Genealogy is not a precise science: the conclusions you reach regarding your family’s origins and lives should ideally be based on hard facts but often it comes down to accepting the most likely explanation.
Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it — information is not knowledge. And history is not the past — it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.
Hilary Mantel (1952-2022)
There are many websites which will help you in your search for your British ancestors but only a few offer the full collections of UK censuses, BMD (birth, marriage, death) indices, parish records, and probate entries. Free access to public records is very limited, a notable exception being FreeBMD which has the transcribed indices from 1837 to 1915 (and some after that) and which is very easy to use. Its databases are also accessible from the main subscription websites. FamilySearch is free for the records that they transcribed themselves, which are mostly the rather incomplete parish records.
Over the years UK public records have been licensed by the government to various companies which have transcribed them at their own expense, which means that access is behind a paywall so you have to stump up money to view them. The more recently released 1921 census is included in the most expensive subscription to Find My Past, the only website that currently has it. Whether Ancestry will get the 1921 census remains to be seen.
If you are unsure how much you will use a subscription website my advice would be to buy the highest level of subscription that you can for 1-3 months and see how you get on but don’t forget to cancel it if you want to pause your research. Only start a subscription if you know you will have the time to spend on what can become quite an absorbing hobby. Avoid ‘pay as you go’ as you may find you get hooked and end up spending more than a short subscription would have cost. Once you have set up an account you will not lose it if you pause your subscription. Any tree you have started creating will still be there when you go back to your research after a break.
If you watch the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? you will see that there is a great deal more research one can do in more specialist archives if you know where to go to look, but that’s a whole different topic. What is already available online should provide a great deal of information about your ancestors.
Join the genealogy website that best suits your needs, which may unfortunately mean subscribing to more than one. While all the major websites have the same basic databases (BMD indices and censuses), each has a different collection of more specific sources of information, such as military history, ships’ passenger lists, directories, and a host of more obscure material, including from overseas sources. Whether all of this is accessible depends on your level of subscription, which can vary widely from basic access to full access, so check carefully before deciding which to buy.
The two websites that I use – Ancestry and Find My Past – have rather different search engines with the latter, in my view, being much superior. Both websites allow you to do a general search for a person across all the databases in one go, but be prepared to sift through a lot of results, especially if the name is fairly common.
Ancestry offers a worldwide subscription at an eye-watering price but unless you know you have a substantial number of relatives overseas this may not be good value. (Overseas in this context means the USA and Canada, although there are also some records for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.) Bear in mind that the records in the 19th century in the ‘new world’ tended to be rather patchy. One option is to strike up a friendship with another Ancestry member in the country you are interested in and get them to do some searches for you and offer reciprocal help.
FamilySearch started out as a transcription of the UK parish records carried out by the Church of the Latter-day Saints in the pre-internet era, although they did not get access to all of them. It has more recently morphed into a more general family history website with a rather motley collection of information in which other public records, particularly censuses, have been added. The search tool is pretty awful and I don’t find it very useful except for the occasional search of parish records. They have also bulked out their content by linking to the subscription websites but you only find that out when you click on a link and are redirected to one of those websites and get asked for your credit card.
Lost Cousins is a UK-based website intended to enable members to find relatives based on the censuses but you have to tediously input information for each person. I have never done this as it would take too long and I don’t see the benefits it will bring over what I can achieve via Ancestry’s Public Member Trees and message service, both of which are admittedly rather unreliable (see below). There is, however, an interesting weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to, and it sometimes has subscription offers for the main websites.
Ancestry’s attempt to make things easier for inexperienced members has resulted in the search capabilities being dumbed down somewhat; the various features, although intended to help, have made the website very frustrating to use at times, but more on this later. This is why I prefer Find My Past, but I often carry out the same searches on both. The censuses were transcribed independently by these two websites so you may get different results and you sometimes find the images clearer on one website than on the other.
Both websites offer a means of correcting obvious errors, the vast majority of which have come about by records being mis-transcribed. In fact, this is usually the main reason for not being able to find someone in a record search and it requires a bit of creative thinking to work around this issue.
HOW TO SEARCH
You may take a while to get the hang of searching if you have not used a database search tool before. I usually begin by searching on someone’s exact name and their birth year ±2 but if that doesn’t work, extend the search to similar name spellings and widening the birth year. Start with an exact place of birth, if you know it, but switch to searching by county if that fails to find them.
For example, when you know that a person was born in a specific town or village you may be better off using the county because people often gave slightly different locations for their places of birth in the various censuses. The ages that people gave in the censuses mean, for example, that in the 1881 census a person aged 25 was born in 1881-25 =1856, or the year before. However, people sometimes gave the wrong age, either through vanity or because the inaccurate information was given to the enumerator by the head of the household.
Sometimes you find that a person’s spouse died and they remarried between the censuses which, for a woman, can make things tricky. With the high infant mortality rate in the 19th century children were often born and died between censuses but searching on FreeBMD by registration district may locate them, particularly if the name is uncommon. I often search for births and deaths at the same time.
