How not to use online genealogy

I recently decided to invest in an annual subscription to  I therefore intend to use it extensively over the next year in order to bolster my tree and to add leafs through their very fat database of resources.

A little background.  I've researched my family tree since at least 1988, but not continuously.  Back in the day, there were no online resources.  the most modern thing were census on microfilm and the Mormon IGI (International Genealogical Index - the ancestor of available in the Local Studies Library.  My tree started, as it should, through interviewing elderly relatives, looking through their photos, the few birth and marriage certificates, and any other artifacts.  Those elderly relatives have all passed on now.  if you are just starting with genealogy - do it now.  I then moved on to the English & Welsh County record offices.  White gloves and pencils, in order to peruse through the original parish registers and other documents - no digitalisation, or even microfilming of them then.  Very little indexing as well.

Then I was ordering GRO certificates from London, paying professional researchers to collect them for me, as it worked out cheaper than having them mailed to me by the GRO!  Then rather than looking for DNA matches, it was searching through surname interests or through the annually published GRD (Genealogical Research Directory) for shared ancestry.  The good old days.

I said it wasn't continuously.  Interests changed, I lived out life recklessly, and moved on a few times, leaving all behind.  I lost pretty much all of my genealogy.  Meanwhile, digitalisation was coming in fast, indexing increasing, and the Internet was giving birth to online genealogy.  During this birth, I had used an early version of Broderbund Family Tree Maker (it installed on several floppy disks) on a personal computer, and even managed to upload data and a GEDCOM file to a few places.

Then maybe 16 months ago, after ordering a 23andMe test, I picked it up again.  I found my old GEDCOM file on a web archive.  Downloaded it, opened it with open source Gramps software.  It worked!  Since then, I've gathered surviving notes (so many lost), photos, and certificates.  I then discovered a remarkable resource.  Online Genealogy.

Online Genealogy

There are many online resources.  The big providers include (,,, and  All but the latter website are subscription fee based.  Asides from these providers, there are many other services for genealogy online.  Of the above, I have heavily used FindMyPast, FamilySearch, and Ancestry.

Online Genealogy using

The big advantage of Online Genealogy is indexing and the database.  Over the past 25 years or so, armies of volunteers and paid researchers, have been reading through microfilmed, microfisches, or digitalised images of masses of parish registers, parish records, wills, criminal registers, state records, military records, Bishop's transcripts, Headstone surveys, and more - from not only England & Wales but from all over the World, where they are available.  They read the names of those recorded, and add them to computer files with references.  Businesses such as, buy access to these indexes, and often to the original digitalised images if they exist.  These are all added to their own database.  Their customers search, and find ancestors.

A Few Problems

  1. I can report this for English records, for which I have a lot of experience. The record is still very incomplete.  You might see a Joe Bloggs, but is it your ancestor Joe Bloggs?  Many of the parish records were missing, or damaged.  Parish chests in cold churches can be damp places, the registers pulled out for every baptism, marriage, or burial, thumbed through by all.  Paper was valuable in older records, and the priests and clerks cram their little scribbled lines in them.  There were stories of vicar's wife's using old registers to kindle the fire in the vicarage.  In addition, not ALL parish registers are online at any one depository.  I've noticed that is very good for Norfolk registers, but abysmal for Suffolk.  FindMyPast is good for Berkshire records.  They are far from complete records.  In addition, some ancestors were not in any parish records.  They were rogues on the run, vagabonds, or even more often ... non-conformists.  Some priests were lazy.  All of this on top of those many missing or damaged records.
  2. The indexers were human beings.  Sometimes volunteers, sometimes more recently I suspect, poorly paid human beings outside of Europe (is this the case?)  They vary in skill at reading 18th century, 17th, even 16th century hand writing that has been scribbled down in often damaged records.  The database searches for names that sound similar (to a computer program), but they miss so many that are incorrectly transcribed.  Try to read through the original images if you can.

So the record is far from complete.  The online record less so.  A brilliant tool, but it's not going to hand you your family tree all perfect and true.  If you understand this problem, and you are more concerned about truth and quality, than about quickly producing a family tree back to Queen Boadicea (I have seen people claim such things!), then you are already aware of this.  The problem is, that you know that an ancestor was called Joe Bloggs.  Online, you find a Joe Bloggs, living 100 miles away, born about the right time.  With a click, you "add" him to the tree, then resume climbing up from him.  What you may not realise, is that there were maybe 20 Joe Bloggs born at about the right time within a 100 mile radius of the next generation.  You just picked the one that your online ancestry service flashed up to you.  He is quite probably not close family, never mind your ancestor.  All above him are not your ancestors.

