Thursday, 30 August 2012

WDYTYA? Series 9 - Patrick Stewart

It was another military themed Who Do You Think You Are? last night with renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart, famous for playing various Shakespearean roles, Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, and, of course, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise.

Patrick wanted to begin his research with the military records of his father, Alfred. Due to Alfred being posted abroad during WWII, Patrick didn't really get to know him until he was around five years old. As an adult Patrick had heard that Alfred had had a distinguished military career, and now wanted to use his WDYTYA? experience to look into this in more detail.

The first stop was the Imperial War Museum in London. Alfred's service record showed that he first joined the Army in 1925, two weeks after the birth of his first child. After completing his service, part of which was in the regimental police, he re-enlisted at the start of WWII. 

Alfred's first real experience of the horrors of war occurred at Abbeville in France in 1940. His battalion was met by well trained and efficient German Panzer divisions. The town and surrounding areas were heavily bombed, and the battalion witnessed crowds of refugees fleeing from the destruction. Not long after this incident Alfred and his battalion were evacuated from France as the Germans continued their relentless advance towards Paris.

On his return home a newspaper article revealed that Alfred had suffered from shell-shock whilst at the front line, and that the symptoms had remained with him when he returned to England. This suddenly brought context to the angry father that Patrick remembered from his childhood.

Alfred's war was not over, however, as he later joined the Parachute Regiment. During the years of 1940-1942 he had been promoted from a Corporal, to Sergeant, to Sergeant-Major. He was posted to the South of France as part of Operation Dragoon in 1944. This operation, in conjunction with the D-Day landings, had a huge impact on the outcome of the war. Patrick visited the area that Alfred had parachuted into, and even the exact buildings that had been used as headquarters.

The final part of the programme involved Patrick investigating shell-shock, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The effects on some servicemen were tragic, and involved some people being classified as incurable, and being kept in asylums. In general, nightmares, violent outbursts, and alcohol abuse were commonly found amongst sufferers of shell-shock. As a child Patrick had witnessed Alfred being drunk and violent towards his mother, and while not excusing the behaviour in any way, he could now understand that there were extenuating circumstances to explain his father's quick temper.

Sir Patrick Stewart's Who Do You Think You Are? story is another example, one of many, of how war affected those who lived and fought through it. It changed the men who risked their lives, and as a result relationships with family members were altered forever.

This episode of WDYTYA? can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer for the next two months.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

WDYTYA Series 9 - Gregg Wallace

The tears were flowing last night on Who Do You Think You Are? It was, I think, the saddest episode I have ever seen. It featured Gregg Wallace of Masterchef fame, and his search for his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandmother.

The episode began with Gregg visiting his mum, who provided an early photograph of Gregg's gx2 grandmother. There was, however, no name or information to go along with it. Gregg's first impression based on his ancestor's appearance was that she may have been well off. The information he obtained about his great- grandfather, Henry Roland Springett, was that he had abandoned his wife and children and deserted from the Navy. Not a particularly happy story to research, but it gets worse.

Gregg began his search in Plymouth, where a check of Henry's Naval records revealed that no desertion had taken place. Furthermore, prior to joining the Navy Henry had been a greengrocer, the same as Gregg himself. The really interesting revelation from the records, however, was that Henry had been away on duty when his wife had conceived and delivered a second child. Rather than deserting his family, Henry had been the victim of adultery! 

Further records revealed that Henry had attempted to divorce his wife, and to gain custody of his son, Gregg's grandfather. For unknown reasons, probably a lack of funds, these proceedings did not go ahead. It is thought that Gregg's grandfather grew up never knowing that his father had wanted him.

Gregg wanted to discover what had gone wrong in the marriage, and the answer shocked him. Henry and his wife Emily had had a child prior to Gregg's grandfather. Emily and her two children slept in the same bed while Henry was away at sea, and she left a small lamp burning so that she could nurse the baby. One night a terrible accident occurred when the young girl's flannelette nightdress caught fire from the lamp. She died from her injuries, and Gregg speculated that Henry may have blamed his wife for the horrific event.

More heartbreak was to follow. Later in life Henry met another woman named Emily, and they had two children together. His unbelievable misfortune continued when he witnessed her being knocked down and killed by a car. 

The amazing thing about genealogy is that it often throws up stories like this, that make us feel so sad for our ancestors that we never actually knew personally.

