August 17, 2017

Beginning British Genealogy: What You Must Know to Start

With about 1/3 of Americans claiming British ancestry, chances are that at some point you will need to extend your research across the Atlantic Ocean. Genealogical research in the British Isles has some important differences when compared to the United States. Guest blogger Kate Eakman, a Senior Researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, clarifies confusing terms and helps you get your research started on solid footing!

Beginning British Genealogy

Britain? England? The United Kingdom?

When beginning British genealogy research, it’s important to first talk about the difference between British and English research. There are several terms which get used interchangeably but which really refer to different locations.

Great Britain is an island, the largest island in the British Isles.

On the island of Great Britain are three of the four sovereign nations which make up the United Kingdom, or the U.K.: England, Wales, and Scotland. Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland is the fourth country of the U.K.

The four countries of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Map courtesy Nate Parker.

Usually, when people talk about their British ancestors, what they really mean are their English ancestors. Although we Americans often treat the two words as interchangeable they really aren’t, and I suspect our English friends giggle a bit when they hear us misuse the words.

The four countries of the U.K. have some similarities but many important differences, and that is equally true for genealogical research. Rather than trying to explain all of those differences, this post will focus on English research.

One last thing to keep in mind when we talk about genealogical research in England is that today the country is divided into counties, which are sort of the equivalent of states in the U.S. Older records might refer to those counties as shires, and over time the borders have shifted, shires and counties were added, divided, or absorbed into each other. So a good map or two will be a useful tool to keep handy while you research your English ancestors.

Usually, when people talk about their British ancestors,
what they really mean are their English ancestors

What do you know?

Before beginning British genealogy research and making that leap across the pond, it is a good idea to consider what you already know about your English ancestors. Of course, you have a name, and you probably have an approximate date of birth.

  • Were you fortunate enough to find the name of a town or county where that ancestor lived or do all of the census reports and vital records simply say “England”?
  • If the ancestor arrived as an adult, what occupation did he pursue?
  • When did he or she arrive in the U.S.? Are there any clues on the passenger list to tell you where to start looking?
  • Once you have reviewed all of the information you have already acquired about your English ancestor, it’s time to start your research.

Beginning British Genealogy Research with the Census

The first step in most genealogical research is to study the existing census reports. Designed as a means to count the population for a variety of years, the census of Great Britain (including Scotland) is taken every ten years with the earliest records available in 1841. Due to very restrictive privacy laws, the most recent census available is from 1911, with one really valuable exception being the 1939 Register, available at FindMyPast.

Used for genealogical purposes, the census can give a snapshot of the family at the time the census was taken, as well as provide invaluable information such as the birthplace of the individual being recorded, occupation, birth year, and familial relationships. Elderly parents, or widowed mothers, aunts, or sisters, can be discovered living with younger members of the family.

Drawbacks of using the census for genealogical purposes include inaccurate name spellings, inaccurate age reporting, and inaccurate assumptions made by the enumerator. Another thing to keep in mind is that in the 1841 census the enumerated rounded down to the nearest five years the ages of people over 15. So a person who was listed as 25 could have been 25 through 29 years old.

It is important to remember that for the census reports through 1901 the enumerator copied the household information into books, and these copies are what we have today. Of course, when information is copied it is susceptible to error. The person who completed the census form may have had difficult-to-read handwriting, or the enumerator may have entered things on the wrong line. The individual reports have been kept for the 1911 census and offer a greater likelihood that the information they contain is very accurate.

An example of a transcription from the 1891 English Census from Familysearch.org.

Detailed transcripts of English census records are available for free on FamilySearch and the images can be found for a fee at FindMyPast.

It is important to remember that for the census reports through 1901 the enumerator copied the household information into books, and these copies are what we have today.

