Saturday 31 December 2011

2011 - it's been quite a year

I've had a pretty busy year, genealogically speaking, and had a lot of fun in the process. I have travelled a lot, even by my standards, caught up with old friends and made new ones. I knew that it was going to be a busy year from the outset, and I was determined to enjoy it to the full. I did.

It started in January when I spent a morning filming with Andrew Marr for a TV documentary about the census, shown just before census day in March, 2011 being  census year in the UK. During the year I also spoke at two day conferences devoted to the census, at the Institute of Family and Local History in Preston and on my home turf at The National Archives. I also contributed to a census exhibition at the British Library and spoke at an evening event in the Conference Centre there.

Flip-Pal scanner
Census apart, I attended and spoke at a number of conferences and events, starting with the first Rootstech conference in February. I wasn't a speaker there, but I gave a couple of talks at the Family History Library while I was in Salt Lake City, where the staff on the British and Irish floor were very welcoming and hospitable, as ever. The conference itself, of course, was a great success and I enjoyed it very much, not just for the lectures and exhibits but for the chance to meet in person a number of people I already knew, but only online, notably some of the official bloggers. I bought myself a Flip-Pal Scanner, and right at the end of the conference my name was drawn as one of the lucky door-prize winners - I got a voucher for a 7-night stay at the Salt Lake Plaza!

When I arrived back home in the UK after Rootstech, it was only a short time until Who Do You Think You Are? Live at Olympia in London. I was there for all three days, two of them as part of my job, representing The National Archives, but on Sunday I went again just for the fun of it, and did a stint helping out on the APG stand, who were exhibiting there for the first time.

In March I completed my census schedule online, and kept the paper copy for posterity, just in case posterity is at all interested. Still kicking myself for being in the US last year, and flying home 5 hours before census day - if I had only thought it out properly in advance I could have come home a day later. Doh! This month was, not surprisingly, the peak of the census-related activity for the year.

April saw the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and I have to say that my American friends were more interested in it than I was, but we got a day off work and it was fun to watch it on TV. The highlight of the day, though, was taking part in a special British episode of Geneabloggers Radio. No webcam was involved, so doing it in my jammies was just fine.

The Plantation Singers at Charleston
I was off on my travels again in May, when I had the privilege of being a FamilySearch sponsored speaker at the NGSS Conference in  Charleston SC, another very enjoyable occasion, with lots of time to catch  up with friends and meet some key figures in the family history world. I was flattered to be invited to speak on this year's Wholly Genes cruise, a whole new experience for me. Of course I accepted!

As part of the Family History team at The National Archives, my job involves attending family history fairs around the country, and this year I and two colleagues took our stand to the York Family History Fair. Unfortunately the internet access that we had paid for was a resounding failure, but luckily I had my new smartphone with me, which we were able to use as a portable wi-fi hotspot for two of our laptops. Just as well, because we had a very busy day, and it would have been pretty tricky trying answer ALL of the questions without being able to go online - my memory is pretty good, but it can only retain so much...

July and August were quiet by comparison, when I buckled down to work on the manuscript of a book I was co-writing. Actually, I didn't buckle down as much as I should have done, resulting in an intense period of activity towards the September deadline! I did spend another morning filming, this time for the 'red button' interactive part of Who Do You Think You Are? for the BBC, with one of this year's subjects, the actor Larry Lamb.

September, on the other hand, was a very busy month indeed. I travelled once more to the US for yet another conference, this time the FGS conference in Springfield IL. I usually submit proposals for talks at FGS and NGS events, but I'm not usually successful; this time, to my surprise, I was! It was just coincidence that it happened to be in the same year where I was also going to be at NGS too. Better yet, I was able to make the relatively short trip to Ottawa to speak at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa  conference the following week. I had been to Canada once before, but that was in 1986, and I was keen to see it again,particularly Toronto, the site of my previous visit. And I got the chance to do this because an evening speaking engagement was arranged for me at the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. 

No sooner was I back home than it was time for the Celebrating the Census day conference that we had been planning for months, and which took place on 1 October. To my great satisfaction (and relief, it had been my idea in the first place!). Some of the sessions were recorded, and the podcasts are in the process of being uploaded to  The National Archives website.

My fourth and final transatlantic trip was in November, to Fort Lauderdale to board the ship for the Wholly Genes cruise. Those Virgin Atlantic frequent flier miles are stacking up very nicely now, thank you. This was a whole new experience for me, and I had a great time, taking care to keep out of the sun as far as possible. This amuses my friends and family greatly, but I really am not good with heat. On board ship, of course, there is lots of lovely air-conditioning, so I managed just fine, and I enjoyed the company of the many genealogists on board.

Now it's December, at least for a couple more hours, and time to look forward as much as back. I doubt I will ever have another year quite like this one, but who knows? It has been the first full calendar year for this blog, and I've had more than twice as many hits this December as in December 2010.

I have studiously avoided mentioning any names in this post apart from Andrew Marr and Larry Lamb whom I classify as public figures for this purpose, since they're not people that I actually know. For the record, though, they were both a delight to work with. There are so many people I could thank for their kindness, hospitality and friendship this year that I would be mortified if I left anyone out. 

So happy new year to all, and remember you don't have to make new year resolutions unless you want to.


Wednesday 21 December 2011

What's going on at the GRO?

GRO clerk 1899
The General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) has featured in a number of blog posts recently, and in Peter Calver's excellent Lost Cousins Newsletter. Peter gives a detailed and comprehensive account of his correspondence with the GRO, including his recent Freedom of Information request regarding the number of certificates produced before and after the price increase of April 2010. I won't try to summarise everything he says, instead I'd encourage you to read it for yourself. The main point, however, is that the demand for certificates has dropped, which is what you'd expect following a price rise amounting to of 32% for most users. The drop is serious enough for the GRO to announce the shedding of 27 posts in the Certificate Production operation at Smedley Hydro in Southport. Chris Paton provides a link to the story in the local newspaper the Southport Visiter in his blog British GENES.

This follows several years of steadily increasing demand for certificates, during which staff were recruited first for evening and then overnight shifts on certificate production. Prices have increased before without a great drop in applications, although admittedly it is some time since the last one, and the increase is bigger. But on its own, this latest price increase may not be the only reason for the drop in applications.

