Tag Archives: research

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Historian for hire!

Just a little reminder that I’m available for helping out with any of the following:

  • Family history research – Ordering and interpreting birth, marriage and death certificates; drawing up family trees; overcoming those little snags in your family history!
  • Military history research – researching and interpreting individuals service records; war diary look ups; medal winners; casualties; Prisoners of War
  • Archive and library research – particularly in the Portsmouth/Hampshire/West Sussex area; also London, such as the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, British Library etc.
  • Talks and lectures, workshops, etc. – I can give talks to any local history group, which can be tailored to the audience. Also workshops etc.
  • Researching and writing articles and other publications – I have previously written articles for Britain at War Magazine
  • Researching and writing text for Exhibitions – I have previously written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth

And absolutely anything else that you can think of, to do with history! Contact me to discuss what I can do, rates etc.

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‘Don’t judge me!’ – judging, the past and the present

Ever heard someone shreek ‘don’t judge me!’, or ‘don’t judge someone unless you haven’t met them’? It does seem to be a bit of a cliche nowadays, or should I say, an excuse to be an ass and then deflect any criticism?

If we are not supposed to judge anyone we have never met, does that preclude all us historians from researching people who died before we were born? Of course not. History would be in trouble if we didn’t research people who came before us. And of course, we don’t know them.

And I have to say, and this comes as someone who spent 18 months researching somebody who died in 1847, that you CAN come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of person someone was, as long as you start off with a clean slate and see everything in the context of the time. Judging the past by the standards of today is problematic to say the least.

I guess the same stands for the 2,549 WW2 servicemen I have spent two years researching, or the 5,000 WW1 servicemen I am currently looking at. Just because I can never meet them, does that mean they should be abandoned to anonymity forever? Of course not.

If we don’t research people then we don’t have social history, and a society without history is like a ship without an anchor. And by the same token, our deeds and our actions precede us in the present day too. Life is full of judgement, its impossible to get away from it. Job interviews, dates, they are all about judgement – if someone has the skills you are looking for, or if they take care over their appearance.

So, go ahead – judge away!

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A research-based dilemma…

I’m currently in the phase of doing some more primary research for my book on Portsmouth’s Second World War dead. I’ve been looking at doing some research in the Archives of a small, independent military Museum (line infantry Regiment, shall we say). I enquired by email about visiting the Museum to do some research…. no problem. The cost though? £25… AN HOUR! So for a days research, which is the minimum I would need, I would be looking at something in the region of £150! That would be a sizeable percentage of the total money I would make out of selling the maximum print run of my book!

I just think its wrong. All I want to do is write about some brave men who didn’t make it home, but I’ll now have to do it without the help of their Regimental Museum. I know its expensive to run Museums – hell, I know that more than anyone, I pay the bills and process the income for six – but why charge such a prohibitively high cost? If you need to make money, think outside the box and get your income generation hat on rather than hitting people who are trying to do good work. It obviously doesn’t cost £25 an hour to have somebody visit to do research, so why penalise? It’s not as if researchers ever make money out of what they do… only the big-shot historians like Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor really make any money. At best I’m looking at covering my costs. At best.

I always thought the idea of the Regimental Museum was to preserve the memory of those who have died serving with it? Or am I missing a trick – is it that some Museum’s just don’t want any tom, dick or harry turning up poking their noses in, so they set the costs prohibitively high? I’m just at a loss to understand why there is such a barrier to access, study and commemoration. And especially with budget cuts, institutions will be unable to carry out research and projects that they might like to, making it all the more important to encourage and enable individuals to do so instead.

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work starts on ‘Portsmouth’s heroes’

In the past week or so I have started researching the stories of some of Portsmouth’s fallen Sailors, Soldiers and airmen from the Second World War. To begin with I am focusing on a handful of men and their stories, and by finding out all I can about them I hope to try and give an impression of their sacrifice.

This week I have been researching Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC (RN Bomb Disposal), Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM (D-Day Para killed in Germany in 1945) and Lance Corporal Les Webb MM (1st Hants, seriously wounded on D-Day on Gold Beach and died of wounds a week later). I have a list of other names who I think will be very interesting to research and write about, and hopefully people will enjoy reading their stories too.