Civil Registry of Vital Events

All English births, marriages, and deaths were required to be registered in a civil registration office beginning in July of 1837. In addition to the records themselves, there are indices which list the name of the person who was born, married, or died, the place where the event was registered, and the quarter and year in which the event occurred. Because the General Register Office (GRO) will only search one year on either side of the date provided, it is best, but not required, to include the index information when ordering documents from the GRO.

Free BMD is a free database which allows you the most freedom to search for the birth, marriage, and death index record of your relatives. You can enter whatever information you know including the place where the event happened, a specific year or range of years, age, and mother’s maiden name.

Depending on the time period, the index may be handwritten or mechanically printed. The information can then be used to order a copy of the actual record from the General Register Office (GRO) in England for about $10 per record.

An example of handwritten (left) and mechanically printed (right) birth index entries. Photos courtesy https://freebmd.org.uk.

The information contained in birth records includes:

  • Name, date, and place of birth;
  • Father’s name (if given at time of registration), occupation; and
  • Mother’s name, maiden surname.

The parents’ places of birth were added after 1969, and the mother’s occupation is listed after 1984.

Marriage records include:

  • Date and place of marriage;
  • Name, age and marital status (spinster/bachelor, widowed, divorced) of the bride and groom;
  • Occupation and usual address;
  • Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom, with a note if either man was deceased at the time of the marriage;
  • Names of the witnesses;
  • Name of the person who solemnized the marriage.

Death records in the United States are often relied upon to provide the names of the parents. English death records do not include that information and therefore are not as useful for genealogical purposes. Each death record includes:

  • Name, date, and place of death;
  • Date and place of birth (before 1969 a certificate only showed age of deceased);
  • Occupation and usual address;
  • Cause of death;
  • The identity of the informant.

There are other records available, which we will talk about in a later post, which can be used to find and trace your English family members. The largest group are the religious records, and sometimes those can help you extend your family back in time to the 1600s – 400 years or more!

Beginning British Genealogy Important Take-Aways…

  1. “Great Britain” is an island. “The United Kingdom” is a country. And “England” is a country. Normally, when people are talking about their British ancestors they are referring to their English ancestors.
  2. England has counties, or what used to be known as “shires,” which function sort of like our states. The borders have changed over time, as have some of the names, so use a map when necessary to verify where you are researching.
  3. Census records are available from 1841 through 1911. Really good transcriptions are available for free at Family Search, or on the for-fee site Find My Past. And remember that age idiosyncrasy about the 1841 census.
  4. Finally, civil birth, marriage, and death records are available from the GRO. You can use the index listings to find the most likely match for your ancestor, and those can be found online at Free BMD.

Have fun and good luck finding your English ancestors!

 

Kate Eakman is a Senior Researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. 

EXCLUSIVE OFFER for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off of a 20-hour+ research project from Legacy Tree Genealogists with code GG100, valid through July 31st, 2017.  Click here to learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team.


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Voice-O-Graph Brings this Listener’s Grandfather’s Voice Back from the Past

Can you imagine the excitement of stumbling into family history memorabilia that included a voice from long ago on a Voice-O-Graph record? Sometimes the challenge is not finding a family history treasure, but instead it is “unlocking” its precious contents. Here’s one Gem’s story and her request for help. Being a podcaster came in very handy in answering this email!

voice from the past

Voice-O-Graph Brings Her Father’s Voice Back

From our Genealogy Gems reader and podcast listener:

One of the things I love about Genealogy Gems is your appreciation of ephemera. I’m giddy when I find newspaper articles and documents for my family. I recently took everything out of my parents’ “picture closet” and found a treasure trove of documents and photos, such as the will my father wrote and sent to his parents when he entered the army air corps in WWII, the telegram my aunt sent when she eloped, and my grandfather’s WWI registration papers. I even found the scrap of paper on which my father wrote my mother’s phone number when he asked her on their first date, “Laura Lee HE5882”.