Gregg's research into his gx2 grandmother was no brighter. He discovered that her name was Selina, and that she had had a hard life working as a gloveress from the age of eight. Census records revealed a brother who was listed as an imbecile. Further research revealed that he had died after having a fit of convulsions, probably witnessed by Selina. Shortly after this she was admitted to a lunatic asylum, with symptoms including raving about being damned. 

After a few years she was released, and it was revealed that this is where Gregg's mother's photograph originated from. She went on to marry and have a family, but in later life suffered a relapse, and died in the asylum at the age of fifty-one. 

Gregg Wallace's Who Do You Think You Are? story was filled with heartbreak and tragedy, but made for compulsive viewing. You can catch it now on the BBC iPlayer.

Common Ancestry

There is a very interesting article on the BBC website today. Written by Dr. Yan Wong, it poses the question of how long it takes for the whole of humanity to have a common ancestor. Dr. Wong was initially researching the bloodline between King David and Jesus, but went on to widen the scope of the research to a modern setting.

Recent studies into DNA and the human genome have allowed scientists to speculate about ancestry, including making calculations about common ancestors. The problem arises due to the fact that the number of ancestors we have grows exponentially - 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, etc. Since, according to the Bible, there were 1000 years and at least 35 generations between Jesus and King David, Jesus could potentially have had more than 34 billion ancestors! This is obviously impossible, and is what is known as the "genealogical paradox."

Dr. Wong clarifies this by stating that inbreeding has to be taken into account; in other words certain common ancestors can exist in different branches of your family tree, and are therefore mistakenly counted twice. 

Further calculation based on this theory throws up some very interesting numbers regarding common ancestry. For example, it is estimated that the most recent common ancestor of all human beings alive today would have existed only 3000 years ago. That is astounding. Furthermore, this means in turn that somebody alive today will be the common ancestor of the entire population of the Earth in 3000 years time. 

Just think of how many genealogical records our descendants will have at their disposal!

I'm not doing the article justice here, so please visit the BBC website to view it in its entirety.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Church Record Sunday: Scottish Church Records

One of the most important considerations when research a Scottish ancestor is the religious denomination they belonged to. Scotland was traditionally a Catholic country until the Reformation in the 16th century, at which point a split in the Christian church occurred. From this time onwards the Protestant Church of Scotland has been the majority faith, although Catholics have remained a sizeable minority due to immigration from Ireland and Italy in particular. It is also important to be aware of other religious minorities in Scotland, such as Jews and Quakers.

In general, however, most of the historical records that are available relate to the Church of Scotland Kirk Sessions, with separate records for Catholic ancestors. Records have been kept officially by the General Register Office since 1855. Before this some records exist dating back to the 16th century, although some parts of the country are better served than others. In addition, some Old Parochial Registers provide greater amounts of information than others. 

The handwriting of original documents is often very difficult to decipher. Great care has to be taken when viewing transcriptions, as they are not always accurate.

Scottish church records can provide a large amount of useful information relating to birth, marriages, and deaths. They can also provide a fascinating insight into the ways of the past, particularly in terms of the Kirk Sessions. The Church previously had a much greater control over the lives of parishioners. There are many instances of people being summoned before the Kirk Session to explain undesirable behaviour, and to be punished for it. My own research uncovered one of my ancestors in the north of Scotland being born out of wedlock, for example.

Regardless of the religious denomination of your Scottish ancestors, you will no doubt be intrigued researching their lives.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

WDYTYA Series 9 - Samantha Womack

Last night viewers in the UK were treated to the first episode of series 9 of Who Do You Think You Are? This episode featured the actress Samantha Womack, formerly Janus, and proved that this excellent genealogy programme has lost none of its quality.

Samantha started from the position of knowing very little about her ancestry, as many of us do, and began her research by speaking to her paternal grandmother. From this discussion she was able to move a couple of generations back, as she discovered the name of her great-grandmother and her great-great grandparents.

She decided to focus on her great-grandfather, Alexander Cunningham Ryan, and his experiences in the First World War fighting for the Scots Guards. She had been told that he suffered complication with his chest as a result of being exposed to poisonous gas, and wanted to investigate further. However, as it turned out, the chest problems actually arose from a gunshot wound to the lung.

