Newsletter - 11th September 2013
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I'm still reading Michael Sharpe's book Family Matters: a History of Genealogy - it provides a fascinating insight into the way that people researched family trees in the days before the Internet, but what I find even more interesting is the way that history seems to be repeating itself.
For example, there's a fascinating account of the evidence that George Sherwood, the founder of the Society of Genealogists, gave to the Royal Commission on Public Records. He reported that he had spent 5 days researching at the General Register Office on behalf of a client, during which he had discovered 3,774 entries relating to the surname Boddington. However his search failed in its primary objective:
"First by reason of the inadequate indexes. Second, because inspection of the records themselves is not now allowed, although it was formerly. Third, because the fee [....] for certified copies of the records required would have approached £500."
Note: these days it would cost almost £35,000 to obtain copies of those certificates
In their final report (1919) the members of the Royal Commission had this to say:
"It is true that the Act of 1836 provides that the indexes may be searched on payment of a fee, and that this provision would seem to imply (as the Registrar General contends) that the actual registers shall not be searched. Nevertheless, the Act permits the local registers to be searched on payment of a fee, and in practice this was permitted by the General Register Office itself prior to the year 1898 [....] We see no good reason in principle for forbidding searchers to take copies at their own risk. The existing restriction rests merely on financial grounds, and we think it should be removed."
Note: these days it's no longer possible to search even the local registers - I'm not sure when that ceased, or on whose authority (though I suspect it was the result of GRO meddling).
Sherwood argued that public records should be available free of charge, and nowadays most of them are, provided you are prepared to visit the National Archives or the local record office that holds them. But there's no way to get access to the GRO's registers of births, marriages, and deaths even if you're prepared to pay - you can only purchase certificated copies of individual entries at £9.25 a time.
I personally don't believe that family historians should be subsidised by taxpayers, just as I don't believe that I should have to subsidise other peoples' hobbies - but I do firmly believe that Government departments should be run efficiently. The GRO doesn't make a profit selling certificates at £9.25 each, but I'm willing to bet that their Scottish counterpart makes money from the Scotlandspeople site, which offers digital copies of register entries for less than £2 each.
For me it's obvious that the GRO should cast off their outdated attitudes and embrace 21st century technology, but successive Registrars General have stubbornly insisted that the law would have to change. Last month I spoke to my local MP about the very disappointing response I received to the letter I addressed to the Home Secretary, and he has agreed to follow up on my behalf - let's see if he can get some sense out of the quill pen-pushers at the GRO!
Note: James recently drew my attention to an interesting fact - in the past century there are only about 70 deaths recorded in the GRO indexes for people with the unusual surname Childers, yet over 20 of those deaths are in a single quarter of 1943. Did the Luftwaffe drop a bomb on a family party, or was there a suicide pact between distant cousins? Were they thought to be Germans because of their unusual surname (which was adapted from Schilders) and targeted as fifth-columnists? I managed to figure out the answer to this puzzle quite quickly - I wonder if you can?
Audrey Collins from the National Archives will be giving a talk on the early years of civil registration at the Family History Extravaganza in Doncaster on 21st September that's being organised by the Yorkshire group of family history societies. You can also hear expert Chris Pomery talking about DNA, and professional genealogist Ian Marson on "Further Sources: Beyond Births, Marriages, and Deaths".
Not bad for £2 - there's even free parking.
Note: you may recall that a while back I recommended Audrey's excellent book Birth, Marriage, and Death Records (written with David Annal). I've just noticed that it's available in Kindle format for about a fiver!
Over 500,000 baptism, marriage, and burial records from 1538-1910 have been added at FamilySearch. Although there are already nearly 1.3 million baptisms and marriages in the IGI (also at FamilySearch), a quick check suggests that many, perhaps most, of the new baptism and marriage records aren't in the IGI.
Tip: when using the IGI untick the box against "Community Contributed IGI" to exclude the less reliable data submitted by users (some entries are complete conjecture).
Over 10,000 people responded to the survey that Ancestry circulated following their surprise warning that the Old Search was to be merged in to the New Search, and as a result they've added some additional features to the New Search (or "current Search" as they refer to it). You'll find full details here.
Thankfully the Old Search is still available - so make the most of it while it lasts, especially if you've never used the Old Search before (because you're likely to discover quite a few records that you've been unable to find using the New Search). To switch between the two searches select Search All Records from the Search tab and click the link at the top right.
Tip: the requirement to select birthplaces from a dropdown menu in the New Search seems to have caused distortions of the 1911 Census data. For example, about 400 people whose birthplaces are shown as Middleton, Derbyshire on the census schedule are recorded as being born in Middleton, Lancashire. I suspect this has happened because there is no parish in Derbyshire called simply 'Middleton', although there are several with Middleton in the name, such as Middleton by Wirksworth. There are likely to be other locations which are similarly affected.
Findmypast discount offer continues EXCLUSIVE
You can still save 10% on new subscriptions to findmypast.co.uk AND get a free LostCousins subscription when you follow the advice in my last newsletter - click here.