Voice-O-Graph Record One of the items I found is a January 1944 “Voice-O-Graph” my father recorded and sent to my grandmother. It’s in the original envelope, too. I’m interested in having the recording digitized. The reason I seek guidance is that all of the websites for audio transfer services have pretty lurid landing pages. Even if it’s not possible to get a decent dub of the old record, I’d at least like to feel confident that I’d get the 78 back in one piece.

Any ideas?  Thank you!
Lisa

 

Digitizing a Voice-O-Graph Record

Entrusting your precious Voice-O-Graph record with an unknown website service could be pretty unnerving. Anytime you ship something, there’s always a rish of damage or loss. Before sending away your precious heirloom, try these do-it-yourself methods to create a digital recording.

If you have several records to digitize, I usually suggest looking at purchasing your own turntable that can record to digital. I have one that looks like an old time radio. Here’s one that is on the lower cost end.

In Lisa’s case, it sounds like she has just one record to digitize. If she has a turntable that can play 78s, she can first try playing the records and recording the sound through her computer’s microphone, a handheld recorder, or a smartphone using a free app like Evernote that can record audio.

The next option would be to purchase a converter like this one. You plug your turntable into it, and then plug an external hard drive into the converter, and play and record.

By the way, if your voice-o-graph is a bit warped, this article offers help.

When I discovered an old reel-to-reel recording in my own family, I took it to our church sound system technician. They had new digital equipment, as well as also older equipment. They were able to easily record a digital version for me.

Lisa did eventually get the record digitized. Take a listen for yourself:

As you can hear, Lisa’s father’s recording has a lot of background noise. His voice is far off in the distance and could use some enhancement. But the first challenge was to get the record digitized.

Enhancing the Quality of the Voice-O-Graph Recording

Once you have created an mp3 recording, you can then try to improve the quality of the sound with a free software program called Audacity. Sound improvement is a series of fixes and edits that you apply to the audio file. It’s a gentle process of balancing the bringing forward of the voice while keeping noise tolerable. It’s definitely an art, and not a science. Initial improvements you can easily make include:

Removing “Clicks” – These appear as tall spikes on the audio track in Audacity. Carefully highlight them and delete.

Applying Noise Reduction – Apply noise reduction sparingly, and focus on the elements of the recording that are the most important to you. Noise reduction can add a sort of warped quality to the sound if applied too heavily. Apply just enough to remove unwanted noise that is getting in the way of the voice, while keeping distortion tolerable. You’ll hear a bit of this in my edited version of Lisa’s audio file below. The recording had deteriorated so much that a lot of what is said is lost. I opted to tolerate heavier nose reduction in order to make much more of the voice understandable.

Amplifying the Audio – Apply amplification to the entire track, and then go back and reduce amplification in the areas that do not include the voice. This can be a tedious process, but as you will hear in my version of the audio below, it can pay off.

 

The Man Behind the Voice

“My father (Capt. C. William Beringhaus) was in the 15th Air Force, 99th Bomb Group flying B-17s. This recording was made in Salt Lake City in January, 1944 just after he completed aviation cadet training in Lubbock, Texas. He was sent to Salt Lake as part of a pilot’s pool before being sent to Sioux City, Iowa for training in the B17.

Beringhaus Capt Clarence William_Rome Voice O Graph

Capt. C. William Beringhaus

In the recording it sounds like he says that he is in town and is making the recording because “Woody” made one. I believe Woody might have been Capt. Morris S. Wood, the bombardier. “

Voice-O-Graph Envelope

Do You have a Voice-O-Graph Recording?

While I have picked up a few Voice-o-Graph records complete with mailing envelopes at antique stores over the years, I’m not fortunate enough to have found one in my own family (at least not yet!).

Do you have a Voice-O-Graph recording in your family? Leave a Comment below and tell us about it. Where did you find it? Who’s voice is on the recording? And have you digitized it yet?

Read More About Preserving Your Family’s Memories

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The Recommended File Formats for Long Term Preservation

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