Tag Archives: findmypast

In praise of good old indexes

I’ve written a bit before about the online resources available to genealogists and what can (and can’t) be done with them. It seems that every week something new is coming online, and the quality of digitized images and search parameters continues to improve almost palpably. But recently I’ve been working with some much more old-school tools – printed indexes – and have found working with them can be really quick, unstressful, extremely thorough and for a number of reasons much MORE efficient at finding that ancestal needle in a haystack than the slick interfaces of many online search facilities.

While nothing can beat working with original census returns, parish registers and the like for providing as much historical, social, geographical, chronological and cultural contextualization as one can hope to reconstruct – carefully! – from these records of a byegone age or community, the limitations imposed by ONLY having access to these should be obvious: travelling to see an original isn’t always possible, and trawling through heavy tomes, delicate parchment fragments or motion-sickness-inducing microfilms is certainly time-consuming and tiring, plus it can be all the more frustrating if information is illegible, elusive or absent. Online availability and search functions can  and do save a lot of time and effort IF you know how to search and, equally importantly, if the resource allows you to search in ways that are most likely to turn up what you are looking for – if it exists – without being either too narrow or too broad in focus. More about this later, but the basic point I wanted to make here is that for all the time and effort you can save through effective online searching, you are of necessity narrowing your focus each time you search and possibly missing out on important context and tangential discoveries that can ultimately provide a crucial missing link.

So what about the published indexes I mentioned earlier – what makes them so good, if they are neither the original source nor equipped with a high-tech search function? What I ordered was indexes to the (approx. 17th-19th century) baptism, marriage and burial registers for two parishes in South Wales, Llantwit Fardre and Pentyrch, produced and distributed in booklet format by the Glamorgan Family History Society and orderable online via e.g. Genfair. They arrived in the post remarkably quickly and I started flicking through them immediately, and with almost instant success. So who’d have thought a booklet could be so user-friendly? It was neither heavy nor unwieldy, very easy on the eye, there was no scrolling, clicking on links, waiting for pages to load, no mechanical typing of names and dates into boxes, and all sorts of details that caught my eye here and there without me having to make a deliberate decision to search for them. (Of course I’m not seriously surprised by any of this, though I’m not sure whether I should be amused or rather appalled that someone else might be…)

But the advantages of this format go much further, and here I can make direct comparisons with online resources, starting with findmypast.co.uk. Much of the information contained in these same booklets has been digitized and made available to search online at that site (I wrote about this a year ago, when that service launched its main Welsh collection), and I must say that the search parameters are pretty flexible: variants in spelling can be taken on board (and are handled sensitively and intelligently, on the whole) or ignored as you choose, and you can search by fore- and/or surname as you like, plus restrict by date and/or parish if relevant; for some of the records, a digital reproduction of the original pages of the registers can be accessed and browsed, so the online site does win in terms of access to something approaching an original (for those records where they have been made available, at least – coverage does seem patchy). However, the booklet index offers two further approaches that are not available as search options on findmypast; and these approaches prove absolutely invaluable (one could almost say, indispensible) in the context of these rural Welsh communities:

1. Patronymic indexes for baptisms

In the original registers, a 17th- or 18th-century baptism might be recorded as something like “David son of Evan Richard”, preceded or followed by the date of baptism (the mother’s name is not always given). The modern way of doing things would be to assume that little David was identified as David Richard, but depending on date, area and specific family tradition, back then he might in fact have been known henceforth as David Richards, David Evan, David Evans, David Bevan, or even David Evan Richard (with David Pri(t)chard and David ap Evan being further, albeit less likely choices).

GFHS approach to patronymic patterns and spelling variants

The booklets take this “systemic inconsistency” (my term: I know it sounds a bit flippant) into account, offering one index following the modern practice for all baptismal entries but for pre-Victorian entries also providing a further index alphabetized according to the father’s (or in e.g. some cases of illegitimacy, the mother’s) first name. All names are transcribed as they appear in the registers, so one does need to take care to look under e.g. Howel AND Howell AND Howells, but you can see immediately whether there are entries for these (or further) variants and it really doesn’t take long to flick through the entire index if you’re on the lookout for more unusual variants (especially those that might not be alphabetically adjacent).

