Book Review: Tracing Your Ancestors through Local History Records by Jonathan Oates

Review of Tracing Your Ancestors through Local History Records by Jonathan Oates
Tracing Your Ancestors Through Local History Records: A Guide for Family Historians by Jonathan Oates

Tracing Your Ancestors through Local History Records: A Guide for Family Historians.  By Jonathan Oates. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 908 Darby Road, Havertown PA 19083. $29.95. 2016. xv, 148 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

This book is not for the beginner who is looking for ideas on how to trace their ancestors. Rather it is the for the individual who has already been researching their ancestors, possibly for years, and has names, dates and places, but does not know a lot about their ancestors. This book is for those wanting to flesh out their ancestors, learning more about their lives and times by exploring local history, not just family history. The book encourages and guides the individual to study the history of the locality; whether that is a county, city, town or parish. All of our ancestors were influenced by the immediate society in which they lived, worked, played, traveled and worshipped and by the friends and neighbors who surrounded and supported them. This book is designed to guide you to learning more about the lives of our ancestors and the society in which they lived.

Interestingly, the book begins in a great place with a brief overview of English history, noting especially how the relationships between the crown, government, church, society and industry were changing over time. It is a good framework on which to add your own increasing knowledge about the locality on which you choose to focus. The next four chapters focus through broad categories on some of the types of record that will be encountered: books and journals; photographs and illustrations; maps and plans; and newspapers. These records are covered in broad strokes, but it is enough to get the reader thinking about where to look and what to be looking for in their locality. The next two chapters address where to be looking for these records – local archives and libraries, plus national and regional repositories. Here a researcher will find the expected suggestions, but it the less than obvious that adds value here, such as the records of the town clerks; parish vestries; parish councils; quarter sessions; county councils; committee minutes; civil defense; school records; clubs; businesses; property records; parliament; ecclesiastical organizations; and many more.

Not all local history can be found in books, libraries or archives. The researcher is encouraged to visit the area and see the place for one’s self. However, it is better to have gotten some of the guidebooks first so that you know what you are looking for and at when one finds the things that make the place unique or the same as other places. The following two chapters highlight the value of other sources such as oral history and ephemera, plus outline what may be found in museums, local and thematic.

The book concludes with an overview of the origins and development of local history, highlighting the movers and shakers over the centuries that have shaped this fascinating field.

The book does not deal with any group or type of record in depth, but does get you thinking about what might exist for your locality and provides guidance about how and where to go looking for the records. If you want more depth on a specific aspect of local history that resource is likely to be included in the good but select bibliography. This book does a good job of thinking how and where to go next, to get beyond the names, dates and places of family history.

Digital Microfilm at TNA – changes coming – Army Lists as example

Digital Microfilm at TNA, currently Free, but changes are coming

Given my last post about the indexing of WWI war diaries, I was in this post going to explain how to download the war diaries that had already been scanned and were available as part of The National Archives website. I had downloaded war diaries in October 2013, but I can’t do it now. I thus spent the week learning a little more about what is happening regarding digital images at TNA.

Firstly, I learned that the war diaries are in the process of being digitized at a higher quality. They will then be repackaged, improved and put online again. I suspect with a different fee structure.

I also learned by reading the minutes of the TNA User Advisory Group that changes are coming to the Digital Microfilm currently available online for free. It is the Army Lists in WO 65 that are specifically mentioned in the minutes. I confirmed by contacting a committee member that changes are coming. Specifically WO 65 will be removed, repackaged and put online for a fee. Nothing was disclosed about what the repackaging what look like, what the fee would be, or when this would occur. It was suggested that if I wanted copies of the Army Lists for free that I should do it soon.

To get to the complete list of Digital Microfilm click here. This will take you to a description page and a long list (getting shorter) of digital microfilm that you can download free from a variety of record groups. Scroll to WO 65 – Printed Annual Army Lists. The published army lists begin here in 1754 with WO 65-1 and end chronologically with 1878-79 WO65/163. However, at the end of the chronological lists are an additional five films of British American Half Pay lists and Foreign Corps. What is different about these printed Army Lists is that they are the ones that were actually used by the War Office. These volumes are annotated, often indicating changes for you to look for in the following year.

The published annual Army Lists is often the first primary source you will use to reconstruct the promotions for any Army Officer.  It is thus a valuable source. I am not suggesting that you download every volume available. These can be very big files. What I am suggesting is that you may want to consider downloading the volumes for any specific period in which your ancestor/s may have served. In addition to that I am also downloading sample volumes from other periods so if I later find or suspect another family connection I can dip into the lists for free. I understand that there will be a charge in the future.

Have a look at the rest of the digital microfilms to see what others may be of interest to you and get them now. Some of them are fully indexed in the Discovery catalog – WO 76 – Records of Officers Services. As an outsider this would be another obvious one for a commercial partner to index, slice and dice and of course then charge you to access the record.

