How did your ancestors meet?

Genealogists are naturally inquisitive. Let’s be honest: we are very nosy. We like detail, we love personal stories, we adore family gossip… but above all, we need facts.

As family historians, you have probably asked your parents and even your grandparents how they met (and if you haven’t: WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?). Did they meet at a dance, or through shared friends in common… Are you young enough for your parents to have met online, even?

Whatever the circumstances, knowing how your immediate ancestors met can usually only be answered by asking the main story players themselves, or else someone who knew them well (i.e. your aunt, a close family friend or a cousin). More often than not, such unique (and fleeting) stories leave very little paper trace behind them, if any at all – which begs the question: how can you prove how your ancestors met?

While “chance encounters” were probably even more common before than they are today, there are some ways that can help us figure out how our forefathers met our foremothers (get it?). And proving it can sometimes be substantiated by documentary proof. If not, in the worst case scenario, you can always narrow down the possibilities and make a very educated guess.

If two of your ancestors lived in a small community, be it a small village, or a specific religious group within a larger social group, chances are they would have met either pretty young or else by going about what we might call “daily life”: attending church, going to the market, at a local assembly room, at school… But have you considered the possibility that your ancestors were next-door neighbours? Census returns, tithe maps and other records relating to property can sometimes offer useful clues in this sense. For instance, I have located an entry from the 1841 census which reflects two branches of my English family tree, the Allens and the Davis, and would you believe it that in 1876 their respective grandchildren ended up getting married? Coincidence? Actually, it’s far from a coincidence – it just looks like it in hindsight. To them, it would have been the most natural, casual, ordinary way for two single individuals to meet and decide to tie the knot.

But there are other types of relationships, the sort that you have to dig deeper in order to get a fuller picture. Last spring, at the height of the COVID pandemic, I was stuck at home and decided to delve into my Spanish ancestry. To my delight, I discovered that the man who acted as godfather at my female ancestor’s baptism in 1758 was actually the uncle of her future husband. In other words, my ancestor married her godfather’s nephew – they were therefore “spiritually” related, albeit not by blood. Church records were of course necessary to prove the relationship.

The Unequal Marriage (1863) by Russian artist Vasili Pukirev. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Cousin marriage is another obvious way by which your ancestors may have got together. Marriage between individuals who knew they were related to each other (be it as first, second or third cousins) was massively common until only a few generations ago. While the idea of “incest” (a term I would definitely hesitate to use in this context) makes us uncomfortable, we should accept the fact that such unions were far from being a rarity in the not-so-distant past.

And while on the topic of marriage between family members, have you ever come across an instance of an uncle marrying his niece? Apparently, property and money were often at the root of these unions between close relatives or close acquaintances (after all, if you marry your brother’s wife’s sister, you are not technically marrying a relative). You should therefore consider the possibility of arranged marriages, which again would have been much more common in Western society a few generations ago. Check marriage records and marital dispensations (especially if your ancestors were Catholic) to see if there was a degree of consanguinity and/or affinity between both spouses, and don’t forget to consult wills to see if anybody stood to gain by marrying a rich relative!

Sometimes, “accidents” may have led to two individuals coming together. Consider another of my female Spanish ancestors who was widowed twice; coincidentally – or not – her son from her first marriage would go on to marry her first husband’s niece – again, not a blood relative per se, but there was a pre-existing family connection that must have been instrumental, one way or another, in bringing the young couple together.

But “chance encounters” probably were as common a way of meeting your future partner in the past as they are today. My great-grandfather Jack emigrated from Italy in 1910 and settled in Manhattan, in an area intensely populated by Italian immigrants. The US Federal census shows us that one of the other inhabitants in the same building block where my great-grandfather ended up was a man called Giacomo Amerio; two years later, Giacomo’s sister arrived from Italy, he introduced her to his flatmate Jack and the rest, as they say, is history!

We cannot always hope to find documentary proof for such seemingly inconsequential moments in history, but considering the pivotal role that these events have played in our own family history, I think it’s time we revisit our family tree and try to figure out how exactly our ancestors met and how we, eventually, came to be!

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Posted in 1841 Census, 1910 US Census, Death, Genealogy, Marriage | 1 Comment

The Italian connection

Because yesterday was, genealogically speaking, a good day – I managed to add a new line of relatives to the Italian side of my family tree thanks to the combined help of AncestryDNA and available records online – I’ve decided to share my experience with you all in the shape of a new blog post!

I may not share much DNA with this relative, but let’s see if I can find out how we’re related anyway! Source: Ancestry

I started off, as I often do, by randomly looking at my own – in this case, my father’s – DNA matches to see if there were any new names on our AncestryDNA matches list. I selected one whose last name suggested a possible connection on my Italian side (that’s my American-born paternal grandfather, whose story you will remember from my dedicated webpage). This person’s tree is basic to say the least – it only contains eleven individuals, including my DNA match, his parents, his four grandparents and a very intriguing great-grandfather called ?? Bussi.

My DNA match’s rudimentary family tree – all names which are not relevant to this article have been redacted by the author. Source: Ancestry

Two clues

Now, this may not have appeared particularly encouraging at first, given that the information available was not very detailed – but there were two clues that I figured could well lead me to a genealogical goldmine: the surname Bussi, which was my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Clara’s maiden name, and the fact that this individual’s grandmother’s date of birth was featured on his rather rudimentary family tree. Unfortunately my earlier attempts to find out where this match’s grandmother had been born (yes, I have contacted him before) proved futile. Still, I decided to send him another brief message, saying I might be able to connect out respective lines, but to be honest, I’m not holding my breath for an answer any time soon. Anyway, moving on.

