Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Local Genealogical Society Projects: AGS Medicine Hat Branch

Most family history societies have ongoing projects having to do with finding, compiling and publishing information about people in their region. Cemetery lists, with that all-important death information, are one of the most popular subjects many organizations work on. These days, the results of many of them are being put online where we can easily search them.

But there are many other subjects concerning the records of people in the past that societies find opportunities to get involved with. One I just found is an ongoing project being done by members of the Medicine Hat and District Genealogical Society, a branch the Alberta Genealogical Society. They are in the process of digitizing past Alberta Government Telephone books. These are the old printed books distributed before the era of the Internet and before the company was privatized and became Telus.

This is a description of the project on their website: https://mhdgs.ca/phonebooks.html

Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) was the telephone provider in most of Alberta from 1906 to 1991. It was formed by the Liberal government of Alexander Cameron Rutherford in 1906 following the acquisitions by the government of several independent telephone companies. In 1908, AGT acquired the Bell Telephone Company's Alberta operations for $675,000. It eventually served almost all telephone customers in Alberta outside of the Edmonton area, where telephone service was operated by the Edmonton municipal government.

       Alberta Government Telephones was directly managed by the province's Department of Public Works as a public utility until 1958, when it was transformed into the Alberta Government Telephones Commission, a crown corporation. From 1945 until 1960, AGT operated the province's educational radio station, CKUA.

      In 1969, AGT built what was then Edmonton's tallest skyscraper as its new headquarters, joined by a second tower in 1971; they are now called TELUShouse at ATB Place.

      In 1990, the Alberta government began the process of privatizing AGT, and formed Telus Communications as a holding company to facilitate the transfer. In 1991, the province of Alberta sold its remaining ownership interest in AGT to Telus for $870 million. Telus acquired Edmonton Telephones Corporation (Ed Tel) from the city of Edmonton in 1995; Ed Tel had been created only five years earlier. In 1996, the AGT and Ed Tel brands were retired in favour of the Telus name. Telus merged with BC Tel in 1999 to form the present-day Telus Corporation.

      Telus Yellow Pages were downsizing and 10 decades of old Alberta telephone books were given to the volunteer group Medicine Hat Telus Community Ambassators. The Ambassitors in turn donated the phone books and their shelving units to the Medicine Hat Genealogical Society to be scanned and stored as one unit. The project will be ongoing until complete.”

I recall when they started the work back in 2015, but had not followed up on the project to see what progress was being made. Clark Lang, the society member in charge of the project, informed me last month that they were now on phase 4 of the project. Phase 1 was the scanning of all Southern Alberta books to 1950. Phases 2 and 3 involved scanning through to 2001. They completed these much sooner than anticipated. Phase 4 is indexing the scanned images which is well along. They are currently receiving 400 to 500 hits on their website.
Clark Lang busy indexing images; Scanner at work on phone book
I was delighted to find the information online when I went looking for phone numbers of some family members. It was easy to access.

It is a great project and I am sure will be of interest to anyone looking for information about families in Alberta back to the early part of the 1900s.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Populations Past – Atlas of Victorian and Edwardian Population

The Populations Past – Atlas of Victorian and Edwardian Population website and data came to my attention in a blog post by John Reid (Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections) on 29 November 2018. Thanks John!

What struck me in particular was that the host of the site and source of some of the data used is CAMPOP, the University of Cambridge project, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. I have just completed an article about the History of Occupations, using information from several Cambridge Group studies. It will be published in Family Tree (UK) magazine next year. So, I was delighted and intrigued to find even more depth to their website.

As John indicated, and as described in the Population Past overview, the “website allows users to create and view maps of different demographic measures and related socio-economic indicators every 10 years between 1851 and 1911. These include fertility, childhood mortality, marriage, migration status, household compositions, age-structure, occupational status and population density.” These are powerful data that will greatly assist in unravelling family histories during the second half of the 19th century. The analyses also show other aspects of using such census data that many of us may not have thought about.

Of importance in this time period, “The second half of the nineteenth century . . . was a time of transformation from a relatively 'high pressure' demographic regime characterised by medium to high birth and death rates to a 'low pressure' regime of low birth and death rates, a transformation known as the 'demographic transition'.” We are fortunate, in terms of British family history, to have such detailed data from censuses and civil registration files for births, deaths and marriages. As genealogists, we are also lucky to have access to studies such as those done and published by the Cambridge Group researchers.

The work is still in progress but there are some interesting results and trends already available, especially the data from employment. One can review information about workers by socio-economic status, skilled versus unskilled occupations of men and employment of women and children.

I had a look at all the data from Plympton St. Mary Registration District in Devon. This is the area from which my Shepheard ancestors came, so it presented an opportunity to look at the censuses from a different perspective.