Have a look at the Digital Microfilms, which are currently free and see what might be beneficial to your research.

Letters of 1916: Creating History

Letters of 1916: Creating History Project from Trinity College Dublin

Letters of 1916: Creating History

Do you have letters to or from anyone in Ireland written in 1916. Then you may want to share them with the Letters of 1916: Creating History project at

Quoting from the website’s home page – “The Letters of 1916 project is the first public humanities project in Ireland. Its goal is to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising (1 November 1915-31 October 1916).”  In the first two months of the project over 500 letters were uploaded from both national institutions and private collections. The Letters 1916 team is identifying, digitizing and preparing hundreds more for uploading.

The project is being coordinated by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and they are calling upon members of the public to upload old family letters and photographs to the new digital archive. It is intended that all the letters, transcripts and images will be launched in 2016 for the centenary of the East Rising.

Even if you don’t personally have letters to share, you can get involved by volunteering and transcribing some of the letters. You can even choose which types of letters or topics interest you. The letters are arranged by categories – Easter Rising Ireland 1916; Art and literature; Business; Children; City and town life; Country life; Crime; Faith; Family life; Irish question; Last letters before death; Love letters; Official documents; patronage; Politics; World War I – 1914-1918. Some of the letters are very short and easy to transcribe. One letter I looked at from the World War one category was a simple thank you for bread received, so even the apparently mundane letters are included if they fall within the desired time period.

One of the keys to this project is that it will highlight the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of the ordinary Irish man and woman, along with what was happening officially.

The project was officially launched 27 September 2013, at Trinity College Dublin. If you would like to read the full press release you can do so at

Book Review: Scottish Catholic Family History by Andrew R. Nicholl

ScotlandsPeople Catholic research
Scottish Catholic Family History: A family historian’s guide to Catholic Parish Registers and Cemetery Records for Scotland and the Bishopric of the Forces by Andrew R. Nicholl

This post came as a result of questions in a lecture I gave this morning on Effective use of ScotlandsPeople Website at the Federation of Genealogical Societies Annual Conference in Ft. Wayne Indiana.

Scottish Catholic Family History: A Family Historian’s Guide to Catholic Parish Registers and Cemetery Records for Scotland and the Bishopric of the Forces. By Andrew R. Nicholl. Published by The Aquhorties Press, Columba House, 16 Drummond Place, Edinburgh EH3 6PL, UK. 2011. 115 pp. Illustrations. Softcover.  £10.

The Catholic Parish Registers Project began with a focused plan – to digitize and index all pre-1855 Catholic parish registers that existed. Digitization continued beyond this date because volumes continued beyond 1855, post-1855 registers had been deposited at the Scottish Catholic Archives; plus the records of the Bishopric of the Forces, Dalbeth Cemetery in Glasgow and Mount Vernon Cemetery in Edinburgh were fully available. If the records survive in the Scottish Catholic Archives they have been digitized, though there may be more modern records still in the Catholic parishes around Scotland. The latter have not been sought after to be added to the collection at this stage. This collection is much more extensive that the photocopy collection of Catholic registers that exists at the National Records Scotland (former National Archives of Scotalnd).

In the collection there are the usual parish registers of births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials/funerals, each with 100, 75 and 50 years closure periods respectively to protect privacy. Other items in the collection, all with a 100 year closure, include: confirmations; confessions; converts; communicants; status animarum (“state of souls” – often a list); seat rents; and sick call. The book begins by describing all the different record classes, itemizing what they are likely to contain and showing an example.

The largest section of the book is the detailed lists of the records.  The lists are arranged by location of the parish and the saint to which it is dedicated. For each location it identifies the type of register, dates covered and the collection reference at the Scottish Catholic Archives. There is the Missions and Parishes Collection, plus the Individual Missions Collection and the researcher needs to check both lists for complete coverage of any given locality.  For the three major Catholic cemeteries in Glasgow and Edinburgh that are included there are internment registers, owners’ registers and lair registers, all of which can provide different information. The Bishopric of the Forces records are the Catholic records from the British military all over the world, unfortunately many of these still fall under the time closure rules.

The last section in the book is a directory, with maps, of Catholic parishes in Scotland. The directory in table format provides: name of the town and dedication of the church; the unitary authority; diocese; date the mission was founded; date of the church building. For most researchers, unfamiliar with Scottish geography, it is the maps locating the churches that will help us identify the parish records worth investigating for our ancestors. One additional aid included is a comprehensive Latin-England forename glossary with all case endings making it easy to distinguish the Latin variants for Patrick and Patricia or Terence and Teresa or other similar male and female names.

