British Ancestry

by Cecil Humphery-Smith OBE,FSA,

communicate with

"Yes, I have all the evidence," she wrote. "I got it off the Internet."

So, that was that. She was right and I was wrong, she argued. "It was all there precisely as my great aunt had told me," she replied to my doubts.

A year later, she came to England to join a course at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies that I had established in Canterbury in 1961. I was still teaching there. I referred to our correspondence.

"May I ask where your great aunt found that information?"

"Well, she told me that her father had the family Bible, and his uncle was an expert genealogist."

And she told me later, "Anyway, I told you it's on the Internet. It's on the IGI."

I well recall telling students years before, that if they followed the course of study of The Institute and passed all the examinations up to the Diploma, they could regard themselves as qualified. If they went further and satisfied the conditions for the Licentiate, they might be regarded as something of an expert in the field of study covered by their thesis. Otherwise it takes a lifetime to be an expert. Even those of us who have been called upon to give evidence in cases requiring legal judgement would be foolhardy to describe themselves as and more than experienced in dealing with such enquiries as may be set before us. Certainly, those who have been trained through the Institute's courses over many years, like those who work with Achievements,-( the group of genealogists and record agents, have gained remarkable expertise and provide support for this educational charity

There are, of course, as in any subject, competent self-educated amateurs who may turn to being professional, whether for remuneration or as advisers of others. Most professions have their self-proclaimed experts, lecturers and teachers with some part-time experience. In genealogy, it is often the blind leading the blind, as one can often detect on the Internet. Unfortunately there are those who regard those sources as though they were original records. And, woops! There is yet another unrelated "ancestor" who "fits" into the "gap" in the family tree.

I personally had good training from the best genealogists and armorists of the past century, from the founding fathers of The Society of Genealogists, and The Heraldry Society, from heralds and other antiquaries, as well as from academicians throughout Europe. I have always tried to combine this extensive experience with the preparation for all courses and lectures that I have taught as well as in the construction of the Institute's Correspondence Course. The one rule that sticks in my mind came from the late Tom Woodard, who for decades was the leading genealogist at The College of Arms: "There is no such thing as a "gap" in a family tree." So, we have to admit it: that is as far as our researches have taken us. Anything earlier is pure speculation without evidence. I also continue to refer to all sources with caution.


So, much depends upon the veracity of the statement recorded, the hearing, reading or writing ability of the record maker, and the circumstances of its making. How often has it appeared that the parties were illiterate themselves, or the parson, whether drunk or sober, spelt the names in some bizarre or unrecognisable form. More frequently than is realised - and I have witnessed it happening - the registrar or parson did not have access to his chest or safe in which the books were kept and wrote notes on a scrap of paper that went into his pocket, perhaps even to the laundry before being found and entered into the register, if at all, months or years later.

Believe me, that is not an imaginary scenario. I well recall a certain vicar who was a good friend, whose dear wife would insist upon washing his cassock once a year, and gave him a bundle of slips from the pockets just before putting the robe in the tub! He would then enter the marriages, baptisms or even burials in the register from his notes, if his writing were still readable, and might still convey a date. He did have a page or two at the end of each years for miscellaneous entries. That was more than forty years ago, and that page may now appear current, I suppose.

A doctor telephoned me about a girl who called to see him. She had returned to England with the child that she had taken to Ireland shortly after his birth. He did not have a birth certificate and he couldn't remember all the details except that he had attended the confinement. I helped by calling a kind Registrar, who chuckled, "Oh yes, Cecil, tell Robert to come and see me. I have kept the appropriate space in the date for these pasyt six years. I can still issue a certificate for the child. I was tipped off your old midwife at the time."

It wouldn't happen today, you say? Well, if it wouldn't, I should be surprise. Certainly there is much evidence that it was not that unusual in the past.

It is also erroneous to believe that all wills were proved in a probate court. From sixty years of collecting old documents, as well as acting as an executor on many occasions, I have much proof to illustrate that before the twentieth century, a large number, if not the majority of wills were never proved. This might not be so now, though even today I have been involved with several that were not required to be recorded in the probate courts.