The lady recorded as this match’s grandmother was Pauline Bussi, and had a date of birth in 1893. Was she born in the United States, or was she more likely to be an Italian emigrant who went to the new world at the turn of the century, as so many other millions did, including my own great-grandparents?

From my match’s family tree I knew Pauline Bussi’s married name was Roseo, so on I went in search of a marriage certificate. And I found nothing. Niente. OK, let’s try a different angle, let’s have a look at emigration and naturalisation records…

A family of migrants

Aha! What have we here? A naturalisation record for the State of New York from 1927 filed by Giovanni Roseo, a labourer born on 3 April 1889 in Alexandria (sic, probably meaning either the city or the province of Alessandria), Italy. His wife is listed as Magdalina and they appear to have three children: Floreno (Florence?) and Giuseppe, who were born in Italy in 1914 and 1920 respectively, and Carolina, born in Brooklyn in 1924. It definitely looks like Giovanni and his wife Pauline (aka Magdalina?) had been married in Italy, and then emigrated with their young family. Usefully, Giovanni’s wife’s date of birth is also given: 23 March 1893.

But what I’m really interested to learn is about their origins, and if I can link them – presumably through Pauline – to my family tree. As the Roseo family went to America in the 1920s, the earliest census I can expect them to be on is the 1930 census. It doesn’t take me long to find them listed together (with an additional child, Frank), all living under the same roof.

The 1930 census showing the Roseo family living in Brooklyn. Source: Ancestry

Passenger lists are usually a good way of knowing where somebody came from, especially when tracing migrant ancestors whose place of birth on the census was narrowed down to the country only. By this point I was somewhat unsettled by the fact that Pauline was also known as Magdalina. Were they one and the same person, or could they be two different individuals? Was I even looking at the right couple?

My fears were dissipated when I managed to locate a passenger list from 1922 for Maddalena Paolina Bussi. Strangely there is no sign of her children, but she appears to have been travelling with two other women from her home town: San Marzano Oliveto – my great-grandmother’s village!!! The file also reveals that she was going to stay with her husband Giovanni Roseo (wrongly recorded as Bosco) and, more importantly, it tells me her next-of-kin back in Italy is her father Francesco Bussi, who resides in Calamandrana, a small village not far from San Marzano Oliveto.

Maddalena Paolina Bussi (line 13) on a 1922 passenger list. Source: Ancestry

My next step is to try and find a marriage record that will confirm once and for all who Maddalena Paolina really was. Unfortunately, records for Calamandrana are not available on FamilySearch, Ancestry or even Antenati, so – assuming she married in the village where her father lived – it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to find her marriage to Giovanni. But the passenger list does mention San Marzano Oliveto, a name I’m all too familiar with because it is the focus of what will soon become my first one-place study. I type in the name of the bride and groom, I select San Marzano Oliveto as the place of marriage… and hey presto, I instantly get a hit: the 1913 marriage of Giovanni Antonio Roseo and Maddalena Clementina (huh? not Paolina?) Bussi. I click on the image and before my eyes in the original record, signed over 100 years ago by my distant relative and her fiancé.

The 1913 marriage of Giovanni Antonio Roseo and Maddalena Clementina Bussi. Source: Antenati.

The marriage record confirms Giovanni’s parents were Giuseppe Roseo and Adriana Caligaris, while Maddalena Clementina’s parents were Francesco Bussi and the late Carolina Vaccaneo. While the groom was born in San Marzano Oliveto on 3 April 1889 (which is same date as on the naturalisation record in New York!), the document states that the bride was born in Calamandrana on 29 May 1893; OK, so there is here a slight discrepancy with the naturalisation record, which you will recall stated she been born on 23 March 1893. At any rate, I’ve noticed on several occasions that March/Marzo and May/Maggio often get muddled up in records, so I’m not too bothered about that for now.

I then decided to hover to FamilySearch, which contains a very handy collection of civil registry scans for births, marriages and deaths from 1866 to 1910. Would I be able to locate the marriage for Maddalena Clementina’s parents before 1893? Luckily there’s an index, so if I managed to locate a marriage between a Francesco Bussi and Carolina Vaccaneo, I would be able to prove once and for all if these are really cousins of mine on my Bussi line. After a bit of searching, I finally found the 1882 marriage between Carolina Vaccaneo, daughter of Carlo Vaccaneo and Paola Amerio, and Francesco Bussi, son of Antonio Bussi and his second wife Maddalena Caligaris. Hang on, haven’t we just seen that surname a couple of moments ago? Of course, Maddalena Caligaris is the paternal aunt of Adriana Caligaris. In other words, Maddalena’s granddaughter and namesake married her second cousin, Adriana’s son Giovanni Roseo. Still with me? Good!

The 1882 marriage between Maddalena Clementina (aka Pauline)’s parents Francesco Bussi and Carolina Vaccaneo. Source: FamilySearch.

Through my prior research, I already knew that Antonio Bussi was the younger brother of my aforementioned great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Clara. In fact he has many living descendants in the UK today through his daughter from his first marriage. But I digress. The point is that I’ve finally managed to find my link to the Roseo/Bussi family and claim a new line of relatives on the other side of the pond.