Online search facilities’ approaches to the same issues

The online resources largely ignore (or are unaware of) the existence of the older naming system. On findmypast, if you suspect the individual you are looking for may have been given an older patronymic-style name, you have to leave the surname blank and hope for a manageable number of results, then click your way through to every individual record to see whether the father’s first name is what you might have expected – which can be pretty time-consuming. In addition to this, some records have been attached to the wrong parish name, or the parish name is missing, so even if you restrict by parish (which is perfectly possible), you might not get an entirely reliable set of results (this is a known issue and they are working on it, by the way).

To the best of my knowledge, only familysearch.com gives you the option of searching using a combination of child’s first name and father’s first name only (other combinations are also possible), and this LDS site also has a powerful, apparently pretty reliable function for taking on board variant spellings. A further resource, freereg.org.uk, which in general I find absolutely laudable in its efforts to make church and chapel register entries freely available online, some of which are just not available on the “bigger” or more commercial sites, really falls by the wayside here and becomes extremely hard to use for older Welsh records: not only are you obliged to enter a (modern-style) surname, but e.g. Evan and Evans are considered two separate names, even if you check the “include variants” option, and so there is a lot of doubling-up on searches and making a mental note of your various “+s” and “-s” search history, assuming you even have a semi-workable surname to search for in the first place. Likewise, ancestry.com is not terribly reliable when it comes to soundex other ways of searching for variants. Ultimately, none of these technologies replaces the watchful human eye in that respect (or, indeed, various others).

A practical example of how some of these features play out: I had an elusive ancestor called Mallt Thomas (according to her marriage record) who was born in around 1735 (calculated from the age given on her burial record). I had hoped to find her baptism in Llantwit Fardre (where she married and was buried) but I drew a blank in both of the baptism indexes for that parish. I decided to take a look in the Pentyrch records while I had them immediately to hand, and hey presto, I found her in the patronymic index: she was the daughter of a Thomas William. The Pentyrch baptism records for this date seem not to be available on findmypast or familysearch, so I wouldn’t have found her there even on the basis of a forename-only search. And on freereg, which does have the records for that date, I’d potentially have had to try out all sorts of guesses for the surname box – admittedly, William(s) would have been one of my first choices, but still, the booklets were much quicker in providing the information I was looking for.

2. Details of abode / address

William(s) turns out to be just about one of the most common surnames (by any of the systems used) in this part of South Wales over the entire period covered by the registers, and another headache I’ve had to deal with on a regular basis is the sheer number of individuals with identical names and similar dates of birth. Not surprisingly, back in the day people were often referred to by attributes other than their name – their profession (think “Jones the Voice” or one or two of the characters from Under Milk Wood) or their abode. My ancestor David Morgan (Mallt Thomas’s son, incidentally) had brothers called Thomas and Evan, but then again so did a great many David Morgans in South Wales at the time. I know from passed-down snippets of information, though, that Thomas was better known as “Twmi’r Gedrys” and Evan as “Ifan o’r Waran”, Gedrys and Waran (or Warren) being the names of the farms they managed. Flicking through the Morgan entries in the Llantwit Fardre registers can be a daunting task – based on the names alone, you can’t see the wood for the trees – but the presence of an additional column on each page for any abode noted in the original PRs can REALLY help to pick out a possible spouse, children etc. Again, spelling variants are part and parcel of this – and place names do genuinely evolve over time – but it really is very quick to scan the “abode” column for any forms of names that might look familiar or resemble others.

How do the online resources compare here? Rather poorly. In most cases you can’t search by abode on any finer level than the name of the parish itself, and even if an address, farm or township is specified in the original records, it is not necessarily transcribed in the indexes that have been made searchable. Findmypast has in some cases double, even triple sets of data derived from different “levels” of indexing, one with the residence included and the other not – so you do need to learn which results to look at first to get hold of this information; better still, look at the original image if it is available (and if your mouse-clicking finger isn’t tired by this point).

