Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.
FindMyPast have unveiled a new look in a bid to make family history researching feel more personal to their users.
The popular family history website FindMyPast has rebranded itself, switching from the familiar blue, green, and white colouring to a dark blue, dark cream and orange instead.
Gone are the leafy greens reminiscent of most family tree sites, and the focus really does seem to be tuned up to the personal and human level. The ‘my’ is emphasised here in an orange handwriting (and there’s a ‘you’ on some screens too), and there’s new hand-drawn logos to help build on that personal, less corporate feel.
I guess with their expansion into building trees, sharing tree-to-tree info, and their recent venture into the highly competitive DNA testing, they need their audience to feel like their site is about personal information – ‘your’ family history.
Change is always hard to embrace, and maybe you’re outraged. Maybe you don’t really mind. I’m in the latter camp. If this change helps shift the emphasis towards encouraging users to build trees, then I think that’s great.
Another popular family history website has a lot of ’empty’ users that have no trees, and seemingly no interest in researching – having been brought on board by a DNA test. If these changes by FindMyPast can help turn that tide for them, then I hope it does.
In their own press release (issued today), FindMyPast reveal that through research they’ve conducted, 12% of Brits can’t trace their family tree beyond their own parents, and 38% can only trace it as far as their grandparents!
I think I was lucky, as I’d already got beyond those % by the time I was about 7yrs old.
Here’s the new look site in desktop (logged in)
And here’s the site on mobile (logged out). Note the ‘my’ changes to a different handwriting for some views.
For those of you like me who have been following this site for a long time, you might remember how their homepage looked back in 2009.
For those of you with longer memories, you might remember FindMyPast arriving as a brand in 2003, having previously been 1837online.
When Sarah Brightwell’s curiosity got the better of her, it would lead her to an untimely end.
Sarah Brightwell was just 15 years old, when on 9th January 1844 in the village of Mepal, Cambridgeshire, and whilst in the employment of Mr William Brown (probably her maternal uncle or grandfather), she stumbled across a pile of firewood ready for burning.
This wasn’t just any old firewood though, it was the remains of an old wooden bureau that hadn’t been used for years. It was broken up and ready for burning to keep those cold fenland draughts at bay.
Amongst the debris though, was a small packet that caught Sarah’s eye. She picked it up – it’s contents much like a sugar. Sarah’s curiosity overcame her, and she tried it. It was arsenic.
Arsenic in the home
Arsenic was common in the home, and sometimes turns up in old wallpaper or wood preservatives. It may also have had a use as a poison for pests – so buying it was fairly commonplace. It is lethal if ingested.
If taken in large amounts, it can kill within hours. Numerous criminal cases have been recorded, but when in the home it could sit in its clearly marked container – there was even a market for ornately labelled containers – much like coffee and sugar jars today.
In this case though, we have to assume that Sarah did not check the packet for writing, or that she could not read. Upon it was written “Arsenic – Poison”. She took about a teaspoonful, experiencing “violent retching and pain” shortly afterwards, and “died in a few hours”.
Her death certificate, which was fairly common in that it was written for a child during the 1840s, has a full ’cause of death’ column, reading:
“Died from the affects of arsenic inadvertently taken by the deceased without any motive or knowledge of the effect”
Hugh Robert Evans Jnr, Coroner.
Sarah’s death hit the news, with the inquest appearing along two other terrible tragedies from the same Coroner’s session.
The jury, after a long investigation, were:
“fully satisfied that the poor girl, who was of very simple character, took the poison without any motive, and without any knowledge of its nature and effects, and returned a verdict to that purport”.
Inquisitions in the Isle, The Cambridgeshire Independent Press, 1844.
The newspaper inquest story ends with the line “The bureau had not been used for 30 years at least”. I hope it was swiftly burnt.
As for the other two cases in the inquest, both were for people who had burnt to death, one a 76 year old Elizabeth Kimpton of Ely, and the other happens to be another one of my relatives, Mary Hawkins, aged 10 years. Her story will save for another time.
Day One of the first ever The Genealogy Show at the NEC BIrmingham has ended, but what is the show like? Well, here’s my review…
I’ve been looking forward to The Genealogy Show for ages now – just one of the family history-focused UK events to step into the void left by Who Do You Think You Are? Live as it closed its doors in 2017.
