Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. A plea: “Show us your sources!”

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    Professional Family History prides itself on working with original source material to provide research at the highest standard. Often this involves spending hours trawling through old documents at archives (incidentally the only time I’ve ever been asked to wear those white gloves was for my own protection with a particularly filthy set of Quarter Session rolls!).

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    However, more and material is becoming available online. This is fantastic for us all – high quality research without having to leave your computer! The building blocks of family history research: the GRO (General Register Office) BMD indexes and census returns, have been available online for several years now with the added bonus of having been indexed. The indexing process is not without issue and there are transcription errors. There are two ways around this: Firstly, on the commercial websites such as Ancestry or Find My Past,  images of the original documents are there to be viewed and can be browsed page by page if required. Secondly, the information in a census can usually be verified with information from a birth or marriage certificate to verify that the document you have found is the right one. Most importantly when you look at a census return on Ancestry or Find My Past you have access to the reference number of the original document held at The National Archives in London.

    The important part here is that even though you are looking at material online you know where it came from. You know what the original source was.

    Parish registers are a different story. Some collections are transcriptions of the original images and must therefore be backed up by a search of the originals in the record office, others include register pages images that you can flick through as though you have the register in front of you. The important part again is knowing what is included.

    The parish register collection for Cambridgeshire went online on Find My Past some years ago and originally you could click a link to find what parishes are included and over what date ranges. This was particularly important as the collection was not complete.

    This all sounds good so far doesn’t it, so what’s changed?

    There seems to have been a trend over the last year or so where the big commercial websites are “simplifying” their searches (the searches are a topic worthy of their own blog post). Unfortunately they also seem to have decided to simplify their source information. The breakdown on what is included in parish register collection for Cambridgeshire has all gone. I am sure that more parishes have been added but it seems as though we are expected to “black box” search.

    Yesterday Ancestry announced “New Records! England and Wales ‘2007-2013’ Death Index” and created a stir of excitement amongst family historians. Except that, oh no hang on, it’s not actually the GRO indexes. On consulting the source information to discover what exactly this new index includes we find “British Death Indexes. Various sources” and that’s it – no more information. On querying with Ancestry what sources were included I was told that they couldn’t “reveal the source due to contractual obligations”. What?

    Why is it important to know the source of the information? Surely if my ancestor’s name pops up that’s it, job done?

    There are two reasons. Firstly, it is important to understand what your sources are: I have spent many years understanding the various documentary sources, why they were created and under what circumstances. Only by looking at records in detail can you understand whether indeed your ancestor is likely to be included and if not, why not. For example, many have suggested that the new Death Indexes on Ancestry are based on a probate source – so if your chap didn’t leave a will or go into administration he’s not going to be in there!

    Secondly, you need to know how complete a record set is. If I sent a report to you saying “I searched for John in an incomplete set of baptisms for Suffolk and only found one result so that must be right” what would you think? How do you know he wasn’t baptised in one of the parishes not included?

    Surely it’s a no brainer? If I don’t know what is included in a data set – how can I know what the results of a search mean?

    Locally I don’t seem to find this problem. The Cambridgeshire Baptism Index (available from the Cambridgeshire Family History Society) includes details of all parishes included and over what date range. I can take things a step further by looking on the Cambridgeshire Archives website for details a particular register to see if there were any gaps in dates.

    Essex parish registers are available online in digital form and searching is essentially like having the register in front of you at home. The digital register copies are certainly of far higher quality than the microfiche at Essex Archives.

    In summary the new index from Ancestry is of no use to me at all professionally as I have no idea what is included and what is not. Similarly, I am sceptical about new parish register collections on Find My Past without any idea of which parishes are included. Simplification is not always good.

    My plea to Ancestry and Find My Past is this: PLEASE! Show us your sources!

     

     

  2. Starting Family History: Birth, marriage and death certificates

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    This forms Part 2 of my beginner’s guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month’s blog will consider census records.

    On 1st July 1837 legislation took effect that ordered the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Certified copies of these entries from the registers form birth, marriage and death “certificates”.

