Professional Family History

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Tower of London - the "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red"

In my last post I wrote about the military career of my great x 2 uncle, Cyril Frank Cowling.

Many of you will have seen pictures of the poppies being installed at The Tower of London in commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

The anniversary may now have come and gone but you can still dedicate a poppy to your own relatives here:

or even buy one of the poppies to be sent to you when the display is dismantled:

10% of all funds raised will go to a number of selected charities including Help for Heroes and Combat Stress.

Until 10th November the Last Post will be played at the Tower of London at sunset each day and the names of a number of those in the Commonwealth forces who were killed in the First World War read out during the ceremony. 

To have your own relative included in the  ceremonies visit the nomination website:

I have dedicated a poppy to Cyril Frank Cowling already and last month nominated his name to be included in one of the ceremonies.

Of course it would be lovely to be there in person to hear the dedication read out but not everyone is able to get into London. By popular demand the ceremonies are now filmed and made available online. Cyril appears here, around halfway through the recording:

I was not able to get to London on 2nd September but was lucky enough to be able to visit the poppies at the Tower of London the next day:

Other ways of Remembering

If you do still want to commemorate someone who died in the First World War in this centenary year there are a number of options in addition to those mentioned above. The British Legion have their own Every Man Remembered campaign in association with the CWGC.

Local Projects

Locally there were lots of initiatives timed to coincide with the centenary, notably a number of projects conducting research on the individuals named on local memorials. If you have a relative who was killed in the First World War carry out an internet search for projects in the town or village in which he resided at the time of his death. There may well be more information about your relative. Cyril Cowling is remembered both in Sawston, Cambridgeshire where he was born and in Cambridge where he lived when he enlisted.

A couple of examples of excellent publications arising from recent local projects, written and contributed to by colleagues of mine are:

Simon Last & Michael Good's Aldeburgh War Memorial - the Men Behind the Names 1914-1918 available from a number of bookstores including Amazon: 

Barlborough Heroes, a Heritage Lottery funded project, available from one of the team of family history researchers involved, Linda Jackson, HERE 

There are undoubtedly many more...

Monday, 4 August 2014

Remembering Cyril Frank Cowling (1892-1916)

As today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War it seems an appropriate time to remember my great x2 uncle on my paternal grandmother's side: Cyril Frank Cowling.

Cyril was born on 18th March 1892 in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, the son of John Cowling, a printer's compositor, and Agnes Mary Cowling formerly Cornwell. Cyril is recorded in the Cowling family Bible as having died at "High Wood", France in 1916.

Cyril Cowling's death recorded in the Cowling Family Bible

At the time of the 1911 census, Cyril was single, working as a clerical assistant at a postal engineering branch and living in Birmingham.

Service records for Cyril Frank Cowling have not survived but it has been possible to piece together information regarding Cyril's military career using a number of documentary sources including the records of the CWGC, military memorials, Soldiers died in the Great War 1914-1919, GRO death records, medal records, WFA pension records, soldiers' wills, war diaries, published regimental histories and newspaper reports.

In fact, prior to joining the army, Cyril Frank Cowling had worked for the Civil Service in London, Birmingham and Cambridge. At the time of the outbreak of the First World War Cyril was working at the Post Office Engineering Office in Hills Road, Cambridge. He enlisted in London with the 15th Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles with a group of friends, during or shortly after June 1915, as Private 4110 in the 1/15th battalion.

When Cyril enlisted he would have gone to Hazeley Down near Winchester for thirteen weeks training before being liable for overseas service. At some point Cyril was stationed at Chelsea Barracks and, whilst there, became a Signalling Instructor. When he returned to Winchester he discovered that his friends had been drafted to France and Cyril put in a request to also be sent to France. On arrival in France Cyril would have undergone final training at a divisional base before going “up the line”.

The 1/15th Battalion spent the first part of September 1916 on training at Franvillers, France and suffered no casualties between the 1st and the 14th September 1916. At 6pm on 14th September 1916 the 1/15th Battalion relieved two companies of the 21st London Regiment at High Wood. On the same day Cyril, mindful of the fact that his battalion were going to the frontline, wrote a brief will in which he left all of his possessions to his mother, Agnes Mary Cowling.

On 15th September 1916 the Battalion took part in the “Battle of Flers-Courcelette”, a general attack by the IV Army on High Wood. By 11am the IV Army were in possession of the whole of High Wood and Switch Line. However, at 6pm the 21st London Regiment were attacked from High Wood and were “practically annihilated by artillery and machine gun fire”. The severe losses observed at High Wood have been attributed in part to the fact that the battle was the first use of British tanks and the tanks were unable to move forward as intended due to the terrain and conditions.

