Saturday, 12 October 2019

Reflections on planning my retirement from genealogy

Ten years ago I began my first paid client project for a lovely man who died soon afterwards of an unsuspected but aggressive cancer.  Last month I met his teenage grandson who was now looking at his grandfather's extensive family history research and wanting to continue it.  It was a lovely moment and gave me a lot of satisfaction that Bruce's hard work would be appreciated by his descendants.

I am looking forward to retirement from genealogy in the next couple of years.  I need a break from the pressures of business and the chance to take my time and do my own family history.  In the near future is the task of contacting all my existing and former clients to tell them that I will be deleting my files soon and if there is anything on Dropbox they haven't downloaded to do so quickly.  Inevitably that will bring back memories of clients and their projects.

I am grateful to my clients for opening up to me the range of sources I use on a daily basis.  It is thanks to them and my decision to concentrate on helping those already researching that I have become so knowledgeable on those sources that are not online.  It seems a pity that now, at the top of my game, I am retiring.  But I am tired and my friends and family deserve to see more of me as does my long-neglected house and garden.  I will move on to new interests and family history will become again a hobby I can enjoy at my leisure.

The irony is of course that no sooner had I decided to cut down on my client work than I became even busier.  I was asked to talk at national level and former clients from as far back as 2012 asked me to do more research for them.  I am starting to say no, to manage expectations as to timescale but I have mixed feelings about turning down work.  It is not an easy thing to do but it is necessary for my stress levels.  My deadline for taking on new clients is March 2020.

When I take my name off the local archives' researcher list only one will remain there and that researcher does not do family history research.  Of course quite a lot of their documents are now online and the archive does offer a research service.  I probably won't be missed.  It is all online now isn't it?  So why then am I so busy?

My task in retirement will be to research with my daughter and write up the stories of our ancestors.  I have the wide-ranging skills now to do them justice thanks to my clients and their projects.  Experience counts.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017


I'm by no means an expert in the use of DNA in genealogy.  As a professional genealogist, however, I am trying to learn as much as I can about the subject.

On the face of it, it seems a wonderful idea - take a quick and easy DNA test to find out who your ancestors were without all the hard work of doing your tree.  There are so many stories about adoptees who have found their birth families as a result of taking a genealogical DNA test and it is now relatively cheap to do so.

DNA tests - the reality check


The reality is of course a little different.  Most companies offer you a broadbrush view of your ethnicity and a matching service with other DNA samples which have been submitted BUT if your close match has not tested with that company then you will not find them.  You can download your results in the form of "raw data" and submit them to another site such as GEDMatch to widen your search  but for most of us struggling to get to grips with the matches we already have this may as yet be a step too far.

One thing becomes very clear as you get your first matches - you do need to have already done quite a lot of documentary research already in order to establish your joint ancestor.  In general the longer the matching sections of common DNA you have with a possible match the closer the relationship BUT if your ancestry largely consists of people from a fairly small geographical area who have intermarried for generations those assumptions of closeness are skewed.  That common ancestor may be a lot further back than indicated!

AND if your matches are anything like mine the link is probably in that line you haven't yet researched thoroughly or where you have hit a brick wall.

DNA Ethnicity estimates

As for the ethnicity estimates - that is exactly what they are - ESTIMATES - and they can vary and be updated further along the line as more samples are added to the database.  My daughter and I both tested with Living DNA which does not as yet offer DNA matching but does offer a more detailed breakdown by region for UK ancestry.  In general both sets of results fit fairly closely with the documentary evidence and in fact have presented a few areas for further research on MY tree as there seems to be a bit of West Country ancestry I had not foreseen.  (When it appeared in my daughter's results I had ascribed it to my mother in law's ancestry.)

Would I recommend taking a DNA Test?


Yes on the whole I would recommend it  BUT

  • DO get your tree in order first as without a tree to check your matches are pretty useless
  • DO check out the privacy policies of the company you intend to use
  • DO learn at least the basics of DNA for genealogy before you start - there are plenty of webinars and videos about it on Youtube for instance
  • DO treat the ethnicity estimate as just that - an estimate


  • DON'T expect  miracles or immediate matches
  • DON'T offend your siblings who have different results to yours - the DNA mix we inherit from our parents is unique to ourselves and siblings may have a different mix
  • DON'T become a DNA bore - it can be very technical and most people really don't want to hear the details
  • DON'T be upset if the ethnicity estimate throws up something unexpected.  So many different ancestors contributed to the mix we inherit and that unforeseen result may lead to exciting discoveries when you follow it up with documentary research.



