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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
The kinship of strangers
By Rob Liddle
BBC News website

Census graphic
What do family historians do when the trails for their own kin go cold? They join forces to uncover the life history of a randomly chosen individual from the past.

Pursuing one's ancestry used to be a labour-intensive affair - all packed lunches, trips to dusty records offices and unseemly fights over tomes with other frazzled researchers.

One would often return home empty-handed, no closer to solving the mystery of the missing cousins, where all the money went or why no-one ever talked about Uncle Bill.

Now, with a wealth of genealogical information available online and an explosion in the number of people eager to research their roots, family history can be a completely different experience.

You can access birth, marriage and death indexes and census details instantaneously and quickly link up with people who have other useful resources at their disposal or specialist knowledge.

Random number

And with these developments a new breed of genealogist has emerged - ready to root at will and for whom the process of recreating people's lives and times is an end in itself.

Bill Oddie
Bill Oddie, taking part in a BBC genealogy programme
Members of the 16,000-strong Rootschat forum now take part in a monthly challenge, in which an individual with whom none of them has any known connection is randomly selected from the 1881 census.

The job is to find out as much as possible about the mystery person within the next four weeks. It's pot luck - the person could have died a week later - but there's always something interesting to discover about them.

"I suppose it's almost like getting a bit of a hit," explains Sarah Mackay, who with partner Trystan Davies set up Rootschat, which attracts up to 140 new members every day.

"People doing their own family may get stuck for years, but it's very addictive and when you can't get any further yourself, you're still quite desperate for the same hit.

"Which is when they start casting further afield into someone else's family group.

Killed in war

"It's almost like it becomes your own family. What I can't get over is the amount of detail people will go into."

Randomly chosen Abraham Bland, of Sale, Cheshire, started off as simply a name in the 1881 census, but a month later he was the subject of hundreds of postings, some including photographs.

Abraham Bland
Abraham "Len" Bland, born in 1874 and dies in 1917

The son of a landscape gardener and strict Sabbatarian - who wouldn't allow meals to be cooked on Sundays - the 5ft 7in-tall blue-eyed blond (chest measurement 34in), known as Len, emigrated to Canada in 1904, set up his own six-acre homestead and kept cattle.

He joined the armed forces in 1916 and went with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces to England, where he was based at Sandling Camp in Kent, and then to France, where he was killed in the battle of Vimy Ridge on 22 August 1917. He left no wife or children.

Censuswhacking

There is a serious side to the project, and the hope is that the randomly chosen person will fit into another researcher's family tree - something which has actually happened on each occasion so far.

Researcher Paul Etherington, who initiated the challenges, sees the site as a "truly altruistic experience".

"My own experience was that I was given advice and guidance by total strangers, and it only made me determined to want to offer the same to others.

CENSUSWHACKS
Fatty Atkinson, 1881
Peter Pan, 1891
Banana Pointer, 1891
Crusoe Robinson, 1871
Clara Slime, 1901
Nasty Clough, 1861
Ester Bunney, 1871
Sherwood Forest, 1901
"There's a definite pleasure to be had in helping others to find their way through to their ancestors. It must be the same kick that teachers get when a pupil suddenly gets a point they're trying to put across."

Paul also came up with the idea of censuswhacking - searching for a first name, surname or occupation that appears only once in a given census (as transcribed) - which has proved a big hit on the site.

Where else would the lives of Ginnie Pig, Spud Murphey and Alfred Goold - 1901 occupation "living on condensed milk" - be recorded for posterity?


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