At some point during the 15th September Cyril was with others in a captured German trench and was sending a message to the rear when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel. An artery was severed and the wound proved fatal. He left behind a girlfriend, a Miss N. Parker of Birmingham. 

Cyril was awarded the British War and Victory medals for his active service. He has no known grave but is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial, also known as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme on pier 13, face C. The information recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)’s Register of War Dead is as follows:

CWGC record for Cyril Frank Cowling (

Cyril’s name is also included on the war memorial in Sawston, Cambridgeshire and on the memorials within St Mary’s Church, Sawston and St Paul’s Church, Cambridge.  

War Memorial, Sawston, Cambridgeshire (author's photograph)

Cyril’s mother died shortly after his death but a dependents’ war pension was claimed for a time by his father, John Cowling. Cyril's death was recorded in the local Cambridge newspapers, from which the following photograph was taken:

Cyril Cowling (taken from the Cambridge Independent Press, 15th December 1916)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Journey to the IHGS Diploma - Part 3: The Results

Saturday 26th June

The wait is finally over! Feeling quietly confident, having been invited to Award Day at the IHGS (Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies) - SURELY they wouldn't invite me to tell me I had failed? - husband and I left nice and early to begin our journey to Canterbury. 

As we neared the city it looked more and more like rain and I began to have serious "outfit doubts". There were even a couple of drops of rain as we got out of the car. We wandered around a few shops, caught up with a friend for coffee and as we left the coffee shop, low and behold, traditional IHGS Award Day weather had arrived: glorious sunshine! 

We made our way to the IHGS just before 12pm. Tables and chairs had been set up on the lawn and we managed to secure a shady spot before the rush. At 12.30pm, the Trustees meeting finally over, the results went up on the notice board and:

Ta-da! I have passed. After a lovely lunch and lots of catching up with old acquaintances and making new ones the certificates were presented by Chairman of the Court of Trustees, Peter de Vere Beauclerk-Dewar. 

Richard Baker, Karen Cummings and Peter Dewar

Today marked the end of an immense personal journey, the achievement of a goal I have been steadily working towards for four years. Will it change my day to day working life? It is hard to say, but the Diploma in Genealogy is the IHGS professional qualification, providing future clients with the assurance that, as Karen Cummings DipGen, they may be rest assured that they will receive an even higher standard of work from Professional Family History. 

As we left the IHGS it felt a little like leaving school again, the end of an era. I do hope I will have occasion to return...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

My Journey to the IHGS Diploma - Part 2

Those of you who read my last post will know that on 14th June I took the IHGS Diploma exam. Here are my thoughts over the last few days leading up to the exam...


I am supposed to be revising but it is hard to know what to keep going through. The exam on Saturday will have three parts:
  • Three hour's research time in the morning into a particular family or families using the resources of the IHGS library
  • A two hour exam in the afternoon, during which time I will have to produce a drop-line pedigree from the notes made in the morning and answer three questions under exam conditions
  • A viva voce with the examiners
In essence I will get to "look at the books" so what should I be committing to memory? To some extent the clue is in the title: the IHGS after all specialises in heraldic research so perhaps I should be focussing on those entitled to bear arms. In addition, with the exception of transcribed original documents much of the published material available for researching families are based on the upper echelons of society. I have therefore been looking in detail at heraldry, the peerage and occupations such as military officers, clergy, medicine and the law. I only hope it is enough! 

Today I travel to Canterbury for a full day tomorrow looking at past papers and familiarising myself with where everything is in the library...


I arrived at 10am to see Dr Richard Baker. First he showed me around the library in detail, showing me which subjects were in which areas. This is more complex than it may appear as the main library at the IHGS is split into five different rooms on the first floor. With a sense of direction like mine it is easy to get lost so the detailed tour was incredibly worthwhile! I was also able to ask where some of the key texts were that I thought may come in handy tomorrow.

The rest of the day was spent looking at past papers, looking at where I would start and what I would do first to begin to solve the problem presented. Overall a very useful day and I would recommend any future Diploma students take up the offer of being allowed to spend the day before the exam in the library.


Exam Day! Brave smile installed I arrive shortly before 9.30am

There are four candidates and we are to be staggered in pairs to avoid frustrated sighing / squabbling / smacking each other over the head to get hold of the same books at the same time. The order is to be alphabetical so, lucky me, I'm in the first two... 

