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


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.