More thoughts on FindMyPast’s 1939 Register website

Just wrote up my thoughts on this new resource for the English & Welsh 1939 Register. Posted it on my academic blog, but it’s relevant to the genealogy one too.

Viv's Academic Blog

As a family historian with some English connections I was interested in the 1939 English and Welsh Register which went online recently at FindMyPast. But having seen the 1939 Register entries for my Scottish ancestors I didn’t expect to find anything terribly new or exciting. So I wasn’t even sure if I’d check it out promptly. But sure enough I did, being still up as the site went live shortly after midnight on Monday 2nd November 2015.

Sadly the site was very flaky then, with lots of pages failing to load. I was getting an awful lot of error messages, at various points e.g. initial search results, trying to preview an entry, trying to buy credits/unlock an entry, trying to view an image. Usually reloading one or more times sorted it out though. And I don’t seem to have inadvertently spent my credits twice. Fortunately site responsiveness improved over…

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Smallpox references in Roxburghshire, from my one-place study and personal family history

Reading a recent blog post by Emma Maxwell of Scottish Indexes re finding smallpox references in unusual places reminded me of some references to smallpox I’ve seen in my genealogical research.

Firstly from my Melrose one-place study the Melrose parish registers include a burial register from 1781 onwards which includes causes of death, including many cases of smallpox.

Melrose burials registerNames, addresses and ages at death are also given. The pre-1820 Melrose parish registers have been transcribed and indexed, and a PDF version of the resulting Scottish Record Society book is readily downloadable from I intend to analyse these burial registers more fully soon as part of my one-place study, including analysing the causes of death as given.

I also have a nice reference to smallpox from my own family history. In his memoirs my distant uncle Andrew Usher (1782-1855) who founded the whisky distilling dynasty in Edinburgh recalled his smallpox inoculation, at his family home near Darnick:

I was born and brought up at Toftfield and the oldest circumstance I remember about that place is that when the doctor came to inoculate the family with the smallpox (vaccination had not then been discovered) as I thought it was something very painful I ran away. My father came after me and when in the act of taking me home his heart failed him and he said to himself ‘What if I should be leading the laddie to his death’ (for children so inoculated not infrequently died) and he set me at liberty again. I was, however, persuaded to go into the house and seeing what a simple matter it turned out to be, I presented my arm to the doctor. It so happened that I was very slightly affected while some of the rest were very ill. I had no fever and kept singing away as usual. One of the servants asked me how I could sing when the rest were so ill. My reply was that I would sing as long as I was able.

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Interview with me about blogging, genealogy etc.

I was interviewed recently by Geneabloggers for their “May I Introduce To You …” series. The interview focuses in particular on my background as a genealogist, and my genealogical blogging, but also covers academic issues too.

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1945 obituary of my great-grandfather John Dodds from Melrose

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive extending its Southern Reporter coverage to 1945 I’ve just been able to pull out the obituary of my great-grandfather John Dodds. It was published in the paper on 22nd February 1945:


By the passing of Mr John Dodds, aged 67 years, Melrose has lost a well-known personality, and member of an old and highly respected Melrose family. A plumber to trade, Mr Dodds, who resided at St Cuthbert’s Cottage, was employed by the firm of C. Jardine, Buccleuch Street, from his apprenticeship days until his retirement, through failing health, a few years ago. He was for many years church officer of Melrose Old Parish Church, a post which has been held by four generations of the Dodds family. Sympathy is extended to the relatives.

And here is a bit more about John, this time from the Southern Reporter of 29th March 1945:

The Melrose Church Magazine states: It is with regrest[sic] that we record the death of our one-time Church officer, John Dodds, is one of a family that has held this office since 1870, when his grandfather was appointed in succession to Willie Millar of Gattonside (who died in 1902 aged 101). Then came his father in 1877, then his older brother in 1895, then John himself as interim in place of his brother, who had become incapacitated through illness. Shortly after his appointment he was called up as a Territorial to serve in the Great War. On his return from abroad in 1919 he was appointed to the office in place of his brother, and performed his duties till 1941, when he fell ill and resigned, to be succeeded by his son, our present Officer. This is surely a record for any parish.