The exam question itself wasn't too bad once I had got over the "exam stress" panic and focussed on the problem at hand... I had a choice between the "quick look but low chance of success" and the "will take longer but answers will be found" options and lost some time because I chose the longer option. I then had to rush some of the research towards the end as time was running out. However, in the afternoon session I finished half an hour early and went to make a cuppa. At this point I really was not sure how well I was doing at all. Having survived both sessions I then had the joy of facing the assessment panel for my viva (gulp!). Thankfully they weren't actually that scary and I survived their questioning. 

The interesting arrangement for the Diploma is that you do find out on the day whether or not you have passed the exam but not how well your portfolio or assignment has been received. I will not know whether I have passed the Diploma until closer to the Award Day in July but I do know that I passed today's exam... phew! It could have been really embarrassing if I hadn't!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

My Journey to the IHGS Diploma - Part 1

I realise that I have been very quiet with my blog of late and totally broken my resolution to post once a month. The truth is I have been just too busy!

When I decided to move to a career in genealogy I knew I wanted to gain formal qualifications, partly to ensure I had a good grounding in the majority of sources I was likely to encounter, and partly to be able to offer potential clients a reassurance of my level of knowledge.

To that end I began with the correspondence course in genealogy at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) in Canterbury. This course consists of twenty-four modules, each of which requires significant background reading around the lecture notes before completing the assignments for the module. There is, in essence no time limit (so long as modules are completed within a "reasonable" time frame), and you can complete the work in your own time as your lifestyle permits. Each student has a tutor to hand and the online forum, where ideas are shared, is invaluable. On completion of the course students take the "Higher Certificate in Genealogy" exam.

There are other options available: Pharos (I'm slightly biased), Strathclyde University, Dundee University to name but a few. However, for me this ticked all the boxes at the time. The upside was that there were no set deadlines so I could work it around my other commitments,  the downside of course was that a HUGE amount of self-discipline is required. I set myself a target to complete in three years and, following a "slow" period and a massive talking to myself, I did: last year I took the IHGS Higher Certificate exam and passed with Distinction! 

After basking briefly in the glow of success I decided to move it up to the next level and enrol for the IHGS Diploma. This is the IHGS's "professional" qualification and is recognised by the UK genealogists' professional body, the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA). Anyone with "DipGen" after their name has the IHGS Diploma. There are three components:

  • A set piece of research to conduct in local archives, the starting point provided by the IHGS.
  • A portfolio of professional work demonstrating a high quality of research and report writing skills and a breadth of knowledge of a number of source types.
  • An exam lasting almost a day, consisting of real time library research, exam condition questions, the production of a pedigree, and a viva voce.

On paper this does not, perhaps, sound too onerous a task. I thought I could fit around my usual working day, grab a few client reports and perhaps add a little bit more.

I could not have been more WRONG... 

Firstly, this time there are deadlines. The expectation is that the exam will be taken the June after enrolment. There are also just six months in which to complete the assignment. Secondly, and this may just be me, but all of sudden, nothing I did seemed good enough. The piece of work I had conducted for a client regarding their convict ancestor was certainly of a standard (I hope!) to be included but all of a sudden I was not working to a budget and the possibilities for additional research became endless. 

I chose to submit six pieces for my portfolio, covering a wide range of sources and time periods and research in a whole host of archives all over the country. In addition to research in local archives in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex, the research took me on my first visit to The National Archives (TNA) in London and resulted in my spending a lot of time staying with friends and family whilst I visited archives in Worcester and Birmingham. Typically, the closer my deadline became the more challenges I found with my research. For example, my visit to TNA to look at the Field Books from the 1910 Valuation Survey revealed that my area of interest in Birmingham was the only part of Birmingham for which TNA do not hold the maps on which the reference numbers may be found. Off I went back up to Birmingham to look at their maps (which have yet to be catalogued and I am indebted to the staff for pulling out the maps likely to be of interest), to note down my reference and return to TNA.

The set assignment was also interesting as I became overwhelmed with thoughts of "am I doing this right?" when I know that I know what I am doing (if you follow). Confidence began to ebb as the importance of what I was doing took hold.

However, overall the work itself was immensely satisfying. How often are we given the opportunity to take research to the levels we would like to without budgetary constraint? The opportunity to look at all those sources we know may only have a chance of holding further information and being able to look anyway without measuring the chance of success up for a client and letting them decide whether to proceed?