The Guild of One-Name Studies has been in existence since 1979, but it has taken until for the Society for One-Place Studies to come into existence. If you're running a one-place study, whether for a town, a village, or even just a street you'll be welcome to join the new society.
Tip: you can also use LostCousins to further your study, whether itís a One-Place Study or a One-Name Study. See the Help & Advice page for more details.
The 2nd series of this documentary series based on the "Look at Life" films shown in Rank cinemas from 1959 onwards restarted on BBC4 on Tuesday 10th September - I missed the first programme of the second half because it was erroneously billed in the Radio Times as the 1st episode, rather than as the 6th.
I thought I was doing pretty well in my research till I discovered that there are tens of thousands of Ancestry users who claim to have traced their family tree back to Adam and Eve!
What's the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen in someone's family tree? I've come across children who were supposedly born before their fathers (perhaps I didn't realise that the dates were BC?) and people who have been transplanted from the English county where they were born to an American county which just happens to have the same name. But what about you - is there a classic blunder that had you groaning, grimacing, or grinding your teeth?
Note: for the benefit of any readers who aren't familiar with Cockney rhyming slang, "Would you Adam and Eve it" means "Would you believe it".
Researchers at Glasgow University have found evidence that Glaswegians who watch EastEnders, a soap-opera based in east London, are starting to acquire some of the treats associated with the Cockney dialect - such as "f" sound instead of "th", as in "think".
Of course, there's nothing new about accents and speech-patterns changing in response to migration, but the role of television in the process has never before been fully appreciated. However the researchers have hypothesised that simply watching a program may not be enough - one needs to become emotionally engaged with the characters. I certainly watched many series of the detective series Taggart, which is set in the Greater Glasgow area, without acquiring any of the characteristics of the Glaswegian dialect (or indeed an improved ability to understand it).
You can read more about the research in this BBC article. Also, if you're interested in the English language you'll enjoy a book I'm currently reading on my Kindle: Spell It Out is not only about the idiosyncracies of English spelling, it also looks at the history behind the spellings - much of which comes down to changes in the alphabet in the Middle Ages. It's also available as a conventional book if you prefer.
We're gradually getting used to the concept of DNA analysis helping us to research our family tree, but you might be surprised to know that words can also provide pointers to our origins.
Researchers in New Zealand have found that by comparing words in different languages they can not only make deductions about how languages originated, but also use this information to hypothesise how ancient populations migrated. For example, the English language and other Indo-European tongues seem to have their origins in the languages spoken in Anatolia (now part of Turkey) 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, and which spread as early farmers migrated both eastwards and westwards. This may seem a long time ago, but when you consider that the 'deep ancestry' tests sold by some DNA testing companies purport to tell you about where your ancestors were living 30,000 or more years ago, it seems surprisingly recent in comparison.
We've all got some interesting surnames in our family trees. For example, when my great aunt Alice - who died 10 years before I was born - married her 1st cousin Frederick Lemmon one of the witnesses was an Alice Almond. It didn't stop there - their eldest son married a Duck, Violet Duck to be precise.
Many of the more unusual (and often embarrassing) surnames of the 17th and 18th centuries vanished during the 19th century, and I often wonder whether it's coincidental that this was the century during which the level of illiteracy in Britain declined dramatically. Or were men with embarrassing surnames doomed to be lifelong bachelors?
Over the years numerous members have sent me copies of an email which purports to feature a true story about a politician's great-great uncle who was hanged for horse-stealing. The name of the politician varies, though the horse-stealing ancestor is usually (but not always) called Remus.
Some members seem to have been taken in by this spoof, other are merely forwarding "a joke". Personally I think it is very dangerous to circulate untrue information whether it's a joke or not, because you don't know how the recipients will interpret it, or what they will do with it.
In my youth we used to have things called 'chain letters', which nowadays would be called Ponzi schemes after a 1920s fraudster - although Ponzi-type scams date back much earlier (according to Wikipedia there are two examples in Dickens). There will always be gullible people who will fall for the most ridiculous stories and the most preposterous schemes - don't take advantage of them.
Tip: if you're unsure whether a story you've been sent it true, try Googling a key phrase;† usually one of the results will be at Snopes.com, a site that specialises in debunking urban myths and exposing scams. Never forward an email without first checking whether it is factually correct - there are always people with blinkered minds who will assume the worst of people whose beliefs they don't share (make sure you're not one of them!).
The heads of the National Archives and of BrightSolid, the parent company of findmypast, are moving on to new roles. I only once met Oliver Morley, the departing head of TNA, and that was before he took over the top job, but at least he was prepared to talk to me, unlike his predecessor. He's now off to head the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, so perhaps we can look forward to online images of pre-war driving licences and log-books?
Chris van der Kuyl, who is moving from his position as head of BrightSolid to a new role as a strategic advisor to DC Thomson (the owners of BrightSolid), also has interests in the computer games industry - as I did for two decades from the late 70s to the late 90s. Although we never crossed paths when I was in the games business (he was probably still at school) he knows a lot of the people who worked for me at one time or another, so when we first met it was almost like bumping into an old friend.
