Newsletter - 25 June 2010



Findmypast challenge Ancestry head-on

Ancestry's National Trust offer disappoints

Searching for missing children

IGI to be upgraded

Parish registers - a treasure trove!

Online parish maps

Did the Black Death affect your family?

Don't assume….

Is the NHS register full of errors?

Organising your research

Changes at Genes Reunited

Who Do You Think You Are?

Nick Barratt's new magazine

London burial sites mapped

Peter's Tips


About this newsletter

The LostCousins newsletter is published twice a month on average, and all LostCousins members are notified by email when a new edition is available (unless they opt out). To access the previous newsletter (dated 16 June 2010) please click here. Each newsletter links to the one before, and you can go back to February 2009 when the newsletter first went online; in due course there will be an online index to articles.


Whenever possible links are included to the websites mentioned in the newsletter (they are highlighted in blue or purple and underlined, so you can't miss them). Note: when you click on a link a new browser window or tab will open so that you don’t lose your place in the newsletter.


Although the newsletters are hosted at LostCousins, they are not part of the main website. Click here to go to the main website and search for your living relatives.


Findmypast challenge Ancestry head-on

Since the end of last year Ancestry users have been able to search the GRO birth, marriage, and death indexes by name - in other words providing a similar service to the one offered by FreeBMD, but going all the way up to 2005.


Unfortunately there are so many errors that you have to be very careful how you search - for example, Ancestry seemed to think that Redbridge registration district is in Hampshire, and many other districts travel around the country depending on which year you're searching! There are also far more transcription errors than there should be considering that the source indexes are typewritten or printed, not handwritten - which I suspect is because their originals are so poor (they seem to be almost illegible in some cases).


I was therefore delighted to learn that findmypast are planning to transcribe the BMD indexes, and that the births could be online within weeks. At the same time there's going to be an increase in the number of credits charged, but that's not a factor for anyone with a subscription - and in any case, when you can go straight to the correct entry it's still going to work out far cheaper than the old system in most cases (as well as much quicker).


Even if there were as many errors in findmypast's transcriptions - which I doubt, because they are working from excellent originals, and have over 1000 people involved in the project - having two sites with different transcriptions will be just as valuable as it is with the censuses. Indeed, it's a positive development for all family historians, whichever site you subscribe to.


Whilst findmypast are keeping their cards very close to their chest, they have let slip that it will be possible to search all birth records from 1837-2006 with a single search: Ancestry split theirs into two periods, 1837-1915 and 1916-2005 which makes it tedious searching for births in the key 1911-1920 period, the first decade where the mother's maiden name was recorded in the index.


When the birth indexes are made available I'll carry out a comparison of the two sites, and report the results in a future newsletter.


For a run-down of the many changes in the credit pricing at findmypast click here (but as you must know by now, my advice is to get a subscription if you can possibly justify it, whichever site you choose to use).



Ancestry's National Trust offer disappoints

I've had a number of emails from members who were disappointed to discover that the 25% discount offered by Ancestry to National Trust members only applies to new subscriptions.


Sadly this is just one more example of the way in which Ancestry favour new customers over existing subscribers. As I've suggested before, the only way to fight back is to cancel your subscription, so that when it expires it won't be automatically renewed. You can do this at any time - you'll still get what you have already paid for, and when it does run out you can choose the best offer available at the time.


It's true that findmypast have been recently been offering a 15% discount to attract new subscribers (though the offer's about to end - see here for details), but on the other hand ALL findmypast subscribers get a 20% loyalty discount when they renew, even if they upgrade, downgrade, or change the length of their subscription - just so long as there is no break.


Another advantage of the findmypast approach is that you can choose at any time whether or not you want your subscription to be renewed automatically when it expires (and you can change the setting too). Ancestry don't provide that option, which is why cancelling your subscription, even if you plan to renew, is the only way you can be the one in control.


But whichever site you subscribe to, be sure that you make the most of what they offer - ultimately it's the way you use the sites that determines how useful they are.