I am happy to report that my portfolio pieces and assignment are completed and have been submitted to the IHGS for assessment. Fingers crossed! 

All that remains is the small matter of the exam... taking place on Saturday (14th June). I guess I really had better stop typing here and get back to some studying... I will let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Starting Family History: Census records of England and Wales 1841-1911

This forms the third part of my beginner's guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death, Part 2 considered birth, marriage and death certificates in detail.

A census of the population has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, the most recent having been taken in 2011. The census records are used alongside birth, marriage and death certificates to create the family tree, providing information as to an ancestor’s birthplace, place of residence, an idea of the social conditions in which an ancestor lived and information regarding other family members.

The early censuses contain little information of interest to the family historian, as there was no requirement to record information specific to individuals. Whilst some questions were asked regarding the number of people employed in a particular trade and the age ranges of the household occupants, names of individuals were not, for the main part, recorded.

The 1841 census was the first census to record names of individuals and was also the first census to be administered by the (then recently created) General Register Office. It was not without problems. There were errors caused by householders not understanding what information to include and many young children were omitted. There was significant mistrust as to what the information was to be used for, specifically people feared additional taxation, and some gave false information.

For the 1851 census more information was made available in the period before the census concerning the correct completion of the schedules. However, more questions were asked than for the 1841 census so there were still errors and omissions caused by lack of understanding. In general terms the number of questions asked and level of information collected increased as the census continued. The information collected in the 1841-1901 censuses is summarised in Table 1 (click on on the table title link below for a larger version of the table). The 1911 census, the most recent census currently available to the public, reflected increasing concerns regarding the nation’s health and infant mortality. In addition to the type of information provided by the earlier censuses, the 1911 census also provides information as to the length of time a couple had been married, how many children they had had and how many were still alive.

The enumerator collected the schedules the morning after census night. If the schedule was incomplete he was supposed to ask additional questions and complete the missing information. There will have been occasions where the enumerator completed the information based on his own knowledge or assumptions and introduced his own errors. If the householder had been unable to complete the schedule e.g. for reasons of illiteracy or illness, the enumerator completed it on their behalf. The information recorded in these cases is therefore written how the enumerator thought a name or place should be spelt. When all the household returns had been collected they were copied by the enumerator into an enumerator schedule or summary book.

The original householder schedules for the 1841-1901 censuses have since been destroyed. All that is available are the pages of the enumerator books that contain copied entries of all the householder schedules in the enumeration district. It is likely that some transcription errors will have been introduced at this stage, some families missed and some even entered twice. The original household schedules are available for the 1911 census. The original enumerators’ books for the England and Wales 1841-1901 censuses and the original householders’ schedules for the 1911 census are held by The National Archives. These have been digitised and indexed and are available on websites such as, or  

It should be noted that the online indexes contain transcription errors resulting from the volunteer creating the index misreading the original image. In some cases this is due to the quality of the handwriting, in some the quality of the image used to produce the index. The censuses were not taken solely for the purposes of family history research; as the individual pages were categorised and processed a number of annotations were made and lines were crossed through the text. This can make some images very difficult to read. In other cases the errors may be attributed to the inexperience of the volunteers in reading the style of handwriting typical at the time of the particular census. If a family is not immediately found, it is usually possible to find them using a variety of “lateral thinking” methods as to how their name may have been misspelt on the transcription. Alternatively the census records for the address at which they were last known can be fruitful.

An important point to note when searching the 1841 census is the instructions regarding ages. Adult ages were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years (not all were) with exact ages being recorded for those under 15 years. A wider range of birth years should therefore be employed when searching the 1841 census than the later censuses.

The administration of the 1841-1911 censuses was organised by the registration districts and sub-districts defined for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Each sub-district was further broken down into enumeration districts. When the enumerators books had been completed they were organised into “pieces”. Whilst there were some subtle differences in how these were handled for the 1841 and 1911 census, for the 1851-1901 censuses, a piece is a bound volume containing a number of enumerator books. As each enumerator book will have contained the same page numbers e.g. 1-10, the bound volumes were then stamped on the right hand (recto) pages with an individual reference or “folio” number. One folio number refers to the numbered page and its reverse (versa). Each page of the enumerator book thus has a unique reference of the form:

RG9                                                               / 1206                 / 85
Call number (applied to the whole census)   / piece number    / folio number

The dates of the censuses and their associated call numbers are:

Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to

Sources & further reading

1.  M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
2.  J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
3.  P. Christian & D. Annal, Census: The Expert Guide, TNA, 2008
4.  E. Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited, Institute of Historical Research in
     association with TNA, 2005
5.  C. D. Rogers, The Family Tree Detective, 4th ed., Manchester University Press, 2008

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Starting Family History: Birth, marriage and death certificates

This forms Part 2 of my beginner's guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month's blog will consider census records.