I don't know if the reply that Peter received from the GRO included a breakdown of certificate applications by type, but I strongly suspect that it is the applications for marriage certificates that have dropped the most. Unlike births and deaths, which are only available in the form of certified copies, there has always been an alternative source for marriages, the marriage registers of the  Church of England which are mostly deposited in county record offices. The great majority of marriages in England and Wales took place in the Church of England until well into the 20th century, so these registers have always been a very useful source, provided you knew which register to look at.

But now many of the post-1837 marriage registers in record offices have been digitised and published online, and, crucially, they are indexed. When the registers from the London Metropolitan Archives were released on I wondered what the effect would be on applications to the GRO for marriage certificates. And that was just the beginning; they have now released registers for Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Dorset and Warwickshire. now has digitised and indexed images of post-1837 marriages from Cheshire and Devon. These are not the only online sources of images and transcripts, but they are the most accessible.
So it may or may not be coincidental that within the last few months a number of record offices have received letters from the GRO, enquiring about their arrangements for access to church registers:

"We are not clear as to the variety and detail of access arrangements in place across the country for those who seek access to register information via record offices. As a result we intend to carry out a short fact-finding exercise over the next two weeks whereby we aim to speak to record / archive offices to seek information on the access arrangements they offer for these records.

Once we have more information we will review the position and decide what further action, if any, may be appropriate."
Some offices were contacted by telephone, and asked a number of questions regarding the number of (post-1837) marriage registers held, access and copying arrangements, and whether any copies or transcripts were published anywhere. I have no inside knowledge regarding the current actions of the GRO (although I know an awful lot about what went on there in the 19th and early 20th centuries!), but as an outsider it looks to me like one way of trying to find out where some of their expected certificate applications have gone. Just a thought.


Wednesday 14 December 2011

Workaday Wednesday - Engine drivers and their work

'There is perhaps no body of men to whom the public are so much indebted for their daily convenience as to the engine driver and his mate the fireman'

So begins an article in one of the earliest edition of the Strand magazine in 1894. The author, Alfred T Story, described the work and training of these men, and the jobs they would have done in order to progress to the status of engine driver. He then interviewed a number of drivers from three of the major railway companies; London and North Western, Great Western, and London, Midland and Scottish.

A boy might start work in his mid-teens helping with engine repairs, or perhaps as a call-lad, making sure the drivers were up and ready for work early in the morning:
'He must be a youth of nerve and courage. This appears to be especially the case in the neighbourhood of Willesden, where, notwithstanding the very matter-of-fact character of a large railway junction, ghosts have  been known to prowl, putting the call-boys into unseasonable frights'
Later he would gain a thorough knowledge of engines by cleaning them, first assisting a more experienced man, then having sole charge of an engine himself. The next stage was to move up through the ranks of fireman, finally sitting a test after which he would become a full fireman. Eventually he might progress to the sought-after rank of driver. A newly-qualified driver would turn and move engines in the shed yard, then he would pass on to a shunting engine, then local goods trains. He could progress to driving goods trains on main lines, then various passengers trains, and the elite drivers would take charge of better-class passenger trains, and, finally one of the great express trains.

One of the drivers interviewed was Jem Brown, pictured above with one of his engines. He began work as  and engine cleaner with the London and North Western in 1858, becoming a fireman in 1859 and a driver in 1864. In 1875 he was promoted to driving passenger trains. When he was interviewed in 1894 he had been the driver of the Scotch express for three years, and the train had recently been converted into what was called the Corridor Dining Train. It would leave London at 2pm and reach Crewe at 5:20pm. another driver would take it from there, and Brown would return to London with another express train at 7:32pm, arriving back in London at 10:45pm. He and another driver did this run on alternate days.


The Edible Archive...what's your story?

The Edible Archive is the Scottish Council on Archives' contribution to this year's Archives Awareness Campaign theme 'Culture and diversity - what's your story?' The Council has been collecting stories and recipes from Scotland, some dating back 300 years, and intends to publish an electronic cookbook based on the recipes collected.
'The food we eat is a reflection of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we live. The recipes we keep and use reveal aspects of our family and national history and culture. With your help, we aim to compile a collection of recipes spanning several centuries, ranging from the familiar to the bizarre.'
Some of the recipes were tried out on 26 November at Captain Taylor's Coffee House in Edinburgh as part of an event which involved demonstrations, talks and workshops. Participants could sample the delights of dishes such as locust bread and invalid fruit tart. If you are feeling adventurous and want to try some of the dishes for yourself, you can download a number of recipe cards from the SCA site.  I rather like the sound of Tweed Kettle, which I may try it out sometime - it's certainly more appealing than Sheep's head broth.

I'm fascinated by Scottish gastronomic heritage, but despite my Scottishness, I have very little experience of it myself. There are no treasured family recipes in my background; my mother is a wonderful woman with many admirable qualities, but, regrettably, they do not include culinary expertise (baking is a different matter, she's really good at that now, she just never got the hang of producing edible meals). It's not her fault, she learned everything she knew from her mother, and she was a REALLY bad cook. My dad used to say that you could sole your shoes with one of granny's pork chops - if only you could get a nail through it. He never said that in front of her, though, he was probably scared she might hit him with one of them.

You can contribute to the project too, and the What's your story? page tells how you can send in your own recipes if your family, unlike mine, has something worth passing on (sorry, Mum!)


Monday 12 December 2011

Mappy Monday - 'Locating London's Past' website

If you liked the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and London Lives then you'll just love Locating London's Past. By way of explanation I can't do any better than quote the introductory paragraph from the site's own homepage.
This website allows you to search a wide body of digital resources relating to early modern and eighteenth-century London, and to map the results on to a fully GIS compliant version of John Rocque's 1746 map.
 Rocque's wonderful 1746 set of maps is a pretty accurate survey of the metropolis at that time, but lacking the kind of technology we have today it's not going to be pinpoint accurate. The map was overlaid on a modern Ordnance survey map by 'pinning' them together at 48 fixed points on the Rocque map that are still in existence today, and adjusting the old map to fit the new one. If my low-tech explanation fails to satisfy, you can find out exactly how this was done on the Mapping Methodology page.