The lush green carpet welcomes you into the venue, a refreshing positive colour and one that befits those lofty boughs that form our tree obsession. Straight away you’re met by the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine team and the team at LivingDNA on their stands. A quick glance beyond their welcoming faces shows you that the “big two” aren’t present here – with no dominating giant Ancestry stand, or elaborately themed FindMyPast stand. That’s fine… we know who those two companies are, and where to find them (maybe RootsTech?). I’m wondering how many people are drawn to these events because they want to see them specifically.
Beyond these first two welcoming stands is a spacious hall – not quite the size of WDYTYA Live was – probably about 2/3rds the size. However, the space is welcome, and it’s comfortably filled with our friendly local history societies, and smaller family history related company stands.
Some familiar friends are here – MyHeritage, the Railway Museum, FIBIS, the National Library Of Wales, and the GOONS. Pen & Sword, and stands with genealogy supplies are missing, which is a shame as they usually run some great deals (particularly on the final days of these kind of events).
Theres a lot of chairs, perfect for resting those feet (put your pedometers on, you’ll be surprised), or for those wanting to rummage through notebooks, or digest the arrival of a new piece of information or research strategy.
An Experts section is on the left as you come in, perhaps a little enclosed and therefore a bit hidden (half-height screens would have been better) but the free programme (yay!) has a handy floorplan to help you find it, and the lecture arenas, which are also enclosed – so no sneaky listening in!
If you’re here for a wander round, hoping for inspiration you might not find enough for a whole day, but if you’re here to see a lecture (you can still buy tickets on the door), or to get help from the society stands or experts, then I think you’re going to have a great time.
Behind the scenes of a genealogy sleuth
I pre-booked two lectures for Friday – the first being author Nathan Dylan Goodwin talking on ‘Novelising Intrigues In Genealogy’, and this was a fascinating behind the scenes insight into how Nathan got hooked on genealogy.
Like me and many, he got hooked on it as a young teen, and he explained how that inspired him to begin writing, eventually leading to what is now a highly successful genealogy crime series starring character sleuth Morton Farrier including books Hiding The Past, and The America Ground. His son now has a double-glazed tree-house, so things must be doing alright!
I’ve been long overdue to see Gill talk, as I have 2-3 of her books, as she’s written on Cambridgeshire and Norfolk researching, house history, and crucially, writing your family history. I found this fascinating, with tons of practical advice on how to avoid issues and how to prepare, and there was a contrast in writing approach to Nathan – with Gill writing in pieces, Nathan writing in order. I suspect I’ll be like Gill… but with about a billion post-it’s and word files.
Day Two will see me attending the lecture from Michelle Leonard on ‘How To Make The Most Of Your Autosomal DNA Test’
In my experience, family history is one of the most friendliest hobbies I’ve ever experienced, and it’s a pleasure to see old friends and make new ones at these events.
It was great to see lots of family history societies attending the show, which for many was the second large event in just a few weeks. As ever, they were helpful and friendly, and it was nice to hear how they were finding the show. I even caved and bought another data CD from my ‘home team’ the Cambridgeshire Family History Society, with a nice show discount too!
While I don’t know if there’s enough space for Family Tree Live AND The Genealogy Show to both survive the long term, I’m simply pleased that they’re having a good damn go at it in these post-WDYTYA? Live years.
So far, I think I’m enjoying the show a little more than I did Family Tree Live, but we’ll see how day 2 goes. So, I’ll be back for Saturday, and hope to see lots of you there.
A review of the first ever Family Tree Live show at London.
Today was the first day of the first ever Family Tree Live show at Alexandra Palace in London.
The show is what felt to me like the first of the three contenders to being the ‘replacement’ for the now defunct Who Do You Think You Are? Live annual show that closed its doors after a long run in London and later in Birmingham.
For me, the journey to Alexandra Palace has a couple of changes that I needed to make on my train journey, rather than my direct route. On my trip today I befriended a traveling companion at Stevenage, when a fellow family historian from Lincoln asked me if it was the train to Welwyn. Discovering our same destination, we stuck together and talked about research and events we’d been to in the past. This helped my journey pass quite nicely, although it’s little more than an hour in total, ending with a nice walk up the hill along the edge of Alexandra Park to the venue. I think there’s a free shuttle bus.
The entrance is on the far side of the building, so if you’re attending tomorrow (Saturday 27th April), then expect to walk around the pretty Victorian facade, unless it’s raining.
Once in, get your printed ticket ready and you can make your way through to the hall, past a myriad of signs telling you to not take photos or film things without specific permission of the exhibitors. Ouch.
