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Ancestry Research
Family History


This article was written for the January 2002 edition of the Family Tree Magazine by Gordon McPhail, a professional, practising genealogist.

Genealogy is fast becoming an interest across all age ranges and backgrounds. It is our personal, family history, where we come from and relevant to us now.

Most of us will know some detail and may find old certificates within the family to start us of. This usually takes us back to the names of our grandparents and sometimes great—grandparents. Such sources usually take the form of birth, marriage and death records and indeed these are the very records we will begin our research with at various record offices.

In England and Wales the year 1837 saw the introduction of the civil registration system for births, deaths and marriages — i.e. a central, compulsory form of recording these events and to make your start you will visit The Family Records Centre, 1 Middelton Street, London EC1R 1UW. Here you can search indexes, locate ancestral records and order copies for a set charge per certificate. In Scotland, the year 1855 signifies the start of civil registration and all records from that date onwards are held at the General Register Office, New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT. The system for obtaining copies is different here than from that at the FRC in that for a single, daily (or weekly) charge you can access as many records as you are able and make transcriptions of these in your own hand, a valuable money—saving aspect of the system although full, certified copies, the type which must be purchased at the FRC are available at Edinburgh, too if you wish.

All census material from 1841 to 1901, those ten yearly detailed documents showing all household members with a variety of personal data, are the next most important starting point in genealogy and the above mentioned offices hold these for England/Wales and Scotland respectively. Before civil registration, in both England/Wales and Scotland, the events were registered in a church—based system: known as the Old Parish Records, these are more precisely baptisms, proclamations of banns of marriage and burials although dates of birth, marriage and death are often included in these sources. In Scotland, we have the fortunate position of the previously mentioned New Register House holding all OPRs for the entire 900 parishes of Scotland under one roof and these are registers of the Established Church which formed the bulk of population; for England and Wales, the OPRs have not been centralised but are to be found at county record offices.

Indexes are a great advantage in genealogy and apart from those compiled for civil registration, the genealogy arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) who boast the largest family history library in the world, at Salt Lake City, have continually produced indexes on microfiche card to baptisms/births and marriages for the British Isles (as well as other countries). It is advised that you use these as much as possible to assist in research — known as the International Genealogical Index (I.G.I.) you will find them available at the major record offices.

Many ancestries can be traced back smoothly enough to a point around 1750—1780 and some can go beyond that point — it will depend upon the survival of the Old Parish registers for your particular ancestral locality. You will uncover some name spelling changes, either forenames or surnames or both and ages were often provided a couple of years ‘out’: these are common features in research, to be borne in mind. One thing is for certain in that we all have ancestry and of course this includes our well—known figures, both contemporary and from the past.

Take world—famous author Robert Louis Stevenson: born at Edinburgh in 1850 and grandson to Robert Stevenson, architect of very many of Scotland’s lighthouses. Taking a connecting run through various record types we can see how one thing leads to another, beginning with civil registration for a cousin of R.L.S. —

‘On 18 October 1864 at 8 Canning Place, Glasgow, After Banns according to the forms of the Church of Scotland, was married James S. Stevenson, Merchant, Bachelor, aged 36, residing at Greencroft, Blantyre, Son of Robert Stevenson, Secretary, Royal Exchange and Jane Stevenson m.s. (Maiden surname) Steele & Elizabeth F. Paterson, Spinster, aged 20, residing at 8 Canning Place, Glasgow, Daughter of Montgomery Paterson, Manufacturing Chemist & Elizabeth Paterson m.s. Gentle’

From this one record alone we can follow up in a variety of Sources —census return for 1861, hoping to find James Stevenson pre—marriage at Greencroft, Blantyre; look for his baptism,. circa 1828 (his birthplace to assist this search would be got from the census); the deaths of his parents, post—1864; and even records relating to his particular occupation. Taking the census of 1861 we find: ‘Greencroft Villa, Blantyre, Robert Stevenson, head of house, married, aged 61, Secretary, Royal Exchange, Glasgow, born Perthshire, Dunkeld; wife Jane Stevenson, aged 61, born Edinburgh, their daughters Marion, 35, unmarried and Eliza McCurdy, aged 32, widowed, born at Caputh, Perthshire; James S. Stevenson, their son, unmarried, aged 33, Commercial Clerk (iron) also born at Caputh; Elizabeth Stevenson, aged 62, unmarried, sister to head of house, living on Interest of money, born Dunkeld plus two domestic servants’. So we can see that James Stevenson’s father, Robert, was born c.1799/1800 at Dunkeld. His death record provides ‘Robert Stevenson, Secretary to Royal Exchange, Glasgow (retired), married to Jane Steel, died 1877, January 3, Cadzow Burn Cottage, Hamilton, aged 77, Son of James S’tevenson, Bank Agent and Marjory Simson; cause of death: heart disease, 1 year 6 months, information provided by his son James Stevenson’.

Occasionally you will find that someone has brought out a genealogy of some of what you are now discovering. Robert Stevenson, above, had done so in the 1860s, detailing some of his descent which could then be fully verified (or sometimes not) in original record sources; thus we find that his father, James Stevenson, the second youngest of ten children, born at Glasgow to Robert Stevenson, a Maltman and his wife Margaret Fulton, came to marry Marjory Simson at Dunkeld in Perthshire, the connection to that small town beginning with the re—marriage of his mother Margaret Fulton to a John Maxwell, Dunkeld Merchant. The family maintained close links to Glasgow and here, Robert Stevenson & Margaret Fulton’s other children were all born including Allan, born in 1752, a young merchant who married in 1771 and with his brother Hugh, ventured out to St. Kits and Tobago to manage flourishing trade there only to die within weeks of one another in 1774 whilst there — Allan had left a young son, a baby, Robert, in Glasgow who became the leading beacon in lighthouse design and grandfather to the famous R.L.S. Although not buried at Glasgow, the family plot at Glasgow Cathedral records on a stone renewed in 1850, the fate of the young merchant and his forebears.

Beyond large record centres we will come to use local archives where a wide range of records, some often rare in type, will be found: from Glasgow City Archive, an inheritance record for the Stevensons comes to light, dated 1826, we find a narrative by word of mouth of those who remembered them, concerning RLS’s ancestors: ‘....Hugh Stevenson died unmarried, had 3 brothers Allan, Robert and James and 2 sisters Agnes and Elizabeth.. .Allan went to Tobago, West Indies (c.1775) and died there about 6 weeks after his brother Hugh. Their brother Robert went to sea more than 50 years ago (pre—c.1775) and I recall my mother, Agnes Stevenson and my grandmother Margaret Fulton receiving notification of his death which happened on his passage to America more than 20 years ago and died unmarried without lawful issue...'


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