Tag Archives: NLW

Two uncommon names, one common fate

The recent centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster in South Wales featured quite prominently in the UK media, as one would expect for the worst mining accident in the country’s history. On 14 October 1913, 439 miners and one rescuer died in an explosion at the Universal Colliery near Caerphilly. What was particularly poignant during the commemorations was how many ordinary individuals stepped up – both in the mainstream media and on social media sites – to tell moving, vivid stories of their great grandfathers, great uncles who died, and of the families left behind.

I am not aware of anyone in my own family having been involved in the Senghenydd disaster, and without passed-down accounts from within the family it would be quite hard to find out at this stage, since the lists of those who died contain to a large extent numbers of men who shared common (Welsh) surnames, combined with a fairly limited palette of first names and only the most rudimentary information on age, address and so on. I was surprised, though, when some random googling of a more unusual name from the peripheries of my family tree led me to reports of an earlier pit disaster – that of January 1879 at Dinas Middle Colliery near Llantrisant – for which the list of those killed turned up the distinctive names of two distant relatives who I’d never thought had any personal connection with one another (within their lifetimes). Their names were River Jordan and Elisha Upjohn.

River Jordan was born in 1827 at Middle Forge, Lydney in Gloucestershire. I believe he was a second cousin of my great-great-great grandfather Mark Jordan. Like many of the Forest of Dean Jordans, River was a forgeman, working in tin manufacture by 1851 and as an iron pudler in 1861, by which time he was married for the third time, had three (surviving) children plus a number of stepchildren and – in a move mirrored in many Forest of Dean families of the period – had relocated to the more heavily industrialised area of Wolverhampton. The transfer back south-westwards to the Rhondda Valley occurred some time between 1861 and 1871; by the latter date he was working as a hammerman in Aberdare. I don’t know exactly when he started working in mining, nor whether it was a choice or a necessity for him.

Elisha Upjohn, the grandfather of my great-uncle Tudor Apjohn, was born in Figheldean, Wiltshire, in 1825. This was a predominantly rural area where most of the men worked in farming, and certainly up to 1871 Elisha seems to have stayed in exactly the same location, working as an agricultural labourer and raising a family with his wife Emma. Again, the exact date and reasons for him moving his family to South Wales are unclear, but he was one of many thousands who moved from rural areas to the ever expanding South Wales coalmines during this period, exchanging agriculture for industry, often attracted by the prospect of higher wages and more consistent availability of work. Statistics derived from the censuses of the period show that the population of the Rhondda Valley increased from some 3000 in 1861 to over 55,000 by 1881 (source: Wikipedia).

The chilling events of 13 January 1879 – the date coincides with Hen Galan, the old Welsh New Year celebration – that claimed the lives of 63 men and boys can be reconstructed from newspaper reports published in the aftermath of the accident. I’ll quote directly from some but have included a complete list of those I consulted at the end of this entry – many details occur in more than one report, though I should also say that there are some apparent factual inconsistencies as well. Looking at them together, one can build up a picture of working conditions, the dangers involved and the precautions introduced to try to keep these in check. The special locked safety lamps used by the Dinas colliers are just one example of the precautions needed – ironically perhaps, the smokeless steam coal produced by many of the South Wales collieries was also associated with them being particularly “fiery mines”, volatile environments where “firedamp” (composed mainly of methane) was a constant risk factor; even so, the Aberdare Times comments that “it is rumoured that the hitchers [shaft attendants] sometimes used naked lights”. The newspaper reports also record the painful twists of fate that occurred that night and the involvement of the local community.

