Digital v Physical Archives: a Personal Account, Part 1 OR a Little Bit of Family History

 I began my family tree research in my late teens.  I sat down with my father and listed all family members past and present that he could remember.  Still only eighteen, I moved from Merseyside to Wimbledon and bought a copy of Tracing Your Family Tree, by Jean Cole and Michael Armstrong.  I was ideally placed to visit the capital’s repositories, but then hit a giant stumbling block.  I was too shy to visit anywhere.  The thought of going to St Catherine’s House and asking questions terrified me.  Fast forward twenty-odd years and I’m a veteran of archival and record office research.  I believe the advent of the digital archives on the internet was the gateway for me to continue with my research.

Around the time of the millennium, my husband bought a computer and went online.  Whilst he thrilled at looking up prospective train fares for me (for fun), London to Liverpool (yes, really), I rediscovered my interest in my family tree.  Success occurred the first night I sat down in front of the computer.  Via Cyndislist, I was led to the archives of Canada.  Here, I searched for my maternal grandfather, William Gray, who had fought in WWI for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and my paternal grandfather’s brother, Bernard (Barney) Boyland, a British Home Child, who also fought for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  I was able to print their attestation papers and record physical characteristics such as height, hair colour and tattoos, thus adding some colour and life to my imaginings of them.  Both men, having died before I was born, had previously only been viewed through the medium of black and white photography.  My grandfather, born in Drogheda, Ireland, spent some time in America before heading to Canada to join up.  He was said to have worked for Buffalo Bill’s circus.  His attestation papers revealed that he had a Buffalo Bill tattoo on his right forearm and a woman’s head on his left.  Immediately, the internet and a digital archive had opened up my research options, had fed me hitherto unknown information, I was hooked.

World War One attestation paper of William James Gray (sourced from the National Archives of Canada)

I researched the 1881 census, via the Church of the Latter-Day Saints Family Search website, which furnished me with data about my paternal two-times great-grandparents and their family, who were living in Milton Street, Liverpool.  Having five generations live in Milton Street, situated off Scotland Road, at one time or another, I was confident that I had the correct family group.  I bought a CD-ROM version of the 1891 census for Lancashire, to avoid online search fees.   I ordered birth, marriage and death certificates from the General Register Office; often using the volunteer transcribers website Free BMD to get specific reference numbers required for locating entries.  I emailed Nugent Care; the Catholic organisation that holds archives relating to St George’s Industrial School, where Barney was placed while awaiting transportation.  Barney, who was somewhat of a hero to his nephews, had, according to my father, been taken from the family, aged nine, for ‘sagging school’.  The surprising response from the archivist was that Barney was taken using the Frequenting the Company of Prostitutes Act 1880.  Documents revealed that his father was dead, his mother’s address unknown and was living with his aunt.  It was noted that he had red hair and it was stated that ‘he could say part of his prayers’.  My mother’s response was, ‘Don’t tell your Dad!’  I used the Rootsweb forum and searched for possible family links, but also, was assisted by people either with an Ancestry account, or who owned one or more of the censuses that were not yet digitised, who generously checked addresses for me.  Even before Who Do You Think You Are? online amateur genealogists had plenty of options.

Armed with data, I then plucked up the courage and the confidence to head to Liverpool’s Archives and Local Studies Searchroom (age and motherhood had ironed out many of my hang-ups and forced me to speak when I would otherwise run).  In Liverpool, I learned how to search the BMD indexes and census on microfiche, practised archive etiquette and procedures, such as foam book supports, weights to hold pages and to always carry a pencil and NEVER use a pen. I read leather-bound baptism and marriage registers noting down seven, eight, nine, ten children’s baptisms, all children born to my paternal grandmother.  Number one child was the hardest to find, I hadn’t anticipated that my staunchly Catholic grandmother would have had her baby two months after her wedding, in 1911!  My mother’s response was, ‘Don’t tell your Dad’!  I then tracked the similar maternal career of my great-grandmother via the same ledger.  This enriched my family tree by highlighting names that had never made it into the census, as they had not survived infancy or childhood.

Archives fast became my favourite resource.  I visited the Family Record Centre, St Catherine’s House having closed.  I went to Dublin and researched my maternal line via certificates bought over the counter in the General Register Office.  I visited the archives and library searching for census data, and travelled home after four jam-packed days researching and marching around Dublin, using a very useful free tourist map.  My friend shared my first experience of the National Archives at Kew.  Here, I searched for my paternal grandfather’s WWI military file.  I was pre-warned that the records were burned during bombing in WWII and that only a low percentage survived.  When his name appeared on the microfilm reader’s screen, I literally got the shakes.  I was so excited and happily printed off all documents so that I had a physical copy to show my family.  These documents revealed that my grandfather continued in the Territorial Army for over a decade after WWI, listed his growing family and spouse, his role as a rifleman during the war and his demotion, his poor dentistry, and like the Canadian attestation papers, bore his signature.  To me, the youngest of his grandchildren, born too late to meet him, unable as yet to find a record of his birth, this was something tangible, proof of his existence.

