When you can’t find the birth, death or marriage in the indexes

 

This post was first published here in March 2008. I think it bears repeating, with some minor updates.

© Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The New South Wales Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has a marvellous online index for searching for these events at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births. It allows searching by surname, given name, year or range of years, and/or district. For births and deaths it also allows searching by parents’ names, and for marriages by spouses’ name. It allows many fields to be left blank. It contains records from before civil registration began in 1856 because the Registry has transcribed the majority of parish registers to include pre-1856 events as well as post-1856 events that were recorded in parish registers but were not reported to the Registrar.

Many Australian States have their own online indexes, and most of these records are available on Ancestry, with much broader search capabilities.

Sometimes, though, no matter how long you search, you simply cannot find the entry you are looking for. Nick Vine Hall’s Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources gives an excellent list of possible reasons for not finding your ancestor in the parish registers that I think bears repeating here, as it applies more generally to all index searches.

  1. The index entry is spelled differently than you expect. Phonetic variations were quite common, such as HAWKINS/ORKINS or ANDERSON/HENDERSON, and your ancestor may not have been able to read well enough to detect a spelling mistake.
  2. The index entry was transcribed incorrectly, or the index is not in strict alphabetic sequence. Many handwritten indexes are by the first letter of surnames only.
  3. Handwriting is misinterpreted through inexperience or illegible handwriting.
  4. The index entry was overlooked by the indexer. Marriages may have been indexed under one party’s surname only.
  5. The event took place in a different parish, colony, state or country than the one you are searching.
  6. The event never took place. Not all children were baptised, not all burials were conducted by clergy, and not all parents were married.
  7. The event took place in a different time period than the one you are searching. People lied about their ages at marriage, so you may be looking too late.
  8. The clergyman forgot to write up the event in the register when he returned from his journey around the parish on horseback. Notes were lost or distorted.
  9. The event was never registered. Early Catholic and Methodist burials were not recorded, and in remote districts the mourners could not wait until the parson happened to pass by.
  10. The event was recorded in the church register but was not sent to the government.
  11. The event was unrecorded. Sometimes the deceased could not be identified.
  12. The event was recorded at the time, but the record was lost through fire, flood or insect attack. There are a few cases of deliberate destruction of parish registers, such as pages being torn out, possibly to obliterate evidence of convict ancestry.
  13. The child was born out of wedlock, in which case the baptism will be recorded, and indexed, under the mother’s name.
  14. The child may have subsequently been adopted, and so the birth name will be different.
  15. The person may have changed their name after birth or baptism.
  16. The family was not religious and didn’t attend church.
  17. The family held a different religion to the one you thought they did.
  18. The names are recorded differently than you expect. The father might answer to Harry but his real name, as given to the registrar, was Thomas Harold. If you search using “Harry” you will get no result.

If you have followed up, as best you can, all of these possibilities and still can’t find the event in any of the likely indexes then it is time to consider other sources, such as newspapers and family bibles.

Source: Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources, 3rd Edition. Mount Eliza, Victoria: Nick Vine Hall, 2002.

Photo: © Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Charles Johnson, prisoner and father

When the grandmother of one of my clients was born there was no father listed on the birth certificate. When she married she stated her father to be a Charles Johnson, but there was no other evidence of this, or indeed of any link between Charles and and the mother Isabella Staader.

At least there was a name to go on, and the place where the child was born. A search of the digitised newspapers on Trove had given a short account of a trial in which Charles was convicted in January 1887 of assault and sentenced to 12 months hard labour at Tamworth Gaol. The woman he assaulted was Isabella Staader.

SMH 18970201 p5 Johnson and Staader

Further searches revealed more information. The NSW Police Gazettes reported his arrest (without bail), sentence and release. He is the Return of Prisoners, showing his sentence:

Charles is about half way down. He was charged with “Wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm” on Isabella Staader. He was tried at Tamworth Quarter Sessions on 29th January 1897, and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour at  Tamworth Gaol.

Later in the same year he appears in a list of Prisoners Discharged to Freedom. The printing is even smaller than in the page above so I haven’t posted an image. It describes not only his crime, sentence and date and place of trial, but some additional information – his native place was Tamworth, NSW; year of birth was 1862; height 5 feet 5 inches; fresh complexion; brown hair and eyes; regular nose, mouth and chin; and this was his first conviction.

The Index to Gaol Photographs on the State Records NSW website does not include those taken at Tamworth Gaol, but there is a full index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. There he was: Charles Johnston in Tamworth Gaol. The presence or absence of the T in the name was a minor inconvenience – if they didn’t always spell names the same way there is no reason for us to be pedantic about it.