Who provides the transcriptions in each case is also of relevance. The family history society transcripts and indexes are put together by genealogists  (largely unpaid volunteers!) with knowledge of the locality concerned, manuscript and handwriting conventions (including a range of abbreviations), and the language(s) of the region. Even the best transcriber of historical records will have to scratch their head and make a “best guess” from time to time, but the results are plausible and variance is only slight. In contrast, the census transcriptions available on the biggest international genealogy site, ancestry.com, are in some cases WILDLY inaccurate and can only have been done by people without the specific range of knowledge mentioned above. People’s names, addresses, ages, family status and occupations can all be mistranscribed, rendering them unfindable in searches, and Welsh placenames understandably present a further level of challenge. Even the National Library of Wales’ (largely excellent, extremely valuable) probate records search is hard to use from the aspect of place names: it’s great that you can search by parish, but in each case only one spelling – sometimes idiosyncratic or obscure – will turn up any results (e.g. “Pen-tyrch” will work, but the normal spelling “Pentyrch” will draw a blank). Sometimes only the Welsh name / spelling is accepted, sometimes only the English: it seems rather random. This must be quite daunting for someone with little or no knowledge of Wales or the Welsh language looking for their Welsh ancestors. The search function also offers the option of searching by “township” – this might be the name of the hamlet or farm where the testator lived, if such specific detail is included in the will or bond – and this functionality is absolutely brilliant IF said township has a stable spelling OR you are good at guessing variants, but there is no soundex function on any of the search parameters. In some cases I have ended up calling up all the wills for a particular parish in order to be certain not to have missed anything due to a rogue spelling used in the will (in fairness to NLW, it is rarely a case of transcriber error in these cases).

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m certainly not out to diss any of the online resources available – each one has its strengths, as I’ve tried to make a point of showing here, and together they are continuing to revolutionize people’s access to family, local and social history, some of them at no cost to the end user. However, this recent experience of the sheer uncomplicated joy of dealing with more low-tech resources that are so reliable and effective has just reminded me that in so many areas, human skills and knowledge remain the key to handling all the “data” available out there, in whatever form it might exist.

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Family history windfall

I haven’t had a lot of spare time over the last week – mainly due to having guests and a party to organize over the weekend – but what time I have had has been spent poring avidly over the latest records the folks at www.findmypast.co.uk have added to their resources, and it’s been an exciting time indeed. No wonder my poor little laptop has been groaning and creaking of late!

Appropriately enough on St David’s Day (1 March), FMP published nearly four million new Welsh records reproduced from parish registers, the results of an ongoing collaborative project they have going with the National Library of Wales and the Welsh County Archivists Group. Though there is still a lot more to come, I was particularly excited that this update contained huge numbers of records for Glamorgan, where a great many of Mum’s ancestors hail from, and also for Denbighshire and Flintshire, the coverage for which had been very poor previously (and where significant portions of Dad’s family were / are based).

What I find particularly valuable about these latest additions is that in many cases, alongside indexed (and thus easily searchable) transcripts of the records, they have provided high-quality digital images of the original records that often yield further information not included in the standardized, reduced format of the transcripts. To give them their due, the transcripts do generally indicate whether there is further personal information included in the original register, but this can be a source of slight frustration if you have no access to the original.

Marriage records are the case in point here: while the transcripts contain what is admittedly the most important information such as the names of the bride and groom, the date and location of the marriage and (if the information is contained in the original manuscript) ages of the parties and their parishes of origin, plus – from 1837 on in most cases – the names and professions of the fathers of the groom and bride respectively, what is generally not included in the transcripts is the more precise abode(s) of the bridal couple, names of the witnesses (these were often family members so are worth researching in their own right), and information as to whether the various parties signed their names or – if they didn’t know how to write their name – made a cross or other mark in the register. The latter point can be interesting in terms of giving insight into levels of education in the age before schooling was compulsory, and on the more emotional level there is a certain thrill associated with actually seeing the handwriting of your ancestors – sometimes beautifully formed, more often a spidery scrawl or a scratchy, blotted mark on the page.

