Are printed and online indexes a boon to the genealogist? Part 1

Printed and online indexes of the census are very much commonplace now if you are willing to pay a fee. Companies like Ancestry and Findmypast have online indexes of all the available census returns and other companies such as Origin have some available and are working on others. Transcripts are also available of local areas through family history societies and private enterprise. The National Archives can let you search the indexes if you visit them as will most Record offices. The online indexes have been a great boon to those looking for ancestors but can also be most frustrating at times.

One of the most annoying aspects of using an online index is knowing that an ancestor should be in a census return but not being able to find them. There are a variety of reasons why that ancestor may not be found and I will start by setting out some of those reasons.

It is quite possible that an ancestor may not appear on a census as they may have opposed the idea of the census and refused to take part.

There were also not enough enumerators to properly cover the entirety of England and Wales and because of this not all the homes were visited. It is also quite possible that an ancestor spent some time overseas and would therefore have missed the date the census was taken.

A lot of institutions such as workhouses did not put the full name of people in their care and instead would just give the initials. This means that a great deal of searching would be needed to find this ancestor.

A number of census returns went missing particularly in 1841 and 1851, as the household returns were destroyed there is no record left of ancestors in these areas.

Secondly, an ancestor may be on the census but due to errors caused by the enumerator they have not appeared correctly on the indexes. Enumerators were stretched to get their job done and as such many errors would creep in as they copied household returns. Many householders were illiterate and could not fill in the return properly or filled it incorrectly which would then be transcribed by the enumerator. In some cases the enumerator would try to fill in missing information through the use of their own local knowledge if they had any. Those without local knowledge would assume that details had been filled in correctly and copy them on their own returns. The enumerators used blue pencils to fill in their returns. These faded over time and in some cases made the indexing difficult. The poor handwriting of some enumerators also made transcribing the returns difficult and correct information would be transcribed incorrectly. The marks made by enumerators to signal different tally’s on their returns also sometimes obscured their own work making transcription difficult and leading to errors in the online indexes.

When companies transcribe the census there is ample opportunities for many errors to be made. Transcribers can quite easily make mistakes due to their own fault, the fault of their equipment or because the images they are transcribing from are of a poor quality.

Learning how to search the indexes properly online will enable the finding of an ancestor to be faster and easier. There are a number of reasons why you may not find an ancestor on the first search of an online index and I will try to address these and offer solutions.

The main reasons why it is difficult to locate ancestors through the census returns online are because

Census records are incomplete and flawed

Information you are using to locate ancestors is wrong or incomplete

Electronic indexes contain errors resulting from transcription.

The name of an ancestor is usually the first thing that is used to locate them on an online database. However, there are a couple of reasons why it may be difficult to locate them using this. Firstly, the wrong information may be written down by the enumerator, due to them reading the information provided wrongly or transcribing a householders surname wrongly. Names which can be spelled in different ways such as Smith or Smyth can also be entered wrongly by the enumerator. Secondly, when the enumerator’s returns were being transcribed more errors could have been introduced into the information.

Lucy Emma Carter

Lucy Emma Carter, daughter of Timothy Elphick  and Emma Jane Carter, was born in 1853 in Brighton, Sussex, England and was christened on 11 Jun 1854 in St Nicholas’, Brighton, Sussex, England. Lucy married Charles Levi Webb, son of Charles Webb and Mary Pilbeam, on 15 Jun 1874 in Hastings, Sussex, England.

Noted events in her life were:
• She had a residence in 1871 in Brighton, Sussex, England.
• She had a residence in 1881 in Brighton, Sussex, England.
• She worked as an Upholsterer in 1881 in Brighton, Sussex, England.
• Divorce: on 15 Aug 1884.

Finding a Date of Birth for an Ancestor – Part 3

Family records may well contain records of an ancestors work, in particular apprenticeships. There were two types of apprenticeships, the first was for trade apprentices who had to be between 10 and 18 and the second came under the Poor Law Act of 1601 in which children of poor parents were indentured to a trade or husbandry. The indentures were kept between the trade master and the father of the child and therefore could become part of a family’s record which would be passed down. These records may contain the age of the child or will at least infer the period in which they were born.

