Tips and Tricks

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Genealogy Records

by Frances Heales

There are three sorts of documents that are helpful in genealogy: Church records, Official Records and Family Records.

My interest in family history was sparked by finding very informal record: a card in my paternal grandparents’ home. It wished’ cousin Janey and Jim a Happy Christmas from Janey and Arthur’. I knew that Jane Sophia (Harris) Cornish and James William Cornish were my father’s parents and that Uncle Authur and Janey were Mother’s relatives. After hunting through various official records, I discovered that, my mother’s mother, Julia Caroline Flynn, and Elizabeth Jane Flynn were sisters. It turned out that there were other connections, their father John McPherson Flynn was a soldier in the British Army. James William Cornish was in the Royal Navy, he and Uncle Arthur, who served in the Army, fought in the Boer War.

I am going to talk specifically about English and Irish documents, as I think they may not be familiar to you, you may need “away” records to find your immigrant ancestors.

The Church of England was brought into being in 1538 when Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon because their only living child was a daughter, Mary, who could not succeed Henry. English law only allowed legitimate male heirs to inherit the throne. Henry and some of his allies petitioned the Pope to allow him to marry Anne Bolyen. When the Pope refused, Henry declared himself Head of the Church of England, a Protestant Church and married Anne, who bore him a daughter, Elizabeth. Anne was beheaded and so were most of the Lords who had signed the unsuccessful petition to the Pope. One of our members is a distant descendant of one of those Lords.

The oldest records that most of us have access to are Church records. Before most people were literate, members of the clergy kept parish records, not only of Baptisms, marriages and Burials, but they were involved in wills and probate, through consistory courts. These courts have been replaced by secular Courts set up under the Probate Act and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. One of the most valuable features of these early church records is their accuracy. The officiant at a baptism, marriage or burial knew the people involved, he may well have baptized both bride and groom he married, and he may well bury their parents.

If you attended a Church of England you were eligible to marry in that church if you had had the “banns” read at the Sunday Service on three consecutive Sundays before the marriage. Banns were designed to prevent people who were already married from committing bigamy. Some banns books are still accessible. Note that publication of the Banns did not mean the marriage took place. If the bride and groom lived in different parishes the banns were read in both and a certificate would be sent to the officiating minister. You could apply to the Bishop in whose see the church was situated for a special licence, which was granted when the marriage had to take place quickly. This was often the case in war-time where the groom wanted to marry before he was deployed overseas.

Different Churches in different Countries collected their records in slightly different ways, but the principle remained constant: create the document at the time and place of the event and then, having given a copy to those involved, send a copy to a centre where they were kept analyzed and kept with all the records of that diocease.

During the late 18th Century, some people, often clergymen, started to become interested in preserving genealogical documents, they and their friends started copying parish registers, many of these transcripts were printed and published. The Mormon Church followed this example and approached churches to get permission to copy the registers. The transcripts were filmed and could be studied by members of the public at a Mormon centre. This was an enormous help to genealogists, but had two main faults, one not all churches would allow their records to be filmed, the Roman Catholic Church was absolutely opposed to this procedure, and the Mormon church would accept data from anyone regardless of its authenticity. If you look at Mormon records today you will often see a batch number associated with the information, this indicates that the record was transcribed, probably from the original register. This Mormon initiative which produced the IGI has morphed into is free online. If you want to access a record that is not on line, you can ask for the film to be sent to the nearest Mormon centre,(Caribou), where you can study it There is a fee for this service. I haven’t been to a centre in some time but in London the centre would transfer the information to a floppy disc (I said it was a while ago) and sell you the disc. That was particularly useful if you wanted to look at a family, as the last names are in alphabetical order.

Civil Records

Civil records relate to births, adoptions, marriages, divorces and deaths. They include censuses, enlistments in the military, petitions for citizenship, passport applications, border crossings and arrivals in the USA. They also record licences to hunt and fish, drive a car, and sometimes appearances in Court. There are also deeds recording real estate transfers. We are going to look at censuses, births, marriages and deaths as they are the most accessible to us.

I should say that when I started genealogy, computers were not available, only paper or microfilm records and you had to go to the place where they were kept to access them.

The earliest English census still available was recorded in 1085. It was ordered by William the Conquer after his conquest of Britain in 1066. The information was sued to assess taxes. The book is now available free online: Google Public records, Doomsday Book. Charles II imposed a Hearth Tax between 1662 and 1674 and William III taxed windows on windows in 1696. The tax was repealed in 1852. France had a similar window tax between 1798 and 1926. Only the names of the property holders were listed.

The first English census that is available in modern form is the national census of 1841. Like other censuses it lists the ages of those living at time of the census in each household. While the head of the household was asked to fill out the form, enumerators often had to write down what they were told. When the data was transferred from the papers left with householders, the transcriber was instructed to round up the ages of people over 15 to the nearest five. This was not always done, so the ages in this census are somewhat unreliable.

The newest is 1911. When the modern census was introduced the government to publish only aggregated figures, not detailed information, until a century after the enumeration.

I recommend printing out a blank form for each census, it shows you what information was asked for on each occasion. I have an ancestress who was recorded as telling successive enumerators that she was born in a different town in Kent. They all began with L, I have not found her, and there are another 24 villages or towns with names beginning with L in the County.

Some censuses ask the date and place of birth, some of mine looked unlikely but the eldest daughter of one of my Cornish ancestors who lived in Canterbury was born in Portsmouth and baptised in Portsmouth Cathedral, which seemed unlikely for the child of a poor militia man. However the Cathedral was the church for all the military in the area. I should say that British subjects who were baptized or married abroad are entered in British records by the military chaplain or consular official. They are in separate registers.

The only Irish censuses that are easily accessible are those for 1901 and 1911. They cover the whole island, which was governed by Britain. One interesting feature of the two censuses is the additional sheets which relate to farm buildings and the materials used in building the house.

There are several different classifications used in Ireland that were not used in England. The smallest division of land is a townland, this is a small plot of land with maybe three houses on it. Before there were streets with numbers, the townland was your address. Will extracts say’ Hugh Mc Caughan of Brackney.’ The next class of place names is the Parish, in this case Culfeightrin, this may be a Roman Catholic, Protestant or Civil parish, then Barony: Cary, which refers to the English lord who had held the property, then the District Electoral Division: Fair Head, Poor law Union: Ballycastle, and County: Antrim.

These divisions are used to group data, and you may need them to find your ancestor. The 1911 census includes instructions for filling out parts of the forms.

The best source of information to cover the missing censuses is Griffiths’ Valuations. These records of the owners or renters of property in Ireland were made between 1848 and 1864. While they do not include details of the families of the owner or renter, you may be able to work that out from other sources. The National Library of Ireland has these records, they are releasing Catholic Church records in July 2015. This library several other classes of useful records. Confusingly PRONI, the site for public records of Northern Ireland has some records for the whole island. It is free to search, but like most libraries charges for paper copies.

Most countries have national archives and are gradually putting the information on line, for example is the English site, is the Irish site. This Irish Family History Foundation site is

In preparing this talk I discovered that making a Google search for the topic you are interested in will usually produce several sites that have information, they don’t all agree, so you need to be careful in your choice. That may take a while but it is better and cheaper than buying a book which does not meet your needs.

The most popular, on-line site is, this is a subscription site, but most of the information is available (free) on-line, at your public library. All the on-line sites are adding to their information, new sites appear quite frequently. So if you don’t see what you want today, try again next week.

To demonstrate to you that I am in the 21st century, I will end by suggesting that you google Genealogy sites on line and decide which site best fits your needs. Good hunting.