Wednesday, April 9, 2014

52 Weeks of Genealogy - Week 12 - Gazetteers

Shauna has chosen Gazeteers for week 12's topic.  So just what is a gazetteer? Shauna tells us that "a simple definition is that it is a publication which lists geographical places in alphabetical order plus giving some descriptive background information on the place. Not all that exciting as usually there is no detailed information on our ancestors but gazetteers can provide good background on where and how our ancestors lived and why they may have decided to move or emigrate to Australia."
Samuel Lewis published topographical dictionaries for Ireland in 1837, Scotland in 1846, England in 1848 and Wales in 1849, and these are simply gazetteers by another name.  Reading the relevant Gazeteers can help us to imagine what life was like for our ancestors living in those places at that time. Maps are useful to show where a place is but gazetteers give a much more descriptive look at places and can explain why our ancestors had certain occupations, how they lived and perhaps why they chose to leave and try their luck on the other side of the world.  Context is important in family history research and with so many gazetteers online there is no excuse for not checking them out and seeing what they can add to your research. Happy gazetteering!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

52 weeks of Genealogy - Week 7 - Local Histories

According to Shauna, "Local history often goes hand in hand with family history as our ancestors were very much a part of the communities in which they lived. I have always looked for local histories for areas they lived in and this also includes any church or school histories or anniversary celebrations. Quite often there has been direct references to my families and if I am lucky, a relevant photo or two.  However like all resources, anything we find in a published history should still be checked for accuracy. Many older histories do not cite their sources and it can be very hard to trace where a particular story has come from."
My father's family comes from a small village called Fordham in Essex, England.  I have been lucky to find a quite active local history group who have published a couple of booklets about the history of the village and have been even luckier to be able to obtain copies.  They mention the family several times and even have a few photos, and the detail of village life during the time of ancestors I have never known certainly fills in the picture for me.  As Shauna noted, hoever, it is necessary to check the accuracy of such information, especially if the local history is unsourced, as they are often quite anecdotal in nature and people's memories and prespectives are subject to alter over time. 

52 Weeks of Genealogy - Week 8 - Diaries

There are all kinds of diaries, and some are more detailed than others. Shauna advises trying to "find personal accounts of areas where your families lived, and don't forget to look for military unit histories and diaries to supplement what you have found in army dossiers. If you have never thought of exploring these types of records before, why not try and find a shipboard diary for an ancestor’s voyage. You may be pleasantly surprised."  Finding a diary of and ancestor's voyage out to Australia or of their military unit's war experiences can give you a weath of information, even if the diary if not written by YOUR family member.  Reading the thoughts and reactions of another person experiencing the same thing can really make the history come alive. 
Of course, finding the diaries of a family member is just a treasure!  I am lucky enough to have some of both my father's diaries and my maternal grandmother's diaries, and some of their handwriting is a challenge to decipher.  While I only have a few years worth for each of them, and neither exactly filled pages with the minutae of daily life, both are invaluable in filling in details of major family events and my own early life and I treasure them.
After my father's death my mother and I found some of his diaries hidden at the back of an old wardrobe, and I am so lucky to have them.  My father had Alzheimers and spent several months before he died 'cleaning up'.  Months later I was still realising things were just gone - including the entire contents of my family history filing cabinet!  His diaries date from my childhood and are patchy at best - some have weeks and even months with nothing recorded - but several give me exact dates for major family events and his (often surprising) reactions to them. 
My grandmother's diaries are similar - they date from my childhood and are patchy in coverage - but these were given to me by my grandmother, who knew I was interested in family history and knew I would find them interesting, and those few little books contain her view on family events I remember dimly at best.
So whether the diary is actually written by your ancestor or by someone on their ship, in their military unit, or living up the road in the same village, diaries can offer you a wealth of detail that may not be available anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

1939 National Identity Register

FindMyPast and the National Archives have announced a joint project to put online the 1939 National Identity Register.
 This was basically a mini-census that was taken on the night of Friday 29 September 1939 (at the start of World War II). The British Government conducted the survey because it wanted updated statistics on the population so that identity cards could be issued. It was also required in case a draft was needed, in case of mobilisation and mass evacuation of the general population and in case rationing was required (which was introduced a few months later in January 1940). For genealogists, the 1939 National Identity Register makes up for the regularly-scheduled 1941 census, which did not take place due to the war.
The details recorded in the 1939 National Identity Register include name, residence, sex, date of birth, marital status, occupation and whether the person was a member of the armed forces or reserves. The process for the enumeration worked as follows. On the night of Friday 29 September 1939, some 65,000 enumerators delivered forms to each household. Each household was responsible for filling out their own form. Two days later on the Sunday and Monday, the enumerators returned to collect the forms. The enumerators checked the forms and (if there were no problems) issued a complete identity card on the spot to each member of the household.
There was a strong incentive for everyone to register correctly. Other than societal pressure given that war had just broken out, it was widely broadcast that anyone who “neglected” to register would not be eligible in the future for ration books. The 1939 register covers some 40 million individuals. Given the absence of a 1931 census (the records were destroyed in a fire in December 1942) and a 1941 census (never taken due to the war), this record set will be very valuable to family historians. No date has been given as to when the records will be available online.
If you want to be kept informed about the project, you can register at One thing to note is that due to privacy issues, information on individuals still alive today will not be included in the database. 
Thanks to Genealogy in Time for highlighting this news.