I have already had some successes early on – finding Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth’s service record on the National Archives online was a real bonus. The Evening News has given me some pretty useful death notices and thanks for sympathy messages, and announcements about medals. Personal notices in the local newspaper give a wonderful insight into the feelings that went with the loss of a loved one, as well as the names of family members, addresses, and other details that add so much depth and understanding to what is initially just a name, rank and a number. You cannot help but remember that these men were all someones husband, boyfriend, fiance, son, brother, father, grandson, nephew or uncle. The local Kelly’s directories and Electoral Registers also give a good idea of who was living where and when, and I have several certificates on order from the General Register Office.

It would be all too easy to just write about the battles and medals, but I think its important to look at the social side of these inspirational people, to find out who they were and what made them tick. That way we can try to understand that they really did come from the same streets that we do, and were human beings the same as us. We should be careful not to put them on a pedestal so much that their stories are out of touch, especially as the passage of time makes them seem from a different world in any case.

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The National Archives Labs

The National Archives have announced a new project, entitled National Archives Labs. The idea is to pilot new and innovative ways of accessing and sharing data. Visitors to the website are able to test prototypes of new projects and give feedback, which should help the future development of online resources.

The projects in Labs are not intended to be full, finished versions, but a means of showcasing and testing ideas. If, and when, they are given approval they will be refined and made accessible before they can be properly integrated into The National Archives’ main website.

Emma Bayne, programme manager, said: ‘Labs is the first step towards us opening up our records further, and providing new ways for you to access the vast collection of information we hold.’

UK History Photo Finder

This fascinating resource allows users to search and view digital images. The first series of photographs uploaded are the Dixon-Scott collection, a set of more than 14,000 images taken between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. You can search mainly by geographical location, and I managed to find some photographs of Portchester Castle and St Thomas Cathedral that I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully more images will be made available in time. Only one criticism of this section, I would like to see more information on how to obtain copies of the images, and the relevant copyright information.

Valuation Office Surey

This tool enables users to look up Valuation Office Survey maps of England and Wales from 1910 to 1915. The Catalogue contains nearly 50,000 maps, and provides a way of searching for a geographical location. A search leads to a modern day map of your chosen area, with a link to the catalogue code of your chosen section of map. Sadly my search for Portsmouth came up with no results for the city itself, only the surrounding areas. The link enables you to purchase a hard copy of the map. This is very much a catalogue project, as it helps you find data and enables you to access it, rather than making it readily available. It should be useful none the less.

Person search

I’m a bit perplexed by this. Apparently the idea of the new Person Search facility is to bring together a wide range of sources – including First World War records, Royal Navy records, criminal registers, law suits, wills and pension records – and make it possible to search for one particular name. However there are several places where you can already do this on The National Archives website, and maybe it would be more sensible to streamline these rather than create another facility.

In general, I applaud the concept of making more records more accessible to more people. And especially using digital media. However, with the looming cuts in public spending, sadly I expect that these kind of projects may be few and far between for the forseeable future.

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Connected Histories: a new search engine for historians?

The Institute for Historical Research has launched a new project, dubbed a new search engine for historians. Connected Histories will create a joint search facility for a wide range of sources relating to early modern and nineteenth century British history.

Reading between the tecno-speak on the IHR’s website, it looks like the project will create a catalogue that remotely links sources from other sites. A collabarative workspace will allow users to document the connections between documents. In total, Connected Histories will provide access to 14 major databases of primary source texts, containing more than 412 million words, plus 469,000 publications, 3.1 million further pages of text, 87,000 maps and images, 254,000 individuals in databases, and over 100 million name instances.

A large amount of sources have been made available online by universities, archives and the commercial sector. Many are under-exploited, simply because historians are not aware that they exist. In the first phase Connected Histories will incorporate sources from the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, Plebian Lives and the Making of Modern London, the Burney Newspaper Collection, the Origins Network, Parliamentary Papers, Clergy of Church of England Database 1540-1835, Strypes Survey of London, the Charles Booth Online Archive and Collage.

