Win a year’s subscription to Ancestry or Find my Past

win-a-years-subscriptionGreat news for September from Family Detective!

We’ve teamed up with Ancestry and Find my Past to offer a free competition with two amazing prizes – you could win a year’s subscription to one of these two fantastic family history resources.

If you’re interested in tracing your genealogy but don’t know where to start, winning one of these prizes would get you under-way in no time, giving you access to over a billion records, including censuses, birth, marriage and death indexes, parish records and passenger lists.

If you’re already a seasoned researcher, then winning a year’s subscription to one of these genealogical behemoths would be another powerful weapon in your research armoury!

It’s completely free to enter, and requires only your name and email address. For more information, visit our competition page by clicking the button below or visit the following link:

Good luck!


This is a free competition that requires only your name and email. There's no catch - it's just a wonderful gift from Ancestry, Find my Past and Family Detective! Click the button for more details.


Where in the world are my ancestors?


Apparently, the world is getting smaller, travel has never been easier and the internet has the answer to everything!

But, this isn’t always the case when you are time-travelling in search of your ancestors. Some parts of the world have easy access to family history documents, with lots of on-line censuses, certificates and parish records. Sadly, other countries have hardly anything available, unless you’re prepared to learn the language and travel there yourself.

So, before you pack your bags and set off on a trip into your family’s history, let’s have a look at what you can expect:

Starting close to home – you are very lucky if your ancestors came from England, Wales or Scotland. On-line family history records are plentiful here, with good transcriptions and search engines on sites like Ancestry or Find My Past. And what’s more, information is being added all the time, particularly original parish records for births, marriages and burials. The only place to see original Scottish records is the Scotlands People website. Other than that it’s all transcriptions, which vary in accuracy. See my blog 7 tips for exploring your Scottish roots.

Irish ancestry poses some problems for several reasons: The first is the majority of the population was Roman Catholic and their registers did not begin until late in the 18th century. The second is the relatively few number of surnames shared by most of the population (this is also true of Welsh records). And finally, the Irish Public Record Office in Dublin, was destroyed by protestors against British rule in 1922. About half the Church of Ireland Parish registers, census returns, wills and other government records, were lost forever.

More and more Irish records are now appearing on-line on websites like Roots Ireland, but they’re still patchy at best and unless you know which parish your family came from, finding them can be very tricky. See my blog Help, my ancestors were Irish!

If we move across to our nearest neighbours on the continent, things start to get more difficult. Ancestry has some births, marriages and deaths for countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands, but very few European countries have published census records like we do in the UK. A good place to check is the Mormon website, Family Search. I’ve found Dutch census records on there before, although I had to get help with the language because there’s no translation available.

Moving east, I’ve never come across any solid resources for Eastern Europe or Russia. We did once put an English lady in touch with Polish relatives, but that entailed a lot of translation and letter writing to the Town Hall of her family’s hometown. Very few countries have centralised archives like we do here, so you have to deal with individual provinces or a city’s governmental office.

The only other places in the world where I have consistently found reliable family history records are the United States, Canada and Australia. America has very detailed recent census records available, although finding birth, marriage and death records may be more challenging because, again, it seems to depend on which state has released their records and it’s not very centralised. Canada has good passenger records on Ancestry and here and also some free downloadable military records here.

Australia has published some electoral registers and censuses, although they’re not as detailed as the UK ones.

As for the rest of the world: China, India, South East Asia and South America, for example, I’d feel lucky to find any online information at all. Currently, most of these regions are pretty much inaccessible to travellers through time, like you and me. However, as new records are being added all the time, here are my three favourite places to look, when all else has failed:

  • Family Search
  • Cyndi’s List
  • Google search for family trees submitted by the public. Just enter the words “[Surname] Family Tree” and see what comes up. Not all are helpful, but sometimes you can find other people who are looking for your ancestors, such as this one for the Drake family.

Find me a pirate!

Photo by Paul Townsend

Photo by Paul Townsend

How would you react if you discovered one of your ancestors was a pirate or a highwayman in the 17th century? How about if he was a mugger, a rapist or a murderer in the 20th century?

We asked some of our readers to share their experiences of finding a rogue in their family history and asked: How did it make them feel? Did they regret finding out? And would their reaction have been different if the crimes had been committed more recently?

Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett’s g-g-g-grandfather, Frederick, was born in Worcester in 1817. He married in 1839 and then fled to America in the 1850s and married again, bigamously. He never returned to his original wife and family, and was found living in Illinois on the 1880 US census. Andrew says, “More than anything I felt sorry for my g-g-g-grandmother. I don’t think she deserved that sort of treatment,” but perhaps the passing of so many years has allowed Andrew to forgive Frederick for his misdemeanours. He admits to finding him an intriguing character who had a real adventurer’s spirit.

Andrew HowsonWhilst searching for his g-g-grandmother, Andy Howson discovered that her father, John Pybus, was in York Castle Gaol. A sad tale emerged of a former shoemaker whose dearly–loved wife had died shortly after the birth of their second child. It seems that in his grief, John took his eye off his business and, in late 1841, was declared bankrupt. Sadly, John’s ultimate fate has never been discovered.

Andy says, “I was taken aback when I found him in gaol, and struggled to work out how he had fallen so low, but as his story was revealed, I felt really sorry for him. It’s the chance you take when looking into your past and I’m content with what I found. If you’re not ‘Good, Bad or Mad’ there are not many extra records to enhance and flesh out the life of a family member. On the whole I’m glad I found him and not ashamed of him one bit.”

Connie Sparrow has found two prisoners in her past and has different feelings towards each one. The first, Uriah Andow, born 1798, was sentenced to death for stealing two lambs in 1829. Luckily, his punishment was commuted to transportation for life and he was conditionally pardoned in 1848. Connie says, “I’ve a degree of sympathy for Uriah as he probably stole to support his family. However, I have far less sympathy for George Frederick Collins, who was convicted of stealing from his employer – the Post Office.

It appears he was suspected of having done it several times and his boss set a trap that George sprung. He was sentenced to three years penal servitude in August 1900, and in 1901 he was in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, but I get the feeling he also served time at another jail. Afterwards, George’s wife and children emigrated to Canada, so George lost everything: his job, his home, his wife and his family, as well as his liberty for a time.”

Maria Garrett challenged us to find a pirate in her family history! The closest we got was her paternal great grandfather. Maria says, “He was a Royal Marine who spent an awful lot of time “over the wall.” His records show he deserted or was absent without leave on many occasions. I never knew my paternal family; but for me, reading about his antics made me smile and brought my ancestry alive. I have since been in contact with a long-lost cousin who gave me a much-treasured photo of my ‘pirate’ great grandfather, who, incidentally, had 21 children! For me, discovering my unknown family has allowed me a glimpse into those lives who went before and I’m thankful for knowing that.”

If you would like to look for your ancestors in prison records you can search the newspaper archives  or the assorted records of criminals, convicts and prisoners on Find My Past, or Old Bailey records here.

Where there’s a will … there’s a sausage?

sausagesThis week, Heather Ilott hit the press when she was awarded an inheritance of £164,000 as the courts overturned the ‘capricious’ will of her mother, who had originally left £486,000 to animal charities.

There is an intriguing quality about wills and inheritances that makes them a very good source of drama, not only for newspapers but also novels and films. Something about the secrecy involved and the ironic triumph of the wishes of the dead over the living, makes them irresistibly newsworthy.

Here are some entertaining stories we have found from days gone by:

The will of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is available to read here: Shakespeare’s Will. He famously dished out money and goods to his children and the players at The Globe theatre, leaving his wife with his ‘second best bed.’ His actions have been seen to express the Bard’s unhappiness in his marriage.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), famous author and poet, apparently left his own birthday to a dear friend who had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Day. He willed that Annie Ide should receive all the “rights and privileges on the thirteenth day of November, formerly [my] birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.”

Mr Henry Budd, (1839-1862) a Gentleman of Russell Square, London, stipulated in his will that if either of his sons, Edward or William, ever sported a moustache, then their inheritances would be voided and their share would revert to the other brother. Edward was due to receive Pepper Park, Berkshire and William, Twickenham Park, Middlesex, so presumably the sons were highly motivated to stay clean-shaven!

In the will of Kenneth Gibson, born 1923 in Lincolnshire, he left his daughter, “items normally contained in [my] suitcases and my large jigsaw puzzle TOGETHER WITH the price of half a pound of pork sausages that she claimed in my presence that her late mother Ann Cox had not paid her for.”

If you interested in seeing wills or probate records of your ancestors, you can search for them here: on the GovUK website. They cost £10 each and can take up to 10 days to receive. The database covers 1858 to the present day and includes many famous people’s last wishes, including Winston Churchill, Alan Turing and AA Milne.