Mark Herber's work, Ancestral Trails is a splendid composition. So is the slimmer Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and Michael Armstrong (latest edition with John Titford); but none of such works can be complete guides, nor can they warn where all the hazards are or how mistakes can be made; and, what is worse, repeated. Both those books have excellent bibliographies to assist further study. Comparison of what is in print will increase your understanding of the warning I am giving. All such publications are soon out of date as record offices and collections are moved and new sources revealed. This is all rather like finding missing letters, even money, beneath an old chest or behind a cupboard. In fact, the whole process of genealogical research is rather like that.

After many years searching, I found one church register on the bookshelf in the bungalow where the parson's widow had gone to retire. It contained entries for her grandfather's family! If I had not visited her to interview her about her memories of the family and sat in the armchair alongside that bookcase would the register ever have been recovered? Had she "borrowed" it for a genealogist in the family a dozen years before? She could not remember. Is there some "goddess" in genealogical research named serendipity? I wonder.

In another similar case to that with which I began this essay, I asked an a lady "How do you know that what is on the IGI is accurate?"

"But", I told her."Those registers did not survive the Reformation, you know."

"Oh, I put them on the IGI myself," she replied, confidently, about this early sixteenth-century entry.

"Where did you get the names of the parent?"

"They are in the family."

"And the date?"

"That was the date of my grandmother's birthday; and, well, he must have been aged about thirty when he got married."

"But you don't know where or when he was married, do you?"

"Well, it would have been about thirty years after he was born, and in Wick, of course."

"What evidence have you for Wick?"

"Oh, its a cute little village in Somerset with a lovely old church. You must go there sometime," she said nostalgically, "We came across it when we were touring the West Country years ago. And, Dr Reaney's book on surnames says ours come from those parts."

"But the name can also be found, in several other counties across the country. Why have you invented this ancestry? Isn't it dishonest?"

"Not really. Everyone does it to get into the society with a good family tree."

I shall not reveal the identity of the particular society that requires pedigree, but can assure readers that the story is true, apart from the place mentioned.

Let us make it very clear that in order to produce as accurate a family tree as possible, three factors are required. First, integrity in examining, assessing and reporting the content of original sources before evaluating how they may assist in its extension. Secondly, the necessary funds to cover the costs of acquiring truthful information. Thirdly, the skill to bring together the family history material that puts "the flesh on the bones" of the family tree and those recorded on it into historical and geographical contexts.

That cannot be acquired from IGI and the Internet. Persistent copying of inaccurate source material has presented a further major problem to add to guesswork, often even adding further errors. So be equally wary of printed material. The rules I have given generations of students are simple: be logical in studying results, be cautious in making conjectures, be prudent in accepting conclusions or published source material. Accuracy can be instilled in the willing, it cannot be taught, and after qualification study of evidence and revision of knowledge are for life.

Another common source of error to be emphasized is the "discovery" of the very entry that you are seeking through a list of sources for a particular county. Some antiquarian, genealogist, or record searcher copied the registers or wills and published the results. A library may list the index to some source, a parish register or a list of wills for example. The copyist and transcriber will have had a particular purpose behind his work. Of course there are many exceptions. Think about it. How often would such a philanthropist copy every entry if he were only interested in, perhaps, two or three particular names. Perhaps, also he listed along with their variant spellings, the names of interrelated families? There have been such people who make copies simply for their own interest in recording. In my youth, I cycled around all the parishes of Sussex noting heraldry in every church, and also recorded all the heraldry and monumental inscriptions in Canterbury Cathedral. A fair number of other "dedicated idiots" produced similar full surveys of monumental inscriptions, parish records, and other documentation. Most of the M.I.s on ledger stones have disappeared, erased by the feet of tourists following the Second World War, standing stones have been broken or knocked over by vandals.

One of my mentors, the late Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, Baronet, transcribed many of the parish registers of West Kent and left a large collection to The Society of Genealogists. His first efforts were passable in spite of some difficulties with the handwriting of the original old registers; the work of his middle years was almost 100% accurate; but, as his eyesight failed, so his accuracy became less reliable. As a youngster, I helped him by sorting his index slips into alphabetical piles on the carpet at Ightham Mote. I used the same method when compiling my Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, and later, General Armory Two, and then the Armigerous Ancestors index when still living at Alcroft Grange.