Whilst enjoying the fruits of archival research, I still used many online resources and repeatedly visited my favourites.  I even joined Ancestry for free trials, forgetting to cancel the account the second time I did this.  Pay-walls annoyed me frequently and I carefully judged which data was worth spending my money on.  After a time, my tree diverged, and I searched on Scotland’s People for my husband’s ancestors, thrilled with the bargain £12 spent over two nights to reach several generations back.  I revisited this site recently, and though cheaper than a trip to Scotland, I was reluctant to part with any money.  I became a member of Genes Reunited and drew up quite an extensive family tree.  Hours later, I was messaged by a paternal uncle’s grandson, who lives in Australia.  The power of the internet was able to reunite descendants of the same common ancestors.

The 1901 census led me to new data regarding my grandfather’s family; my grandfather had a cousin named Columba who died towards the end of WWI, aged nineteen.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website led me to his grave in Wallasey.  He is buried in the cemetery next door to the local reference library.  This time my children were included in my research and after a quick visit to the library, we were armed with a plot map and on the hunt for Columba’s grave.  My children were also included in my trip to Ford cemetery, Liverpool.  I researched the Ford burial index on microfiche for all the family names that could possibly have been listed.  Like treasure hunters, we followed our map, finding my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ headstones, including one grave that was the final resting place of six of my ancestors and another, from the paternal line, that contained three ancestors, that was now, and maybe always was, without a headstone.

The grave of Anne O’Donovan, Ford Cemetery, Liverpool (Anne Donovan, nee Roche, was the grandmother of George Frederick Boyland – see below)

The digital versus physical archives pendulum swung slowly from left to right with each new discovery.  Favouring the ease of the digital archive for research with a young family that would consume a large amount of my time and income, the digital sources, with judicious, and cost effective, use of the occasional pay-per-view website, was a boon for family-friendly research, often done in the evenings when the children were in bed.  However, the information garnered during my family history research frenzies, which were always followed by quiet periods of reflection, usually sent me gleefully to the archives.  One amazing visit to the National Archives, saw me led into a small CCTV’d room, the only place permissible for me to view the documents that I had requested.  In my hands, I held my father’s British Seaman’s Identity Card, and various ephemera, which included the youngest ever photo that I have seen of my father.  Taken in 1944, he was aged fourteen, and was about to sail to New Zealand, having followed his brothers into a typical Liverpool occupation of ‘going to sea’.

Photos of George Boyland sourced from The National Archives, Kew, England (from the Merchant Navy records)

The physical documents that I have saved in my own family history box come from a variety of sources.  They are special to me in many disparate ways, some show my tenacity at following a lead (I have been called Miss Marple by one of my sisters) others are precious as they contain personal data or signatures that are from long dead relatives.  Some research is now out-dated as illegitimacy was proven (effectively cancelling out my link to a nineteenth century Lennon in my Liverpool line) and many birth, marriage and death certificates that demonstrate the authenticity of my family tree.  My abject failure was to never find my paternal grandfather’s birth registered in the indexes, several dud certificates saw me give up the quest.  However, just before embarking on my academic career, one final fling in the archives with a cousin had me hoping to have finally won the prize.

My cousin, armed with a 1923 copy of my grandfather’s baptism certificate, joined me.  Both our fathers now dead, he had spent years cajoling it from our now only surviving paternal uncle.  We failed again.  We could not find a John Boyland, born on the 28 October 1890, listed in the baptism register.  But the Miss Marple in me would not let it rest.  The following day I returned alone.  Reading every individual record carefully, I spotted a child born on the correct date and baptised a few days later.  My grandfather, John Boyland, was born and baptised John McCarthy, his parents recorded as Patrick and Mary McCarthy, the record was annotated in pencil in the margin, recording his marriage to my grandmother in Latin.  Undoubtedly, this was he.  A discovery that threatened my cousin’s joy in researching his family name, questioned his identity and wiped out several years’ of my research.  Columba, whose grave I had searched for, was the cousin of Barney, but not of John.  The 1923 certificate records the parents of John as Patrick and Mary Boyland, however, Patrick Boyland died in May 1889.