But what of the difference in names? Pauline was known at different times as Maddalena as well as Clementina, right? I actually think there’s a simpler, and perhaps more logical explanation for this: her marriage record – which she signed with her full name, see below – lists her as Maddalena Clementina Bussi. I can only assume that this was her official name. However, her maternal grandmother, and we’ve seen, was called Paola – it is quite possible that as a young girl, perhaps when she was christened or had her confirmation, she was given a third name in honour of her grandmother, and the name stuck within the family. Hence why she would have been known as Pauline, and listed as such on some – but not all – official records.

Maddalena Clementina’s signature on her own marriage certificate. Source: Antenati.

Giovanni Roseo’s signature on his naturalisation record. Source: Ancestry.

All that remains now is to tell my distant cousins in America about their ancestry – but I guess I’ll have to wait until they reply to my latest message, won’t I?

Posted in Antenati, Civil Registration, Emigration, Family Search, Genealogy, Italy, New York City, San Marzano Oliveto, United States | Leave a comment

Why I do genealogy: a personal manifesto

Photo source: Cambridgeblog

Last night, as I was tucking in for what I hoped would be a quiet evening at home delving into my family tree (I know none of you ever does that, right? 😉 ) I saw an e-mail notification popping up at the bottom of my screen. I instantly recognised the sender: it was a second cousin of my mother’s (whom I’ve never personally met), who lives in another country and with whom I used to be in touch years ago because of our shared interest in family history. The tone of the e-mail was friendly and familiar… and I could also tell the reason why he was contacting me, even before I opened the message. He wanted me to send him a full report of the family tree, as he has (allegedly) lost all of his family tree data.

On the face of it, many of you will think: “Well, just do it: give the poor guy the information! He’s your cousin after all, and he’s interested in family history, so why not!” Ah, but here is where you need to know the full story.

When this cousin and I were in touch years ago (I had only just started delving into my family tree, but by chance happened to have access to much more information than he did) I would put all the information into single .doc files (yes, by hand!) in Ahnentafel format and every now and then share them with those few relatives of mine who I knew took a keen interest in family history. This was at a time when family tree software programmes were either being developed or else were not as accessible as they are today. It was then that my cousin introduced me to this new website (I won’t say which) where I could be given access and basically share all the data that I collected, along with a handful of other relatives of his who were not at all connected with my side of the family tree. At first I was thrilled. This could only be a win-win situation, right?

But then, reality struck me: after a few months of willy-nilly uploading names, dates and photos of my relatives on this supposedly private platform, I realised, much to my horror, that someone with access to that tree was posting the information I had just shared on a second online family tree platform which was (and still is) 100% freely accessible. It then dawned upon me that even the original website where I had been uploading data was not as private as I thought, even without access to that particular family tree. By doing a simple Google search for my ancestors’ names using the inverted commas method, I was actually able to find a fair amount of vital information about them, without even having to have an account on that platform. Seeing this as a breach of confidentiality and privacy, I decided to remove the data that I had uploaded onto the tree and left the group for good.

Many among you (and I realise this is going to be an unpopular opinion) think, indeed often tell me, that the purpose of genealogy is to share our family history. I strongly disagree. The purpose of genealogy is whatever purpose we want to give it. Some of us want to seek the origins of a particular surname or lineage; others want to find as many collateral branches as they can; others want to find their link to Charlemagne. There is no written rule as to what you should do with your genealogical research. I “do” genealogy because it gives me pleasure, in the same way that an artist paints because it gives the artist pleasure, not necessarily because he or she feels a need to sell paintings or hold an exhibit. Genealogy is my biggest passion and it satisfies me to unearth ancestors’ stories that have remained locked for decades, if not centuries. I spend hours, and significant quantities of money, carrying out my research. Publishing all my findings online, even by sharing it with my mother’s second cousin, just sells my research cheap.

There are many people out there (starting with the major companies who obviously want us to share our genealogy data online) who want us to believe that the purpose of genealogy is to share our family history. To each his/her own, I suppose. I particularly don’t think that is necessarily true, and moreover, I strongly believe that each person should be free to choose what to do with the genealogical data they collect, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone’s privacy, of course. I for one always tell my relatives that the personal data they give me (about themselves, their parents, grandparents, children or grandchildren) will not be published online or be passed on to a third party. How would I face them if they found out that the old family photos that they have so kindly given me a copy of have ended up on some random (as far as they’re concerned) family tree online?

It is so obvious that we live in an age of information. Actually, I think we live in an age of excess. It’s not about quality anymore, it’s about quantity. Privacy remains one of the most delicate and, in my opinion, most violated subjects in the industry, no matter what the CEOs say whenever there is a serious privacy breach in their company’s database. I and thousands of other genealogists out there are the perfect bait for large multi-million companies to take our data and use it to whichever noble or ignoble means they please, whether it’s catching a murderer through DNA or to sell our biological information to pharmaceutical companies.

The bottom line is not that you shouldn’t share your family history data, but rather that you should feel free to choose whatever you want to do with it. If you only want to keep your family tree information on your laptop software, and not upload it online, fine! If you want to keep your family history on paper format, that’s fine too! Genealogical research should first and foremost be a fun experience, and no one should dictate what you should do with your own research.

PS: I’ve since written back to my mother’s second cousin informing him of my negative experience years ago, and while I will not share a full family tree report for the reasons explained above, I will be happy to fill in any specific gaps he may have regarding our shared family history.

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Posted in Genealogy | Leave a comment

Why YOU should do the #RussianDollChallenge?

