Humans are creatures of habit. We do things a certain way because we take our lead from others and accept that is the way it is done, has always been done, and will continue to be done. I am not like that, I look on as the herd make its way steadily over the field and quite happily head off in the opposite direction on my own, to where I know there is better grazing!.
This is true in the case of ancestral indexes and parish records. Many transcribed records such as these can be purchased from our local archives or Family History Societies in ‘PDF’ format. In the same way as we would in the Archive Office, we go to the index and make a note of the page numbers that may contain information on the family or individual we are researching. We then painstakingly flick back and forth throughout the book frantically noting down every detail encountered that may or (may not be) relevant to our research. Not only can this be slow, but it relies heavily on the quality of the index. In many cases this method would omit the occurrence of a name appearing within the descriptive text itself. When I thought of sharing the following tip with you, I undertook an experiment:-
Taking the parish records for Norham Marriages 1754-1812, I selected a family name I have not researched in depth – Brown, from the Index of Males.
I then ran a search of the document which had been optimised with an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) programme, (I use Adobe Acrobat which is not cheap I grant you, but I believe there are many free software programmes out there that will perform the same task just as well) and this was the result:-
The very first instance of the name Brown appeared on page 8, not on page 12 as the index would have us believe. (NB. The numbers that appear in the top left hand corner of the following and subsequent examples are record entry references, not page numbers.)
James Brown appears as a witness to the marriage of a seemingly unrelated couple. This is not an isolated case. There are further examples of a John Brown, a Joseph Brown and a William Brown appearing several times as witnesses to such marriages, as well as to marriages where one of the couple bears the same surname.
How is this information of use to the researcher? If a name regularly appears as a witness to a baptism or marriage, it may indicate that they are an employer, or a person of some standing within the community. It may also imply that a familial relationship exists but is not immediately obvious due to the names of the couple. In the case illustrated above the bride Catherine Jolly is cited as a widow. Is it possible then that her maiden name was Brown? Whilst I have not followed this case through, it certainly opens up other avenues for potential investigation.
Of course the search is not limited to names of people it can be equally useful when applied to places. This is particularly relevant in a parish such as Norham, which sits not only on the boundary of a County, but also of a Country. The parish church of Ladykirk is less than a mile away on the opposite bank of the River Tweed. It lies in the County of Berwickshire, which is part of Scotland.
As researchers we often attribute the lack of a marriage record to the fact that the couple resident in England skipped across the Border to Scotland to avail themselves of a cheap and quick “irregular” wedding that often as not went undocumented. Whilst this is frequently the case, the exact opposite is also true.
Using the same set of marriage records a simple search with "Ladykirk" as the search term produces some results which may surprise you:-
A search for the marriage of this pair in “Scotland’s People” returned no results whatsoever. In fact the search for an Andrew Purvis (using surname variants) between the dates of 1755 and 1768 returned only one result dated 1767 in Edinburgh. Similarly a search using the bride’s name Jane Todd (variants inc) although returning 15 results, none were to an Andrew, or indeed a Purvis by any other Christian name. It would appear that the only record of this union is in the Norham parish records, in England! Nor is this by any means an isolated case:-
Again there is no record for this marriage in the Scotland’s People database. The fact that the date of the actual marriage is recorded leads me to believe that it did occur. A further check on the Family Search website reveals that although the registers exist for this period, the pages are reported as blank between the dates Jan 1715 - Jun 1783.
Furthermore by applying the rule that a marriage usually occurred in the parish of the Bride could have also led to this following marriage record potentially being missed:-
Using other search terms such as occupations, status as to marriage can also yield interesting information. For example during the same period 1754-1812 there were 8 "Yeomen" but only 1 "Farmer", 18 Widows, and 10 Widowers married in Norham.
This is just a very quick example of how using OCR across your PDF’s can yield Much More Information (MMI) than a search based on the record index alone. It is simple, quick and often free. I personally take the information found by this method on to another level, but that is for another time!.
I would start by saying that this exercise is not for everyone, can be time consuming and laborious. However, for those of us with a large cluster of ancestors in one parish, or someone (like myself) who is undertaking a One Place Study, the rewards are manifold.
In my case it is the Parish of Norham, situated on the River Tweed and an ancient crossing point between England and Scotland. Evidence exists of a prehistoric settlement and the Church of St Cuthbert founded in 830AD illustrates the close religious links with Lindisfarne and its once administrative role as “Capital” of the northern region of the Palatinate of Durham.
