‘You mean I can find information about my family history which isn’t online?!’

Today’s post comes from a half-remembered conversation (I can’t remember who with) where the other person made the point that sometimes people can forget that there is so much more to find than the records that are online. Any genealogists and researchers reading this will already know this (so bear with me), but local archives are such valuable resources that I wanted share this with people, to let them know that they could be missing so much by not utilising them too.

I am lucky enough to live within about an hour of at least four major archives: the Somerset Heritage Centre, the Devon Heritage Centre, the Dorset History Centre and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, not forgetting the various local libraries and museums. It is certainly true that a good chunk of the records that you might need for your family history research (Victorian ones especially) are now online and can be accessed through various websites; things like census records, births, marriages and deaths indexes, certain probate calendars and wills, some newspapers, certain military records, some passenger lists, as well as baptism, marriage and burial records for some UK counties. But this is by no means the whole story.

So, now you may ask, if there are all of these things already online, why would someone need to go to a local archive? The first thing to remember, is that some collections that are online may not yet be complete. I recently did some work for a client from Australia, who had Devon ancestors. Some of the Devon parish registers are on FindMyPast, but some have not been added, whether due to permission issues or other considerations. If I had only searched the online records, I could have come away with the impression that the people I was searching for were not baptised, married or buried in Devon at all because they didn’t appear in the online search. The parish registers they did appear in were only accessible at the Devon Heritage Centre. FindMyPast did however, list the parishes that are covered, so it is always a good idea to look at what each online collection contains before searching.

The next thing to remember is that some collections are not online at all, although that can vary from county to county. If you had a Victorian ancestor who had any sort of land, whether as an owner or a tenant, a useful source could be Tithe records. The thing with Tithe records, is that they fall into the category of being partly online and partly not. The Genealogist website does have a collection of all the tithe records that are kept by The National Archives at Kew which is exceptionally helpful, but if you don’t have a subscription to the website, then you cannot view them. For someone like me who already subscribes to other websites, it might not be practical or financially viable to take out a third, especially since Tithe Records can be found elsewhere. An exception to this would be Welsh Tithe Records, which have been published on the National Library of Wales website- see my previous blogpost Tithes in Wales (https://shersca-genealogy.co.uk/2019/05/13/tithes-in-wales/) for more information.

The ‘elsewhere’ that you can find tithe maps is…… at your local archive. All four archives near me keep Tithe records for their county. The Somerset Heritage Centre has also digitised their Tithe Maps and uploaded them to computers at the heritage centre, so that anyone can search them without having to get the documents out all the time. You can then print copies of the maps, which actually makes it easier to match things up with the apportionment part of the document (it is kept separately and not digitised).

But it is not just Tithe records that archives keep. When looking into my Rowsell family (please do see its One Name Study page- https://one-name.org/name_profile/rowsell/), I found that there is a concentration of the surname in Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset and that the parish Churchwarden’s accounts contained many references to the family. Where burial records are missing, or there are many Rowsells with the same forename, they can help to narrow down a possible date of death (usually by when a name stops appearing). The Churchwarden’s accounts also tell you how much a person paid to the churchwardens (as a parish rate for those who held property over a certain amount) and may tell you the name of the property.

These are just a couple of the record sets that a local archive can hold. They could also hold court records, newspaper records that are not online yet, property deeds, papers from the estates of local families, records from local non-conformist groups, photographs relating to local places or perhaps events, local maps, as well as many other records and items, some of which are quite surprising! The Somerset Heritage Centre has been running an online social media quiz throughout July (#SomersetCatalogueQuiz – getting people to use its online catalogue) through which I discovered that they have a pressed frog in their collection!

If you do go to a record office, do have a look at their website first, to see opening times and any rules you may need to follow. Also have a look at their online catalogue first so that you have some idea of the documents you would like to see. If you get stuck the staff are very helpful and you can find contact details on their websites.