You can use information from a number of datasets to plot all kinds of things on either of the historic maps, a modern map, Google Maps satellite view or even a blank background. I can see all kinds of applications for this; one of my particular pet projects is to map the locations of the various taverns and coffee houses where the notorious 'Fleet' marriages took place, and this site should be a big help with that.

There are plans to add a citable search URL, map export function and citation generator. They also hope to add more maps and datasets in the future, which will make it even better. In the meantime there is plenty to explore, and there is a video walkthrough to help you find your way around. You can also send suggestions and feedback through the Contact Us page. I'm sure that people will come up with plenty of applications relevant to their own research.


Sunday 11 December 2011

Plenty of Tech, what about the Roots?

Rootstech 2012 is only a few weeks away, and I am one of (doubtless) thousands of people planning to attend. Rootstech 2011 was an amazing event, and expectations were running high for the next one, bu then came news of a bizarre decision by the organisers to exclude booksellers and other non-tech vendors from the exhibit hall.

I first became aware of this through a posting on Leland Meitzler's GenealogyBlog where he quotes from a message he received from the Exhibit Hall Co-ordinator:

RootsTech exhibit hall is for technically related products and services. We are purposefully not accepting applications from genealogical studies, book publishers, book resellers or arts and crafts dealers.
Please call to discuss if you like.
I am as puzzled as anyone at the reasoning behind this announcement. First of all, I'm not alone in believing that the point of Rootstech was to bring together genealogy and technology, so restricting the Exhibit Hall to technology exhibitors only is bizarre, to say the least.  There might be some justification if space were at a premium, but this is definitely not the case where the Salt Palace Convention Center is concerned. One of the ways to make an event successful is to have vendors that appeal to your attendees' demographic, even if their goods or services are not directly related to the event; for example, vendors at Who Do You Think You Are? Live have included conservation charities, travel agents and further education providers as well as family history organisations and vendors. Furthermore, it is a basic retail principle that half of the battle is getting people through the door in the first place; if you want to entice nervous or reluctant technology users to the shining path of the digital future, it's a good idea to lure them in with something from their comfort zone.

At the same time, the smart vendor will tailor their pitch to the expected audience so that those who only sells books will go heavy on technology-related titles, and those who also deal in gadgets and software will adjust their selection accordingly. Who knows, seeing at first hand the appetite for technology in the genealogy market might encourage encourage 'old-fashioned' booksellers to expand into e-publishing or software, for example. Win-win, surely?  

Then there is the matter of simple courtesy. If the Rootstech organisers want to exercise their undoubted right to exclude certain kinds of vendors (wrongly, in my opinion), then they have chosen the wrong way to go about it. You only have to look at Leland's blog and the comments posted on it to understand the unfairness of the short notice given to potential exhibitors, leaving aside any questions of tact and diplomacy. You have to plan a long way in advance to attend as a delegate, let alone a vendor. Hotels have to be booked well in advance and often pre-paid to get the best deals (the main Rootstech hotels sold out ages ago), and possibly and inventory needs to be ordered. Many vendors will have applied for their booths as soon as they could, and already invested time and money in preparation for the biggest genealogical gathering of the year. They stand to suffer real financial losses as a result of this high-handed pronouncement.

Two of the Rootstech Official Bloggers responded promptly to the news with a combination of disbelief and condemnation, Dear Myrtle and Genealogy's Star. Since I started writing this, I have seen further posts from  We Tree, Geneabloggers (two more of Rootstech's Official Bloggers) and Paula's Genealogical Eclectica, and doubtless other that I haven't picked up yet. The message is loud and clear - Think again, Rootstech. It seems that they have now undertaken to 'revisit the issue'. I should think so too.

I am saddened by this episode, since everything about Rootstech 2011 was so positive, and a sour note has now been injected into what should have been an even greater event. Still, there is time for Rootstech organisers to retrieve the situation. We all make mistakes, and shouldn't be ashamed to admit them and learn from them. I hope that in a couple of months we will look back on this as a temporary blip, or even better, have forgotten about it in the excitement of a second Rootstech even more successful than the first.

I am not one of the Official Bloggers, but as a Rootstech presenter I have received a complimentary registration for the event. I would have attended anyway, and I agree wholeheartedly with Paula
Stuart-Warren who entitled her blog post 'Don't boycott Rootstech 2012'. I hope we are participating in a practical demonstration of how massed ranks of genealogists can use social media to great effect. 'Occupy Rootstech', perhaps?

Saturday 10 December 2011

Shopping Saturday - 'Death in the pot'

We shop today in supermarkets, but many of us remember with fondness shopping from an earlier age; going to the local greengrocer, the butcher, the ironmonger and so on. Perhaps too much food now is processed and packaged. On reflection, drop the 'perhaps'. There is no doubt that much that is good has been lost as our shopping habits have changed. But the supposed good old days that our ancestors knew as they passed the time of day with cheery shopkeepers was not an entirely sunny picture.

Modern mass-produced processed food may be dull, but if you buy a packet of flour you can reasonably expect it to contain flour, not chalk, and that your tea will not be used leaves dried and re-sold as new. We take for granted all the consumer law that protects us from inferior or even harmful ingredients in our food, but this was not always so.

One of the first investigators to conduct a detailed study into the adulteration of food and drink was the chemist Friedrich Accum, who published ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy and methods of detecting them’ in 1820. Snappy title. Although these practices were widespread, they were hard to detect since techniques of chemical analysis were not sufficiently developed. The next really significant contribution was the work of Arthur Hill Hassall, whose research in the 1850s continued what Accum had begun, starting with an examination of coffee samples. He also showed that the microscope was a serious research tool, particularly useful in identifying foreign vegetable matter, and insects, living and dead. Where Accum had published the names of vendors who were prosecuted for selling adulterated goods, Hassall went one stage further and published the names of everyone from whom he had bought samples, and whether or not they proved to be contaminated. It is interesting to note that none of the offenders succeeded in suing him. 