Have you ever done the #RussianDollChallenge? Source:

Some of you may have heard of the #RussianDollChallenge, a hashtag I created on Twitter in September 2018 to discuss direct female ancestral genealogies. And why, you may ask, did this become a popular (dare one say, trending!) topic and, more importantly, why did I create the hashtag to begin with?

You have all owned or at least heard of Russian dolls, those charming, empty, heavily-decorated wooden puppets that, decreasing in size, are stacked one inside the other. When displayed, they form a neatly-ordered row, each representing a “generation”. Because the bigger doll is generally considered the “mother” of its immediately smaller “daughter”, the analogy with the world of genealogy is obvious. If we, as the smallest piece of all – i.e. the smallest daughter (or son, as the case may be) – begin to trace our lineage through an unbroken chain to our mother, and her mother, and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, and so on, we will at some stage reach a point where we are simply unable to carry on further, be it because no records are available, or because the identity of the most remote female ancestor cannot be established.

Don’t believe me? Have a go! Although I have successfully managed to locate the immense majority of my ancestors in the last – I’m estimating here – seven or eight generations, when it comes to my matrilineal ancestry, I find myself struggling. My maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother was born in Spain in 1868; her mother was born in 1845, and her grandmother in 1816; her mother before her was born in 1773, but her mother (that’s my six-times great-grandmother, in case you weren’t counting) is a mystery. Because I have not been able to find her baptism, I can just assume that Gabriela Gómez was born sometime during the mid 1700s, probably around the same area where she would later marry twice and give birth to four daughters.

Considering I’ve been able to track my ancestry up most lineages until well beyond the year 1750, it is very frustrating to have this matrilineal brick wall hovering over me – and believe me, I have tried to find Gabriela’s origins time and time again, to no avail. My father’s side is equally frustrating, if for a moment we ignore the fact that I am connected to my paternal grandmother via my father, and not my mother. My father’s five-times great-grandmother was a Mary Lewis, who I assume was born, possibly in Herefordshire, sometime around the mid-1750s.

You’d be surprised how few generations Queen Elizabeth II can trace her line back on her direct maternal side… Source: TudorTimes.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to become stuck if you try the #RussianDollChallenge. Take Queen Elizabeth II, for instance. Her father’s line is impeccably royal, and there is even some blue blood floating about on her maternal grandfather’s side, but her maternal grandmother’s family is surprisingly un-royal (and therefore makes genealogical research harder). The Queen’s maternal grandmother, the Countess of Strathmore, was born Nina Cecilia Cavedish-Bentinck in Belgravia in 1862; her mother was Caroline Burnaby (1832 Leicester -1818 Dawlish), who was in turn the daughter of Anne Caroline Salisbury (1805 Dorchester – 1881 London). Her mother was Frances Webb (1775 Stanway, Gloucestershire – 1862 Salisbury), but her mother, Marry Garritt, is a mystery. When and where she was baptised has not yet been fully established – I have done my best to trace it too, and concluded there are at least two potential candidates who could be the Queen’s direct ancestor. In short, this means that Queen Elizabeth II cannot trace her matrilineal line with certainty beyond her four-times great-grandmother – and that is historically quite recent, especially for a royal. Fortunately the number of matrilineal generations increases for Mia Grace Tindall and Lena Elizabeth Tindall, Princess Anne’s granddaughters via her daughter Zara, who happen to be Queen Elizabeth’s only living female-line descendants other than her three sons (the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex), as well as Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips.

Anne Caroline Burnaby (née Salisbury) is Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandmother – though who her great-grandparents were remains a mystery. Source: Wikipedia.

But why should one try to do the #RussianDollChallenge? Well, as any genealogist knows, women tend to be underrepresented on most official records – from marriage certificates (which don’t feature the mother’s name in England and Wales) to baptisms and wills, where the wife’s maiden name is rarely mentioned. With such an obliteration of their original identity, is it any wonder that tracing a woman back in history is much harder than it is tracing a man?

To conclude, by doing the #RussianDollChallenge we are not only figuring out our own origins and remembering our female ancestors, but we are also highlighting the importance of our female-line heritage and our matrilineal history.

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and I invite you all to use this article as a source of inspiration to tweet and post about your female-line ancestors in the days to come. Let me know in the comments below, or via my Twitter feed, of how many generations back you’ve been able to go on your matrilineal side. Remember to use the hashtag #RussianDollChallenge and to hit the “like” button if you’ve enjoyed this article!

You may be the last doll in a long chain of Russian dolls… But how far back can you go? Source: (sofia.boulamrach)

Posted in Birth, England, Famous Genealogy, Genealogy, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Women | Leave a comment

Are you going to THE Genealogy Show 2020? Because I am!

UPDATE: This event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020. Check the website linked below for further information and updates about the next edition.

This is definitely the week of announcements! OK, this may no longer be actual news to some of you – I fully realise the talk I’m going to tell you about now was already announced a few weeks ago – but following the huge success of 2019 edition of THE Genealogy Show, I can’t really see the old year out without talking about next year’s edition – and yes, you’ve guessed it: I’ll be there again with a new talk!

As many of you know by now, THE Genealogy Show was conceived through the enthusiasm and vision of the Show’s director Kirsty Gray, who turned it into a reality thanks to the help of a wonderful international crew of volunteers – among whom I am privileged to include myself. Most of us, having been regular attendees at Who Do You Think You Are? Live in preceding years, acutely felt the sting of losing such a fantastic event on this side of the Atlantic.

