Transcripts and indexes

The release of the 1921 census returns for England and Wales earlier this year led to some (fairly heated) discussion on social media regarding the quality of the transcription provided by Findmypast, the National Archives’ commercial partners in the online launch. Findmypast even went as far as issuing a (partial) apology:

Due to the secure nature of the 1921 Census project, the period of time in which we have been able to access and review the data ahead of launch has been limited.

They went on to say that they had been “unable to conduct the same level of quality assurance checks we would normally apply”.

I wrote about the release (and the releases of previous decennial censuses) in an earlier blog post but one aspect that I didn’t touch on then was the question of transcription.

Findmypast offer two ways of accessing the 1921 census. After carrying out your search (you can search for ‘an ancestor’ or for ‘an address’) you’re presented with two options: you can either view the ‘Record transcript’ (for £2.50) or the ‘Record image’ (for £3.50).

1921 Census ‘home page’. Findmypast

Personally, I can’t see any point in paying £2.50 for the privilege of seeing what someone else thinks was written on a schedule when for just £1.00 more I can view the document itself and make my own mind up but we’ll leave that particular issue for another day. It’s the question of charging users to view what was inevitably going to be an imperfect transcript that got me thinking more generally about the whole process and practice of transcription: what is it and why do we do it?

I think it’s important to understand right from the start that transcribing a set of records and creating an index to a set of records are two very different disciplines with different ends in mind. So let’s look at the processes behind them and then we’ll come back and see how we can apply it all to the question of the quality of the transcription in the 1921 census.

Until fairly recent times, accessing original documents involved, by necessity, a visit to an archive or a library. The Latter Day Saints (in the shape of the Genealogical Society of Utah) led the way in the 1930s, by embarking on an extensive microfilming project. This allowed researchers for the first time to view original documents remotely (via their local LDS Family History Centre) or at least to view photographic images of them.[1]

There were, of course, other ways that researchers could access documents before the advent of microfilm, and for most of these we need to raise a glass of thanks to that Early Modern/Georgian/Victorian institution: the gentleman antiquarian. This isn’t the time or the place to consider the methods and behaviours of the antiquarians; they are an often-maligned group of men (and they were, I think I’m right in saying, exclusively male, middle-aged, well-to-do and white) but despite their sometimes questionable approach to ‘research’ and their occasionally selective approach to their work (their focus is undeniably on the records of those in the ‘upper echelons’ of society) it would be wrong to deny the crucial role they played in transcribing and translating thousands of medieval documents and thereby preserving them (or their contents, at least) for future generations of researchers.

V0006811 Antiquaries: twenty portraits of historians. Engraving by J. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Antiquaries: twenty portraits of historians. Engraving by J.W. Cook, 1825. 1825 By: William Camdenafter: J. W. CookPublished: 1825 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The work of the antiquarians was published in County Histories and in the journals of Historical Societies: parish registers, deeds, charters, wills and inquisitions post mortem were all grist to the antiquarians’ mills and we are their undoubted beneficiaries.

Increasingly, as the centuries went by, the custom of providing indexes at the end of these works developed – often separate indexes for the ‘personal names’ (index nominum) and the ‘places’ (index locorum) mentioned in the book. Of course, now, thanks to websites such as Google Books and the Internet Archive, we can not only read them, but search them for our ancestors’ names or for references to the places that they lived and worked in – whether the originals were indexed or not – but the point here is that, in the original works, the transcription and the indexing were two quite separate processes. First comes the work itself, then the names and other details are picked out, sorted into alphabetical order and linked (usually through page references) back to the original entry.

In many ways, the works of the antiquarians, are surrogates of the originals, effectively – for research purposes at least – replacing the documents themselves. After all, why go to all the trouble of seeking out an original document when you can read the text in a published book?

The post-war boom in local and family history research gave rise to a new phenomenon: the practice of indexing key genealogical sources for the benefit of the growing numbers of active family historians. Records such as census returns, monumental inscriptions, poor law records and wills became the focus of projects carried out by local and family history societies and for many years towards the end of the 20th century these locally produced indexes became vital resources for researchers, whether in printed form or on microfiche.

The indexes were largely produced by volunteers; volunteers who usually had a degree of local expertise which they could use to help them to interpret some of the trickier text. The importance of local knowledge when it comes to this sort of work cannot be overestimated.

As a researcher, working in the 1980s and 1990s, I benefited enormously from the work carried out by the various family history societies. I bought copies of census indexes (I even had one of those new-fangled, hi-tech microfiche readers in my home office!) and I used them to search for families, knowing that finding a possible hit was only the start of the journey.

Because these census indexes were not designed to replace the documents but rather to lead researchers to the original returns. Indeed many of them were simply surname indexes, providing nothing but the surname and a reference to the page/folio where the relevant entry would be found. Some included additional details such as first names and ages but they were never intended to act as a substitute for the records themselves. They were a means of access and nothing more.

In 1988 a more ambitious project was launched by the Genealogical Society of Utah in partnership with the Federation of Family History Societies (now the Family History Federation) with the aim of transcribing the whole of the British 1881 census. I plan to write in more detail about this project in a future blog post so I’ll just say here that the transcription was done by volunteers, mainly people with local knowledge, that the whole project took four years to complete, and that the ‘output’ was, inititally at least, published on microfiche, followed by a set of CD-ROMs.

University of Hertfordshire

Then along came the internet … and everything changed …

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I was lucky enough to be there at the start of the genealogical digital revolution. I was involved in the National Archives’ plans to digitise the collection of Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills: in fact, I was one of a handful of people in a meeting at which it was decided to recommend that the PCC wills should be chosen as the first record set to get the digital treatment.

I was also actively involved in the 1901 and 1911 census projects so I think it’s safe to say that I have a fair understanding of how digitisation projects work.

Introduction to the 1901 Census Online booklet. Public Record Office and QinetiQ (2001)

Since those early projects, things have moved on and a significant proportion of users of the vast online genealogical databases hosted by commercial organisations such as Ancestry and Findmypast have no experience of what went before.

The commercial companies have, over the years, increasingly adopted a position of transcribing virtually everything from the original record – in fact, this was the policy when it came to the ground-breaking online release of the 1901 census. Unlike the very rudimentary census indexes produced by family history societies in the late 20th century, the default position is now to capture everyone’s names, ages, relationships, marital status, occupations and birthplaces, not to mention all the information relating to the properties themselves. And you can see why you would want to do this: the more information you transcribe, the easier it should be to find the person you’re looking for. It makes a lot of sense, certainly from the users’ point of view, particularly (and this is a very important point) for those users whose primary interest in the documents is not family history but some other discipline such as local history, social history, house history or demography.

