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{$text['mgr_gob1']} Editorial


by Alan D Craxford


There are few of us these days who do not have at least a sneaking curiosity in discovering who we are and where we came from. This interest has been heightened by the exploits and experiences of celebrities in tracing their own family histories in such programmes as BBC Television's "Who do you think you are?". Who knows for certain that there is not a prince or a knight lurking in the distant past? Or deeds of bravery or scandals long forgotten? Or accomplishments in fields unsuspected, acts of kindness gone unrewarded or barbaric punishments meted out for criminal behaviour? What was going on locally and nationally when your ancestors were alive? How did the Civil War, outbreaks of Smallpox, Cholera and Diphtheria, the Industrial Revolution affect your forebears - and therefore, you?

Alan D Craxford
Alan J Craxford

The two Alans

I have, to say the least, a rather unusual surname. It is strange that for most of my life I was not aware of anyone else of similar descent. My sister Brenda and I lived in the knowledge of our mother's side of the family - and even that contained some strange and tangled relationships. My father acknowledged his father but beyond that we knew nothing of great grandparents, uncles, great aunts, nephews or nieces. We knew that the family name appeared in some of the graveyards in villages in Northamptonshire going back to about 1700. Brenda drew up the first tentative family tree some years ago but my interest was finally sparked when I found another Alan the same age as me and born only 40 miles away from my home town - and neither of us knew of each other's existence. More surprisingly, Alan's sister, Maureen, had also been very busy gathering similar data.

Maureen Bird
Brenda Eldridge

The two Alans' sisters

Initially information was recorded on file cards and other scraps of paper and peoples' links to one another were drawn and redrawn in a primitive family tree. It became apparent that these measures were highly inefficient and, with my acknowledged interest in computers, it fell to me to take over the further research, the recording of data and the dissemination of the accumulated information.

That was nearly three years ago. I have found an enthralling and highly addictive hobby. We have uncovered whole new branches of the family tree; uncles and aunts we did not know existed; unearthed lost contacts and made visits to distant cousins; are in communication with like minded people from around the globe; traced the family back to 1620; have a database containing over 6000 names and a very active family web site. In this article I will re-trace my steps and give some practical ideas about what you can do to follow me. My choices of equipment and software may not please everyone but they have suited my needs. I do not claim that the list of reference sources is either complete or exhaustive.

On occasion I will indicate a page reference elsewhere in the family's web site where that could further illustrate a point. Just click on the link and then come back by pressing the back button of your browser.

Getting started

So you want to trace your own ancestry. Where do you start? Well, the best place to begin is to talk with your near relations. After your own parents, do the same with your grandparents and aunts and uncles. Ask about their own parents and siblings and you should, with a little luck, be able to delve back into the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is a simple matter of recording dates of birth, marriage and death and places of residence but wherever possible these should be confirmed and referenced by scrutiny of the relevant certificates. Also make careful note of any anecdotes, recollections and other unsubstantiated titbits for future research. I have found the use of a pocket dictaphone particularly helpful when talking to older relatives.

Old photograph 1

Great Aunt Maud?

Old photograph 1 again

Great Aunt Mabel?

Your immediate family is also a good source of other documentation. Drawers, boxes, the attic and old suitcases may be stuffed with old letters and certificates. Many households have a coveted family Bible. My own travels have shown me that it is never too early to start recording and researching. That box of photographs from the last century salted away by your great aunt Maud is a valuable source of information but make sure it is properly annotated while she is still around to do so. As I have found to my cost more than once that same box becomes a mere collection of nameless faces once she has died.

If your family has been living in the same location for some time, there will be local church and civic records which can be scrutinised. By this time you will have details of three or four generations and you should be able to draw the makings of a rudimentary tree diagram.

Enter the computer

By this time too, you will probably find - as I did - that hand or type written records are getting increasingly difficult to manipulate. It is time to computerise.

I am assuming that, for now, you will be keeping and using your family information for yourself and your immediate relations. As we progress I shall endeavour to point out additional requirements and resources (and also attempt to give some indication of cost) that may be required to expand your horizons. At this stage the equipment you use is not unduly critical and whatever machine comes to hand should be eminently suitable. Also at this stage your new hobby should not tax your time or bank balance unduly.