Stands, Space, and Seats
The first thing I noticed once into the exhibition hall was that there was plenty of space between the stands – a welcome addition after what had at times been a bit of a squeeze between stands at WDYTYA? Live. I arrived at about 10am and the show steadily increased in visitors over the next hour.
With this being a Friday, it’s hard to judge success, as many people may not have taken a day off work to attend. Fingers crossed that Saturday is a roaring success.
Like other shows, there were a large number of Societies with stalls – these are great for shopping some county data collections, or asking one of their stand experts for advice on county-level sources.
I headed over to the Family Tree DNA theatre and caught Donna Rutherford‘s talk on getting more out of an autosomal DNA test. Clearly a popular choice as I stood with others at the back.
Donna’s talk gave me plenty of things to think about in how to best use the data in my matches, but also ideas on what level of cM to draw a line after and put on the back-burner. I’ll definitely go looking for the extra tagging in AncestryDNA to help me manage these matches as I have 6 tests, and 1 more to go.
Speaking of DNA tests, whilst there were plenty of talks, the big WDYTYA? Live test company, Ancestry were not present. FindMyPast weren’t either. Whilst this might be a disappointment for many (if only because you’re looking for more cheap test kits or subscription deals to buy), it did mean that other companies like MyHeritage, LivingDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA had a chance to shine instead, and I saw plenty of people at these stands.
I spent some time at the Railway Work, Life & Death Project stand, as they’re busy documenting railway accidents. Sadly, my Gt x3 Grandfather, James Martin‘s gruesome death at Black Bank, Cambridgeshire in 1868 was just a little bit outside of their remit, but I’ll be ready to hand over information if they ever get into the 1860s.
I also checked in on my annual genealogy show chums, Paul and Pam, to see how Name and Place is getting on. It looks like their exciting new project is about to be released into the wild, that will help researchers looking for data and information on the people in specific places – a kind of one-name study and one-place study resource. There also seemed to be a really nice link in with Ancestry for census images as supportive resources. Can’t wait to see it live!
The food was somewhat disappointing at the venue, with not a particularly great choice. The staff seemed to be somewhat in trauma when I tried to buy a tea. With Alexandra Palace being up on top of a hill, there’s not very much nearby, so apart from walking out of the hall and going to the venue restaurant, you’re stuck with a pair of sandwich and cake stalls, with tea and coffee.
I booked my show ticket online, which was really easy, but afterwards I realised that I needed to book my talk/workshop tickets too – and this was a separate system (of if it wasn’t, it wasn’t clear there were other tickets to buy when buying the main ticket), so I was left with chance as to which talks I could attend.
The free show guide revealed that nearly all of the Workshops were sold out at the time of print – these certainly looked busy, and for those that I spoke to who’d run one or attended one, they sounded like they were really useful.
The AGRA experts advice area was busy as usual, and I saw many familiar faces at tables giving advice. This is kind of speed-dating for family historians, with each expert offering practical advice on the visitor’s genealogy questions.
I also headed over to the The Postal Museum to talk about The Post Office Rifles, and I also stopped at the newly re-branded Family History Federation stand to chat to them about their work. I was delighted to be given this amusing badge, which I wore on the train home to much concern from my fellow passengers.
I’ve never been to a family reunion, but having been a family historian for… ugh… 24 years now (how the hell did that happen?)… perhaps everyone has been waiting for me to do it.
Having been going to shows like this for 10+ years, you get to meet up with familiar faces and meet new ones, and so whilst I saw my almost-as-distant-as-it-can-get relative Amelia Bennett, I also happened to sit down at a bench in the Village Green area opposite a woman reading through her notes.
She looked up at me, asked me if I was Martin.. and then introduced herself – as it turns out that she is a maternal cousin of mine that I’ve never met before. She recognised me as she’s a blog reader here and we’ve messaged each other before. I knew she’d be going, but this stroke of luck brought us together. We spent some time comparing tree notes on our mutual ancestor (my before heading off to our respective talks. She’ll be starting her own blog soon 😉
It was a delight to see that the show even had a royal visitor – yes, Her Majesty the Queen and Empress of India was present and, if I dare to say, was looking a very young and spritely 199 years old!
I only booked one day, but I’m curious as to how Saturday will fare. With 3 shows to pick from this year, I wonder which one the family historian (as opposed to the professionals) will choose to go to most.
I liked the ticket price for this show – it’s the cheapest (RootsTech’s UK debut is by far the most expensive), so that’s a positive, but it also maybe means it’s the smallest. However, the quality of the Society stands is unrivalled, as these local groups know their topic inside out.
