Or … How The Major Commercial Genealogical Websites Are Killing Family History Research
As a full-time professional researcher, I depend heavily on the resources that I’m able to access online, particularly those databases provided by the major commercial websites. Without the 24-hour-a-day access to census returns, parish registers, wills (and so much more!) that my subscriptions to the major commercial websites offer me, I simply wouldn’t be able to do my job. I am, as I’m always happy to make very clear, a huge fan of digitisation. The problem is that all-too-often, the commercial websites don’t make a particularly good job of what they’re supposed to do, and as a result, I seem to spend an enormous amount of my time criticising them…
My particular bugbear at the moment is Ancestry’s apparent obsession with user-submitted content. We’re reaching the point where the sheer volume of public family trees on the site is beginning to eclipse the primary sources; you could say that we can no longer see the records for the trees!
Unfortunately, a lot of the trees are full of errors and inconsistencies – which wouldn’t be too big a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Ancestry make it so easy for users to copy the details from other people’s trees into their own.
It’s all too simple. You see a name that matches the one you’re looking for and a minute later that person has become your ancestor.
At no point in the process is any genuine research required. No exploration of source documents, no critical examination of what the record might be telling you (was there even a record?) and no analysis of alternative sources. One click and she’s on your tree, just waiting for other researchers to do the same…
A few days ago, I was researching the life of a man called, John Poole. I’d found out quite a lot about him but I was struggling to find a record of his death or burial. After carrying out a few basic searches without finding anything particularly promising, I decided to see what others had found out so I had a quick look at Ancestry’s public family trees. What I discovered made me feel so despondent and so depressed about the way that online research is going that I felt inspired to write this blog…
The John Poole that I was working on features in at least 14 Ancestry public family trees. There’s a lot of conflicting information from tree to tree and much of it is clearly and demonstrably wrong, but I just want to focus here on the details that are recorded regarding John’s death/burial.
Seven of the 14 trees don’t include any information about John’s death at all. (This is fine; John may not be a crucial person on these trees and there’s always a limit to what we have the time to research in detail.) Of the remaining seven, three give a year of death of 1813 (or ‘about 1813’) while the other four give it as 1818 (or ‘about 1818’).
Of those that give a date of any sort, only two reference a specific event. One family tree links the burial of John Poole at St Mary, Whitechapel on 24 November 1813 to our John, while another suggests that John was buried on 9 March 1818 in Bolton.
Let’s just ignore for a moment, the unlikelihood of a Londoner like John dying in a Lancashire cotton town! What matters is that it’s really not hard to show that neither of these burials can possibly relate to our John. All we need to do is a bit of proper research.
John was married to a woman called Juliana Draper (all of the 14 family trees record this detail) and they had at least four children. The two youngest (Sarah and Henry John) both died young and were buried in the City of London parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury in 1811 and 1810 respectively. 
A bit of digging reveals that John and Juliana had moved to the parish sometime around 1807, the year in which John’s name first appears in the Land Tax registers, paying tax on a property in St Mary, Aldermanbury. John continued to be listed in the registers at the same address up to and including 1813. The registers would probably have been compiled towards the end of the previous year but nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that John didn’t die too long before the last few months of 1812.
We also know that he had died sometime before 25 July 1813 when his widow, Juliana, married her second husband, George Furness (again, it’s not hard to find this record) so we have a fairly narrow timeframe during which John must have died – let’s say November 1812 to May 1813. The November 1813 and March 1818 burials are therefore evidently not ours.
It’s clear from the Land Tax registers that John was still living in the parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury at the time that he must have died. So it’s not surprising that a manual search of the burial register for that parish quickly turns up the expected entry. John Poole was buried at St Mary’s on 13 April 1813.
So, why hadn’t my previous searches for John’s burial turned up this record? Well, once again, we can lay the blame at the database provider’s door. John’s name has been transcribed as ‘John Poole Buch Church’. When you look at the entry, you can see what’s happened. The ‘Name’ column in the burial register has been used by the clerk to record the place of burial as well as the deceased’s name and it seems that John was buried in the ‘Back Church Yard’. The fact that the transcriber has managed to come up with this quite frankly laughable piece of work and that the transcription has been allowed to slip past whatever quality control process Ancestry have in place suggests… well, it suggests that they don’t have any sort of quality control process in place at all. If we’re being kind we might conclude that their quality control process is inadequate…
The point here is that a little bit of genuine research will quickly provide you with all the clues you need to demonstrate that John would almost certainly have been buried at St Mary, Aldermanbury. But rather than making things easier, the way that the information has been provided actually prevents you from finding the right record – or at least it makes it easier for you to find the wrong one.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that the record of John’s burial is right there in Ancestry’s database. The record office entered into an agreement with them to make their records available online and, as part of that process, to provide access to them via a searchable index. Their failure to get this bit right – and it’s probably the simplest part of the process – has evidently led to people being unable to find the record in question. Instead, they’ve either left the death/burial section blank or they’ve attached the burial record of an entirely different John Poole to their ancestor’s record. And because it’s so easy to do so, other researchers have come along and added this incorrect record to their own family trees.
This is, of course, not by any means an isolated incident. Ancestry’s family trees are full of errors like this – and much worse! Speak to any experienced researcher and they’ll give you plenty of examples. Those examples are out there right now and they’re multiplying every day.
It genuinely makes me despair for the future of family history research. And I haven’t even touched on the related issues of unexplained gaps in the data collections, poor descriptions of record sets and wrong references attached to records. It’s a mess and it seems to me that it’s getting worse.
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 13 September 2021
 Burials of Henry John Poole & Sarah Poole, Christchurch, Newgate Street & St Leonard, Foster Lane, London, 1810 & 1811. LMA reference: P69/MRY2/A/001 Ms.03572/2
 Marriage of George Furness & Juliana Poole, St Dunstan, Stepney, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P93/DUN/054 p.77
 Burial of John Poole, St Mary, Aldermanbury, London, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P69/MRY2/A/01 Ms.3572/3 p.1