Here are the websites I have mentioned in this post:

Somerset Heritage Centre: https://swheritage.org.uk/somerset-archives/visit/somerset-heritage-centre/

Devon Heritage Centre: https://swheritage.org.uk/devon-archives/visit/devon-heritage-centre/

Dorset History Centre: https://www.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/libraries-history-culture/dorset-history-centre/dorset-history-centre.aspx

Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre: http://www.wshc.eu/

FindMyPast: www.findmypast.co.uk

The Genealogist (Tithes dataset): https://www.thegenealogist.co.uk/coverage/tithe-records/#includes

I always find that going to a local record office is like going on a new journey of discovery every time. Records you find can really help to fill out your knowledge of an ancestor too, much more than just your basic census and births, marriages and deaths. Ok, like online records, you may not find exactly who you are looking for all of the time, but isn’t it worth trying?

A family mystery finally solved!

So, today’s post does double duty in highlighting an issue of ethics in my own family history, but also how I managed to solve a family mystery by using newspapers.

It all starts with my great-grandfather, Walter Frederick Cole and the fact that he was illegitimate. From talking to my mum and to my grandmother, Walter always knew that he was illegitimate. It seems that it was a fact that particularly weighed on him, as apparently he told his future wife that he understood if she didn’t want to marry him because he was illegitimate. The story goes that she then told him not to be so ridiculous- it’s a good thing she did, or I wouldn’t be here today!

Shersca Genealogy_Walter Frederick Cole
Walter Frederick Cole as a young man

As Walter was born in 1895, his worry was understandable, as illegitimacy still carried a social stigma. The other fact to note is that his mother and half-siblings wouldn’t talk about it to anyone, so that left Walter with no idea who his father was- both his birth certificate and baptism entry record no father’s name at all, only the name of his mother, Sarah. Both my grandmother and her sister had various ideas of who Walter’s father was, whether it be a man with the surname ‘Lowe,’ or the surname ‘Montacute,’ or even that perhaps it was a man that lived in Montacute. Walter was born in Odcombe, Somerset (England), which is just over a mile from Montacute, so could well have been a possibility.

This still left my family with a partial blank when it came to Walter’s family tree and one which we never thought that we would fill. Then one day, after watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, I had a ‘Eureka’ moment. The particular celebrity of the episode had a similar problem to mine and searching through newspapers had helped to solve the problem. I could have kicked myself- why hadn’t I thought of that before!

So I duly searched Somerset newspapers (on the British Newspaper Archive and FindMyPast) for around 1895 and afterwards and I found not one but two articles that gave details of a court case brought by Sarah Cole against a Herbert Blake in March of 1896. This Sarah Cole was a widow from Odcombe and was essentially attempting to get some kind of child support from Frederick Blake. The details given for Sarah matched what I had found already, so I felt an incredible sense of achievement that I finally had a candidate for Walter Cole’s father.

But the discovery didn’t stop there. After reading both articles in detail, I had a better understanding of why Walter’s illegitimacy was never talked about. It was not just because he was illegitimate, but because Herbert Blake was not only his father, but his uncle too (by marriage though)! Again, the newspaper articles agreed with what I had already found, which was that a Frederick Herbert Blake (a stonemason from Montacute) had married Sarah Cole’s sister Eves and Herbert and Eves already had at least seven children by the time Walter was born and then another child after Walter. At the time of Walter’s birth, Sarah had already had four children by her husband Alfred John Cole (he died in 1894) and to make matters worse both the newspaper articles and the Odcombe baptism records show that Sarah had had another illegitimate child before her marriage to Alfred Cole. Additionally, the newspaper articles imply that the ‘improper relations’ that went on between Sarah Cole and Herbert Blake may or may not have been entirely consensual. Herbert Blake also apparently tried to get Sarah to end the pregnancy by sending her some ‘medicine.’