The missing FindMyPast and Ancestry stands allowed others to shine (FamilySearch seemed the biggest), but I wonder if this might disappoint those attracted to genealogy by the tantalising TV adverts.
The atmosphere was friendly and positive, the venue surroundings were pretty, but a few more stands, and menu choices would really help this show out. I’d recommend expanding the Village Green idea (which I loved), and perhaps a few smaller short talk spots.
Favourite part: Meeting my fifth cousin, twice removed.
Least favourite part: Chips or sad sandwich decision process.
Overall, 3 / 5, and would consider visiting again next year.
So, it’s that time again where I pick out some particular things I’d like to achieve in my family history research during the next 12 months.
This is the 6th year that I have written Genealogy New Year’s Resolutions, so fingers crossed I will get to do some of them. Last year’s resolutions were not very successful, with life getting in the way of my research (how dare it!).
Still, without further a-do, here’s my resolutions for 2019:
1. Scan all my BMD certificates
This one is a carry-over from last year. I have a large collection of certificates, and there are many that are scanned, but not all of them. Last year’s effort was prompted by scanning them all and adding them as attached media in my MacFamilyTree software (putting the document right there amongst the data).
I realised that spotting the unscanned ones was hard, so I finally bought myself a pack of little green dots, and can now go through and dot them in the corner if/when they’re done – as each one is stored in a plastic A4 wallet. This will make this process much easier.
2. Get Talking
I do a lot of tech talks in my other life of working with search engines, but I don’t get to do talks about genealogy. I really want to change that – after all, I’ve been working in genealogy for about 23 years, and only about 7 years in my chosen tech niche.
I was recently voted by a lovely audience in Norwich as being able to clearly explain a really technical subject. I’ve had my eyes on the three big forthcoming genealogy conferences in the UK, and whilst two of them have already chosen not to have me on stage, I’m going to try pitching to the more techie one.
If this fails, then I’ll be looking to do some genealogy talks at smaller events in the area (let me know if you want to book me!). Fingers crossed!
3. Put the Littleport Society catalogue online
This one relates to my membership on the committee of The Littleport Society – a heritage society for the large fenland village of Littleport just north of the city of Ely. I’ve been on their committee since summer of 2015 (after 10 years doing their website), but now I’m working on digitising and cataloguing their collection.
I aim to get a searchable catalogue online in 2019 using Collective Access, in a bid to showcase the Society’s vast collection, celebrate the community’s history, and increase awareness of this history-rich area to a huge online audience.
4. Still start writing that book
Okay, ‘that book’ has been trundling along in my head for a long long time now, and I know that most people claim that they have at least one book in them. The stories I want to tell have begun to gain structure and so I need to put finger to keyboard and start writing them.
My mother, and first cousin twice removed (my late-grandfather’s cousin), have both already asked me to write things up for them about specific family groups, so it’s about time that I started doing this, and use those to evolve into a book.
5. Collect more photographs
This is one of my favourite resolutions, and it looks right back to what started my interest in researching – the faces to the names. From the loaned Victorian photos from my Great-Great Aunt that were on the dining table at my parent’s house in 1995, to the photographs emailed to me just weeks ago by my third cousin twice removed, it is wonderful to picture your relatives however distant. I want to print more of the photos as well as collect them, allowing me to build up a physical collection too.
Have you set yourself any genealogy research resolutions for 2019? Did you have any last year? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll stick with me in 2019. Happy New Year!
AncestryDNA have updated their data sets, resulting in changes to many DNA test ethnicity results. I tentatively log in to find out just how much duller i’ve become…
I remember unceremoniously dribbling into my little tube thing back in 2015, and encouraging my mother to do the same. We were both amused by the idea of being DNA tested, and finding out whether we might be Scandinavian.
When the results came back about 6 weeks later, we were pleased, and I took great delight in mocking my mother – a Daily Mail reader – that she was part Eastern European, and therefore every time she bought a copy of that rag, she was in fact hurting herself!
Over the next year, I also coaxed my father in 2016, my mother’s sister, my father’s sister in 2017 whilst she was visiting from the USA, and eventually cornered my sister and via team pressure from my parents, she did the dribble for our sakes in May 2018.
This gave me 6 sets of DNA results, but between the 5th and the 6th set, Ancestry updated it’s result data. This meant that for 5 of us, the DNA ‘Ethnicity’ of us all was about to get far “less interesting”.
