Hello and welcome to the Blog! Please feel free to look round.

The Blog and I deal mainly with local and family history in the Black Country: if you don’t know where that is, here’s a map

map black country

The Blog and I

The Blog is updated regularly – weekly if at all possible.  It prods me awake in the early hours of the morning, muttering ‘Me!  You haven’t updated me!  How about talking about…’ and I wander grumpily downstairs into the writing cave, coffee in hand, emerging only once the task is done.

That actually is a lie – I emerge several times, but only to refill the coffee mug. Or to cook a fried egg sandwich. Or both.

There are few scarier sights in this household than the Early Morning Blogger.

I share the writing cave with the fridge/freezer. Sometimes I think I ought to come clean and admit that I write in the larder.

About Me

I’m a cat-loving freelance researcher and tutor, specialising in Black Country genealogy and local history and also in legal history.

I’ve been interested in local history for as long as I can remember, thanks to my father, who would always point out places of interest to the Infant Genealogist (and still does).   My interest in genealogy was sparked almost 35 years ago, when my maternal grandmother – who had an almost inexhaustible appetite for recounting tales of her youth and of her family – presented me with an album of photographs of my ancestors, interspersed with newspaper cuttings and some of the family stories. Some of this material was over a century old.   I immediately wanted to know more about these people…

You can find more about my professional life on the page “Courses, Talks, Research.”

About the Blog

To return to the plot: the Blog began life back in 2012 as a place where I, in my guise of genealogist/researcher, could  keep track of useful websites and books.  Then it developed some articles about various sources and techniques. Recently it has also become a sort of diary, listing things I have found or places I have visited in connection with my research. Over the last few months, it has developed a liking for illustrations. Sometimes I fear it has a life of its own.  It has been redesigned at least twice in its short life and will no doubt continue to evolve.

The design of the site remains unchanged.  On the whole the posts below this sticky are assorted jottings:  topics I think are important have a page to themselves and can be found above, just under the banner picture.  Found them? Good.

Sometimes the posts contain snippets of information or photographs that you may find useful: to save searching back through the posts, these are indexed on the page “An Index To Posts”

The page “Dates For Your Diary” lists talks and exhibitions in Staffordshire (sometimes in neighbouring counties)  and is updated at the beginning of every month.

Avoiding Spam


I try to keep this a spam-free site: so if you want to leave a comment, you’ll find that you need to enter a Captcha code. Also, all comments have to be approved by me as site administrator before they appear on the site.

This shouldn’t – I hope! – deter anyone who wants to make any serious comments. It doesn’t actually deter the spammers, but it does enable me to delete them.

Your comments and questions

If you do want to comment, your email address will NOT appear on the site. Nor will mine – if you want to say something, leave a comment and I’ll respond to that.

Contacting me

If you have a specific question to ask about an aspect of family history research, please  use the comments box on the “Contact Me” page.

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FutureLearn Course: Tracing Your Family Tree Week 5

Week 5 of the  course returned to sources, and considered how local and general histories can flesh out your family tree.

As followers of this blog are only too well aware, this is something that I always emphasise. Mention was made, not only of printed histories, but also of maps, photographs, newspapers and a range of different types of directories.

As in previous weeks, this was only a brief overview of the different types of sources available, and I must admit that I’d have found it much more useful if the videos had actually given a close up view of the document under discussion, rather than showing someone looking at it.  But on the whole, this was quite a useful week.

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Futurelearn Course: Tracing Your Family Tree Week 4

Week Four of the course considered the Genealogical Standard of Proof and also DNA testing.

The Standard of Proof is important – in fact I wrote a page about this some time ago –  and I thought that this was well covered., with useful exercises. However, the final exercise – evaluating the evidence provided by four World War II ration books – had no tutor input at all, and students were left to decide for themselves how useful, if at all, these were. Opinions ranged from ‘Very’ to ‘Not at all’.

I thought that this exercise would have been of  far more use if it had replaced the end-of-module quiz, which was, as before, banal.

