Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Genealogists' Revenge

For those who use Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome, and, in the last couple of months, have downloaded the new Google toolbar you may have seen a little writing pad icon, usually at the bottom left of a page. This is the new Google Sidewiki, click it and one can enter a comment which will remain attached to that page.
If there is an entry in the Sidewiki on a page then the icon on the left, which turns yellow on hovering over it, will be seen at the top of the page. One can also use the Sidewiki icon on the Google Toolbar.

Visitors and webmasters may have different views as to the benefit, or otherwise, of this facility, and I am not going to enter into this discussion, but rather look at how by correct usage it can advantage both. However, it is initially necessary to look at some of the controversal aspects:
  1. Can a webmaster switch it off? No, although I understand it does not appear on secure sites
  2. Can a webmaster edit a visitor's entry? No
  3. Can a webmaster delete a visitor's entry: No
  4. Google says that it will check for inappropriate entries - if flagged
  5. Entries are entered in a priority list as determined by Google
The potential pitfalls for webmasters are  obvious, but there are some steps which can be taken to minimise these.

Take part-ownership of the Sidewiki 


It is necessary to first register your site with Google Webmasters, you will need to register yourself with Google for this. You will then be given the option of including a meta tag in your script (see my Web Creation Blogs) or uploading an html script to the root of your site. There is also an automatic link to Blogger. Once done your own entry can be permanently entered to the top of the list on every page - although I have not been able to get the "all pages" check box to appear on my sites using Firefox!

Check all entries


The entries which visitors make can also be read by the webmaster using either your Google Profile or from an RSS feed using the URL: DOMAIN.COM%2Ffergys%2F/default?includeLessUseful=true, replace "MY DOMAIN.COM with your own domain name and delete the "www." if not included in your URL. Using this is somewhat messy, so I suggest that you use a feed generator.

What use is it?


If used properly then the Sidewiki offers an opportunity for commenting on, and discussing, individual entries in a genealogy website, such as: whether Joe Blogs has the correct parents. This can be done in a most convenient way compared with having to go to a comments page or sending an email, and it is open for other interested parties to enter the debate.

And why do I title this piece the "Genealogists' Revenge"? Well, when we now see our research published on a website by someone else, and without attribution, we can now claim it back! If the cap fits I advise caution.

© Ron Ferguson 2009

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Genealogy Searches - What Now?

The publishing of the complete England/Welsh 1851 census by raises the interesting question as to whether to subscribe to that site or, particularly since the former includes the English/Welsh 1911 census. I hope that the following may help you decide (For England, in the table, please read England/Wales - with apologies).

Comparison Table

For the purpose of this comparison I have chosen to compare the Ancestry Premium subscription with the Findmypast Explorer.

Full English Censuses
Complete BMD's
Family Trees
Parish Records
Irish Records
Scottish Records
Full WW1 Records
Other UK Military Records
Complete Eng. Emigration Records
Annual Cost UKPs++


Ancestry does not include the 1911 census
* Not directly searchable before 1984
** transcript only
+ Scotlands People is a sister site to Findmypast
++ Ancestry Essentials subscription at £84.40 excludes Parish and Irish Records
*** Findmypast Explorer costs £89.95 but excludes the 1911 census (available [you've guessed!] at £59.95/annum)

Both companies offer vouchers, but, as might be expected, comparison is not easy! Ancestry offer 12 record views for £6.95. valid 14 days, and Findmypast 60 credits also at £6.95 valid 90 days. It should be noted that to view a Findmypast image usually costs up to 10 credits, although the top rate is for the 1911 census - 10 credits to view the transcript, but a massive 30 credits to view the image!

I know that the above will not answer the question as to which is the most appropriate, and it is clear that the choice will depend on your particular circumstances. It seems that it would be best to take out a subscription with the company which has the majority of searches which you will need, and buy vouchers for the other - but note Ancestry's very short life-span.

The assessments which I have given are based on my own use of these sites, rather than on the owners' blurbs, and I have only included their major databases. Both sites have other data of more specialist interest.

© Ron Ferguson 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Of this Parish...

In England and Wales, Parish Registrations of births, marriages and deaths started in 1538, prior to that date details were kept on sheets of paper, and 13 years later in 1531 for Scotland. Civil Registrations were not introduced in England and Wales until 1837 and 1854 in Scotland.

Prior to the above dates Wales was using the patronymic system of naming, eg. Evan Ab Evan (Evan the son of Evan, or "vench" meaning daughter of). Whilst the lowlands of Scotland used recognisable surnames before the 16c, it was not until the 16c - 17c that most highlanders adopted the name of their clan chief. However, it would be quite wrong to think that we have a guaranteed way of tracing or ancestors back to the 16c, I wish!