If you can’t find someone you are certain should be in the census in a particular year you could try a couple of things:
- Input their first name + the first letter of their surname followed by an asterisk + their exact place of birth + the year of birth ±5
- Input their first name only + their exact place of birth + year of birth ±5 + the name of their spouse or a young child.
Neither may work but it’s the sort of creative searching you sometimes have to resort to in order to find a person. ONLINE VS LOCAL TREE
Some websites allow you to build an online tree but you may find it better to buy and install one of the many software programs designed for the purpose so that you have control over your own data on your home computer. All the programs use a common file format called Gedcom which means that your family tree can be uploaded in this way or shared with someone else who has a compatible program.
Family Tree Maker (FTM), one of the oldest and most popular programs, synchronises with Ancestry which is an added bonus as you can show tree to other members (and non-members) while maintaining it on your home computer. It will also upload any photographs that you have attached to the people in FTM.
IMPORTANT: If you maintain your family tree on your home computer make sure you back up your data files and any downloads somewhere other than on your PC. I recommend a cloud back-up service – there are many – as well as backing up to an external USB drive.
You may find it more convenient to split your tree, as I have, into your mother’s and your father’s families to avoid it getting too large. You can have more than one tree on Ancestry and you can make your trees private, or share them with selected people, or you can put them on show for all to see. Be aware that if you make your tree(s) public other members can copy your photographs and they will undoubtedly plagiarise your research. Neither bothers me particularly, except where members have linked my family to theirs incorrectly.
Take care when deleting people from your tree. If you realise that you have more than one generation of incorrect people, always work back from the youngest to the oldest or you will end up with a disconnected fragment in your database.
Evidence of a link between a person in a public record and someone in your family needs to be based on clear facts or some very strong assumptions. This is particularly tricky when it comes to parish records. Parish officials relied on phonetic spelling of surnames (and even first names) which led to a lot of variations which need to be taken into account when searching. Furthermore, links between people in different families, even within the same parish, are often impossible to prove, especially where there were multiple families with the same surname who used the same limited set of given names. Things become even less certain if the surname is common.
Not everyone was a church-goer in 19th century England. Indeed, if the whole population of Brighton turned up at the town’s main church on a Sunday in 1841 they would have found it very crowded: the census showed that there were 46,661 people living in the town (there were of course, other churches in the town at that time). Many parents did not have their children baptised in infancy: some died shortly after birth, others were baptized after a delay of a few years, and a small number were baptized as adults. Many were not baptized at all.
As for marriage, in the early days of the official registration system not all churches co-operated so there may not always be matching parish and civil records. Furthermore, don’t assume that every couple with children were actually legally married. Cohabiting, although rare, can sometime crop up and the reason is not always clear. Try to find a parish marriage record online before purchasing the civil certificate as they will have the same information and you will save money.
Burials were hard to avoid and one might assume this would be a reliable resource but that is not always the case. The parish record is usually pretty brief and the death certificate may be much more useful. There are several website of gravestone transcriptions, such as Find-a-Grave, but they are still quite incomplete. This particular website seems to be better for overseas cemeteries, particularly in the USA where cemeteries are rather better maintained than in the UK.
The upshot of this is that while the majority of citizens were dutiful in having their life events recorded in parish records and/or in the official state records, many were not, especially when it came to baptisms. One can’t help but think that the hard lives the poorer families endured meant that registration was not always at the top of their list of priorities when trying to survive. Parish records before the 19th century are particularly patchy and vague because the standardized printed forms were not introduced until the early 1800s and parish officials just wrote the details in a book with plain paper. In many cases the handwriting if shocking! You can only easily trace your ancestors before 1800 if they were wealthy – the poor didn’t get a look in in those days.
Illegitimacy was widespread. Marriage while pregnant was very common (you can work the dates out yourself) because engagement was often taken as a sign by couples that they could begin having sex. This is the reason why breach of promise – a man breaking off an engagement – often resulted in him being sued in court by the woman. The law did not apply the other way round.
When it comes to the parish records, you start to see generations of the same family in the same (or adjacent) village, with the same parents, occasionally family group baptisms, ages at death, fathers’ names against child burials, that kind of thing. All of these can guide you in making links between people but approach with caution.
Buying UK birth, marriage and death certificates is pretty straightforward, even if the government website is typically very clunky (NEVER buy them from Ancestry as they make a huge mark-up) and now that most of the birth and deaths have been digitised the cost has come down so long as you are happy to receive a monochrome version as a PDF. Unfortunately, marriage certificates are much more expensive and you have to wait for them to arrive in the post. That said, if you buy certificates from Canada or Australia you will realise what a relative bargain the UK certificates are.
If you’re just trying to verify dates you could check parish baptisms which sometimes give the actual dates of birth, or the burial records which occasionally give the date of death, or the probate records which give the date of death and the deceased’s place of residence and usually where they died. Of course, parish marriage records always give you the exact date and many of the original records (which are exactly the same as the ones you can buy from the GRO) are available online.
