Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

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


    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!).


    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: Census records of England and Wales 1841-1911


    This forms the third part 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, Part 2 considered birth, marriage and death certificates in detail.

    A census of the population has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, the most recent having been taken in 2011. The census records are used alongside birth, marriage and death certificates to create the family tree, providing information as to an ancestor’s birthplace, place of residence, an idea of the social conditions in which an ancestor lived and information regarding other family members.

    The early censuses contain little information of interest to the family historian, as there was no requirement to record information specific to individuals. Whilst some questions were asked regarding the number of people employed in a particular trade and the age ranges of the household occupants, names of individuals were not, for the main part, recorded.

    The 1841 census was the first census to record names of individuals and was also the first census to be administered by the (then recently created) General Register Office. It was not without problems. There were errors caused by householders not understanding what information to include and many young children were omitted. There was significant mistrust as to what the information was to be used for, specifically people feared additional taxation, and some gave false information.

    For the 1851 census more information was made available in the period before the census concerning the correct completion of the schedules. However, more questions were asked than for the 1841 census so there were still errors and omissions caused by lack of understanding. In general terms the number of questions asked and level of information collected increased as the census continued. The information collected in the 1841-1901 censuses is summarised in Table 1 (click on on the table title link below for a larger version of the table). The 1911 census, the most recent census currently available to the public, reflected increasing concerns regarding the nation’s health and infant mortality. In addition to the type of information provided by the earlier censuses, the 1911 census also provides information as to the length of time a couple had been married, how many children they had had and how many were still alive.

    Table 1: Comparison of the Information Collected in the 1841-1901 CensusesTable 1: Comparison of the Information Collected in the 1841-1901 Censuses

    The enumerator collected the schedules the morning after census night. If the schedule was incomplete he was supposed to ask additional questions and complete the missing information. There will have been occasions where the enumerator completed the information based on his own knowledge or assumptions and introduced his own errors. If the householder had been unable to complete the schedule e.g. for reasons of illiteracy or illness, the enumerator completed it on their behalf. The information recorded in these cases is therefore written how the enumerator thought a name or place should be spelt. When all the household returns had been collected they were copied by the enumerator into an enumerator schedule or summary book.

    The original householder schedules for the 1841-1901 censuses have since been destroyed. All that is available are the pages of the enumerator books that contain copied entries of all the householder schedules in the enumeration district. It is likely that some transcription errors will have been introduced at this stage, some families missed and some even entered twice. The original household schedules are available for the 1911 census. The original enumerators’ books for the England and Wales 1841-1901 censuses and the original householders’ schedules for the 1911 census are held by The National Archives. These have been digitised and indexed and are available on websites such as, or

    It should be noted that the online indexes contain transcription errors resulting from the volunteer creating the index misreading the original image. In some cases this is due to the quality of the handwriting, in some the quality of the image used to produce the index. The censuses were not taken solely for the purposes of family history research; as the individual pages were categorised and processed a number of annotations were made and lines were crossed through the text. This can make some images very difficult to read. In other cases the errors may be attributed to the inexperience of the volunteers in reading the style of handwriting typical at the time of the particular census. If a family is not immediately found, it is usually possible to find them using a variety of “lateral thinking” methods as to how their name may have been misspelt on the transcription. Alternatively the census records for the address at which they were last known can be fruitful.

    An important point to note when searching the 1841 census is the instructions regarding ages. Adult ages were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years (not all were) with exact ages being recorded for those under 15 years. A wider range of birth years should therefore be employed when searching the 1841 census than the later censuses.

    The administration of the 1841-1911 censuses was organised by the registration districts and sub-districts defined for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Each sub-district was further broken down into enumeration districts. When the enumerators books had been completed they were organised into “pieces”. Whilst there were some subtle differences in how these were handled for the 1841 and 1911 census, for the 1851-1901 censuses, a piece is a bound volume containing a number of enumerator books. As each enumerator book will have contained the same page numbers e.g. 1-10, the bound volumes were then stamped on the right hand (recto) pages with an individual reference or “folio” number. One folio number refers to the numbered page and its reverse (versa). Each page of the enumerator book thus has a unique reference of the form:

    RG9 / 1206 / 85
    Call number (applied to the whole census) / piece number / folio number

    The dates of the censuses and their associated call numbers are:

    1841 Census HO 107 06 Jun 1841
    1851 Census HO 107 30 Mar 1851
    1861 Census RG 9 07 Apr 1861
    1871 Census RG 10 02 Apr 1871
    1881 Census RG 11 03 Apr 1881
    1891 Census RG 12 05 Apr 1891
    1901 Census RG 13 31 Mar 1901
    1911 Census RG 14 02 Apr 1911

    Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to

    Sources & further reading

    1.  M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
    2.  J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
    3.  P. Christian & D. Annal, Census: The Expert Guide, TNA, 2008
    4.  E. Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited,Institute of Historical Research in
    association with TNA, 2005
    5.  C. D. Rogers, The Family Tree Detective, 4thed., Manchester University Press, 2008

Search Blog

Blog Archive

December 2018
« Nov    


Keep up to date with my latest posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.