Sources for Collecting Information


I have limited myself to collecting information which is available on the internet together with a few family documents I have. If other family members have examples of family memorabilia I would like to have a sight of them because they can provide clues to searching for new information. I have not spent time, for instance, tramping around cemeteries or searching parish records which is the sort of activity real enthusiasts are supposed to do. But I have made use of the records of some enthusiasts who have done this groundwork and published their information on the internet. The main sources I use are listed in the order in which I have found them useful are:

http://www.ancestry.co.uk   Ancestry.co.uk I find this the most useful and comprehensive site but it can be rather awkward to navigate at times and you do have to spend time learning how to use if effectively. You have to pay, the cost depending on the level of access you require. The options are either ‘pay as you go’ or by subscription. Ancestry also includes the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar 1861-1941 which is the Index of Wills and Administrations for those years and I have been able to locate a couple of family wills.

http://www.1911census.co.uk/  The 1911 Census which is the latest census publicly available. This was the first reasonably comprehensive census and offers some interesting information about, for instance, housing. It is very easy to use but again one has to pay. Since 2012 one may access the 1911 Census via Ancestry, above.

http://www.findmypast.co.uk/home.jsp  Find my Past this is similar to Ancestry which I find more comprehensive. I guess it is a matter of taste which of the two you prefer. After an introductory period payment is required.

http://www.freebmd.org.uk/  Free Births, Marriages and Deaths offers free access to the official records of BMDs in the UK from 1837 to 1983. There are a few gaps in the data sets but it is usually easy and quick to use and it is free.

https://familysearch.org/  Family Search this is a site run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, and is a comprehensive international data base of family records. It is a well designed site and easy to use but there are clearly gaps in their records. When there is a good record it can be very helpful and the site is free to use.

These are by no means all the sites available. There are many more, especially catering for specialist interests or local areas. I use them occasionally. Frequently the family history can be linked to historical events and one may add substance to the record by extracting material from them. An obvious starting point is Wikipedia which can be surprisingly useful and is the source for much of my information about historical events http://en.wikipedia.org

There are also Local History sites which can be rather feeble or a gold mine. Some are very useful such as: http://www.ferryhillarchives.com/  for Ferryhill and http://www.picturespennymoor.co.uk/index.html  for Spennymoor and http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm The Durham Mining Museum web site for the history of Durham coal mining.

I also like to get a feel for the geography of where our ancestors lived at various stages in their lives and how they moved from place to place. In this respect I find Google Maps and Google Street View invaluable.  I also like using old maps. If nothing else they give one a feel for how difficult it will have been to move from one place to another. For instance all the old Ordnance Survey Maps from 1805 have now been digitised and one may acquire copies from Cassini Maps http://www.cassinimaps.co.uk  I have noticed that their maps are now being sold in bookshops.

Also I find it helpful to find pictures and other images of the locations and events surrounding family events. It is a matter of chance but sometimes the historical picture galleries on both Google and Bing unearth relevant illustrations.


Being Careful with Information


It is very easy to engage in wishful thinking and make unsupported speculations when collecting historical information. In the past I have made a number of substantial errors and unjustifiable assumptions that I have had to correct when checking information or when new information has arrived on line.

There are problems using census data. One gets a snapshot every ten years and one has to surmise what happened in between times, for instance it is probable that families I have been looking at have had children who have been born and died during the ten year census intervals and therefore do not show up on census records. Before 1911 census pages were completed by a clerk or census officer who presumably relied upon the memories of the people living in the household to complete the original forms, and I suspect that if a person was not around when the clerk called they may have been missed from the list. Also clerks could mishear what was said to them.

For example and in more detail the 1841 Census  of England, Wales, Scotland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man was taken on the night of 6 June. It was the first census conducted by the General Register Office to record the names of everyone in a household or institution. Information available in this collection includes place and name, age, gender, occupation and birthplace of each individual who spent the night in individual households. The census forms were distributed to all households a couple of days before census night and the completed forms were collected the following day. All forms were meant to accurately reflect each individual’s status as of 6 June 1841 and the household they spent the night in. People who were traveling or living abroad were recorded at the location where they spent the night. All of the details from the individual forms were later sorted and copied into The Census Books, which are the records which are now digitised and may be viewed on a computer.

It is possible that there can be errors on the census return by the time the final census books are produced. Poorly educated family heads who did not have written records for their families could easily have made mistakes about  for instance birth dates and places. And it is also evident that when the clerk copied information from the forms completed by households into the census books that errors could be made. Given that the census book script is often difficult to decipher one wonders what the original forms sometimes looked like. The number of different spellings for ‘McNamara’ is a telling example.

There are two versions of official records, the original handwritten record and the later printed transcription and there are sometimes minor differences between the two or the original handwriting is very difficult to decipher; one has to assume that some early forbears were illiterate or had poor memories because there can be minor changes, for instance in date and place of birth from one census to the next. For instance if parents had moved from time to time, and the mother gave birth regularly over a number of years, and they had no record of when a child was born they may have forgotten birth places and dates.

Surprisingly, some of the family names are rather common. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries McNamaras must have been flooding over from Ireland and producing substantial numbers of children, likewise Pearsons and Waterhouses. Equally the Oxford area was awash with Grays. A substantial number of McNamaras also seem to have travelled from the Fylde and the North West to the Durham area, presumably to find work in the coal mines.

Also when a family became settled in a location it is evident that frequently the next generations of the family would remain in the region, marry and have their own families and just to be awkward continue to use the same family Christian names. It can be confusing trying to disentangle one family from another when they have the same names within a number of families living in the same area. Thus it can become difficult to ensure that one has identified the correct people and families.