But then what happens is that the commercial companies, who have clearly invested a lot of time and money in having these essentially comprehensive transcriptions of the censuses carried out, lose sight of why they were producing the transcript in the first place – remember, it was all about helping the users to find their people! – and they see an opportunity to recoup some of that investment. Why not – you can imagine the executives suggesting in a boardroom meeting – why not charge people to view the transcript? Why not turn the transcript into a marketable item?

But as soon as you decide to charge people to view the results of your transcription, as soon as you put a value on the transcription as a separate product, you raise the expectations of the user that what they are going to get is necessarily an accurate, word-for-word copy of the original

Transcribing handwritten documents is a difficult task, particularly when, as is the case with our decennial census returns, the documents in question were written by thousands of different people, each, potentially, with their own idiosyncratic handwriting style. This is particularly true of the 1911 and 1921 censuses where the records we see are the schedules written by the householders themselves.

The idea that it might be possible to create a transcript which even approaches 100% accuracy, is a pipe dream. If you were to apply the necessary academic standards to the task (the use of genuine experts, including those with the necessary local knowledge, to carry out the transcription itself; rigorous supervision of the whole transcription process including double-keying throughout; access to relevant reference works; a team of suitably qualified editors to check everything and most importantly, lots of time) the cost would instantly make the entire project commercially unviable. And even then, it wouldn’t be anywhere near 100% accurate. It’s simply not possible to work out in every single case what a particular word or character was supposed to be.

When I worked for the Public Record Office (as it was then) on the 1901 census project, I was constantly told that an accurate transcription was deliverable – even if (as I recall) the target was 95% accuracy. But it wasn’t then, and it still isn’t now.

My personal experience is that because of the virtually comprehensive manner in which the data is captured it is almost always possible to find the person I’m looking for – however bad some of the transcription might be. The search functionality is so flexible that even if just one piece of data relating to an individual is transcribed accurately (perhaps their birthplace or occupation) that can be enough to allow you to identify them. And this is no different to countless other databases that we search every day.

1921 Census Advanced Search screen. Findmypast

So, as I see it, the problem with the 1921 census transcription is not that the work in this case isn’t up to scratch (that may or not be true) but that the commercial providers have raised the users’ expectations so far with the promise of what they call ‘a legible translation of the original record’ that when those expectations (inevitably!) are not met, the disappointment is naturally greater than it might be.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 22 May 2022

[1] Microfilm, Mormons and the Technology of the Archive, Hannah Little, eSharp Journal, University of Glasgow, Issue 12, Winter 2008.

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 6: Astbury

This the last of six blogposts written and published on six successive days, in which I take a look at a particular ancestral gravestone that my wife and I visited on our recent road trip. You can read the other five here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

Today we’re in the Cheshire village of Astbury, now on the outskirts of Congleton but historically the heart of the ancient parish of Astbury. We had no idea whether or not we would find any family stones there but I think it’s fair to say that we hit the jackpot with this one…

If you were to draw a triangle connecting the parishes of Macclesfield, Leek and Congleton you would cover an area which included the birthplaces of the majority of my wife’s English ancestors. Gawsworth, Marton, Eaton, Wincle, Buglawton, Rushton Spencer, Biddulph, Hulme Walfield and Sommerford Booths – all are there or thereabouts. Tracing their lives hasn’t always been that easy as they constantly flit back and forward across the Staffordshire/Cheshire county border.

An accurate map of the county palatine of Chester : divided into its hundreds
London : sold by I. Hinton at the Kings Arms in Newgate street
[ca.1752 – 1765]

The parish of Astbury was formerly one of the biggest parishes in England. It included the chapelries of Buglawton and Congleton along with the townships of Davenport, Eaton, Hulme Walfield, Moreton cum Alcumlow, Newbold Astbury, Odd Rode, Radnor, Smallwood, Somerford and Somerford Booths – and most of those places feature in my wife’s ancestry.

Pedley, Ford and Dutton were three of the surnames we were looking for when we set out on the daunting task of searching the hundreds of surviving stones in Astbury’s sprawling churchyard. Many of the stones are laid on their backs. Whether they were originally upright or whether they were designed to be laid flat in this way from the outset it’s difficult to say – I need to do a bit more research.

Churchyard, St Mary’s, Astbury, Cheshire

There are some pros and some cons when it comes to ‘flattened’ stones. The most obvious con is that they often become covered with grass clippings and mud and the general detritus of everyday life and can soon be lost beneath a layer of fresh turf. When we visited the churchyard at Marton we found that a number of the stones that had been transcribed quite recently by the Family History Society of Cheshire are now hidden under a thick layer of grass.

Of course, the flipside to this is that once the inscriptions are covered in this way, they’re being preserved for future generations – although you can’t see them! I guess it’s kind of a good news/bad news situation…

It didn’t take us too long to start finding some family graves – a Ford and a few Pedleys – but they weren’t direct ancestors and the inscriptions were proving very difficult to read. We were also painfully aware that many of the flattened stones were completely covered and that if what were looking for was on one of those stones we weren’t going to find it.

We decided to just keep wandering and see what we could see and we had just started out along a path which led beneath a semi-recumbent yew tree when a large (very large!) stone caught my eye – it was a Pedley stone and it looked like it was one of ours.

Pedley gravestone, St Mary, Astbury, Cheshire

I cleared away as much debris as I could, conscious of the fact that the grass was seriously encroaching on the stone, which was set an inch or two lower than the surrounding growth. The right edge, towards the foot of the stone was particularly overgrown and there were actually two bits we couldn’t get to. The rest, however, was fully legible:

lieth interred the Body of
Nancy daughter of William and
Sarah Pedley who died Nov 25th
1786 aged 24 Years
By my short life this lesson take
be sure your peace with God to make
Then you may say in joyful strain
To Live is Christ, to die is Gain
Also Sarah wife of the said William
Pedley who departed this life
Jan 26th 1803 aged 70 Years
Also the said William Pedley
who departed this life March 10
1811 aged 73 Years
Also Harriet the beloved daughter of William
and Sarah Rothery of Congleton who died Ju..
the 30th 1857 aged 21 Years Also Sarah wife
of the above William Rothery who died July ..
1866 aged 63 Years Also the said William Rothery
who died April 4th 1880 aged 75 Years

Gravestone of William and Sarah Pedley, St Mary, Astbury, Cheshire

William and Sarah were my wife’s 5x great grandparents, born in the late 1730s. To find a stone as clear and legible as this for relatives who were born almost 300 years ago was an unexpected pleasure.

Who knows what other gems are in the churchyard at Astbury hidden beneath a couple of inches of turf. At least, if there are any there, we know that they’re being protected from the elements and from the ravages of time…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 7 May 2022

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 5: Macclesfield Cemetery

This is the fifth of six blog posts, written and published over six consecutive days, looking at some of the family graves that my wife and I visited as part of a recent road trip to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. You can read the earlier instalments here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

The other five stones are all in churchyards (actually one of them was inside the church) but today’s stone is to be found in a large municipal cemetery.