As a result of Hassall’s work, a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry was set up and the first Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860. This was revised and greatly strengthened by a further Act in 1872. However, like Accum before him, Hassall did not have universal support; the publishers of ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ accused him of exaggerating and scaremongering, for example. Others agreed, and pointed out that most adulterants were not actually harmful in themselves, such as water and flour in milk. This is true enough, but the consequences could still be devastating if it was fed to babies. In 1856 Chambers’ Journal pointed out that some of the responsibility must lie with the consumer who demanded cheap and varied food, with no questions asked. In general, however, the tide of opinion was with him, and food became somewhat safer as a result. One of the best illustrations of this is that manufacturers began to appeal to the public desire for pure and wholesome food through their advertisements. Many claimed that their products were endorsed by Dr Hassall, which may or may not have been true, and emphasised the virtues of their uniform production and packaging, of the ‘None genuine without this signature’ variety.

There is a detailed article on the subject on the Royal Society of Chemistry site, and Accum's 1820 book can be downloaded from Google Books.


Friday 9 December 2011

Those places Thursday - Collins Illustrated Guide to London

This is one of my favourite books, and one of my best bargains - it cost me £4.50 more than ten years ago. It contains some good illustrations, which I always like to see, and some gems of information for the tourist in the 1890s (the book isn't dated, but from the contents I have inferred that it must have been published around then).

Descriptions of the main tourist attractions make up most of the book, but there are sections on transport, including fares, suggestions for daily itineraries, and numerous appendices. These list hotels, lodgings, restaurants, picture galleries, theatres, music halls, concert rooms, billiard rooms, chess rooms and other places of interest.

There is also a long list of public baths, and the addresses of the embassies and consulates of various foreign countries, and the rates of exchange between their currencies and the £ Sterling. A dollar was worth 4s 2d, the equivalent of nearly $5 to the £ (if only!). The dollar in question could be from the US, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Peru or the West Indies, they were all worth the same.

The frontispiece is this general view of Westminster, showing the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, but most of the illustrations inside are of individual buildings or monuments. Most of the attractions listed are still popular with visitors today, like the British Museum, Kew Gardens the National Gallery and the great cathedrals. Others have disappeared, notably the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, destroyed by fire in the 1930s, while others still exist, but no longer fulfil their original function, such as Covent Garden market and the Record Office. This last is one of two entries that may be of interest to the genealogist:

'The search rooms are open from 10 to 4, on Saturday from 10 to 2, every week-day, except Christmas-day to New Years-day inclusive, Good Friday and the following day, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Whit Monday and Tuesday, the Queen's Birthday and Coronation-day, and days appointed for public fasts and thanksgivings. Every visitor must write his name and address in a book kept for that purpose.'
The other place of interest is Somerset House:
'In Somerset House are several Government Offices, among which is the Registrar-General's department, where are recorded all the births, deaths and marriages that occur in the kingdom. These may be searched over any period not exceeding five years on payment of a fee of 1s, and a certified copy of any entry supplied for an extra fee of 2s 7d. The collection of wills has been removed hither from Doctors' Commons any one of which may be perused on payment of a fee of 1s.'
Smithfield Market


Saturday 3 December 2011

Shopping Saturday - an advent calendar

Just in case you don't have enough online advent calendars to play with already, here's another one, this time with a retail theme. It's from the House of Fraser archive at the University of Glasgow.

The archives will be launching a new online catalogue to the House of Fraser collection after Christmas, so we have a retail event to look forward to that doesn't involve either venturing to the shops or spending money. Can't be bad.


Cause papers 1300-1858: disputes in the north of England

Cause papers in the diocesan courts in the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858 is a searchable catalogue of more than five centuries' worth of papers relating to cases in the church courts. The Advanced Search allows you to search by name, place, type of case, occupation and more. The cases dealt with in the church courts included matrimonial and testamentary disputes, defamation and matters of moral conduct. They also heard cases regarding church affairs such as tithes, church rights and benefices.

York Minster
The database includes the names of everyone involved in each case, witnesses, proctors (ecclesiastical lawyers) as well as the parties in dispute, and even the names of the testators in disputed will cases. Occupation or status is also given, and in the case of witnesses, their ages too. Sometimes there is a brief abstract of the case, or, even better, you can view and download scanned images of the papers themselves. If there are no images to download, you can order copies from the Borthwick Institute, where the records are held. you are also encouraged to contribute to this ongoing project by adding abstracts of the cases or by editing existing ones.

These records are a terrific source for family and local historians. not only are they full of names, they also give a glimpse into the daily lives of people who may be otherwise unrecorded beyond their baptisms, marriages and burials. Some of the cases involve large numbers of people, such as the 1753 case involving brawling in church at Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire; Edward Grave, the churchwarden, brought the case against John Atkinson, a fellmonger, and no less than 17 witnesses were called. There are 43 pages of proceedings to download and read, which are fortunately very legible - some of the earlier ones present more of a challenge, but there is plenty of help to be had, such as The National Archives resources for Reading old documents.

All the places referred to in the cases are indexed, and they extend well beyond area over which the diocesan courts of the Archbishopric of York had jurisdiction. For example, the case of Edward Bailey, colonel in the West Middlesex Militia in 1812, includes many references to addresses in London. All places referred to in the cases are indexed, and they can be very detailed indeed, right down to street addresses in towns and field names in the countryside.

This is a site that is well worth exploring, especially if your ancestral interests lie in England's northern counties. Even if there are no cases of specific interest, it gives you an indication of just how detailed and interesting court records can be. They are largely unexplored because there are not many name indexes, without which you would have no inkling that an ancestor was ever involved in a court case.


Tuesday 29 November 2011

British Newspaper Archive launched today.

Reading newspapers - the old-fashioned way
I wrote quite a bit about the British Newspaper Archive Beta site when it was released a couple of weeks ago, but now that it has gone fully live there are a couple of comments I can now add.

The Beta site had no download or print options, so I have been trying them out. Downloading is easy enough - you just press 'download' - and get a PDF file of the complete page. I found that the quality was generally good, but one or two pages were a little on the fuzzy side, although still readable. I was a bit less impressed by the printing options, though. There doesn't seem to be any way of printing anything other than the full page directly from the site, and since many of the papers are very large, much larger than modern broadsheets, this is not very practical for the A4 printers most people have at home. The way round this is to download the PDF file and then use the snapshot tool to select the area you want. you can buy a high quality A1 size print of any page, but you don't get much change from £100 for one of these (more if you want it framed), so this is for special occasions only!

