More thoughts on Family History.
When I began researching my wife’s family history it seemed like a good idea at the time. We found less than two hundred and fifty names living around the world. I had completed the immediate family line within three weeks of starting a search. Although my wife’s line was now Welsh, I ended up in Gloucestershire where the line went back to 1740 in the village of Westerleigh. Possible leads took us further back to 1450 but these came later after the Internet became available. We travelled far and wide in the United Kingdom to meet anyone who might be interested in this families’ history and dig deep into the County Record Offices archives, finding in Bristol, a local descendent who was in touch with their distant relative in South Africa. We later travelled even further to Australia and New Zealand to meet more descendants of those who had emigrated to Australia and New Zealand.
Much of the information gained came from the work of the Mormon Church. They had filmed most of the Church of England parish records and produced a work known as the International Geographical Index. This was a great help in getting back up to three hundred years of church records. We could build on from baptism, marriages and deaths. But as with everything you come across it was not perfect and at times could be confusing. But that is not for discussion in this small area of my work.
I completed my wife’s family history in 1997. Then I thought about doing my own family line. I realised that I knew practically nothing of my parents’ families. Two paternal aunts had lived locally that I knew of and my paternal grandfather‘s funeral, early in WWII, I could remember, but he had not lived locally at the time of his death. My maternal grandparents and two maternal aunts I also knew of. So where do you start. There is a well known suggestion that you should start at the beginning but that does not apply to researching family history. One needs to know all your live family members and extract from them (sometimes it seems they help reluctantly) all that they know. So you are really starting from the end and when you dig deep you later find out why they were reluctant to spill the beans on the family members.
However, this little chat is not about family skeletons and how to cope with them when you find them but a thought on how accurate is the material that you are working with. So much of it was written many years ago and now is hard to correct if not impossible. My aim is to build a sort of simple history of the RAYNER families of Halstead, Essex. Well whatever suitable description can be given. I have created over 80 pages of family trees from as far back as possible. I was given a big start in 1997 when Stuart BARKER generously gave me the RAYNER side of his family history and much more. He had also been communicating with a New Zealander who did research in the Public Record Office and found the accuracy in the records left much to be desired. This was probably due to the fact that in ancient times who expected people in the distant future to be looking back at the simple life of people in the 1500 to early 1800’s.
So trying to find accuracy from old records for ordinary parish folk was never going to be easy. Where the RAYNER families were baptised by different clergy over a number of years the strange local accents induced the clergyman, making the record, to misspell the name. There may be as many as fourteen different spellings for RAYNER! So I use the one spelling for my area and make a comment in the notes that it had been whatever the clergyman put. Other parts of England do have a different spelling which has been passed down for centuries and therefore has become a standard accepted for that area.
By 1831 the government of the day realised that they needed to have improved knowledge of the country than before. Something improved on that given by the “Doomsday Book” format. Someone came up with a census format. This was first carried out in 1831. An improved version in 1841 and increasingly improved as it became accepted and seen to be worth doing every ten years. These entered ‘The Public Record Office’ at Kew together with the BDM’s which had previously been held at various addresses such as ‘Somerset House’ and ‘St Catherine’s House’. They were made accessible to the public and you could purchase copies of the documents needed to trace the members of your family through a limited history.
I purchased the Essex Census from 1831 to 1901 on CD/DVD. The quality of many early records had deteriorated in storage before they were digitised. But they are worth having to work from. Which brings me to the point of this conversation, accuracy. To try and find where my family members had moved to I listed all the Essex RAYNERs and variants onto a spreadsheet which made for easy sorting if required. From there I placed them into the Brothers Keeper program. I could then construct family trees, again on a spreadsheet, to complete a single family history line. For a long time all went well. Then, having completed my ‘line’ back to 1763 through the census records and baptismal records (a.k.a. the B.D.M.’s.) it came to a shuddering stop.
So I started to build family trees from information in Wills. You can get a lot of names but not all the details of the B.D.M.’s. It then becomes a bit of guesswork from 1500 until some records with more details become available for continuity. Even in the mid-1800’s I cannot find probable deaths of children in this one family tree I am concentrating on. Why does the census have a different spouse for this one chap in all the details collected over the half century. The family then appears not to be in one census but the head of the house in the 1871 census has only minor differences but a whole new family! The popular saying ‘back to the drawing board’ comes to mind. Start from square one again to prove that either I have the wrong details or the enumerator put in the wrong details. Or my generous donator Stuart put in the wrong details to his computer program. It makes for interesting detective work if you have the patience. Human beings created the records and human beings have made mistakes ever since. Now some blame the computers but we all know the computer records are a human input. GIGO !!