You will need some form of data storage facility. It is possible merely to copy your existing information into a word processor or spreadsheet file. However it is preferable to start as you mean to continue and invest in a genealogy program. There are a number on the market on CD-ROM (Family TreeMaker [FTM]; Legacy6 de luxe [L6D]; "Who Do You Think You Are"; Generations Family Tree etc) which sell for £20 or less. You may also find "Try Before You Buy" offers on the CDs given away with computer and genealogy magazines. Any of these will serve your purpose but do make sure that the package is capable of generating an output file in GEDCOM 5.5 format (most do and I will explain its significance later).

The first steps into the world of genealogy

If like me you've played around with FTM for a few weeks and have exhausted your nearest and dearest, you will probably have added a couple of hundred names to your database. The next thing to consider is how and where to start serious and proper investigations. It is possible to seek out and view public records in the archives where they are held (both locally and nationally). However there is such a wealth of information that has now been collated and made available that an internet connection is an absolute 'must'. By all means use your favourite ISP but if you haven't already done so you should budget as early as possible for an upgrade to broadband. You will be perusing mountains of pages, viewing vast collections of scanned images and searching gigantic databases that will be just too tediously slow on a dial-up connection.

If you got to this point before you made your choice of genealogy software, many of the on-line companies provide trial downloads of their products which do allow you to look at the interface and access usability before you commit yourself. I chose L6D (a limited function copy can be downloaded from their website free) which will be updated to version 7 this autumn. The following link gives an idea of the page lay-out for an individual entry in the database and the way that subsidiary data entry screens overlay the main page: JOHN CRAXFORD: A SCREENSHOT OF LEGACY6 DELUXE

The primary sources that you will need to access and become familiar with are the Indexes of Births Marriages and Deaths and the National Census returns. Once again I am making the assumption here that my audience is UK based but similar information is available from most countries around the world in varying degrees.

The UK census returns

I made the point earlier that you should have been able to get back to before 1900 by interviewing your own family. Censuses were started in the early 1800s as a means of assessing the population (for tax and conscription purposes) and were carried out at ten year intervals. The earliest census available is from 1841 although this is incomplete and of little help to the budding genealogist. Census data is also kept sealed for one hundred years after it is collected - and this leaves seven collections (1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901) which are available for inspection and research. Several of these are broken down further to cover England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands etc. Few of these can be searched "for free" (1881) but most will cost you something. The National Archives (link below) allows you to search the indexes to the 1901 census returns for any given name but access to the full record is "pay per view". You pay on line using a credit card (minimum £5) which buys you viewing credit that lasts for seven days and each page viewed costs 10p.

By far the easiest and most complete site is Ancestry which has developed separate sites in both the US and the UK. This is a subscription site which gives you access to all the census records mentioned above as well as some other useful databases (such as the Pallot Birth and Marriage certificates which pre-date the Central Registry).

At its simplest, you search Ancestry for individuals or surnames, broadening or narrowing your search by year, country, district etc. You will then be given a choice of individuals who match those criteria. "William Craxford" gave me 57 different results. For any particular return you will be given details of age, address, occupation and other family members. You will also be able to look at the original handwritten census return form. You should be able to identify your (great) grandparents from the 1901 census and recognise their parents and siblings. The address details and approximate dates of birth are good items for cross-correlation purposes. You should then be able to trace the male line with ease back to the 1851 census and with a little luck you will have some details of ancestors born in the late 1700s.

Ancestry's UK De Luxe annual membership subscription costs £69.95 although there are frequent introductory offers to tempt you to sign up. There is a much more expensive worldwide membership which allows searches on both sites.

An important caveat

You must bear in mind that any of these indexes have been re-written and often interpreted from the original hand-written forms by volunteer transcribers. You should also remember that at the time when these censuses were being taken a large swathe of the population was illiterate and that regional accents often interfered with the way that surnames were spelled. Then there were individuals (or indeed whole families) who were known by names other than their given name. This often means that if your surname is even slightly out of the ordinary you will have to consider looking at all the variations of spelling. I have found relatives under the names Croxford, Crawford, Crayford, Cranford and Crauford. You can see how one of the other surnames in our family tree developed over the course of 150 years in "The Nessworthy Genesis"

Registrations of birth, marriage and death

A centralised Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths [BMDs] (General Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Wales) was not introduced until 1837 and even then registration was not enforced. It is estimated that up to 10% of births were not registered in the years to 1875 when registration was made compulsory.