The first edition of THE Genealogy Show took place last June in Birmingham’s NEC, and will return again to the same venue on 26 and 27 June 2020. While undeniably retaining some parallels and similarities with WDYTYA LiveTHE Genealogy Show is different from traditional genealogy events and trade fairs in the UK because of how it has been conceived and executed: based on a solidly international basis, with an incredibly democratic outlook and a unique grassroots attitude which allows new ideas to just materialise, to the delight of attendees. One of the many surprises in store for you in 2020 will be… An Escape Room Experience!

Some very fond memories of the 2019 edition…

In 2019 I spoke at THE Genealogy Show on Spanish genealogical research. My talk for the 2020 edition (scheduled to take place on Friday 26 June) will shift to a much more personal story, titled Finding Paul: How I discovered a cousin I never knew I had. It will be a first-hand account which will cover a wide range of areas: genetics, family history, ethics…  But I’m keeping the biggest of all surprises until the very end of my talk, so why not join me in Birmingham? You will find further details about my presentation on THE Genealogy Show‘s website.

I can’t close off without mentioning the other speakers on the programme. For the first time a genealogy event of this size will have an all-female cast as its keynote speakers: Celia Heritage, Roberta Estes, Maureen Taylor and Fiona Fitzsimons. In addition, I am truly honoured to share the speaker programme with some of the most amazing names from the genealogical world: Jonny Perl, Michelle Leonard, Les Mitchinson, Nathan Dylan Goodwin, Robert Parker, Dave Annal… The list is practically endless!

Remember that tickets for THE Genealogy Show are already on sale (check the website for current offers and discounts), with early bird fees applying until 5 January 2020!

Crowds of enthusiastic genealogists arriving at the 2019 edition last June.

Posted in Birmingham, Events, Genealogy, THEGenShow2019, THEGenShow2020 | Leave a comment

Family Tree Live – here I come!

Family Tree Live returns in 2020!

UPDATE: This event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020. Check the website linked below for further information and updates.

This is definitely the week of exciting announcements (and this may not be the last – hint hint), for today the organisers of Family Tree Live 2020 have finally released their programme of lectures and workshops for next year! Oh, and yes, you’ve guessed it: I will be there!

Family Tree Live is a relatively new event – the first edition only took place earlier this year, after Who Do You Think You Are? Live was discontinued in 2017. In fact, 2019 saw the celebration of three brand new events: THE Genealogy Show in Birmingham, RootsTech London at the ExCel, and Family Tree Live in Alexandra Palace. For the moment only THE Genealogy Show and Family Tree Live have confirmed their dates for 2020, while RootsTech is yet to confirm whether it will hold its European event every year or every other year – I’m told that the location is also subject to much speculation.

Workshops were a very popular feature at Family Tree Live 2019. Photo credit: Family Tree Magazine.

The 2020 edition of Family Tree Live will take place on 17 and 18 April 2020, and will once again be hosted at Alexandra Palace. I was unable to attend the first edition last April, so I confess I’m quite excited to visit this new event in what for me is a new venue – I’m only familiar with Alexandra Palace through the WDYTYA episode when Julian Clary visits to learn more about his grandfather’s military experience during the First World War.

One of the characteristics of Family Tree Live is their workshops – groups of up to ten participants around a table to learn about a specific topic. I will be leading a workshop, set to take place on 18 April at 1.30PM, on Spanish genealogical research, with a special focus on online resources which anyone with an interest in this particular country should consult. There are a number of other workshops, sorted by category, which you can consult here. Remember that all lectures and workshops are included with admission, but booking is required.

Posted in Events, Genealogy, Spain | Leave a comment

See you at the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15!

I am extremely pleased to announce that I have been invited to talk at the next edition of the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15. The event, the largest of its kind in the French-speaking world this side of the Atlantic, will be held as usual in the town hall of the French capital’s 15th arrondissement and within easy distance of the city’s main historical landmarks.

The Salon will officially kick off on 3 and 4 March 2020 with activities exclusively reserved for children, to encourage the younger generations to take an interest in genealogy and family history. There will also be children-only activities on the morning of 5 March, followed by the launch of the programme for adult attendees. This year’s edition saw a huge affluence of genealogy enthusiasts (7,000 adulthood participants and 300 children, according to the event’s website), and it even got a significant amount of press coverage – so I’m doubly excited to be taking an active part in 2020!

The Salon puts a strong emphasis on educating children and encouraging them to take an interest in genealogy and family history. Photo credit: Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15.

The details of the full programme will be announced in upcoming weeks, although sessions about genealogical research in a number of countries (e.g. Belgium, Germany and Switzerland), as well as France of course, have already been confirmed. Access to the Salon is free of charge.

My talk, given in collaboration with Eric Jariod from the French association Gen-Ibérica, will take place on Friday 6 March, and will focus on ancestral research in Spain (further details will also be announced in due course). This will not only be my first time at the Salon, but the first-ever talk I give  in French! So you can definitely expect a few beads of sweat before my talk! 🙂

A glimpse of a prior edition of the Salon de la Généalogie Paris 15. Photo credit: Salon de la Généalogie.

The event is organised by local association Archives & Culture. For more information about this event, please visit the event website and keep an eye open for further updates!

On se retrouve à Paris!!!

Posted in Archives, France, Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment

Happy Birthday, DNI!

Front of an example of a modern-day DNI card.