The only addition I’d make to this is that John’s sister Catherine Dodds also acted as interim church officer, while he was away during World War 1. So that makes yet another member of the family doing that job.

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Finding an ancestor in the mental health records

Graham and Emma Maxwell have started looking at mental health records of Scots admitted to various asylums (National Records of Scotland records MC2 and MC7), with a view to indexing these by name of patient, thus opening them up more to family history researchers. They knew of my Cavers one-name study, so when they stumbled across a Cavers reference they kindly sent me the images. And it turns out to be a relative of mine.

William Cavers (1798-1873) was my distant g..uncle, son of Francis Cavers and Euphemia Hogg, and younger brother of my 4xg-grandfather Thomas Cavers. Like most of the men in his immediate family William worked as a shepherd, moving about various parts of the Borders and other parts of southern Scotland. By 1859 he was at Ancrum, living with his wife Mary and some of their children.

At this time, before Dingleton Hospital opened at Melrose in 1873, people suspected of being lunatics in the Borders were typically sent to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, to be assessed, and admitted to the asylum there if need be. So that was where William was sent. The records reveal he was certified insane, and admitted to Millholme House there. It is definitely “my” William, because the details recorded include his age, marital status, ocupation, place of abode, the parish or union to which he was chargeable i.e. his place of birth (Kirkton in Roxburghshire), and details of his next of kin (son Francis Cavers).

And of course the records include details of his mental state. When assessed in late May 1859 he was noted as having been insane for three and a half years, with the first attack occurring on 1st January 1856. In May 1859 a physician and surgeon gave evidence that he had examined William Cavers at “The Lockup House” at Selkirk, and found him to be exhibiting great excitement of manner and boasting of things he has no prospect of. Most telling is the evidence from William’s wife and daughter, of his restlessness at night, his refusing to rest, and his berating them. Various neighbours also gave evidence of this.

I don’t know what treatment if any William received. But he was released from Millholme House, only to be readmitted again, this time to Campie Lane also at Musselburgh, soon after. Though this second time the doctor examining him could not find anything particularly wrong with him mentally, apart from a tendancy to mental excitement. He also noted that the man’s physical health and condition was good.

William was discharged from Campie Lane on 30th August 1859. As far as I know he wasn’t readmitted to any asylum, though I hadn’t known about this case before and it is possible he did go in again. He appears in later census returns, in 1861 at Ashkirk and in 1871 at Makerston, recorded with his wife and family. And he died at St Boswells in 1873.

I know of other ancestors who ended up in asylums. John Cairncross uncle-in-law of my gg-grandfather Thomas Cavers Hall died in an asylum. And two siblings of my great-grandfather John Dodds died at Dingleton Hospital in Melrose. But there may be more still to find, which emerge as Graham and Emma’s indexes go online. Keep an eye on these indexes as they evolve over time. They can be searched easily at Scottish Indexes. Emma has also written a useful blog post, explaining these records in more detail.

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Remembering great-granddad’s WW1 service, 100 years after he enlisted

This week has seen many events commemorating the 100th anniversary of Britain joining World War One. My great-granddad John Dodds served during the war, as did my husband’s great-granddad Edwin Dawe. I thought I’d blog about John’s army service 100 years almost to the day after he enlisted.

This is just one man’s story, obviously of interest to his descendants, but it may not seem important in the wider scale of things. But I think it’s important that we remember what happened to people like John, including those who made it back from the war alive. Those who returned were fortunate, yes, but they would be forever changed, though often unable to speak, bottling it up inside.

