Saturday 17 August 2013

How I Became an OPC

I had no knowledge of the Online Parish Clerk (OPC) program when I first started my genealogical investigation of British records. It started off innocently enough when I went to find out more about my direct-line, paternal ancestors.

From a few bits of information I had about my Shepheard line, including two birth certificates inherited from my father, I knew my grandfather had been born in a place called Torquay in Devon, England, and his father had been born in “Dennaton, Cornwood” (wherever that was), in the “Sub-District of Plympton in the Counties of Devon and Cornwall.” The birth certificate issued by the General Record Office for my great-grandfather is shown below.

These documents gave me a couple of starting points for what would become a very long and still-not-ended journey. The reference to Cornwood, though, clued me in on where my initial searches should be concentrated.

I was feeling flush and adventurous when I finally got seriously involved in genealogy. One of the first things I did was purchase all of the Cornwood parish birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial registers which were available on microfiche. I thought that might be the best way to discover information about my family – go through all the registers myself and find the actual entries pertaining to the individuals. I had my own microfiche reader/printer so it was no problem to order and use the films at home.

At the time, I did not realize how lucky I was going to get. It turned out that my ancestors had lived in the Cornwood area as far back as the early 1600s so I was about to discover hundreds of them, over eight generations, hidden in the registers.

Interestingly, when I found my great-grandfather’s baptism entry, there was very little information shown. Without the birth certificate I would only have been able to identify him at the time from census data. The Vicar appears to have lost his notes when it came time to fill in the page in the baptism register, as can be seen in the image below! Information for one other child baptized the same day was also missing.


1865 September 5 – baptism entry for [James} Shepherd [sic], in Cornwood parish baptism register #823/4, page 42; image accessed from FindMyPast March 5, 2010, copyright Plymouth West Devon Record Office

This is one of those curious situations that can be encountered occasionally with old parish records. One has to work around them, using other sources, in order to find the full information about some individuals. James did appear on the England census for the first time in 1871, at the age of five. His family were then living in Ermington Parish, very near that place called Dennaton, Cornwood. In any case, all other Shepheard children born around this time were identified in the register leaving me to conclude that the incomplete record had to be for James.


Portion of 1871 England Census enumerator’s sheet, page 2, folio 53, piece 2107, class RG10;
showing John Shepheard family living in Ermington Parish, Devon;
 image accessed from Ancestry November 3, 2006, copyright The National Archives

I did finally put together almost everything I have learned about my Shepheard line in Devon, in a book that was distributed to many family members last month. The early reactions from some of them are amazement of what all I have found out and delight in seeing the history of the family laid out. It inspires me to keep going with my other lines.

As many people have found in their research in England, indeed, Great Britain, parish registers are among the more important sources of information about people. They contain the basic data on individuals – births, marriages and deaths – over long periods of time. Not all registers are complete, or have been preserved for every parish, and not all individuals who were born in the various parishes were baptized, married or buried there. But the registers do provide an excellent initial source to search for ancestors.

I always like to get my data in an organized form; so, from the beginning, I started transcribing all the register entries and putting the information on spreadsheets. Shortly after receiving the fiche, I decided I could probably help others find their ancestors, since I now had the data in hand. That’s when I volunteered to become the OPC for Cornwood. Before long I had also purchased the fiche for the registers of the adjoining parishes of Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice (I said I was feeling flush in those days) and took on those parishes as well.

Over time, and with the help of many other volunteers, we have transcribed almost all of the BMD registers from my four parishes – now over 70,000 individual entries from over 7,400 register pages. We have also done most of the censuses in the area, another 31,000 entries from over 2,300 pages. From that work, I have a searchable database that speeds up answering questions from other researchers. Having the information on a spreadsheet also allows me to sort the data and recombine it to show individual family summaries, over many generations in some cases.

I have had hundreds of queries, from people all over the world, looking for information about their families who lived in my parishes or somewhere in Southwest Devon. Most I have been able to help by providing BMD, census and other data that filled in missing pieces of their family history and even broke down a few brick walls. It is always gratifying to be able to assist people in discovering their ancestors and give them more avenues in which to search.

