Wednesday, 14 March 2012

New Job

I have been approached by a national genealogy company to be their Devon researcher.
I hae completed the first batch of jobs for them, and hope to work for them in the future on Devon projects they cannot complete from their base in the east of England.

Persistence Pays Part Three

A man of almost the same name was listed as a passenger aboard a British ship involved in rescuing Republican soldiers and high-ranking fugitives from the Fascists at the time of the surrender of the Republican government in 1939.
To prove this was my client's father, I needed to find this man listed in Spain with the birth date I had found on the English death certificate.
This was where my contact in Spain was essential. A letter to a military archive eventually brought the information, after a six month wait.
The Republican soldier's birth date was one day different from my client's father, and his name was the same, except in England he had dropped the customary Spanish double-barrelled surname.
My client's father was undoubtedly this man, who had fought for three years on the losing side, to end cornered in a Spanish port facing the possible choice between execution or flight to England.
And there was a twist. My illegitimate client had an illegitimate father. The Spanish soldier had lied when he married in England, inventing a father to fill the space in the marriage register. Not only was he not born in Madrid, but according to his enlistment papers, he had no father.

Persistence Pays Part Two

Having established that my client's father, whom he had never met, was dead, it might seem there was not much more to do.
Wrong. It's family history I was asked to pursue and somehow I had to trace the past of a Spanish man who washed up in an English factory in 1944.
Finding out what brought a Spanish man to England in the late 1930s/early 40s might sound difficult, but wasn't with a basic knowledge of Spanish history, a theory, the internet, and a lot of luck and time.
Having found my client's father's death and marriage certificates, I knew from the marriage cert that he said he had a shopkeeper father in Madrid. His death cert added his birth date, as given by his son-in-law.
A search of Madrid baptism registers by a Spanish researcher unfortunately yielded nothing. The outlook was gloomy until I decided to work on the theory that this man had come to England for some reason connected with the Spanish civil war, which ended in 1939.
An internet search based on that hit gold within minutes.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Persistence Pays

Poor neglected blog! It's been so long since I paid you any attention.
I've recently completed my longest running piece of research. It took almost eighteen months to find the origins of a client's father. I wasn't doing it all the time, of course, as there was a lot of waiting for documents and pauses for breath and inspiration. In fact, I spent no more than 25 hours on it.
I'd like to tell the story, in brief and with no names, over a few blog entries.
In sum, the story was: my client was the result of a liaison between his mother and a man from Spain, many years ago. But all he knew about his father was his name.
I'm not used to work which takes me to the second half of the 20th century, and have never done a piece of research which made me feel as much private detective as genealogist.
I was blessed by the fact that the lost father had an unusual, Spanish-sounding name.
I soon found his name in the indexes: but unfortunately he was dead. He had married and had children not 20 miles from where my client grew up and later lived.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Family history research ramblings

I’m struck by the variety of work I get in response to my adverts. You might think it’s obvious what requests will ping into the inbox of someone advertising family history research in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset – please find my westcountry ancestors. But it seems that task comes in many forms.

Recent work for me has ranged from ‘please find my father’, to ‘please find details of the life of this specific 19th century surgeon’, to ‘please find all my ancestors’.

It was the second time in recent months that I had been asked to find someone’s father. This was puzzling, as I hadn’t advertised as a private investigator. It was not a task I had anticipated, but I had a go. I didn’t succeed, unfortunately, but in the process of trying, I did uncover enough new information about the client’s family to make it more likely the father will be traced at some point in the future.

I love research into individuals. At least, I love it when that individual left enough traces for something to be found. Tracking down enough to transform a name into a personality is very satisfying. And when that person is the ancestor of your client, it’s delightful to be able to help them imagine that person as a living thing, rather than a mention on a burial register. It’s a kind of resurrection by archive.

I am often astonished at how much information there is, even on relatively low-status people, although it doesn’t always seem like that to start with.

It’s a process of accumulation: a mention here, a connection there, this website, that paper archive ... leads and clues, and luck, Of course, it doesn’t always feel as if progress is being made. But, after a while, you review what you have, patch it all together and realise a person is taking shape.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Using Parish and Other Records

WORKING in different archives in the South West I’m often struck by how many people there are using the microfiche readers to trace back their family trees, but how few there are looking at the documents which survive from that parish.

Many family history enthusiasts only look at the parish registers, while some might type their surname into the national archives catalogue A2A. Sometimes that search immediately comes up trumps because, for example, their ancestor claimed parish relief and was interviewed by the parish officials, or because their ancestor’s name is on the lease of a property.

But many people do not realise that the majority of surviving parish and other documents, at least in the record offices I visit, have not been fully catalogued.

Staff at the record offices do not have time to go through the pages of many of these volumes to extract the names they contain.

Therefore they catalogue the name of the volume or set of documents, but not its contents.

So all we see is a dull-sounding description, such as ‘Tiverton St Peter vestry minutes 1744-1779’ or ‘bundle of bills 1823-1837’. But wait until you look inside – vestry minutes are often full of names and bills can tell you more than you might think.

Vestry minutes are hardly ever looked at. You might expect them to be limited to discussions on the state of the church roof, yet they often record in great detail the work of all the parish officials, including the overseers who dealt with the poor.

They, and similar parish volumes, can also include unexpected lists of householders and their properties, made for the purpose of taxing them, as well as of workers employed to repair parish buildings, farmers who sold grain to the parish, and so on.

If you know your ancestor was likely to be living in a certain place at a certain time, it really is worth looking at them.

Bills helped me in researching my own family at the Devon Record Office recently.

One of my ancestors worked for the aristocratic Petre family, and his name appears occasionally in the catalogue of their papers. But in researching him previously I had overlooked the bundles of documents which had not been catalogued in detail.

So the other day I ordered up a set of documents which were boringly described in the catalogue as ‘a bundle of receipts’, but which had a range of dates which fitted his time with the family.

Inside I quickly found a bill paid by my ancestor, which was a nice find, but better than that, it was from an inn-keeper, and listed what my ancestor had eaten, when he had stayed, how his horse was cared for — enough to help me imagine his life in Devon in the early 18th century in more detail.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Genealogy or Family History?

What’s the difference between genealogy and family history?

They’re the same thing in many respects: both concern the tracing of ancestors. For many the terms are interchangeable.

But for me there is a big difference, and one which put me off the whole business for years.

Way back, in the days before computers, I decided to try to trace my ancestors. I was full of enthusiasm, but short on knowledge.

I wrote to dozens of people who shared my surname, finding their names and addresses in the phone book.

I got some interesting replies, and several suggestions to contact a man who had done a lot of work tracing the family through records of births, marriages and deaths.

So I wrote to him, and received in reply a pack of information. I was thrilled, but less excited when I examined it more closely. There were names, and more names, and dates and so on. Sheets and sheets of them.

And there were requests for information from me, written in the language of genealogy: asking for me to fill in my ‘segment’, etc.

It was a roll call of people with my surname, but they were stick figures in ink, generational markers with no substance, background or lives.

They had no occupations, and they existed as markers on a page without context: lacking information about the places they came from, or the history they lived through.

Years later, when I returned to the subject, I was eternally grateful to this distant relative, because his hard work gave me a spring-board with which to jump back in time more quickly.

I used his information to search the archives, finding documentary treasures which threw light on the lives of the people he had traced.

But his approach was, to my mind, the essence of pure genealogy: a dry exercise which ultimately results in the ability to spout a list of names.

Family history, on the other hand, is about taking those names and trying to turn them into people.