One of the least-used resources of family research in Spain, and yet perhaps one of the most valuable, is the DNI, the acronym of the Documento Nacional de Identidad (National Identity Document). This small piece of plastic, which nowadays features not just the bearer’s name and surnames (remember that Spaniards usually have two surnames), but also their address, date and place of birth, parentage, and of course a photograph, has a very interesting history – one we should bear in mind considering the DNI’s value to any family historian.

The DNI was created 75 years ago this week by decree of Spain’s military dictator, Francisco Franco. Until then, Spaniards had no way of legally proving who they were, unless they produced a copy of their birth or baptism certificate – which could entail an obvious risk of committing fraud by assuming someone else’s identity. Spaniards would use other, less orthodox methods of “demonstrating” they were who they said they were: membership cards, letters issued by local authorities, and so on.

General Franco was issued with the first ever DNI card.

The order to create the DNI was given in 1944, a mere five years after the end of the cruel Civil War which tore Spain into two rival factions. However, it would not be until 1951 when the first DNI was issued – apparently the effects of the war made it impossible for the state to fund the launch of such a costly administrative procedure.

As each card has a serial number, the first one was issued in favour of Franco himself, while the second was given to his wife, Carmen Polo, and the third to their only daughter, Carmencita. Numbers 4 to 9 have never been used – and are likely to remain so. The next sequential numbers up to 100 are otherwise reserved for members of Spain’s Royal Family. Former King Juan Carlos I bears DNI number 10; his wife, Greek-born Queen Sofía, number 11; their eldest daughter, the Infanta Elena, number 12, and her sister Cristina number 14 (for superstitious reasons number 13 was omitted). Spain’s current king, Felipe VI, bears DNI number 15; his daughters, the Princess of Asturias and her sister the Infanta Sofía, bear numbers 22 and 23, respectively.

The first three DNI numbers were used by General Franco and his immediate family. Those between number 10 and 100, except number 13, are reserved for the Spanish Royal Family.

Numbers are otherwise assigned not in order of issuance at national level, but by region; therefore, depending on which area a new bearer is issued a card for the first time, he or she will receive a higher or lower number than would have been the case elsewhere in the country.

Naturally, the physical appearance of the DNI has changed over time. At first, given that many Spaniards were illiterate, adding the bearer’s fingerprint was compulsory. Photographs were stapled on, and then stamped over to try and avoid counterfeits. The information about the bearer was also modified over time, while those DNI cards issued in the Sahara (a Spanish colony until 1975) were issued bilingually in Spanish and Arabic. Nowadays DNI cards issued in Spain’s bilingual regions (Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country and Valencia) are also in the two respective languages of the area. A person’s marital status and profession, once featured on the DNI, are now no longer reflected in the modern version.

The leader of the Spanish Communist Party Santiago Carrillo had at least three fake DNI cards during Franco’s dictatorship.

Having a deceased relative’s DNI card can give a Spanish genealogist a wealth of information – not just the ever-solicited photographic portrait of the bearer, but an exact date of birth, and the parents’ names – all of which is essential information if we need to order the person’s birth certificate.

Who knew that such a small piece of plastic could bear so much interesting and useful information?

Posted in Genealogy, Spain | Leave a comment

Discovering a new Italian family mystery… down under!

Lately my family research has mainly focused on my Italian ancestors, and I’ve been extremely busy adding every single birth, marriage and death recorded in my great-grandmother’s village under the civil registry collection on FamilySearch, which covers the period 1866 (when civil registration began in Italy) to 1910. By doing so, not only am I “growing” my family tree exponentially, but I am also discovering links to many other families I had no idea I was related to.

Yesterday, while I was taking a break from this fascinating but time-consuming task, I decided to try a new resource which I occasionally dip into, just to see what results may come up: Google Books. I typed in the name of my Italian ancestors’ village, San Marzano Oliveto, and my great-grandmother’s family name, Amerio, and pressed search. My eyes immediately focused on an extract of a book called No need to be afraid: Italian settlers in South Australia between 1839 and the Second World War, by Desmond O’Connor. This is the intriguing result I got:

My interest was instantly piqued. Someone from my family’s home-town with my great-grandmother’s surname living in Australia in the 1920s and active in right-wing politics? I just had to get to the bottom of his story. And he had to be a relative, right? Well, not necessarily. Amerio is a fairly common surname in the village, and the surrounding area, so the chance of Giuseppe Amerio being a direct blood relative was no means guaranteed. However, thanks to my ongoing efforts to chart not just my family but all families in the village would, I hoped, make it easier to locate who this man was, and determine if he and I were actually related.

Like in all other locations across Italy at the turn of the century, many inhabitants of San Marzano Oliveto chose or had no alternative but to emigrate abroad. Many, of course, went to Argentina, while others, like my great-grandmother, went to the United States. But some, I have recently discovered, also settled in Australia, and this made me wonder if I could trace Giuseppe Amerio’s story down under any further. After all, there is no shortage of Giuseppe Amerios in my family tree file (56 to be precise), and a substantial percentage of them could have been the individual who became so enamoured with Mussolini’s politics…

A call from help on Twitter yielded some very good advice: try searching on Trove, Australia’s national library search engine, which is free and includes newspapers as well as a number of other printed resources. In went the words “Giuseppe Amerio”, and lo and behold came a torrent of results, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, when Giuseppe would of course have been politically active. I was lucky enough to find an article penned by him in 1928, where he compares Benito Mussolini to Italian national heroes Mazzini and Garibaldi. The article not only gave me a clearer picture about my potential cousin’s political views -I think the least said about that the better, by the way-, but astonishingly it also included an actual photograph of Giuseppe himself! Trove truly is a genealogical treasure trove!