Obviously, refining techniques in the galloping field of science is ultimately a wonderful thing. It’s the right thing to review how the tests are carried out and seek improvements to scientific accuracy.
It’s also ethical to update the test results when the accuracy is improved, but in doing so, for my family, it’s made us far less geo-genetically diverse.
Now, as I type, AncestryDNA have updated their data again. In doing so, it squeezes further on the final percentages of interesting little origins hiding in the DNA of my father and my paternal aunt, and removes some of the impossible results that my sister had been assigned – Caucasus and Native American – that none of us (who are definitely all related to her) showed!
I’ve gone from being 61% “Great Britain” in 2015, to being 100% “England, Wales & Northern Europe” in 2018. I’ve very sadly lost my Scandinavian and Irish genes, although my father and his sister have kept theirs respectively.
In what AncestryDNA give as ‘Migrations’, most of my family are listed as ‘East Anglia & Essex’. My mother and sister include ‘East Midlands’. Aside from Essex (tsk!), the rest fits perfectly with the paper trail.
Meanwhile, my results over at LivingDNA, where I uploaded my AncestryDNA test data to back in January 2017, give me a repeat of some of the regions. Their estimate is that I am 95.7% Great Britain and Ireland, and 4.3% showing up as Scandinavia on a map. This GB part sees East Anglia (where about 90% of my paper-trailed entire family history is from) leading the origins way at 53.9%, and South Central England (which covers Somerset and Devon) showing up as 15.4%.
Interestingly, the Somerset and Devon area, is where my Burnell, Babbage, and Evans families are based, and the Burnell and Babbage families repeatedly provide me with AncestryDNA matches. Interestingly, LivingDNA show me Ireland and in the wider view, Norway are covered – matching what I used to see from AncestryDNA, but what I still see in my father and his sister’s results today.
Dr Karl Kennedy and DNA Tests
The genetic data pool is getting bigger as AncestryDNA and LivingDNA break into new audiences.
AncestryDNA have regularly boasted about the X millionth ancestry tester, and in the last fortnight, they’ve had heavy product placement in the Australian soap Neighbours, and are currently running a long-lost half-sister plot line between veteran character Dr Karl Kennedy, and Magda Szubanski’s guest character Jemima. Magda of course, was subject to a brilliant episode of the Australian version of Who Do You Think You Are? (recommend you watch it!).
The different companies are still battling out the price war – with kits appearing in more UK High Street shops, and of course now Amazon.
Data scientists, like the scientists back in the DNA testing lab, are constantly evolving their methods, ethics, and techniques, to bring a clearer and truer picture to what we are.
I have one kit left, and I have some ideas who I could ask, but top of the list is my grandfather’s cousin, who is genetically closer to my Giddings and Tingey families than any of those tested so far. She’d also be the first person I’ve tested to have a different parent line, so I’d need to watch out for false leads.
Whilst I’m sad to have lost my fantasy ancestral tour list, and my parents have lost their over-dinner conversation opportunities, we should celebrate the science that strives to bring us truth.
I think I’ll cope with being less Scandinavian, and less Irish.
After all, I’m still exactly who I was before I dribbled in 2015.
A chance find of a 1914 postcard of mystery elderly newly-weds leads me to unravel their happy day, and a likely link back to me.
Whilst helping my father to clear out my uncle’s house in Little Downham last year, i found absolutely tons of photos, but amongst them were many that had belonged to their neighbour (and my grandmother’s best friend) Mrs Vera Buttress, who wrote her name on the reverse of each one – including this one.
I love this photo – an elderly couple getting married in 1914 – and so I kept hold of it.
Today I finally decided that I would spend a few minutes to see if I could identify ‘Mr and Mrs Symons’ in records. No. No such marriage.
This frustrated me somewhat, as having a photograph, turning it into a postcard, and printing these would not have been ever-so cheap in 1914. So it felt unlikely to have been staged for the April Fool Day date written on the front.
The photographer clue
The photo is a postcard by Starr and Rignall – well known photographers of Ely, so i checked for a marriage on 1st April 1914 in Cambridgeshire, with a load of variants.
It was FindMyPast that turned up the answer, and unsurprisingly I found them in Little Downham, hence why Mrs Buttress had it. I turned to my transcription of the parish records.
The bridegroom is given as Robert Symonds, 75yrs, widower, otp, son of Robert Symonds, lab. The bride is named as Mary Howlett, 84yrs, widower, daughter of George Bonnett, labourer. The witnesses were George Lythell and Eliza Ann Lythell.
