Tuesday 5 May 2020

Some of the Perils of Online Databases - 1

In preparation for a talk I gave recently about Online Parish Clerks, I reviewed some of the examples of entries in English parish registers again. We all recognize there are many inaccurate transcriptions on the online websites, mainly due I think to people not being familiar with old handwriting. It does not help that many transcribers are not familiar with the people or communities shown in the original records being interpreted and can misinterpret what the records actually say.

There are always shortcomings with indexes – spelling errors, missed notes, poor transcription of old handwriting, etc. There is no substitute for seeing the real records, whether the originals in record offices or images from scans and photographs. Sometimes, though, you can run into unexpected problems with the images stemming from inconsistencies between datasets or sometimes careless work in the duplication, transcribing and indexing processes.

Here is one example. I will have more to show in subsequent posts.

Mary Smith

A few years ago, I was searching for information about my 3rd great-grandmother. Her name was Mary Pearson, née Smith, and, according to many records, she was born in Ashow parish, Warwickshire around the turn of the 19th century.

There was only one Smith child baptized in Ashow during the time period of 1796 and 1803, when various documents indicated Mary was born. It was a female, but none of FamilySearch or the commercial databases, Ancestry, FindMyPast or TheGenealogist, had her first name. Ancestry, TheGenealogist and FamilySearch all had images of the baptism register page, but the particular event was not clear as the page had been torn and a corner folded down right over the child’s forename.

The Online Parish Clerk for the area, Susan Tall, went to the record office to get a close-up view of the register. She was able to unfold the tear and sent me a photo of the name. This little girl, Mary, based on other information we had, had to be my ancestor. The information also then gave us information on her parents and a few generations back.

Right: Ashow, Warwickshire baptism register page – 1795-1799; page torn and folded under at 6 August 1797 baptism entry for Smith child (source – Warwickshire County Record Office, Warwick, England, Warwickshire Anglican Registers, Roll: Engl/2/1053, Document Reference: DR 156 retrieved 22 October 2011 from Ancestry.com); Left Bottom: enlargement of portion of entry at 6 August 1797; Left Top: photo of unfolded tear at 6 August 1797 entry showing name of Mary Smith


If there is a discrepancy between different images, such as between parish registers and Bishop’s Transcripts, let those in charge know so they can get the right information online or at least append notes to recognize the differences.

In all cases where information is inconsistent or in obvious error, consult as many other sources as possible to determine what the true facts or most likely interpretations are. Remember that all records were made by people using information they were given my others and may contain errors of fact or transposition.