Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. 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    One of the parts of my job that I love the most is having the privilege to look at original historical documents.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.

  2. 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!



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