The section on DNA testing left me cold.  The basic principles were well explained (although the slide showing DNA inherited through several generations would have been loss confusing if a few more colours had been used on the slide!) – but after that I became more and more confused.  I’m just not science-minded, and was rapidly out of my comfort zone.

To be quite candid, I’ve never been too certain about the benefits of DNA testing.  If I can’t discover who great-great=great-great grannie was,  DNA isn’t going to help me here, because (a) we’re talking of the maternal side here, and (b) all a test can do is match me with other people who have the same markers, may therefore be related to me, and have their DNA stored by the same provider.  And DNA can’t tell you how you’re related to these people, merely that you are.  As far as I can gather, the advantage of testing is (a) you may discover hitherto-unknown distant cousins and (b) if you do, they may have some information that you don’t.

It all seems a bit of a waste of money to me.  Or have I completely misunderstood – feel free to correct me on this!

If I wasn’t confused enough already, the tutor then referred to someone whose DNA profile was “found to be a close genetic match to the current Macdonald chief of Clanranald using STR testing. Because it was already known from documentary evidence that the chief was a descendant of Angus Og of the Isles, who fought in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the closeness of the match confirmed that he was also descended from Angus Og.”

Now, I’m not doubting this for a moment, but – only two weeks ago the course dwelt upon documentary evidence (and indeed, this week has already covered the Standard of Proof), so it would have been useful to learn exactly what this documentary evidence was that proved descent from a chap who died in 1330.

Finally on this topic, this month’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ magazine includes an excellent article on illegitimacy, which advises that it’s only worth considering DNA tests once the paper trail is complete.

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FutureLearn Course: Tracing Your Family Tree – Week Three

So – week 3 of the course is down and dusted.

This week the course tackled major sources – church, civil and religious records, looked at the types of records that might be held in physical archives and considered some genealogy databases available.

And at last we’ve looked, albeit very briefly, at BMD certificates, and how to fill in an outline family tree. This, in my opinion, is where the course should have begun. If I used the layout of the course as a template for one of my own courses, I’d expect the majority of the class to demand their money back at the end of the first week, and be very surprised indeed if I had any students left by the end of the second week.

There has been very little information about how to obtain certificates – and, in fairness, on a course which has attracted thousands of learners from all over the world, I wouldn’t expect to see detailed explanations for every single class of record, nor comprehensive lists of what records are available for which country.  But the course attempted to cover far too much information this week, and completely failed to explain how different records link in to create the whole picture: for example, that information from (for example) a marriage certificate can be used hand-in-hand with census returns – (and that, in my opinion, is the time to tackle the difference between primary/secondary sources, and direct/indirect evidence).

I seem to have used ‘in my opinion’ rather a lot this week, and I don’t want to appear a Moaning Minnie. But I will say that the much-vaunted Google Hangout, though better than the earlier one, was badly produced,  and the ‘quiz’ idiotic in places.

The forthcoming week covers the Genealogical Standard of Proof, and also DNA.  I’ll let you know…


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FutureLearn Course: Researching Your Family Tree – Week Two

This week the course addressed ‘Effective Search Techniques’, without first addressing what we might be researching, or indeed why.

This began by advising the creation of a timeline of events, creating a family tree (the first time that this has been mentioned), looking at the information gathered with a critical eye, and considering gaps and inconsistencies.  Where there are inconsistencies, the course suggests, consider whether these arise from primary or secondary sources.

All very well and good, but what are these sources?  So far this has not been explained.

(At this point, Dear Reader, you have obviously sensed my mounting frustration with the course.  And I am not alone in this…)

After a quick canter through a technique apparently known as ‘FAN’ (‘Friends, Associates and Neighbours’) – which I’ve always known as ‘Cluster’ genealogy – mindmapping (okay if you like that sort of thing – personally it drives me wild, and I’ve never seen that this is any different from just jotting down a list of Things To Do) and DNA (which we will, apparently, look at in more detail in a later week), we turned to names, variation in spellings, and ways to search databases.

I still maintain that this course is back-to-front.  Week Three looks at ‘major sources types’.   Perhaps we might then discover where to start.