Shersca Genealogy_Sarah Cole
Sarah Cole in her later years

Now, no-one can ever know what really happened between Sarah Cole and Herbert Blake apart from them, but the resulting story would certainly have been scandalous and the fact that it appeared in the newspapers for all to see would have amplified the level of social stigma attached to the whole affair. It does tell us something about Sarah Cole, that she must have been quite a strong woman to even consider taking Herbert Blake to court over this- her circumstances and resulting arguments must have been strong enough (even though her previous illegitimate child came out) as the court did order Herbert Blake to pay 2 shillings per week until the child in question had reached the age of 13. This could amount to about £42.85 per week today. Taking into account the date of the article (March 1896) and Walter’s date of birth (Dec 1895), he is most likely the child being referred to.

As well as the ethical issues at the time of the event, there are potentially more for me and my relatives today. Unfortunately, my grandmother had passed away by the time this discovery was made, but I would have had to take her feelings into account and ask her whether she wanted to know. Both me and my mum think that she would have liked to have known and she would rather have enjoyed being able to gossip about it. This ‘scandal’ doesn’t bother us (things happen how they happen), but others might think differently. This is partly why I have not yet made contact with any descendants of Herbert and Eves, as they may not know that Herbert had an illegitimate child with another woman and they may prefer not to know. For now, it is enough for me and my mum to know.

That said, newspapers can be another valuable source for tracing your ancestors. I got very lucky with mine and although you may not find out something as scandalous as that, your ancestors may have posted birth, marriage or death announcements or have been involved with local sporting activities even. There are various ways which an ancestor may have appeared, so they are always worth a look. Don’t forget though, that newspapers are only reporting an event, so always try to find the original record relating to the event if you can. I have been trying to find the original court records relating to Sarah and Herbert’s case- no luck so far. It turns out that my grandmother and her sister were partly right though- Herbert Blake did come from Montacute!

The two articles I have referenced in this post came from the Western Gazette and the Western Chronicle, both published on 06 March 1896. They can be accessed via: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (for a fee), or if you already have a subscription to FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk) they have a section for British newspapers (in conjunction with the British Newspaper Archive).

Don’t forget that your local archives will also hold copies of local newspapers- the coverage of the above websites is not 100% yet, so your local archive is definitely worth a look.

A good website for converting the value of past currency to modern amounts is https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/ (that is the one I used in this post).

Happy hunting!

Ethical issues in genealogy

The other weekend, I binged a bit on old episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and I suddenly came across an episode I had completely forgotten about, which actually ties in quite nicely with ethical issues in genealogy.

For those who have never seen CSI, it basically centres around a fictional Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation unit and the cases they, and the Las Vegas police, solve.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens in this episode, then stop reading here.

This particular episode concerns a dead genealogist, who was found in the house of one of the principal characters, Dr. Al Robins. Al’s wife is initially suspected because the genealogist is found in her bed, with only her in the house. Long story short, the killer turned out to be related to one of the other cases that the genealogist had been working on. The killer had followed the genealogist to his meeting with Mrs. Robins and killed him, when Mrs. Robins was on the phone outside.

The motive for killing the genealogist is the bit which relates to ethics in genealogy. The genealogist had a client who wanted to find living male relatives on her mother’s side of the family and this actually uncovered a difficult family secret. The killer (who initially had no knowledge of his birth family) found out that his father was actually his own brother and his mother was also his grandmother (meaning that incest had been committed between a mother and her son)! Incidentally, the genealogist’s client would have been the killer’s niece and cousin!

Aside from the mind-boggling family relationships, the main issue here is one of privacy and ethics. Now, the genealogist in this story had no idea about the incest; he had followed the paper records back to the killer and had asked whether the killer wanted to be contacted by the genealogists’ client. It just so happens that the killer found his mother/grandmother on his own and got a decidedly negative response which led him to kill the genealogist. The killer even expressed the wish that he had never found out about his birth family and the incest and that it had all been left alone.