I have used several of these sources myself, especially the Old Bailey Online, Parliamentary Papers and the Charles Booth Archive. Its good to see that the Historical community is finally waking up to the possibilities that the internet presents – its funny how history can be so slow to evolve and adapt! I can imagine I will make a lot of use of it, whereas without the search facility, I might not bother. The ability to ‘tag’ linked documents sounds interesting too – almost like a wiki.

Connected Histories is definitely a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. Several years ago the Access 2 Archives project did a lot of good work in producing an online catalogue of the holdings of virtually all of the archives in Britain. You could search them all in one place, and see what documents were held in what archives. Then the funding ran out, and the search engine was moved to the National Archives website. The search engine is not as powerful, and it is much harder to use. Definitely a step backwards.

Another aspect where the historical community is slow at using technology is making documents themselves available online. The National Archives has seriously curtailed its digitisation programme on the grounds of cost. Which means that if you want to look at a document, chances are you will have to go to Kew. Even if its commonly used. Plenty of documents are becoming availabe on sites such as Ancestry and findmypast, but personally I think it is quite sad that you have to pay to become a member to access our heritage. Other countries manage it.

I can’t wait to see the Connected Histories project progress. But lets hope that it is sustainable, and that more historical institutions take note and up their game.

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Using War Diaries

As background for my research into Portsmouth’s WW1 dead, earlier today I downloaded the War Diary of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, from 1914 to 1918. Many other WW1 War Diaries are available to download, for the small sum of £3.50, from the National Archives’s Documents Online website. This is a fantastic resource – without it, I would have to make a trip to Kew to photoraph nigh on a thousand pages!

I’ve used War Diaries before – I’ve looked at the 11th Parachute Battalion and the 10th Berkshires, from the time my Granddad was serving with them in the second world war. I’ve also had a look at the War Diaries of the Grenadier Guards in the First World War, when conducting some research into Boy Browning.

A few things are noticeable from glancing over the War Diaries. When the 1st Hampshires embarked for France, the war diary was written by hand, in an almost flowery – some might say officer-like – manner. But what it does do is describe the fighting in a lot of detail. In some places they also contain extracts from officers and even mens diaries. By 1916, however, the war diaries become more formal. The are typewritten, on official forms. They also become very matter of fact – I guess by that stage in the war going up to the line was nothing special to the Adjutant writing the diary.

The War Diaries tend to give a lot more information about officers than men. At the end of each month a return was made of the officers in the Battalion, which had been admitted to or discharged from Hospital, who was on leave, and who had been killed, wounded or reported missing. The same information is recorded for other ranks, but only in terms of numbers. The only time that other ranks were mentioned was when they were awarded Gallantry Medals.

As well as giving us an idea of when a Battalion was attacking, when it was in line or in reserve, the war diary tells us so much more. We can see when Platoon Football Leagues were held. In terms of training, we see when companies took part in Bayonet training, for example. We can also see when they carried out work parties. The Diary also contains orders that have been archived, and maps. The problem with maps, however, is that they often have code names for locations, instead of their real names!

Another thing that is noticeable, is the losses among officers. Commonly the Battalion seems to have been commanded by a Major, and Companies by Lieutenants. If officers got more coverage in the war diary, they also got a lot of attention from the enemy.

I will post more excerpts and observations from the 1st Hampshires War Diary as I read through it.

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Guide to Your Ancestors Lives by Nick Barratt

Barratt

Family History is more popular now than it has ever been before. Along with the growth of genealogy websites, this explosion in interest has also been caused by the popular programme ‘Who do you think you are?’. Nick Barratt is the mastermind behind WDYTYA. A Doctor of History and a former employee of The National Archives, there are few people better placed to give us a guide to family history. But the bookshelf of family history is crowded one, so what makes this book different?

The clue is very much in the title. This is not just a guide to carrying out research and finding out dates and names, but a deeper look at the lives of our predecessors. I am a big fan of the more social history approach to genealogy. Why stop at just finding out their names, why not really get to grips with what their lives were like? There are some aspects where Barratt’s expertise really shines – in particular regarding legal documents, property history and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this book is not so strong on military history, but it would be pretty impossible for any family history book to be all things to all people.