In 1866, the Macclesfield Municipal Borough set aside 68 acres of land to the north and west of the town to establish a public cemetery. Like many Victorian cemeteries, it was designed as a place of leisure and relaxation and it’s still a popular destination for an afternoon stroll today. The cemetery also attracts hundreds of visitors every year from all over the world, who come to see the grave of Ian Curtis, the former Joy Division singer, who was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium following his death by suicide in 1980.

Ian Curtis’s memorial stone at Macclesfield Cemtery.
Bernt Rostad from Oslo, Norway, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My wife and I had first visited the cemetery nearly 40 years ago but with no idea of where to look for possible family graves it was more an excuse for a stroll around a beautiful cemetery than a genuine attempt to carry out any sort of family history research.

This time we came properly perpared, having found references to two family plots (the Macclesfield Cemetery and Crematorium registers have recently been indexed and digitised by DeceasedOnline). The question was, were there any stones on the plots to commemorate my wife’s ancestors?

John Hulme burial, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, 1926. East Cheshire Council (via DeceasedOnline)

We had two targets to look for – one for the Hulme family and one for the Bullocks – which turned out be in neighbouring sections: G & H. To be honest, we didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything at the Hulme plot. My father-in-law’s paternal grandparents were not particularly well off and it didn’t seem likely that they or any of their children would have been able to afford to have a stone erected. The Bullocks were a (small) step up the social ladder presenting a greater cause for optimism.

We knew that the Hulme plot was in section G, number 6008. Of course, we had no idea where in section G we would find the plot and there were no helpful numbers engraved on the backs of any of the other stones that we could find to help steer us in the right direction.

Section G, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, Cheshire

So there we were, standing in Macclesfield Cemetery, in section G, finding names on the stones and looking them up on DeceasedOnline on our phones so that we could find out the plot numbers. Now why didn’t we think of doing that back in 1983!!??

We soon worked out that we were at the wrong end of the plot and gradually worked our way along until we found a grave which we knew, from its plot number, must be very close to the Hulme’s. The area we were in didn’t look too promising: there were very few stones around and those that we could see seemed a bit too recent … but then we turned into a new row, and there it was…

Gravestone of John and Hannah Hulme, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, Cheshire. Plot G, Grave no. 6008

Lying on its back, its former base now lying partially on top of the stone itself, the whole thing had clearly seen better days. But it was there – and the text was fully legible:


Gravestone of John and Hannah Hulme, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, Cheshire. Plot G, Grave no. 6008

As you’ll see from the first picture of the plot, there’s a much more modern flower vase next to the grave. It’s unengraved but it’s perhaps a clue to the fact that the grave was re-opened following John’s death in 1926 – twice. His two daughters, Harriet and Gertrude May (‘Aunty Gertie’), were buried in the family plot in 1956 and 1969 respectively. It’s nice to know that the two of them, who never married and lived together all of their lives, were reunited in death.

There’s another body in the grave which it seems appropriate to record here. On the same day that Isaac was buried (23 August 1913), and presumably as part of the same service, his great grandson, Arthur (the son of John’s son John Frederick – I hope you’re following this…) was also buried. Young Arthur had died the day after Isaac at just 14 days old.

Burials of Isaac and Arthur Hulme, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, 1914. East Cheshire Council (via DeceasedOnline)

For the record, we quickly found the grave of my wife’s Bullock great grandparents, Thomas and Maggie. The stone, as I would have expected, was in far better condition and had been opened for the burial of their grandson, Peter Kenneth Lovatt, as recently as 2009.

Gravestone of Thomas and Maggie Bullock, Macclesfield Cemetery, Macclesfield, Cheshire. Plot H, Grave no. 6474

Returning to the Hulme gravestone, and returning to a recurring theme of these blog posts, the dates of death recorded for John and Hannah are wrong. John actually died on 25 September 1926 and Hannah on 5 September 1914. They somehow got them (almost) the wrong way round.

Remember, gravestones are NOT primary sources…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 6 May 2022

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 4: Longnor, Staffordshire

This is the fourth of six blog posts written after a recent road trip during which my wife and I visited a number of ancestral burial places. You can read the earlier instalments here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The Staffordshire Moorland town of Longnor was home to generations of my wife’s ancestors. Even today, it’s a small, relatively isolated community and it wasn’t until the early 18th century that the population of the parish climbed above a few hundred.

Historically, Longnor was part of the ancient ecclesiastical parish of Alstonefield but there was a church – a Chapel of Ease to be exact – at Longnor as early as 1223. As Alstonefield’s parish church lies some distance away, the inhabitants of Longnor would have been grateful not to have to make the seven mile journey there and back for their weekly worship, to get married or to have their children baptised. Most importantly, they were able to bury their loved ones close to their homes in their own community.

St Bartholomew, Longnor, Staffordshire

The earliest surviving parish register dates from 1691 – an earlier register is believed to have been lost – and in 1737, St Bartholomew’s, Longnor became a separate ecclesiastical parish.

Over the centuries, hundreds of my wife’s ancestors must have been buried at St Bartholomew’s. There are a few Hulme gravestones but, as far as we’re aware, no stones survive to mark the last resting places of any of her direct Hulme ancestors. However, large parts of the churchyard are very overgrown (or at least they were when we visited in April 2022) so it’s not impossible that somewhere in the darkest reaches of the burial ground there may be one one or two.

Diving deep into the most overgrown part of the graveyard last week, I found a stone commemorating the family of Isaac and Martha Coates, my wife’s 6x great grandparents. Considering its age and its current position in the middle of what basically amounts to a small forest, the stone is in remarkably good condition. I wasn’t able to take the classic ‘full face’ gravestone photo due to the presence of a fairly substantial tree just a few feet away, but I was still able to get enough shots to enable me to read all the crucial information.

The inscription reads:

In Memory
of Isaac Coates
late of Bank-top
who departed this
life August the
25th 1788 Aged 45
Also Sarah the
Daughter of Isaac
and Martha Coates
who departed this
life August the 8th
1811 Aged 43 Years

Martha the Wife of
Isaac Coates who
departed this life
January the 14th
1817 Aged 75 Years
ALSO Elizh. wife of
Christr. Coates who died
Decr. 7th 1841
Aged 53 Years
ALSO of the above
Christopher Coates
who died August 11th
1850 Aged 71 Years

Gravestone of Isaac & Martha Coates, St Bartholomew, Longnor, Staffordshire

One thing that this exercise has brought to the fore is that gravestone inscriptions are NOT primary sources. We need to be careful about taking the dates and other details on trust. The inscriptions were oten made many years after the event and in this case, the memory of whoever provided Isaac’s details was somewhat lacking: the Longnor parish register clearly records Isaac’s burial on 22 August 1787 making his stated death date of 25 August 1788 questionable to say the least.

