There are records and then there are records ..

Commercial ancestry sites advertise that they have records which raises the question, what is meant by ‘records’?  The fact is that there are records and then there are records.  Inevitable, for the genealogist, records are records of other records.  The question is which one should be of interest.

Below are records of John Ford’s (born Cumbrae 1830) marriage.  One is the ‘official’, and rather sterile, South Australia marriage certificate, the other is a digital printout of the record.  It is essential to realise both are copies, neither is the original record.  Almost certainly the record of the marriage was written down somewhere, signed by those concerned and then filed somewhere.  Depending on the era, the place, and the process, the original record was probably written in a ledger of some sort.  The recorder was most likely the local parish minister, or reactor (recorder), and the ledger kept in the local church office.  These records were later transpired onto another piece of paper and forward to some centralised authority, where again the information was recorded onto their archival system.  The salient point being that the record one gets from a register office of the state archives is a copy of a copy of a copy.

State authorities guard their achieves with fierce determinism as they should otherwise those documents would be worthless in legal jurisdictions.  The reason is that the ‘official’ certificate is just that, legally acceptable where such documents are required.

But to return to the digital print of John Ford’s marriage certificate.  A perusal of the two document reveals similarities and also some differences.  Herein lies the lesson, the closer the researcher can get to the original the more accurate the information.    

Unless you are a professional genealogist with an expense account, the time, the travel, and the equipment needed to attend state archives and access the all important document room is probably beyond the means of the lowly family researcher. Most family researchers will have to rely on state archives. The downside for the family researcher is that obtaining a copy of the ‘original’ is therefore more a matter of luck.

In my own research I have engaged with the Scottish, the Irish, the English, the New Zealand and the State archives of South Australian and Victoria.  All are different.  Engaging state entities via the internet is relative straight forward but accessing the birth, death marriage (BDM) records can be something of a minefield.  For those who are lucky enough to have Scottish heritage the Scotlandspeople website is about as good as it gets.

However before engaging the national archives it is best identify what it is that you are seeking.  One simply cannot search the archive without understanding some ground rules.  Any record that is not at lease seventy years earlier than the present date is off limits for the family researcher.  In some jurisdictions I understand the time period is one hundred years.  However it has been my experience that if you navigate to the ‘historical’ or ‘genealogical’ page of the BDM site you will bypass the time limit provision and save yourself jumping through lots of hoops.  The reason for all the hoops is that you are dealing with living people and understandably there are rules about obtaining such records.  You might recall my mentioning the fact that living relatives are not part of the public domain for the family researcher.  If your relatives elect to put their own details into the public domain that is their decision.

So, having navigated your way to the historical page of the national archives it is then a matter of identifying the search options.  This can be tricky particular if the name you happen to be searching for is James Ford, there are literally thousands of people named James Ford.  So we need to narrow down the field as much as possible.  A date would be good and better still, a place.  The three leg rule, name, data and place, will generally get you the required data, if it is there.  I’ll come back to the matter of missing data shortly.  However, it is generally the case that you are missing at lest one of the three legs.  Generally you will have a name without a date or place.

But there are ways and means around the three leg rule.  For instance, I have found a number of birth records for James Purdie who married Susanna Ford on Cumbrae 13 August 1847.  But just which James Purdie married Susanna Ford?

In searching for James Purdie all I have at the moment is a name so how can I narrow down the field?.

Remember, I am searching from a Ford base, Purdie is, for the moment, an unknown.  From my previous searches of Scotlandspeople archives I learnt that Susanna Ford was born 22 June 1828 on the Isle of Cumbrae and that she was a resident on the island with her mother and the youngest of the Ford siblings at the time of the 1841 census.  But at the time of the 1851 Scottish census there is no record of Susanna Ford.  Either Susanna has married, and therefore changed her name, or she has left Scotland, or possibly both.

If Susanna married in Scotland then she probably would have married when at least nineteen years of age which means my initial search parameters for marriages would be between 1845 and 1850.  As I don’t know where she may have been married I have set my parameter to include an ‘all of Scotland’ search. And as I said, sometimes you get lucky as there is only one, given the parameters I set, Susanna Ford recorded for the whole of Scotland.  However, the only information I have from the data base at this stage is that Susanna Ford married James Purdie on 13 August 1847 in the Parish of Nelson.  Not knowing the location of the Parish of Nelson I turn to Google search and quickly learn that it is located in Renfrewshire which is not far from Susanna’s birth place on Cumbrae.