Now, this became much more interesting – the Lythell surname is a local surname (and I have many in my family tree), but more tantalising is that I have two Howlett to Bonnett marriages in my tree already.
I then tried to find Mary on the 1911 census from 3yrs earlier. There was nothing that stood out as even mildly correct.
I decided to turn to the other end of their lives and see when the couple died – and so I checked Downham’s cemetery records. This gave me Robert as being buried in grave L20 on 6th April 1918, aged 80, just days after their 4th Wedding Anniversary.
I couldn’t find a Mary (apart from one in 1908, presumably Robert’s previous wife). Instead, there’s an Elizabeth Symonds buried there on 10th Dec 1920 in grave L77.
This was both puzzling and exciting – in that whilst it’s not the Mary I was expecting, if this means she was really Elizabeth, then that would very likely place her in my tree as the Elizabeth Bonnett, daughter of George Bonnett (and also matching the wedding register) who married my relative James Howlett at Mildenhall, Suffolk in 1859.
Scene at Little Downham
With this being a wedding of a couple of older people, I wondered whether the newspapers might have picked up on it, and sure enough they had:
The article confirms the Lythells, the studio photograph, but once again refers to the bride as ‘Mary’.
Amusingly it also refers to their first ride in a motorcar.
Out of curiosity, I wondered whether this grand occasion might have appeared in any of the Cambridgeshire photographic books I’ve bought over the years. A quick flick-through the first one I grabbed from my collection, led me to this:
This shows the couple again – clearly matched by their faces, and in a car as corroborated by the newspaper article, but here in The Archive Photographs Series: Ely (Chalford, 1997) they’re erroneously captioned with “A Little Downham couple outside the Minster Restaurant and Cafe on 1 April 1914. This photograph was taken after their wedding, a second one in each case; Mr Lythell was eighty-four and his wife seventy-eight“.
The ages and surname are incorrect (with Lythell interestingly being borrowed from the witnesses and best-man), but the rest of the detail matches, and even the style of ‘On the honeymoon’ writing matches that of the other photograph from my collection. I don’t have the original photograph of this, but I bet it too is a Starr & Rignall postcard.
So, the final piece of this jigsaw will be finding ‘Elizabeth’/’Mary’ in her first marriage to my relative James Howlett, and seeing whether between 1859 and his death (a date I don’t yet know), she uses one or either names, and that he has died by 1914.
Even if she proves to be someone different all together, I’ve enjoyed unravelling the clues, and sharing the happy couple’s day, more than 104yrs later.
My grandmother is highly unlikely to have borrowed this from her friend Vera because she knew that it was a relative – the ‘Mary’ shown in the photo would have been her great grandfather’s sister-in-law. I think it’s purely coincidence.
The reason I got this photograph out today was to collect up all these old photos that once belonged to Vera Buttress, and to organise a ‘handing over’ of them to their village history society… but it pays to just have a thorough look through such things because you don’t know what you might unravel with a little bit of research.
Today, it’s well known for its Christmas trees, Centre Parcs, and finally getting its sweeping A11 bypass on the way to Norwich, but back then, it was my world. We lived in a red brick former gatehouse on the East side of the village, and my playground was acres of swaying cornfields and pine forests. We’d take long bike rides to see our neighbours, and what seems unbelievable today, we’d run across the A11 to go to primary school each day.
A few years ago, I discovered that my paternal Brightwell family had also been resident at Elveden almost 200 years earlier, when my 4x Great Grandfather John Brightwell was born and baptised there with his siblings during the 1780s. A fantastic coincidence!
Another coincidence happened earlier today when I received an email telling me about a new BBC Four documentary, and it’s piqued my interest because it’s all about one of Elveden’s most famous residents.
Born in Lahore in the Sikh Empire (now Punjab, Pakistan) in 1838, Prince Duleep Singh became Maharajah at the tender age of just 5 years old after the death of his father. He would turn out to be the last Maharajah of the Punjab, who was taken into the care of an official of the British Empire. He even had Queen Victoria as his godmother.
He surrendered his Sikh religion and signed away his ancient kingdom to the British – a decision he would come to regret. Instead, he would become a wealthy English country gentleman and part of the social elite, with his own country estate at Elveden.
His estate drew large shooting parties, where the social elite including the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Duke of Leicester, Duke of Athol, and numerous others during the 1870s. He really was in with the heights of British society.
However, eventually his relationship with Britain turned sour, and he would eventually leave for Paris.