This brings up issues surrounding our own searches for living family and for adoptees as well. Will the family you are searching for want to be found? Will your search uncover sensitive and emotionally distressing issues? And, if distressing issues are found, should you tell people if they don’t already know? Will they want to know? This can also be said for living relatives that you do know. Often, issues such as illegitimacy, mental health and criminality were not spoken about at all, because of the stigma that was attached to them. You might have relatives that will not want to talk about any of these issues and/or will not want to know if you find out something like that yourself.

I found myself in a similar situation, which I will talk about in my next post, but when dealing with sensitive issues and living relatives, you have to stop and think before you let the excitement of a discovery get the better of you. Unfortunately, there are no definite answers if you do find yourself in an ethical dilemma, but think about what the other party might want or not want and whether any discovery you make will affect them on an emotional level. Finding out that your grandfather had an illegitimate child that you never knew about might be a journey of discovery to you, but will the rest of your family, both new and old, feel the same way? It is also about giving people the choice to know or not and coming to terms with the fact that your new-found relative may not want to contact you.

Various articles and blogs have been written about this topic in recent years, especially due to the rise of genetic testing in genealogy- another technique used in the CSI episode. Different professional organisations also have their own ethical guidelines for members and it has been a subject of certain talks at various Conferences I have been to lately. It is certainly an issue that even those pursuing genealogy as a hobby should be thinking about.

Some other useful reading includes Judy G. Russell’s ‘The Legal Genealogist’ blog (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/). It is written from an American legal point of view but does talk a lot about different ethical situations. Blaine Bettinger’s book ‘The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy’ talks a little bit about the ethics of DNA testing and various websites such as FamilySearch and Ancestry have written blog posts that talk about ethical issues. A colleague has also recently published ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy’ (Dr. Penny Walters).

So, do continue your journey into your past, but remember to think twice if you are discovering living relatives and potentially distressing events!

The wonder of Wills

Today, I thought I would share with you all how wonderful wills can be for family history research. Luckily, they are documents that most people are familiar with these days, but why can they be especially useful for family history research?

Back before the introduction of the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837, all vital life events would have been recorded by the church. Unfortunately, baptism, marriage and burial records don’t always contain a great deal of information and it can be more difficult to confirm whether someone is your ancestor, especially if the surname is quite commonplace. There are other records that can be used to help in these cases, but often none contain quite as much information as a will. You might think that only the very wealthy left wills, but sometimes tradesmen, yeomen and others who were further down the social ladder also left them.

I recently did a bit more research on my Gloucestershire family, who came from Eastington (near Stroud) and it turns out that they were baptised in that village for almost 300 years! The earliest I have found so far was Richard Miles (baptised in 1596) and the most recent was the descendant of one of Richard’s brothers, my great-grandfather Arthur Henry Lewis Morgan (baptised in 1881). From the difference in surnames, you can tell that the descent from the Miles family came down through mostly female lines to get to my great-grandfather.

As you would expect, there is very little detail about the family in the baptism, marriage and burial records, so what was really wonderful, was that in the Miles family I found no less than four wills! Two were from the 1700s and the other two from the early 1600s and (with the exception of Margery Miles), all were male and weavers of some sort from Eastington. Weaving was a popular occupation in the area and would have been done by hand around the time these wills were written.

Now, it is obvious that these wills can tell you roughly when the person died- not the exact date though as the will would have been written before death and the date included in the will would have been the date that probate was granted. There is a wealth of information though, that you can find apart from the obvious. Wills can include a burial location, various bequests to family, specific religious institutions, also to friends and perhaps servants, who the executor of the will was and some idea of a person’s wealth in the amount and type of goods they were bequeathing. You might also be able to get an insight into the religious practices of the time or of the person, by the way any religious clauses are written.

The most exciting will for me was the will of Margery Miles from 1617. Before reading the will, I thought her maiden name had been Kinge, as this is the name on her marriage record to Thomas Miles on 26 November 1595. From her will I found that:

  • Margery’s maiden name was actually Chedworth (she left 30 shillings to Joane, daughter of her brother Thomas Chedworth)
  • She left various goods to her sons Richard, Thomas and William Miles
  • Margery also left the rest of her possessions to her son John Kinge and made him her executor

The baptism and burial records support this will, as a Robert Kinge was buried in Eastington on 10 March 1595 and four Kinge children were baptised in Eastington: Juliana (1586), Sara (1588), Richard (1591) and John (1593), all children of Robert Kinge.