Less than a year after Ancestry was bought by a European private-equity group the company has announced plans to borrow $250 million in order to pay dividends to its shareholders. Ancestry's last published balance sheet showed debts of well over $1 billion, at least double the company's tangible assets, so borrowing more money only to pay it to shareholders doesn't seem the most obvious step - but what do I know, it's 40 years since I worked as an investment analyst?
To be fair, Ancestry's major assets are their subscriber base and records - the value of which accounts for the substantial intangible assets and goodwill in their balance sheet - so as long as the company continues to grow I don't think we need to worry too much about their finances.
Understanding the calendar is important if you're a family historian. Of course, everyone knows that if the year is divisible by 4 then there are 29 days in February - for example, there were 29 days in February 2012, but only 28 in February this year.
Even today, different calendars are used in different parts of the world. If you were living in England, how many days would there have been in each of these months, and why?
(a) February 1900
(b) February 1800
(c) February 1700
(d) February 1699
(e) September 1752
The member who sends in the best answer will win a Francis Frith 2014 calendar featuring 12 photos that you choose from the 365,000 in their collection. Keep it for yourself or give it to someone you really care about.
When Helen started to research her family tree she was greatly helped by a handwritten tree that her father's aunt had prepared. Amazingly Auntie Kathleen is still going strong at the age of 112 - she's the 3rd oldest person in Britain.
I understand that although Kathleen was born a couple of months too late for the 1901 Census (and almost 6 months too late to be a Victorian) she was interested to see her own entry on the 1911 Census schedule that had been handwritten by her father.
There's a list of the oldest people in Britain here. Is there anyone from your tree on the list, I wonder?
On average we each have between 2000 and 5000 living relatives who are 5th cousins or closer (a 5th cousin is someone who shares our great-great-great-great grandparents). I figured all this out many years ago, and of course as I've researched my family tree I've been able to identify more and more of those cousins - although I've still got a long way to go. I expect your experience has been much the same as mine.
But something I didn't fully realise until recently is that my ancestors must have had a similar number of cousins. Perhaps not quite so many, as people died younger - but then again, families were much larger in the late 19th century.
Ironically, with all the online resources at my fingertips I've got better chance of finding out who their cousins were than they would ever have had!
My Match Potential has recently increased from 5.8936 to 5.9535 - without me entering any more relatives to my own My Ancestors page. This increase in my chances of finding cousins is entirely due to the efforts of other LostCousins members who have added to their own entries.
However, a quick check suggests that less than 6% of the readers of this newsletter have made ANY new entries during the past 30 days. Less than 25% have made any entries in the past year!
I know it can't be because the other readers don't care about their cousins, and it certainly isn't because they've already entered all of their relatives from 1881 - so I can only assume that they don't fully understand how LostCousins works. Here's how it is supposed to work......
It really couldn't be much simpler - and remember that not only is the matching virtually 100% accurate, the whole process is completely confidential (nobody sees your name or the data you've entered).
Steve Robinson, author of the incredible readable genealogical mysteries starring Jefferson Tayte, and who lives just 20 miles down the road from LostCousins, tells me that he has just tied up a four-book deal with Amazon Publishing. They'll be re-releasing his first three books under their own Thomas & Mercer imprint whilst Steve focuses on finishing his much-awaited fourth book. Well done, Steve!
I know that thousands of LostCousins members have bought and, more importantly, enjoyed Steve's books and that like me you're looking forward to his next book. However if you're one of those who has yet to discover these unputdownable books, click this link (or this one if you don't live in the UK) to see just what you're missing!
Note: Steve would like to thank everyone who has posted reviews of his books - I understand they were a big factor in creating this wonderful opportunity.
These days one of the few ways to earn a high return on savings is to open a regular savings account with a high introductory rate. Last year I opened one with the Nationwide Building Society that has been earning me an amazing 6% - but knowing that this rate comes to an end shortly I've been looking at other alternatives.
The best I've found is Zopa, the long-established peer-to-peer lending site that combines low rates for borrowers with high rates for savers, simply by cutting the costs to the absolute minimum. Since I first wrote about Zopa in my newsletter in July 2012 they've introduced Safeguard lending, which supposedly eliminates the risk, though as none of the people I've lent to have ever defaulted it's not something that has been uppermost in my mind.
I've started transferring the money in my Nationwide savings account to my Zopa account, where it should earn me around 4%, perhaps a little more. Whilst the money is tied up for a longer period than in an instant access savings account that's not necessarily a bad thing since I don't see interest rates rocketing any time soon.
Please note that I am not a qualified financial adviser - I'm merely telling you what I've done with my own money since it would be churlish to keep it to myself!
This where any late updates will be posted, so it's worth checking back after a few days.
I hope you found this letter interesting as well as useful - most of articles are suggested or inspired by members, so do please keep writing in!
© Copyright 2013 Peter Calver
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