Friday 26 January 2018

Never Trust an Index!

Just this week I was reminded of something drilled home to us students a few years ago when studying for our PG Diplomas in Genealogy with the University of Strathclyde. “Never trust an index” was the mantra preached by Dr Bruce Durie and his crew, usually followed up with further encouragement to always have a look at the original source from which the index was created. I’m sure that this excellent advice still features on a regular basis today.

I was visiting Selby and District FHG to present on aspects of Early Asylum Life. My talk was well received and afterwards I chatted to a number of the members. One gentleman, John Riley, had recently found that a great aunt had died in an asylum, The Grange in Midlothian, Scotland in 1873 but did not know much beyond that. As I’ve spent many years studying Scottish records using the website Scotland’s People I thought I might just be able to help him. He was puzzled that while Ann had been taken all the way to Scotland to end her days in a private asylum, her husband had remained in Yorkshire. I guess that is when little seeds of doubt began to sprout in my mind. There was certainly something unusual going on here.

John showed me an image of the record he had found for Ann Garside. It was from Ancestry’s UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912, a record set I’ve used a lot over the past two years. Originally created by the Commissioners in Lunacy and now stored in the National Archives, Kew (Class: MH94) this recently digitised register holds basic information - name, gender, name of establishment, date of admission, date of death if applicable - and whether the individual was being admitted as a private or pauper patient. Every person admitted to a county or private asylum, not in the United Kingdom as Ancestry’s record set name suggests but in England and Wales, should appear in that register. Midlothian is definitely not in England or Wales.

I decided to look for Ann Garside myself and soon found her.

Sure enough, the transcribed index states Midlothian, but knowing that had to be an error, I thought I would have a look at the original entry.

Entry 30,074 shows that Ann Garside had indeed been admitted as a private patient to “The Grange” on 25 January 1873 and died there just a week later. Nowhere in that admission register entry is there anything to suggest that “The Grange” was in Midlothian. That extra information can only have been added by Ancestry and one imagines that someone had a list of all the transcribed asylum names appearing in the records and to be helpful to us genealogists, decided to add the location where that institution could be found.

Ann must have passed away in an English asylum in February, 1873. A search on the General Register Office website found that a death had been registered for an Ann Garside in Rotherham, Yorkshire in Q1 1873.

With name, date and location matching the known facts this must be the lady in question. John will be buying a copy of her death certificate to establish the cause of her death.

A search for The Grange Asylum, Rotherham on Google found Thundercliffe Grange at Kimberworth near Rotherham which opened as a small private asylum for ladies in 1872. Unfortunately, according to The National Archives, no records for Thundercliffe Grange have survived from 1873, although I’d probably want to make a quick call to Sheffield City Archives, just in case anything new has emerged.

I’ve posted a correction to this record on Ancestry which should mean that nobody else will be led down that particular blind alley. What other errors could be discovered in this dataset? I looked back through my research notes and it did not take long to find three more absolute howlers in the Ancestry data:

The first purpose built asylum for the criminally insane, “Broadmoor”, seems to have moved from Crowthorne, Berkshire, England to Pembrokeshire, Wales.

“Fisherton”, believed to be Fisherton House, a private asylum taking criminal lunatics for the government was in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England yet in Ancestry it is shown as being in Ayrshire, Scotland. Another entry for what has to be the same asylum, this time “Fisherton H.” is shown located in Inverness-shire, Scotland.

The Norfolk County Asylum shown simply as “Norwich” the town where it was located in Norfolk, England shows a location in Ancestry of Shetland, Scotland which must be just about as far away from Norwich as one could possibly travel in Great Britain.

I don’t think any of those asylum locations would have needed specialist geographical or asylum knowledge to have got them right in the first place. Suggesting the location of the institution would be a boon to the researcher whose next port of call should probably be to the appropriate local county records office where the majority of surviving asylum records are held. Just a great pity that more care wasn't taken to verify the locations before the dataset was published.

In spite of the obvious funnies which appear in the dataset, this set of digitised registers is a real boon to anyone who wants to check for missing ancestors who might just possibly turn up in an asylum, perhaps with surviving case notes, and maybe even a photograph.

Happy archivology!

Monday 15 January 2018

Secret Lives. Hidden Voices of Our Ancestors

Absolutely delighted to have been selected to deliver Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There at Secret Lives. Hidden Voices of Our Ancestors 31st August to 2nd September this year. It feels very special to be given a national platform to tell more folk about the real people whose voices have been hidden in the archives of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, in this, the bicentenary of the opening of that famous Wakefield institution back in 1818.

I’ve just booked my place for the full three days of Secret Lives and just as well I did as tickets seem to be selling fast. What an impressive line-up of speakers including two authors who clearly share my enthusiasm for the amazingly rich content found among the early lunatic asylum records.