I applaud that this book does not instantly point the reader towards family history websites. Whilst these can be useful, I do feel that they take away some of the fun of researching your family history. For me, part of the appeal is going to libraries and records offices and getting your hands dirty. I think is misleading to think that you can research your family tree just on Ancestry.

There are plenty of things in this book that were new even to myself, in particular a couple of websites that I have never see before – just goes to show there is always something new in the internet world. But the most interesting thing about this book – for me – is the suggestion that perhaps we should be thinking about archiving our lives now to help our descendants in the future. But with mobile phones, emails and social networking, will there be a lack of sources? This is were Arcalife comes in – a website that archives our activities across a range of media and, effectively, archives our lives.

There are some issues of presentation that I feel do let the book down. I’m exactly not sure why there has to be a full-sized picture of Barratt on the back cover. Also I think some more illustrations would help explain some of what he is trying to say. I’m not advocating dumbing down – after all most genealogy books are full of pictures anyway – but sometimes pictures or diagrams make more sense than words. This book, however, is probably most useful for people who already have a basic grasp of genealogy issues.

Guide to Your Ancestors Lives is published by Pen and Sword

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Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

A Genealogist and Freedom of Information campaigner has requested that the 1939 National Identification Survey be released under Freedom of Information laws, reports the BBC Website.

In September 1939 the Government conducted a an emergency, census-like survey of the country at the beginning of the war. This would provide invaluable help to researchers, historians and family history enthusiasts in unlocking the past.

Until recently each census was released 100 years later. However, Guy Etchells succesfully campaigned for the early release of the 1911 census, which became available online earlier this year. Professionals and enthusiasts alike will be hoping that the 1911 challenge proves to be a test case.

There is another census due for release, the 1921 census in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and there was no survey taken in 1941 because of the war. It may be more than 40 years until the 1951 details become public. This effectively leaves family historians with a dead end for some years to come.

None of the legislation forbids access to the records,” says Mr Etchells. “The records have been kept so that people can access them. They are not archived so that they can be hidden away. There’s no point in charging people thousands of pounds a year to keep them if you are not allowed to access them.”

The Information Commissioner has told the NHS Information Centre – which holds the 1939 details – that it should grant Mr Etchells’ request for access to a record, previously withheld on data protection grounds, where the circumstances relate to people now dead – a stipulation Mr Etchells may yet challenge further.

The National Registration survey led to the issuing of 46 milliona National Identity cards, Households were asked to provide information about the names, ages, sex, marital situation and jobs of those living there. During the war, and until 1952, every civilian had to carry their card as proof of identity and address. The registration was also used as the basis for the issue of ration books for food and clothing.

The 1939 survey would be a goldmine for researchers. In particular, it would help us unlock the secrets of most of the generation who fought in the second world war. For example, I could use the survey to cross reference against the list of portsmouth war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s roll of honour. It would make it so much easier for their stories to be told.

Personally, I think there is no sound reason for witholding such information for so long. There is surely no need for the NHS to keep such data locked away, there is nothing sensitive contained in the records. Even with the regular census, 50 year closure periods would be more appropriate. Lets hope that the authorities see sense and make the 1939 survey available.

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Filed under debate, Family History, Local History, News, social history, World War Two

Family History #9 – Directories

an 1881 trade directory

an 1881 trade directory

One of the first real historical documents I used was the humble trade directory.

Before facebook, and before even phonebooks, the way to find out who lived where, and what businesses were in a town, you would get hold of the local directory. They were a kind of cross between the phonebook, yellow pages, and the tourist guide.

