Newsletter - 1 July 2013
The LostCousins newsletter is
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On Wednesday I was the only person at the Social Research Association's half-day conference entitled "The Census: Now and in the Future" who had anything to do with family history. There was nobody from Ancestry, nobody from findmypast, and not even anyone from the Society of Genealogists or the Federation of Family History Societies!
It's true that you and I are unlikely to be around in 2122 when the 2021 Census is released - but if our voice isn't heard now there may not be a census for future generations to study.
What IS the alternative to the traditional census? On Wednesday morning Daily Mail readers were treated to a somewhat mangled version of the facts with a headline that suggesting that the census was going to be replaced by information from search engines like Google. Somewhat mischievously they referred to the conference as "behind-closed-doors" when in practice they could have done what I did and paid £65 to attend.
The reality - mentioned lower down in the newspaper article - is that the primary sources of information would be records held by public bodies such as HM Revenue & Customs, the Department of Work & Pensions, the National Health Service register of patients (not the health records), local authorities, and educational establishments. These would be supplemented by information from utility companies and major retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury.
This isn't a completely new idea - on my bookshelves there's an excellent book called People Count written by Muriel Nissel, and published in 1987 by Her Majesty's Stationery Office on behalf of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. In Chapter 7 there is a section entitled "Are there alternatives to the census?" which covers much of the same ground.
The key advantage of using information from existing databases †is that statistics would be available on a rolling-basis, rather than every 10 years - but I reckon that with a little ingenuity (and clever use of modern technology) it's possible to do this without losing the traditional household census that has proven so valuable over two centuries.
Right now no decision has been taken about the future of the census, or its possible replacement, but if the 2021 Census is to go ahead the decision has to be made by September 2014 (according to Ian Cope, the Director for Population and Demography at the Office for National Statistics, who spoke at the conference).
There will be a further consultation between September and November of this year, and that will be our FINAL opportunity to make our position known. I'll let you know through this newsletter when the consultation document is published, and there will also be a special section on the LostCousins forum where we can discuss the issues and formulate our tactics in order to make the most impact.
I reckon the biggest danger is that the Government will take the decision based purely on cost. The 2011 England & Wales Census cost about half a billion pounds, an incredible amount of money when you consider that the actual information was provided completely FREE by people like you and me.
However, in 2011 only about one-sixth of the census forms were submitted online, even though about two-thirds of households have access to the Internet. Mind you, having completed my own form online I'm not surprised - the online system was somewhat clunky (for example, you couldn't go back to make a correction, nor was there any easy way to print out your data or save it), so I expect quite a few people gave up and filled in the paper form instead.
But perhaps the most amazing statistic is that it cost £90 million to chase up households who hadn't returned their completed census forms - yet there's little or no incentive for them to do so. After the 2001 Census only 43 people were prosecuted for not completing the census form, and of those only 38 were convicted - yet there are typically over a million forms that aren't returned.
Since the stick isn't very effective, perhaps they should try a carrot? I reckon that if householders who completed their form on time had been entered into a free lottery with a 1st prize of £1,000,000 and 50 2nd prizes of PlayStation 3s or iPads the response rate would have been far higher. And, if the top prize had been doubled from £1,000,000 to £2,000,000 in the event that the winning householder had submitted their return online, then I think there would have been far more online submissions.
If sufficient households submit their returns over the Internet it opens up all sorts of possibilities - such as updating the numbers between censuses using online surveys - but it's also a big cost saver. It was Francis Maude, the Minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, who instigated the review of the census, so it's interesting to note that according to the Cabinet Office's own estimates, it costs 30 times as much to process a postal transaction as an online one.
Bring down the cost of a traditional household census and the argument for doing away with the census becomes much less powerful!
Note: although all of the countries in the UK are reviewing the options for 2021, Scotland & Northern Ireland will decide independently about their censuses - and may not come to the same decision as England & Wales.