The other feature not revealed in the Beta test is the cost. The live site offers three options; £6.95 for 500 credits to be used over 2 days, £29.95 for 3000 credits over 30 days or a subscription of £79.95 gives unlimited access for a year. There is no news on institutional subscriptions yet, as far as I can see.

I'm looking forward to having a really good look this evening, but for now the day job beckons. Happy searching.


Monday 21 November 2011

Book review - Family Matters; a history of genealogy

I'm not in the habit of writing book reviews, in fact I have never written one as a blog post before. But I've just read a newly-published book that I think is worth writing about. As the title tells you, it looks at the world of genealogy from a new angle, and this is much to be commended. It's also a better book than I thought it was going to be when I flicked through the index, which is not very good at all. This is probably not the fault of the author, Michael Sharpe; as an author myself I all too aware how little control you can sometimes have over the finished article, which goes out under your name.

Having said that, I still have some serious reservations about the content.  Overall it is definitely worth reading, and contains a great deal of information that you won't easily find elsewhere. Anyone who has entered the world of family history research within the last decade or so - essentially the Internet age - will be fascinated to find out how things were only a very short time ago, and how we got to where we are now. The problem is that with a subject as wide as this it is impossible to do justice to every aspect in a single volume. In this case a more accurate subtitle would have been 'a history of English genealogy'. There are some mentions of genealogy in other countries, mainly Scotland and the USA, and mainly in relation to England, or by way of comparison with it. This is fine, as to go into any great depth about them would require several more volumes. I just wish the author (or the publisher) had been more up-front about this in the title.

The early chapters on medieval genealogy and heraldry are very informative, and set the scene for what I think is much the best section, the chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries. The author rightly gives due credit to figures such as Percival Boyd, whose name lives on in the indexes and collections he created. His output was astonishing, given the technology available to him a century ago. I have often wondered what he and some his contemporary 'gentleman genealogists' might have achieved if they had computers. Even those of us who used resources like Boyd's Marriage Index and the Great Card Index when they were still in books and drawers, respectively, have become accustomed to searching them online, any time we like. It's easy to forget what a performance it used to be. Pallot's indexes, which he does not mention, oddly, were even worse - as far as I remember you had to pay about £10 or £15 per search to have the staff at the IHGS in Canterbury search it for you.

But the later stages of the book seem rather rushed by comparison. This may be partly because he is describing events that I remember well, and was often involved in, so I am particularly aware of what has been missed out, which is not the case with the earlier chapters. All the same, some omissions are serious by any standards, and there are numerous factual errors. The author rightly gives an account of the 1901 census project, but does not even mention the 1881 project, which was equally ground-breaking in its time. There is remarkably little on FamilySearch, where there have been significant developments in the last few years, and not enough on the business of digitising records and putting them online. He mainly talks about the commercial players like Ancestry and Findmypast, and ignores the enormous quantity of documents, transcripts and indexes put online by non-commercial organisations, principally record offices. Again, there are irritating factual errors; at GRO  Scotland the service run by Origins was not re-branded, its contract was not renewed and instead went to another company, which is now part of brightsolid. He says that the Society of Genealogists' fair in London did not include any lectures, and while this was true of the first fair, the lecture programme became an integral part of the subsequent London fairs, and was not confined to the events in the midlands, as he suggests. 

I was disappointed that there was no discussion on social media, which now has such a big part to play in the genealogical world; FreeBMD gets a mention, but there is nothing on UKBMD, or user-generated content on wiki sites, or major volunteer indexing initiatives like Ancestry's World Archives project and FamilySearch Indexing. These things are not just the recent past, they are the future. I would also have liked to see a lot more on genealogical education, from society-run classes and correspondence courses to online modules, the degree-level courses now run by at least two universities that I know of, the roles of local authority and WEA classes, and the U3A. 

It is admittedly difficult to cover the most recent developments because the pace of change is now so fast that it is hard to keep up with events, let alone write about them. All the same, I think this is the weakest area of the book, which would have benefitted from more attention to 21st century genealogy, if necessary at the expense of some of the earlier content. For example, it would have been reasonable to assume a basic knowledge of the major genealogical sources in a book of this kind, instead of repeating information that is more than competently covered elsewhere. 

I am prepared to cut the author some slack, however, as I know the kind of horse-trading that can go on between author, editor and publisher. I think I can also see the hand of the publisher in the footnotes, where the numbers are so small that I didn't realise there were any footnotes until I looked at the back of the book. But at least there are footnotes, which is to be commended, and he cites his sources impeccably. I will even give him the benefit of the doubt for some of the irritating minor errors, most of which are not disastrous in themselves, although there are so many that it tended to undermine my confidence in the areas where I was not so familiar with the subject matter. I won't list them all, which would be tedious and petty, but by way of example, there are many references to Cecil Humphery-Smith, every single one of which mis-spells his surname, and Iain Swinnerton is a colonel, not a lieutenant-colonel. In a book on genealogy you really should take particular care with names and titles.

I don't want to end on a negative note, so I will finish by emphasising that there is a lot more good than bad in the book, and I enjoyed reading it. It wasn't a review copy, by the way, I paid for it out of my own hard-earned. It is a hardback, which makes it rather expensive, but it is on sale at The National Archives online bookshop with £4 off the list price.


Done cruisin'

Now I'm back on dry land, after a week afloat on MS Westerdam with the Wholly Genes 7th Annual Genealogy Conference and Cruise. I'd never been on a cruise before, so it was an interesting experience for me. I had to give three lectures, host a couple of breakfast sessions and a number of one-on-one consultations. I already knew four of the other speakers, Pam and Rick Sayre, Dick Eastman and Craig Scott, and the fifth, John Humphrey, turned out to be excellent company too.