SRNSW Gaol Photograph 1897 Charles Johnston

The page is wrinkled where the photographs have been stuck on.  We now know quite a lot more about Charles Johnson, including some more accurate information, as I suspect the Description Book is more accurate than the Police Gazette. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, with a cut under his left eye. He weighed 130 pounds. He was Church of England and he could read and write.

We may not know exactly what was going on between Charles and Isabella, but we now have an idea of when it might have come to an end. Perhaps she took him back when he got out of gaol; certainly his child knew that he was her father.

Often the father of an illegitimate child can never be found. Sadly, if there was domestic violence, it may be possible to find out quite a bit about him.

The full citation for the page from the Description Book is :

State Records NSW: Department of Corrective Services, ‘Photograph Description Book, Tamworth Gaol, 1894-1929’, [3/5997]; item 49 for Charles Johnson.

The square brackets seem to interfere with the formatting in the picture caption.

Births, Deaths and Marriages in Parish Registers

St Paul's Anglican Church Carcoar

Civil registration in NSW

Here in New South Wales we are fortunate in the detail to be found in our birth, marriage and death certificates. and in the indexes available online. Births include parents full names, with the  maiden name of the mother, the date they were married, and previous children born. Marriages usually show the names of both sets of parents. Deaths are best of all, showing parents, spouses and children.

Civil registration began in New South Wales on 1st March 1856, with District Registrars appointed to record all births, marriages and deaths in their districts. The responsibility for notifying the District Registrar fell to a parent, for a birth; the minister, for a marriage; or the owner of the house, for a death when one of these events took place.

In the early years it was often difficult for people to get in to town to register a birth or death. There was also some distrust of the government and unwillingness to provide information.

Parish registers

Before that time the only record of births, deaths and marriages in the Colony was in the parish registers of the churches. Initially only the Anglican Church was recognised, so Catholics and others had to be baptised, married and buried by the Anglicans or not at all.

The Registry has collected information from churches for the pre-registration period on a number of occasions to complete their records but this process is still incomplete, with missing information on many records, especially marriages, and missing records. Most of these early registers have been microfilmed and are available in many libraries – these are the Early Church Records, identifiable by the V in the reference when you search on the NSW BDM website. Photocopies are not allowed, but you can write down the information you find. Make sure you record where you found it!

Of course children were still baptised, couples were married in church, and burials were performed according to the rites of the religious denomination of the deceased, after civil registration began and so the parish registers continued.

Why look at the parish register?

The Registry has attempted to collect information that may be present in a parish register and not in the Registry. After the initial introduction of civil registration in 1856 two further attempts were made, in 1879 and 1912, to collect baptisms and marriage information not recorded in the Registry, but the process of reconciling the two was never finalised.

This means that there are entries in some parish registers, and in rare cases whole registers, that do not appear in the Registry. Marriages in the Registry may lack information that the parish register contains. It’s worth looking at the parish register, then, even if you have the certificate from the Registry.

Even the remote possibility that there is some new information somewhere makes it worthwhile to seek these registers out.

The parish register will also contain the original signatures of the parties concerned, whereas the copy sent to the Registry has been written out by the minister or a clerk and does not contain original signatures. This is especially valuable for marriages, where the bride and groom, and any witnesses, had to sign.

Parish Registers on microfilm

The Joint Copying Project of the Society of Australian Genealogists, the State Library of NSW and the National Library of Australia has been working for more than 25 years to microfilm parish registers. Many Anglican registers have been filmed, with the Diocese of Bathurst added earlier this year. Many Catholic and Presbyterian registers have also been filmed.

Microfilms are available in the Society of Australian Genealogists and the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Check their online catalogues for details of what is available; more are being added all the time. A search by the name of the place and the words “parish register” should give you what you need. You can usually make individual copies of single entries for research purposes.

In the Mitchell Library the card catalogue is available in the Special Collections area – ask the librarian behind the desk. The films are on open access on the shelves.

In the Society of Australian Genealogists the online catalogue includes the filmed parish registers. You may also find books of transcribed entries for specific churches.  There is a also a book that lists all the microfilms in the Society’s collection, but keep in mind that this book will not contain any parish registers that were filmed after 1990.

What if the parish register hasn’t been filmed or transcribed?

Parish registers that have not been filmed will be found either in the central archives of the church concerned, or remain in the parish.  Some parish records have undoubtedly been lost or destroyed, especially small churches where the minister had to travel long distances to administer to his flock.

