Understanding evidence, Part 3: Modern derivative records, and pulling it all together
Janice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.
This is the third of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we draw upon to evidence our research. The first two parts looked at primary and secondary sources, original and derivative records, digital surrogates, and some grey areas that appear to be originals but are in fact derivatives: contemporary copies. We now move on to modern derivatives: transcriptions and online indexes.
Strictly speaking, a transcript is a word-for-word copy of the document, exactly as it appears on the original. However, modern day ‘transcriptions’ prepared for online genealogy research generally do not conform to this definition. Transcribers input information into predetermined fields for forename, surname, date, and so on. Any information falling outside these predetermined fields is simply omitted. This could mean important information or visual clues are missing. In any case, transcriptions vary in quality and accuracy. Sometimes the handwriting is difficult to read, particularly for someone not experienced in reading old handwriting styles. Consequently, the transcript may not record accurately the name, date or other information.
In the last post we looked at the baptism in August 1819 of James Sword Mann, the first child of Thomas and Lucy Mann. We saw that in the original parish record the clerk had mistakenly recorded the mother’s name as ‘Sophia’. Although this was eventually corrected in the parish record it was not corrected on the Bishop’s Transcript. Let’s look now at modern transcriptions of the event as recorded in both these records: the parish register and the Bishop’s Transcript.
Here is the transcript of the original record in the parish register:
And here, the modern transcript of the Bishop’s Transcript:
- In both these transcripts the child is named as James Mann, thereby omitting the middle name Sword. Sword is in fact the mother’s maiden name – a valuable clue for researchers.
- Both transcripts record the mother’s name as Sophia. This is of course correct in the case of the Bishop’s Transcript – it is a faithful copy of what was written. However, it is clear that on the parish record the transcriber has simply scanned the record looking for the facts required for the predetermined fields, and in doing so has not read the important amendment. Here, an entry of ‘Sophia amended to Lucy’ would be more accurate/useful.
- In the transcription of the Bishop’s Transcript, ‘Tho[ma]s’ is transcribed as ‘Ether’.
- On both transcripts the date of birth is omitted – the loss of a useful piece of information.
- While for the transcription of the Bishop’s Transcript the actual parish of ‘Norwich, St Martin at Oak’ is given, the parish register transcript records only ‘Norwich, Norfolk, England’. While technically true, in 1819 there were 36 parishes in Norwich, and the inclusion of parish is an important part of the record.
What we see here is that the further we have moved away from the original record, the more errors and/or omissions have crept in. That said, we should not discount transcripts. A transcript is far better than nothing; and although we will come across many mistakes like those just described, others are of extremely high quality, particularly those made by local Family History Societies and those made in years gone by, by local antiquarians. In cases where parish registers have been lost, their ‘reconstruction’, often done as a labour of love, using Bishops’ Transcripts and whatever other records are available are a wonderful resource. I have also used transcribed listings of parish register entries, arranged in alphabetical order, as a checklist, just to make sure I haven’t missed anyone. Wherever possible, though, transcripts are best used as a pointer to the existence of the actual record, guiding us to the original where we can see for ourselves what was written.
Online resources for genealogy bring a double bonus. Not only can we research from the comfort of our own homes, but also the individual records have been indexed. This means we can achieve in an afternoon what might previously have taken years of sifting through decades of un-indexed data stored on microfiche at the local County Records Office. Whether we’re using commercial genealogy sources such as Ancestry.co.uk or FindMyPast, or free-to-use sites such as FamilySearch and FreeBMD, we just type in a few key search terms and are rewarded with a selection of possible records, probably including digital surrogates of the originals.
The indexes themselves, however, are a derivative record, created pretty much as described above, by third parties, whose work may be of variable quality and accuracy, typing key facts into the predetermined index fields. As such they can and do include errors. My great grandfather, born in Leeds, is indexed on FindMyPast for the 1911 census with a birthplace of ‘Scotland’. I have also found a very clearly written ‘Alfred’ listed on the index as ‘George’, and indeed an entire collection indexed under Northamptonshire rather than Norfolk. Sometimes archaic spelling on very old original documents makes index searches even more ‘hit-and-miss’.
Pulling it all together: combining different source types for best effect
In this 3-part overview we’ve identified some good practice guidance for working with different source types:
- Always get as close as possible to the original source for facts about your ancestors.
- Use secondary sources to add context and depth, and to develop your understanding of the times they lived in.
- Be aware of the nature of the record you’re looking at, and record that along with the information from the record.
We will now add one more point:
- Have several alternatives in your ‘arsenal’: Familiarise yourself with, and be prepared to use different source types together whenever necessary to reinforce, cross-reference and compare.
Here’s a final example from my own research to illustrate this:
An index search on several sites for a marriage for my 7x great grandfather John Lucas returned only one record: an abstract of Boyd’s marriage index 1538-1850 on FindMyPast. Information provided was simply: ‘Jones Lucas and Elizabeth Marshall; 1670, Rothwell’
I suspected ‘Jones’ was a poor transcription, and although my John Lucas lived in Leeds, not Rothwell, this transcription intrigued me. I knew that digital images of the original parish registers of Rothwell, Holy Trinity, were available on commercial website Ancestry.co.uk and having located them, I used the information on the transcript to search 1670 for the appropriate entry so I could see the exact record for myself. The image below was what I found.
A digital surrogate is usually the closest we can get to using the original record. However, this is not a good image. The text is obscured by the rolled-back previous pages. I could guess at some of the missing words, but others were simply not legible. My solution was to turn to an early twentieth century transcription of the register by local antiquarian George Denison Lumb. My thinking here was that, working in 1906, Lumb would have had access to the original document; and he would have been able to separate out the pages lost here in the fold. My hunch was correct. His transcription agreed with what I could see and enhanced my own:
“[Jo]h[ann]es Lucas de [Le]eds et Eliz[a]betha [M]arshall de [R]othwell marit Vicesimo’ “
The point is that if we are flexible we will find ways to use whatever is available to best effect. The more sources at our fingertips, the more effectively we will do this – even if it means on occasion a transcription is preferable to a digital photograph of the original record!
What I hope these three blogposts have illustrated is that although there is a hierarchy in terms of all these different types of source, there is value in all. Wherever possible we should aim to use the original or a digital surrogate with photographed images of the original. Secondary sources add context and help us to develop our knowledge and understanding but can also point us to new original sources we didn’t know about. Online transcripts may show up in a search where the original record doesn’t – a problem with the indexing, perhaps – but if we know where digital surrogates of the originals are available we can use the transcript as a signpost to guide us to the correct entry in the original register. When archaic handwriting is difficult, Bishop’s Transcripts might offer a slightly easier hand for us to read, and indeed a modern transcript may help us to ‘see’ the letters. Finally, if a parish has lost its entire collection of registers, we can thank our lucky stars for the hard work of people who, as a labour of love, have tried to reconstruct them.
George Denison Lumb: The Registers of the parish church of Rothwell Co. York, Part I 1538-1689 (1906) Privately printed for the Yorkshire Parish Register Society
Transcription of marriage record of John Lucas and Elizabeth Marshall at p.284
Accessed 5 May 2022 via Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/registersofparis27roth/page/n5/mode/2up