A missing Collins- a cautionary tale

Recently, I started looking at a part of my family tree that has been neglected for some time now. Why has it been neglected? It is all down to the old ‘brick wall’ syndrome. For those who may not know, the term ‘brick wall’ is used quite a lot in genealogy to describe a halt in the research that just cannot be resolved- at least for the time being.

My brick wall was unfortunately not the usual type, where an ancestor suddenly disappears in the 1600 or 1700s and you have had quite a good run back to then and have found out a fair amount about the family. Mine was a bit more embarrassing. I was stuck looking for someone in the 1800s, who seemed to have disappeared before the 1851 Census. The 1800s had a wealth of state initiated records when compared to earlier centuries and it is usually relatively straightforward to locate ancestors right back to the beginning of the century.

I was looking for a paternal ancestor named Rose Hannah Collins, who was supposedly born in about 1845 in King’s Caple, Herefordshire, England. The 1861 Census recorded her and a possible sister, Mary Collins, as servants, yet the 1851 Census came up completely blank. This had been the situation for years and no matter what I did, I could not find a matching person on the 1851 Census.

So, this part of my tree had been neglected for some time, but I thought it was time to give it another look. I should mention at this point that when I started looking for Rose Hannah, I had not long started my journey into the world of genealogy and I have certainly learnt a great deal more in the intervening years. With the problem of Rose Hannah Collins, the most important thing that I know now, is how to get the most from the websites I use. I am talking here mostly about Ancestry and FindMyPast and knowing how to use their search functions to get the most out of them.

It seems really easy to put in the name of an ancestor on both of these sites, along with a basic date and place of birth, and then expect them to pop up immediately. Job done. In reality it is a bit more complicated than that, especially when you remember that sometimes people can make spelling mistakes or mishear information. Also, in 1851 there were still some people that were illiterate and could not tell whether their name had been spelt correctly or not. This impacts the way information is indexed on sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast and in turn impacts which search terms will match and therefore, which will be useful to us when we search. Now both Ancestry and FindMyPast do have facilities to search large date ranges or a range of spellings that are similar to a name you are searching for, but sometimes you still have to get creative.

Getting creative was exactly what I had to do with Rose Hannah Collins. With a name like Rose Hannah, you would think that it is sufficiently recognisable to bring up the correct person. The same goes for Collins, but on the broadest settings, still nothing appeared that seemed right on the 1851 Census. I had to remove Rose Hannah’s first names and just make a broad search for Collins, a year of birth and a place. It was only then that I found a Rosehanna Collings who was indeed born in about 1845 and living in King’s Caple with a sister named Mary and parents named John and Mary Collings. What this post cannot tell you is the amount time then spent looking at other records, trying to verify that I had got the right person. As it happens, I believe I did and finding that one record opened up whole new avenues of research into people I did not know even existed. I can now trace some of Rose Hannah’s ancestors back to about 1652. These are John Gilbert and Margaret Stevens, whose children were baptised in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire.

I have finally torn down the brick wall that was Rose Hannah Collins. It may have taken a few years, but in that time I gained the experience to know that sometimes you have to think outside the box when searching Ancestry and FindMyPast. This also applies to other websites too, like FamilySearch and FreeBMD. The list is not exhaustive. Anywhere that you have to enter search terms is somewhere that may require creative thinking, if you want to tear down your own brick walls and find a missing ancestor.

How to live forever?

I was recently catching up with the new series of The Russell Howard Hour and was interested in Russell’s new feature where he tries new things in a bid to live longer. I’m not sure how effective the Finnish practice of ‘P√§ntsdrunk’ will be for him, but I wonder whether he has tried genealogy?

Before I began my own journey into my family history, I had no idea that it could help us all live forever. At face value, that may seem like a ridiculous statement, but think about it carefully and you will realise (as I did), that it is not as ridiculous as it might seem.

When researching our ancestors, we search through a long list of records trying to find the ‘right’ one. Census, Birth, Marriage and Death records, Parish Records, Wills- all of these (and many, many more) may record ancestors known and unknown. These are records we are accessing years after a person has left us, and although we may or may not know what our ancestors look like, we can tell what their names were, who their families were and sometimes what their personal circumstances may have been. Were they in a trade? Did they live in the same house for generations? What kind of relationship did they have with their family? Were they non-conformists? There is a real possibility of finding answers to these kind of questions through genealogy and family history. This surely means that no-one is completely gone and that we all have the potential to live forever through the records that have recorded us in life.

But this does not only apply to our ancestors. What will the genealogists of the future find out about us? With the rise of social media, will it be easier to find information about a person’s daily life? Will we all be judged by the researchers of the future on what we had for breakfast or our love of funny cat videos? Or will the ephemeral nature of email communication, that can be deleted at the touch of a button, mean that it will be harder for future genealogists to put together our lives?

As a genealogist, I have never really thought about people researching me after I’m gone, as I have always done the researching. But something anyone can do to tell future genealogists what their life was really like, is to write it down now. Small things that feel completely mundane to us (like where you went to school or holidays you went on), can be just as useful as the big things like who your parents were and where you were born. These things could mean the world to future family who never met you, as finding letters from our ancestors mean the world to us. And let’s face it, you only get an official biography if you’re really famous!

I wonder if Russell Howard could put a comedic spin on genealogy…..?

AGRA

I am now a Associate of AGRA (Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives)!

Have a look at my profile at: https://www.agra.org.uk/rhiannon-lloyd-genealogist-in-somerset.

Genealogy on TV

Last night I had a very interesting discussion with other members of the RQG (Register of Qualified Genealogists) about different ways genealogy is portrayed on television.

There are several shows now that explore a person’s history or try to find family that they have become separated from. The differences between these shows and the way they handle genealogical procedure are very interesting. On the one hand, there are the shows that dig into a person’s past and try to find interesting stories that both the person and the watching public will enjoy. On the other hand are the shows that try to trace living relatives, sometimes using DNA.

Personally, I find the historical type more interesting as going backwards into the unknown has always been more appealing, but that is not to say that the other shows are not interesting on an emotional level. As entertainment for the viewing public, these shows seem to have quite a following, but there are things that seem to be missing from a genealogical perspective.

This was certainly something that my RQG colleagues picked up on and many saw these shows as both a help and a hindrance to genealogists. They boost the public’s knowledge about genealogy, but fail to mention the hours of rigorous trawling through records that it took to find the interesting stories that appear on-screen.

Will we have to learn to live with the fact that full genealogical procedure will not make it into the television world where perhaps entertainment value is more important? Or will there one day be a programme that can do both?

I will keep watching, but with a better understanding of how genealogical programmes work behind the scenes.