Without Margery’s will, this information may have been more difficult to find, especially as history tends to record from a male point of view. But now I have been able to confirm her children by Thomas Miles, I have found her other children by her first marriage and I know that she was born Chedworth, had a brother named Thomas and a niece named Joane!

Eastington Church

The other will that was very exciting was technically not a will, but an inventory. Nathaniel Miles was a great-grandson of Thomas Miles and Margery Chedworth and he was buried in Eastington on 23 October 1736. He died without making a will, but his son John appeared before the local church court and asked for the administration of Nathaniel’s estate to be granted to him. There is an accompanying inventory of Nathaniel’s goods because he died intestate. Nathaniel was also a weaver (a broadweaver) and his inventory contains 13 separate items. Some of these were:

  • his clothes
  • debts
  • 2 beds with bedding
  • drinking vessels
  • a round table
  • an old loom
  • lumber goods
  • shop goods
  • 2 horses
  • all of the items came to the value of £18, 10 shillings (approximately £2,920 today)

From these items, we can start to build up more of a picture of Nathaniel’s day to day life. It seems that he might have had goods that he sold, although it is not clear whether Nathaniel had a physical shop. He was obviously not wealthy, but not a pauper either.

Something else that the administration request from John Miles tells me, is that he was no longer living in Eastington where his family came from, but in the parish of Standish instead. This is a migration that may or may not have been easy to track without this document.

I could probably go on all day about how wonderful wills are, but I will let you discover your own wills instead! The wills and parish baptisms, marriages and burials I have discussed were found through www.ancestry.co.uk this time, using:

  • Gloucestershire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1813
  • Gloucestershire, England, Wills and Inventories, 1541-1858

BUT don’t forget that there is so much more to find at the Gloucestershire Archives: https://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/

Happy will hunting!

Tithes in Wales

There is always something new to learn in genealogy. It is such a vast topic, with so many different records that you will never know everything.

On my recent trip to Family Tree Live in London, I booked a place on a workshop which talked about Welsh ancestors (run by Beryl Evans of the National Library of Wales). As my father’s side come from South Wales, I thought it would be a good workshop and hoped that it would give me an idea of records that I hadn’t considered for my Welsh research.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed! The National Library of Wales has a wealth of resources and some of them are now online (so you don’t have to travel to Aberystwyth for everything!). The one particular resource that I have a new obsession with is the Welsh Tithe Map collection.

A bit of background on Tithe maps. Tithes were a payment made in each parish in England and Wales to the local clergy. They were a benefit in kind payment and each farmer gave a tenth of their yearly produce (such as crops or wool) to the clergy as a tithe payment (tithe barns were where the goods were stored). In the 19th Century it was felt that this method was becoming old-fashioned and that tithes should be paid with money instead.

But how was the switch made from giving goods to paying money? An assessment of the value of each farm and the land it was comprised of was made after the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836. This meant that detailed maps showing the exact acreage and location of each farm were made and an accompanying document called an ‘apportionment’ was created to record who owned the land, who occupied the land, what kind of land it was (whether fields or houses and gardens etc.) and the value of the land. Of this value, the amount to be given to the clergy was also recorded.

My recently found Carmathenshire ancestor Thomas Thomas (yes that was his real name!) was recorded as being a farmer in various census records and they even recorded the name of the farm as ‘Noyadd.’ When I had a look at the online tithe maps, there he was straightaway, recorded as the occupier of Noyadd farm in Llanegwad, Carmarthenshire.

 What makes this discovery even more amazing and useful for my own family history, is that I now know several other pieces of information about the farm which can add to the story of Thomas Thomas.