The regular daytime shift on that cold, wet Monday in January had been uneventful: some 100 men and boys had gone underground and returned safely at the end of the working day. Though this was only a quarter of the workforce, Mondays were “idle days” compared to others; this figure of 100 was actually higher than on many Mondays, as in this week many of the men wanted to leave early on the Wednesday to attend the funeral of the elderly widow of a former colleague. The smaller night-shift party numbered around 60, and these went down at 7pm, just before the day shift ended, to carry out necessary maintenance, remove rubble and carry out other tasks to ensure the safe working of the mine (if one can ever really talk of “safe” in this context). On this evening, they would as usual have been lowered down into the pit in a cage, ten men at a time, and with the cage descending once a minute (to a maximum depth of 427 yards, according to the Cardiff Times), they would soon have all been busy at work. Twelve horses were also sent down, in addition to the 32 already in the stable below ground. I had known of the “pit ponies” before but had no idea there would have been so many of them in one place at one time. But if they were responsible for transporting large amounts of timber plus the colliery’s output of 600 tons of coal a day, I guess I should be less surprised (Wikipedia suggests that the horses would have worked 8-hour shifts and could have pulled up to 30 tons of coal each per day on the underground tramways).

All was well for the first few hours, but then events took a devastating turn, as reported by the Cambrian thus:

At 20 minutes to 11 o’clock, the engineer, John Burton, heard a crash at the pit’s mouth, and going out saw that the heavy iron cap which diverts the air through the tunnel into the fan had been blown up into the pit gearing and fixed there. The banksmen [men stationed at the top of the pit to unload the full tubs of coal], William Taylor and William Webber, had also been blown away from their places, and directly afterwards there came the deep reverberation of an explosion, followed by a cloud of dust and densely sulphureous [sic] vapour.

According to the Aberdare Times, the explosion occurred in the mine’s so-called middle pit, more precisely in the four-foot “polka” seam located 80 yards above the bottom of the 430-yard-deep pit. The paper also portrays the immediate community response:

The shocks of the explosion shook the cottages adjacent and the echoes were heard miles away. The inhabitants of the district came rushing down to the mouth of the pit, some only half-clad and others scarcely clad at all, just as they had tumbled out of bed. On learning what had happened they became frantic with grief, and the scene was truly heartrending. Women and children shrieked with terror, and many wives and mothers were carried away in a fainting condition.

For the sake of balance, however, I want to contrast this with the altogether much more sober account provided by the Cardiff Times:

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the occurrence is the absence of outward demonstration on the part of the bereaved relatives. All those whose business has led them to the mine state that neither on the day of the explosion nor since have the people flocked to the pit in that grief-stricken state, and with those unreasonable demands which so often intensify the terrible nature of these calamities. This is not attributed to any want of feeling however—far from it—but to the probability of the dreadful news having been sympathetically imparted to the sorrowing relatives, accompanied by such judicious advice as would lead them to become resigned to the unfortunate state of things.

Take your pick as to which account you find more convincing, but differing degrees of dramaticisation aside, the reports seem fairly consistent in suggesting that numerous managers from this and other local collieries had arrived by 1 or 2am and were engaged in grave discussions about what to do. Attempts to go down into the mine were made impossible by the continuing escape of noxious fumes (“afterdamp”), and it soon became evident that the volume of rubble that had fallen had all but cut off any air supply that might have existed. Rescuers, under the technical leadership of the engineers and including several local medical professionals, did what they could to insert ventilation tubes, but the prospects were pretty grim, as described in the Cambrian:

They gave small hopes indeed of a single individual being recovered alive, but thought there might be the barest possibility of some of them retiring into the remoter workings, where the air would be purer. There was not much consolation in that they said, because miners overtaken by an explosion of fire-damp invariably made their way to the pit’s mouth if they could, and if the poor fellows did so in this case, those who escaped instant death would only be rushing upon a cruel doom.

It was Wednesday before anyone could safely attempt to go below the surface to assess the situation further. In the meantime, any attempts made by any survivors to make themselves known to those on the surface would also have had mixed success, as the Aberdare Times explains:

The signal wires of the pit are broken, and the men could not consequently, if alive, communicate with those above but no hopes are entertained of their safety, as they would, it is believed, have shouted for help if they had not succumbed, and their shouts would probably have been heard.