Most parish priests and ministers are very helpful to family historians and will usually provide what you need for a small donation to cover their time and expenses.

Sources

Nick Vine HallParish Registers in Australia, published by the author, 1989.

Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in New South Wales, 5th edition. CD. Adelaide: Archive CD Books, 2006.

NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, History of the Registry’s Records. Website. http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/historyRecords.htm.

Richards, J. A., Garnsey, H.E., and Phippen, A., Index to the Microform Collection of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Sydney: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1990.

Society of Australian Genealogists, Bascis on church records (Australia). Website. http://www.sag.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48.

State Library of New South Wales, Getting started: Church Records. Downloadable PDF document. http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/research_guides/docs/church_records.pdf.

How to start your family tree part 2 – civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages

Collecting evidence

Once you have talked to your parents and other relatives and found out as much as you can from them it’s time for the expensive part of the exercise. There is no getting away from it, you have to start paying for certificates.

What you are trying to do is find documentary evidence for what you have been told. Even your father’s date of birth is just hearsay until you see it in writing on an official document, and the same with the names of your grandparents’ parents. If you don’t do this you may find you are running blindly down the wrong track, and tracing someone elses’ family tree, and there is nothing more frustrating than when you finally discover that you’ve been doing this.

Civil Registration Indexes

We usually begin by collecting birth, death, and marriage certificates for our ancestors. These will usually lead us backwards to the previous generation. In New South Wales you can start with online indexes. The NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has an excellent online index. The search for births and deaths is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births

and the search for marriages is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=marriages

You can get from one to the other by clicking on the button on the right hand side of the screen.

NSW BDM indexes are more useful than those of England and Wales…. Civil registration began in 1856 in NSW, a year after it was introduced in Scotland. It was modelled on the Scottish system, and even though Scotland backed down and reduced the number of questions asked, New South Wales did not. Civil registrations contain a wealth of information…

The indexes, therefore, are also more helpful than those of England and some other Australian States. The given names of both parents are listed and searchable for births and deaths, so that not only can you see that the John Smith you’ve found is more likely to be yours because the parents names are correct, but you can search for other children born to the same parents and find all the siblings of your John Smith. The location of the registration is also very helpful, although it is not necessarily the location of the birth but rather the district where the birth was registered. You can therefore discount the John Smiths born in Sydney and other parts of the State if you know your Smiths lived in Wollongong.

Certificates

 

When you have found the entry in the index that you think is your ancestor you must order the certificate. This is the most expensive part of the exercise and I’m sorry, there is no avoiding it. The extra information that appears on the certificate that is not available on the index might be the only clue you have to the next part of the puzzle.

The NSW Registry currently charges $26 for a certificate, which is certified by the Registry and can be used as proof of ancestry. Usually the certificate contains the actual handwritten columns of information from the original register. An example is given on the right, with thanks to the NSW rEgistry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The NSW Registry has accredited Transcription Agents to transcribe birth, death and marriage registrations which are much cheaper than the full certificates. You can order full transcripts or partial transcripts that only contain the details you want. You can see the list at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/howToSearch.htm#TranscriptionAgent

Before 1856

Before civil registration began in 1856 records of births, deaths and marriages were kept by the churches where the christenings, burials and marriages took place. Most of this information was collected by the Registry after civil registration was introduced and hand-written into large bound volumes. Most of these are included in the NSW Registry indexes, where they are called “Early Church Records”, but the information available on the actual certificate is less.

Baptisms show the dates of birth and baptism and parent’s names, sometimes including the mother’s maiden surname but not always. The occupation of the father and the abode is also recorded. Very early records, from 1787 to 1820 or so, have much less information even than this.

Marriages have the names, marital status and parish of both parties. If either was under age or a convict then the consent of parents or the Governor is recorded. Witnesses are recorded, and may include family members. Very early records may just list the marriage date, names of the parties and location.

Deaths show the name, dates of death and burial, age, and occupation. Children may be recorded as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Parents names are otherwise never recorded, which makes them much less useful than later death registrations. Early records may show even less information than this.

Most of these records have been microfilmed and are available at some libraries and family history societies, where they can be examined and transcribed but not copied. It is important to realise that what you are seeing on the microfilm has been transcribed – it is very rarely the actual record which your ancestors signed (or made their mark). You will notice that all the handwriting is the same, and if you are lucky it will be easy to read. Not all handwriting is readily decipherable without practice.

Sources:

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Family History, website at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/, retrieved 25 Feb 2008.

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.

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