Saturday, February 19, 2011

Where is Maria Jones?

Maria JONES was my great-grandmother. She married my great-grandfather William WALTERS on Christmas Day in 1885 in St. Silas church in the Lozells area of Aston (Birmingham). She and William had 7 children, including my grandfather Cyril.

Maria is an enigma. According to a cousin of my father (she was Maria's eldest grandchild), Maria was Jewish, born to a mother called Selina or Sarah LEVY. The story had it that Maria's mother was ousted from her Jewish family for marrying outside her religion. None of Maria's children were raised Jewish.

Maria's father, according to her marriage certificate, was Levi JONES, a pearl button maker. I have searched for a marriage of a Levi and a Sarah but cannot find one.

I have Maria in the 1881 census. She is a boarder with the Eli WORWOOD family. I have also found - I think - Levi JONES, pearl button maker, living in the same neighbourhood as Maria. He claims to be married but there is no wife on the census with him, although he does have several lodgers. Levi was with his wife before 1881.

And that is all I can find about Maria in the records available. I have searched the birth records of Aston and Birmingham RDs for all of the Marias born around 1860 - none of them have Levi as a father.  I cannot find Maria in any census before 1881, although I can find Levi JONES and his wife and children. I have followed their families backwards and forwards looking for some connection to Maria. I have looked for a Sarah or Selina LEVY in the censuses to no avail.

I have searched the 1851 religious census of England - that was momentarily exciting because Levi JONES' parents and siblings were listed there as Jewish, however correspondence with the compiler of the census records revealed that they had been placed on the list because some of the children had names that were also common in Jewish families - they have since been removed as there is not one shred of evidence that the family were Jewish and plenty of records indicating otherwise.

I have searched for wills of Maria and Levi to no avail. I have scrolled through microfiche of the parish registers of Aston and Birmingham looking for a stray Maria. I wrote up the story of my brick wall and it was published in Family History Monthly with comments from their expert. I have tried to find out more from my Dad's elderly cousin's son but sadly she passed away recently. I have had phone conversations with another elderly cousin who can add nothing except a vague memory of the name Solly Diamond in connection with Maria. I  have gone off on wild goose chases through the census records following a Sarah LAVEY but can find no connection there either. I have plotted the addresses for Levi JONES and scrolled through census returns in places nearby. 

I obtained a mitochondrial DNA sample from my Dad's female cousin whose mother was Maria's daughter. My reasoning there was that if the DNA sample indicated a haplogroup common amongst Jews, then that might lend some credence to the rumour. However it did not, thereby ruling nothing in or out.

I haven't found a single clue to Maria's existence before 1881.

Levi JONES died in 1886 - he hanged himself in the wash-house as seen in this entry in the Birmingham Daily Post for 22 July 1886. The record from the coroner's inquest sadly does not survive - would it have contained a clue?

Levi JONES's wife was Catherine DEVEY - is this story just a confusion of the names LEVY, Levi, and DEVEY? On the other hand, the name Maria appears frequently in Levi's family tree.

Does Levi JONES have any real connection to Maria? Is Maria Levi's illegitimate child? Was she adopted or fostered  by Levi and his wife ? Adoptions at that time were informal so there are no records to search there. Was Maria the daughter of Levi's wife, or another family member? Levi and Catherine had a daughter Jane who was probably a year younger than Maria - I think I have ruled out the possibility that she and Maria are one and the same but perhaps this is a mistake.

Here is Maria about 1915 with three of her sons in Leicester - my grandad Cyril is the young lad on Maria's left.

I return to Maria from time to time in the hopes that a clue will leap out at me - one day . . .

More recent research has turned up Maria and her husband William Walters as witnesses to the marriage of Levi Frederick Jones and Harriet Lucy Ford at St. Andrew's church, Bordesley, 7 Sept. 1884. Levi Frederick is the son of Levi JONES (above) - thought to be Maria's father. This is the only sighting that connects Maria to Levi, and seems to confirm the family connection. So it looks increasingly likely that Levi Jones WAS Maria's father. But no records show this and Maria is still elusive.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Looking for military history on Ancestry

In the last post we looked at searching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Another excellent source for military service records is Ancestry. If you are lucky, your search will turn up a wealth of information. Here is an example, using my cousin twice removed, Robert Harry WALTERS.

