Posts Tagged ‘family history’

A recent piece of great news for Scottish family historians and also academic historians was the launch online of Scottish kirk session records. Kirk sessions oversee a local parish and its congregation, including in the past in particular disciplinary matters, and also poor relief payments. As a result the kirk session minutes and accounts are a goldmine for historians.

I’ve used these records on and off for 40 years. Some are included in the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, where the kirk session minutes were mixed up with these. But most kirk session records are held separately. For a long time they were in Edinburgh, in the National Records of Scotland (or Scottish Record Office as I long knew it). But increasingly now the manuscript original records are being transferred, where possible, to local archives.

Some years ago the kirk session records were largely digitised, and made available on computer to visitors to the National Records of Scotland, or visitors to a number of satellite archives around Scotland. But this still did not open the records in a widespread way to researchers who could not visit in person. Instead the model was still essentially based around going to Edinburgh.

Now, thankfully, that has changed, with earlier (pre-1870 ish) kirk session records now largely viewable online at ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. The digitised images can be viewed for free, but are not indexed by name. There is a charge (2 ScotlandsPeople credits = 50p) to download and save a page image to keep. Though often this would not be necessary, especially when browsing.

The user interface is a somewhat mixed bag. Even getting to the kirk session material can be a slight challenge, finding it in the ScotlandsPeople website alongside all the other records – most of which are indexed and searchable by name. Once in the right section there are various search options for the kirk session material, to find the right record set. Though again these are somewhat problematic, e.g. searching for place “Hawick” doesn’t find Wilton parish (the northerly part of Hawick town) which is named in the system as “Wilton (Hawick).

At the moment the biggest downside with the system is that not all available kirk session records from the target period are online yet. More are being uploaded over time, but at the moment you often search, and find no records, or very incomplete ones. Note however that there is also the issue of patchy survival of kirk session material full stop, so often the manuscript originals are lost.

On plus when you do find a parish with records the documents can be extremely rewarding, though this does vary by place. For example for Melrose parish, which I have researched extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is kirk session material online going back to 1642.

Opening a page to view it will vary in what it shows. Often you are presented with two manuscript pages side by side. Luckily there is a zoom function, though it took me a while to find it! It is a little clunky to use, zooming you in greatly initially, then often you will need to zoom out a bit and pan around sideways to find the part you need. Only then can you start properly reading the bit you want.

Of course the real joy is in the content in the records. Genealogists can uncover ancestors’ irregular marriages and get clues re illegitimate births, with mothers typically called in for questioning, and often the father’s name revealed. You may also strike gold re an ancestor getting entangled in another kind of disciplinary dispute with the censorious session members.

For academics the records have immense potential. For anyone undertaking an academic study of a given area any kirk session records from the same place and time are well worth a look. More generally the records give a powerful insight into social conditions, and are a rich source of information on topics such as migration, welfare and poverty, weather, family structures, social values and morals, and the impact locally of wider events.

I can’t write this without commenting on the issue of accessibility. For nearly two decades I have been too ill from my progressive neurological disease to travel to the archives in Edinburgh, or to spend time in local archives. The early digitised version of the kirk session records were effectively cut off from me and anyone else who couldn’t travel to access them. This new online access is transformative, and for me personally will open up multiple avenues of academic research, as well as family history research. So thank you, NRS/SP, not least for making these free to view! I just hope the range and depth of records will continue to grow.

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Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

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As a family historian with some English connections I was interested in the 1939 English and Welsh Register which went online recently at FindMyPast. But having seen the 1939 Register entries for my Scottish ancestors I didn’t expect to find anything terribly new or exciting. So I wasn’t even sure if I’d check it out promptly. But sure enough I did, being still up as the site went live shortly after midnight on Monday 2nd November 2015.

Sadly the site was very flaky then, with lots of pages failing to load. I was getting an awful lot of error messages, at various points e.g. initial search results, trying to preview an entry, trying to buy credits/unlock an entry, trying to view an image. Usually reloading one or more times sorted it out though. And I don’t seem to have inadvertently spent my credits twice. Fortunately site responsiveness improved over the coming days, and it’s much more stable now, but that wasn’t a good way to launch a website, especially when people were paying pay-as-you-go to access the information.