Giuseppe Amerio, Italian Consul in Adelaide.

But could the newspapers reveal anything else about Giuseppe’s background? Well, nothing is mentioned about his year of birth, which would have been very helpful, or his parentage, which would have allowed me to pin-point him on the tree immediately, but there was a very useful entry which unlocked the mystery definitively: his marriage announcement!

It turns out that in April 1927 Giuseppe married fellow Italian Vincenzina Amerio, who had arrived in Australia barely a fortnight before. The marriage announcement, and subsequent reports about the wedding itself, included a reference to Vincenzina’s father, a man called Achille Amerio. With such an unusual name, I scoured my family tree file for anyone who fitted the bill – and voilà! Achille Amerio, born in San Marzano Oliveto in 1875, the son of a local veterinarian, had married Leonilda Giulia Asinari, and had had three children called Luigi Francesco, Remigio and (drum roll please) Vincenza! I freely admit I was slightly disappointed to observe that this branch of the family does not belong to my own lineage – not as far as I know anyway – which made me suspect that Giuseppe too may well have belonged to a different family from my own.

I decided to try yet another online resource: I typed Giuseppe and Vincenza’s name in Ancestry to see if I could get any additional information about them. The only helpful record I was able to retrieve was a passenger list from 1934 showing Vincenza travelling to Adelaide via Melbourne, accompanied by Luigia Leonilda Amerio.

The passenger list for the SS Viminale, showing Vincenza Amerio travelling from Genoa to Australia in 1934.

Luigia Leonilda Amerio was a new name to me, and for a moment I thought this might be Vincenza’s mother coming out to Australia to visit her daughter and son-in-law. But the name was not exactly right: Vincenza’s mother was Leonilda Giulia, not Luigia Leonilda.

Ah, but of course, once again Trove had the answer: a short article from 1934 (in Italian) stating that the Consul’s wife and their little daughter had recently arrived in Australia from a trip to the motherland. Well, well, well! Giuseppe and Vincenzina had a daughter called Luigia Leonilda Amerio. And that got me thinking: following tradition, could the daughter had been named after her two grandmothers? Leonilda was obviously her maternal grandmother’s name – was Luigia her paternal grandmother?

It was clear I was onto something, although so far I had basically only managed to find information on Giuseppe’s wife. His origins were still a question mark. I then had one of those wonderful eureka moments that unravel a mystery in an instant. Vincenza’s birth certificate, to which I had access thanks to the collection on FamilySearch, stated that she died in 1976 in the Italian city of Verona – a fair distance away from sleepy San Marzano Oliveto.

Vincenza’s birth certificate, with a marginal note stating she died in far-away Verona in 1976.

Now that seemed to be a clue. It seems natural to assume that Giuseppe would have died in the same city as his wife, so I checked my records again, this time looking for a Giuseppe Amerio whose mother’s name was Luigia. And would you believe it, I only found one possible candidate who ticked all the boxes: Giuseppe Amerio, born in 1895 to Gaetano Lorenzo Amerio and Luigia Pelazzo, passed away in Verona in 1981, five years after Vincenzina. At last, I had found Giuseppe Amerio!!!

Giuseppe’s birth certificate, with a marginal note stating he died in Verona in 1981.

I don’t really think I need to continue my research into this couple to prove that Giuseppe Amerio (1895-1981) married Vincenzina Amerio (1905-1976). All evidence points in the right direction – but just to be sure, I may apply for their death certificates in Verona, or I may reach out to the Australian authorities to see if there’s a way of acquiring their marriage certificate in Adelaide, though I am satisfied to have unravelled my latest family mystery by simply typing in their names in a handful of online resources at my disposal.

And what of the other mystery? Is Giuseppe actually related to me, or, like Vincenzina, does he belong to another family which, despite the identical surname, is not connected to me? Actually, Giuseppe is indeed my blood relation. His paternal grandfather Giuseppe Amerio (they weren’t very adventurous when it came to choosing names, were they?) was the grandson of Pietro Francesco Amerio, my 5x-great-grandfather, making Giuseppe Amerio my great-grandmother’s third cousin and therefore my third cousin three times removed.

It truly is a small world, isn’t it?


Posted in Australia, Emigration, Genealogy, Marriage, San Marzano Oliveto, World War II | 1 Comment

William Samuel Morris (1925-1941)

Some of the stories in my family history are so graphic, so poignant, that they will always remain a fixture of my mind and my imagination. Such is the case of my grandmother’s cousin, William Samuel Morris, who died in the Second World War at the tragically early age of sixteen.

I first found out about William Samuel’s existence many years ago, when I began researching the English side of my family tree. My grandmother had by then passed away, but luckily her cousin Joan was still alive, and I was able to ask her questions about her side of the family. In doing so, Auntie Joan told me that her father, William Morris, a farm labourer from Herefordshire, had been married twice, and that she and her younger brother William Samuel were both born from the second marriage. Joan knew her father’s first wife had died young, and that there had been a child, whose name and sex she could not recall – and she added, perhaps somewhat dismissively, that the child died young anyway.