Unfortunately, the Scottish showed their admirable resistance to "government interference" and most of their 900 parishes kept, at best, only partial records until just before 1854. These may be found at Scotlands People. In England between 1653 and 1660 the keeping of records was transferred from the churches to a civil office, confusingly, also know as the "Parish Register". Suffice to say that few of these records exist - who said that governments losing data is a new thing :-). The full timeline for registration law can be found on my website.

It is only since 1992 that all birth and baptism records over 150 years old have had to be kept safe, usually in County Record Offices, so many of the older registers are damaged and difficult to read, and before the 17c - 18c are often in Latin! The parish priests were, from 1598, obliged to compile records to send to their bishop, known as "Bishops Transcripts", but these are incomplete and transcription errors common.

In the south of England the ecclesiastic parishes are usually coterminous with the civil parishes, but this is much less true in the north where the former could encompass a number of townships, each of which, or a combination of them, were later to become civil parishes. If an entry cannot be found where expected, do look in adjacent parishes since there was quite a high, but local, migration.

All transcriptions, whilst welcome, cannot beat reading the original. Apart from transcription errors, much is often omitted; names of putative fathers; occupations; and especially odd comments from the vicar immediately come to mind. Finally, do not ignore the records post 1837 in England and Wales (1854, Scotland) because: registration was voluntary before 1875 in England and Wales, they can contain details omitted from the certificate, and will resolve incorrect copying of the register which may be found in the certificate. Yes, it does happen!


The best website for finding where a parish register is likely to be stored is probably the Society of Genealogists. Not many parishes have published their record details, but it is always worth trying Google. A growing collection of sites which should not be ignored is the on-line Parish Clerk which for a number of counties offers transcripts of the parish registers. Last, but not least is the IGI at Family Search.

© Ron Ferguson

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Location, Location, Location and the UK

I am British, it is difficult to describe myself otherwise as my father is descended from Scottish ancestors, my mother from Welsh and I was born in England. It may be because of this hybrid background that I am sensitive to the way in which UK locations are entered in genealogy reports.

Let us start with the meaning of the UK; it is (now) the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but prior to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 it included the whole of Ireland. This, of course, leads to the question as to what is Great Britain; put simply, it is the largest island within the British Isles the latter being merely a geographical description which also includes, the whole of Ireland and the Isle of Man. Often the Channel Isles are included as well but this is not strictly accurate. Great Britain comprises the countries of Scotland, England and Wales. The first two are Kingdoms and the latter a principality - but never suggest to the Welsh that Wales is not a country, it is :-).

Northern Ireland is a province of the UK, created from 6 counties in 1922, and is not the same as Ulster which contains two additional counties, now in the Republic. The Isle of Man and the Channel Isles are not, and never have been, part of the UK, but are Crown Dependencies. The former having the oldest parliament in the world, The Tynwald. The Channel Isles has two separate states, Jersey and Guernsey with their own governments, and the other islands are dependencies of Guernsey.

For further information please refer to The British Isles and all That.

After only a short time studying genealogy one meets the "four field convention" for naming locations. Let us be perfectly clear - this does not work for UK locations. To start with we do not have states, and England, Scotland and Wales are countries not states of the UK or GB. The correct description of location in these three countries would basically be: Parish/County/Country or Parish/Town/County/Country. There are variations, but these are the basic formats.

Thus, the correct location of Southampton is "Southampton, Hampshire, England", and not as I have recently seen "Southampton, ,Hampshire, Engand". There is not another tier between Southampton and Hampshire. We never add "UK" or "GB" to the end of a location, in particular, the latter is simply wrong and the former unacceptable. Arguably it could be said that "Northern Ireland, UK" is correct, although I would not include "UK".

Ouch! I hear, the Geolocation finders no longer work, well they don't, they were designed to fit the four field system, which doesn't work for us (and much of the world outside of America for that matter). I would suggest that accuracy should come before convenience and where I need to use the locator (rarely) I first enter the data incorrectly so that it fits the four field system, get the latitude and longitude, and then correct the location fields. A little more trouble, yes, but at least the output is accurate.

For further information on the history of English locations you are referred to English Counties, Parish, etc. for Genealogists.

In conclusion, for me, to expect a system of naming which has developed over nearly 2000 years to fit a convention developed only in the 20c is beyond my comprehension, and I look forward to the day when we will see our locations accurately reported.

