The documentation cliff …

As I’ve said before, I’ve been messing about with family history to keep my skills sharp during this thing which is the pandemic, even to the extent that I bought myself a one year all-knobs-and-whistles subscription to MyHeritage as a belated Christmas present.

One of the knobs and whistles you get with the full subscription is Smart Match, which basically takes the initial family tree you built and looks for matches in other family trees and offers you the chance to help expand your family tree, the result being that I apparently have whole squads of third cousins of which I know nothing.

I also have a whole range of Florindas and Gertrudes from the Anglican great and good of eighteenth century Ireland through my admittedly tenuous connection with the Sobieski-Stuarts, due to one of my distant ancestors being a sibling of Thomas Allen’s mistress.

(I actually don’t like the word mistress, it doesn’t describe the relationship adequately. In a world where divorce was not an option, he was unable to marry Ann Salmond, my distant relation, yet they lived together for the rest of his life and had children together, which suggests that there was more to the relationship than sexual passion.)

What it hasn’t given me is much in the way of relatives in my line of descent – obviously no one else has researched them further, so I’m thrown back on the public databases of births, marriages and deaths, which gets me back to 1805 or thereabouts with a degree of confidence and the rest is manual searching and guesswork.

J’s family is even worse.

Her father’s side has been well researched by her cousin, but her mother’s side is a mess.

Her maternal grandfather’s line traces back to a man known as Henry Thomas Hill, who has a wife/partner called Anne Humphries who both appear in Castlemaine in the late 1840’s, shortly before the gold rush, where they have a child.

Neither of them appear to have been convicts, or more accurately they don’t appear on any of the convict registers. Neither of them appear on any of the surviving passenger lists of migrants, and there appears to be no record of their births, or their marriage.

They just appear.

It’s possible that they changed their names and reinvented themselves.

Castlemaine began as a squatter settlement in the late 1830’s, and my best guess is that they found their way there to work on the sheep runs (shades of Magwitch in Great Expectations), and that they came via Tasmania from England. (Victoria did not exist as a separate colony in the 1840’s and was governed as part of New South Wales, but quite a few of the early settlers came from Van Diemen’s land, or as we now call it, Tasmania.)

But there’s a point here.

Comprehensive record keeping in the British Empire didn’t really get going until the 1850’s. Before then it was incumbent on the local parishes to keep records, which they mostly did for members of the appropriate ‘official’ churches.

That means that for a birth in the eighteen fifties you can get the mother’s name, the father’s name, possibly their ages.

If they lived in England and Wales you might then be able to trace them back through the 1851 and 1841 censuses, which might well give you the names of the grandparents.

Prior to 1841, names were not collated centrally, so basically it’s a case to see whether the earlier records have been kept by the appropriate county record office and, given that one can’t just pop round to look at the records, digitised and put online. Knowing which microfilm roll to search doesn’t help.

In Scotland, the situation is slightly different, but the first usable census is the 1841 census. Census records before then were kept by the individual parishes, and may not have been digitised.

In New South Wales, censuses start in 1836 and after 1841 only record the head of the household, which obviously presents difficulties.

So all this means that you can, with a little work, usually trace people back to the 1820’s, and with a bit of luck a little bit earlier. Before then, who knows?

Parish registers are of course incomplete.

In Scotland, as I’ve found, birth records sometimes do not include the mother’s name, or where they were living, although sometimes a little detective work can help here.

In England, it’s a little different, but using much the same techniques I’ve been able to trace some of J’s maternal grandmother’s forebears to rural Norfolk in the 1820’s using the Diocese of Norwich’s records.

What happened if your forebears were members of some obscure dissenting sect is unclear to me – if they had no clear relationship with the established church, they may simply have been missed.

And of course, in a frontier society like colonial Australia, people may well simply lied about their past, and maybe there was no one to officially record a birth, marriage or death anyway.

The result is, that before 1800 we have a documentation cliff. Records tend to be terse and omit key facts, making it difficult to research people, unless of course they were of some importance. And of course people did not have the long tail of documentation we have today, allowing them to re-invent themselves in the colonies if they wished.

And in a sense, people in the early 1800’s recognised this, so publications like the 1802 New Jamaica Alamanc included the Army and Navy lists, so that you could be sure that someone who claimed to be an officer and a gentleman was at least an officer.

While records and directories help they are not a complete solution. Furthermore pre 1800 parish records may not be fully digitised – meaning that the work is impossible to do remotely.

So we have what I term the documentation cliff – people who were not property owners become invisible …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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