  • The map gives all of the land belonging to the farm (plots 1576a-1586)
  • It can also overlay this onto a current map, showing the modern location of the farm
  • The landowner’s and occupier’s name is recorded (in this case Thomas Thomas was only the occupier. The landowner was an Evan Davies)
  • The apportionment doesn’t give much detail about the sort of land, but plot 1583 was a house
  • The total number of acres (divided into the imperial measurements of acres, roods and perches) for the plots was a total of 21 acres, 1 rood and 27 perches
  • From this, a total of £1, 4 shillings and sixpence was to be paid to the vicar and the same amount to a Rob Lewis, esq. who was an impropriator (a lay person in possession of church property)

Here is the link to the online tithe maps held at the National Library of Wales: https://places.library.wales

and also links to the tithe map and apportionment for Thomas Thomas can be found here (map): https://places.library.wales/viewer/4644165#?cv=0&h=1576a&c=0&m=0&s=0&xywh=7522%2C17345%2C3233%2C1493

and (apportionment): https://places.library.wales/viewer/4533109#?cv=28&h=1576a&c=0&m=0&s=0&xywh=1219%2C1251%2C3110%2C1305

If you have Welsh ancestors who were farmers from 1836 onwards, have a look at the tithe maps. They information they contain will not be found in any census and can really enrich the story of your ancestors- I know it has enriched mine!


Last weekend at Family Tree Live (in London), I finally realised an ambition that I have held for quite a long time now. I finally joined the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS). Not only does it have a brilliant acronym, but it allows me to register the research I have begun on a particular surname.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with One-Name Studies (an ONS for short), an ONS is a branch of genealogy where you research only one particular surname, instead of following all of the different surnames in your own family. Generally, someone’s interest in a particular surname comes from its occurrence in their own family, and this has been the same for my surname of choice.

I have chosen to research the surname ‘Rowsell’ and its variants ‘Rousell’ and ‘Rowswell.’ During my research I will be looking for all mentions of the surname in the records available, which will be the same sorts of records that I would use in conventional family history research. This will mean using Civil Registration Births, Marriages and Deaths indexes first, followed by Census records. Then I will move on to other records such as Parish Baptisms, Marriages and Burials and Will and Probate records. There are so many possible records though (some that might be specific to particular parishes) that it will take me some years to complete my research.

My hope for this research is to see how my family of Rowsells connect to the other families of Rowsells in the Somerset area (although my research will end up being world-wide too). There seem to be a lot in Somerset, but not so many in other parts of England. I will also be able to preserve it for people to see in years to come and perhaps find out the origins of the name and the distribution of the name too. Some people perform a socio-economic on their data too, but I have a long way to go before that step!

My study is only at the beginning right now, but it does have a page on the GOONS website: https://one-name.org

Just type ‘Rowsell’ into the search box and you can see my page. If you have the surname ‘Rowsell,’ or are related to any ‘Rowsell’ families, I would be happy to hear from you- there are contact details on my ‘Rowsell’ page.

If you are interested in undertaking an ONS yourself, then have a good look at the Guild’s website.

In the meantime, I will get on with my ‘Rowsell’ research and keep you posted!

Finding records in odd places

Sometimes it’s amazing where you can find genealogical records. They are not always located where you think they are.

Back in December I was at a local pub (the Queen’s Arms, Corton Denham, Somerset) and much to my surprise, I saw what looked like property indentures hanging on the wall. There were about 6 in total and only some of them concerned places in Somerset; one was actually from the manor court records of Frekenham in Suffolk.

They all seemed to be in very good condition, seeing as though they looked to be from the 17th and 18th centuries. When I asked where they were found, I was told that the documents were bought at an auction for decorative purposes. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop examining them the whole time I was there!

The documents themselves are full of names and other interestQueen's Arms Corton D_4ing genealogical information, which just goes to show that you can find genealogical information anywhere and in the most unlikely of places. They even look pretty good framed on the wall.

So, when you are out and about, keep your eyes open as genealogy is everywhere!

Queen's Arms Corton D_5