Family history research without the Internet
For those of you who have been following the roller-coaster ride of my search for…
The print-out of my family tree has been rather lop-sided since I started tracing my roots. I have recorded sixty-six ancestors of my mother, going back seven generations and to the early 1700s (the oldest is my great x6 grandfather Richard Arman, born in 1718). I started the research in 2008, and as anyone who has carried out family history research will know you can get a lot of information quite quickly and then it slows down as the clues and evidence become more difficult to access. So on my mother’s side I’d got as far as I could without dedicating a lot of time, which quite frankly I don’t have.
The tree has been lop-sided because I hadn’t, until very recently, carried out any research on my father’s side. I knew certain details… he had been adopted by the Adams family (no, not THAT Addams family), he had been born in Glasgow, I knew his birth date, and crucially I also knew his birth mother’s maiden name. My dad died in 2006 and had never really spoken about his adoption, and I don’t think was interested in the circumstances (and to my regret, I didn’t ever ask him). Because he had been adopted – in Scotland – I had always assumed that it was going to be difficult research. I was wrong…
If you’ve not carried out any family history research, let me give you a quick overview of the process (and here I’m referring to English & Welsh records). You start by mapping out your living relatives, deceased relatives that you can remember, and deceased relatives that older family members can remember (e.g. it’s very likely that your parents know the names of their grandparents, and if your grandparents are still around they’ll probably know the names of their grandparents). It is quite common for people to not know the names of their great-grandparents, let alone great-great grandparents and further back. I didn’t know the names of my great-grandparents, but my mum and uncle filled in those gaps easily.
Armed with names, approximate ages and locations you can carry on the research by looking at the censuses, which in Great Britain were run every ten years from 1841 onwards. In each successive census the information became more legible, more detailed and more accurate. Where you find an ancestor on the census you also find the names of family members and their ages (although sometimes these were guessed by the census taker and not always correct). So the census is one good way of discovering the names of an ancestor’s parents, and those pieces of information allow you go move back through another generation. Other crucial information sources are marriage and birth certificates, as they also reveal parent names. You can use the official Birth, Marriage and Death registers to pinpoint certificates you want to order, and in some cases you can use parish records (the official records started in 1837). Often it’s a combination of all of these things in order to help you do the detective work, rule out ambiguous lines of investigation and pinpoint the true ancestors.
It can also be an expensive and lengthy business. While the civil registers are available on-line free-of-charge, as are many parish registers, the census records incur a charge to search and view. Obtaining a certificate was £7 back in 2008, so I bet it’s more now. And often you’d wait a couple of weeks for that certificate, thus slowing down the pace of research. In my time researching I paid for a CD full of transcriptions of Brentford and Chiswick parish records, and also spent an afternoon painstakingly going through paper-based copies of the St Nicholas parish records (that’s the church near the Hogarth roundabout).
With this in mind, I expected the Scottish research to be a lengthy and expensive process. The first step was much easier than I thought it would be – I went to the ScotlandsPeople web site and bought 30 credits for £7. I then searched on ‘John Adams’ and his birth year, and hey presto… nothing. Ah, okay, what about births in that year for his mother’s maiden name? And there it was… a record for Glasgow, born to the right surname, and John Adams listed as the forename. The sensible thing to do now was to order that birth certificate (for the princely sum of £12) and ensure that the date of birth matched my dad’s. Three weeks passed… and eventually the certificate turned up. There was no doubt this was my dad’s birth certificate as it did show his birthday along with the other pieces falling into place. Normally a birth certificate would show the names of both parents, but not in this case, and I wasn’t expecting a father’s name. There’s a tale about a Swedish sailor visiting Glasgow during the war, and that’s about it. But the certificate did show my real grandmother’s name, occupation (clerk), usual address and the location of my dad’s birth. It also clearly displayed the word ‘adopted’… and one piece of genealogical gold-dust.
When you’re carry out research, your worst nightmare is having an ancestor with the surname Brown or Smith (or other frequently occurring surnames). Most people will have a Brown or a Smith, and the sheer number of them will often mean that you get multiple results in searches. I have several Browns, but in one case was lucky enough to have a Russell Brown, and Russell at the time was an unusual forename. And that’s would you hope for, unusual names. My grandmother’s forename and surname were not that unusual, but she had an unusual middle name… Gourlay. In the event of multiple results for the same forename and surname, that middle name would really pin down the right one.
The next step was to get her birth certificate, as this would reveal (along with other details) the names of her parents (my great-grandparents), and then the research would really be kicking off. At this point I had to make some assumptions – I’d probably be looking for someone in the West Glasgow area, and probably someone born between 1915 and 1924 (I was assuming that a young woman would be giving up a baby for adoption). A simple search for the name turned up two results – and there was the correct name, including that unusual middle name, born in 1917 in Old Kilpatrick (north-west of Glasgow). Bingo. I ordered the birth certificate, and waited another three weeks…
And then one fine August day an envelope from the National Records of Scotland arrived. I now had two Scottish great-grandparents, Gilbert and (it looked like) Jeannie or Janine. Just my luck, a registrar with scrawly hand-writing. Like English & Welsh birth certificates, the mother’s maiden name is provided… so now I had an opportunity to look for a marriage between the two. This was easy – a marriage before 1917, and knowing both surnames and the groom’s first name – and a marriage between Gilbert and Jessie (okay, now I could see it said Jessie) in 1911 appeared. If I were using the UK & Welsh records I’d now be looking at ordering yet another certificate, but here’s where the Scottish records differ… the marriage index itself holds enough information to make the certificate a non-requirement. There was the expected stuff (date, location), Gilbert and Jessie’s occupations (Gilbert, a widower, was an iron ship plater – Jessie a knitter), their usual residence… but also both fathers’ names, their occupations (Gilbert’s father Gabriel was a carpenter) and their mothers’ names – and (more genealogical gold-dust) their mothers’ maiden names. I now had four great-great-grandparents. Without ordering any certificates and waiting another three weeks (and spending £24), this allowed me to move back a generation simply by searching for marriages between Gabriel and Helen, and David and Mary. And then repeat, so I soon had eight great-great-great grandparents.
Then it started getting difficult – the official birth / marriage / death records in Scotland date back to 1855 (unlike England & Wales, which date back to 1837). There are parish records available, but these vary in quality and legibility, and don’t provide the details of the official records. A bit more digging turned up six great-great-great-great grandparents, but only names. At this point I ran out of credits for the ScotlandsPeople web site and decided to leave the research for another time.
In summary, the Scottish registers hold more information than the comparable English & Welsh registers, and getting back through three generations was quick and easy. The downside is the payment mechanism. Ancestry.co.uk, who hold the England & Wales census records, charge a monthly fee – £12.95 is a good price if you can burn through all of your on-line research in a couple of months. The English & Welsh birth / marriage / death registers are available to search free-of-charge at FreeBMD but only provide enough information to tell you which certificate to order. There are other good resources, such as FamilySearch, which can reveal some parish record details. It’s s shame that ScotslandsPeople charge using the credit system as it’s easy to burn through 30 credits quickly, and I’d prefer a monthly subscription. The good news is that my family tree is now not so lop-sided, and I have a good picture of my Scottish heritage.