Truth and quality in a family tree

Do you care?  Is it possible to trace back more than several generations, and to preserve that quality? The 20th and 19th centuries in England & Wales are great.  We have records from a national census every 10 years between 1841 and 1911.  They can be searched with your online service.  We have them as correlations for parish records.  We also have state records to correlate with from 1837!  Before that though, it gets a bit scratchy.  Particularly if your ancestors were not titled - as most of them were not!  Then we are down to scribbles in parish registers, a few tax books, tithes, military rolls.  Great stuff, but increasingly - we lose correlations.  We lose certainty.

When we lose certainty, we have to start to make judgments.  Do we add an ancestor based on little record?  We have to make that judgement ourselves.  We should add the resource, name it, perhaps publish our uncertainty.  We should be ready to remove if doubt grows rather than certainty.

I've not mentioned biological certainty here.  Haplogroup DNA can challenge some very old trees.  Things happen in biology.  We call them NPE (Non Parental Event).  Spouses cheat, lie, prostitute, are raped, commit bigamy, incest, confused.  People secretly adopt, particularly during a crisis.  I have seen a claim of the average NPE happening once in every ten generations on average.  I don't think that we can truly measure this.  Anyway, I'm of the school that although DNA genealogy is interesting in the pursuit of the past, that family is not always just about biology.  Who reared them?  Who gave them their name?  If that is family, it's also ancestry.

But the ultimate mistake with using online genealogy

This one is easy.  It is that companies such as and, allow, sometimes encourage the resourcing of other members family trees.  It has nothing to do with rights or property.  It has to do with the reproduction of mistakes, and bad quality research.  It indeed gives genealogy at online sites like these, a pretty bad name.

Many users of these sites are casual.  They have only used the online resources available through the quick click and collect ancestry of these services.  They are only trying to pursue as far back, as possible, within as short time as possible.  Truth and quality is of very much secondary value.  It's the consume society.  They leave their disjointed trees of fiction all over these web services.  Then Ancestry / MyHeritage, invites you to add them to your own.  Very much internet viral in form - the errors replicate like mutations in a strand of DNA, only with lightening speed.  It's so easy to add new layers of ancestry.  But they are fiction.  I've seen people marrying before they are born, dying before they give birth.  I've seen people marry their parents or uncles.   I myself, recently tried it en mass as an experiment to a tree.  It was incredible.  The discrepancies and errors.  Ugly.

So, if you have to, look at other trees. I strongly recommend that you avoid that temptation to simply click and collect ancestry.  Most of the genuine ancestry on these trees is available to be quickly found with your own use of the services on that site.  Do that, but make your own judgments.  Don't add to the virus trees.  Genealogy is for the long haul.

Two Fathers and more Online Genealogy

The above photograph is of my great great grandfather, William Bennett Baxter, born at Gressenhall Workhouse, Norfolk, England, in 1846.

Well, I've finally updated my Gramps genealogical database for the first time for months.  It's grown!  It now includes details for over 1,600 ancestors and family relatives.  I have to admit, a lot of the swell is down to online genealogical research, using,, Norfolk FHS, BMD,, etc.  I DON'T ever resort to copying off other people's trees, although I do at times, when I'm stuck, check them to see how other's think, as the hints that they should be.  To be honest though, I often don't agree with their conclusions.  

I do use Search.  I do use transcriptions - but whenever the original image is available (as it increasingly is now), I do verify with it.  Quite often, transcribers get it wrong.  I do also enjoy browsing through digitalised images of parish records, looking for siblings and clues.

Two Fathers

With traditional documentary-based genealogical research, we of course cannot prove a biological line.  We can rarely identify NPEs (Non-Parental Events).  All that we can do, is do our very best to track names through family interviews, documents and records.  Wherever possible, we should verify connections, check and record sources, look for correlations.  This isn't however always possible.  The genealogist has to then decide whether they have enough evidence to connect an ancestor.

For quite some time, I was proud that I had recorded all of my ancestors up to and including great great grandparent level.  However, at great great great grandparent level (Generation 6), I had three missing direct ancestors.  All three of them were the unrecorded father's of three great great grandparents, born illegitimate in Norfolk during the 19th Century.  I had 29 out of 32 biological ancestors recorded for Generation 6.

Then recently, I cracked two of them!  At least I have one evidence for their names.  Two of my illegitimate born great great grandparents, William Bennett Baxter, and Harriet Barber, were actually a married couple.  They were both illegitimate, and had both been born in Gressenhall Union Workhouse close to East Dereham in Norfolk.  William was base-born there  to a pauper named Eliza Baxter.  That she gave him the middle name "Bennett", and there had been Bennetts in the area, always made me suspect that his biological father was believed to have belonged to a Bennett Family, but which?