If you have searched ScotlandsPeople and found your Catholic ancestors you are fortunate. The bigger problem is if you have searched and not found them – is it because they are not there, the records have not survived, or you are just looking under the wrong name. It is this book that will help you identify the time or record gaps in any specific parish. This book is therefore very important for anyone working on Scottish Catholic ancestry.

Tim Ellis Interview

Tim Ellis is a name you may not recognize. He is the Keeper of the Records of Scotland and Registrar General for Scotland.  In this important role he could have an important role in terms of what happens in Family History in Scotland. Mr. Ellis is interviewed in Issue 26 of Broadsheet the online publication of the Scottish Council on Archives.

In the interview one question asks if he sees particular opportunities for cooperation across registration and archives services in Scotland. One part of his answer bodes well for the future – … ScotlandsPeople is a genuinely great service. And ScotlandsPlaces is also a growing resource. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen of the work of other Scottish archives in the digital sphere, too – but I do wonder if there’s scope for us all to work a bit better together to overcome some of the barriers and maximise the reach and benefit of what we’re doing.

Another question revolves around what he would do with an unlimited budget – … I’d probably start by recruiting more archivists, conservators, digital curators and data specialists. Of course I’d welcome more involvement in digital facilities and capability, not just the NRS bur for the Scottish research and archives sectors as a whole … But primarily success is driven by people – people with the right skills, training, knowledge and motivation – and investment there is seldom wasted.

I know that Mr. Ellis will be restrained by budgetary issues as any government position is, but I hope that some of his vision of cooperation and making records accessible online comes to fruition. If it does we will all benefit. Mr. Ellis’s activities will be worth watching.

The back issues of Broadsheet are available online if you want to learn more about what is happening in Scotland’s Archives.

Irish Treasure Trove in the News

We can’t get through the Irish celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day without a good Irish story. Here is an excellent article from the New York Times about the personal collection of a fishmonger from Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland that is being cataloged by Sinead McCoole. It’s a job where where she set aside six weeks to catalog and find the best for an exhibition. Now eight years later she is still working on what has become known as the Jackie Clarke Collection with more than a 100,000 items focusing on the retelling of Ireland’s long struggle to free itself of British rule.  The collection includes “fragile maps and rare newspapers, political posters and editorial cartoons, books, diaries, photographs, films and even a scrapbook.”  It’s an interesting story and worth a read. You never know what you might find in your Irish research.

Thanks to Beth Finch McCarthy for bringing this to my attention.

Migration Museum, Adelaide – Puts part of my own life story in perspective

My recent visit to the Migration Museum in Adelaide helped me put part of my own life story in perspective.

From its founding to 1982 Australia has been encouraging and often subsidizing emigrants from the British Isles, especially those with desirable job skills. In 1974 I was a beneficiary of one of these schemes. The Australian government had a program where British college students could be interviewed and apply for summer jobs in Australia. The government would find jobs for the students and then subsidize the flight to Australia.

I did things a little differently. I found my own job in Australia. I then went for an interview, explained that I had found myself a job in my field, and asked if they would subsidize the flight to Australia. They were more than happy to. I thus became one of approximately 100 students who went to Australia for the English summer. I spent two months working underground on a copper and gold mine, working for Peko Mines in Tennant Creek, in the middle of the Northern Territories. I then spent a month touring around Australia learning about this large country.

Visiting the Migration Museum made me appreciate that my journey to Australia, supported by the government, was one way in which they were still encouraging young adults with needed skills to immigrate to Australia.

Migration Museum, Adelaide – A place worth visiting

Entrance to Adelaide Migration Museum

Adelaide’s free Migration Museum — A great place for family historians to visit.

The museum reflects the diverse cultures of South Australia, displaying objects that have a story to tell. The early galleries present the history of early migration into South Australia, highlighting the differences with the other colonies, especially no convicts.  At the same time the museum puts the movement towards a white Australia into a national context. The white Australia policy became official in 1901 after the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia. Britain was unhappy with the white Australia policy because it was a system that denied equality to people within the Empire. To avoid a blatantly racist policy the Australian government introduced a dictation test, adopted from one in use in Natal, whereby a person could be asked to write down or translate a list of 50 words in any European language. The test was used primarily to keep out Asians, but also many Europeans, because any language could be chosen for the test.  Displays pointed out that no one taking the test after 1909 passed, and it remained in use until 1958. Things are very different in Australia now, but it does help to explain the high preponderance of British Isles connections among Australian families. The museum also has displays on the many different ethnic groups that have come to Australia since the ending of its “white policy” rules.

I also enjoyed an exhibit covering John McDouall Stuart’s journeys into the Australian outback in the 1850s and 1860s, when he attempted to find a route from coast to coast. The hardships experienced in the central desert from lack of water, food and sometimes hostile aborigines created a number of failures. He did succeed in 1862 and upon returning to Adelaide he was welcomed as a hero.

Family historians will enjoy visiting this small Adelaide museum dedicated to migration.