On 1st July 1837 legislation took effect that ordered the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Certified copies of these entries from the registers form birth, marriage and death “certificates”.

When embarking on a journey into the history of your family the most fundamental building blocks from 1837 onwards are birth, marriage and death certificates. These provide evidence as to the places of birth, marriage and death of your ancestors but also provide a variety of information about where they lived, other family members and how they earned a livelihood.

The detail of the information contained in each type of certificate has changed over the years but is considered in general terms below:

Birth certificates
·     Date of birth
  -      If a time is provided this is usually an indication of a multiple birth.
·     Place of birth
  -      Before c.1880 it was common for just a village name to be entered. Later entries 
         tend to have more detail.
·     Forenames
  -      Some children were registered as simply “male” or “female”. This may have been 
         because the parents had not yet decided on a name, the baby was to be given up 
         for adoption or the baby died shortly after birth.
·     Sex
·     Father’s name
  -     Illegitimacy: Between 1837 and 1850 there was some confusion as to whether the 
        name of the father of an illegitimate child should be included and so sometimes it 
        was sometimes it was not. From 1851 to 1874 the father’s name and occupation 
        should not have been recorded if the child was illegitimate. Following the 
        Registration Act of 1875 and up to 1953 the father’s details could only be included if 
        both parents signed as informants.
·     Mother’s name including maiden surname
-      An entry such as “Mary Smith late Jones formerly Johnson” indicates that the 
       mother’s maiden name was Johnson and that she married a Mr Jones before Mr 
·     Father’s occupation
·     Signature, description and residence of the informant
·     Date of registration
-      Births were required to be registered within 42 days of the birth, thus a birth on the 
       2nd  December may not have been registered until January of the following year. 
      There are exceptions to this requiring authorisation of the Superintendent Registrar 
      or Registrar General.

Marriage certificates
·     Date of marriage
-      Note that there is no separate column for date of registration as marriages were 
       registered as they occurred.
·     Names of bride and groom
-      These are the names at the time of marriage and may not necessarily be the names 
       given at birth. Some certificates will include wording such as “otherwise known as” 
       but not all.
·     Age of bride and groom at date of marriage
-      In 1837 the legal ages of marriage were 12 years for a girl and 14 years for a boy,  
       with parental consent required for those under age 21 years.
-      From 1929 the legal age of marriage was changed to 16 years for either gender 
       with parental consent still required for those under age 21 years.
-      From 1969 the legal age of marriage remained 16 years for either gender but 
       parental consent was only required for those under age 18 years.
-      “Full age” indicates someone to be age 21 or over.
·     Marital status of bride and groom
·     Occupation of bride and groom
·     Residence at the time of marriage of bride and groom
·     Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom
·     Names of witnesses

Death certificates
·     Date and place of death
-      As with birth certificates the level of detail increased with time. Note that someone 
       could die some distance from home and that place of death does not indicate place 
       of residence.
·     Sex
·     Age
-      As this was provided by the informant it was not always accurate.
·     Occupation
-      For wives, widows and children the occupations was usually given as “wife / widow / 
       son / daughter of ….”
·     Cause of death
·     Name and surname of deceased
·     Informant’s details
-      From 1875 the informant’s details included the relationship to the deceased and their 
       qualification to be an informant, e.g. present at the death.
·     Date of registration
-      Deaths were generally required to be registered within 5 days, though longer periods 
       were allowed where a post-mortem and / or inquest was carried out.

Many believe that the internet sites provide access to images of the birth, marriage and death registers. Unfortunately this is not the case: What can be searched are the national or General Register Office (GRO) indexes of births, marriages and deaths for each year (see previous blog post). Once a GRO reference has been found a copy of the certificate may be ordered from the General Register Office via: or phoning 0300 123 1837. Copies are available elsewhere but tend to be more expensive than the standard £9.25 per certificate charged by the GRO. An alternative source of information is to obtain the certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar.

Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to

Sources & further reading:
1.   M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
2.  B. Dixon, England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information, web based version (  
3.   J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
4.  C. Heritage, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records – A Guide for Family  
     Historians, Pen & Sword, 2013