I haven’t seen the documentary yet myself, but I look forward to it. The promo blurb I’ve been sent reads:
This is a documentary about the last Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh, who was wrenched from his mother’s arms as a child in the 1840s and put into the care of an official of the British Empire. Growing up in a colonial enclave in India, the boy king abandoned his Sikh religion and signed away his ancient kingdom to the British – decisions he would come to bitterly regret. He moved as a teenager to Britain, where Queen Victoria became his godmother. Duleep Singh lived most of his adult life here as a supremely wealthy English country gentleman, part of the British social elite. But, in time, his relationship with Britain turned sour. This documentary retraces the journeys of Duleep Singh and his family: from the royal palaces of the Punjab, to royal palaces in Britain, to his own English country estate, Elveden in Suffolk, to bohemian Paris. The programme uses recently re-discovered letters by Singh, letters and diaries written by those whose knew him, extraordinary photographs and surviving artefacts. We interview historians to get at the motives and inner life of Duleep Singh as he set out to recover his Sikh heritage and turn his back on his colonial past. This is a story from the age of Empire about someone whose life was defined by those historic forces.
The Maharajah’s legacy in Elveden
Whilst my lifetime did not overlap with the Maharajah (he died in 1893, in Paris, and I arrived 80 years later), the impact of his time in Elveden surely did. When he arrived, the Georgian house was vastly upgraded to become a huge hall dressed in Italian styled exterior and complete with some intricately marbled Indian-styled rooms. Staff were installed and with them came their families all needing to be housed in houses like my childhood one.
I was really fortunate to tour the inside of Elveden Hall just days prior to the Christie’s Auction of the house contents in 1984, along with my fellow primary schoolmates. I remember it being huge, and beautiful, even though he had not lived there for decades.
I also remember being dared to ring the doorbell by my sister once on a walk past the front door (it was a daily route to school, right by the front door). I pressed it, heard it ring inside, and then some clunking sounds. I ran for cover behind my mother, and a bewildered caretaker and his daughter emerged.
The Maharajah also helped to upgrade the parish church in 1869 to cater for all the extra residents and staff in the village (it was further extended in 1904). The church sits just across from the hall, and it’s here where he is buried with some of his family.
I returned there in 2012 for my second cousin’s christening.
Whilst I can’t see any of my Brightwell ancestors still resident in Elveden around the time that the Mahrajah was resident, it’s clear that this Sikh Prince went on to have a huge impact on the place they once knew; the place I knew and loved; the British Empire; and the Sikh community.
Building your tree online is easy with just a few clicks… and therein lies the problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love Ancestry, and have been a happy member for many years now, but as a seasoned user, I do know that there’s danger at every turn.
A good family historian will consider every scrap of evidence, not just in its own right, or its contributing source, but also in the wider context of the family.
I’m very lucky that I have paternal and maternal families where 90% have lived within the county of Cambridgeshire, England for almost 430 years. The luckiness comes in the ease at which I can research these two (and occasionally intertwined) trees simultaneously, often with both sides appearing alongside each other in census returns and parish register entries.
This means I understand probability, the likeliness of the location of a marriage, baptism or burial for example. I have of course made mistakes, but those have made my detective skills better.
For those few branches that have crossed the border into foreign lands (ie: Suffolk and whatever lies beyond), I join the ranks of millions of other family historians – using online tools because it’s more convenient than chasing archives, and having to be a little more open to extra checking of records and taking unexpected turns.
However, I’ve spotted a few things that confuse, and that might be a ‘risk’ to your family tree if you don’t just stop for a second and consider what you’re seeing.
Those Member Family Trees
Okay, no-one knows your 4th Cousin 2x Removed like your 4th Cousin 3x Removed does, but if you’ve ever clicked on that ‘Member’s Tree’ hint you’ll know what I mean – instant ‘tree’.
Let’s take a look at my 6x Great Grandmother, Mary Cropley in Ancestry.co.uk:
Wow! 10 Member Trees – this sounds great!
As the hint suggests, “This hint compiles information from 10 other Public Ancestry Trees”. Great – look at that, all of those details in the summary match mine, this must be right! Building this tree is going to be nice and easy…
Now, it’s dead easy to just click a few times on those tick boxes and magic happens, and you’ve got your tree updated nicely.
But…Err… where did those matches go? Suddenly, Mary Cropley is Mary Collis, and she’s married someone else, had different children, and has moved to the wilds of Oxfordshire.
Am i wrong?