The early Directories were rather basic. Lets take the Portsmouth section of the Universal British Directory, 1792-98. It starts with a brief introduction to Portsmouth, covering the town’s history and a description of the area, including particular local customs and the overall character of the town. It also describes the local Mayor, the senior Aldermen and the Council. Market days are also covered. After this the directory then goes on to list local services, including Bankers, Post Offices, Stage coaches, Waggons and coastal shipping. The senior officers of the local naval and military establishments are listed, as well as the Dockyard and the Customs Officers. There then follows a list, in alphabetical order, of all of the local residents, together with their occupation. This includes mainly tradesmen and professionals. So if you found yourself in a strange town and needing to get a shoe repaired or to buy some provisions, you would know who to go to.

By the 1820’s things had progressed, as we see in the 1828 edition of Pigots Directory. The description of the town if far more detailed, and gives a really good impression of what the area was like. By 1828 the local traders were listed by occupation, from Academies to Wines and Spirits Merchants. But now we have their addresses too, so we canfind them easier!

Then by the turn of the century, Directories become really detailed. Practically every street and every person is listed, which means the directories contain the details of thousands of families. They now contain adverts, and an index at the back. If you want to get a contemporary idea about a town, directories are a great source of information.

By the 1950’s, however, when more and more people are routinely having telephones, the phone book replaced the directory. Most directories stopped printing in the 1970’s.

So if you’re looking for ancestors in the late 18th, 19th and early to mid 19th Centuries, directories can be very useful. They help you pin down a person or a family to an address, and can tell you about their job. They are especially useful if your ancestor ran a shop or some kind of business. They are also very useful for using alongside census returns and electoral registers. And by looking at each years edition, you can see when and where people move.

So where can you look at directories? many libraries with historical collections will have them, as well as local Records Offices. Alternatively, you can take a look at some directories on the Historical Directories website.

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Family History #8 – electoral registers

Since time immaterial, whenever there has been government, local or national, there has been two things: taxes, and elections. And with them, come a huge amount of bureaucracy. You need to know who has to pay taxes, and whether they have paid up, or whether they are entitled to vote.

In modern Britain, every year every household gets sent a voting register form, so any adult over the age of 18 can register to vote in local, national or european elections. Not only does this entitle you to have a say in which politician gets to shaft you, but it means that there is a nice handy list available of every single person, over the age of 18 and registered. So handy, in fact, apparently a lot of councils rather deviously sell these details to marketing firms… But you can have a look at them yourself, they are normally available to view at either the local council offices or the local library.

In my local library, they have the electoral roll for every year going back to 1932. The whole city of Portsmouth is separated by Parliamentary Constituency, then by council ward. Then, within each ward each street, and for each street you will find a list of every house in the street, even then odd, and next to each house number, the people living there who were registered to vote. They’re not indexed at all, so you need to have an idea of what house number, road or area you are looking for. Electoral Registers could even be useful if you wanted to find out the history of a house, for example who was living in it from one year to the next. But if you have no idea where in the city someone was living, you will either have to search through the whole lot – clear a few days in your diary – or try and use something else to help you narrow it down.

Like most sources for family history, the electoral roll is not a source to use on its own, but when you use it in conjunction with the census, certificates or street directories – more of them next week – you can add pieces to the puzzle. The electoral roll does not tell you about ages, relationships, occupations, ownership, or any children under 18. But it is useful because it is produced every year, unlike every 10 years like the census. Using all of these sources it should be too difficult to pinpoint where someone was living and when, down to the nearest year.

In earlier times, back in the 19th Century, the qualifications for being able to vote were more strict. To be able to vote, you had to own property. And be male, of course. If someone did own property, they would be recorded in a Poll Book. These are fascinating, as not only do they record the voters, but also how they voted, so you get an idea of their political leanings too. You can normally find these in the local records office.

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The National Archives

The National Archives

The National Archives

I’ve just got back from a day at the National Archives in London, where I’ve been doing some research on Portsmouth Airport.

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive, containing almost 1,000 years of history, with records ranging from parchment and paper scrolls through to digital files and archived websites. The National Archives’ collection is one of the largest in the world, with 11 million records, from Domesday Book to modern government papers.

I’ve visited the National Archives many times over the years, ever since I first went in search of Admiralty correspondence when researching the compass-making exploits of George Stebbing. Since then I have looked at Second World War unit diaries, the ships logs of HMS Beagle, Hydrographic Office records, Cold War British Army records, and now pre-war and post-war Air Ministry and Treasury documents regarding Portsmouth Airport.