© Ron Ferguson

Saturday, 17 October 2009

We All Have One Thing In Common

I was watching, on BBC TV, a programme about Darwin's Theory of Evolution when the presenter, his grandson, made an observation which is both obscure and self-evident. It doesn't matter whether one believes in the theory, wholly, partially or not at all, and it is that we all have one thing in common - we are the children of survivors. His point was, of course, that the weaker members of society did not survive, leaving the stronger to advance the species. This is not my point, but it did get me thinking.

From the late 1930s, I was brought up in Eccles, Lancashire, England, which was then a town on the western edge of Salford, although it is now part of that city. From being a rural area Eccles had developed into a mixed industrial and farming town following the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in 1763; the main industries being cotton and engineering. Where I lived, in a house built in 1938, we had farmland facing us and to the west, but at the top of the road, to the east, was a cotton mill and over the Bridgewater Canal the Royal Ordnance Factory. My father was a crankshaft turner for Gardeners' Diesel Engines, a couple of miles away. Interestingly, during WW2 the field near the cotton mill and facing the ordnance factory was a barrage balloon site, with its ack-ack guns, always an attraction for us kids!

I have given this description to illustrate that Eccles was a mixed town with a variety of housing and people, and cannot be stereotyped as a poor industrial area with people living in cramped accommodation lacking basic facilities. Yes, there were some areas like that, but they were atypical.

When I was a kid we all suffered from what we called childhood illnesses, measles, mumps, whooping cough etc. and although medicines were less advanced than now I do not recollect anyone dying from them. There were the odd cases of polio and TB from which there were some deaths, but my two sisters and brother all got scarlet fever and survived, I had nearly 2 months off school, in isolation, as a result - great! I can remember very well the men coming round and using a sulphur spray around the house in order to kill the infection.

What brought all this back to mind, was a visit to Manchester Central Library researching the Eccles Parish Burial Registers between 1835 and 1850 when I was forcibly struck by the mortality rates for children. I recorded details of seventy people with one of two surnames, so the selection was reasonably random and found that 59% of the deaths were children, that is died before the age of 21 years. Obviously during the 100 years between then and the period to which I refer above there were improvements in housing, sanitation and medicine. But we still had no vaccines and, other than the new penicillin, no antibiotics, so if one became ill it was very much a matter of letting the illness take its course "in a quiet darkened room" (from a 1930s medical book).

This does indicate, therefore, that our forefathers who did survive had a greater, natural resistance to childhood illnesses than those who died, and maybe passed this on to the next generation. Or did they?

© Ron Ferguson 2009

Friday, 2 October 2009

What to do With Genealogy Source Images!

A regular question on genealogy forums, and not only from beginners, is how to store and use images from genealogy websites, such as Amazon and Findmypast, on one's PC. The question of storage depends on which genealogy program is being used and whether it only stores the paths to the images or embeds the image in the Source.

For myself, I use Legacy Software which only stores the path, thus only one instance of an image is required to source a number of Events, whereas some other software will embed the image in the Source. In the latter case the number of images increases as the number of times a specific Source increases and is, therefore, very memory intensive. In the latter case, it is better to use the image once only eg. a census may be linked only to the head of a family, but do try to be consistent. When only the path is linked then it can be linked to every instance the Source is used with very little extra memory being taken up. Remember also that images in grey scale use less memory than those using RGB..

Why link the images in the first place?

I find on an almost daily basis when working on my data that I need to check something with the original data, it maybe just a date of birth, and having it only one click of a button away is so much more convenient and faster than going back to the website or searching through a load of hard copies.

How can I publish the images?

This can be tricky! Although the data may be copyright free, the images and indexes are almost certainly not. The answer to this question is to always read the small print on the original source very carefully. The UK censuses, for example, are Crown Copyright, and as I have no wish have action taken against me by Her Majesty the Queen I do not publish these images. Similarly the indexes will be the copyright of the organisation which compiled the index, and how these may be used is determined by that organisation.

I have on my web site some searchable parish registers, this data is copyright free but the format and coding is my copyright. So, abstracting and using the data is fine, but that is all! (I will happily allow copying, with my express consent, provided that my site is acknowledged as the source).

There is another problem with publishing many images, and that is their physical size. For hard copy of censuses a new page will be needed, otherwise they will be virtually unreadable, and for web pages the most convenient way is to use expandable thumbnails.

© Ronald Ferguson 2009

Friday, 18 September 2009

Tips for Family Tree Webpages 3

The one aspect of attracting visitors to our site which we have not yet considered is that of promotion. The main point being that what we need to do is to sell the site, I can already hear the shouts of "Sell? But this is a hobby!", so I will repeat myself, yes, sell! In the first part of this trilogy we looked at why we create websites, and to achieve any of the objects described we have the need to attract visitors, so how can we do this, free and from our armchairs?