So far my search has cost nothing but now I have to purchase a copy of the record.  Scotlandspeople charge a modest fee compared to other jurisdictions so I am not too concerned if the search turns out negative.  Besides, a negative result is also important information.

The Purdie/Ford marriage certificate is an excellent example of an archive record as it contains an abundance of information including the fact that the couple got married on the Isle of Cumbrae (spelt Cumbray).  Significantly, we learn that James Purdie is ploughman living in Auchinback, a rural area south west of Glasgow which raises the question of how Susanna and James might have met.  We have to remember that there was no such things as ‘free time’.  Work was six days a week and Sunday was a day for church, which meant that it was probably after church that presented the opportunity for people to talk and communicate. It appears that Susanne was perhaps employed as a female servant in the rural area.  But what of James Purdie?

Given this data I now began a search for the birth of James Purdie who is probably older that Susanna’s nineteen years, say between twenty-one and thirty which would give his birth years 1812 to 1827.  Given those parameters I end up with ten records all of a birth of James Purdie. So, how can I identify the James Purdie who married Susanna Ford?

There is where cross indexing becomes important.  Having searched the South Australian records and passengers list I find a James Purdie, his wife Susanna and their infant child, Margaret, left London 3 May 1849 on the SS Emily and arrived in Adelaide 8 August that year.

One can only imagine what the trip must have been like for Susanna and Margaret.  However, a search of both the Scottish and English failed to reveal any birth record of Margaret Purdie.  The best we can do is assume she was born shortly before the Emily left London in May 1949.  From the South Australian archive however I learn that she married James Grigg in 1866 in the Port Gawler District and that Margaret’s full name is Margaret Ford Purdie, which is Susanna’s mother’s name, Margaret Ford, which follows the traditional Scottish naming pattern.

First son named after father’s father, or mother’s father,

Second san named after mother’s father or father’s father.

Third son names after the father.

First daughter named after mother’s mother or father’s mother.

Second daughter names after father’s mother or mother’s mother.

Third daughter names after the mother.

Now I have a vital piece of information, it appears that James Purdie is following the Scottish naming patter.  Such being the case then the names of his children will give an indication as to his parents.

I have also been sent a copy of a commercial ancestry site’s construction of the Purdie ancestry tree which indicates that Margaret Ford Purdie/Grigg died in Broken Hill in New South Wales in 1939.

This record tends to confirm the South Australian record so I may put some confidence in what I have been sent.  But let’s test the theory.

A search confirms that Janet Thomas Purdie was born in South Australia and that James Purdie was here father.  I could go ahead and now purchase a copy of the birth certificate but it is not a necessity, and I safe my limited budget for more pressing needs.

Without going any further, it appears that the family tree I was sent is possibly correct and that the name Janet Thomson Ford is therefore a good indication as to the mother of James Purdie, that is, Janet Thomson.  Now I can go back to the list of birth records for James Purdie and find one entry that list a John Purdie and Janet Thomson as James Purdie’s parents.  And then a quick check with Google confirms that the Parish of Dalziel in Scotland is centred on the town of Motherwell, to the west of Glasgow.

This is probably as good as I can do in confirming James Purdie’s birth.  The dates and the places are consistent with rural living as are the names.

But we should note any number of inconsistencies with the commercial ancestry site record.   Susanna Ford was born on Cumbrae in Buteshire and not in Largs which is in Ayrshire, not Bute as recorded.  We also know that James Purdie was born 17 May 1822 in Motherwell, which is in the Parish of Dalziel within Lanarkshire.

Margaret Ford Purdie married James but I cannot find a record of Margaret Ford Purdie’s death on any state achieve but did find of family notice in the local Broken Hill newspaper which notes her death.  I have also found a photograph of the one year old child who survived the three month voyage to South Australia.

The Barrier Miner 5 January 1939, page 3. Trove.


The Sport, (Adelaide) 11 September 1931 page 8. Broken Hill lies at the Western edge of NSW and is therefore closed the Adelaide than Sydney.