The region is defined as agricultural, based on its occupational structure and population density. Between 1851 and 1911, it did not change much in character, having its lowest density of 0.21 persons per acre in 1851 and its highest in 1911 at 0.30 persons per acre. There was never much in the way of manufacturing industry. Most of the occupations are related to farming, including tradesmen and labourers. Farm labourers and other unskilled workers, did drop from about 48% of all working-age men in 1851 to 40% in 1911. Skilled and semi-skilled workers rose from 29% of the male workforce to 35% in the same time period. Professionals and non-manual skilled workmen stayed about the same, between 20% and 23%. Those numbers are consistent with what I have uncovered through examinations of parish registers.

In terms of working women, the region was probably not unlike many others in England and Wales. Almost half of working-age women were employed as domestic servants throughout the record period; 60% of all single women worked for wages. In 1851, 38% of widows were employed, dropping to 28% by 1911 – not a large difference.

Child employment was high, not unexpectedly. More than 40% of boys and 21% of girls aged 14 to 18 were recorded as full-time workers on every census. In 1851, 17% of boys and 6% of girls between 10 and 13 were employed. That dropped to 3% and 1%, respectively by 1911.

Mortality was very high for infants and young children: well over 10% failed to reach their first birthday and another 7% did not attain the age of five years. Those numbers were fairly consistent from 1851 to 1911. Nationally, the death rates were around 15% for infants. Young children fared better, dropping from 15% to about 7% between 1851 and 1911.

There is a lot of other information to be discovered about family structure, fertility and households, all broken down by registration district across England and Wales and accessible using an indexed map. It is not impossible to spend hours reviewing data from parishes in which ancestors lived.

Anyone with British ancestors is well-advised to have a look at the website.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

DNA? Don’t forget traditional genealogical research methods.

It seems that lately almost every genealogical newsletter, journal, magazine and blog post I read has a feature on DNA testing. And every email discussion list has daily comments about the use of DNA in finding ancestors or tracing ancestral lines.

That’s all well and good, I guess. DNA can be a valuable tool in determining familial relationships. I have found a few cousins myself through DNA databases. None that we have had contact with, or recognize as being part of our families, have been further distant than third cousins, though. I am not sure why that is. We have tried to contact them through the DNA websites and email but have had no responses. One wonders why they tested if they don’t want to hear from any potential family members.

I am trying to get basic data shared with all “DNA relatives” and get other family members, close and distant, to get a test done, but have just not found the time to really dedicate myself to the pursuit. There is a resistance, or perhaps non-interest, in doing so. But that’s a subject for another post.

What is, or might be a concern is that the idea of DNA testing is or will be the end-all and be-all of future genealogical research. More and more, especially during holiday seasons and special commemorative dates we are bombarded (and I use that term intentionally) with promotions and advertisements for DNA tests or upgrades. Blog posts and newsletters repeat these ads.

It almost seems as if the commercial database companies are intent on finding a new profit-centre as the numbers of new digitized collections of documents are falling and customers are no longer flocking to take out subscriptions. Family history societies, too, are trying to cash in on DNA, using it as a headline subject for seminars and conferences.

James Tanner, in his blog Genealogy’s Star, often laments the fact that the future of research is threatened by family historians (Ten Threats to the Future of Genealogical Research – 7 November 2018) who are increasingly focused on the Internet for their data. The shift to online sources, I believe, is also tied to the use of the tool of DNA tests. As James says, both are beneficial, but not attending to the vast storage of undigitized documents in record offices and archives will leave family stories and ancestral history lacking in fact and detail.

There is no substitute for well-documented genealogical research, based on real records that confirm relationships. Even DNA gurus like Blaine Bettinger say that any relationship indicated by DNA results still needs to be confirmed with actual BMD or other records showing how the people are related. Shared DNA can certainly bring people together and indicate they are part of the same familial line, but in order to put them into a family tree, more definitive information is required. And the only way to get that information is to look at historical records and documents.

As the editor of the journal of a family history society, I dedicated an entire issue to the subject of DNA back in 2012. The subject had just started to receive more attention. One result was that the society started up a Special Interest Group for those interested in DNA testing and analyses. That was exciting and I felt that I had some small contribution to the cause. In the intervening years the subject has exploded with opportunities to test and make contact with others who have tested.

There is the rub, of course. I still have a brick wall or two that I hope might be broken down by finding distant cousins through DNA testing. The lack of documents for these family members and the commonality of their names make a genetic connection probably the only way we might ever learn who that line of ancestors is.

In the meantime, don’t forget to follow the traditional genealogical research methods or let your attention to finding actual documents wane. They are still the most important part of demonstrating family relationships.