Passports were not made compulsory until 1914 but would obviously prove to be very useful in determining the birth date of an ancestor. Alternatively if your ancestor lived through the Second World War then it is likely that they would have an identity card this would contain the age of the holder. Driving licences were introduced in the UK after the 1903 Motor Car Act and underwent a number of changes in the years thereafter. Depending on how old they are they may well contain the date of birth of the driver, certainly modern ones will. Service records of family members may also have been collected and stored; this could be enlistment or perhaps pension papers which would contain information on the age of the individual. However, an individual changing their age to make sure they could be enlisted was not unheard of and even my Grandfather did this to join the Navy.

Ironically the death of an ancestor provides ample opportunity to find out about their birth. Along with the death certificate and newspaper cuttings already mentioned there could be a number of memorial cards which may contain the age of the ancestor and therefore you can work backwards to find the birth year. There may also be a copy of a will left by an ancestor which may also give an indication of their age. Between 1540 – 1837 males aged 14 or over and females aged 12 or over could make wills. From 1837 onwards males and females aged 21 or older could make wills.

Some records such as photographs can be used in conjunction with other sources of information to work out a rough year of birth. It could be that there is a date written on the back of the photo or maybe it is a photo of a well known event. This could give you some time reference to infer the year of birth. Even the style of clothing at the time can be used to work out a rough time period. In the following photograph of my Great Uncle Charles Webb there is a sign ‘2 Mons Heroes and still going strong’. This refers to The Battle of Mons in 1914 at the start of World War I. This gives a good indication that Charles must have been born before 1900. Charles was later mentioned in Despatches for his part in the War.

In conclusion, there are many different sources of information that can be used to determine the approximate date of an ancestor’s birth. There are considerably fewer that will give you the exact date of birth but they can be found with a bit of digging.

Sources of Information

Tracing Your Family Tree: The Comprehensive Guide to Discovering Your Family History (Countryside Books 2003) J Cole & J Titford

Who Was Your Granny’s Granny (Foulsham 2004) P Blake & A Collins

Tracing Your Nineteenth Century Family History (FFHS 2005) S Raymond

Dictionary of Genealogy (A & C Black 1998) T Fitzhugh

Succeeding in Family History (Countryside Books 2001) J Titford

Further Steps in Family History (Countryside Books 1990) E McLaughlin

The Family Tree Detective (Manchester University Press 1989) Colin D Rogers

Tracing Your Family History (Collins 2007) A Adolph

Finding a Date of Birth for an Ancestor – Part 2

Parents tend to keep a lot of information about their children in their early to school years; a lot of this could be very useful in determining the birth date of a child.  Certainly when our child was born not only did we buy a baby book to note down important moments in our babies first few years we given a few a well! A modern baby book allows the parents to keep information before a baby’s birth including scans as well as leaving lots of room to put in information about the birth.  It is likely as well that there will have been plenty of correspondence between family members around the time of the birth and some of these letters could well have been kept as keepsakes. In fact letters between family members could contain plenty of opportunity to find out the birth date of a child. Birthday cards, baptism cards, first communion, confirmation and other religious events could all give clues as to the age of the child and it is likely that some of these could be in family records. It is quite possible that a family member keeps a diary and the birth of a child or family member is more than likely to be in it.

The Education Act of 1870 made it compulsory for all schools to keep records of their students. It is unlikely that a family will have the sorts of records that schools keep in their possession but they may have things like school reports and certificates. At my parents house they have all the reports of my brother, sister and I which can be a somewhat embarrassing read. Also in with them are the school reports of my mother as well. These can be used to narrow down the birth date of a child and to cross reference with other pieces of information. You may be lucky enough to find a class photograph or school photograph with the year on it, this could be very useful.