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FutureLearn Course: Researching Your Family Tree – Week One.

I mentioned on 3rd February that I’d signed up on the FutureLearn online course “Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree”, and that I’d give weekly updates and comments on the course.

So – here we are at the end of week one.

To be quite honest, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag.  There are lots of links to useful websites (which I’ll add later to my page “Useful Websites”), and some useful explanations about documentary evidence:  the nature of primary, derived primary and secondary sources, issues that may arise, and an explanation of the difference between transcripts, abstracts and indices.  And this is all very good, and very important – and in fact I’ll deal with these issues in detail in later posts.

BUT – and this is a very big but indeed – I don’t think that the course has delivered what it promises. The modules for this week are entitled “Basics For The Absolute Beginner”, yet there has been no explanation of how to start tracing your family tree. It’s very important to know early on what the pitfalls are, but it’s equally important to address that simple question ‘How do I start?’ (and I’ve seen that question raised an awful lot of times in the last week.)  True, there are course participants from all over the world, so it’s well nigh impossible to explain what records exist for every single country, but the basic principles for starting out on your journey is always the same – start with what you know.

How to start out is explained on my page “Where Do I Start?  A Beginners Guide”, but in brief, start with yourself. Your birth certificate will give your parents’ names – the next step is to find their marriage certificate. This will, with luck, give you their ages and their respective fathers’ names. That’s probably the time to decide which line you want to follow (most people start with their father’s family, but you don’t have to) – and search for the birth certificate – then look for the parents’ marriage certificate – and keep on repeating this process. Fill in with death certificates (note that it can be tricky to identify the correct death cert). Use census returns for additional information. With a modicum of luck, this will take you back into the early 19th century.

Speak to relatives and find out what information they know or have – you may find they have old certificates, or photographs, or a family bible. Ask them for stories about the family (but be prepared to take these with a pinch of salt).

And when you’ve got a goodly collection of names from certificates, then that’s the time to ask yourself “How reliable is this evidence? Do I need any other documents to substantiate it – and if so, what documents do I need, and where do I find them?”



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On not giving up

Only last night I managed to solve a problem that had been bugging me for years.  My grandmother had told me that a relation of hers (and she didn’t know the name) had kept a farm on Goldthorn Hill, about half a mile from where I live now.  I managed to identify the buildings which seemed most likely, but without a name or even an approximate  date to go on, I couldn’t resolve this.  So it’s been on the back burner for about 20 years.

Until last night, when I sat down with a cup of tea to read “Accidents” – a study of accidents in 19th century Wolverhampton written by my good friend Jane Smith.  And there was my four-times great grandfather, Joseph Hartland of Pearson Street, owning a farm on Goldthorn Hill which he rented to a (named) relative of his.  It all fits. After 20 years.

The moral is: never give up.  The information you need may well be out there somewhere – it’s just a matter of finding it.

Jane’s book is available through Amazon – if you have relatives in Wolverhampton, I can thoroughly recommend it.

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Apologies – and a free online course

A Grovelling Apology

Apologies for the radio silence over the last twelve months. It really has been a dreadful year for me, in which I’ve had very little time at all. However, things should have calmed down by the end of this month, and then the Blog and I will return.

In the next few weeks, I’ll tidy the Blog up a bit and update some of the pages

I had intended to kickstart the Blog into life again with a series of posts on how to write your family history, but this will go on the back burner for a few months.

A Free Online Genealogy Course

On 14 March, a free online genealogy course starts, run by FutureLearn. I’ve taken FutureLearn courses before – they are completely free, with no hidden extras. You can buy a Certificate of Completion at the end, but you don’t have to.

The course lasts for six weeks, and is estimated to take about four hours each week. Each week’s learning is divided into smaller modules, so you can learn at your own pace (though I’ve found in the past it’s best to get ahead a little on week one, so that you have time to read at least some of the input from other students.  It’s aimed at anyone who has an interest in genealogy, whether beginner or experienced.

During the course, I’ll be using the Blog to muse on what I’ve learned each week, with any additional tips or hints.