I knew from census data that Robert Harry was born around 1882 in Birmingham. The 1891 census had given Robert's name as  "Robert H. W., while in 1901 he was listed as "Harry".FreeBMD confirmed that his name was indeed "Robert Harry" in the birth registration in the June 1882 quarter in the Birmingham Registration District. In the 1911 census, Robert is listed by both names and lives with his wife Florence Ada and his son Robert Harry in Leicester at 185 Humberstone Rd.

Because of Robert's age I thought it likely that he would have served in World War I so I searched the WWI Military Service Records on Ancestry (you have to have a paid subscription to see the details). I was rewarded with 22 images covering the records of Robert Harry WALTERS born about 1882 of 35 Manington Street.

The original images of Robert's service record show that he signed up in 1915 as a 33 year-old. At that time he was 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed just 125 pounds and had a 33 1/2-inch chest. His physical development was listed as "fair". He had been vaccinated in infancy. He had several moles, and under the heading "Slight defects but not sufficient to cause rejection" he was described as having stiff big toes. Not an outstanding physical specimen, but good enough for the army where he joined the Bedfordshire Regiment at the rank of Private.

His wife Florence is given as next-of-kin, and it lists her maiden name (PINSENT) and the date and place of their marriage (12 April 1909, 35 Mornington St., Leicester - note the mistranscription by Ancestry of Mornington as Manington). It also shows Robert and Ada as having three children and gives their birthdates - useful! Their son Robert Harry had two brothers: James Arthur and Horace.

Robert was wounded twice in action in France in 1917, injuring his arm and face. There are more details of minor events in his army career, and it appears that everything in his file was included in the imaging because it contains blank pieces of paper as well as the actual records. Robert Harry was one of the lucky ones - his injuries were not too severe and his record is otherwise uneventful. He survived the war and was demobilized in 1919.

The military service records are very informative; sometimes there are pages of details that tell you all kinds of things. You might find that your ancestor was drunk and disorderly and prone to all sorts of bad behaviour! The service records will also give you the regimental number and this is useful if you have someone with a common last name - if you happen to know the number already you can pin down the right record on Ancestry. Having the number makes it easier to check the British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards. These are another source of information available on Ancestry - Robert's shows nothing other than the Victory Medal and the British Medal (these were given to everyone).

After the war, Robert and his family stayed in Leicester. I have traced the descendants of his son Robert into the 1990's - still in Leicester.

Searching The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website has indexed records of over 1.7 million Commonwealth military personnel who died in the world wars. It also contains records pertaining to civilians who died as the result of enemy action.

If you are searching for a relative born between 1880 and 1900 or so and can't find him, it's worth searching the CWGC to see if he was killed in the first World War. Similarly, you can search for relatives who were lost in WW II. The details often give age and sometimes give details of parents and address. This is useful for confirming you have the right person. The results will also tell you his rank, unit or regiment, age, date of death, service number, and information about the cemetery in which he is buried.

The service number and regimental information is also very informative in helping you find more military service records. We'll deal with this in another post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Genealogy software

One of the best ways to organize your family tree is to enter all of the details into genealogy software. Once you have more than 20 or 30 people in your family tree, keeping track of them on paper is not nearly as efficient as using software. The software gives you easy access to both the overall tree, and all of the branches and little twigs.

There are various programs available but there is no need to spend any money. One program that has everything you need for a PC is provided free by the LDS Church. It is called PAF (Personal Ancestral File). To download the current version, go here. Follow the instructions to install the program on your computer. As you use it, the program will automatically create a backup copy (it will ask you to update as you change the file) so if you lose the file or make mistakes you can reinstall your backup without losing your data. PAF allows you to view individual people, families, family lines, and so on. You can add pictures and other information about your relatives, and you can create and download reports that are compatible with MS Word etc. It is easy to use, and there is loads of free advice available if you have questions!

PAF is not available for Macs - you will have to do a bit of research to find something that you like - try this link for more information.

Sites like Genes reunited and Ancestry also allow you to store your family tree data. However, using software such as PAF gives you more control over your data and is free of all the ads that will accompany the commercial websites. As well, the latter tend to be a lot clunkier to use - more clicking and page-loading needed.

