a book in which he made recommendations for more genealogical information to be included in parish registers. No rules were changed at that time, but in quite a few parishes, the entries in the registers did start to include more information. Some bishops even recommended that course of action. Even so, this improvement was spotty, to say the least, and it would not be until 1813, just 24 years before civil registration began, that rules were introduced requiring this.

George Rose MP introduced a comprehensive bill into Parliament in 1812 which would iron chesthave required genealogical information for all baptisms, marriages and burials. Much to his disappointment, the rules were considerably watered down during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. It is ironic, therefore, that the Act is commonly called Rose’s Act. Even so, from 1813, parishes were required to keep separate registers for baptisms, marriages and burials, and to enter the information in printed forms in a bound volume to be kept in an iron parish chest. Many parishes, though, continued to use the old wooden chests.

By no means all parish records are available. Reasons include simple neglect by those having care of the records, destruction of the churches, especially during air raids in the second world war, fire, and flood. Records may also be missing between 1783 and 1794 because of a stamp duty imposed on every baptism, marriage, and burial entry in the register.

And next time I will talk about how to access the records.

Parishes before 1837

Prior to 1 July 1837, when civil registration began, the records of the various Church of England parishes in England & Wales were extremely important. By their nature, they did not record information about everybody within the parish. They did not include Catholics, Quakers, Jews, or non-Conformists, for example, but I will try to cover those in another post. Parish records are divided into three different types:

  • Those kept by the parish as the smallest unit of the Church of England. These include parish registers and churchwardens accounts.
  • In its civil role, the parish was also responsible to the Justices of the Peace. Records include the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor.
  • Those provided by the parish to higher levels of the church hierarchy. These include bishop’s transcripts and probate records.

The size of a parish is not well-defined, and size varied widely. In the City of London, for example, a parish may consist of just a few streets. parish_mapLarger cities, such as Gloucester and Norwich (both of which had cathedrals), often had multiple parishes as well. On the other hand, one parish in Lancashire covered over 160 square miles. There were some oddities, such as extra-parochial parishes, peculiars, and chapels of ease, and I will try to cover those in a later post.

Instead of recording births, marriages and deaths, the parishes tried to record baptisms, marriages and burials that took place within the parish. The registers are sometimes in very poor condition. parish_registerBaptisms, often referred to as christenings in the registers, were mostly of infants, but sometimes included older children and adults as well. They were supposed to be written up by the clergyman every Sunday after the religious services, and in the presence of the churchwardens. This was not widely followed, though, and several weeks worth of entries were often made at the same time. Until around 1750, only minimal information was kept that a family historian would find useful.

The registers were stored in a locked chest, often referred to as the parish chest. parish_chestMany of these were of wood, but later ones were of iron. The parish chest was often used to store the civil records referenced above in addition to the registers.

The bishop’s transcripts were a copy of the baptisms, marriages and burials prepared by the churchwardens and sent to the bishop annually. As such, they were never stored in the parish and would not have been found in the parish chest.

For my next post I will look at where you might be able to find parish records.

Organization … Backups

And, going right along with organizing your file structure, comes organizing your backups. backupYou may think that backups are not particularly important, but they are. What happens if your hard drive fails, for example? In my case, I had to reinstall Windows (part of the reason there was a 6-week gap in my posts) but unless you want to scan all that data again, you need a backup (preferably more than one) in another location. But where?

The answer to that last question will depend, in part, on how much data you actually have. I don’t mean the number of files, but the amount of space they take up on your device. It will also depend on whether you use a computer (desktop or laptop) or another type of device. Either way, you should certainly be looking at backing up your data externally. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you don’t have much data, copy it to an thumb drive, often called a flash drive, USB drive, or memory stick. They come in many different sizes. I have seen them hold as much as 1 TB of data, although a drive that size would be fairly costly.
  • An external hard drive that is housed inside an enclosure that you then attach to your computer via cable. I have seen them hold as much as 10 TB of data, but you could probably pick up a 4 TB drive for less than $100.
  • If you have Dropbox, that’s also a great place to store data. They used to have a free service giving you 2.50 GB of space. dropboxThat’s not much space, really, but it was free. They are honoring that for existing users, but the lowest level of service you can now sign up for costs $8.25 per month (equals $99 per year) for 1 TB of space. The advantage is that Dropbox keeps your files, and all you need to do to access the data is to sign in. The only risk is if their servers fail.
  • Microsoft OneDrive. onedriveIf you have Windows 10, you already have this service and the free version gives you 5 GB of space. This is upgradable, though. For $69.99 you can get Office 365 Personal with 1 TB of storage, as well as access to the Microsoft Office suite of programs. For an additional $30, you can get Office 365 Home for up to 6 users, all of whom get 1 TB of storage.
  • Other backup services. One well-known service is BackBlaze, which gives unlimited backup for just $5 a month. backblazeBear in mind that this is a different type of service. Unlike Dropbox or OneDrive, you cannot simply access your files online as if they were part of your filing system. Rather, you can get a free zip download sent to you via email, or order a USB flash drive ($99) or hard drive ($189), and restore after you receive it.

Organization … Documents

I have never been big on New Year’s resolutions. My attitude has always been that “today is the first day of the rest of my life.” I was horrified, today, to realize today that I have not published a post for over a month; nearly six weeks in fact. So, I have resolved to publish a blog post every day that I am not working. And no, I am not waiting until the 1st of January to begin. Which, of course, makes organization the obvious subject today.

That covers a lot of things, so today I will talk about photographs and documents. There foldersis no single way to manage these items, but you do need to maintain a system that works for you. And, while I am referring here to electronic copies, the same principles apply to the originals as well. This can be a daunting task, especially if you have a large number of items. But planning ahead will help. You don’t want to organize now and then have to re-organize later. Remember, your goal should be to make items easy to file and easy to find.

Here are my suggestions, but see also this article on organization from WikiHow:

  • Create your categories. Here, I would suggest one category for documents and another for pictures.
  • Create subcategories. For documents, these could include birth, marriage and death, while for pictures they could be for people and places. Don’t be afraid to add further subcategories.
  • Give the folders understandable names (think of them as labels) so that you know what they contain and can find them again. Color coding is a good idea too, but unfortunately you cannot do that in Windows without using 3rd-party software.
  • Do not put files on your desktop, except for temporary storage.


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.

1841 census: AlfredGreen2

1851 census: AlfredGreen3

1861 census: AlfredGreen4And finally, his marriage entry. AlfredGreen5So, 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