If you want to find out more about the course, details are at


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Wills & Probate

Since my last post, I’ve been looking into the government’s much-vaunted wills & probate site at www.gov.uk/search-will-probate.

Wills can prove useful in tracing our ancestors, or finding out about their lives – and although the new site is useful, there are a few matters I’d like to mention.

Firstly, the site is only an index, from which you can purchase a copy of a will. But please bear in mind the difference between grant of probate (which means your ancestor left a will) and grant of letters of administration (which means that there was no will). You can purchase the grant of letters of administration, but it won’t tell you any more than the entry in the index does.

The site is split into three sections:  1996 – present; 1858 – 1996; and soldiers’ wills.

1996 – present

The Basic Search field requires a surname and the year of death.  I’d advise you use the Advanced Search function in which you can enter the date of death, and forename.

There is no facility to enter a range of dates.

1858 – 1996

There is only a basic search function for this period, which is annoying if you’re looking for a popular surname.  Again there is no facility to enter a range of dates; and – importantly – the date which you need to enter is the year in which probate/letters of administration were granted, which is not necessarily the date of death.  I’ve found one grant which was 8 years after the death.

Soldiers’ wills

These cover the period 1850-1986.  There is an Advanced Search function, which includes the option to include the regimental number – which is handy if you know it. Again, there is no facility to enter a range of dates.

But please bear in mind that, although all serving soldiers were required to make a will, it’s clear that in many cases – certainly during the First World War – these wills were never proved.  If a man had no money tied up in a bank account, or in property, then his next of kin probably didn’t bother about probate.

In addition, it’s not clear from the site whether “soldiers” includes sailors and airmen – if anyone can clarify this, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

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Battling with Technology…

Lord only knows I’m not a technophobe, but I must admit defeat when it comes to using our new Tablet. I mean, my fingers are hardly big and clunky, but when it comes to selecting one from a list of links, I’ve got no chance.  So  I tried using the end of a pencil as a probe, but that doesn’t work either…  and I’m none too hot when it comes to making notes on it…

On the other hand, the Tablet (which, in a mad moment the OH decided to name ‘Zeta’ – sometimes it’s wisest not to ask) is excellent when it comes to photographing documents.

OH has now announced that he’s going to buy me a SmartPhone (my present phone, which I’ve had for 20 years,  is anything but smart: I have it only for calls. I don’t even text on it, because I’ve never worked out how to turn off the predictive text.)  This apparently will make my life so much easier…

So, if you see someone in a local archive staggering under the weight of a laptop, a SmartPhone, a Tablet and pencil and paper, do come and say hello – it’s bound to be me.

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Random Jottings: The Benefits of Being a Hoarder

Sometimes I look at the overflowing bookshelves (not to mention the piles of books that either need shelving or form the ‘To Be Read’ pile), and think that I really, really need to be brutal and dispose of some of them.  Then I change my mind, and the books continue to overflow.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been involved in a local project centering around food, allotments and recipes.  And – lo and behold! – on one bookshelf I found these two books, which proved excellent sources:

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“The Wrinkle Book” by Archibald Williams, published in 1920. This was a wedding present for my maternal grandparents (who were married in 1924), and contains a wealth of information on running a home, as well as such varied topics as planning an allotment, advice on a variety of legal matters and self-defence.

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“Cookery Illustrated” by Elizabeth Craig. This copy seems, from internal evidence, to date from early 1940 and contains (amongst much else) detailed instructions on how to construct and use a hay box for ‘fuel-less cookery’.

Both books also have collections of newspaper clippings of recipes and household hints.

My latest project concerns the Victorian pauper apprentices.  And scouring the bookshelves this morning for any background information which I may already have, I came across this, which I cannot recall buying:


“Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain” by Royston Pike.  It appears to have been bought in a library sale in the early 1980s, but why and where I bought it I have no idea.  Again, it’s packed full of useful information.

My New Year’s resolution for 2015, therefore, has changed from “Dispose of books which appear to be of little interest” to “Never throw a book away again.”

This is one resolution which I might just manage to keep.

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