Burial of Isaac Cotes, St Bartholomew, Longnor. Staffordshire Record Office ref: D921/1/pt2

Perhaps the graveyard will be properly restored one day but even as it is today, it would be a major (dare I say?) … undertaking! And as each year passes the task will only become more challenging. Perhaps I need to visit in the middle of winter when the undergrowth (not to mention the overgrowth) is at its most penetrable.

Coates family gravestones in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, Longnor, Staffordshire

Meanwhile, I’ve got about 100 photographs to go through to work out which of them relate to my wife’s direct family…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 5 May 2022

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 3: Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham

The third of my six blogs posted in consecutive days, focussing on particular family gravestones, is a bit of a cheat. The other five are stones that my wife and I saw for the first time on our recent 40th Anniversary road trip: today’s is one that we’d intended to go and see but for one reason or another, we had to cancel our plans.

So, the images and the story behind this stone are the result of a visit I made to Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham in June 2017. I’ll get back there one day…

My 2x great grandfather, Thomas Port, died in Chaddesley Corbett, the Worcestershire village where he spent the last few years of his life, after retiring from his business as a soda manufacturer in Smethwick. Thomas’s daughter, Nellie, was the headmistress of the board school in Chaddesley Corbett and it seems that he and his second wife, Mary Ann, moved in to the school house sometime in the mid-to-late 1890s.

The School House, Chaddesley Corbett, Worcestershire

I first visited Chaddesley Corbett about eight years ago and spent some time wandering around the churchyard there hoping to find Thomas’s grave. My search was unsuccessful and a few years later I discovered that I’d been looking in the wrong place and that he, along with several other members of the family, was buried many miles away, in Birmingham.

Key Hill Cemetery, also known as the ‘Birmingham General Cemetery’ was opened in 1836 to provide much-needed burial space for the growing Protestant nonconformist population in England’s second city and one of those nonconformists was my ancestor, Thomas Port.

Noticeboard, Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham

Thomas had arrived in Birmingham in 1850 and the following year, his oldest daughter, Kate Elizabeth Mary, died of small pox. ‘Mary’, as she’s described in the cemetery’s burial register, was the first member of the family to be buried at Key Hill, on 14 October 1851. Young Mary was buried in a public grave but by the time that Thomas’s first wife Mary died in 1859, the family had its own plot: grave no.175 in section O.

Between 1860 and 1895, five more of Thomas’s children were buried in the family plot at Key Hill, before Thomas joined them on 23 January 1900. Mary Ann died in November 1904 and it was to be another 37 years before the grave was opened once more – and for the last time – for the burial of Annie, Thomas’s third daughter on 9 March 1942.

Burial of Annie Port, Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham, 1942

When I visited Key Hill Cemetery back in 2017, I was armed with the grave number and a good idea of where in the cemtery I might find the Port family plot. I was therefore quickly able to find the stone but also quickly disappointed to find that it was not in a good state. At some time in the 75 years since Annie’s burial in 1942, the stone had fallen and was now broken into a number of pieces.

Port family gravestone, Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham

Large parts of the inscription are worn away or entirely missing but I’ve been able to piece some of it back together again. I was particularly pleased to note that Thomas’s oldest daughter, who had been buried in a public grave in 1851 is commemorated, along with her siblings.

My main reason for wanting to revisit the grave was to get better photos of what remains but that will have to wait for another day. It’s good to know that there is a stone, however badly damaged it might be and who knows…? Maybe one day I’ll be able to get it restored to its former glory…

Follow the links to read Part 1 and Part 2.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 4 May 2022

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 2: Lacock, Wiltshire

This is the second of six blogs, written and published in six consecutive days, each one focussing on a particular family gravestone which my wife and I visited on our recent 40th Wedding Anniversary road trip. You can read Part 1 here.

Today, we’re in the quintessentially English picture book village of Lacock, in Wiltshire…

While my Port ancestors were busy in Oxfordshire, working as innkeepers and yeomen farmers, another branch of my family, the Trumans, were doing similar things in Wiltshire. Most of my direct Truman ancestors seem to have been butchers, but there were also bakers, and quite possibly, for all I know, the odd candlestick maker in amongst them too.

Elizabeth Truman, my 4x great grandmother, who was later to marry Samuel Port in London just after he’d completed his apprenticeship, was born in Lacock, and baptised at the wonderfully-dedicated parish church of St Cyriac in March 1754.

Her father, Joseph Truman, died when Elizabeth was just a few years old and by the early 1770s, the family were in London: or, at least, some of them were. Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, remained in Lacock where his life is commemorated on a very impressive tomb.

Gravestone of Benjamin Truman, St Cyriac, Lacock

Thanks to the extensive archive of the Talbot family of Lacock (catalogued by the Wiltshire & Swindon Archives) we get occassional glimpses of Benjamin and we learn that he was a butcher: at least we learn that in a bundle of ‘Bills for John Talbot for Lacock household and estate’ dating from 1739 to 1744, there’s a ‘Receipted bill from Benjamin Truman for meat.’ And the Talbot archive includes several similar bills, the latest dating from 1761.

Another bundle of bills, with a range of dates from 1745 to 1767, includes a ‘Receipted bill from Benjamin Truman for beef and powder.’ The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following definition of ‘powder’:

b. A preparation used in food or cooking as a seasoning, flavouring, colouring, preservative, etc.; formerly spec. powdered salt, spice, or other condiment, for seasoning or preserving food (also figurative) (obsolete).

Oxford English Dictionary online. Accessed 2 May 2022

There’s also a defintion of ‘powder beef’ which seems to be relevant:

Benjamin’s gravestone provides us with a one-stop Truman family tree.

The text on the main panel reads:

Lieth Interred the Body
who died August the 24th 1777
Aged 69 Years
Also SARAH his wife who died April
the 4th 1762 Aged 46 Years
Also MARY TRUMAN Spinster
died March the 30th 1792
Aged 54 Years

Gravestone of Benjamin Truman (detail), St Cyriac, Lacock

Recorded on the other panels (some of which are not quite so legible) are Benjamin’s son, James Truman (c.1755-1796) and his wife Ann (c.1755-1804), and their son William (c.1779-1837) and his wife Mary (c.1768-1833). Three generations of the family all recorded on one stone covering 128 years!

As far as I’m aware, Benjamin is the only relative of mine commemorated on a (surviving) chest tomb and my reaction when I first saw an image of the memorial online was to assume that Benjamin was a man of real importance – I even discovered that the mounment itself is a Grade II listed building! – but standing in the churchyard at Lacock last week and looking around, it soon became clear that chest tombs were two-a-penny at St Cyriac’s.