    When embarking on a journey into the history of your family the most fundamental building blocks from 1837 onwards are birth, marriage and death certificates. These provide evidence as to the places of birth, marriage and death of your ancestors but also provide a variety of information about where they lived, other family members and how they earned a livelihood.

    The detail of the information contained in each type of certificate has changed over the years but is considered in general terms below:

    Birth certificates

    • Date of birth
      –      If a time is provided this is usually an indication of a multiple birth.
    • Place of birth
      –      Before c.1880 it was common for just a village name to be entered. Later entries
      tend to have more detail.
    • Forenames
      –      Some children were registered as simply “male” or “female”. This may have been because the parents had not yet decided on a name, the baby was to be given up for adoption or the baby died shortly after birth.
    • Sex
    • Father’s name
      –     Illegitimacy: Between 1837 and 1850 there was some confusion as to whether the name of the father of an illegitimate child should be included and so sometimes it was sometimes it was not. From 1851 to 1874 the father’s name and occupation should not have been recorded if the child was illegitimate. Following the Registration Act of 1875 and up to 1953 the father’s details could only be included if both parents signed as informants.
    • Mother’s name including maiden surname
      –      An entry such as “Mary Smith late Jones formerly Johnson” indicates that the mother’s maiden name was Johnson and that she married a Mr Jones before Mr Smith.
    • Father’s occupation
    • Signature, description and residence of the informant
    • Date of registration
      –      Births were required to be registered within 42 days of the birth, thus a birth on the 2nd  December may not have been registered until January of the following year.
      There are exceptions to this requiring authorisation of the Superintendent Registrar
      or Registrar General.

    Marriage certificates

    • Date of marriage
      –      Note that there is no separate column for date of registration as marriages were
      registered as they occurred.
    • Names of bride and groom
      –      These are the names at the time of marriage and may not necessarily be the name given at birth. Some certificates will include wording such as “otherwise known as” but not all.
    • Age of bride and groom at date of marriage
      –      In 1837 the legal ages of marriage were 12 years for a girl and 14 years for a boy, with parental consent required for those under age 21 years.
      –      From 1929 the legal age of marriage was changed to 16 years for either gender with parental consent still required for those under age 21 years.
      –      From 1969 the legal age of marriage remained 16 years for either gender but parental consent was only required for those under age 18 years.
      –      “Full age” indicates someone to be age 21 or over.
    • Marital status of bride and groom
    • Occupation of bride and groom
    • Residence at the time of marriage of bride and groom
    • Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom
    • Names of witnesses

    Death certificates

    • Date and place of death
      –      As with birth certificates the level of detail increased with time. Note that someone could die some distance from home and that place of death does not indicate place of residence.
    • Sex
    • Age
      –      As this was provided by the informant it was not always accurate.
    • Occupation
      –      For wives, widows and children the occupations was usually given as “wife / widow / son / daughter of ….”
    • Cause of death
    • Name and surname of deceased
    • Informant’s details
      –      From 1875 the informant’s details included the relationship to the deceased and their qualification to be an informant, e.g. present at the death.
    • Date of registration
      –      Deaths were generally required to be registered within 5 days, though longer periods were allowed where a post-mortem and / or inquest was carried out.

    Many believe that the internet sites provide access to images of the birth, marriage and death registers. Unfortunately this is not the case: What can be searched are the national or General Register Office (GRO) indexes of births, marriages and deaths for each year (see previous blog post). Once a GRO reference has been found a copy of the certificate may be ordered from the General Register Office via: http://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/ or phoning 0300 123 1837. Copies are available elsewhere but tend to be more expensive than the standard £9.25 per certificate charged by the GRO. An alternative source of information is to obtain the certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar.

    Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to info@professionalfamilyhistory.co.uk.