Searching for missing children

Michael recently asked how I'd go about finding the birth of a missing child, a child whose existence is known from the 1911 Census, but who doesn't appear on any censuses because they died at a very young age.


If the surname is a fairly common one, it seems like a real conundrum - but I was able to provide a strategy that will work in most cases. Here's what I recommended:


(1) The first thing to check is whether any of the children you already know about had a twin who died - typically this will show up as a birth registration on the same page, or an adjoining page. Note that if you have a birth certificate that quotes the time of birth this invariably indicates a multiple birth.


(2) If the first step doesn't provide the answer, then the next step is to look at the date of marriage, and the birth dates of the children you do know about, in order to deduce which dates it would have been physically possible for another child to have been born - and which dates seem most likely. For example, if there's a 2 year gap between most of the children, but a 4 year gap between two of them, it's a reasonable assumption that there was a child who died.


(3) Finally look at the births registered at those times in the right part of the country, and see whether you can match any of them with a death index entry. FreeBMD is the best site to use for this purpose because it allows you to search births and deaths at the same time, and also to select multiple registration districts (hold down the Ctrl key as you make your selections).


Most problems can be solved if you go about them in a thoughtful and methodical way - it's the researchers who approach problems in a haphazard fashion who turn difficult problems into impossible ones.


IGI to be upgraded

Although the IGI is a wonderful resource, with by far the biggest collection of baptism and marriage entries from Britain (and many other countries too), it has always concerned me that amongst the entries collected systematically by teams of experienced volunteers there are numerous entries contributed by individuals, most of which are of dubious value (many don't given an exact date or name the church where the event took place).


I understand that it is planned to upgrade the IGI by separating the two sets of data. This is an excellent idea, and I hope that we won't have to wait too long for the change to be implemented.


If you're not familiar with the IGI, or feel there's more you need to know, I recommend you take a look at my articles on the Help & Advice page.


Parish registers - a treasure trove!

It's all too easy to rely on transcriptions of parish registers, rather than check the actual registers on microfiche - or, if you're lucky, online. But unless you look at the registers you'll never know what you're missing!


For example, after 1753 all marriage entries include the signatures of the witnesses, information that might seem incidental, but which in practice often helps to confirm that you're researching the correct parents. I can think of at least half a dozen instances in my tree where the names of marriage witnesses provided vital clues to the identity of my direct ancestors. Of course, it wasn't always obvious at the time - in one case it was several years later when the same name cropped up, and provided a completely unexpected solution to the mystery.


Similarly, baptism registers from 1813 onwards include the occupation of the father, absolutely vital information when there's someone else with the same name in a nearby parish - or even in the same parish. The real bonus comes when you discover something written in the register that really shouldn't be there - like the cure for epilepsy that I wrote about a few months ago. Recently I've been scanning the burial registers of St Peter ad Vincula, Great Coggeshall in Essex, when I spotted something I've never seen before…


On 12th August 1755 a Mary Man, widow of John Man, was buried in the churchyard - but it was the words that followed that made me shiver "a reputed witch". I wonder what, if anything, she had done to deserve that reputation? She wasn't one of my ancestors, but perhaps she was one of yours?


Another page, a quarter of a century earlier, also caught my eye - five people were buried between the 17th and 18th June 1730: Ann wife of William Nicolds, Robert Skakeshaft, Rebecca Wakeling, Thos son of Ambrose Smith, and Thomas Trew. Alongside were the words "shot by the forces then quartered here in a Riot".


A Google search revealed that there had been a riot in nearby Great Tey in 1727, but I haven't yet been able to find out what happened in 1730, although I did find an estimate that two-thirds of the riots in the 18th century were about food (or the lack thereof). This doesn't surprise me - having studied the burial registers for Coggeshall the number of infants and children who died during the period was quite horrifying, and some families lost a child almost every year.