It really is a fascinating place. You can search the Archives complete catalogue online. You order a document or file on a computer terminal, then half an hour or so later it arrives in a double-doored locker with your seat number on it. You then take it to your desk, and leaf through age-old documents that open doors to bygone ages. Some of the documents I’ve looked at have had the handwriting of Winston Churchill himself, or mentioned a certain Mr C. Darwin.

The National Archives are also a great place to do some family history research, and they have all kinds of records available to look at. Some of the most common records, especially ones that many people want to look at, are on microfiche or microfilm, to save the original records from getting worn out. Add in a fascinating museum, that includes the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book, a cracking – if a bit overpriced – cafe, and a well stocked Bookshop, and its one of those must-visit places for any Historian.

When you’re sat at the desk reading, you can’t help but look round, and wonder what all the other people are researching – which of them are bestselling authors working on ther latest book? Or, are they simply family history enthusiasts in it for the enjoyment of it? Thats the beauty of researching histor, everyone is getting their hands dirty with real history, and not just getting spoonfed by celebrity historians.

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Family History #5 – Using the Census

A typical census return

A typical census return

Its quite common nowadays to hear all sorts of groans and moans about the nanny state, and the Government taking down information. Sometimes they have a fair point, but it is all too easy to forget that if the Government did not take surveys and collect information, it would be so much harder to provide public services. After all, how can you plan for education, healthcare, social services, if you dont know how many people live in the country?

Until relatively recently, around the late 1830’s, the only accurate information about who was born, who was alive, and who lived where, was contained in Church records, such as registers of births, marriages and deaths. But what about people who did not go to church? At the same time, outrage about the poor conditions in many towns led to a call for better public services.

As a result, in 1837 a formal structure came into being to officially register every birth, every marriage, and every death. Four years later, in 1841, the first detailed census was taken of inhabitants of the United Kingdom. Since then censuses have been taken every 10 years, and the information contained in them is released into the public domain 100 years after the census date, when it is presumed that most people in them have died. The exception to this is the 1911 census, which was released in 2009. As a result, you can use any of the censuses from 1841 to 1911 for your research.

Census returns are organised by County, Parish, urban or rural District, Parliamentary Borough and Town of Village. The census returns record who was living in a household on census night. The returns were filled in by an enumerator, which explains why each street, and each neighbourhood, is all filled in with the same handwriting.

There is a whole range of information about each household, and each person. The entries are by road, starting from house number one onwards. The first household member is usually the head of the household, followed by spouses, children, other relatives and other people such as employees and servants.

For each person in the census, you can usually find at least some of the following: road name, house number, name and surname, relation to head of the family, condition of marriage, age on last birthday, profession or occupation, employed or self-employed, where born, and any physical or mental disabilities.

As well as residential areas, the census also covers buildings such as Hospitals, schools, lunatic asylums, naval ships and military barracks.

So you can see that finding people on a census return can tell you a whole load of information, and can really help to fill in gaps, place people at a certain place in time, and find out about family relationships that you may not be sure about. And crucially, it can also give you a lot of other information, such as someones occupation and disabilities. Who was living with who? who was living near who? Did all the same people in road work at the same place, or in the same jobs? There are all manner of things a census can reveal.

Although much of what is on a census is rather humdrum, you can also find some rather intriguing discoveries. When researching Joseph Stebbing, I was informed that in the 1871 census there was an Agnes S. Earley living next door to Joseph Stebbing. What did the S stand for? Stebbing, as it turned out!

So where can you look at the census? The most accesible port of call is probably 1901 census online and 1911 census online, although there is a charge for these services. FreeCen is a free searchable database of census returns, although it is by no means complete new transcriptions are being added regularly by volunteers. Similar services can also be found at Ancestry.

But dont rule out visiting your local library or records office, most of them have at least the most local census returns available to look at on microfilm. Also, the National Archives have all of the census returns available to look at in their reading rooms.

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