Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Public or Private Family Tree?


    I’ve found the opportunity recently to spend some time actually working on my own research and it’s led me to revisit the old debate: to have or not to have a public family tree?

    Many of the websites offer the opportunity to upload or create a family tree. There are many reasons you may want to do this. Some use this service simply as a repository for their research.

    Some use the “hints” or “matches” with record sets on the websites to expand their family tree. The most well known of these are the “shaking green leaves” on Ancestry. These come with their own inaccuracies and do not take away the need for thorough and proper research (a blog post in its own right).

    Another reason you might want your family tree online is to share your research or provide the ability for others researching the same families as you to get in touch.

    Most websites offer “private” or “public” versions for your family tree. A typical public tree entry in search results is shown below (tree owner information removed):

    Details on an individual in a public tree

    Some “private” trees let names appear in searches but require contact with you to get access to your full family tree:

    Limited information appears in search results for a private tree

    What’s your preference?

    When I first started out, long before thoughts of “going professional”, I happily uploaded everything I’d found to Ancestry in the hope of making contact with distant cousins (many other websites now offer this facility).

    However, I look back and wonder at my naivety. I made contact with people, who confirmed a connection. In most cases we would share information and hopefully add to each other’s research. However, some people, who’d done very little for themselves, just helped themselves to everything I’d done! I still see examples of this now in others’ public family trees, the wording from our family Bible gives it away. I was most put out; it was ME who’d spent hours on that research and ME who’d spent lots of money on certificates proving things and it was just being taken. Was I wrong to feel hard done by? Was I not entering the spirit of sharing? What threw me the most was that my whole tree was being copied, not just the part related by blood to the individual of interest. Surely, that’s not quite right? Was I being too precious? Is family history not a collaborative affair? Should we not be thinking in terms of free and fair exchange of information?

    For years since then I’ve only had the “partially private” option. I like to have something out there, so the names of my ancestors appear in searches, but I await contact before sharing any more detail.

    I can’t talk about about online family trees without mentioning accuracy. Let’s be frank: there are a LOT of mistakes! I recently found the same couple, who were born in Cambridgeshire, originating from both Cornwall and Yorkshire, popping to Cambridgeshire to have one child and then returning to their place of origin to have the rest of their family. I’ve Birmingham family in the back to backs who apparently popped to the US to get married WHILST having children in Brum. I’m sure you have similar tales. So then it occurred to me, wouldn’t it be better if all the “right” trees were public too, to increase the likelihood of it being the correct information that was copied from tree to tree to tree? Is that not what we should be doing?

    The key to my recent dilemma however, is DNA testing. This is potentially fantastic tool for genealogist, but can only perform to its true potential with collaboration and sharing of data. So now I’m finding myself looking at DNA matches who, for whatever reason, have chosen to keep their tree private. The shoe is most definitely on the other foot now.

    Do I go public?

    What do you think?

  2. Reading up on the ancestors

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    Over the last week I have been teaching students about the various routes to Continuing Professional Development in professional genealogy and it made me think about the increasing pile of books I’ve been accumulating, but still haven’t found time to read. Is it just me? I’m a self confessed book buying addict, if I don’t have a copy I need one. Perhaps it’s a genealogist thing.


    A selection of my reading material


    I decided to take some time out and have some dedicated reading time. As this was a luxury in itself I went a step further and picked a couple of titles relevant to my own research! I was born in Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, so many of my recent ancestors came from the Birmingham area. Ah, I have a book about that.



    My maternal grandfather, George Hollings Jenkins, was born in Hunslet, Leeds in 1908. George is shown pictured centre in the photograph below, with his younger brothers Alfred (left) and Tom (right). Tom Jenkins was a violinist, famed for his position as leader of the BBC Palm Court Orchestra in the radio programme “Grand Hotel”. By the mid 1930s George had moved down to Birmingham.


    Albert, George and Tom Jenkins c.1917


    It therefore made sense to focus on Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors and Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors together and I thought I would share my views of these two titles with you*.

    The Tracing Your… series is a popular series from publishers Pen and Sword. The difficulty with reading two books from the same publisher about tracing ancestors in cities is that you do notice more the similarities, a formula starts to shine through. However, there were some definite differences in style and content.


    Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors (Michael Sharpe)



    This is a very well written and thoroughly enjoyable account of the unique nature of Birmingham and the surrounding areas, including Solihull and Sutton Coldfield (where I was born). Mike Sharpe describes the growth of Birmingham from its days as a rather insignificant parish compared to its neighbouring, more wealthy, Aston to the modern conurbation we see today. The complexity of changes in boundaries and jurisdictions is explained: “Where is Birmingham?”, “It depends” and put into context with the search for genealogical records. The history of Birmingham is followed by a description of the major genealogical sources and where to find them. Rather than attempt to teach the basics of family history, not appropriate in a volume of this type, the descriptions are focused on the records available for Birmingham. Areas of focus include religion, trades, education, health, transport, crime and housing. I found the section on industry particularly interesting as a number of my ancestors were in the trades: brass workers, wire drawers, gunmakers and even a brass bedstead maker.

    The major repositories in the Midlands area are described, references provided for the major classes of records and details given of many indexes and paper catalogues not available through the online catalogues. However, Mike doesn’t just focus on archives in Birmingham but also tells you where else to get access to Birmingham records. There are many references to specialist websites and museums and the BMSGH (Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry) and the Midlands Historical Data website feature repeatedly.

    Thoroughly recommended for anyone with ancestors from Birmingham and the Midlands.


    Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors (Rachel Bellerby)



    A very specific title but useful to those, like myself, with ancestors from Leeds. Whilst the scope of the book is quite small an attempt is made to cover a vast array of material. There are excellent chapters on the history and development of the city and the rest of the book is broken down into themes, e.g. trades, education, poverty. Records and repositories relevant to Leeds are described in detail and information included about where to find different record types (not as straightforward as you might believe).

    However, I wonder whether an attempt has not been made to cover too much in one volume. Whilst the majority of the book is written with Leeds specific research in mind there are some areas, e.g. Basic Resources, when an attempt is made to generalise and this is not always successful. The description of general family history resources is too brief and a referral to a general family history text would have been better placed. House history, a significant subject in it own right, gets only a page and a half of coverage.

    Overall though, well worth a read if you have ancestors from Leeds.

    * Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors in exchange for a review, though this was such a long time ago they may not even remember!

  3. Research at the Norfolk / Cambridgeshire border


    One of the parts of my job that I love the most is having the privilege to look at original historical documents. With more and more material becoming available online it can be a real treat to have the opportunity to examine documents in person.

    I have recently been working on a very interesting case, for a client I’ve been working with for a number of years. During my last piece of work I spent almost as much time searching for what records survived and where they were held as I did examining documents. The family came from the Wisbech area in Cambridgeshire which, as you can see from the map below, is close to the borders with Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

    Location of Wisbech St Mary

    My most recent work involved looking for two things: surviving poor law and associated records for Wisbech St Mary and parish registers, Bishop’s Transcripts and poor law records for the nearby parishes of West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth in Norfolk. You would think this would fairly straightforward, surely a combination of visits to Cambridgeshire Archives and Norfolk Record Office?

    In fact it was far more complex than that. The parishes of interest all fall within the Deanery of Wisbech Lynn Marshland and the majority of records for these parishes are held at neither county archive but at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.

    Of course, only the majority of records are there. There are some poor law records for Wisbech St Mary at Cambridgeshire Archives and some at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.

    The parish registers for West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth are held at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum but Norfolk Record Office has microfiche copies.

    The parishes West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth may all be in Norfolk but, whilst West Walton and Walsoken were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Norwich, Emneth was in the Diocese of Ely. Bishops Transcripts (BTs) for the Diocese of Norwich are are now easily accessed via the Family Search or Ancestry websites. To further complicate matters this part of the country also has Archdeacon’s Transcripts or Register Bills (RBs). These are also available on Family Search and Ancestry.

    Cambridgeshire Archives is not the Diocesan Archive. The records of the Diocese of Ely are held within the Manuscripts Department at Cambridge University Library.

    I now had a number of options. After extensive searching, emailing and telephone calls I established that the Wisbech St Mary poor law records for my period of interest were at Cambridgeshire Archives:

    Cambridgeshire Archives hold some of the poor law records for Wisbech St Mary

    I examined my West Walton and Walsoken BTs and RBs online but travelled to Cambridgeshire University library to look at the BTs for Emneth, a rare opportunity to examine these original documents in person.

    Cambridgeshire University Library holds the Diocese of Ely archives

    Bishops Transcripts

    I then visited the Wisbech and Fenland Museum to examine parish registers and poor law records for my Norfolk parishes.

    Wisbech and Fenland Museum

    Parish registers

    This particular piece of work may only have been looking at the more common sources for family history research but the location of the documents added its own level of complexity. This was a first visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum for me and a fantastic opportunity to look at a variety of documents. It is only a very small archive compared to others but the staff are exceedingly helpful and I really enjoyed visiting somewhere new.

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