Online Public Family Trees- a Blessing or a Curse?

When I first started researching my family history, it came out of the desire to find out more about my grandmother’s family. She had just passed away and it helped to occupy my mind. So, how did I begin? With a two-week free trial on Ancestry (I had seen it advertised on television). Then I filled in what I knew and suddenly found that there were loads of other people who had publicly shared their own family trees.

‘How wonderful,’ I thought, as they would be particularly helpful for my father’s side of the family, which I didn’t know so much about. Now, I hate to admit to the next part of the story, because now I know different, but I dutifully looked at other people’s trees and after adding them to mine, I was left with long lines of ancestors I had never known before. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I just committed a cardinal sin!

As I said though, now I know different and I know to dig deeper into any information that I find and, more importantly, to gather evidence and to verify things I have found.

One casualty of my first journey into family history was the Lilly part of my father’s side of the family. The surname doesn’t appear until a few generations back, so was a new name to me. It all began with Elizabeth Lilly (c.1792-1869), who had married one of my Wright ancestors in 1815, in Nailsea. (Incidentally, this part of my father’s family all came from Somerset- a fact which bothers him no end, as he is a proud Welshman!)

When I went back to look at this branch of the family, I was confused to begin with, as all the other trees had described Elizabeth as ‘Elizabeth Lilly Blake’ and apparently the Lilly name stretches back to the Picardie region of France in the early 1630s. After diligently collecting BMD details for Elizabeth, I made a discovery that I would have completely missed, had I left the research solely with other people’s family trees. It seems that Elizabeth was baptised on 28 Jul 1771 in Clapton in Gordano, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Lilly. Another look at Hester found that she had another 6 illegitimate children, all baptised in Tickenham! Luckily for me, some of the entries named William Blake as the father, so it was reasonable to think that perhaps all 6 children were William Blake’s- especially since I found a marriage for the couple in Portbury on 08 October 1827, 17 years after the last child was baptised.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why Elizabeth was called ‘Elizabeth Lilly Blake’ by so many people- she was baptised as Elizbeth Lilly, but her parents did later marry and so the children could have used the name Blake. Elizabeth herself, uses that name when she married John Wright in 1815.

So with one mystery on its way to completion, I turned my attention to Elizabeth’s mother Hester Lilly (c.1771-1840) and in turn her father William Lilly (d. c.1785).

Finding baptism, marriage and burial information for Hester was fairly straightforward (she was baptised in Clapton in Gordano and appears to have been buried in Portishead), but William was not so easy. He was married and buried in Portbury (in 1746 and 1785 respectively), but I could not find a baptism. There was a reason for this, as there is a large gap in the Portbury parish registers between 1641-1719. This meant that the possibility of a 1715 birth for William (which came from other family trees) can’t be proven yet.

I decided to have a look at some of these other trees, to try to find if the information was sourced or noted to have come from somewhere, but with the trees linking to other trees as a source, it was impossible! There is no indication within the online trees that I have found where the information for William’s baptism comes from. To the observer, it would seem that this information and the names of William’s parents have been plucked out of thin air.

Now, it is not my intention to berate the people who have made their trees public or to tell them that it’s all wrong. The point I am trying to make, is that the users of any online genealogy service are all at different stages of research and knowledge, especially when it comes to industry best practices. These public trees have given me an avenue to go down with the possibility that the Lilly’s were French, but I will need to do some more leg work to find the proof for this- i.e. they can be useful, but use them carefully and back up any facts stated with evidence.

As far as finding a baptism for William Lilly and more information about possible parents, I think a trip to the Somerset Heritage Centre is on the cards…. (have a look at my previous post about using archives).

The information in this post was mostly from the Somerset Baptism, Marriage and Burial Collections on Ancestry, but they can also be found at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

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