John was born at Abbey Gate in Melrose in 1877, the son of a brewery worker who was also colour-sergeant in the local volunteer detachment. So there was a strong army tradition in his family. John married Margaret Hall in 1905, and soon the couple had three young sons, including my grandfather. The family moved around a little, but by 1914 were settled at St Cuthberts Cottage down near the Abbey, and John worked as a plumber. He was also church officer, or beadle, for Melrose parish church.

Photo of John Dodds and Margaret HallBritain declared war against Germany on 4th August. John enlisted just four days later, long before universal conscription. Like many people he probably hoped the war would be over soon. He enlisted at Galashiels on 8th August 1914, joining the 4th Battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. His regimental number was 23314 and he was just under 36 years old. His enlistment papers reveal that he, like his father, had been active in the Volunteer Border Rifles. And it records his physical description: 5 feet 7 inches tall, weight 166 lbs, chest girth 38 inches fully expanded, of fair complexion, with blue eyes, and dark hair. He also had to give details on enlisting of his wife, including when and where they married, and the names and birth dates of his children.

Military histories of the 4th Battalion KOSB reveal that they sailed for Gallipoli in May 1915. On 12th July 1915 they sustained their heaviest losses, with over 500 casualties, over half their original number, and over half of the 500 casualties killed. For more about the scale of the losses, and the action leading to them, see W. Sorley Brown’s War Record of 4th Bn. King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Lothians and Border Horse which was published in 1920 and contains a vivid account of the KOSB experiences. I’ve been told that John Dodds had a commemorative plaque in his house in Melrose remembering the KOSB losses on this day. I don’t know if it is still in the family anywhere.

KOSB survivors would be redeployed in later years on the Western Front, where more of them would die. John was lucky to avoid this, being invalided back to the UK because of severe dysentery – a common condition for soldiers to pick up in Gallipoli. In December 1916 he was transferred to the 7th Royal Scots at Chelmsford, and then transferred again on 17th February 1918 to the Royal Army Medical Corps at Blackpool. He was granted leave to return home to Melrose twice, in summer 1917, the second time just after his mother had died. He would never return to active fighting duty.

As an invalided soldier John ran the risk of being perceived as a man avoiding fighting. So he was awarded the Silver War Badge, given to invalided soldiers to wear to show what had happened to them. He was also awarded the 1914-15 Star Medal, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. I don’t know if anyone in the family still has these.

Sadly John’s return was marked with sadness. His mother had died in summer 1917, and in November 1919 his wife died too, just seven months after John was finally discharged from the army, leaving three young children, who John’s sister May helped to raise. John only saw active service for a relatively short term, but he saw his fellow soldiers from the Borders be massacred in vast numbers. It must have traumatised him for life.

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Weighing up pros and cons of a FindMyPast subscription

I’ve been trying out a free 14-day trial with FindMyPast, prompted by them adding Staffordshire parish registers. My Moore ancestors came from there, before one family moved to West Yorkshire, and I’ve been keen to trace them more in parish registers.

However I’ve decided for now not to continue with a monthly subscription after my free trial. I’ve drawn up a list of pros and cons of the site for me, to help me decide whether to subscribe, and thought it would be worth blogging them here in case they might be of interest to others. I should say that I have found FindMyPast’s Irish collection enormously helpful in the past – my Dublin ancestors were constantly in jail (!), and I’ve found them in the Irish prison registers. So I now know what my gg-grandfather and gg-grandmother looked like, for example. However the site has big problems, and I’ve been very concerned about recent changes which have alarmed many long-term subscribers. At least I wasn’t locked into a yearly contract with no chance of a refund. It makes me very unlikely to take out a yearly subscription with them ever again. I would only consider monthly options now, because of what happened recently.