Using Google Streetview to see where your ancestors lived

One of my favourite uses of technology is to use Google Street View to look at the houses where my ancestors lived. I use the census data to give me a street address, and then Google to find the house. My grandfather Cyril lived in Muriel Road in Leicester in 1911 - he was 5 years old at the time. Here is what his section of Muriel Road looks like today - quite similar I would think, except for the cars, satellite dishes, and wheelie bins!

To find a location go to Google Maps and type in the address you want in the search box. When the map appears, click on the yellow man (follow the blue arrow below), and hold the mouse button down while you drag the yellow man to the marker on the map that shows where your address is.

Drop the man on top of the marker and the street view will appear. You can then use your mouse to view the street in 360 degrees, and you can move up and down the street.

In England, the street view coverage is excellent - you can go all over the county. However you will not find coverage of parks, waterways, etc - it really is a view of streets. There's something quite amazing about being able to see where your ancestors lived - many of the old buildings still stand in the villages as they did hundreds of years ago. Have fun!

The 1911 census

At the moment, the 1911 census is the only one of England not available through Ancestry. You can search and view the 1911 census at Genes Reunited, findmypast, or the official 1911 census site. No matter which method you choose, you will have to pay to see details and the original images. You can get subscriptions or buy credits to any of these sites.

The 1911 census is the most recent that we have access to. The 1921 census will not be available for another 10 years. One of the nice things about the 1911 census images is that you can see your ancestor's handwriting - on the previous censuses we see only the enumerator's handwriting. Unlike previous censuses, the 1911 asked women to report on the number of children born to them, and the number of living children. Additionally, married couples were asked how long they had been married, making it easier to track the appropriate marriage registration using FreeBMD. Middle names are also more commonly reported on the 1911.

Rumour has it that Ancestry is going to include the 1911 census in their offerings later this year. That will be nice, as the search engine for the 1911 is not as nice to use as Ancestry's. Let us know how you get on with the 1911 census.


Search tips for using Ancestry to find census details

One of the most useful sites you have to pay for is Ancestry. Ancestry has all kinds of records for England (and other parts of the world). In this post we'll talk about how to use the ancestry search engine. You can find Ancestry at,, or - it is all the same company.

As with FamilySearch, Ancestry has both "old" and "new" user interfaces. We prefer the Old Search for Ancestry because you can use wildcards in the placename when searching census records, etc. Also you can search more efficiently because you are able to refine the search without going back - in New Search you have to go to another page to refine your search and this takes longer and is annoying.

You can use Ancestry without being a paid subscriber but you won't be able to see the details of the results or the original images (except for a few free databases such as the 1881 census). You can use Ancestry for free at either Gibsons or Sechelt public libraries - unfortunately you have to be in the library to do this.

When searching on Ancestry you can search all of the records at once or one database at a time. We prefer to search one database at a time, and usually open one browser tab for the 1841 census, one for the 1851 census, and so on. This allows you to move easily back and forward through time while following the same family. Ancestry has census taken in England from 1841 to 1901 (one every 10 years).

When searching in the census databases, you have the option to put several bits of information into the search: names, birthplaces, place of residence, approximate birth year and so on. We like to tick the box for "Exact Search" because you have more control over the information you are specifying in the search and you get fewer irrelevant results.

If your initial search for a specific person does not turn up what you are looking for, start removing information from the search. For example, leave out the parish and just include the county - sometimes people listed their birthplace as the parish near to the one where you think they should have been born. Broaden the range for birthyear in case the age is not quite right. Leave out either the first name or last name. Use wildcards for names in case there are variations in spelling. For example, I have seen Walters spelt or mistranscribed as Watters, Wallers, Walter, Wauters, Walltres, etc - if you use W*l*t*r* as your search or even Wal*, you will get a lot more hits to look through but you will be more likely to capture wild or incorrect spelling. Also, do remember that historically, spelling has been very flexible and you cannot assume that how you spell a name now is how it was always spelt. Look for phonetic spelling! When you can't find someone it's often because the names were mangled by the enumerator and/or the transcriber.

When you are an Ancestry subscriber you can see the image of the original census pages and therefore can check the spelling for yourself if a result seems promising. (You can save a copy of the image to your computer as well.) As a last resort, put minimal name information in - e.g., search for Har* Wal* when looking for a Harriett Walters, and then look for names in the results list that must have been mistranscribed such as Harnet Waltus. You can then check the original yourself.