Monday, 28 August 2017

Archives - Top-Drawer or Bargain Basement?

Last week I rang a Record Office (an Accredited Archive) to check on their parish register holdings.  The registers have mostly been digitised for a subscription website but some appear to be missing and can't be accessed via the browse function.

Unfortunately my call was answered by a new member of staff who checked the online catalogue and announced that they did not hold the original registers before 1903 only the microfilm copies.  I know this to be incorrect and that she was looking in the wrong place but I didn't argue not wanting a confrontation.  In hindsight I should have insisted she check the paper catalogue.

Steady attrition of experience and knowledge


 What is most worrying is that this was not a new experience for me.  It is something I encounter more and more as I go around the country visiting Archives and Record Offices.  As the cuts bite ever deeper the more experienced staff leave to be replaced by those who (to put it politely) have a lot yet to learn.  Like those who witnessed the destruction of Palmyra and other ancient treasures we are witnessing the wanton destruction of years of archival experience and knowledge by those who do not value knowledge, history, heritage or culture and only seek to balance the books.

Libraries and Archives are fighting for their very existence now.  We may soon reach the point where regular users know more than trained staff.  How many times have you witnessed staff telling users something which you knew to be incorrect?  I know I have and have agonised as to whether to interfere, only to decide to keep my head down.  Those occasions now weigh heavily upon my conscience.

I am a representative on The National Archives User Advisory Group and a professional genealogist.  I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to do all that I can to ensure the future generations continue to have access to the records I have been privileged to enjoy.  In these days of increased digital access it seems as if Archives are delegating responsibility for opening up access to their collections to the commercial websites where the bottom line will inevitably be making enough money to break even and provide profit for their shareholders on the expenditures of digitisation - licensing, preparation, scannning and indexing.  BUT what price accuracy, context and completeness?

Online is not Forever

And online is not forever.  Commercial websites purchase a licence to use a dataset for a set number of years.  At the expiry of that term what then happens?

Websites come and go and are bought and sold on.  Family history is no longer a hobby but a product for sale.  Datasets continue to disappear completely, or move to other websites with the same ownership, and having to pay extra for a separate subscription to view records you viewed as part of your original one 6 months ago is becoming the norm.  Free databases become subscription websites or are taken over by them.  We have all seen this happen since the first exciting and wonderful 1901 census digitisation.

User attrition

If Archive staff misinform a user as to their holdings - not deliberately but through lack of staff training - then that is one user who won't visit.  If a hard-won new user, attracted by online or outreach exhibitions visits the Archive and the guidance given to them is inaccurate or misleading or they are left to flounder alone then that is another user lost. If Archives close their doors at weekends, reduce their opening hours or close at lunchtimes that is more potential users lost.

In these tough times where usage is measured mainly by footfall Archives are shooting themselves in the foot by reducing experienced staff and opening hours.

We know that cuts are inevitable.  Times are hard.  We may need to make a bunker from which to defend at all costs.  BUT at a time when family history is still lucrative and interest in local history seems to be growing what we need is to make Libraries and Archives easier to use for research.  Yes encouraging children on school visits is good - they are important for the future - but if there are no archives or libraries to speak of in 10 years time for them to visit then it is rather pointless generating an interest in a 10 year old isn't it?

Archives need to attract adults - adults who are new to research but are keen - who need help and experienced advice to guide them to the less easily accessed sources.  They are the ones who will pass on their love of research and how to do it to their children.

We need Archives to be welcoming and inclusive places for adults with Finding Aids prominently displayed, proper Signposting of Resources and lots of "how to" guides.  We need their websites to tell users what they actually want to know and not just point them to an incomplete online catalogue.

And most of all we need knowledgeable staff on the front line - the reception desk and phone. 

We want our Archives to be TOP DRAWER not Bargain Basement!