When civil registration was introduced in England & Wales in July 1837 there were a lot of misunderstandings - which is hardly surprising considering that half the population were illiterate. There was also a certain amount of misinformation circulated by members of the clergy, who not only objected to the new 'civil marriages' but also argued that baptism registers were a more reliable source of information than the new birth registers.
I was recently looking through the register of baptisms for St Nicolas, Witham, Essex when I noticed that there were an exceptionally high number of baptisms in the last week of June 1837. Whilst there had been just 25 baptisms in the 6 months from January to June 1836, in the last 6 days of June 1837 there were 27!
On 28th June 6 children of George Rowe, hairdresser, and his wife Harriett were baptised - their dates of birth ranging from 1828-1837. There's no way of knowing what the vicar might have said to his congregation, but clearly it had quite an effect - and I suspect that this isn't the only parish where there was a last-minute rush to the baptismal font.
Tip: late baptisms are more common than you might think - one of my 19th century relatives was baptised shortly before marrying. Even where birth dates aren't regularly given in the register the vicar would usually identify an adult baptism, and might give the age or birth year of a teenager. And whilst on this topic, we've recently been discussing double baptisms on the LostCousins forum - they're not particularly rare either, though you have to be very careful indeed to distinguish them from the far more common situation where the parents reused the name of a child who died in infancy.
I thought it was worth reproducing this email from Simon in full:
I know you've touched on this subject before in your newsletters, but how do you stop people posting online family trees that are totally wrong?
I am increasingly worried that my diligently researched and totally accurate family tree information is becoming swamped by erroneous imitations and that future generations who might come across my research will not recognise it as accurate and true.
I've been researching for over 10 years now and I placed my family tree publically online at Ancestry in the hope of: a) making contacts with unknown relatives b) Sharing my research so that others might benefit from it.
This year I changed my tree status to private.† I did this with regret but felt it was necessary to protect it from "name collectors" and lazy researchers.
In over ten years I have only made contact with four fairly close relatives: one who obviously takes genealogy seriously, one who makes glaring mistakes and two who haven't bothered responding to my messages. Ihave also found my research, photographs and transcripts embedded in scores of other trees.† This is what I wanted to happen all those years ago BUT when I see that my research has been added to the wrong people, or information has been corrupted it makes me very sad and frustrated.
To give you an example:
My Great Great Uncle, John Thomas Wilkinson, died in a POW camp in Pretoria on 10th June 1900. For over eight years I could find no trace of him in UK records after 1891 until I searched the Soldiers Records at FindMyPast and there he was. I know it was him because his home address and next of kin details were all correct and this fitted perfectly with the fact he did not appear on the 1901 or 1911 censuses.
Imagine my surprise when I find him in somebody's Ancestry tree as died in 1900 but continuing to live on in the 1901 census with a wife and family.†
Further investigation of this person's tree revealed other glaring errors - all corruptions of my research. There was data that could only have come from my tree, but this person had turned it into a nonsense.† I was so angry I sent a very rude message (which I regretted when I had calmed down), but it made me realise that this is all very personal and emotionally important stuff.† Rediscovering where one came from is a labour of love. To observe some stranger mucking it all up is very difficult to deal with.
It has now got to the point where there are dozens of these Ancestry trees continuing to promote incorrect information and I feel powerless to do anything about it.
To protect my tree, the one true source of accurate information, no-one else can now see it. That means that anyone researching my family will only be presented by erroneous trees and that inaccuracy has won. What's the point in that?
Even if your Ancestry tree is private other users can still connect with you, and when they do you can decide whether or not to give them access to your tree. There is no need to make your tree public!
Better still, stick to LostCousins, because then you can't go wrong - our computerised matching algorithm is virtually 100% accurate, so nobody needs to see the information you enter.
If you're relatively new to family history, or first began using Ancestry in the past 5 or 6 years you might be wondering what I'm talking about when I refer to the Old Search. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin....
Once upon a time Ancestry decided to introduce a new method of searching their records, one that would make it easier for beginners to use their site. It worked - they attracted millions of new users and made a lot of money. And so we all lived happily ever after..... or did we?