Some of the queries have resulted in some very interesting and surprising stories, many of which I will discuss in later posts.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Online Parish Clerk (OPC) Program

As I related previously, a lot of what I have learned about family history in general and my family members in particular come from my experiences as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC). I became the OPC for Cornwood Parish, in Devon, England, in 2003. The program was very new then and I had no idea what it meant or how it might end up consuming me. I also would never have believed how much I could learn as an Online Parish Clerk.

In future posts I will comment on how I got involved and also offer some examples of the interesting and often surprising stories I have come across in reviewing data in parish records and answering queries from other family researchers.

Much of the following is from my article, The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks, published in Crossroads, the quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association, in their Summer 2012 issue. Another paper about the OPC program called, simply, Online Parish Clerks, was written by Roy Stockdill and appeared in the April 2012 issue of Family Tree. Both offer good summaries of what the OPC scheme is all about. They can also both be read on my Cornwood-OPC website.

England is divided into 40 administrative counties which traditionally were each comprised of various numbers of ecclesiastical parishes. Each parish had its own church that administered to both the spiritual and the secular needs of the community.

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII, issued The Second Henrician Injunctions that mandated every parish to maintain registers in which to record all baptisms, marriages and burials. These documents are central to ancestral research in England but it is not always practical for researchers to inspect or study the original registers or the many additional documents that originated in the parishes. Some of the people offering assistance in sourcing and reviewing the parish information are those involved in the OPC program.

There is no formal structure to this unique program. Each county that participates organizes its own network of OPCs. Interested individuals volunteer to oversee a parish. A coordinator assists them in setting up their areas and organizing their data in whatever way suits them best. A major stipulation is that OPCs will share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email contact.

The tasks of OPCs are primarily to compile reference material for their adopted parish or parishes in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed.

Although OPCs are not officially associated with parish councils, ministers or congregations, these groups are often helpful in sourcing information about past residents and constructing histories of the various parishes. Close contact with incumbents, parish clerks and churchwardens is always desirable.

The OPC concept originated in 2000 with three genealogists who had been researching their families in the southwestern County of Cornwall. After discussions about organizational matters, they began their project in 2001. A comprehensive description of the OPC program, and the objectives envisioned and drafted by those early volunteers, can be found on the Cornwall OPC website.
Over the past decade the scheme has spread to a number of other counties in England, as shown in the following table. The table summarizes the OPCs active as of March 2012.

Total Parishes
Parishes with an OPC
Number of OPCs
% of Parishes with OPCs

In most counties individual OPCs take care of parishes. In a few counties, a coordinator collects transcriptions and other material for the entire county from many volunteers (individually referred to as OPCs). Among these are Kent, Lancashire and Hampshire.

It is not uncommon for an OPC to handle more than one parish. Families often crossed parish boundaries for work or other reasons; so, naturally, researchers may need to study material in adjacent parishes for information about their ancestors. Many OPCs, like this writer, live outside of the UK while researching their British roots.

OPCs must consider copyright restrictions, data protection and privacy issues in disseminating information and, to the best of their ability, avoid any misuse of data such as publishing private information or providing data about living people.

Because OPCs have generally spent a great deal of time examining and transcribing records, we will usually have a broad view of the community and of the individuals and families that lived in the parishes. We are thus able to pass along very helpful advice to people trying to build their own family trees or learn about the areas in which their ancestors lived.

While we are moving rapidly into an era that utilizes the Internet and a vast array of technical assistance in collecting, organizing and storing information, future research and the construction of family trees is still primarily based on information from the past. Volunteers like OPCs can and will be sources for much of that data.

If anyone has an interest in helping, there are still lots of areas that could use more volunteers. Contact the coordinator in the county in which you have knowledge, expertise or just a general interest and become an OPC!