On the plus for me the site has Staffordshire parish registers, with indexes and images. It also has some Cornish parish register indexes, though not images, useful for tracing my husband’s Cornish ancestors (Dunstan is a very Cornish-based surname, and my father-in-law was born in Cornwall). It also has some nice pre WW1 army records, which I was able to use in the past to find my Yorkshire g-grandfather enlisting in the 1890s, which ties up with our family story of him being a soldier, then invalided, treated in an Irish hospital, and meeting and marrying my Dublin-born g-granny. Those early army records – with indexes and images – are not available, for example, at Ancestry.

However the site has many more disadvantages than advantages for me. Firstly with the Staffordshire parish registers the collection is currently very incomplete. In particular it misses West Bromwich All Saints parish, which is probably where my pre-1820 baptisms and marriages took place. And because that parish’s registers are deposited somewhere a bit odd for Staffordshire records it may be that they will never be digitised by FindMyPast.

Another big downside for me with FindMyPast is the very slow loading I am finding with digitised images. This isn’t a problem with my broadband – Ancestry loads fast, as do other sites. But when I click on a FindMyPast image to view it I have to wait for many seconds, while the progress counter ticks round, with me losing the will to carry on, and getting annoyed EVERY SINGLE TIME! The site should work more zippily than this.

Another major downside is that a number of intriguing data sets do not have extra search options to make them more useful. For example I found a dataset including 18th century Somerset apprentices, but it was impossible to search this by place, even though this has been indexed and shows up in the search results. I wanted to pull out references to my husband’s home village/parish Maperton. I could leave the name field blank and step through thousands of results, looking at just the Maperton ones, but I could not narrow down the search by place any other way. This is ridiculous.

Likewise marriages in digitised parish registers cannot be searched by name of father. Marriage certificates in England after 1837 include this information, and marriages in parish registers reflect this. In Ancestry I could pull out lots of references to my ancestors by putting in the name of the father into the search over West Yorkshire parish registers. There is no facility to do an equivalent search in the Staffordshire parish registers at FindMyPast. If I want to look for my Moore ancestors I have to view every single Moore marriage in a plausible place, to see what the father’s details are. And every single Moore marriage image loads very very slowly. I’m not going to do that any time soon.

My biggest gripe with FindMyPast concerns its revamp, and its new default search interface which searches over all records, possibly in a way that may be easier for newcomers to the site, but makes it harder for more experienced users to control exactly what you search over. It is possible to narrow this down to specific data sets, in particular using the A-Z record list to drill down to what you want and a better search form, sometimes. But this isn’t as quick or as intuitive a process as it should be.

And one more moan about very poor name variant handling. For example my Moore ancestors sometimes were recorded as Moor or More. So it’s nice to be able to tick the name variants box in the search form. But the name variants it matches are a bit bonkers. Even Mitchell will be matched if I do that! This gives me far too many irrelevant results.

So for now I will not be subscribing. I may take out a short one or two month subscription in future, keeping an eye on the Staffordshire parish registers collection in particular. But I will never ever take out a yearly subscription again, after the recent disappointing revamp. I continue to be an Ancestry subscriber (again on a month by month renewing basis), and continue to be a very happy annual British Newspaper Archive subscriber.

EDIT: Update to say I ran into problems after cancelling my free trial. I cancelled it online, 3 days before the trial was due to expire, and got an email confirmation from FindMyPast confirming the cancellation and saying that I would not be charged. 6 days later then it was a big shock to get another email from them saying my monthly subscription had been renewed, and that I had been charged £12.95. This has now been sorted out, and apparently occurred – wrongly – because I bought Pay As You Go credits days after my trial was cancelled, and somehow – goodness only knows how! – this triggered their system to activate my subscription and charge me. How absurd, not least because I spent a lot of PAYG credits, with the amount dropping accordingly. The technical people at FindMyPast are looking into fixing this bug, but it’s another thing deterring me from resubscribing in future. A customer should never ever be wrongly charged after cancelling a free trial properly, per the terms and conditions, and getting a cancellation confirmation email. Fair play to FindMyPast that they have fixed it for me since, but the whole experience does not fill me with confidence about their computer and billing systems.

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