Tracking down someone with a relatively common name like William Morris was no easy task. It would be years before I was able to locate my great-great-uncle William Morris on the 1911 census, which showed him living with his first wife Emily (née Price) in the small village of Whitney-on-Wye, near the Welsh border. William worked as a wagoner on a farm, while Emily probably looked after the home. I was also able to find the birth record of their only child, a boy who was named William Grenville Morris. But as I knew, the little boy died soon after – aged 28 days, as it happens – having been born premature. Emily herself suffered from heart disease, and a few years later her delicate constitution gave in when she came down with influenza at the end of 1918, during the pandemic commonly known as the Spanish Flu.

My 36 year-old great-great-uncle William was left a childless widower, but a few years later he managed to overcome his grief and remarried, this time to a woman called Flossie Theodora Hopkins. Flossie and William had two children, the aforementioned Joan and her younger brother William Samuel, whose first name he was given in honour of his father and in memory of his late older brother.

The family lived happily at the foot of the Malvern Hills during the interwar years. William Samuel left school at a young age and as early as 1939, when he would have been only fourteen, he was working as a garage employee, near the town of Ledbury.

William Samuel, his mother and sister, circa 1930. Author’s collection.

The outbreak of war that same year would have stirred in many men across the country a great sense of patriotism, and William Samuel, caught up in the excitement, wished to enlist. He was, of course, far too young to join the army, but he was able to be recruited in the Merchant Navy.

William Samuel was engaged as a mess room boy (i.e. someone who waits at table on ships, maintains the officers’ quarters, works in the ship’s kitchen…). It would have been very hard physical work, but in view of his enthusiasm to fight for king and country, I am convinced that William Samuel would have been very proud of the modest role he had to play.

By 1941 the war had entered its third year, and submarine warfare was at its height. By spring and early summer the amount of British ships sunk by German U-boats had increased exponentially. William Samuel and his fellow crew would have been acutely aware of the dangers that lay ahead of any crossing.

And yet, duty called. William Samuel began working as a mess room boy on the Merchant Navy’s SS Embassage, a relatively large cargo steamship that had been built in Sunderland in 1935 by J.L. Thompson & Sons Ltd.  In August 1941 the Embassage was commissioned to take cargo to Bathurst and Pepel, in Sierra Leone – then a British colonial protectorate – as part of convoy OS-4. The convoy, which left Liverpool on 23 August, was formed by a total of 33 vessels, some of which would have travel over the course of three weeks from Britain to the Protectorate.

The SS Embassage. Photo from City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 447-2184. Credit:

Four days into the voyage, about 100 miles west off Achill Island the convoy came under attack by German submarine U-557, commanded by 26 year-old Oberleutnant zur See Ottokar Arnold Paulssen. In the dark of night, the Norwegian Motor merchant Segundo sank will the loss of seven men. Almost simultaneously, the British steam merchant Saugor was also hit and sunk, leaving 59 dead and only 23 survivors. Less than an hour later, another British steamer, the Tremoda, was torpedoed, leaving 32 dead and 21 survivors. Just before half-past-four in the morning, Paulssen ordered a new attack, this time with the Embassage as his target.

Given the string of attacks perpetrated in the preceding hours, it is hard to imagine that William Samuel and his fellow crew members would not have been alert to a possible attack. And yet, despite their efforts, a German torpedo pierced through the hull of the Embassage, which began to sink quickly. Of the 42 men on board, only five made it to an overturned lifeboat – miraculously, William Samuel Morris, who survived the explosion and the actual sinking, was among them. Among the other four were boatswain William Garbutt Magrs, from South Shields, and a young apprentice called William Kelsey, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The story related by Magrs to his family after he was rescued was that both Kelsey and William Samuel Morris, who were only 17 and 16 years of age, respectively, were weakened by the lack of food and water. They were told not to drink sea water, as it would make them ill and delirious. William Samuel obeyed, but the ordeal was too much for the young lad, and he died the day following the sinking, on 28 August 1941. His comrades had no choice but to bury him at sea.

Position where the Embassage was sunk.

William Kelsey did not pay heed to his colleagues’ advice and began to drink seawater in order to alleviate his thirst. Within hours he became delirious, and often dipped into the sea from which Magrs or one of his other colleagues had to jump in and reel him back onto the lifeboat. On one such occasion, Kelsey managed to slip away, and drowned on 31 August.

The surviving three crew members, including Magrs himself, were picked up by the Canadian destroyer Assiniboine, and taken to safety. Magrs would later meet with William Samuel’s parents, and tell them of their son’s final hours.

William Samuel’s entry on the Grave Registration Report. Credit: CWGC.

Ottokar Arnold Paulssen, the commander of the U-boat responsible for the Embassage sinking, was promoted to the rank of Kapitäleutnant a few weeks later, and then made a Korvettenkapitän in December 1941. He was transferred to the Mediterranean, where on 15 December he ordered the sinking of the HMS Galatea, killing 470. The day after, near Crete, Paulssen’s U-boat 557 was accidentally struck by an Italian torpedo boat, the Orione, causing the submarine to sink. Paulssen and all of his crew died in the sinking.

As William Samuel Morris was buried at sea, he does not have a grave. His name is commemorated on Tower Hill (Panel 37) and on Colwall War Memorial near his family home.

William Samuel Morris was only sixteen when he died. Like most deaths during WWII, his was a senseless, unnecessary death, and yet for all his enthusiasm and courage to go away to fight, his name was almost forgotten -even by his own family – for decades. Until today.

Lest we forget.

Colwall War Memorial. Credit: Colwall Church.

Posted in 1911 Census, 1939 UK Register, Death, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Ships, World War II | Leave a comment