There were nearly 2000 passengers, including the select band of Wholly Genes students. As well as the general genealogy lectures there were several sessions dedicated to TMG (The Master Genealogist) software. There was plenty to keep the participants occupied, or else they could play truant and sample the entertainment options of the cruise itself. I have to say that the provision of activities and entertainment on the ship was absolutely relentless; the morning genealogy lectures were in the Queen's Lounge, which is basically a nightclub, and we had to clear out quickly afterwards to make way for the cookery demo. Afternoon sessions were in the ship's main theatre, which has to be the fanciest venue I have even spoken in. We were on directly after the bingo game, but the players could re-group in the nearby casino if they wanted to keep on gambling.

There was a very pleasant library with comfortable seating, but it wasn't an ideal place for a quiet read, because it adjoined the Crow's Nest bar where there always seemed to be a quiz (daytime), or a man playing a guitar (evening). The verandah of my cabin was nice and peaceful, though. The library area was also the internet cafe, where you could keep in touch with the outside world, if money were no object. It was VERY expensive, so I decided to remain incommunicado. Apparently it didn't work properly anyway, and Dick Eastman gave up in exasperation after trying to send out his newsletter . It was quite amusing to see how accustomed many of us have become to being 'always connected' and feel rather bereft when we can't log on. It's nice to be back.


Sunday 13 November 2011

Read all about it! British Newspaper Archive beta site

Well the timing could have been better, from my point of view, but I was thrilled to get my hands on the Beta version of the much-anticipated British Newspaper Archive. So when I should have been sorting out my clothes and packing for the Wholly Genes cruise, I was searching, browsing and generally having a good poke about in the databases and images. My hurried 'packing' was reduced to literally throwing things into the case (ironing, what's that?) which is not my usual style at all. Shame on you, Brightsolid for what you've turned me into! Worse still, for much of the time when the site is available I am travelling, and out of 'radio contact'.

Of course, Chris Paton beat me to it with a detailed description on his own blog, so I won't repeat what he has said, instead I will add a few observations of my own. Overall, my impression of the site is very positive, and it compares well with other newspaper sites - no doubt the smart people at brightsolid have looked at them and learnt. It is, of course a beta version, so more content and features could be added before the final version goes live, but it looks a lot more finished than some beta sites I have tested.

I have always been particularly interested in newspapers and periodicals as sources for history and genealogy. For many years I was lucky enough to live within easy reach of the Newspaper Library at Colindale, so have looked at the original versions of quite a number of the titles included here. And some of them really were originals; although a lot of newspapers have been microfilmed, many others have not, so some of the ones in this collection have been copied for the first time. You can easily tell the ones that have been scanned from microfilm because they are in pure black and white, while the first-timers are in colour. In practical terms, of course, 'colour' mostly means black and beige, but the quality of these is particularly good, because they are using the latest equipment, while scans from film will be as good as the technology at the time when the filming was done.

Indexing of newspapers is done by OCR (optical character recognition) because the sheers volume of printed material makes manual indexing impractical. This of course has its limitations, although it is getting better all the time. I can remember when no-one thought it would ever be possible to use the technique on newspapers at all. It works best on nice clear print or typescript, so the results from older papers with very small print and the occasional archaic long 's' that looks like a lower-case 'f' are variable, to say the least. Maybe OCR will be able to cope with this sometime in the future.

in the meantime, the British Newspaper Archive deals with this in an interesting way. Search results include the first few lines of the raw OCR text, so you can see at a glance if this publication is one of the dodgier ones, and for each article you can view the full OCR text and submit corrections.

There are many useful features on the site, such as the basic and advanced searches that we have come to expect, with filtering options that will be familiar to anyone who has used the Times Digital Archive, although it has a cleaner look and is a little more user-friendly. There are day, month and year options so that you can limit your search to a particular date range, or to a specific date of issue. I particularly like the f fact that you can select a range of years without having to also select a day and month from the drop-down menus. It's a minor point, but one that irritates me when I use the (otherwise excellent) London Gazette site.

You can choose to have your search results sorted by relevance, the default setting, or by date, and once you have a set of search results you can filter them using a range of date and place options, or by tags. The site uses tags that have already been assigned, such as 'classified', 'illustrations' and so on, but there is a facility for users to add their own public tags, which could be interesting. You can also bookmark items you have looked at, and create menus for them within your own 'My Research' area. This area contains an edit function for adding notes, which unfortunately does not work on the beta site. Navigation options within the digitised page images are very good, but to get back to your search results you need to use the'back' button or the breadcrumb trail. A 'back to search results' option would be nice.

The beta site does not allow saving or printing options, so we will have to see how they work out later.

I wish I had more time to explore and comment on the site, but my first impressions are that it will be very good indeed, and I can't wait for the full release.


Six letters on a war memorial

I shall miss the Remembrance Day parade in Chesham this year, because I will be thousands of miles away in Florida, embarking on the Wholly Genes cruise. But I will still be thinking of those who served, and in particular of those who died, in the two World Wars and other conflicts.

I have one direct ancestor, my great-great grandfather Thomas Cross, who died in the First World War, and until fairly recently I knew very little about him. It wasn't for the want of trying, but he was an Irishman in the merchant navy, and he died at sea, which makes him hard to find on three counts. I knew this much from information given to me by family members, but finding any documentary proof was another matter.

When the Commonwealth War Graves website went live a number of years ago, I didn't even think of looking for him there, because I was taking the 'graves' part of the title too literally. But of course it also includes the names of those who died at sea, or who have no known grave, but who are commemorated on a war memorial. So when I finally looked, his entry was easy to find, and I discovered that he was commemorated on the war memorial at Plymouth Hoe. I had been there many years ago when I was in my teens, unaware of my family connection with the place.

TNA ref: ADM 137/3690
I have been able to find out a great deal about Thomas's death, but very little about his life. He appears on the birth and marriage certificates of his children, but was always away at sea at census time, although he did finally make an appearance at home in Glasgow in 1911 (which I found and downloaded within minutes of the 1911 census going live!). He and my great-great grandmother are supposed to have married on 29 April in Dublin, but there's no record of it in Irish civil registration. No age is given for him in his Commonwealth War Graves entry, so I could only guess at his age until I found him in the census. He was 55 in 1911, which puts him in his 60s when he died in 1917. A bit old for war service, but as a merchant seaman he was caught up in it. His ship, the Ermine, was commandeered by the Royal Navy as a fleet messenger, and he was one of 14 men who were missing, presumed dead, when the ship was torpedoed in August 1917.