Unfortunately, whilst the new system might have made it easier for beginners to get lots of results, they were often the wrong results (though many beginners didn't realise this and put the wrong relatives in their online tree). Even worse, it often didn't deliver the right results in situations where the previous system would have done - it was certainly no fairy tale ending for experienced Ancestry users.
Ancestry couldn't completely get rid of the existing search function, because they knew that they'd lose many of their existing customers - so instead they renamed it Old Search and hid it away so that only the people who were already using it were ever likely to find it. †I imagine they thought that we'd all switch to the New Search eventually. But whereas in the story of Aladdin, the wicked sorcerer was able to get his hands on the magic lamp through trickery, we didn't fall for the "New searches for old" scam.
However, Ancestry had some other tricks up their sleeve. They made Family Tree Maker default to the New Search, removed the Old Search completely from Ancestry Library Edition, and from time to time switched home subscribers from the Old Search to the New Search for no apparent reason. (Some of them couldn't find their way back again - the Ancestry site can be a maze at the best of times - and wrongly assumed that the Old Search had disappeared altogether. )
The net result is that, according to Ancestry, only 2% of us are still using the Old Search - and now they are talking about merging the two searches into one, which in practice is likely to mean that the Old Search just disappears.
You might think I'm simply resistant to change, but in reality I'm always looking for new and better ways of doing things. †The problem is, even after all these years, the New Search simply doesn't deliver the goods. Why change to a system that doesn't work as well?
But don't take my word for it - take a look at some examples which illustrate the failings of the New Search. Census searches are absolutely to fundamental to family historians, because unless we can trace our lines back to the first censuses we're unlikely to be able to track them back any earlier. In March I wrote about a problem searching the 1901 Census reported by Valerie which highlighted some of the problems with the New Search - you can read it again here.
When I heard about Ancestry's latest plans I carried out another test, this time using a different census: I searched the 1881 England Census for individuals with the surname Calver and birthplace Barton. With 'Exact matches only' ticked I got precisely 16 results, all of which were relevant. When I deselected 'Exact matches only' I got many more results, but the first 16 were the ones I'd found previously - so full marks to Ancestry's Old Search for putting the most relevant results at the top of the list.
Next I switched to the New Search and ran the search again: with 'Match all terms exactly' selected I got no results at all! When I deselected 'Match all terms exactly' I got lots of results, but not one of the first 100 results had a birthplace that included the word 'Barton' - and at that point I gave up, as most people would.
However, I happen to know that the correct name of the parish is Great Barton - so I ran the test again, this time looking for Calver with birthplace Great Barton. On this occasion the Old Search produced 0 results with 'Exact matches only' selected, but when I removed the tick the first 16 results were the ones I got previously.
Would the New Search do any better this time? With 'Match all terms exactly' selected there still wasn't a single result - and although when I deselected it one of the correct results did come up, it was the 60th result in the list, which put it at the bottom of the third results page. By the time I'd scanned through the top 200 results I'd still only found 9 of the 16 results that the Old Search delivered - and how many people would have the persistence to look through 10 pages of Search results? Even if they did, they'd still be missing nearly half the results that the Old Search found.
These may be individual instances, but they are symptomatic of a wider problem - that in dumbing down the search process Ancestry have removed functionality. Ancestry might believe they know what's best for us, but as I wrote on Dick Eastman's blog "Ancestry seem to think they're smarter than we are. If they were we wouldn't be having this discussion."
The one piece of good news is that Ancestry are seeking comments from users of the Old Search - following this link will take you to the survey form.
Tip: to switch between the Old and New Search click the Search tab, and select Search All Records - you'll find a link in the top right corner of the page.
1.2 million more Welsh records at findmypast
Findmypast are in the process of digitizing and indexing the parish registers and transcripts held by the National Library of Wales and many of the record offices in the Welsh County Archivists Group. This week they added 1.2 million records to the 5.9 million already in the Wales Collection, and as most of my wife's ancestors came from Wales I'm going to be ploughing through the records just as soon as I have the time.