Certificate of Baptism of John James Boyland (father of George Frederick Boyland)

For me, the search has been dormant for several years while other research was prioritised.  Genealogy taught me that I loved history.  As my personal account attests, I used digital and hard copy primary sources.  I revelled in the detective work required to build a robust tree, investigated alternative sources when the obvious sources failed to illuminate and in the process developed a new set of skills.  I view digital and physical archives with the same degree of appreciation, for both have their uses.  The digital archives were a conduit into physical archives, whose footfall was on the wane prior to the popularisation of family history.  They may not be convenient, you may have to travel, they are sometimes cold and uncomfortable, but occasionally the little nugget of information that takes your story further is worth all that.  I use digital archives for expediency’s sake, and for that I salute them, but there is something wonderful about holding an aged manuscript, opening up a ledger and deciphering reams of difficult script, imbuing a sense of pride, achievement, and primary knowledge that may not be available online.


Photos author’s own

21 thoughts on “Digital v Physical Archives: a Personal Account, Part 1 OR a Little Bit of Family History

  1. Brilliantly written, I felt like was sitting there scrolling through the Fiche looking at the records. I could smell the dust and the see the colour of the old documents. I love doing this type of research too. but life has taken over for me. This may have sparked my enthusiasm again though!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks Pat, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I loved writing it, so easy in comparison to academic writing. It has brought it all back to me too, I really want to start researching my family tree again, although I suspect that I’ll have to ‘park’ the idea for a while longer. x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Christine. In all honesty, that’s only an abridged version. There are other stories,but I wanted to demonstrate my relationship with the archival sources and how I used the processes I learned when switching from genealogy to academic research. You may have noticed there is nothing academic in there! The genealogy took over, hence the post became a 2 parter!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating! I don’t have the family history bug, ie I don’t do any research, but I am interested enough to have put in order the info we have already and made a tree on Genes Reunited (a long time ago – must check if it’s still there). That resulted in a few contacts and I inadvertently provided someone with a skeleton in her cupboard that she didn’t like!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The skeletons are always coming out of the closets, unfortunately. My Genes Reunited page is still there, this past December was the first time I’d missed the annual payment. As I can still access the details, I’ve left it dormant.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree that both have their place in the research scheme. I find the best stuff when visiting archives. Sometimes I’ve traveled to find records that later became available on Family Search. Like you, I have struggled to speak up to get what I need, but it gets better with practice.

    Online archive indexes are wonderful, because then I can prepare lists in advance for everything I’d like to see (but more than I’d have time for), which saves us all time.

    Thanks for sharing your research story!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You have inspired me! I’d like to start researching my family history again, after a 15year gap, but am afraid it might be addicting. I remember spending a whole summer in an archival library back in 2003….I was between jobs so had the time. It was an hour’s drive, and I would pack a lunch which I ate in the car as there were no restaurants nearby, and be so absorbed in it all, the day would just fly by and I would drive home thinking about everything I had discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would do my research in frenetic bursts and gain as much as I could from an archive/source and then reflect for a while before starting again. It is addictive, with me it naturally slowed when family life, work and studies got in the way. When I research now, I find I’m going over old ground and I need to be in archives in Ireland tracing baptism and marriage registers.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I talk a good game about family history and my brother and I keep saying… yet in one of those serendipitous twists, I had a mail from a chap who’d read a post we’d done about our great uncle Willie who died in WW1 the day after being awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry. This chap had bought Willie’s medals at auction and researched his history inc obtaining his army record – like you one of the 40% that survived the WW2 bomb – and as he’d read my post wanted to meet. Long story short we met in Saturday and had a fascinating hour or so with him communicating his love, as yours, with genealogical research and him telling me to ‘get a move on’ though not in so many words. Then up pops this post. Methinks the stars are aligning… PS I bought the medals – yeah I was always going to wasn’t I?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Get on with it!
      I loved doing my family history, it led me to study for my degree. I’m sad that I can’t research easily from home anymore, I’ve reached the get-off-your-bum-stage! I need to start doing serious archive work in Ireland – and that’s fraught with problems.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have never been a great history reader or writer for that matter, but in a rare moment of nostalgia when looking at an old photograph I came upon your writings. I have found it fascinating and very informative. There’s so much of our history that hasn’t been written, but as I get closer to meeting my parents once again I am captivated by a thirst for knowledge that has evaded me in my quest for a better life and true happiness. Thank you for giving me a small reminder of who I am and where I came from. \keep up the good work.
    Your loving cousin Liam.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liam, I am so sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I meant to but somehow life and COVID got in the way. I can’t believe how fast the last 3 months have gone! I’ve been doing a course for work (alongside work) and I can’t really focus on a lot of writing and research.
      That said, I’ve been doing some more Gray research this weekend and I’ll publish the details soon. Although, as I’ve written in the post above and in others, I really need to visit the archives in Ireland.
      I do hope you are well. Lots of love R x


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