Fellow Strathclyde alumni Kathryn Burtinshaw, who with Dr John Burt published Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth Century Britain and Ireland in 2017, will be covering Incarceration: Voices of the "insane" in nineteenth century Britain on the Sunday.

Sarah Wise whose best selling 2012 book Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England gives two talks on the Friday and I’m particularly hoping to hear Ancestors in the 19th Century Private Lunatic Asylum.

The organisers have been teasing us with the conference content and have yet to announce all the speakers so it looks like there will be yet more surprises to come.

Hope to see many of you at Secret Lives in Hinckley in September.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

DNA Testing Confirms Scrimgeour Ancestral Links

Over eight years ago I’d reached a point in my Scrimgeour family research where it felt like I had no viable routes to explore to extend the knowledge of my ancestry back beyond the late 18th century. What could I try to change that? At the time much was being made of the increasingly affordable Y-DNA testing, a means of potentially identifying ancestors on the paternal line who would have matching Y-DNA, passed down only from father to son and so, potentially, also sharing the same surname. Could DNA testing provide the “silver bullet” to knock down my brick walls?

After a brief look at the testing market I decided to subscribe to Family Tree DNA and within a few weeks the results of my Y-DNA67 test had been added to their enormous database. My results having been matched with all others on the database I learned that I might have shared a common male ancestor with a number of other subscribers, all with different surnames, a very, very long time ago. There seemed to my eye to be a disproportionally high number of Scandinavian looking surnames in the results but there was nothing there to move my own family tree back in time.

For DNA matching to be effective the database of DNA results needs to be as large as possible. With this is mind at the Scrimgeour Clan Association meeting of 2012, I persuaded a few of my fellow male Scrimgeours to undertake Y-DNA testing and these results together with my own formed the basis of the Scrimgeour DNA Project on Family Tree DNA. There were only three other testers and that number has only increased to six today, but that is a start. The only result of comparisons between the Y-DNA from the four of us was that we could immediately dispel the myth that all modern Scrimgeours are descended from the same man as there was no identifiable match between us. We contented ourselves with the fact that our DNA results were now in the database for future generations of Scrimgeour researchers and decided that we would just have to be patient.

Five years later, the first tangible result from that testing was announced at the 2017 Clan Association meeting when one of my fellow testers told the assembled Scrimgeours that as the direct result of Y-DNA matching he had found himself linked to a Canadian Scrimgeour in relatively recent times. Neither had realised there was any family connection but the DNA evidence clearly suggested that a link exists so both are now working through the documentary evidence to see if they can establish the identity of their common ancestor. That research continues.

The need to back up the results from DNA testing with documentary evidence is very important as DNA testing cannot give you names and dates but in late 2017 I found myself doing exactly the opposite. Through Ancestry I had been contacted by Brian Sommerville from the United States who had recognised that our family trees on Ancestry share a common ancestor. My great grandmother was Elizabeth McMillan. Her mother had been Ann Sommerville the daughter of William Sommerville who on paper is our shared ancestor suggesting that Brian and I are fourth cousins.

Brian wondered if I had any DNA tests results so that we could compare his results with mine, but as I had only had my Y-DNA tested, that was not going to show a match as we did not share a common direct line male ancestor. The answer was for me to treat myself to an early Christmas present and buy the Family Finder upgrade from Family Tree DNA. Surprisingly I did not have to provide a new saliva sample so the testing proceeded quickly after I had placed my order. Family Finder examines both male and female DNA so has the potential to identify individuals distantly related through both male and female lines. We all know how a family tree can explode into hundreds or thousands of persons as aunts and uncles are followed up, marriages introduce new lines, and so on. It was going to be fascinating to see just what Family Finder would produce.

Within only three weeks of placing my order the results were available telling me that I matched with 2,919 individuals and not a single Scrimgeour among them. The results include an estimate of how close a relationship one enjoys with each individual by showing a range, 2nd cousin – 4th cousin, 3rd cousin – 5th cousin, 4th cousin – remote cousin etc, allowing one to mentally place individuals within your family tree. It is going to take many months for me to fully understand what these results represent for my family history research but I already recognise familiar surnames eg Gunn, my grandmother’s maiden name. 

The result which I had hoped to find was also in there confirming a match, 3rd cousin – 5th cousin, with Brian Sommerville. 

The science has supported the documentary evidence which we had already collected and we are both delighted. Family Finder has to some small extent validated part of the family history research that we have both being doing for so many years. Sadly it hasn’t yet proved to be that “silver bullet” and has not broken down any Scrimgeour or Sommerville brick walls just yet but we are still working on that. 