If you can't find the person you are seeking, try searching for another family member, especially a sibling with a more unusual name. You can also leave names out completely and search for anyone born in the parish you're looking for, born within a particular time frame (or just use a first name). Of course this tactic doesn't work for larger towns and cities because you may have thousands of hits to scroll through. Or - leave out the location altogether and search by name - again this is probably only an option when the names are not extremely common.

Finally, if you can't find someone in a census, look for the family in the census before or after. And remember that when there are 10-year old children in the family, that is a good clue to where the family was 10 years earlier.

In another post I'll talk about searching in the 1911 census. If you have any tips to add, or any comments, please let us know!

Using FamilySearch (used to be IGI)

The world's largest collection of genealogical records is held by the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. The LDS is currently rolling out a new search engine, with greater access to records than before. The "old" search was conducted on the IGI - the International Genealogical Index. The IGI was a massive compilation of transcribed and indexed parish records from all over the world. Parish records include baptisms, marriages, and burials (although there are far fewer of the latter indexed in the IGI). The LDS has microfilmed many but not all of the parish records in England from 1538 onwards up until civil registration in 1937, with the post-1837 records receiving more scattered coverage. The IGI also includes "member-submitted" records, which meant that individual church members could also send in their own data - however these records are notoriously unreliable. The IGI is gradually being replaced by a new, enhanced search engine that covers more records than those on the IGI - we'll deal with the new search in a minute.

To search the IGI, you will need both first name and last name of the person you are looking for. You also need to know the general area (county will do). You can get around the necessity of having to enter first and last names by including the batch number. The batch number refers to the identity of a set of records; for example, a set of marriage records from a specific parish in a specific time period has a batch number that identifies it. Fortunately, you don't need to look up the batch numbers - there is a very useful tool developed by Hugh Wallis that allows you to select the parish, time period, and type of record you want to search - you then type in just the surname and get everyone's records with that surname in that place at that time. Go here to see links to batch numbers for all of the British Isles and Canada and the USA. To search for records of parishes in England, go here.

The IGI is a wonderful resource, and if you are lucky enough to be searching for a place that is well-covered, you should find several generations of ancestors.

I said earlier that the IGI is being slowly replaced by a new search engine. To learn more about this change, see this article on the FamilySearch blog. Many people find the new search much more difficult to use. I don't know if the LDS intends to remove the IGI - hopefully not. I recommend you try the new search and see for yourself how you like it. The main advantage to the new search is that it includes more records. When you use it, pay attention to the location and the type of records you are looking for - if not, you will think you are searching for records in England and then  will wonder why it is returning results in Texas or New Jersey.

The LDS is currently in the midst of a massive effort to recruit people to index original records - you download the images to your computer, index them using an online form and then send them back. There is a wide variety of records available to index: census, parish records, civil registrations, and others. Last year volunteers indexed 185 million records. This will all be available to search for free using the new search engine. I have been a volunteer indexer, and it is quite interesting to read the old original records. It also contributes to the vast resource that the LDS provides for free.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking for civil records using FreeBMD

FreeBMD contains the indexes to the civil registrations of Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales from 1837. Coverage is excellent into the 20th century – more recent records are being added (transcriptions done by volunteers). 

You can restrict a search to a particular registration district or county. If your search does not produce what you are looking for, try entering minimal information in the search boxes - perhaps just names and county and a broad time period, or just surnames without first names. The image above is an example of a search for a marriage of an Alice CURTIS in the Dec quarter of 1933 to the September quarter of 1934, without specifying any other information in the search.

After 1866 the age at death was recorded so this is useful in nailing down the birth year.

Unfortunately the indexes after about 1911 do not show middle names in full, just initials, so searching for someone with a middle name won't produce any hits for records after this period. In this case, you can still find middle initials, so for example, if you were looking for a death of a Robert John MacAdam,  you could search for Robert J* MacAdam and that would find the Robert J's after 1911 and the Robert John's before 1911.

After 1912 the mother's maiden name was shown in the birth index, so you can use this when searching to find siblings of your ancestor by entering just the surname and the mother's maiden name.

If you think something may have been mistranscribed, you can view the original image of the index page by clicking on the eyeglasses icon.

You can search the same indexes that FreeBMD covers on - ancestry's coverage goes into 2005 or so (FreeBMD is only currently into the 1940s so ancestry is better for living people), but is not quite as flexible in its use of wildcards. After 1969, the death indexes include the date of birth - currently this is only available using ancestry.