Here are the signatures (or mark) of my great-great grandparents Thomas John and Ann Thomas, who married in Llansamlet in 1866, plus their two witnesses (who from their surnames look as though they might have been relatives of Ann, though I have the impression that every second person in Llansamlet had the surname Thomas at this date):

(This is just the couple of lines at the bottom of the full register entry. I hope it gives an idea of what I mean without infringing copyright.)

I won’t bore you here with all sorts of individual details about the new connections I’ve found out over the last week; suffice it to say that I have…

  • found a number of “new” ancestors by being able to move back a generation or two in several cases
  • filled out a few branches of my family through discovering siblings, cousins and in-laws turning up as marriage witnesses
  • removed a few question marks about whether individuals of the same name turning up in different parishes /areas were the same person or not
  • solved some mysteries and dispelled a couple of myths about various people’s provenance


  • opened up numerous new cans of worms to be dealt with in the future 😉


Filed under Genealogy, History

Growing your family tree: new methods or old?

Over the Christmas / New Year break I did a bit more topiary, grafting and such like on my family tree and had cause to look back over a lot of the notes I made a decade or so ago, back when very few records were available online, let alone searchable, and one had to go to – gasp – archives and libraries and trail through indexes, microfiche, microfilm and documents.

Back then, most genealogists in the UK would have had to put in considerable mileage travelling from one county record office to the next, as a great many standard record types important to family history were housed in these regional repositories, and after all, very few of us can claim ALL of our ancestors to have been from within the same county.  There were some alternatives to all this travelling, though these did not necessarily cost any less: one could in some cases engage a local researcher or record office staff to undertake searches, copying etc. on one’s behalf, or for certain specific sets of records there might be CDs or microfiche indexes available for purchase from a family history society. In addition, quite a lot of online mailing lists and usergroups for genealogy did exist back in the early Noughties, and the more lively ones were a great way to source local knowledge or ask someone to look something up efficiently and relatively quickly. Software for compiling and storing your tree was also available but had a rather introspective, card-index-like feel to it, on the whole.

I was really lucky back then that my parents had the National Library of Wales practically on their doorstep, (a) because an awful lot of my ancestors were Welsh and (b) since that institution held (and still holds) most of the census, parish, probate and civil registration records for the whole of Wales (and the whole of the UK, in the case of the censuses and civil registration). I could esconce myself in there for days on end, oscillating between the card indexes, reference shelves, microfiche / microfilm readers and the manuscript room, with only the teensiest of coffee and lunch breaks as I Was Busy.

Although there were always helpful staff on hand to help, you really did need to have some specific knowledge of what kind of thing you were looking for, and where, especially if you were interested in e.g. wills or parish records, which are stored in small batches according to name, parish and/or date. A memory of a relative mentioning a particular village as an ancestor’s birthplace, or a detail previously discovered in another source, could prompt you to order the box of parish records for that area from around that date – the ordering and the waiting for your order to arrive was an art in itself – and in my case I generally made sure I went through said box in detail, looking for any mentions of the family or families in question. You could strike gold and go home with a notebook full of a few generations of new family members, or you could draw a blank and have to go back to square one for the next onslaught. Additional frustrations might be posed by problems of actually reading the damn things due to challenges such as poor or unfamiliar handwriting (here I was hugely advantaged by my training in paleography but still hit a brick wall at times), faded ink, mouse-nibbled, water-, mould- or fire-damaged paper/parchment and a whole array of other inconveniences. Sometimes it was a relief to return to the microfilm reader…

Nowadays people researching their UK ancestors can access the fully searchable 1841-1911 censuses online (mostly by paid subscription), as well as large banks of digitized and/or transcribed parish records, civil registration indexes, wills, military and criminal records, to name just a selection of kinds of records available. With the kind of “global” search options that are often available, you can type in a name and find a distant relative in a corner of the country – or indeed a different country – that you hadn’t thought of looking in.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain the ways in which all this can make searching for ancestors quicker, more convenient, in certain senses easier and rather more likely to pick up some random far-flung offshoots of a family. But in looking back at my old handwritten notes, photocopies and typed up lists of data gleaned from library visits of yore, I realized that what is undoubtedly technical progress doesn’t always equate to a greater success rate or improved methodology for the genealogist.