A little knowledge of HTML is helpful, but not essential in considering this section. The code of any web page can be viewed in your browser by using View>Source, or something very similar. At the start we have the head which lies between two tags: <head> and </head>. Within this lies the title and some meta tags, the latter we will come to later.

For many, the first page visited will be the index page, so the title for this page should describe succinctly the whole of the sites contents, mine has the title "Fergys Website of Genealogy, Software and Social", which is what the site is about. If it was only about my family tree then I could have called it "The Ferguson Family Tree", the quotes are not required. If at all possible the title should be at the top of the head. Below is a screen shot of part of my index page head.

From this we can see the two meta tags which are important for our purposes viz. "Description" and "Keywords". The former should contain a general description of the site and the latter the keywords which you believe will attract people to your site, in particular the aspects which you wish to emphasize and which you feel will best attract visitors. I have seen genealogy sites where every surname has been included in the Keywords of the index page. This is not necessary as search engines will get them from the index, or individual pages.

That's it for your website, now for the selling! As a minimum, we should to tell Google and Yahoo, these URLs will take you to the pages to register your site with them, but do not expect an instant inclusion in the lists, it may take over a month. Nor should I worry about page rankings as it is very unlikely that a genealogy site will generate enough traffic to warrant inclusion - I think I have only one page which has the lowest ranking of 1 and that is not a genealogy page! This does not mean, however, that your site is consigned to number 1,245,000 on the lists, mine are consistently near the top, especially in the UK list.

Try and get others to include your URL on their site, I try and make it a condition that anyone publishing my data also includes my URL, not easily enforced but does produce results. Include the URL in your signature to public mailing groups, the more a search engine sees your URL the higher up the list it goes. Include it in your Blogs, on Facebook and Twitter etc. and if you can get it in your local press or elsewhere then so much the better. Create a demand, but do not expect instant results, my site has been active for a number of years.

Which brings me to my final point, regularly update, because search engines take more interest in sites which are clearly active; I update mine every month, sometimes the changes may be small, but nevertheless it shows the site is not dormant.

More information can be found on Fergys Website in the Tutorials section - still selling :-) - where I look into the creation of websites, often using Legacy Software which automatically adds a basic title to each individual page.

Good luck

© Ronald Ferguson 2009

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Tips for Family Tree Webpages 2

In my last blog we looked at measuring and analysing the number who visit your web pages. I now wish to turn to attracting people to your websites. After all, if we didn't wish for visitors we wouldn't have the site in the first place!

For my genealogy pages I use Legacy to generate the Pedigree Pages, in my Fergys Website and the Family Group pages for my north west England Fergusons. On their own these pages are not particularly attractive, so I wrap them in headers and footers to make them more appealing, and add pictures where possible. This is my first point, visitors need to like the site which they visit. I also consider the index page, for many their first impression of the site, should be a visually attractive page. Unfortunately I am not good on design, so I try to make them a little different to the norm (or use a template).

Another essential is the ease of navigation. There is nothing worse than going to a site and not being able to find the area within which wishes to look. If javascript is used then do ensure that there is a noscript option for those who do not have javascript enabled, otherwise your site could fail at the first page. Talking of javascript reminds me that not all search engines read it, so the noscript option is needed for them also. It goes without saying that the links must work on your server, and not just on your PC, and similarly that your pictures must be displayed; not the empty box with a red cross!

Finally we have the content. The names pages in genealogy sites will attract only those who are looking for John Smith so try adding other pages. I have a relative who was murdered and his story attracts quite a few visits, but for some reason the most popular page on my site is a biopic of all the British Prime Ministers. It is also very worthwhile to ensure that the title of each page emphases the content of that page.

In the next blog I will look at search engines and promoting the site.

© Ronald Ferguson 2009

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tips for Family Tree Websites

We have differing reasons for creating genealogy web sites: to show off what we can do, the hope of attracting people who can fill in the gaps, to help others, we enjoy coding, or a combination of any or all. These aims have one thing in common, people need to be attracted to the site, and we would like them to stay there for a bit and return from time to time.

This blog is the first of a short series and here I will be concentrating on measuring a site's effectiveness. Now one might think that this should be the last in the series but I disagree, as it is easier to implement at the start of a project, and right from the start one will be able to measure the effectiveness of changes to the site once up and running.

No knowledge of HTML is required except that the file can be opened in Notepad to expose the code, and the last tag is the "close body" tag which looks like </body>. I will be concentrating on Google Analytics. After signing, up one can obtain a piece of code which is copied and pasted just before the close body tag in every web page.