The internet provides access to the indexes to these registers. These indexes are grouped into quarters (January - March; April - June etc) Prior to about 1864 the indexes themselves were hand written. Between 1837 and 1912, births were recorded to show given names and surnames along with the district of registration and the registration reference. After 1912, the mother's maiden name was added to the index. Prior to 1912, a entry in the marriage index showed only the name of the person searched. After 1912, the entry also included the name of the spouse and in the case of a previously married woman her prior married name. Death registrations after 1866 included the age at death.

There are two main sites of the access to the indexes to the registers. The first, freeBMD, is a free site which has the advantage of allowing searches based on individual given and surnames. It is part of the FreeGENUK group of web sites and as they freely admit theirs is an ongoing project and conversion of the indexes to their format is not yet complete. However at the last count (August 13th 2005) their database held 136,846,116 distinct records.

A search for the birth records of "William Craxford" yielded 11 entries between September 1845 and March 1900 . One such entry showed that the birth of a William Craxford was registered in June 1885 in Kettering with the reference 3b 193. By clicking on the spectacle symbol it is possible to view a scan of the actual index page for this reference.

The second site, findmypast (which used to be called, uses a direct access to the indexes of the registers themselves. The indexes are split into two volumes: 1837 - 1983 and 1983 - 2003. The search capabilities are rather more primitive allowing you to enter a surname (or part), the type (birth, marriage or death) and a range of up to 10 years. This will produce a list of the quarterly indexes that could contain entries with the given name. You are then taken through to a scan of the actual page.

The disadvantage of this method is that you will view an awful lot of pages that do not contain your selected name. The main advantage is that the indexes are comprehensive and much more complete than FreeBMD. Access is by pre-paid pay-per-view and you pay even if your given name is not on the page provided. The cost ranges from 10p per view (£5 for 50 units which are valid for 90 days) down to 5p per view (£120 for 2400 units which are valid for 365 days)

Prior to that date BMDs were the province of the local church. There were some attempts at centralisation of records (the Pallot indexes for instance) but these now provide only very patchy information.

The same caveat about the spelling of names applies here.

Indexes? What about the certificate

These two sources (the censuses and the BMD indexes) should give you a considerable amount of information about your family backwards from 1901 to about 1800 and then forward, using the indexes, to the present day. You will almost certainly have discovered that names traditionally ran in families. If you came from a small community it would not be surprising to find two or three people with the same given names. We had three Williams, four Johns, three Roberts and two Thomas's living close to each other in rural Northamptonshire.

There will also come a time when you discover another family with the same name as yours living in the same area which just refuses to fit. This is where more precise methods are needed to determine who fits where - whose father is which and what was the mother's maiden name. Your most likely resource will be the appropriate BMD certificate itself and the source is the General Registry Office (GRO). A certified copy of a registration of a birth marriage or death from 1837 onwards costs £7. These can be ordered (postage included) on line. There is a bare minimum of data that is required (given name, surname, type of certificate, year and quarter of registration, district and registration reference). There is however no room for mistake in the data you enter (that's why I maintain an 1837online subscription to double check the entry - even if found initially on FreeBMD). Get one detail wrong and the GRO won't go searching for you (unless you pre-pay an additional search fee)

Once you have got the certificate itself there is additional information to be had. For births - the actual date of birth, the mother's maiden name, the address of residence; for marriages - the date of the marriage; after about 1875 the ages of the spouses; residence at the time of marriage, names and occupations of the fathers; the names of the witnesses; for deaths - the date of death, after 1862 to age at death, occupation, cause of death and often the name of the spouse.

An example of the way in which all these resources have been used and our ongoing investigations can be found at Sarah's twisted skein

Other resources ...

Once you have exhausted these sites, there are many other resources you can start looking into. One of the largest collections of personal data anywhere in the world is that amassed by the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons). Although based in Utah this is a valuable area of source material particularly prior to 1800. They also have the 1881 UK census returns on line. Information is stored in IGI (International Genealogy Index) files. Serious genealogists do treat the contained data with a degree of caution and require corroborative evidence for proof. However it will often provide you with the next pointer when your researches have come to a standstill.