Although most of the entries in the early baptism registers for Coggeshall didn't give the age or date of birth of the child, some not only gave the date, but also the time:


"January 28:1775 Jamima Daughter of Richard and M… born November 13:1774 half after 9 at night"


Modern birth certificates show the time of birth only in respect of twins (or other multiple births), but all the individuals I found with precisely timed births were baptised singly. I wonder whether giving the time was a form of one-upmanship, a way of making it clear that "we have a clock", or did it merely indicate that the family lived sufficiently close to the church that they could hear the clock striking?


Quite a few Essex registers are online, thanks to the Essex Records Office, including the ones I've quoted above - but the luckiest researchers are the ones with Norfolk ancestry, because the registers are online at the FamilySearch beta site (you can also access them from the main site by choosing Record Search Pilot from the Search Records tab). Original registers for parts of Kent are online at the CityArk website.


All of those are available free, but I expect that more and more counties will bring in an outside partner - for example, the London Metropolitan Archives are making all their registers available through Ancestry. Fortunately Ancestry seem to have their best transcribers working on the LMA registers, and the number of transcription errors is minimal - though you still have to be careful when searching marriage records using the birth year of the bride or groom, because if no age was given for a post-1837 marriage Ancestry assume that the individual was 0 years old!


Note: even though you may be unable to access the registers of interest online, and may live too far away to consider a visit to the records office, you may well be able to obtain copies of specific register entries through FamilySearch. See my earlier articles for more information.


Online parish maps

When we don't find the entries we're seeking in the registers of the parish where we expect to find them, it makes sense to look at nearby parishes. Parish boundaries are often quite contorted, so it's quite possible that our ancestors lived closer to the church in another parish - or maybe the mother chose to have her children baptised in the parish where she grew up?


Whatever my theory as to why the baptism or marriage isn't where I thought it was, I find it helpful to look at a map of the parishes. Until recently that hasn't been easy, even when I've been in the county records office, so I was delighted to discover that FamilySearch has a maps section where under the heading England Jurisdictions 1851 you can find out exactly where the parish boundaries are (and overlay them on a satellite map or modern street map).


Did the Black Death affect your family?

Recently I've been corresponding with a researcher who shares my Calver surname, and in the course of the discussion we wondered why the surname seems to have vanished from Derbyshire, where the village of that name can be found, during the 14th century.


Days later the answer arrived on my doorstep, in the form of an article in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society. Having summarised the available research the authors of the article concluded that the proportion of the population who died during the Black Death in 1347-53 approached 60%. Furthermore, the country seems to have been hit harder than the towns - and in the village of Eyam, just 2 miles from Calver, as many as 80% of the population are believed to have died.


I wonder whether the Black Death might have affected your family too?


Don't assume….

Another article in the same issue of Significance quoted from the late Douglas Adams - who was (a) at school with me, and (b) once sued me in the High Court (it was a misunderstanding that was all sorted out amicably - and at no cost to either of us, thankfully). Adams wrote (in Last Chance to See) that the most misleading assumptions are the ones that you don't even know you are making.


A couple of days later this was really brought home to me when I read an article by Stephen Rigden, one of findmypast's experts, in which he wrote:


"It is quite common to hear family legends and lore which have been passed down through the generations like heirlooms. However, the difference between a normal heirloom, such as a valued piece of jewellery or furniture, and a family legend is that the latter tends to be changed over time: to become more colourful, more elusive, less plausible. In many, if not most, family legends there will be a kernel of truth and it is the job of the family historian to work through the accumulated layers of elaboration and embroidery to uncover that truth."


I frequently receive emails from people whose research has been held back for years, perhaps decades, by their refusal to entertain the possibility that their family legend may not be the unvarnished truth. Just because something was once written down doesn't make it true: the Venerable Bede (673-735) is our best source for early British history, but many of the events he wrote about had happened hundreds of years earlier, so all he was doing was writing down what others had told him.


