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Get Into Genealogy Part 3

As already mentioned, the genealogy websites provide data collated from official records. Not only is this transposed and listed information available, but in many cases, scanned or photographed images of the original documents can be viewed online and need to be examined to verify that they have been copied accurately. With such a mine of diverse data, it is very easy to get trapped into flitting around from one family member to another and become lost in the possible connections, so it is probably safer to keep it simple and, initially anyway, stick close to the main trunk of the tree. Start from a point that is already known and can be confirmed - the name of a grandparent, perhaps; or if facts are scarce, go with the best assumption. Any clue, no matter how small, can be helpful - a date of birth, death, or marriage; school, military and even criminal records; memberships of trade unions, sporting clubs, societies; in fact any documentation that declares a person to have been present in a specific place at a given time. Those old photos and postcards can be handy for this, not to mention letters, diaries, address books and souvenirs. You may even discover, as we have, attempts by deceased relatives to list ancestors and draw up their own family tree.

Census records are a very useful tool and can provide possible leads, as long as the records available for public viewing aren't too old for your needs. Unfortunately, there are rules regarding access to such documents. In the UK, which is where our respective families originated and we are conducting our search, no data is available after the 1911 census. One would assume that the 100-year line was drawn to safeguard the private details of the majority of individuals still living. Apparently, the first census which included names was conducted in 1841. Prior to that, information was fairly basic and concentrated mainly on increases or decreases in the general population, so privacy wasn't an issue. There were earlier censuses, but it is understood that they were of a similar nature and the original documents would most likely have been destroyed after they had served their purpose. To go through this period to when the first "modern" census was ordered in 1801, or even back further, means finding sources - parish records, for instance - that are hard to access, if they still exist. In some cases, electoral rolls may prove useful, but it must be remembered that, even today, not everyone is eligible to vote, and further back in time this privilege was denied to women in general and the majority of the working class.

Assuming you can track relatives back to 1911 and earlier, the census can provide not only the location of particular family members, but is also a guide to relationships and occupations - head (of the household), wife, daughter, coalminer, scholar, domestic servant, and so on. But, once again, be sceptical and inquiring. This information isn't necessarily accurate. These days, forms are sent out to every residence, but what would have been the point in 1861 when a good portion of the population was illiterate? Census Enumerators were assigned to go from house to house, recording the personal details of whoever was present when they called. As these scribes were unpaid, one can imagine their attitude being fairly casual and less than kindly towards the occupants, especially if it was lousy weather when they had to make their rounds. Also, the public they were sent to interview would have been understandably suspicious, and might have kept these curt, "jumped-up" government officials on the doorstep, answering their questions only because they were legally obliged to, and then not always truthfully. For example, I quote the 1841 census which recorded the age of my Great Great Grandfather as 65 when, according to his birth registration, he was actually 68. I doubt it was due to vanity: perhaps retirement at a certain age was mandatory and he conveniently lost three years so that he could keep working.

These are the kind of possibilities which have to be considered. When it comes to putting it down in black and white, expedience and agenda are major influences and can bend the whole truth, sometimes considerably. The 1881 census raised the bar from mildly invasive to disparaging, documenting the health status of individuals. I can't imagine the entries were based on very professional opinions, not when a person could be listed as being blind, deaf, dumb, imbecile, or lunatic! If a member of your family was classified in such an offensive manner, take it with a pinch of salt. Whatever their "diagnosed" medical condition, all that matters to you is that your ancestors appear on the list somewhere.

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