Personally, I like exact dates but if a person is only peripheral to my family history the quarter and year from the BMD indexes will suffice. Nevertheless, BMD certificates and wills can often provide some useful information, such as parentage (birth and marriages) and offspring (wills). UK wills are particularly cheap and worth buying, if available.
THE PERILS OF ANCESTRY
The major downside of letting everyone loose on the public records and encouraging them to create online family trees is that the level of proof required by many amateur genealogists is pretty low. Several Ancestry members have freely admitted to me that they have linked people from my tree to theirs simply because the names were the same.
Many of the errors are generated by the Ancestry website itself. For example, the US-centric website uses drop-down menus with lists of towns and cities which include others with the same names in the USA and elsewhere. A moment’s inattention will transport your ancestor to a completely different part of the world. However, the main source of these error seems to be when members upload their own trees because despite having carefully written the locations the Ancestry website takes it upon itself to move the towns and cities to elsewhere in the world, mainly the USA. I have seen this in my own trees and it’s very frustrating. Malling in Kent is, according to Ancestry, in Arhus, Denmark, or Wuyang, China!
Some members have over 200,000 people in their trees and one wonders how they could possibly have amassed so many ancestors and verified each person. One explanation is that these members have simply accepted Ancestry’s ‘hints’. Many members’ trees are very fragmented, meaning that there are groups of people who are not linked to anyone else in the tree. Everyone in my two trees is linked in some way with the rest of the tree.
The US-owned FTM has an inbuilt database of international place names. Every UK village, town and city has the county (written in full) as well as the country (England, Scotland, Wales). If you accept what’s offered you get a very long string of text which will not display well if you use FTM to create a chart as the text will not fit in the boxes. For example, ‘Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland’ seems rather unnecessary unless your geography is particularly bad. Fortunately, you can retype place names with just the short form of the county name and omit the country. FTM remembers what you have written for next time.
Understandably, FTM cannot take into account the many changes to counties that have occurred in the UK over the years, particularly around London, so manually typing some locations becomes a necessity. Personally, I use the location as it was at the time the event took place; eg, Lewisham, Kent (it’s now part of Greater London).
Ancestry’s ‘hints’ system is probably the main source of the misinformation as members are only too happy to accept what are often wildly off-beam suggestions. You generally find that the hints related to the censuses and births, marriage and deaths, which are easy to find yourself and, in fact, it’s better to do so. Occasionally, it comes up with something useful because it searches across all of its databases but more often than not the suggestions are wrong.
My advice would be to tread very carefully and not to accept what the Ancestry website throws at you without verification. Bear in mind that all the suggestions are based on artificial intelligence, matching names, dates and places which themselves are often incorrect. Furthermore, if you do look at the ‘hints’ you find yourself embroiled in a cacophony of buttons and you are expected to click to tell Ancestry if they’ve got it right. All in all, a very frustrating feature which is no substitute for an intelligent human brain!
Another annoying feature of Ancestry (you can tell I’ve spent far too long on the website) is that if you do have an online tree (whether created there or uploaded from FTM) you will find that it tries to autofill in the search boxes using details from your tree. My advice is not to let it do it as it will restrict the results considerably by being too specific.
Public trees on Ancestry allow other members to save information and photos to their own trees. This is often done with little attempt to check the relevance, simply taking the details at face value. This is particularly true of the pre-1837 records but I would be cautious about the authenticity of photographs as well. I have seen the photograph of my paternal grandmother, Nellie Coppard, copied from my tree and attached to a completely unrelated person with the same (admittedly rare) name. Sloppy research results in an inaccurate family tree.
A further source of error are the DNA tests which many Ancestry members have done. In theory, Ancestry should be a great way of finding distant cousins but in practice Ancestry seems to link people through the trees that members have already created on the website, possibly supported by DNA evidence but I have some doubts about the veracity of this. This issue was highlighted on Lost Cousins in May 2022 but it would require a bit more research to prove that this suspected ‘cheating’ by Ancestry is correct.
If you take a DNA test you are presented with lots of ‘Nth’ cousins, most of whom appear to be linked but when you look at the ThruLines feature Ancestry you will probably start to doubt the usefulness of the information. Firstly, Ancestry may tell you that people on your own tree could be related to you - duh! Secondly, the ancestors of other members are probably mostly incorrect for the reasons given above – artificial intelligence. A check on the supposed Nth cousins’ ancestors will probably quickly start to show up the anomalies.
As a result, Ancestry in particular (I have no experience of other genealogy websites with regard to online trees) is full of the most dreadful misinformation which is a real shame. In addition, there are often multiple versions of the same trees at different stages of development (one member has 24 trees like this), and a large proportion of the trees have been left untouched for many years as members have either lost interest or have died. Ancestry does not appear delete inactive members.
All in all, Ancestry is a right old shambles but there are some very well researched trees with lots of images of various kinds. You can contact other members, although Ancestry’s messaging system is unreliable, probably because the website does not regularly verify the email addresses of its current or lapsed members and as a result you often don’t get a reply.
Don’t be put off by my gripes – genealogy is fun and rewarding so have a go and see how you get on. Feel free to get in touch if you need any advice.