Friday, 28 July 2017


As family history researchers we all like to do our own research.  It is hard to hand our tree over to someone else even if only to look something up or obtain a copy of a document.  Which is probably why if we have to, we tend to ask for copies from the Archive or Record Office rather than employ a researcher to do it for us. 

As a professional genealogist I do this too but only for single copies where I can give an exact reference or where it is too small a job for me to employ a fellow professional.  Otherwise I use the cheaper option and employ a pro.  Archive research hourly rates seem quite expensive to me certainly usually a fair bit more than I or my colleagues charge.  

I would like to think that archive staff have an extensive knowledge of their own records but sadly this is not always the case in these days of staff redundancies.  Archive staff sometimes don’t last long enough to even begin to know their collections.  Their only advantage is that they have access to the more usable under-layers of the online catalogue.  Which is not necessarily any help when it comes down to slogging through quarter sessions papers, muster rolls or workhouse minutes.

I know that professional genealogists have spent years learning their trade:

- learning about all the different kinds of records available both locally and nationally, the context in which they were created, and how to use them to find family members as we trace back generation by generation.

- learning how to apply logic, critical analysis and lateral thinking to a problem

- learning how to search the different databases effectively and cope with their individual foibles

- learning about online catalogues and their differences 

- familiarising ourselves with the different archives and libraries we visit in the course of our work, building relationships with staff and learning about their individual collections and cataloguing styles

- taking courses to improve and upgrade our skills and knowledge in areas such as Genetic Genealogy 

- learning how best to help our clients as cost effectively as possible

- learning how best to quote sources and label documents for clarity

- learning how to use family tree software, photograph documents, create websites and employ social media for genealogy

And learning how to read the different styles of handwriting encountered as we move from one period to the next.

So I feel comfortable asking them to research for me in an archive some distance away or in records I am not familiar with.  After all why get a dog and bark yourself?  

I know that they will carry out my task diligently and offer advice if I ask for it.  I know they will tell me of likely costs up front and that they will devise a suitable research plan and stick to it unless they find something which makes a different approach necessary.  I know that they will not make assumptions without facts to back them up and that they will probably work more hours on my project than they charge me for. 

So if I employ professional genealogists for my family history problems why don’t you?

Monday, 25 July 2016

The problem with online genealogy research

Today I had an email from Familysearch telling me of my links to various Mormon pioneers.  They had linked them via the very rudimentary tree I had put on the site to illustrate a talk I gave last winter on using Familysearch's new features.  Extrapolating from other trees on the site they had given my ancestor two different sets of parents and thus two different links to Mormon pioneer families.

Fascinating as this is, the fact remains that I had not put my ancestor's parentage on my tree because I have not yet satisfied myself as to which, if any, is correct.  Certainly one of the allocated sets of parents is definitely wrong as their son died as an infant.

Genealogy as "best fit"

Genealogy is usually a matter of "best fit".  As you get further back in time corroborating sources may not have survived even if they existed in the first place.  The world of Internet Genealogy, morever, lulls the researcher into thinking that the result pulled up by the search engine or hint is correct.  The absence of detailed information about its source - its gaps, limitations, scope and purpose - on many genealogical sites compounds this, particularly without benefit of local knowledge on the part of the researcher.

"The truth is out there" - original records

There are many original records out there in archives and record offices which could possibly give the lie to your careful genealogical conclusions.  As a professional researcher my fear is always that I have missed that obscure but vital record in my otherwise thorough search.  Many times when researching for clients I have found that their original assumptions although carefully researched were incorrect - sometimes the proof of an ancestor's lineage consists of proving that they are not someone else!  Looking at the "small print" of a person's life - taxation returns, rate books, parish relief, tithe apportionment - and basic common sense - a mother does not usually give birth twice in 6 months in 2 different places a long way apart - are some of the keys to demolishing brick walls.

Genealogy "do-over" - find new sources

The genealogy "do-over" is in part a recognition of this fact.  What seemed a logical assumption in the early days of your research may now be disproved in the light of greater experience and knowledge of other sources.  More records being digitised and put online are giving all of us access to a vast variety of sources but there is still so much more out there - on microfilm and as manuscripts in archives, record offices, university special collections, libraries and even on ebay.