When I said I knew a lot about his death, I really meant it. He has three death certificates; in Naval War Deaths (Royal Navy) and Marine Deaths (civilian) in the General Register Office for England and Wales. But since he was normally resident in Scotland, notification of his death was sent there too. I even found a whole report on the torpedo incident that cost him his life, in the records of the Admiralty. The report is 32 pages long, and goes into a lot of detail. The page on the right lists everyone who was on board, survivors, dead, and missing.

An ever sadder postscript to the story is the effect of his death on his widow, Jane. Her first husband was a soldier, who died in 1878, leaving her with four young children. She had four more children with Thomas, but two of them died very young. She can't have expected to become a war widow this late in life. I was told by one of her grandchildren that she couldn't take it in, and the family would find her in the middle of the night, standing on the street corner waiting for her Tommy to come home. She died less than two years later, of a cerebral haemorrhage according to her death certificate, but maybe 'broken heart' would be more apt.

Three years ago I was able to visit Plymouth again, and this time I went to the war memorial to look for his name. There are a LOT of names on that memorial; the original memorial is for those who died in the First World War, encircled by another for the Second World War. But I found him, and there he is, with all the other seamen, listed alphabetically, year by year, section by section. He is listed in 'Mercantile Marine, Engineers Services'. Just six little letters among so many, CROSS T, and every one of them has a story.

We will remember them


Saturday 12 November 2011

Shopping Saturday - Britain's oldest business

I want to start by pointing out that I am not in the habit of reading the Daily Mail. Someone sent me the link, OK. Just so long as we're clear on that. The business in question is R J & W Balson, family butchers of Bridport in Dorset, which started with a market stall in 1535, run by one John Balson. The article in the newspaper shows the current proprietor of the business, Richard Balson outside what looks like a very handsome shop.

A brief look through Ancestry, Findmypast and FamilySearch reveals plenty of entries for the Balsons , and Richard does seem to be a popular name in the family. There is quite a lot of material online, in the Dorset wills and parish registers on Ancestry, as well as census returns and birth, marriage and death indexes. If the Balsons wanted to trace their family history it would be fairly easy for them - but they may not need to because so much has been passed down through the generations.

What is remarkable about the family is not just that they have followed the same trade for so long, but that they have done so in the same place. When I used to trace other people's family histories for a living, I often found families who lived in the same general area for several generations, but to be settled in a single parish for one or two centuries, let alone nearly five, is extremely rare.

The business has occupied its current premises for over a century, but they also supply their speciality sausages all over the world through their website. Quite a change from a market stall in Tudor times, but like all successful retailers they are moving with the times.This is what generations of Balsons before them must have done, to keep trading successfully for such an astonishingly long time. Long may they continue.


Wednesday 26 October 2011

What is your 'real' name'?

I'm always intrigued when people talk about a person's 'real' name, as though it is something fixed, like your eye colour or your fingerprints. But if you think about it, your name is just a label that is attached to you, usually at birth, by someone else. The name chosen for you is usually defined at least partly by convention, and partly the choice of the parents, but it's still a label. It is probably more accurate to call it your given name, and the convention in the English-speaking world is that you have a surname, which is your family name, and one or more first names. And that's pretty much it, at if you are male. If you are a female, you are generally expected to adopt your husband's surname when you marry, but you don't have to. The world in general is likely to assume that you have changed your name on marriage, but it's still up to you. Some American women adopt their husband's surname, and keep their maiden surname too, as in Hillary Rodham Clinton, but few British women do this. Among British women, Scottish women are much better than English ones at hanging on to their maiden names, in official records at least.

So far so good, but as genealogists often discover, many of our ancestors cannot be found because they are not listed under the name that we expect. Leaving aside mis-spellings and mis-transcriptions, there are many explanations for this, and it's important to realise that there was no reason for most name changes to be recorded officially until relatively recently. Even today, to the best of my knowledge, English common law is still perfectly happy with the notion of unofficial name-changing, provided it is not for any fraudulent purpose. In practice, however, your bank, the Passport Office, the Driving and Vehicle Licencing Authority and a host of other organizations take a different view, and insist on some documentary proof. But if you look back to the 19th century our ancestors would have encountered few situations where they needed to produce official documents, so the question of proving identity simply did not arise. If someone asked your name, they would, on the whole, accept whatever you told them without question. So the name on a person's marriage certificate can be different from the name on their birth certificate for all sorts of reasons; for example someone born before their parents married and  registered under their mother's surname would grow up using their father's surname. Similarly, someone brought up by a stepfather would be very likely to use his surname too. I have even come across some people in these situations who sometimes used one surname, and sometimes the other, for no particular reason.

Then there are people who make a deliberate choice to change their name, again, for a variety of reasons. Some people simply don't like the name their parents chose for them, and pick one that is more to their liking; others prefer their middle name to their first name and just swap the order. I have a friend who uses his middle name, and whose wife didn't like any of her three Christian names and was known to her friends by a different name altogether; when they got married some of the guests thought they had gone to the wrong church because they didn't recognize the 'correct' names on the order of service! Then there are people who have been adopted, and are given a completely new name. If you think about your own friends and family there are probably quite a few who don't use the name that is on their birth certificate, for all kinds of reasons. Now think about your ancestors: why would they be any different?

Changing your name officially by deed poll or by statutory declaration has become very popular in recent years, and there is an interesting feature about this on the BBC website That's going to be fun for the genealogists of the future! It won't be easy to trace through official records, either, because there is no central registration of legal changes of name in England and Wales. If you want to enroll your change of name with the Supreme Court, and thereby create a permanent official record, it costs extra, and most people decide not to bother. I sometimes have to deal with enquiries about changes of name in the course of my job, mainly from family historians, and it is sometimes difficult to persuade them that there may be no paper trail for them to follow. But just in case you are on the trail of one of the minority of name changes that is in the official records, there is a useful guide on The National Archives website.


Thursday 6 October 2011

Doin' the archive two-step

The records we use in family history research were created for a number of reasons, none of which was the education and amusement of the 21st century genealogist. Some popular records have been name-indexed , but many have not. Where there is no nice modern index (ideally an online one linked to digitised images) then we just have to do some real research to find what we want.