The National Archives of the United Kingdom can be a gold mine of accessory nuggets - adding colour to individuals. This is the chief repository of UK Government records which are released into the public domain after a period of years. As well as census returns, there are catalogues of documents on line going back several hundred years. Of particular interest may be transcripts of a number of wills, war service medal tables and other local government papers.

On a similar vein the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database holds records, commemorations of servicemen killed and injured in two world wars ad well as descriptions, maps and photographs of the cemeteries and burial sites of which they have control and maintain. There are also areas of interest and historical documents of battles and other materials in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum.

Indexes to local and national newspapers can be found (some free, some very expensive) and provide unexpected information. This can lead to more extensive collections held at regional libraries and librarians can often be very helpful in tracing and guiding specific lines of research. Uncovering the untimely demise of my grandfather's half brother in 1875 (Death for threeha'p'orth of suckers) is a good example of this.

Another interesting place to check out for criminal activities and the victims of crime are the records of the Old Bailey in London. This documents with actual transcriptions the accounts of over 100,000 trials, the evidence and the punishments meted out between 1674 and 1834.

Other equipment

You will soon find the need to make copies of documents and photographs. If it is your final intention to go on line, you should choose equipment that will generate jpg images.

A digital camera (I use a 6.1 megapixel Nikon camera with a Speedflash)
A scanner (My choice was an HP dedicated photosmart scanner - about £70 from

You will also need some form of graphics manipulation software. I have found Picasa2 (a free download from Google) quite serviceable in adjusting colours and contrast of pictures as well as exporting them in a jpg file format suitable for downloading to the internet. For something more intricate (such as the banners to each of our magazine sections) you may need a much more heaviweight package. These were produced using Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Now we've got all the information, what do we do with it?

There are many people who have taken up family history tracing who are quite content to keep the fruits of their labours to themselves, perhaps producing a limited chart when Auntie Mabel comes to visit. If you want to do something more than this there are several approaches. Most personal computer based software systems will allow you to collect pictures, documents and video clips and to print out a variety of charts and booklets for local consumption.

Beyond that there are web based methods of distribution. There are several reasons for going further afield. Obviously you will want to show the world where you have come from and how efficient you have been in deriving this information. More importantly is that your presence on the internet will be a powerful attraction for other known, lost and unknown contacts within the family. With an uncommon surname (like mine) it should be no idle boast that you could demonstrate the link to the main family tree for anyone presenting with the same surname. To date we have only one unattached limb.

This need alone was the driving force behind the Friends Reunited spin-off: Genes Reunited (GR). This used to be a subscription service but since its take-over it is offering free registrations. It allows you to construct a family tree within their "forest" of family trees. It allows you to communicate and link with other trees that shares individuals, growing your tree with little extra effort. It does however need both parties to be registered members of GR. The easiest way of entering your data is by downloading a GEDCOM file although at a pinch you could use the site from scratch. Ancestry has a similar "World Tree" facility.

Most genealogy programs have the facility to create a home page, family tree structure and carry photographs within the parent web site. My initial tree dabbling was with FTM and an early version of the web site can still be seen at: CRAXFORD TREE V1.

My current database and information store is now so great that neither of these routes is usuable any more. A couple of years ago I decided to build my own family history web site and after some research I came across a bespoke software program [TNG] that was for just that purpose. It has provided me with the tools to create a specialised and searchable genealogical database. With several other (and in some cases, newly introduced) family members we have developed a family history magazine already holding over one hundred and tewnty articles. Our original intent was to create a single name database but as our six colour "supplements" confirm, interest and pressure from other branches has made certain that the tree will continue to flourish and grow.

To whet your appetite you could now go to our front page and look us over on: "The Extended Craxford Genealogy Magazine"

*Postscript about CIAO

I wrote the first version of this article for the "Member Advice on Researching Family History" section of the web based consumer opinion site CIAO where it originally appeared on December 28th 2005. I have carried out some minor editing and updating before bringing it here. You can see what other CIAO readers thought about it on the following page:

COMMENTS ON REVIEW OF "If CIAO is Caffeine, this is my crack cocaine"

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