You can read the latest announcement from findmypast here.
Tip: David wrote to tell me that the baptisms for Llanenddwyn - in Merionethshire - are recorded a second time, but with the county shown as Montgomeryshire. Findmypast have been notified, but in the meantime there could be some confusion (I find Welsh place names confusing enough as it is!).†
In the last newsletter I implied that none of the records at ScotlandsPlaces are free. That isn't correct - it is still possible to access the Farm Horse tax records and the Clock & Watch tax records free of charge.
I also stated that the cost of a subscription is £15 - it's actually £15 plus VAT, ie £18 in total.
Many thanks to Chris Paton, the renowned genealogist, author, and blogger for pointing out these errors.
Several members wrote to draw my attention to an article in the Irish Times about EU proposals to extend data protection regulations to include public records, such as the birth, marriage, and death information held by the GRO has caused some concern amongst genealogists.
I don't know how likely it is that these regulations will come into force, but they shouldn't have much impact† on genealogists - because we're primarily researching people who have died. I've always felt it a little worrying that we can find out so much about people we don't know and may never meet, simply by searching the GRO indexes (although I have to admit that it hasn't stopped me using all the available resources).
Ironically, Ancestry this week uploaded the GRO death indexes for 2007 (but see Stop Press) - even though the GRO told me in response to my Freedom of Information request in 2011 that:
"recent advice led us to conclude in 2008 that there was no clear legal basis for the Registrar General to make the indexes available in this way"
If Ancestry didn't get the data from the GRO, where did it come from? And if they did get it from the GRO, why haven't we seen it at other websites?
In the last newsletter I wrote about the imminent release of the 1921 Census of Canada. What I didn't do was to repeat the unsubstantiated rumours that were going round about the release being held back deliberately by the government.
Nor did I repeat the story from the Ottawa Citizen which talked about a secret deal with a "private high-tech consortium" that would result in access to some digitized documents held by Library and Archives Canada being charged for.
In fact, Canadiana - not a shadowy private consortium, but an alliance of Canadian public and research libraries - will be making the images available free of charge. There will be a charge to search the transcribed text, but the revenues will be used to partially fund the transcription work (the remaining funding is coming from grants and donations). You can read about Canadiana's plans here.
Earlier this month there was a lot of publicity in the British newspapers when it was claimed that DNA tests had proved that Prince William has an Indian ancestor on his mother's side (see this Guardian article).
The research had been carried out by a company called BritainsDNA who seem to be very adept at courting the media (just this week the Telegraph reported their assertion that the invention of porridge was key to the advancement of the human race).
However, when it comes to the claims about Prince William's ancestry there are considerable doubts, according to Debbie Kennett, LostCousins member and author of DNA and Social Networking: A Guide to Genealogy in the Twenty-First Century - you can read her blog posting here.
According to an article posted on the BBC website this weekend people in Britain inherit their social class not just from their parents but also from their grandparents.
Personally I'm not sure that class is as important in modern Britain as it used to be, but then I would say that, wouldn't I - one of my grandfathers was a boilermaker, the other a commercial traveller.
Following my recent articles about the graves that are being reused at two east London cemeteries Elizabeth sent me a link to an article from The Spectator entitled Recycled graves - coming soon to a cemetery near you which suggests that there will be an increase in the reuse of graves.
I'm not against the principle of making better use of the limited space available, but the practice of doing so without relatives being aware of what's happening has to stop. All cemeteries could make their records readily available through DeceasedOnline if they chose, and in my opinion those that don't should be barred from touching our ancestors' graves.
There's an article on the BBC website about middle names, and whilst it's a whimsical look at the topic, it serves as a reminder that we shouldn't take the middle names of our ancestors too seriously.
I asked in my last newsletter whether any members would be interested in combining winter sunshine with genealogy, and I've already had a sufficiently good response to start making some tentative plans (although we do still need more attendees, so let me know if YOU might be interested).