Then some research online, and it was a back to basics research that cracked it.  I was sure that I had seen their 1866 marriage certificate or entry, at nearby Swanton Morley before, probably years ago.  But if I had seen it before, and I now suspect that I hadn't, then I missed the key.  They BOTH named their alleged biological fathers in their marriage register entry!  How could I have not seen this before?

William Bennett Baxter claimed that he was the son of a labourer, by the name of ... William Bennett.  Harriet Baxter (nee Barber), claimed that her father was a labourer by the name of William Barker.  It's only their word, on their marriage entry - to their knowledge, but I've accepted that testimony, and have added ancestors on those lines.  I haven't yet found much about William Bennett. But I did quickly find more on my 4 x great grandfather William Barker.  He was a shoe maker in East Dereham, the son of a master boot maker.  Perhaps his family didn't approve.  Two years later he married an Elizabeth Wales.

My Fan Chart of Direct Ancestry, updated. I now have 234 direct ancestors named.

Other New Ancestors

The majority (but not all) of my newly claimed ancestors have been Norfolk ancestors on my Father's paternal side, balancing things up rather nicely.  Some of the newly discovered branches include a substantial number of new ancestors recorded both in Dereham, Norfolk, and in the nearby village of Swanton Morley.  They were two very ancestral homes in my tree.  I've recently extended the Baxter of Dereham line back safely to the 1760's.  I've also traced more of my great grandmother Faith Brooker's (nee Baxter) tree, including her direct maternal line to a Rachael Bradfield of Dereham.  Her daughter Elizabeth was baptised there in 1745.  In 1767, Elizabeth Bradfield married our 7 x great grandfather Solomon Harris at Swanton Morley.

I've also extended the line going back from my paternal grandmother (Doris Brooker nee Smith).  I've found more of her ancestors in the South Norfolk village of Hedenham, stretching back to a James Goodram, the son of John and Lydia Goodrum.  James was baptised at Hedenham in 1780.

Finally, I've tidied a few dates on my mother's side, and even started to reassess the ancestry of my children's mother.

Here is a count of direct ancestors from a Gramps report:

Generation 1 has 1 individual. (100.00%)

Generation 2 has 2 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 3 has 4 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 4 has 8 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 5 has 16 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 6 has 31 individuals. (96.88%)

Generation 7 has 55 individuals. (85.94%)

Generation 8 has 53 individuals. (41.41%)

Generation 9 has 44 individuals. (17.97%)

Generation 10 has 16 individuals. (3.52%)

Generation 11 has 6 individuals. (0.59%)

Total ancestors in generations 2 to 11 is 235. (11.68%)

That's enough genealogy for a while!  Living DNA report next.  Sample was activated and returned.

Ancestry - progress via free online records

My direct ancestry fan chart looked a little bit too uneven (the above chart is the improved chart, after the following research).  I had compiled no ancestry for one of my great grandparents - my father's maternal grandmother, Emily Smith (nee Barber).  All that I knew of her origin, was that although she married and settled with my great grandfather, in Norwich, that she was born in 1859 in the South Norfolk village of Hedenham.  For some reason, perhaps a lack of resources back then (I conducted most of my family history 20 - 15 years ago pre-Internet), I had never traced any further back on her line.  My Ancestry Fan Chart highlighted this Gap of data.

I haven't really got the time to travel over to Norfolk Record Office at the moment, but I did have the recent opportunity to spend several hours online.  Internet Genealogy can be a bit pricey though.  Someone has to gain access to records, digitalise them, index them.  This service is provided by a number of commercial website companies, but of course, they have paid subscriptions.  I guess that if I was to start genealogy afresh, that I might be tempted to invest in an annual subscription with one of those companies.  If I didn't live in the country of my ancestry, then even more so.  As it is, I'm lucky, as the vast majority of my ancestry over the past three or four hundred years appears to be quite local, so that I can easily visit local archives and church yards.

So how did I get on with my Free Internet Genealogy Experiment with great grandmother Emily Smith (nee Barber)?

Conclusion - the story that I uncovered

This is a story of three generations of rural working class families, in South Norfolk, and just over the border in NE Suffolk.

On the 16th September, 1794, John Ellis married Elizabeth Beckett at the parish of Tasburgh in South Norfolk.  They were G.G.G.G grandparents of myself.  Tasburgh is a small village that straddles an old Roman road.  The couple then settled in the neighbouring parish of Saxlingham-Nethergate.  Their first two children, John, and Elizabeth, were baptised there.

Sometime around 1796, they moved slightly to the south, to the parish of Hempnall, Norfolk.  They settled there for may years, and Elizabeth gave birth to a further nine children by 1818, at Hempnall.  One of those was my G.G.G grandfather, James Ellis, who was born on the 16th April 1812, and was baptised shortly after at the parish church of Hempnall. At least one of the baptisms recorded that the father, John Ellis, was employed as a labourer - as with most rural working class men, he was an agricultural labourer.