Don't rely on the Internet as it is only the tip of the iceberg.  I spend my working life researching in  archives finding new and interesting sources of information for clients.  I am constantly amazed by what is out there in vaults somewhere, sometimes only accessed via manuscript catalogues.

Some records have not survived

Equally I am frustrated by what has not survived.  When I think about

Friday, 1 January 2016

Genealogy lab rats in a Maze

I'm taking a break from preparing a talk on using the familysearch website for a local family history group next week to write this.  In fact the research for the talk has in part inspired this, together with the commotion caused by the announcement that Family Tree Maker is to be axed.

I am not a great fan of family tree software although I do use it for my work.  I have not yet found a program which meets all my needs - in particular the fact that sometimes there is no clear cut ancestor but several candidates.  Whilst you think that one is the most likely you need to explain why and where else you have looked.

Genealogy and best fit

Genealogy, particularly the compilation of a family tree, is most often a "best fit" for the situation not an absolute certainty.  We talk about the need for 3 proofs for each fact but the reality is that the further back you go the less likely you are to find them.  Parish registers for instance tend to become less informative in their entries and there is no certainty that they are all that complete or accurate.  (Oh that sinking feeling when attached to a section of sparse entries or a gap you see a note saying that the vicar had been failing for some years and that his successor had attempted to reconstruct the registers from what loose papers he had found.)

There are other sources which if they have survived can be used but if your ancestor did not make a will, own land, appear at the manorial court, receive poor relief, act in an official capacity within a parish or sell them goods, appear at the quarter sessions, serve as an apprentice or in the militia you may not find evidence of them.

Careful analysis

Each record you do find needs careful analysis in context.  Is the William Varley married to Mary really the one you are looking for?  In a large parish there may be 2 or 3 William Varleys and at least 2 may have married a Mary.  You often need to try and eliminate the others in order to find the most likely.  AND you may need to trace back the possible lines in the hope of finding facts as to the relative status or wealth, family names, residence etc to help you make your eventual decision.

How can you document all this in a family tree program?

Online trees

Which brings me to my beef with online trees.  Specifically those hosted by commercial database websites offering digitised records.  Most of these offer suggestions as to other likely records which appear to match the person in your tree or the one you are searching for.

Some of these suggestions are more useful than others and some are totally inappropriate.  They need careful consideration in context and with reference to all the known facts.  But there is something about the breadcrumb trail nature of the suggestion process that somehow leads us to suspend our critical faculties and accept the computer's suggestion.  AND TO CARRY ON DOING IT.

I admit I am not immune to this temptation and sometimes it has been quite useful but I do horrify myself that I am tempted to click without thorough checking.  I manage to stop myself and step back but I do this for a living.  If it is hard for me to step back what hope do beginners have?

The Ancestry app for my tablet is the worst.  It is far too easy to click without thinking carefully.

Genealogy lab rats

So when did Genealogy become a computer game?  It should not be something a machine researches for us.  We should be in charge with a research plan, analytical faculties and family knowledge.

We are not genealogy lab rats working round a computer generated maze although it can so easily feel like it.  We are being steered towards using online trees and may have to pay for the privilege.  How can we accept other online trees as correct given the perhaps suspect nature of their generation?

We all need to step back out of the maze and think about where genealogy in the digital age is taking us.  Is it using us or are we using it?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Are genealogy "do-overs" worth it?

The genealogy "do-over" is this year's buzz-word - to discount your previous research and start again with the benefit of the increased availability of digitised records and of course your much greater genealogical experience.

When I took the plunge and became a professional genealogist just over 5 years ago I immediately felt embarrassed by some of my numerous personal research files.  To be fair some were from the very beginning of my family history research and borrowed quite heavily from online trees and other people's research - which in my naivete I had assumed were correct as they were so much more experienced than I was at that time.  I had also not been as meticulous as to sources and analysis as I am now.

So as time permits (and usually during insomniac nights huddled over the computer and bundled up in a duvet) I have gradually been reviewing my previous research, checking it over for accuracy and sense, adding in images of documents, drawing up plans for further research and taking the time to fill in the background to each individual's story.

This was the case recently with William Fretwell my great grandfather whose file I hadn't touched for nearly 10 years.