Calendar of Speaking Engagements for 2018

After a very successful first full year as a public speaker delivering his inaugural illustrated presentation Early Asylum Life to family and local history societies, Probus clubs and other interested organisations across Yorkshire and neighbouring counties, David has been taking bookings for 2018. 

Considerable time has been spent researching and developing a new presentation Evolution of Asylum Patient Photography to place before interested groups during this year and beyond. Audiences who haven’t yet heard Early Asylum Life are recommended to first book that presentation as an introduction to the subject.

Early Asylum Life:
The audience travels back in time, becoming a “fly on the wall” in one of the 19th century’s earliest County Asylums in England, the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Yorkshire which opened in 1818. The voices of the insane poor are heard through the words of their physicians, relatives, and very specially, the patients themselves, using material from the UNESCO award winning collection of original case notes and other asylum records held by West Yorkshire Archive Service. Listeners learn in intimate detail about why they were committed, how they were treated and what became of them and their families.

Evolution of Asylum Patient Photography: 
The archives of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield contain hundreds of photographs of the insane poor. Rare examples date from 1868, by which time pioneering photographers at other institutions had been capturing patients’ images since the 1850s. Asylum Director James Crichton-Browne, the driving force behind the use of photography in Yorkshire, corresponded with celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin enclosing numerous patients’ portraits, usually annotated with a diagnosis of their illness. Through a presentation rich in images captured nearly 150 years ago the audience learns what motivated photography, how it evolved during the 19th century and what legacy remains today. 

Contact David at to check his latest availability.

Bookings taken for “Early Asylum Life”

Low Moor Local History Group
Aldersgate Methodist Church,
Cleckheaton Road,
Low Moor,
BD12 0TW
2:30pm, Friday 2nd February, 2018
Huddersfield Local History Society
University of Huddersfield
Brontë Lecture Theatre,
Room BLG/05,
7:30pm, Monday 26th February, 2018
Barwick-in-Elmet & Scholes Probus Club
John Rylie Centre,
Carrfield Road,
Barwick in Elmet,
LS15 4JB
10:00am, Tuesday 27th February, 2018
East Yorkshire Family History Society
Beverley Cricket Club,
Recreation Park Lane,
HU17 9HX
7:30pm, Tuesday 1st May, 2018
Doncaster & District Family History Society
Doncaster School for the Deaf,
Race Course Roundabout,
Leger Way,
7:30pm, Wednesday 27th June, 2018
Norton & Campsall WI
Campsall Village Hall,
Bone Lane,
7:30pm,Wednesday 29th August, 2018
Spen Valley Historical Society
Catholic Church Hall,
Dewsbury Road,
BD19 5DL
7:30pm, Wednesday 12th September, 2018

Bookings taken for “Evolution of Asylum Patient Photography”

Selby & District Family History Group
Town Hall,
York Street,
10:00am, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018
Barnsley Family History Society
Buckley Church Hall,
Union Court,
S70 1JN
7:30pm, Tuesday 17th April, 2018
Keighley Local History Society
Keighley Carnegie Library,
1 Albert Street,
BD21 2AT
7:30pm, Wednesday 9th May, 2018
Bradford Family History Society
Glyde House,
Little Horton Lane,
10:30am, Monday 21st May, 2018
Lancashire & Manchester Family History Society,
Oldham Branch
The Lees Suite,
Civic Centre,
West St,
2:00pm, Saturday 9th June, 2018
Rotherham Family History Society
The Liberty Church,
Station Road,
S60 1JH
7:00pm, Thursday 5th July, 2018
Huddersfield Family History Society
Town Hall,
Ramsden Street,
1:30pm, Tuesday 4th September, 2018
Harrogate & District Family History Society
St Paul’s UR Church Hall,
Belford Road,
7:30pm, Tuesday 16th October, 2018

David will also be making his third visit to Garforth Probus Club later this year, the venue where his speaking engagements started in 2016. This will be the first delivery of his newest presentation Criminal Lunatics: Villains and Patients a topic which he has been researching during 2017. During the 19th century the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum cared for hundreds of mentally ill patients admitted from the justice system where they had been accused or convicted of a variety of crimes. What had caused their admission to the Asylum? How were they treated while in the Asylum? What became of them? These are just some of the questions which will be answered in Criminal Lunatics: Villains and Patients.

Garforth Probus Club
Garforth Working Men’s Club,
Barley Hill Rd,
LS25 1AU
10:30am, Wednesday 3rd October, 2018

If you are interested in making a provisional booking for Criminal Lunatics: Villains and Patients it should be on "general release" from the beginning of November, 2018. Please get in touch with David to discuss likely dates.