Chest tombs and other monuments in the churchyard of St Cyriac, Lacock, Wiltshire

So perhaps Benjamin wasn’t so important after all. As always in these matters, context is everything…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 3 May 2022

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Six Days, Six Stones – Part 1: Dorchester, Oxfordshire

To mark our 40th Wedding Anniversary, my wife and I arranged a six-day road trip, stopping off at various places connected with our families. Liz, my wife, is an enthusiastic family historian herself so she was very much a partner in planning the week on the road.

We were particularly keen to visit the places that our ancestors had lived and worked in, to walk for a moment in their footsteps and to try, as far as this sort of thing is actually possible, to picture what life must have been like for them. But we were also keen to find their last resting places and with that in mind we visited no fewer than 13 burial places in our six days away. (Who says family historians don’t know how to have fun!)

We set off last Monday, and, now home and recovering from the whistle-stop nature of the trip, my plan is, over the next six days, to post a blog a day, each one focussing on one of the more interesting gravestones that we found.

Most of my ancestors were labourers who worked on the land: from the Orcadian farmer/fishermen to the hinds of the Scottish lowlands; from the Manx hill farmers to the poorest of them all – the victims of the Irish potato famine, the majority of my ancestors would have frequently worried about where the next meal was coming from and many would have lived with the ever-present threat of the workhouse looming over them. Some of them, it’s true, were relatively well-off, owning small pieces of land and even occassionally, leaving a will, suggesting at least a degree of comfort, but there’s one branch of my family which sits significantly higher on the social scale.

My grandmother was the result of a relationship between her mother and her mother’s employer: a man from, it’s fair to say, a somewhat different social class. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that it’s amongst his ancestors that I find most of the wills, property records, some fascinating Chancery cases and … some remarkable gravestones.

My 4x great grandfather, Samuel Port, was born in Shirburn, Oxfordshire in 1754. I get the impression that his father, Thomas, had ‘come down in the world’: his 17th century ancestors had been amongst the wealthiest inhabitants of the Oxfordshire town of Dorchester, running the biggest inn in the village and sending their children to the prestigious Dorchester Grammar School. Thomas had moved the short distance to Shirburn where he worked on the Earl of Macclesfield’s estate and it was there that he married Jane Franklin and that their four children were born.

The oldest son died young, and the other two married and stayed in the area, but Samuel was to have a very different future. On 25 October 1769, aged 15, he was apprenticed to a man called Jonathan Granger, Citizen and Draper of London.

A Londoner by birth, Jonathan Granger was a wealthy and influential man. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1719, and in 1755, he was one of 12 ‘Common Councilmen’ who, along with the Alderman, were responsible for the government of London’s Tower Ward.

Despite being a member of the Drapers’ Company, Jonathan was a wine cooper by trade and it was this trade that Samuel Port was to learn from him. The apprenticeship indenture indicates that no fee was paid to Jonathan by Samuel’s parents which seems unusual until, that is, we discover that Jonathan was married to Samuel’s great aunt, Mary.

Apprenticeship indenture of Samuel Port to Jonathan Granger, 25 October 1769.
London Metropolitan Archives ref: COL/CHD/FR/2/1046/13

Samuel’s apprenticeship was supposed to last the customary period of seven years, however, on 10 January 1774, just four years and two months into his term, his master died and Samuel was ‘turned over’ to William King, one of the executors named in Jonathan Granger’s will. The will stretches to eight pages and is so full of additions and amendments (not to mention ramblings!) that it’s quite difficult to make full sense of it, but Samuel is clearly named as a beneficiary, along with several other Port relations, including his father, Thomas.

In one of the (slightly) more coherent sections of his will, Jonathan leaves instructions regarding his burial:

… my Body to be decently interred according to this my Will herein after named … and also my Funeral Expences which I desire may be small with decency not to exceed three Coaches with the Hearse To carry my Body to Dorchester in Oxfordshire there to be interred by my beloved Wife Mary and Daughter Rebecca Granger which is to be found in the Entrance of the said Church with the Inscription on a Stone to whom they belong and desire the further Inscription may be added on my Account after my Intermnent if room at the bottom of same Stone if not on one other Stone to be laid over my Body …

Will of Jonathan Granger of Saint Dunstan in the East, London. Proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 7 February 1774. The National Archives ref: PROB 11/995

Jonathan’s beloved wife, Mary (née Port) had died over 22 years earlier and his daughter Rebecca some seven years after that, and we can assume that it was Jonathan who had arranged for the remarkably detailed and ornate stone to be laid over them. The stone survives today in almost perfect condition – perhaps slightly scuffed in places – but given that it’s now 264 years since ‘Rebeckah’s’ name was added, it’s remarkable how legible the text is. Much of it looks like it must have looked the day it was carved.

The inscription in full reads:

Beneath this Stone Lyeth Interr’d
the Body of Mrs MARY GRANGER
of London Daughter of THOMAS
and REBECKAH PORT of this Ancient
City Yeoman.
She was Good, Virtuous, Loving, Tender and Humane
Obijt the 11th Iune 1751 Ætatis 60
As also, their Eldest Daughter
Obijt February the 20th 1758 Ætatis 36
She was Dutiful to her Parents, Loving and Respectful
to her Friends, Chearful and Innocent in her Deportment
Without Pride or Dissimulation, of a Truly Virtuous Mind
Two Daughters and one Son, Buried in
Who Died Infants.

Gravestone of Mary Granger, wife of Jonathan Granger and of their daughter, Rebecca Granger, Ss. Peter & Paul, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

The stone lies today in the south aisle of the church (now known as the People’s Chapel). Technically, it’s a ledger stone, and it, along with scores of other stones (some of which appear to have formerly stood outside in the churchyard), forms the floor of much of the church today.

Immediately to its left lies another stone, almost exactly the same size and colour, which, in much the same lettering, records the death and burial of Jonathan. The room at the bottom of the original stone was evidently not felt to be sufficient to record Jonathan’s details:

Here lieth the Body
Citizen and Draper, of LONDON,
who died the 10th of Jany. 1774
Aged 77 Years.

Gravestone of Jonathan Granger, Ss. Peter & Paul, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

I had known of the existence of these stones but this was the first time that I’d seen them in the flesh (as it were) and I have to admit that I found the experience quite moving. It’s so far removed from the sorts of graves that I usually find for my ancestors – Mary’s has even got heraldry!

But there’s one problem with the stone. And it’s quite a big problem…

Mary is described – very clearly – as the daughter of Thomas and Rebecca (‘Rebeckah’) Port. But she wasn’t: she was the daughter of John and Rebecca Port.