Most of the records we hold at The National Archives were either created or collected by central government or the legal system, and at some point were actual working documents. This means that the people who used them had to have some means of finding what they needed, so they may have created their own indexes. Sometimes an index is part of the document itself, in a set of pages at the back of a book, and somtimes it is in a separate volume altogether. In this case the index will appear in the Catalogue as a separate document, and one index volume might also cover several record volumes. So that's why you often need to look at one document to identify the volume that contains the record you want in another, and to find the exact entry once you get there.

This can come as a shock to people who are venturing into archive research for the first time after using online indexes and digitised records. I'm sure that some of them think it's just an evil plot by archivists to confound the public. And while it is a bit of a nuisance, working your way through a system like this does have the advantage of helping you understand how the records were created.

IR 27/153 (image from

One of my favourite record series that you have to search this way is Death Duty Registers. These are 19th century records (more or less - the actual time span is 1796-1903) that record the tax collected by the Inland Revenue on the estates of the deceased. They are well worth the extra effort required to access them, because they tell you something of what actually happened to a person's money, which might not be exactly as suggested by the will itself.  The records are in one record series (IR 26) and the indexes are in the following one (IR 27).

'Indexes' of this kind are not usually in strict alphabetical order, and when you think about it, that's not really surprising. They were created at the same time as the records, before computers, and the best way to understand them is to think of the way we used to keep paper address books. There is a page or section for each letter of the alphabet, and the entries are added as they occur. Death Duty Register indexes are annual, and the Inland Revenue, like some other departments, refined the system into 'cuts' as in the illustration, so that they didn't have to look through very long lists. Each entry then has a reference that will help locate the full entry in another book. There are fewer records of this kind than there used to be, because some records have been re-indexed from the original source, and sometimes digitised too, so you don't have to go the long way round any more. But there are still plenty left like this, so for the foreseeable future we still have to use the two-stage process of looking at a contemporary index first. 

If you really want to know more about Death Duty records there is a research guide on the subject.


Sunday 2 October 2011

Same BMD databases, different sites: Part One - England and Wales

There are many popular records that you can find on more than one genealogy site, and if you don't find what you want one one site, it's a good idea to try another one. There are two different reasons for this. Some records, like most British censuses, have been indexed independently by different service providers; in other cases exactly the same database appears on more than one site, but different search engines mean that one site may give better results than another. This is why it is sometimes worth using a commercial site to search indexes that are free elsewhere.

The Civil Registration birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales are available on a number of sites; none of them, sadly, provided by the General Register Office itself. The most widely used is FreeBMD an astonishing example of volunteer effort on a massive scale. As the name implies, it is free to use, and because it has only one function, searching the BMD indexes, it is expressly designed for that purpose, and it works extremely well.

Birth marriage and death indexes are also on Ancestry, Findmypast, TheGenealogist, BMDindexes and FamilyRelatives. BMDindexes is a standalone site which is also part of TheGenealogist, so the indexes are the same, but I can't comment beyond that because I am not a subscriber to either. Ancestry's indexes up to 1915 are the FreeBMD indexes, and are clearly listed as such, but for 1916 to 1983 they have their own indexes. Findmypast and FamilyRelatives have each done their own indexing, so for any period up to 1983 you have a choice of several independently compiled indexes. Indexes from 1984 to 2005 were 'born digital' and the databases used to be sold by the GRO to commercial companies. No indexes more recent than this are available online, with the exception of 2006 births and marriages which are on Findmypast only.

I may look at the relative merits of the various indexes some other time, but what I set out to discuss here was the reasons you might choose to one site rather than another for the same database. Specifically, why would you search for BMDs on Ancestry rather than FreeBMD? I have to admit that I nearly always use FreeBMD. The FreeBMD updates don't reach Ancestry straight away, although this is a minor issue, since most of the activity on FreeBMD these days is in the post-1915 period that they don't share with Ancestry. The question of coverage is still relevant, though, since even for the earlier years FreeBMD is not complete. The FreeBMD site itself has very informative coverage charts, which show you where the gaps are, but you won't find this information on Ancestry.

Another advantage of FreeBMD is that you can search just births, marriages or deaths, or across all three, and you can restrict your search to very specific time periods. This is possible on Ancestry, up to a point, but unless you want a single year or quarter, you can only select +/- 1, 2, 5, 10 or 20 years. You can also search just births, or marriages, or deaths, but not two or all three unless you want to search a lot of Ancestry's other databases at the same time.

After all this you might wonder why I would ever suggest searching these BMDs on Ancestry at all, since FreeBMD seems so much better. And since FreeBMD is free to use, and Ancestry is a commercial site, surely there is no contest? Well, actually there are several reasons for considering Ancestry. First of all, although it is a commercial site, some of its databases are free, including the FreeBMD ones, so cost is not an issue. Ancestry also has a number of features that can be useful for some searches.

When you search for a forename on Ancestry it will return all the results when that name appears in any part of the forename field, while FreeBMD only returns results where it is the first name, not one of the middle names (although FreeBMD will return middle name results if you put + in front of the forename). I have my own Ancestry search pages set to Old Search, with 'Exact matches only' as the default, but if you use New Search you can set a wider range of individual search options for each field. So a search for 'William' on Old Search will return William, William George, George William etc, and the default search option for the forename field on New Search will also return results like George W. There are other settings that you can experiment with, and the surname field offers both phonetic and Soundex options, which bring different results.

Another potentially useful feature of Ancestry is that surname search results will include those where it appears as the mother's maiden name in the birth indexes, although this only begins in the September quarter of 1911. If you are an Ancestry subscriber, results from FreeBMD indexes will be included in searches across multiple databases, which has the value of convenience.

So it's worth considering all the options, even if you are in the habit of using the same one all the time as a matter of habit. I certainly did when I was preparing the blog post. I shall probably use Ancestry a little more than previously, although FreeBMD will remain my first choice most of the time. But no matter which search option you choose, when it comes to ordering certificates make sure that you do this through the GRO's own Certificate Ordering service, or from the local register office, where it will cost £9.25. Anyone else who offers a certificate ordering service has to use the GRO service, so you might as well go direct and save yourself time and money.