Now the hard bit's done, what can Google Analytics do? Well, as might be expected, it can tell you the number of visitors to each page, but more than that, which country they came from, which browsers have been used, how long each visit lasted and the bounce rate - that means the number of visitors who enter and leave on the same page. I should emphasise that all data is strictly anonymous.

When I first created my current site, FergysWebsite I noticed that the bounce rate from my opening page was much higher than I would have expected. I knew that IE6 browser is still widely used and suspected that my index page might not be compatible. Sure enough it wasn't, and by correcting that page I cut my overall bounce rate by more than 10%. This means, I hope, that more visitors will visit again.

The one option I really like is called "Benchmarking" and will be found under "Visitors" on the top left of the site report. It takes the statistics for the site and compares them with the averages for sites of a similar size and type. For "genealogy" click on "Open category" near the top of the Benchmark screen, then select Lifestyles>Parenting & Family>Genealogy and the charts will superimpose the average on the chart for your site. For example, the bounce rate, which is naturally high on genealogy pages, can now be compared with those on other genealogy sites, brilliant!

© Ronald Ferguson

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Genealogy in the Cloud

It is often said that the future lies in cloud computing. That no longer will we have masses of data on our PCs but the data will be stored on large servers. We have seen suggestions that all our family trees can be linked to form one unified family, but are these ideas realisable?

Perhaps, but there are many questions yet to be answered. In my view one of the most important is the question of the ownership of the data. Should I put my family tree on a host server then I would wish to retain ownership of this data, and would resist changes being made without my consent. Closely allied to this is the question of privacy. Like many genealogists, my data includes much information which I wish to keep private, not only details relating to living people but also sensitive matters concerning people who may be recently deceased. I need not, of course, load this onto the host in the sky, but then I would need to retain my large database on my PC which some may feel rather defeats the object.

I would also need rather more assurances about privacy than that which we have present, it is quite wrong for the host to claim that once the tree is on their server it becomes their property, and they can do what they like with it. Another consideration is government regulation, not only that of the country in which one might live, but that of the countries in which the servers are located. What "rights" have those governments granted themselves?

Consideration should also be given as to how this is to be financed. Often many feel that everything on the internet should be free, but this is an impossibility. The storage of everybody's data will cost a tremendous amount of money. The cost per byte may be very low, but not the total cost. Advertising is not going to pay for this. Already returns from internet advertising are falling, as can be seen by newspapers' proposals to charge for access. To me, it seems highly likely that in the future the costs of on-line storage will be passed onto the user.

Of importance to all is the stability of the data banks, which in one sense is clearly related to costs. However, in another sense, one should consider the action of hackers. Of, course they can attack all servers including the ones which we presently use, but we only have to look at the recent attack on twitter (and I still cannot tweet 4 days after the event!) to see the temptation to have a go at a large unit.

Please do not think that I am against cloud computing, that would be far from the truth, and I currently use on-line storage. I have trees on Ancestry and other sites; my point is that the questions I raise have yet to be answered to my satisfaction.

© Ronald Ferguson

Monday, 20 July 2009

Genealogy and Politics

I was recently thinking about my family tree just after having been involved in a political discussion, and I realised that they have a lot in common.

In a sense one's family history is a reflection of the political situation at any given time. I was recently asked by a distant relative from Westmorland, a beautiful rural area encompassing a large part of the Lake District why my ancestor had moved south to the industrial centre of Salford. The answer must have been, of course, work. At the time he was a marble mason and clearly there would be more work in an industrial centre.

The reason behind much of the growth of our cities is due to technology, but often it is the actions of, or pressure from, our politicians which create population movements. More obvious was the effect the politicians, of both the trade unions and the government, had in the decline of the English mining villages during the 1980s. We have had periods of very high taxation when people would emigrate to avoid them, and other times when the government has restricted the funding of research leading to the so called "brain drain".

Today we are seeing the loss of young people from the villages of England because the more wealthy city dwellers are buying second homes and driving house prices out of reach of those whose families have lived there for generations. A perfect local example of the movement of people in order to improve their lot, a situation worsened for the villagers by the European Agriculture and Fisheries policies.

It is said that the way ahead for western economies is to maximise the high-tech skills of the people. If that is the case we can expect a large influx of people to take over service jobs, such as bar-tenders, labouring and other manual jobs. This was recently illustrated by the number of east Europeans who came to England
to take such jobs, and left when our economy crashed.

My aim here is not to take sides, but to illustrate how genealogy and political history are interwoven by the action or inaction of our politicians, even in (relative) peace time!

© Ron Ferguson 2009