John Port had married Rebecca (surname unknown) sometime around 1675. They went on to have three children – John (baptised 1678 at Great Hasely – died young), Thomas (baptised 1680 in Dorchester – Samuel’s grandfather), John (baptised 1683 in Dorchester) – before John senior died sometime in early 1685/86.

On 10 March 1685/86, letters of administration were granted to John’s widow and relict, Rebecca Port, and an inventory was compiled, listing John’s “goods and stock credits & chattles” which came to a total of £314 1s 4d – a not-inconsiderable sum for the time.

Four months later, Rebecca gave birth to a daughter, called Mary. The Dorchester parish register records the baptism of:

Maria filia Reb: Port Vid. de Dorches: bapt: Jul: 27: 86

Baptism of Mary Port, daughter of Rebecca Port, widow, of Dorchester, baptised 27 July 1786, St Peter & St Paul, Dorchester, Oxfordshire.
Oxfordshire History Centre ref: PAR87/1/R1/1

So, Mary was evidently born after her father died. I don’t know when Rebecca died (there’s a gap in the Dorchester burial register between 1678 and 1719) but if she died shortly after John, it’s conceivable that the children never knew their parents and we can begin to understand how their father’s name might quickly have been forgotten.* And then, when Mary died, nearly 65 years later (she was older than the 60 years stated on the stone) the wrong name was recorded on her memorial.

It’s perhaps a lesson to us that memorial stones – even the most detailed and informative – aren’t always as accurate as we would like them to be. I tend to treat them as mini-biographies, rather than primary sources.

* On checking my notes more carefully, I realise that the widowed Rebecca married a man called Timothy Smyth on 15 August 1687 and that she seems to have died a few years later. The gap in the parish register is partially filled by some Bishops Transcripts but these are also a bit patchy. There are two burials of women called Rebecka Smith, one on 1 July 1689/90 and another (undated) in 1691/92. The BTs give no further details but one of them is probably our Rebecca.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 2 May 2022

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Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road

I’ve always been passionate about art, and a few years ago I stumbled upon a little-known group of early-20th century artists known collectively as the East London Group. I was instantly captivated and wanted to find out more about them.

The brothers Harold and Walter Steggles were perhaps the most successful of the 30 or so artists who exhibited as part of the East London Group during the 1920s and ’30s – these two ‘Brothers In Art’ form the focal point of an exhibition currently on show at the Beecroft Gallery in Southend (until 3 April 2022) – but my personal favourite is a man called Cecil Osborne. Cecil exhibited at the first Group show in 1929 and one of the paintings he exhibited then is the inspiration behind this blog post.

I won’t write too much about the Group itself here – there’s little point in duplicating the information that you’ll find on their website – but one of the key themes of the East London Group was the idea that the inspiration for art is all around us: you only had to look out of your window…

An only child, Cecil Osborne was born on 6 January 1909, the son of Arthur Cecil Osborne (a coachman) and his wife Mabel Goldstone. Appropriately for a future member of the East London Group he was born in the parish of Bromley-by-Bow in Poplar. Cecil James Osborne (he doesn’t appear to have used the middle name) was baptised at the parish church of St Michael & All Angels, Bromley-by-Bow on 21 February 1909.

Baptism of Cecil James Osborne, St Michael & All Angels, Bromley-by-Bow
London Metropolitan Archives reference: P88/MIC/011 p.203

Cecil was brought up by his mother (his father doesn’t seem to have been ‘on the scene’ for very long) and by 1921, the family (including Mabel’s sister, Flora), were living at 221 Farringdon Road Buildings, Clerkenwell. This was to be Cecil’s home for the next ten years or so, and it was from the window of 221 Farringdon Road Buildings that he painted his masterpiece.

Osborne, Cecil; Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries
Photo credit: Alan Waltham, East London Group

Setting to one side, for a moment, the obvious artistic merits of the painting, it’s the view itself that has always fascinated me. From a historian’s point of view it’s a relatively rare example of the celebration of an ‘ordinary’ urban scene, captured, not by the camera, but by a gifted artist. It’s a view from a building which is no longer there, of a building across the road, which is also no longer there. It’s a moment captured in time…

Both buildings have a fascinating history of their own. Farringdon Road Buildings were built in 1870 as ‘model dwellings’ by the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. The buildings comprised five, six-storey blocks set at right angles to Farringdon Road. The Osborne’s apartment was in the last of the five blocks as you headed down Farringdon Road towards the City, on the corner of Bowling Green Lane. You can just see the block on the extreme right of this photograph.

Farringdon Road Buildings from the north-west, early 1970s

Looking out of his window across the road to the left, Cecil would have seen the imposing residential block known as Corporation Buildings. Built as model dwellings in the 1860s they were the first council houses ever built in the UK.

Corporation Buildings, Illustrated Times, 14 January 1865, p. 21

The building on the left in this image from 1865, also appears in Cecil’s painting, at which time it was in use as a bookbinder’s warehouse.

The apartments in Corporation Buildings were well-ahead of their time. Each had a WC, a scullery and a fireplace – unheard of in other contemporaneous working-class dwellings. Each of the blocks was entered via an ornate staircase and we can make out two of these in Cecil Osborne’s painting. Using large-scale, historical maps, we can work out fairly accurately the view that he had.

Ordnance Survey Map London (Land Registry Edition) VII.44 (detail)
Revised: 1894,  Published: 1922.  Reprinted: 1936
National Library of Scotland

Corporation Buildings were pulled down in the 1970s to make way for the Guardian Newspaper’s new offices. Later, a multi-storey car park was built where Farringdon Road Buildings had once stood. This has now also been pulled down to make way for a new housing development.

Google Maps, Street View (accessed December 2021)

We can’t get up high enough (until the new building goes up!) to recreate Cecil’s view but this is a shot that I took last year which roughly approximates the view. Not being 50 feet tall, it’s as close as I could get!

Farringdon Road, Clerkenwell. Photograph by the author, August 2021 © David Annal

I’m always fascinated by the way that we can use documents and maps to find connections between images from bygone days and the world as it is today. And when your starting point is an exquisite piece of art it somehow makes the journey even more rewarding.

Cecil Osborne, his mother Mabel (née Goldstone) and cat, pictured ca.1930, probably at 221 Farringdon Road Buildings, Clerkenwell. Photo credit: the artist’s family (with thanks to Alan Waltham, East London Group)

Further reading: From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman (2012)

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 6 March 2022

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The original and best

This blog is dedicated to the memory of genealogist Lorine McGinnis Schulze who passed away recently. I had the pleasure of working for Lorine over the past few years, transcribing several early English wills for her. Lorine’s enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. RIP Lorine.