The census chosen for this exercise is 1851. Firstly as it is the first census with any really useful information. Secondly as it falls in the period between the social reformer Rev W S Gilly, sometime vicar of Norham, and his report on the living conditions of the “Border Peasantry” in 1841/42 and the “Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1855”. The latter resulted in this enlightening report written in 1862 written by the then Inspector William Grey Marshall. It tells of the “nuisances” and living conditions being experienced by the inhabitants of Norham Parish at that time.
A couple of examples extracted from GBR46/203-204. Dated 7 July 1862
“A nuisance is caused by James Young, mason, keeping a pig in an old building
and the following month on the conditions of agricultural workers at Norham Mains
GBR46/223-226. Dated 18 Aug. 1862.
“I have also to report to the Board the condition in which I found some Hinds’ houses at
Full transcript of these reports is available at:-
The trick with the census is not to simply transcribe verbatim what you see, but to add extra fields like surname only, and a column noting employers and how many employed, so the 10 columns on the original census effectively becomes 12. Enter these into a simple spreadsheet like MS Excel , typing address and surname information in full each time. See example below:-
Then you can apply filters across the columns, which can be used singly, i.e. just surname, address, birthplace etc., or in a combination say surname + birthplace, or surname +birthplace +occupation see examples below:
When applied to single columns such as age, occupation and so on it is then possible to calculate these as percentages of the total population of the parish at the time. Repeating this exercise with subsequent census records can illustrate the changes within the population, such as average age, occupation percentages, numbers of employers, number of households etc.
Just remember to factor in changes to the enumeration districts and the painstaking effort you took over entering the information will result in a far deeper understanding of the Parish or Place you are studying. As you cross the generations, names become so familiar, as folks marry, have children of their own, and then pass away, they begin to feel like real family!
We all have those times when our research is progressing at a pace. Such a pace in fact, that when something unexpected crops up and the brakes are slammed on so ferociously we are in danger of suffering whiplash!
This happened to me recently whilst researching the Donaldson family. This is the family of Jane Isabella Pringle (nee Donaldson), the wife of George Thomson (featured in my March blog) who so tragically died while George was away at war in 1943.
Following her death their only surviving daughter Sheila, aged 6 years old, was removed from Edinburgh and sent to the home of her paternal grandmother at Lempitlaw, in the Scottish Borders. Here, she was brought up by her father’s family and contact with her mother’s family was lost.
From her mother’s death certificate (above) we learn Jane Isabella Pringle was born circa 1917 and the name of her parents were:-
Robert Donaldson (occupation Wood Machinist), and Jane Pringle.
The marriage certificate of George and Jane (Jean) gives an addition Christian name for her mother, so we now have Jane Hope Pringle as her full maiden name, and father Robert’s occupation at the time of the marriage is “Coach Body Builder”. The address given in both cases is 5 Upper Grove Place, Edinburgh.
Follow the maternal line back to the marriage of Jane Hope Pringle to Robert Donaldson in Bryson’s Lane Edinburgh in October 1904. Her parents are given as David Pringle occupation “Lorryman” and Margaret Murray deceased. Her age at marriage is 29 giving a birth year of 1875.
In the 1911 census the family are still living in Bryson Road, now with four children and Jane’s place of birth is listed as Dalkeith. Great now we are on a roll!
To dot the “I”s and cross the “t”s I needed a death certificate and it was the information this contained that sent the research in full reverse!
Could there really be two people called Jane Hope Pringle, born in Dalkeith in 1875, that married a Robert Thomson and lived in Upper Grove Place?
Vigorous checks of alternative births & marriages in Scotland produced zero results, so research ground to an abrupt halt, being unable to verify which information set was correct.
The clue to solving this mystery came from Sheila herself! Although contact with mother’s family had been lost she remembers a great aunt Nelly, her grandmother’s sister who married a Patterson and lived in Kelso.
Armed with this new information a quick search of the 1881 and 1891 census found the evidence I was searching for:-
1881 Census Heriot, Dalkeith, Jane Hope aged 6, with amongst others sister Helen aged 4. Parents David and Margaret Pringle
1891 Census, Dalkeith, Jane Hope aged 16 sister Nelly aged 14 parents David and Isabella Pringle
A further search showed David Pringle’s wife Margaret Murray had died in 1882 and in 1883 he had re-married Isabella Somerville.
Further evidence of the correct parentage was found in the marriage of Helen Noble Pringle to Henry Patterson in 1904 at Heriot Manse, Dalkeith. Her parents are given as David Pringle and Margaret Murray, and by the time of the 1911 census Nelly and her husband Henry Patterson are living in Roxburgh St, Kelso.
Although the mystery is now solved, and Margaret Murray’s date of death in 1882 goes someway to explaining the grandson’s lack of knowledge for his mother’s death certificate in 1961, it does not explain one thing:-
Where does the name Hope originate?
One for another day methinks.