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.