What would we do without wills? When it comes to making real progress with your research, the difference between working with a family that left lots of wills and one that didn’t is considerable. Even a smattering of wills across a few generations can make all the difference.

And yet, compared with other documents such as birth, marriage & death records, census returns and parish registers, wills (and other associated probate records) don’t get the exposure that they deserve – and as a result, our familiarity with the records tends to be less extensive than it might be.

There’s a lot to say on the subject of wills but I want to focus here on one particular aspect – and it’s an area which I believe hasn’t really been explored enough.

Probate – the act of ‘proving’ a will – is a long and complex process. In order to understand the records that survive to today in the archives of the various ecclesiastical probate courts, we need to familiarise ourselves with the procedure. We don’t necessarily need to develop an expertise in all the legal practicalities of the process (although that would help!) but we do need to grasp some basic concepts.

And one of the most important things to understand is that the process will almost always generate two copies of every will:

  • the original, signed by the testator and brought into the court by the executor(s)
  • a copy, created by the probate court, entered into a register and known as the registered copy

The original will would have been written on paper or parchment – sometimes by the testator themselves but more often by a professional clerk – and signed by the testator. If the testator was unable to sign his or her name, they made a mark of some sort instead, frequently a cross or an ‘x’. It’s worth noting that the absence of a signature is not necessarily evidence of illiteracy – many wills were written right at the end of the testator’s life, often within a day or two of their death, so a ‘mark’ could simply be the result of ill health. In order to be a legally valid document, the will had to be signed by two or more witnesses and the requirement was that the testator and the witnesses should all sign their names (or make their marks) ‘in each other’s presence’.

The will may then have been deposited into the care of a solicitor or a bank or it might have been kept at home in a safe place but either way, after the testator’s death, the first task for the executors named in the will would have been to take the will to the relevant probate court and ask to be granted the right to administer the deceased’s estate.

Assuming that everything was in order, the executors could then go away and do whatever they were required to do under the terms of the will leaving the will itself in the hands of the court officials. (Thanks to Andrew Millard for pointing out that the executors would have been given a copy of the will which ‘rarely survive unless inherited within a family or among solicitor’s papers.’)

Then, once the probate process was complete, the court made their own copy of the will. The courts kept large registers for this purpose and even in the smaller courts, the clerks were kept busy: by the early 1850s, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), the senior court of probate in England and Wales, was proving around 8000 wills a year – an average of over 650 per month. The records of the PCC include a total of 2263 registers!

The text of the will would be copied, word-for-word, into the register with the details of the grant of probate added at the foot (usually in Latin before 1732).

So we know that there are (usually) two copies of every will, but how can we use this to our advantage?

In most cases, where a collection of wills has been digitised and made available online, it’s either the registered copies or the originals that we have access to. Occasionally, we can see both but where we can’t, it’s important that we’re aware of the probability that another copy of the will that we’re looking at exists.

When we’re looking at a registered copy of the will, we need to be aware that the ‘signatures’ recorded here are the work of the clerks. To view the actual signatures, both of the testator and of the witnesses, we need to see the original will. The signatures can then be compared with those on other documents to test theories in your research: a match with a signature in a marriage register, for example, could help to prove that the groom and the testator are the same person.

Comparison of signatures found on original wills with those on earlier documents providing evidence in each case that the same person signed both documents.

The original will is also likely to include additional details, not all of which are recorded in the register. As part of the probate process, clerks at the court would make notes on the original will. They would routinely record details of the grant of probate (again, usually written in Latin before 1732) including the date and place that the will was proved, the name(s) of the executor(s) and the name of the court official who granted the probate (usually acting as a ‘surrogate’ on behalf of the bishop or archdeacon).

There might be other notes too, particularly if one or more of the executors named in the will was unable or unwilling to perform the duty asked of them. If someone chose to renounce their right to act as executor, the court could appoint someone else in their place and the same might happen if one or more of the named executors had died before the testator. However, as long as one of the named executors was willing and able to take on the role, there would be no need to appoint anyone else.

These details will usually appear in the probate clause in the register but there are occassionaly items which are only to be found on the original. If you’re lucky you might find a note relating to the testator’s death: the date of death is occasionally recorded and if the testator died in unusual or unexpected circumstances (e.g. if they died overseas or at sea) you could be in for a treat.

Detail from the original will of Henry Mead, mariner of Wapping, 1698.
The National Archives reference: PROB 10/1313

The original will of Henry Mead, mariner of Wapping, for example, includes a note, written in Latin:

Testator obiit infra duos annos in nave the Adventure Galley in P[ar]tibus Indie Orientalis

Which translates as:

The testator died within the last two years in the ship the Adventure Galley in the East Indies

If there was a dispute regarding the will, there might be a note to this effect: perhaps the will was contested by a disgruntled relative or it might have been used as evidence in a court case. The original will of John Kightley of North Crawley, Buckinghamshire for example, includes a note referring to the will having been exhibited in Chancery.

Will of John Kightley of North Crawley, Buckinghamshire, Archdeaconry of Buckingham
Buckinghamshire Archives reference: DAWf 105/16

You may even find that the original will was accompanied by some entirely separate documents which the court didn’t feel it necessary to copy into the register. Take the case of Norris Stephenson…

Norris was a Surgeon in the 15th Regiment of Foot and died while on active service in Surinam in February 1806: his will was proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in September 1808. The bundle of documents that makes up his original will comprises three separate documents and on one of these there are two notes (labelled A and B) next to which someone has written the words, ‘not to be registered’. The second of these notes adds considerably to the story of Norris’s life and death:

Let me request of you to write a consolitory [sic] Letter to my D[ea]r. Sister[s] & Mother not mentioning the manner which I lost my Life, if there is no money which it appears there will not be thank God they do not want it.
Adieu once more.

Norris Stephenson died a horrible death from dysentry and evidently didn’t want his sisters and his mother to know. If all we had was the registered copy of the will, this fascinating detail would have been lost.

Due to the manner in which original wills tended to be stored (not quite to the standards that we might expect in a modern archive!) the documents can often be in a poor condition: mould, water damage, rodent/insect damage and even fire could all contribute to the less-than-perfect preservation of our ancestors’ original wills. Charles Dickens, who had an interest in these matters described the offices of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury as:

… an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply … That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850) Chapter 33

Thankfully, where an original will is damaged (or entirely) missing, it should, in theory at least, be possible to track down the registered copy – registers, by their very nature being more resistant to the ravages of time are more likely to have survived in (relatively) good condition.

Original will of John Wingfield of Rickmansworth, Archdeaconry of St Albans, 1636
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies reference: 78AW26
Registered will of John Wingfield of Rickmansworth, Archdeaconry of St Albans, 1636
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies reference: 8AR274

And even if the original will has survived intact, the way that they were written, with frequent additions and corrections, and occasionally large chunks of text inserted between two existing lines, can lead to some words and sections being effectively illegible. Again, the registered copy is our friend here.