Initially it was thought that 59 had died, this figure based on the number of safety lamps issued for the evening shift. Within days, this figure had been revised upwards to 63 after it transpired that a few men had collected their lamps earlier and/or taken them home with them after a previous shift. The Gwladgarwyr reports that 45 of those who died were married, 4 widowers, and just 14 unmarried (some of whom would have been mere boys). It tells us further that Evan, David and John Jenkins were brothers, as were John and James Edwards and John and James Rounstable. Octavius Wheadon and Charles Wheadon were father and son, and River Jordan was father-in-law to one of the Jenkins brothers (the article doesn’t specify which). It does not mention – though I have confirmed this through genealogical research – that another man killed, Thomas Richards, was the husband of River’s stepdaughter Louisa. As the Cardiff Times reported, “The colliery being a very old one [it was in fact the oldest and deepest in the Rhondda], many of those who work at it have lived in the neighbourhood for years, have intermarried, and so become related”. Several of the newspapers also give details of how many children each man had, though adult children that existed in the cases of River, Elisha and some of the other older men are not included as, presumably, they would not have been (as) dependent on their fathers. Nevertheless, this means the number of all those who lost a father that day far exceeds the number printed.

The Cardiff Times, in a bid to offer some slight relief, recounts the story of one man who had a lucky escape that night:

One man, a middle-aged miner, had one of those escapes which on such occasions always seem to indicate the intervention of Providence. He was not particularly well on Monday night, but did not think of staying away from the pit. His wife, however, though thinking her husband but slightly indisposed, was, as someone forcibly remarked, “dead set” against his going to work; and yielding to her persuasions he stayed at home. How much he has to be thankful for he himself now knows.

It also makes reference to a number of men who had recently been laid off, who it suggests might also have reassessed their situation somewhat in the light of the disaster. However, it also reports that one of those who died was a 15-year-old boy who was working in the pit for the very first time on that occasion (in the interests of accuracy, though, the youngest on the list accompanying the article, Evan Jenkins, was 16).

In addition to the loss of human life, the 44 horses underground at the time of the explosion also all died.

The inspector of mines established that defective ventilation had caused the disaster: a significant blockage in the air supply in or out of the shaft would have allowed for a rapid build-up of explosive gas. It is well worth noting that only two months before the explosion occurred, the colliery manager, a Mr John Chubb, had had his manager’s certificate suspended for six months for negligence, after it was found that inadequate or improper ventilation had led to a build-up of gas underground on two previous occasions. Mr Chubb’s cousin Robert, a married father of five, also died in the accident.

The recovery of the bodies must have been a particularly arduous, harrowing and time-consuming task, and I am not certain whether they ever found or formally identified all the bodies. The deaths of River and Elisha were both registered in the September quarter of 1879, i.e. in July, August or September, so some months after the explosion.

And what about the families they left behind? Maria, River’s widow, who was 54 when he died, was living with her daughter Sarah and family in Aberdare in 1881, and she was still with them in Pontypridd in 1901. I wonder if she was relieved that her son-in-law, William Evans, was a tailor and not down the mines. I have not been able to trace River’s daughter Mary who was also left a widow after the disaster – maybe she remarried and/or moved away. His other two children, Thomas and Fanny, were back in Lydney living next door to one another with their spouses and young families by 1881.

Emma Upjohn found her way out of widowhood rather quickly – a move, I should stress, that was just as likely to be prompted by economic necessity as by any other possible factors! – as she married a sawyer called Isaac Williams in early 1880. Of their children, I know that Elizabeth Anna had married a stonemason, Thomas Longhurst, by 1881 and like her mother and brothers, Harry and Frank, was still in the Pontypridd area. Harry was a butcher by now and was boarding with the parents of his future wife, a school teacher. Ultimately they changed their surname to the more Welsh sounding Apjohn, and one of their children, Tudor, born in 1891, was later to marry a Jordan, my great-aunt Marion. I have distant memories of visiting them in Whitchurch near Cardiff.

