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Scott’s journey through genealogy: don’t believe everything you read

In this blog series, genealogical historian Scott Phillips invites us along on his journey through genealogy and shares some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Hi everybody! I’m Scott Phillips and I’m pleased to be a new addition to the findmypast.co.uk family with my regular column ‘Scott’s journey through genealogy’. The focus of each of my columns will be to share with you what I consider to be some of the more important insights I have gained over the years during which I have been pursing genealogy. Hopefully they will help you in your efforts as you work on your family history and perhaps even save you some time and frustration.

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

As a way of introducing myself, let me offer you a brief background on my personal family history. I have traced and documented my paternal grandparents (surnames of Phillipps and Cottle) back to the 1500s in Cornwall and my maternal grandparents (Evenden) to the 1500s in Kent and (Vicha and Knechtl) to the 1600s in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. I have also traced my wife’s family (D’Aquila and Casagrande) back to the 1600s in the Molise district of Italy. You can read more about my background and work on my website if you are interested.

I will also caution you that I am very serious in my belief that documentation is a must in genealogy. Otherwise we are creating nothing more than the likes of ‘Pecos Bill’ who, by the way, was one of the favourites in my youth.

Today, I would like to start with an important and basic insight that I learned a bit too late in my family history work and one that I constantly remind myself: ‘Do not believe everything you read!’ I actually have that statement taped to the edge of my computer monitor just in case I might forget it. I have found that this mantra focuses me, over and over, on databases like those at findmypast.co.uk, which help me ensure that my family tree is as accurate and complete as I can make it.

You might be asking what I mean by not believing everything you read. Let me explain with some examples.

Gramps’ mystery brother

One of the earliest situations came about thanks to my grandfather, Edward George Phillipps. ‘Gramps’ as we called him, loved to tell stories about his growing up in Cornwall (he immigrated to the US in 1912). Almost every story included the statement: ‘there has always been only one male Phillipps per generation’. He even wrote it down in one of his many letters that he sent to me while I was at university. Consequently, when I began my genealogy work I started by looking for Phillipps families with only one son. I was quite pleased when I found my grandfather in the 1911 England & Wales census with his mother and stepfather. Then I had similar success finding him in the 1901 England & Wales census, again with his mother and stepfather. Then I found the 1891 England & Wales census, with sisters and his mother, now as a widow:

The Phillips family in the 1891 census

Click to enlarge

A bit more work and I found the family in the 1881 England & Wales census, but with a brother, William:

Phillips family in the 1881 census

Click to enlarge

Back to the beginning to try again as I was certain I had made some mistake. I must have started over at least half a dozen times. I ‘knew’ there was no brother. To condense a long story, after significant time and quite a bit of additional research, I discovered that William Morrish Phillipps was indeed my great uncle and that my grandfather did actually have an older brother! He was killed in WWI and now rests eternal in Houyet, Belgium.

A tale of two families

The Phillipps monument on the wall of St. Julitta, Lanteglos by Camelford, Cornwall

The Phillipps monument on the wall of St. Julitta, Lanteglos by Camelford, Cornwall – click to enlarge

Another example occurred more recently and again was related to my Phillipps family. I was working on Charles Phillipps (1720-1774) of Lanteglos by Camelford and a member of parliament at that time from this ‘rotten borough’. I read with interest, in Sir John Maclean’s indispensable three volume set, ’Parochial and Family History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor, in the County of Cornwall’, Nichols & Son, London, 1894, about the establishment of the ‘Charles Phillipps Charity’ and decided to investigate more.

I likewise encountered references to this in Davies Gilbert’s 1838 work entitled ’The Parochial History of Cornwall Founded on the Manuscript Histories of Mr. Hals and Mr. Tonkin; with additions and various appendices’. In this work there is a description of the Phillipps family and their holdings, which includes Charles and his brothers, Reverend William Phillipps, Rector of Lanteglos by Camelford and Sir Jonathan Phillipps. It was only ‘natural’ for me to believe that the charitable Charles was the one included in these descriptions.