I was surprised how many members from Canada were interested in attending - I guess it's even colder there than it is in England!
I've currently pencilled in the third week of March 2014, and am talking to potential speakers - but the best news is that I'm negotiating with one of the most beautiful resorts on the Algarve coast. As you can see from the photographs I took there earlier this year, the architecture is traditional and the setting peaceful, with plenty of shade for those who find the sun too hot (though with an average daily high of 66 degrees in March that shouldn't be a problem).
Everything's cheaper out of season - not just the accommodation, but also the airline tickets and the car hire (if required). The apartments and villas all have their own kitchens and washing machines, so it's just like being at home - indeed, most of the properties at the resort are used as second homes or holiday homes by their owners, so no two are exactly alike (it's completely different from staying in a hotel!).
If you want to eat out every night you can, but cooking in the apartment can be just as much fun, and a lot cheaper - especially if we organise some informal dinner parties. We'll also get together for restaurant meals now and again.
I'm currently envisaging that there will be 5 formal half-day sessions over the course of a week, with the rest of the daytime reserved for sunbathing, sitting on the beach, exploring, shopping, tennis, or whatever you want (there's a golf course nearby for spouses who prefer that to family history). So far as possible I'm going to keep the timetable flexible so that we make the most of the sunshine - if it's raining one day (even Portugal has rain) we might have two sessions to free up time on another day when the forecast is better.
Although the course is only a week long I'll be around for longer, and I'd encourage you to come earlier and/or leave later †- you'll find the air fares are cheaper if you don't travel at weekends so that will help to offset the extra accommodation costs.
Finally, just to make it clear that whilst I'll be co-ordinating the whole thing, you'll make your own travel arrangements and book the accommodation directly with the resort - it has to be done this way to avoid involving a travel agent who would simply add on an extra layer of costs, but it also means you have complete flexibility.
When I was a child we only had pork and chicken as an occasional Sunday treat, but these days they're amongst the cheapest meats in the supermarket (especially in Portugal, by the way). †As a result I've found through experimentation that a lot of recipes for casseroles and stews that are intended for beef or veal work just as well with pork.
But enough talk of food - it's making me hungry. Time for some genealogy tips!
Family Tree DNA, the company that I chose when I decided to start using DNA to break down some of the 'brick walls' in my family tree, have a Summer Sale with substantial reductions on most of their tests (see here for prices).
But before you take a DNA test make sure you know what it is that you're hoping to discover - and check that you're the right person to be taking the test. Last year I wrote a series of articles explaining what you can and can't do using DNA tests - and you could save yourself a lot of heartache by re-reading them. Click here to read them again.
In recent months I've made some changes to the LostCousins site that make the process of connecting with cousins simpler. If you log-in and go to your My Summary page you'll find a statistic called Match Potential which indicates your chances of finding new relatives - the higher the number, the more you're likely to find. To increase your Match Potential add more relatives to your My Ancestors page, focusing on the ones who were recorded on the 1881 Census.
Once you've made a match another statistic comes into play. Go to your My Cousins page and click on the initials of the person you've been matched with to display the My Contact page for that relationship. There you'll see the Match Rating - which can vary from 0 to 5. A rating of 1 or more indicates that the person you've been connected with is a cousin, but a lower value suggests that they might be related only by marriage.
Sometimes you can increase the Match Rating by entering more relatives - or by correcting the relationships shown for some of the relatives you've already entered. I've noticed that some members have a blind spot when it comes to 'direct ancestors' - if you're not sure who counts as a direct ancestor of yours, fill out the blank Ancestor Chart I provide (everyone on the chart is a direct ancestor of yours).
I forgot to mention that on each My Contact page there's a space for notes - I find it very useful, and I think you will too.
It seems that the 2007 GRO death records at Ancestry only go up to the end of April, and may not be complete.
I'll be sending out more invitations to join the LostCousins forum shortly - if you're fortunate enough to receive one I look forward to seeing you there!
© Copyright 2013 Peter Calver
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