Of course, in many cases, the two copies will turn out to be effectively identical – and it’s true that tracking down the ‘second’ copy might not prove too straighforward, probably involving a trip to the relevant record office. But even if the potential for a successful discovery is limited, it’s surely always worth checking – you just never know what you might find.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 19 February 2022

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When Digitisation Goes Bad Part II: Death’s Apprentice

or…Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Onto The Internet

This is the second part of a blog post looking at some particularly bad examples of digitisation in the world of family history research. In the first part I looked at some of the shortcomings of Findmypast’s Index To Death Duty Registers 1796-1903.

To my mind, when it comes to commercial digitisation projects, the main purpose of transcribing the data from historical records is to create a way into the documents themselves. Essentially, the transcript should be a finding aid, ideally, linked to digital images of the documents, thus allowing the user to work out for themselves what the particular entry is telling them. As a rule, I’m not too bothered about how accurate the actual transcription is. As anyone who has ever attempted the task will tell you, reading and interpreting large chunks of old handwriting with anything approaching 100% accuracy is a pipedream: there are simply too many instances when the handwriting is illegible, either due to the (lack of) skill of the original writer or because the document is badly damaged, soiled or faded.

Of course, the more accurate the transcription the better, but I always feel that as long as it’s of a reasonably good standard, a good, powerful, flexible search engine will get around most difficulties and enable us to find just about everything that we’re looking for. And if that fails, the ability to browse through the document, page-by-page, is a useful asset.

What’s more important is that the people behind the transcription and the digitisation project as a whole, have a good grasp of what it is they’re dealing with; that they understand the different types of document that make up the collection and how the format and content of those documents might change over time.

Unfortunately, Ancestry’s London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1930 database is a good example of a database over which those responsible for digitising the records appear to have had little or no intellectual control.

The original records are held by the London Metropolitan Archives and were digitised by Ancestry in 2010. It’s a truly remarkable collection of documents recording the admission of nearly 250,000 men (and some women) to the prestigious ‘Freedom’ of the City of London. Attaining the privileges that the Freedom granted you was essential for anyone who wished to trade within the City and the records created during the process can be enormously useful for anyone researching ancestors who lived and worked with the ‘Square Mile’.

The Admission Papers form one of several collections relating to the Freedom of the City. They are by far the most important (genealogically speaking) and the others are not available online. They are also a complex and disparate collection of records.

Essentially, there were three ways of becoming a Freeman of the City:

  • by servitude (i.e. after completing an apprenticeship – usually of 7 years)
  • by patrimony (i.e. as the legitimate child of a Freeman, born after their parent was admitted)
  • by redemption or purchase (i.e. by paying a sum of money)

The collection of Admission Papers comprises records relating to all three types of admission – records which differ significantly in content. Across the three we can find a wide range of details being recorded, including the following:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Residence
  • Occupation
  • Father’s name
  • Father’s residence
  • Father’s occupation
  • Date of father’s admission
  • Master’s name
  • Livery Company
  • Date of apprenticeship
  • Date of admission
  • Means of admission

It’s not difficult to see how rich a source of genealogical data the records represent: plenty of names, relationships, dates and places – the bedrock of family history research.

Let’s have a look at how Ancestry has dealt with it all…

Ancestry’s search screen for the London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1930 database

The search screen includes many of the standard Ancestry fields but when it comes to dates, the only two fields available are the ubiquitous ‘Any Event’ and the ‘custom’ Admission Date. The Father and Child fields are also available to us, as well as the always-useful ‘Keyword’ option.

The search results include the following pieces of data:

  • Name
  • Birth Date
  • Admission Date
  • Master
  • Father

Let’s see what happens when we run a typical search.

Search results from London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1930 database
Search was for the surname Al*ton

A quick glance at the results page doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence! The significant number of ‘corrected entries and the disjointed nature of some of the data are sure signs that all is not well. And a deeper look reveals the true horror of it all…

After looking at each of the ten records and abstracting the relevant data, I was able to come up with an results page, sticking to Ancestry’s choice of fields:

An example of what Ancestry’s search results might look like with a more accurate version of the index.

So, let’s have another look at the original Ancestry results. I’ve highlighted the fields which contain errors but perhaps it would have been easier to highlight those that don’t contain any. It is absolutely riddled with them!

Search results from London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1930 database
Data errors highlighted in yellow

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not that bothered about the odd transcription error here and there, and a few of the ones in this little sample are, admittedly, quite minor. Transcribing names where the original is in Latin is always going to be a challenge but (sorry to repeat myself but it needs to be said!) as the main purpose of an index like this should be to create a finding aid, it would seem like a sensible policy to ‘translate’ the names into English. So ‘Edri’ should really be Edward and Carolus should be Charles. At least it seems that Ancestry have treated these names as ‘variants’ of the English name so a search for ‘Charles Allington’ will find the entry for ‘Carolus’. Some of the data has already been corrected by other users so if we’re just looking at the names, it shouldn’t, in theory, be too difficult to find most of these entries.

But there’s something working against us here: and it’s the data in the field headed ‘Date of admission’. As you will see, eight of the ten dates in our sample are wrong (one of them suggests that the freeman in question was admitted 15 years before he was born!) and one of them has no data recorded at all. Nine of them are therefore ‘wrong’ – and the bad news is that this sample is representative of the whole database…

It’s clear to me that Ancestry have failed to understand the records here. Because in most cases, the date of admission isn’t actually recorded on the document itself: instead, it can be discerned from the handwritten reference (usually on the back of the document) and from the description of the bundle of documents (either a range of dates or a particular month). But this data hasn’t been captured by Ancestry.

The date that Ancestry have recorded as the date of admission, is actually, in most cases, the date of the apprenticeship, which is usually about ten years earlier than the date of admission – and can be significantly later. On average, the dates given here as the date of admission are 12.3 years out from the actual date.

Dates of birth are only rarely recorded so it seems strange to show this data in the results field. What would perhaps be more useful would be to record the date of apprenticeship. Well over half of those admitted had served apprenticeships and as most boys were apprenticed when they were 14 we can estimate their likely dates of birth from this information.

It would also be good to know where the apprentices were from, so the father’s residence would be a useful addition and it would be nice to include the name of the livery company (and to be able to search on this data!). So, if things were being done properly, we could have an index that looks something like this:

What a truly useful versio of the index might look like

You might argue that a bad index is better than no index at all and I agree … to a point. But the problem is that by creating these indexes the websites involved have made it extremely unlikely that the records will ever be properly indexed by people who really understand the documents in question. And that’s a real shame…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 27 January 2022

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