I continued investigating Charles by ordering a copy of what I thought might be his will. The first thing I noted was that I had a discrepancy in the year of his death. The will said he supposedly died years later than the monument on the wall stated in the church of St. Julitta. I am accustomed to differences of one or two years, but rarely a full 30 so I continued to research even further. That was when I noted that there was also reference to a sister, Mary. I had never come across a sister Mary in the family. I was starting to sense that I might have a problem on my hands.

It was not until I fully investigated Charles in the holdings of both the Cornwall Record Office and The National Archives that I discovered that in the 1700s and in the small village of Lanteglos by Camelford, there happened to be two Phillipps families. Both had a set of brothers with the given names of Charles, William, and Thomas. Thank goodness for sister Mary! As I began transcribing and charting these wills, I noted that it was not the ‘rich and famous’ Charles who left his holdings to charity, it was the relatively unknown Charles Phillipps! I am still working to unravel and understand the full relationships and extent of these two families, but it has been very gratifying to be able to know the true history of the man who cared so much for the community of Lanteglos by Camelford. Not only did Charles leave money for the poor, but he also left funds intended to start ‘the first grammar school in Camelford’.

Where there’s a will…

The third and final example I will use again involves my Phillipps ancestors. This time it was Nicholas Phillipps of St Teath parish in Cornwall. Nicholas was born in around 1574 and died in 1642. Luckily for me, he was thoughtful enough to have written a will and upon his passing, two of his heirs provided an extensive inventory of his holdings. As you might imagine, these documents, which I again secured through the Cornwall Record Office, are as challenging as they are amazing. Not only are they parchment manuscripts, but being over 370 years old, they are showing their age and are quite tattered and worn through in several spots. Add to this the fact that they are written in ‘secretary script’, the script of the time, and I was feeling quite overwhelmed.

A sample of the 1642 will of Nicholas Phillipps, courtesy of the Cornwall County Council

A sample of the 1642 will of Nicholas Phillipps, courtesy of the Cornwall County Council – click to enlarge

I pride myself on being able to undertake my own genealogy work; however, I also know when I need to call on the assistance of a professional. I was blessed to connect with Peter Foden, a world-class palaeographer. This was clearly a case where I needed some significant help and Peter delivered. I now have a fabulous transcription of the will, which lists over a dozen family members, and an inventory that includes more than half a dozen place names of family holdings.

When Peter provided the transcription, I believe he was as excited as I was to get them. Peter explained that he was pleased to see that my family had owned a place by the name of Melorne in the 1500s and 1600s. He then told me that he had approached some of his colleagues and that I might be interested to learn that this location is now classified as a deserted mediaeval village and an active archaeological dig. Peter explained that as he had been transcribing the will he came across the Cornish word ’linney’. As he investigated this word he turned to another of his colleagues and came to discover that this word was being used almost 100 years earlier in this will than even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary thought it was in use.

Once again here we were setting a corrected path for history! First we were able to provide previously unknown ownership information on an active mediaeval archaeological site and then to add to the body of knowledge for the likes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Quite cool, if I do say so myself!

So there you have a short example of three cases that show the importance of getting documents and sources and not relying on third-party or even farther removed information sources. It is why I continue to prize highly and use constantly my subscription to databases such as findmypast.co.uk. There truly is no substitute for getting as close to ‘the real thing’ as we, as genealogists and family historians, can. Remember don’t always believe everything you read!

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services in Indiana, US. Scott calls genealogy his ‘sweetest passion’ and his wife calls it ‘our shadow’! Scott specialises in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the UK and Italy. In addition to joining findmypast.co.uk as a columnist, he is a regular genealogy contributor for Huffington Post United Kingdom, GenealogyBank.com and his own website, Onward To Our Past. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page and on his website/blog