Finally, I think Elisha and Emma’s son Frank’s story is at once the happiest and the saddest: in October 1880 he married Louisa Richards, the stepdaughter of River Jordan who had been left a widow aged just 20 after the Dinas Colliery Disaster. Rather tragically, Frank died in 1882 before the birth of their second child, though Louisa married again the following year and had two further children before she herself died in 1891.

Sources (all accessed via NLW’s Welsh Newspapers Online):

  • “Terrible colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, The Cambrian, 17 January 1879
  • “Disastrous colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, Aberdare Times, 18 January 1879
  • “Tanchwa ddychrynllyd Pwll y Dinas”, Gwladgarwyr, 24 January 1879
  • “Terrible colliery explosion at Dinas”, Monmouthshire Merlin, 17 January 1879
  • “Terrible explosion at the Dinas Colliery”, Cardiff Times, 18 January 1879 – this is by far the most detailed article I have read on the topic


Filed under Genealogy, History

The Tale of a 19th-Century Stuttgart Pickpocket

I thoroughly enjoy reading historical newspapers, especially those of the nineteenth century in Britain, their eclecticism and taste for the bizarre providing endless entertainment as well as insights into how differently people lived – and journalists wrote – back then.

The following report appeared in the Aberystwyth Observer on Saturday, 13 October 1860, in a section on page 3 titled “Miscellaneous general news, home, foreign and colonial”. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this apocryphal sounding tale, but the story and the manner of its telling amused me a great deal. If you’re interested, you can access the whole edition here; this and many, many more 19th and early 20th century newspapers can be browsed or searched through the National Library of Wales’s excellent Welsh Newspapers Online resource.

A COOL PICKPOCKET. — The pickpockets of London and Paris have long enjoyed the reputation of being the most adroit in Europe; but, if we may believe the statement of a M. Charles W—-, Stuttgardt can fully rival those cities. That gentleman was walking in the Koenigstrasse, looking at the shops, when he was accosted by an obsequious little man, who offered his services to show him the lions of the capital, but the other refused the offer. The officious personage, however, was not offended, but politely asked him what o’clock it was. The other answered that he did not know, as his watch had stopped, and continued his walk towards the Museum of Natural History, which he entered. He had not been there many minutes before the same person came up to him with the air of an old acquaintance, and offered him a pinch of snuff. This M. W—- declined, saying he was no snuff-taker, and walked away; but some minutes after, having a presentiment of something being wrong, he felt for his snuff-box, but instead of it found a scrap of paper in his pocket, on which was written,

“As you are no snuff-taker, you do not require a box.”

He thought the logic of his unknown acquaintance rather impertinent, and resolved to bear his loss like a philosopher; but what was his amazement when, a moment after, he discovered that his watch had also disappeared, and in his other pocket was another note, in the following words:

“As your watch does not tell the hour, it would be better at the watchmaker’s than in your pocket.”

It is hardly necessary to say that he never heard any further tidings of the two articles.

What I especially like is the stark contrast between the earthy, yet measured and certainly creepy “voice” of the pickpocket contrasting with the quite pompous, condescending and almost trite tone of the rest of the report: the latter is clearly not the sole preserve of today’s Daily Mail!

I’d love to know the provenance of this story and how widely it was known and published elsewhere. A quick Google search yields the same story in the Fayetteville Observer (North Carolina, 1860 – link opens PDF of the relevant edition) and the Hawke’s Bay Herald (New Zealand, 1861), so that suggests quite a geographical spread. Within Wales, it also appeared in the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1862 (edition of 4 October), so it seems to have been doing the rounds for a couple of years at least.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books & reading, History

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Genealogy

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.


Filed under Genealogy