    Sources & further reading:
    1.   M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
    2.  B. Dixon, England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information, web based version (http://home.clara.net/dixons/Certificates/indexbd.htm)
    3.   J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
    4.  C. Heritage, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records – A Guide for Family
    Historians, Pen & Sword, 2013

  3. Starting Family History: General Register Office (GRO) indexes ofbirth, marriage and death

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    As we have just entered 2014 I thought I would start the year with some beginner’s guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looks at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month’s blog will consider birth, marriage and death certificates.

    Civil registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. The General Register Office (GRO) was set up in London and England and Wales was divided into just over 600 “registration districts” for ease of administration, each district under the supervision of a “Superintendent Registrar”.

    Birth and death registers were completed at the time of registration by a local Registrar. Marriage registers were completed at the time of marriage by a clergyman (Church of England marriages), local Registrar (most nonconformist and all registry office marriages) or nonconformist minister (some nonconformist marriages after 1898). At the end of each quarter (March, June, September, December) the local Registrar (or clergyman) was required to copy out the births, marriages and deaths that had taken place in his sub-district during the preceding three months and send them to the district Superintendent Registrar. The Superintendent Registrar, in turn, forwarded the copies to the Registrar General.

    Once the quarterly returns had been received by the GRO they were grouped according to locality and bound into “volumes”. Originally returns were ordered alphabetically by registration district within a volume but in 1852 the volume organisation was changed such that the districts were ordered by proximity to neighbouring registration districts. To form the “GRO index” the details of each birth, marriage and death from all 600+ districts were copied again noting the volume number and page number formed within the volume by that page of returns. After this process had been completed for all returns from all districts the individual entries were sorted into alphabetical order before being copied again to form the GRO indexes for that quarter. Until 1984 this process was repeated four times a year and a separate index exists for each quarter e.g. the index for March 1878 includes all the entries for Jan, Feb and Mar 1878. From 1984 onwards the GRO index was compiled annually. A GRO index reference thus consists of five parts: the individual’s name, the year and quarter of registration (month from 1984 onwards), the registration district, the volume number and the page number.

    As is seen above, there were a number of copying stages involved in the creation of the GRO indexes and, inevitably, there were some transcription errors. Some names were misread on the register copies, some missed completely, some indexed under an incorrect district. All of these factors need to be considered when conducting a search of the index. Not finding e.g. a marriage in the GRO index does not mean that it did not occur.

    The GRO indexes of births, marriages and deaths are the records that the family historian may search on websites such as www.freebmd.org.uk, www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk. Unfortunately the indexes do not include all of the information from the birth, marriage and death certificates. The only way to establish whether the correct reference has been found is usually to order the certificate. The information included in the GRO indexes up to 1984 is summarised below:

    Birth indexes:
    Sep 1837 – Dec 1865:
    – Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1867 – Jun 1910:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
    Sep 1910 – Jun 1911:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
    Sep 1911 – Dec 1965:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of mother’s maiden surname
    Mar 1966 – Dec 1983:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, mother’s maiden surname

    Marriage indexes:
    Sep 1837 – Dec 1865:
    – Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1867 – Dec 1911:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1912 – Dec 1983:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of spouse surname

    Death indexes:
    Sep 1837 – Dec 1865:
    – Surname, all forenames in full, registration district, volume, page number
    Mar 1866 – Dec 1866:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number plus addition of age of the deceased
    Mar 1867 – Jun 1910:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, age of the deceased
    Sep 1910 – Mar 1969:
    – Surname, first forename in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, age of the deceased
    Jun 1969 – Dec 1983:
    – Surname, first two forenames in full and initials of others, registration district, volume, page number, date of birth replaces age of the deceased

    The most important dates to note are the inclusion of mother’s maiden surname on birth indexes from September 1911, the inclusion of spouse’s surname on marriage indexes from March 1912, the addition of age at death to the death indexes from March 1866 and the addition of date of birth to the death indexes from June 1969.

    Sources & further reading:
    1.     M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
    2.     M. W. Foster, A Comedy of Errors or The Marriage Records of England and Wales 1837-1899, Michael W Foster, 1998
    3.     M. W. Foster, A Comedy of Errors Act 2, Michael W Foster, 2002
    4.     J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003

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