I did most of that indexing work by getting up in dead of night before the nightdresses of our little girls came in the early hours to see what daddy was doing . and blew the alphabetical piles of slips that I had laid out on the carpet out of place! Did I ever thank the printers who supplied me with paper cut (approximately) to the size I needed for tens of thousands of entries? Can I be sure that any of my work was accurate or complete? Of course not; but I, like the others, did my best to help researchers of the future.

Another good friend and pioneer, F.G. "Derick" Emmison who virtually created Essex and other county record offices, training many county archivists himself, was a great copier and compiler of indexes. He, too, was the first to admit the imperfections of his magnificent works, and always insisted that what he did was carried out to the best of his ability in thanks for access to the original documents. What joy it was when, in those days, we did indeed have access to the original material in the Public Record Office when it was in Chancery Lane, and in the growing numbers of County record offices. How much has been put on film or copied, and what has been missed or how many lost? How many microfilms and microfiches are all but illegible? Some may remember the basket trolley of Somerset House records that tipped out under a bus in The Strand in London on its way with the register books to St Catherine's House in Kingsway! Some have since turned up on flee market stalls.

Referring to records of general registration and censuses, a Registrar General once confessed that to his knowledge a measurable percentage of early records were missing altogether, or worse, invented! Pages have been cut out by those too lazy to copy.

Recently, a signal example has come to light with a claim about a particular ancestral line has been found in Norfolk. Though there is much in existence for research in that county, not all its records by a long chalk have been made available to the public yet. Indeed, it may be very many years before they will be. Meanwhile, on the parochial front only about 160 of more than 700 parishes have had their registers copied, many only for short runs, others for a limited number of names and still others have large gaps due to loss and destruction. It is easy to demonstrate similarly for all other counties that their documentation transferred into indexes and on to the Internet is far from complete. So research in the original sources wherever they may be found, by competent researchers remains essential and will do for many decades to come. There is no cheap and ready way to trace your ancestry and sometimes the time required runs to weeks, months and even years before the required evidence that can be relied upon is to be found.

My own great aunt, Hilda Humphery-Smith stood over me some seventy years ago, tut-tutting and saying, "Cross him out, Cecil. He was never one of ours!" I have never forgotten, and whenever I have been drawing up a family tree since then, I have glanced up whenever I have had doubts and, perhaps, rubbed out the certain line and introduced a dotted one cut by a question mark, fully prepared to rub it out if further evidence in proof cannot be found. Elsewhere, I have confessed to a mistake of producing a "proven" family tree from parochial records, only, many years later, being shown a family Bible from which another tree could be compiled with the same names and more or less the same years of events in the same village, but the owners of the Bibles were Baptists and were not recorded as being in the parish!

As already pointed out, the Colyer-Fergusson collection largely covers the Rochester diocese, and much of East Kent remains un-copied, with numerous registers partly or wholly missing. Of course, your Kentish ancestor could have been entered in that register that was stolen with the parish safe, later found in a ditch on the Romney marshes, or lost in the registers of the church that was struck by lightening and burnt down. Is it really worth a try to invent your ancestor? The great W.G.Whitmore wrote in the 1880's, "Do not insult your true progenitors with false claims to others."

Most recently the marvellous census indexes for 1901 back to 1861 have become available. This presented a source of such usefulness that it promised to solve all problems of late nineteenth century research. Yet, however able and dedicated the amateur may be, it is only with the experience, persistent guile, and the knowledge of the truly qualified professional that the right path to follow will be found.

However, don't let me dishearten you. You will feel glum, and tell me that I have! It is simply a case of realising limitations in the evidence available and the skills in interpreting them. Of course, finding strict evidence is difficult, that is why competent genealogists undertake proper courses of training and continue their practice under experienced guidance. This process is not dissimilar to the training and apprenticeship sharpened by experience required in other professions. The skill and accuracy required by a good genealogist who knows his way around the sources of evidence differs little from that of the good surgeon. Part-time, full-time and home study courses by correspondence are available from The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. There are also limited opportunities for individuals to join the team in Canterbury on a "learn and earn" apprenticeship scheme.

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12 September 2007

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