Similarly, an obituary published in the 19th century may be the most detailed description we have of our ancestor's life, but it doesn't make it true - nor does the fact that one of our ancestors set down the genealogy of his ancestors and published it make him a reliable source. People who researched their family tree in days of old usually had a specific objective, and with fewer resources available to them they may have been less critical of the evidence they collected than we are today.


Is the NHS register full of errors?

It's not just family stories that can be riddled with inaccuracies - official records are often wrong. We've all seen examples of errors on birth, marriage and death certificates (even if we sometimes didn't realise it at the time!).


Now that more military records are becoming available online (notably the Army pensioners records at findmypast) it's common to discover relatives who lied about their age in order to sign up (or more likely, to get away from home!).


But it's a little more worrying to discover that the information held by the National Health Service is riddled with errors. For example, Maureen in New Zealand took my advice (in a previous newsletter) to use the Data Protection Act to obtain a copy of her entry in the 1939 National Register, which is the closest thing we have to a British census between 1921 and 1951 (since the 1931 England & Wales census was destroyed - see the last newsletter - and there was no census taken in 1941 because of the War).


When she eventually received the information she noticed that her middle initial was shown incorrectly, and her year of birth was wrong. Maybe they did it deliberately to confuse the Germans when they invaded? I don't think so!


I wasn't born until after the War, but my father was recorded on the 1939 National Register - so a while ago I typed up a letter for him to sign, requesting not just a copy of his entry in the original register, but also any other information held in the NHS Central Register (which was based on the 1939 register when the NHS was set up in 1948, and is supposed to track us as we change GPs). A few weeks later a letter came back requesting proof of identity and proof of address, which would be fair enough were it not for the fact that in April he had received a letter from another part of the NHS about his health records - which means they already knew who he was and where he lived. Ironically that letter was about the new system of storing and managing health care information to ensure that different parts of the NHS have access to the same data!


But that wasn't all they asked for - in a section headed "Helping us to find the information" they stated "please use the space below to provide further details that may help to locate the information you are seeking, such as GP data, hospital data, or details of your current and/or previous Primary Care Trusts."


In other words, they were asking him to provide all the information he was asking them to provide! Doesn't this rather suggest that they don't have much faith in their own system? Perhaps I should have a word with Andrew Lansley, the new Minister of Health? As it happens I was at school with him, too!


Organising your research

There's nothing worse than collecting information about your ancestors and then not being able to find it - or ordering a certificate, only to find that you already have it. So I thought it might be useful to describe how I manage the information that I've collected over the years - not because it's a perfect solution, but because it works well for me, and may inspire you to come up with an approach that works even better for you.


I have two parallel sets of records, written records and digital records. Any unique documents that come into my possession, for example photographs or original certificates, are scanned in - just in case something happens to the original. When I find a household on any of the censuses I save the image on my hard drive, then load it into Irfanview where I trim off the margins and adjust the brightness and contrast before printing it out.


The folders on my hard drive closely emulate the files in my filing cabinet - I have a folder for each of my ancestral lines, and within that main folder I have subfolders for the collateral lines that I've researched in the most detail. In other words, when I find I've got a lot of information about a particular line I put all the information about that line into a separate subfolder.


The family tree program I use (Genopro) makes it very easy to separate one line from the rest - it's rather like cutting a branch off a tree with a pair of loppers - so whenever I find a new cousin I can send them the relevant part of my tree, rather than giving them access to the whole lot. So far I've been very lucky with the cousins I've found (must be something in the genes), but it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.


It isn't hard to do what I do, and it isn't expensive either. The Irfanview program can be downloaded free here; I scan using an Epson multifunction printer that cost me less than £40 at Tesco; Genopro costs about £30 with the discount I've arranged (see here) and you can try it for 14 days free, to see if it does what you want.



Changes at Genes Reunited

Robert recently wrote to ask whether I'd noticed that Genes Reunited had doubled their prices. In fact the doubling of the price of the Standard subscription, from £9.95 for 12 months to £9.95 for 6 months happened several years ago (and was reported in my newsletter at the time). However, Genes Reunited allowed members who renewed continuously to pay the old rate, and that's why Robert thought the change was more recent.