William Fretwell

William was born in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire (D H Lawrence country) in around 1843 and was originally a coal miner but had lung trouble so switched to being a painter and general labourer.  His first appearance is in the 1851 census in Tinsley Park in Yorkshire.  I had found his baptism in Eastwood on 26 May 1843 the son of Samuel and Mary Fretwell and this didn't quite fit in with his 1851census age of 10 years.  I hadn't been able to find a likely birth registration in the GRO birth registration indexes so I didn't have a birth certificate for him.

I had found a registration for a William Fretwell in 1841 and had sent off for the birth certificate expecting it to be correct and it was for his nephew - the illegitimate son of his sister Mira.  My nose began twitching as I reviewed this - could William not be the son of Samuel and Mary after all?  Was he his "sister"s son instead?  I set out to disprove this and made a list of all the children of Samuel and Mary from the baptisms in Eastwood and in the various censuses with a view to matching them all up with birth registrations, burials etc.

The first item in favour of this new theory was that the sister who had the illegitimate son was living next door to her parents in 1851 and was now married with no sign of a son William.  In addition there was the existence of another son to Samuel and Mary - apparently born  about a year later than William - who also appeared in the 1851 census.

This son Job was baptised in Eastwood on 7 January 1844 whereas William was baptised on 26 May 1843 in Eastwood.  Both were attributed to Samuel and Mary.  Now it was just possible that if Job was early and William had been born some time before his baptism the requisite 9 months between pregnancies would apply but although possible was it likely that they were in fact full brothers?

Birth registration index entries

I searched again in the GRO birth registration indexes using and, with greater experience now in search strategies, searched only on the surname Fretwell within the Basford registration district for the period 1840 to 1850.  This brought up the following interesting entries:

Male Fretwell registered March Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 481
Job Fretwell registered June Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 456
William Fretwell registered December Quarter 1841 Basford vol 15 page 426

William Fretwell registered September Quarter 1843 Basford vol 15 page 437

I had already ordered the 1841 certificate for William Fretwell which turned out to be Mira' s son.  I couldn't remember why I had discounted the 1843 entry.  Perhaps I had reasoned that it was too late for a baptism in May 1843.  The usual wisdom is that births come before baptisms but does this apply with the GRO registration index records?

The answer is no, not always.  You need to formally register a birth no later than 6 weeks after the event or you will incur a fine.  Was this always the case?  1843 was only 6 years after the advent of civil registration and it was not compulsory to register births at this time.  Furthermore it is possible that a birth a few days before a baptism at the end of May could still be legally registered in the first week in July taking it into the next quarter of the indexes.

Could this birth registration be the one I hadn't found before?

More puzzling still was a sole birth registration entry for Job Fretwell in 1841.  Surely this didn't fit with a baptism in 1844?

The only way to resolve this is to order both certificates and await the results.  I could have looked for a corresponding death in the GRO death registration indexes but there were no corresponding burials in the Eastwood church burial registers that I could see.  I am awaiting the certificates with bated breath and fingers crossed.

1851 census

The other bonus of my review of William Fretwell is that I took another look at the 1851 census image in which he appears.  The enumerators schedule page has merely Tinsley Park as the address - no street names - and as usual shows the family's neighbours.  One is his sister and her husband who was a brick maker but the other one is an Engineer from Cornwall.  Now usually engineers do not share the same kind of pit cottages as coal miners and brickmakers.  I looked  at the schedule pages in front of and behind the one for William and his family and there were quite a few engineers so I was curious as to why this should be.

I looked up Tinsley Park Colliery on the Internet and found a Wikipedia entry which said that Tinsley Park Colliery's first shaft was sunk in 1852.  Was this what William's family were doing there in 1851?  Were they helping to start up a coal mine?  More local history research in Yorkshire is obviously needed.

Was the "do-over" worth it?

Was it worth revisiting my research?  Yes of course it was!  Even if the 1843 William Fretwell birth certificate turns out not to be him then I still have my new theory to follow up.  And Job is still a mystery.

It has also opened up a whole new area of background research into the Tinsley Park Colliery and what the family were doing there in 1851.  What induced them to travel to work for another colliery company?  How long did they stay?  They are back in Eastwood in 1861.  Did Samuel his father have some special skills?  Here's hoping the records have survived..............