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10:48pm on Saturday, 14th August, 2010:

Bulk Buying


I've just spent 6 hours working on my family tree. I wasn't planning on doing it, but a quarter of my ancestors are Scottish: this means a trip to the truly awful Scotland's People web site, which has a user interface exhibiting all the clunkiness you'd expect of a site that charges you 20p to see the results of a search and £1 to show you a scan of any documents you might want to look at. It also make you bulk buy "credits" at a minimum of £6 for 30.

As you have to pay by credit card, when I visited the site yesterday I thought I'd buy more than I needed to save my having to go through the payment rigmarole next time I visited. This would have worked, except that I happened by chance to notice that the credits had an expiry date on them. Well, not so much date as hour — I had to use them all within 24 hours of buying them. Thus, although I had no intention of doing any genealogy research today, I had to log in to spend them.

Anyway, because of this I finally decided which of the two people called Mary Ower born in Perthshire in 1793 was mine, and added her to the tree. I then made the mistake of visiting Ancestry.co.uk to update my online tree.

Ancestry.co.uk runs a "hints" system, which means that they do database searches on people in your family tree and flag any new information they've found. Around half the records in my tree were flagged — that meant like 500 of them. I cleared them at the rate of 50 an hour (just my half of the tree — my wife's half can wait for another day). Mostly they were just census records that didn't make the upload from my home database, but there were plenty of oddities too (helpful suggestions that someone who was 83 in the 1851 census might be the same person who died in Australia in 1930, that kind of thing). Overall, however, this is a very useful exercise and I'm glad that Ancestry.co.uk provide the service — even if they do sometimes tell me "new" information like this:

The biggest problems are with connections to other people's family trees. Some of the trees that appear on Ancestry.co.uk are fastidiously researched in intricate detail. Others are wishful thinking. Some are complete fantasy. I've come across trees that go several generations back from what I know to be a case of mistake identity. I've come across others that choose between two equally plausible candidates for an ancestor (like my two Mary Owers) seemingly on the basis of whichever one can be used to go furthest back. Others have people in the 1500s being born a hundred miles from where they lived because parish records are so patchy back then that if you find an ancestor with the right name, chances are it's in the same parish that a dozen other people who have ancestors with the same name have discovered, and they've all put the same man in their family tree married to a different wife. Another trend is for people to start a family tree, find a link to someone else's, then copy it wholesale. Thus, if you see 5 trees telling you that so-and-so is the mother of one of your ancestors, that doesn't mean they all reached that conclusion independently; it's more than likely that one person did it — for possibly flaky reasons — and the others just imported it to save themselves some work.

What I find most frustrating, though, is where you come across a tree that extends what you know in a believable way, but provides no evidence. For example, several months ago I came across a tree that my father-in-law's grandfather was in. I've been looking for the right George Martin out of the 10,000 George Martins in London at the right time, and this tree had it. It had all the brothers and sisters and everything matching properly: it was a quality tree and it looked trustworthy. However, that doesn't mean I trust it: it means I dont dismiss it out of hand, and want to know what evidence it uses. I contacted the person in charge, got a reply, sent some details of my own, and then heard nothing. Follow-up emails have gone unanswered.

Today, I discovered one of my ancestors on my dad's side had several generations of ancestors above him that I didn't know about. There were four trees saying this. One of those four people will actually have researched it, the others will just have copied it, so I don't know to whom I should direct my "how do you know this?" query. There really should be notes attached to all connections explaining how you know they're true. At least that way people can see whether they buy it or not.

On top of this, recalcitrant ancestors are a pain, too. The Isabella Burgess in the pictured record above comes from a diddly-squat village in the middle of Banffshire that the inhabitants refer to by three different names completely arbitrarily, and they all name their children after themselves, their parents and their siblings. The above Isabella married one John Grant — one of the dozen or so people called John Grant who lived there at the time, I should say — but miraculously she's the only person called Isabella Burgess to be born in the area for 30 years. Unfortunately, unless she was baptised several years after her birth, she would be 12 at the time she married John Grant in 1795. The minimum age for marriage in Scotland was fixed at 16 in the 18th century, so that's rather a problem. However, if she were the Isabella Burgess born thirty years earlier, that would mean she'd be over 50 when she had her son (you guess it) John Grant in 1804. Augh! Why can't these people co-operate?

Sorry for the rant, but honestly, some people have no concern for their descendants...

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).