G.G.G grandfather James Ellis, grew up to marry a woman named Esther.  They eventually settled in Esther's parish of birth - a few miles to the east of Hempnall, in the village of Hedenham, Norfolk.  However, at first, they may have spent some time even further east, in the village of Ditchingham, Norfolk.  They first had two daughters, including my G.G grandmother, Maria Ellis, who was baptised at Hedenham on 29th September 1834.  But in 1838, they had a son named Benjamin, who was baptised at nearby Ditchingham.  All later children - six of them, between 1841 and 1850, were born at Hedenham again.  During both the 1841 and 1851 censuses, the Ellis family were recorded as living in Hedenham.  James was recorded as working as an agricultural labourer in 1851, as was his twelve year old son Benjamin.

Now let's just step away from the Ellis family for a moment, and look at another ancestral family, the Barbers, living at this time, just over the county border to the south, in a little hamlet of South Elmham, named St Michaels.

G.G.G grandparents Robert and Mary Ann Barber, were both born in the county of Suffolk sometime around 1794.  They were raising a family in St Michaels, Suffolk.  Between 1818, and 1841, I found records of at least eight of their children, all born in St Michaels, S.Elmham.  One of them was my G.G grandfather George Barber, who was born in 1830.  During the 1841 census, eleven year old George was living with his parents and siblings in St Michaels.

Then something went wrong.  Perhaps the father, Robert Barber, died.  Perhaps they fell into extreme poverty, or even an illness struck the family.  With very little welfare, such events were often a tragedy to 19th Century rural working class families.  After 1841, the family disappear.  I lose trace of Robert and Mary Ann Barber.  Instead, in 1851, I find my twenty year old G.G grandfather, George Barber, is humiliated as an inmate of Shipmeadow Workhouse - the Union workhouse of the Wangford Poor Law Union.  Meanwhile, his thirteen year old younger brother, and nine year old younger sister are recorded as lodging with the Wigg family household in St Michaels.

Back over with the Ellis's, also in 1851, my G.G grandmother Maria Ellis was recorded as working as a live in servant in a household of the Buck family in Hedenham, Norfolk.

Seven years later, in 1858, George Barber married Maria Ellis, somewhere in the Wangford district of Suffolk.

G.G Grandparents George and Maria Barber (nee Ellis) settled in the brides home parish of Hedenham, Norfolk, where between 1858 and 1868, they reared four daughters, including my great grandmother Emily Barber, who was born at Hedenham in 1859.  George's occupation was recorded again, as agricultural labourer.

During the 1861 census, the family are living at Old Gravel Pit, in Woodton, Norfolk - close to Hedenham.  Emily was aged one.

During the 1871 census, Emily, age now eleven, had a recorded occupation - Crow Keeper, which I understand to mean that she earned money for scaring birds from the fields.

However, by 1881, Emily had left her family, and had moved to the City.  She was now recorded as living at The Chantry, St Stephens, Norwich where she worked as a domestic servant for a John Rayner (a solicitor's clerk), and his family.  Emily most likely met my great grandfather Frederick Smith in Norwich, where they married sometime between 1881 and 1884, and proceeded to raise their own family, including my paternal grandmother, Doris Smith.


So how did I piece that together from free online research?  I added three generations to Emily's line, and extended that section of my ancestry fan chart without even leaving home, or paying a penny.  I made a story, I found probable tragedy, encountered some large families, identified their class, added new locations to my ancestry, such as Tasburgh - and even my first ever discovered ancestors from over the county border into Suffolk.  I found that my great grandmother (I'll borrow a photograph to scan later) Emily Smith, earned money as a girl, working as a Crow Keeper!

The main source was Family Search, the genealogical website hosted by the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  This is a cracking free website.  On it I could find and search a database of UK censuses from between 1841 and 1911.  This enabled me for example, to locate a few ancestors locations when otherwise they would have been missing.  The website also has an impressive database of transcribed parish registers and Bishops transcripts.  In some cases, the original documents were also available as digitilised images.  The search facility for all of their documents took a little getting use to, in order to get the best out of it, but what a free service!

Another useful website was FreeBMD.  This database was critical in tracing and confirming the marriage of George Barber to Maria Ellis in 1858. Although it only gives access to the indexes of state birth, marriages, and deaths, that along with correlations through the search facility of gave me enough information for that event.

Finally, in a search like this - you have to use Google Maps, in order to get a picture of where your ancestors lived, use Street View to see them, and the maps to see exactly where the parishes are in relation to each other.