Sunday 11 August 2013

Discovering Genealogy

Over many years of research I have discovered a lot about my family’s roots. I’ll use the word discover a lot here.  Anyone reading this will, I’m sure, be able to say the same about their ancestors. But, in my many roles as a genealogist – I think I can call myself that now – I have also discovered a lot about what makes research successful: where to go to look for information; who to ask; what different types of data one can use to track down people and events; lateral thinking; and how to report findings and sources.

I will expand on many of these points in blog posts over the next few months, perhaps years, using examples gleaned from research on my family, information found for others, general reading on the subject and listening to others relate their own experiences.

Research in genealogy is much like research in geology, which I was involved in for over forty years in the oil and gas business in Canada. In geological studies and, in particular, oil and gas exploration, you try to unravel a part of the Earth’s history, in the area you are working, by collecting information discovered by others or from your own investigations, organizing what data you have (it is never complete), interpreting what it all means and formulating a picture of what the area looked like many millions of years ago. From that you try to come up with ideas of where to drill to find that next big commercial discovery.

The main difference I found between geological and genealogical work was that I had a few years of post-secondary education, and two university degrees behind me before I started my career in oil and gas exploration. In my new investigations as a genealogist, I followed many of the same sorts of methodology but I had to start by educating myself first in what kind of data there existed that was relevant to family history, where to find the information, how to put it all together and how to interpret it. I was a novice in this line of research but I discovered that many of the same techniques and mindsets I had employed as a geologist also worked in genealogy.

I was intrigued about this whole family history idea very early on in my life but never really got involved in doing it until the Internet Age, when, from my desktop, using my computer, and without ever leaving home, I could search out information on a variety of websites, take courses from experts, read books, order certificates and lately, see live presentations from experts in webinars and podcasts (who knew there would even be such things only a few years ago). That is not to dismiss the value of going to libraries of family history centres, which serious researchers should still do, but it has become much easier to get a running start using online sources.

In the years since my early forays into genealogy, I have gained substantial knowledge through direct research, volunteer work, professional consulting, writing and editing, in each role discovering new sources of information and ways of doing things.

A lot of what I have learned about family history, in general, and members of my family, in particular, came from my experiences as an Online Parish Clerk – individuals who take on such a role are referred to as OPCs. I discovered this scheme back in 2002 and volunteered to become one in 2003, in areas of Devon, England where I was looking for my ancestors. The program was very new then and I had no idea what it meant or how it might end up consuming me. I also would never have believed how much I could learn as a volunteer OPC. I will write about this program a great deal in later posts and relate some specific discoveries I made while looking in parish records for information about my family and while helping others find information about their roots.

The more I learned about how to research genealogy-related questions, the more I thought it might be a way to earn a bit of money as a professional, at least enough to pay for what was becoming a very expensive hobby.  I believed I had some significant personal experience from my own family research, from assisting others as a volunteer, from reading extensively and from having taken several courses in different aspects of genealogical research, know-how and proficiency that would allow me to complete research projects for others.

I took on some projects for friends, tracing their families back several generations and discovered I had the ability to perhaps do this as a business. This involves a whole new set of responsibilities, however, and even more careful attention to details. I have taken on several assignments now and my clients have been very happy with the results. One of the next steps will be to follow through and get my professional accreditation. In future posts I will discuss things I have discovered as a result of my professional endeavours as well as the whole aspect of professionalism.

I have written about my experiences and results of my research and published articles in several family history society journals. I believe this is part of being a genealogist – letting others know about what you have found and the way you found it so they might gain some ideas and insight that will help them in their own research. I admit there is a bit of ego involved, too, in seeing your ideas and name in print.

A few years ago I got involved with producing Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. I have been the Editor of this publication now since July 2011. In this role I have discovered information about a many areas of research related to genealogy, about which I knew little, and have made contact with a great many experts in these various fields – researchers, writers, speakers and teachers. All of this has, of course, added to my own knowledge.

I am now a full-time genealogist! Each of the experiences I have realized, as a hobbyist, researcher, volunteer, writer, editor and consultant, presents a theme for a later post. In them I will tell readers – I hope there will be more than a few – about what I have discovered.