Back then, I carefully noted down everything I found that I thought was relevant. By hand, initially, at the library, together with the precise details and order slip for the batch of documents consulted, and later typed up at home. And I still have all that today. With online searches, though, it can so easily occur that you modify your search terms so many times that you have lost track of what you’ve actually looked for where. Or you close a tab by accident, or your search times out, and then you might as well start again in some cases, if the design of the search function is poor. But finger-pointing aside, being overwhelmed with data can simply make you lazy about recording it efficiently, and I have to confess that the thoroughness of my own methodology has not always kept up with the pace of “technical progress”.

Another important point is lateral thinking. I have written in a previous post about why this is indispensible in genealogical research, but its particular relevance here is that the human brain is – at least at the time of writing – simply more adaptable than the most sophisticated of search engines. If you encounter a funny spelling of a name in a manuscript source but are nevertheless at least semi-convinced that it is a name you are looking for, then you note it down. Some of the genealogy websites have tried to take this into account by allowing soundex or metaphone searches, for example, but I have found that even the best of these can deal only with fairly “standard” variants on a known name or similar names, but not with the weirder attempts that can arise from unfamiliarity, semi-literacy or problems in interpreting a regional pronunciation or foreign name. To give just one example, some of my ancestors had the family name Everson. Not a hugely problematic name for an English speaker, you might think, and yet I have come across spellings ranging through Evarson, Evanson, Evison, Eveson, Evenson, Evason, Evinson, Eberson, Heberson, Iverson, Iveson, Ibyson – I’m probably forgetting a few – for members of my family, and even the best-adapted of search functions will only pick up a fraction of these, while there are still plenty of sites where you will only get hits that are 100% identical to what you have typed in as your search term.

And this leads on to a related point: other people’s transcriptions. For (most of) the censuses available on the FindMyPast or Ancestry sites, for example, the digitized images of the original census return books are available, but in general you need to enter search terms in order to turn up hits that might then lead you to look at the original images. And the problem here is that all of the personal and placenames have been transcribed and fed into the index / search engine, but in addition to the points of “natural” variability outlined above, there seem to be quite frequently errors in the transcriptions. Which once again means that you can’t find the people you’re looking for. The fact that a standard transcription of a given (and known) placename is also often lacking does not make it any easier in some cases to narrow down your search geographically. You simply can’t find Llantrisant (normal spelling) on some of the censuses, as they have consistently transcribed the place name as “Llan Trisant”, “Llantrisaint” etc. Or someone has misinterpreted a county name abbreviation and your Monmouthshire-born ancestor will only appear if you type in Montgomery as their county of birth. This necessitates a great deal of lateral thinking as a result of someone else’s carelessness or lack of local knowledge. Sites that have used non-moderated OCR for the purposes of indexing / making searchable content of e.g. newspaper articles produce similarly problematic results, albeit for different reasons.

One’s own laziness or haste can also become a problem when it comes to the online census records in particular: the transcriptions are (except for problems just mentioned) so beautifully legible and cut-and-pasteable that I’m sure some inexperienced researchers might dispense with looking at the actual census images altogether. But even if you think “Bingo! I’ve found the family I was looking for and all the information is there”, you’re missing so much if you don’t look at them in their neighbourhood context. SO many families in the nineteenth century lived close to relatives and/or other families with a similar (or, equally telling, vastly different) social status, and there is much to be learned from this, just as you learn so much more about life in an individual parish from trawling through the hatches, matches and dispatches over a course of years, than if you clinically cherry-pick all of the interesting names in an online search.

Having said all of this, there is no way I am going to turn my back on online genealogy research with its rollercoaster of instant revelations just sometimes being tempered by clanging orthographical frustration or the results of someone else’s inconsistency. Like hundreds of thousands of people around the world with this interest, I am tremendously grateful for all the effort, time and dedication that has been put into providing databases, transcriptions and the like, a LOT of this provided by volunteers who do it for the love of it and because they know what it’s worth to others. But for all the ease of access and wealth of data available, validation and documentation of sources has never been more important, particularly with the growth of social media applications enabling amateur genealogists to share their own data with the world.


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