Some events are so important that the family gets them printed in the local newspaper. National newspapers became commonplace from the middle of the 18th century onwards but local newspapers were a lot later around the middle of the 19th century. If an event was important enough to be put into the paper it would not be unusual for it to be cut out and kept in the family records. Many of these newspaper cuttings could give an indication or even an exact date for the birth of an ancestor. Certainly newspaper cuttings to do with the birth will give the exact date but news about marriages or deaths/burial could give an age and therefore an indication of when the person was born. You may be lucky enough to find an obituary on an ancestor which could give you far more information than you anticipated. Not all ancestors were necessarily lawful god fearing people and it could be that you will find cuttings related to a crime that they committed. These usually detail the age of the criminal as well as their crime and sentence.

Finding a Date of Birth for an Ancestor – Part 1

Family Bibles are a very good source of information for finding about your family. They were published from the nineteenth century and included blank pages in which you could record important pieces of information like births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials. These were then passed down from generation to generation and subsequent information could then be filled in. Sometimes information may be unreliable in that information was filled in about an ancestor which was not based upon personal knowledge. Imagine then that you were not sure about the birth date entered for an individual, how could you go about finding out if it was true or not. There are of course a variety of other sources of information that you could use, some will give you the exact date whilst others will be able to lead you to the correct year/period in history. I will introduce the sources that you could use that you may well find in family records; give a general background to them and other pieces of information that would be useful in determining the birth date.

It is likely that somewhere in your family there will be some records that hold information about your ancestors. Some families will have large number of these records, perhaps catalogued and held in safekeeping. Certainly others like mine will have few records and trying to find them is sometimes very difficult. Information about my Great Great Grandfather for example seems to have passed down through the eldest son’s line and it was only by luck that I managed to make contact with a descendant who had some family records. So what are you likely to be able to find in your family records that will help you determine the birth date of an elusive ancestor.

Information that is likely to provide you with the most accurate date will be from Birth Certificates. Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1837 after the Births and Deaths Registration Act and the Marriage Act of 1836. Although it was compulsory not all births were recorded as parents did not always remember to do so. Birth Certificates contain a large amount of information, the name and sex of the child, the name and occupation of the father, the name and previous surname of the mother and the name and address of the informant. Most importantly for our problem it contains the date and place of birth of the child.

So you may well be lucky enough to have a Birth Certificate of an ancestor in your family records but more than likely records of this type are few and far between. Of course if your ancestor was born before 1837 then there will be no such records and you will have to rely on other pieces of information to help you narrow down the birth date.

Marriage and death certificates will also enable you to work out the age of your ancestor although they will not be able to give an exact date. Marriage certificates in particular should be treated with caution as ages could be incorrectly written and sometimes you will just find ‘of full age’ which means that your ancestor was 21 or over and the time of marriage.

Death certificates also contain a number of pieces of information including the age of the deceased although again be wary as the informant of your ancestors death may well not know the exact age of the person.

East Sussex Land Tax 1785

East Sussex Land Tax 1785 Book Cover East Sussex Land Tax 1785
Roger Davey
Sussex Record Society

Trying to work out where your ancestors were before the census proper began in 1841 has always been a difficult process. You would normally have to rely on christening locations and notes and any wills.

The East Sussex Land Tax 1785 and its sister book the West Sussex Land Tax 1785 list all the occupiers and owners of dwellings and lands in each town and village in East Sussex. You will also be told how much the rental for the property is which will give you an idea of the size of it. Sometimes you will also be given extra pieces of information such as the name of the property which will help you to validate your finding.

A book well worth hunting around for, you can find it on Amazon and Ebay and the Sussex Record Society might still sell them as well.

10 unfortunate deaths

There are a number of very unfortunate deaths you can find when browsing through coroners records.

Here are 10 of the most unfortunate

  1. Killed by the tackle of a windmill
  2. Scalded to death by falling into a keeler of hot beer
  3. Killed by the floor of a granary falling on him
  4. Fell into a dung hole and was suffocated
  5. Poisoned by incautiously eating of the root of hemlock dropwort
  6. Died in consequence of drinking boiling water out of a tea-kettle
  7. Accidentally scalded to death by boiling coffee falling upon her in consequence of her pulling down the tea table
  8. Died suddenly in crossing a stile
  9. Accidentally fell from a cart laden with clover upon the fang of a prong
  10. Accidentally killed whilst repairing a well at Mr Marchant’s by the coulter of a plough falling into the well on his head