One big change that has happened recently, however, is the addition of the 1911 England & Wales census. It comes at a price, a near-doubling of the rate from £34.95 for a 6-month Gold subscription to £64.95 for a 6-month Platinum subscription.


Personally I'd rather stick with findmypast (which is owned by the same group as Genes Reunited) - but there is one advantage in searching the 1911 Census at Genes Reunited, as LostCousins member Lynda pointed out recently. The free census search at Genes Reunited shows the birthplace of each individual, something you don't get at findmypast or the 1911 census site. Since Lynda pointed this out to me I've found it a great timesaver - so you may want to try it too!


One thing that hasn't changed at Genes Reunited is the high probability that someone you're matched with doesn't reply to your messages. LostCousins member Delia in New Zealand recently wrote to Your Family History magazine to complain about the 25 messages she's sent since October that haven't elicited a reply.


This highlights one of the big differences between Genes Reunited and LostCousins - if you're matched with someone at my site I'll do everything I can to get the other member to respond (which is one reason why I encourage members to provide a secondary email address, and ideally a postal address too).


But what will they do at Genes Reunited? Absolutely nothing, except tell you to be patient!


Who Do You Think You Are?

A couple of months ago I reported that the US series was about to be shown on BBC1 here in the UK, information that I took from Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. Sadly that didn't happen, possibly because of the General Election that was called around the same time.


Then, in the latest edition of Your Family Tree I read that the series isn't going to be shown on BBC at all, but might be shown on one of the minor channels. So you can imagine my surprise when I picked up the Radio Times and discovered that the Sarah Jessica Parker edition was to be shown on Sunday 13th June - on BBC1 after all! I noticed this just in time to record the programme, but not - sadly - in time to tell members about it.


However, I was consoled when I discovered that there's a new UK series starting at the end of July, and that the celebrities featured will include Bruce Forsyth, Monty Don, Jason Donovan, and Alexander Armstrong (who did a spoof of WDYTYA in his recent Armstrong & Miller series, so it will be interesting to see if they are able to get their own back!).


Nick Barratt's new magazine

I first discovered Nick Barratt through his appearances on the first series of Who Do You Think You Are?, which began in the same year as LostCousins - a very happy coincidence, since we have each in our own way helped to demystify genealogy, and interest people not just in tracing their ancestry, but also finding out about their lives.


Nick is the Editor-in-Chief of Your Family History, an excellent new magazine which has just published its third issue, and Sticks Research Agency (Nick's company) is closely involved in the project - the Editor is Laura Berry who was recruited by Sticks in 2005 and trained by Nick, so she really does know what she's talking about.


You can find out what's in the latest issue on their website.


London burial sites mapped

My article Where were Londoners buried? earlier this month prompted member John Reid in Canada to provide me with a link to a very useful online map he has produced which shows where many of the burial grounds were sited - it's a great way to see which cemeteries were closest to the places where your ancestors lived.


By the way, John also writes a blog - it could be especially interesting if you have both British and Canadian connections.


Peter's Tips

On Tuesday it was announced that VAT will be increasing to 20% in January as part of a package of changes to sort out Britain's finances. Obviously I've no idea whether major sites like Ancestry and findmypast will increase their subscriptions, but it must be on the cards.


You might be wondering what the relevance of this is, given that the rate won't be going up until January - but if you think about it, a 6 month subscription that you take out before the end of June will be renewable in December (17.5% VAT), whereas if you delay until July, it will come up for renewal in January (20% VAT).


Considering that findmypast are offering a 15% discount on all subscriptions until Sunday 27th June (for details see here) it could be one of those times when it pays to act quickly and decisively.




That's it for now - I hope you've enjoyed reading this newsletter as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it!




Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


Copyright 2010 by Peter Calver & Lost Cousins Ltd except as otherwise stated