Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Engage Brain when researching please

I’ve recently begun to teach family history beginner courses and it is flattering if disconcerting to have my students hanging on my every word.  I do a homily on “Trust Nothing Check Everything” and one on “Corpse Brides and Bridegrooms” but am about to add another one called “Engage Brain” as it is all too easy when researching on the Internet to coast along with your brain in neutral and to accept facts without questioning them.
Bigamy was not that common

What is worse is when writers in family history magazines seem to do this too.  I’ll not embarrass them by naming the magazine but there it was in a text box recently:

“If an ancestor appears on the census in two houses, it might indicate bigamy”

Well it might but if I was a bookie I’d be happy to give you very good odds if you’d care to bet on it.

There is a much simpler more obvious explanation – they are two different people. 
Okay if it is a very uncommon name the odds are rather greater on the bigamy side than for a common name but consider this.  Did your family come from the area in which they are shown on the census?  Did they all work in one industry?  Is it likely that the Christian names are carried through from generation to generation?

My grandfather was called William and so was one of his sons and three of his grandchildren.  (His great grandchildren being born in an age which called itself modern mostly have less traditional names.)  An uncle and a cousin have William as their middle name.

My Fretwells were miners in Eastwood and I had real problems in the beginning because there are two William Fretwells born in the same year there who (probably) both married an Elizabeth.  (I didn’t send for both certificates as I was pointed in the right direction by a more experienced researcher at the time.)   Two John Thomas Fretwells, also born a few months apart in the same place, caused a headache for both of us until we sorted out that they were cousins not the same person in a bigamous relationship or double counting in the census.  Not that we ever entertained the thought of bigamy at the time.

 Cattle rustling is not the same as poaching the odd rabbit 

Something else which caught my eye in the same issue was an article on crime in the countryside which blithely stated that

  “In 1802 Edward Painter was hanged at Reading for the theft of two heifers from a local fair, presumably in order to feed his family of 10 children”

Now I don’t think the two stolen cows ended up in the family stewpot as the writer seems to imply. Cows are big animals and my Great Grandad who was a butcher in the mid to late 19th century  was reckoned to be out of the ordinary in being able to kill and butcher a cow by himself.   

Those cows would have been stolen to sell on to an unscrupulous butcher and would probably have been upwards of 196kg deadweight.  That  translates to 432 pounds at 10d a pound  (which is the 1801 beef price given in the online version of  “A history of Epidemics in Britain” by Charles Creighton (1891) on ) so that each cow could have been worth about £18 and he stole two of them.  Not exactly petty theft as is being implied is it?
Make yourself a better researcher 

Engage brain, use your common sense and life experience and think about what you are reading. 

Ask yourself -

Does it make sense?  

Is it likely?  Human nature hasn’t changed much.  

Put it in context - what was the culture of the time?  It is useless to apply today’s sensibilities to a different probably much more brutal era.

Put yourself in the situation and think about the mechanics of the thing – how would it have happened?  What would YOU have done?  Think about how you would go about stealing a cow from a market for instance.  Would you have needed an accomplice to handle two cows?  Would it have been an opportunity grabbed or a theft to order?

Being a better researcher is just a matter of thinking.