No, because I’ve seen the Ely Parish Registers, and know that the details I have are correct. From that “hint [that] compiles information from 10 other Public Ancestry Trees”, not one of them was correct.
The information you see in the summary is actually the information that you have entered/added, not a summary of the matches from the members trees that you’re about to see – so it’s kind of leading you towards a false hope of success.
Of course you want to find matches, but what I’m actually finding is none when I read through the summary. This is kind of a poor user experience.
The other record that really frustrates me is the Select and Christening indexes. It takes too many clicks to actually discover that you’ve almost added a load of incorrect data to your tree.
Here’s my 6x Great Grandfather (and Mary’s husband) William Beasley…
In his hints are these two matches, and it’s exciting to see William Beasley named here…
..hmm, this seems okay, but now there’s some more info, which actually seems to match anyway, so let’s click ‘Yes’ to the ‘Does the William Beasley in this record match the person in your tree?’ question….
Except that as the eye glances down, it starts to go wrong…
This is a Mary Ann Beasley match, not William (he’s the father), so the date is wrong, and in fact, the person, place, and county is wrong too.
I could easily have tapped on the Save button, and added this wrong information to my tree, rather than scrolling down to the bottom to find the wrong information.
What Ancestry need to do here, is give some more information in that summary box – state that the match is because William is noted as a ‘Father’, and perhaps give the child name and date, or at least the location name, therefore saving me 2 more clicks before I find the mismatch information.
The correct information for Mary Beasley, is that she remained in Ely, Cambridgeshire, for her entire life – baptism, marriage, and burial.
I’m wondering how many other users bother to check this over before just accepting it?
Where the Hell is that?
Whilst I don’t have an example to illustrate it here, if you’re an Ancestry user, i’m sure that you’ll be familiar with numerical place names (e.g. “110910345, East Sussex, England” or completely nonsensical place names that Ancestry appears to have merrily absorbed (like “Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, Utah, Russian Federation, USA”).
After about half an hour of posting this particular blog post, I found another glowing example: those pesky time-traveller ancestors.
In this example, my 5x Great Aunt Ann Pavett (née Yarrow) appears to have some extraordinary genes that I’m not sure I’ve been handed.
She travels through time.
Here’s some more delightful Member’s Trees matches, and this time, the fault has spread (I’ve obfuscated the tree owners simply to stop Matthew Hopkins II from being unleashed).
But what’s this… I’ve discovered a child I didn’t know that she and her husband had…. 60 years before she was born.
And so the rot spreads. I look forward to meeting Ursula Pavett’s mother to check my family tree notes against.
Some simple date checking here would help to stop nonsense like this from appearing, and more importantly from spreading.
Keep Ancestry Tidy
User added and imported data is going to be hard to clean, fix, or even verify as it goes in – because yes, that 4th Cousin 2x Removed’s child, will know more about them than me.
You’ve got so many files, softwares, record sources with varying levels of granularity and data fields, and users with independent approaches, that the whole thing must be an ugly tangled bowl of spaghetti behind the scenes at Ancestry.
I’m sure their UX team and data teams are peddling as fast as they can , but as fiction easily slides seamlessly in to eat up the facts without remorse, I’d love to see some kind of partnership to do data verification for places, or even just a few more interface improvements.
Outside of family history (yes, there is such a place!), in the land called ‘work’, I spend a bit of my time tidying up Google Maps – demolishing spammy and incorrect locations, and getting fake and paid reviews removed. It’s slow, but it’s damn cathartic. An affectionate term of ‘Stop Crap On The Map’ has emerged for this, so I feel we need one for Ancestry’s rubbish info.
How about ‘Stop Debris On The Tree’?
I’d love to hear your stories of crappy data, accidental boughs, and alternative slogans in the comments!
As ever, thanks for reading, and happy tree surgery,
The project, to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War, would breathe life back into all those brave men and women who served in the First World War by allowing the public to add details to their records.
This enabled those long lists of rank, surnames, and service number to start seeing information about their births, their photographs, and their life stories being added.
I have added photographs and information to several of my relatives, and one relative (a distant cousin) Frederick Vernon Cross even made it as one of the people on the home page.
This week, an email came through to announce that the project is entering the final year of the first phase, and that there is just one year left to add more valuable accompanying information, with submissions ending on 18th March 2019.
After this date, the site will become a permanent digital memorial to those brave people who served in a terrible war, for us to remember and research for the future.
I still have a few relatives to find on the site, but this reminder will set me on the path to correct that. I suggest you do the same.