Friday, March 28, 2014

52 Weeks of Genealogy - Week 11 - Newspapers

In Australia Trove is a fantastic source of free online newspapers as well as a range of other resources. It is simply a matter of doing a keyword search on a person’s name and narrowing the results by using any combination of the available filters.  It is important to remember that not all newspapers have been digitised yet and placed online - new papers or expanded year ranges of existing papers are becoming available all the time, so you need to remember to redo your searches from time to time.
It is due to Trove that I discovered one of my great-uncles, Norman Clark, was killed by a shark off Middle Brighton beach in 1930.  He was the first swimmer taken by a shark in Victorian waters for a number of years, and the attack occurred during a boating regatta in full view of hundreds of horrified spectators, including his fiancee and 12 year old brother.  His body was never recovered and several sharks found too close to swimming areas were subsequently killed, and the incident made the news around the country.  It was even reported in New Zealand - Papers Past is the New Zealand equivalent of Trove.  When I asked my mother if she knew about the attack she never knew what had happened, ony that Norman had died young.  Trove even produced an article with a grainy photo of Norman, the only image of him I have ever seen.
I regularly visit Trove and am always rewarded with some snippet of information about my family, and also find Trove a great way of finding out about community events they quite likely were involved in.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

52 Weeks of Genealogy - Week 9 - Inquest Records

An inquest is held when someone dies in an accident, or has not been seen by a doctor for some time or if they have died in an institution such as an asylum or prison. This is the topic Shauna Hicks has chosen for Week 9 of her 52 Weeks of Genealogy.
As Shauna discussed, most inquests are reported in the newspaper and this is where a search of Trove can be useful in finding information on accidental or sudden deaths in the family. Once the date and place of death is known it is easy to then go to the relevant State Archives and look for an inquest file or register.  Witnesses statements usually give an account of a person’s last moments as well as giving personal and biographical information that may not be found elsewhere.
 Most State Archives have online guides to inquest records and some may even have online indexes so these should be consulted in the first instance. Also Trove may be useful in determining a date and place of death or inquest but also follow up with the archival record as well.
This is not an area where I have done much research with my own family, and it is a timely reminder of the peril of bypassing any potential sources of information - you may well be missing a goldmine of family details.  Hopefully I will be able to use inquests to find out more about an ancestor's death and, through that, his life.  Thanks Shauna.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Red Cross Records coming online soon

The records of over 24,000 volunteers who served in the British Red Cross during WW1 are expected to become available online soon, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  Index cards for Voluntary Aid Detachment workers (VADs) are being digitised and are expected to be online - free to access - by August.

Their website contains the following statement :
Did your relatives volunteer during the First World War?
To mark the upcoming centenary, the British Red Cross is digitising the records of all those who volunteered during the Great War – that’s almost a quarter of a million people.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the information will be made available to the public for the first time.
Work will soon begin to digitise thousands of index cards stored at the Red Cross’ London headquarters. The first batch of index cards will be online in time for the start of the centenary in August, and new material will be uploaded on a monthly basis.
Selfless volunteers
So just who were these volunteers? Leading up to the First World War, many voluntary aid detachments were formed. These comprised volunteers from the British Red Cross, Order of St. John and Friends Ambulance Association.
These brave and selfless volunteers (known affectionately as VADs) went on to help thousands of casualties, often putting their own lives at risk.
Fittingly, the Red Cross now plans to recruit another 100 volunteers to help with the £80,000 digitisation project. 
Famous names
The index card list also has some very interesting names tucked away. Famous former volunteers include author Agatha Christie, novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison, and writer and feminist Vera Brittain.
Phil Talbot, director of communications, said: “All these volunteers – whether they worked in auxiliary hospitals, convalescent homes or drove ambulances – played a vital role during the Great War.”
He added: "The index cards are a unique source of historical information. As we approach the centenary, we believe this is a fitting way to pay tribute to those who gave their time in non-military service.”