The positive thing is that after battling through the page loading problems I was very surprised by how much useful information I got in this. Examples include:

  • Finding my great-grandfather in Leeds, getting valuable info on him. He was estranged from my granddad so we didn’t really know anything about him circa 1939, even if he was still alive. Now we have an occupation, address, the fact his second wife was still alive, and this has helped me to hopefully track down his death a few years later.
  • Learning that my husband’s great-grandparents on a farm had 2 land girls staying with them.
  • Discovering that my husband’s Norfolk grandfather was in the local fire brigade in 1939, just like my granddad in southern Scotland.
  • Finding my other Yorkshire great-grandfather with what looks like wife #3, and then using that info to finally trace their marriage record in FreeBMD.

I was also impressed by how full the pages are. Even with lots of entries closed (like my Dad’s, aunt’s, and my husband’s uncle – all still living, in their 80s) you get names of lots of neighbours at the time. Which is really nice. I emailed the relevant pages to my octogenarian relatives, so they can see some neighbour names that might bring back memories for them.

On the downside I still can’t find my husband’s paternal grandparents in the 1939 Register. Goodness only knows quite how they’ve been recorded and/or transcribed! Maybe I’ll find them in future though.

But yes, pleased with what I found. Far more useful than I thought it would be – I didn’t honestly expect it to tell me anything new or terribly interesting. I found the information I got worth the price I paid to unlock the households, but that’s mainly because of unexpected information I found. Getting birth dates for relatives is great, but I’m not sure that would have been enough for me. It’s the extra detail, like war service information and some unexpected genealogical clues, that really helped.

Having said that, I’m not sure that the 1939 Register is being that well promoted by FindMyPast. In particular they aren’t making clear to genealogists that people born after 1915 who are not known by the Register authorities to have died cannot be searched for in the site. There are an *awful* lot of very experienced genealogists out there who have tried to find, for example, parents or other fairly recent relatives in the new database. These people would have been in the 1939 Register, but are too young to be released this time. But the information in the FindMyPast help pages isn’t clear about this at all, not explaining in simple terms that these people cannot be searched for online at the moment.

I’m also not convinced that FindMyPast appreciate just how useful the information in the right pages can be for genealogists. I’ve found references to local war service – e.g. land girls, fire brigade, and air wardens – on every single page I looked at. In some rural areas there were numerous entries in that column. Two of my husband’s ancestral households had useful information there. As a family historian that’s just the type of detail that adds colour to the family story. But sometimes it’s cropped too severely, and cannot be read properly as a result. I think this information is one of the strengths of this register, isn’t as rare as FindMyPast think, and should be better supported via the website.

So some concerns still. I’m also not quite sure how useful this site will be to me as a one-name studier. I’m researching the surname Cavers, and it’s not clear yet how useful it would be to me to extract references to that name (77 or so). Even using the free preview information I’m not sure it would tell me that much new, with so many redacted child/recent entries. And it’s not cost-effective for me with the current pricing structure to unlock all those households. So yes, not sure. I think the site can be great for genealogy, but more personal family history than one-name studies. One-place studies may be different, though my two are in Scotland, so I can’t use this site for those. Time will tell!

EDIT: As a late postscript to the post, after I posted this earlier today the death certificate of my Leeds great-granddad arrived in the post. It reveals that he had more children, with wife #2, the wife who refused to take care of the older children of his first marriage, which meant those children had to go into a home, and broke off all contact with their father. So my Dad now has a new aunt and uncle to add details of to the family tree, as well as lots of cousins. We may even be able to get in touch with living descendants. I’ve been researching my family tree for 30+ years, and it’s remarkable to make such a new discovery, so close to my generation, after all this time. I wouldn’t have been able to trace my great-granddad’s death reliably, were it not for the 1939 Register going online, letting me find him, and be sure it was him with the right birthdate (day, month and year). And because that gave me his address, which was also where he died in 1946, I could confidently link things up. Magic!

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