Recently Glen asked me about the origins of William Costain of St Stephens, St Albans, 1754-1827, as he had recently inherited a family history drafted by a great uncle, and this reminded me of my early days researching my ancestors. Finding old family histories can lead to important breakthroughs in your research - but there are also pitfalls - so you should always check against modern online records.
|St Stephen's Church, St Albans from Illustrated Handbook to St Alban's 1866|
My Grandfather Walter Richard Locke (1867-1957) had acquired the family history researches of his eldest sister Eliza Mary Locke (1850-1926). She had inherited the extensive family history notes of her uncle, Robert Gibbs (1816-1893), who wrote The History of Aylesbury. His papers included a family history in verse written in about 1820 by his great uncle, John Rolls (1756-1838). A significant part of Robert Gibbs' papers were of local history interest and fortunately my grandfather donated the collection to what is now the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies. If he had not done so they would almost certainly have ended up in the rubbish when he died.
Of course the find was a gold mine and as a beginner I lapped it up and transferred hundreds of names to my family tree on the assumption that everything was correct.. In particular some branches of the family were non-conformists and the records of the relevant chapels have not survived. The problem was that while there was invaluable material in the old family records there was also some real problem areas when I looked more closely.
For instance John Rolls had recorded an incident during the Civil War involving a direct ancestor - but when I tracked down the appropriate parish records I found William Rolls was too young to have been involved in the way described. The story might have applied to William's eldest brother, Ralph, who John failed to mention. In addition, while in some of his records John mentioned large numbers of relatives he may well have met during his lifetime there were few dates or places to tie them down precisely.
In his researches Robert Gibbs had tried to find out even earlier Rolls ancestors, writing to vicars (including a "donation") to ask whether the registers contained the details he was seeking - and much of this now appears to have been mere speculation. He had also documented the genealogy of the Gibbs family of Winslow where six sons all married and had large families. Virtually all the boys were named either their father, their paternal grandfather or an uncle - so there were many identically named children of about the same age. His family tree might have sorted out which one was which - but on the main ancestral line there are two copies - which are different. Which was the draft and which was the corrected version we may never know.
Eliza Mary Locke's notes were interesting in that she had tried to explore some of the lines - but getting access to the records 100 years ago clearly limited what she could do. However one thing she could have easily done was missing. She would undoubtedly have known her paternal grandfather William Speed Locke (1796-1873) but he is omitted from her notes. I eventually found the reason for this omission - She was a prim and proper Victorian lady - and her grandfather was illegitimate.
The important lesson to learn is that old family records should be cherished - but they should also be looked at critically. Reminiscence type records are extremely useful, but can be uncertain about dates, and can be very selective - with the disreputable side being omitted. The old documents may well have been a draft which included speculations which the original author never checked out. In addition they may include information from original documents that no longer exist. But remember that your ancestors had far less access to key records than we have today. So if you come across old family history research remember that it should be thoroughly checked against modern indexes to verify the genealogy. Not only will the result be more reliable, but you may also make significant new discoveries on the way.