Alexander Cunningham Ryan's service records revealed that he was a Glaswegian musician before the war, and as a result Samantha's next port of call was Glasgow. In particular, she wanted to investigate the fact that he had previously been in the Highland Light Infantry. In fact, it turned out that he had joined when he was only fourteen years old. It was discovered that this is where he learnt his skills as a musician.

More interestingly, a question was thrown up as to exactly how long Alexander has served with the HLI. His original records stated eight years, but his later Scots Guards records stated fourteen years. Samantha discovered that between the HLI and the Scots Guards Alexander had served with the Royal Garrison Artillery in Plymouth. The next revelation was that he had deserted from this post and had been imprisoned as a result, which explains why he had lied about his service record to the Scots Guards.

Interesting stuff indeed, and it gets better. A search of local historical records revealed that his crimes were the theft of two musical instruments. With a dishonourable discharge, it would have been virtually impossible for Alexander ever to re-enlist. In effect, the beginning of the First World War and the demand for soldiers gave him an opportunity to serve again, and he was able to conceal his past successfully.

This story made up only the first half of Samantha Womack's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? She went on to research her great-grandmother's past, which revealed some heartbreaking facts. I recommend you catch the full episode on the BBC iPlayer if you can. All in all a very good start to the new series.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Historic Newspapers

Every genealogist knows how valuable historical newspapers can be when carrying out family history research. I have personally spent countless hours in my local libraries accessing information from newspaper archives. If you have any interest at all in how the news was reported in the past then you will want to know about Historical Newspapers, a website which offers you the chance to buy genuine original archive newspapers from the date of your choice.

I have recently used the service at, and I have to say that it is excellent. There is a huge collection of newspapers available from countries all around the world. My choices were the Glasgow Herald and the Glasgow News, both from 1882. They were absolutely fascinating, and included births, marriages, and deaths, house sales, and business advertisements. There were also sections on ships leaving Glasgow for the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All of this information is undoubtedly not only useful, but also of great interest to family historians such as myself.

I was equally as impressed with the presentation of the newspapers. They arrived promptly, and were wrapped in tissue paper within an attractive presentation box, one of several presentation options available on the site. This, in fact, is the main selling point of the Historic Newspapers site, in that their newspapers make excellent gifts. The huge range on offer means that newspapers can be ordered to commemorate a particular date, whether that be a birthday, wedding anniversary, or anything else. You can even order newspapers as a souvenir of a particular world event, such as the moon landings. 

It really is fascinating to see what news was reported at a particular point in history. Historical newspapers make such a good gift because they are uniquely original, thoughtful, and a guaranteed conversation starter. As a keen historian and genealogist I would obviously be delighted to receive such a gift, however it is not necessary to be a student of history. People generally enjoy looking nostalgically at the past, particularly at the points that hold sentimental value to them. The gifts available from Historic Newspapers can evoke happy memories from previous times.

Whether for historical research, or as a gift for a special occasion, I cannot recommend Historic Newspapers enough. I have been very impressed by the professionalism of their website and service. If you would like to investigate their archive of historical newspapers from around the world you can take advantage of a special offer for Family History Finder readers. Just enter the code '15TODAY' at the checkout for a 15% discount off your total basket value.


Friday, 3 August 2012

Mocavo Genealogy Search Engine

I have just used the Mocavo genealogy search engine for the first time, even though it has been online since 2011. I used the UK version, although there is also the option of the original US version. First impressions are very positive.

Mocavo is a search engine that has been designed specifically for genealogists. A basic name or place search will very quickly return a collection of results from genealogy websites, blogs, message boards, and more. The search engine does not just look for the most up to date information as Google does, meaning that in theory it should be much more reliable at producing results which are useful and relevant. Even if a genealogy website has not been updated in months, the information it holds will still be crawled by Mocavo. That information could be just what you are looking for.

Mocavo requires the creation of an account to be able to perform a search. A name, email address, and password is all that is required. A basic account is free, but there is the option of signing up for Mocavo Plus at $79.95 per year. This will give you some extra features, the most useful of which is the ability to perform advanced custom searches.

The makers of Mocavo claim to have over 6 billion names in their index. Users can upload their own family trees and research documents, and share information with others. There is a real community feel to the site, and there is also a blog with many interesting and informative articles.

All in all I've been initially very impressed with Mocavo. I need to try it out further before I decide whether or not to upgrade, but I'm inclined to think that it will be my search engine of choice when carrying out genealogy research from now on.

Visit Mocavo.