BAFTAs and ……

At the BAFTAs on Sunday, Meryl Streep picked up her award for Best Actress in the film The Iron Lady and made the remarkable claim that ‘half of me is Streep, and the other half of me Wilkinson from Lincolnshire’. This was her second BAFTA, the first coming in 1981 for The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

English: Meryl Streep

Image via Wikipedia

Given her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, who came from Grantham, it is perhaps understandable that she might claim that ancestors came from the same county. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny – though the truth is perhaps even more interesting.

The Wilkinson connection that was previously revealed on American television via Faces of America was through her maternal eight times great grandfather Lawrence Wilkinson, who had moved to Rhode Island in the mid-seventeenth century, becoming a freeman of the colony in the 1650s and dying there in 1692 as a respected citizen.

However, all is not quite as it seems, because he was left with very little choice about his decision to emigrate. Having served in the Royalist army during the Civil War, he was captured at the siege of Newcastle in October 1644 and paid the penalty when the victorious Parliamentarians sequestered and sold his estates; an English Lieutenant’s misjudgement to be on the wrong side. He applied to leave the country and his wish was granted, appearing in New England with his wife and son before heading to Rhode Island where he revived his fortune. His subsequent rise to prominence is chronicled in various family papers compiled in the mid-nineteenth century, but confirmed from original land grants and other documentation from the 1650s in Rhode Island.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

So where is the Lincolnshire connection? Well, it would appear there isn’t one! His estates lay further north – in County Durham, to be precise. His father was William Wilkinson and they lived in Lanchester, specifically Kyo, whilst his grandfather Lawrence Wilkinson senior resided at Harpley House. Further research shows that they were granted a coat of arms by Richard St George, Norroy King at Arms, in 1615.

A case, then, of wishful thinking perhaps – or just over-excitement during an acceptance speech; however the desire to claim ancestral connections to a specific piece of England is an interesting twist on the usual platitudes offered up to friends, family and colleagues (even if it was the wrong county!) Hope, then, for ancestral tourism – which has formed the basis for much of my work, alongside refining the model for open source transcription of key biographical data, since I’ve returned from the US.

More after the weekend – I’ll be at the Listed Property Owners Club event at Olympia this coming Saturday, and then heading to Belfast to film a piece for a BBC documentary on the Titanic on Sunday; whilst Monday sees the team descend upon the National Maritime Museum, where we’ll be filming Episode 5 of the show.



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RootsTech Day 3

English: Paintbrush drawn Icon for Portal Mol ...

Image via Wikipedia

Enthused, if not fully energised, I tackled the third day of Roots Tech which was as intense and interesting as the previous two. The morning keynote was a panel discussion by senior members of the Ancestry team, led by their CEO Tim Sullivan. There was a lot of discussion about what they do and why – company ethos – but some of the most important moments surrounded what they didn’t reveal, such as a forthcoming top secret ‘soon to be released’ DNA project, which holds out the future promise of more sophisticated DNA analysis that will allows us to eventually use science alongside documents to pinpoint where someone has come from – down to the nearest town almost! – and when they arrived there. We were also treated to a couple of demos of new enhancements to existing functionality, such as intelligent character recognition for semi-structured datasets such as city directories to make them easier to search and incorporate in family trees; and a new way of reading census returns, with a hover and highlight functionality that brought up transcription and context data when you view a matched entry. All very impressive and exciting stuff; the general aims for the future were strongly geared towards user experience and DNA, from the sounds of things.

After another round of great meetings, and a superb presentation by Dave McAllister on open source codes, licences, intellectual property and collaborative working practice (perhaps more relevant to my work with FreeBMD than the general reader of this blog!) I went to the last session of the day by Josh Taylor, who looked at what genealogists want from the future. For those who haven’t heard of Josh, you will do soon; he’s been appointed Chief Genealogist for Find My Past’s US operations and will be at Who Do You Think You Are later this month. He outlined some of the exciting ways that technology needs to adapt to the requirements of the genealogy community, and strongly believes that the way forward is through collaboration – between commercial companies, volunteer groups, archives and technologists – open software and data, greater links with the academic community, and reaching out to new communities including the younger generations.

This was my first foray into the American genealogical community, and I was most impressed. The scale of operations at Familysearch is bind-blowing – the size of their library and resources, the interest in providing free access to billions of records, and the desire to collaborate being just three key reasons why we need to look at how we operate as a genealogical community in the UK. All the genealogists I met were so knowledgeable and friendly – far too many to mention, but a special thanks to Lisa Louise Cooke, who interviewed me for, Caroline Pointer, Valerie Elkins and all the bloggers at the media hub. Also looking forward to seeing the team from at Who Do You Think You Are as well…

So, in short, Roots Tech was a fantastic experience, and something completely different to the usual genealogy conferences, shows and conventions that we are used to. I think the British need to have a far greater involvement in this event as a community, not just organisations such as Find My Past who are moving into the US market, but representative bodies such as the Federation of Family History Societies, and the Society of Genealogists – this is where the technology of tomorrow is being requested, shaped and tested today, and we need to be a part of that.


RootsTech Day 2

So… jet lag is real. I’ve not yet managed to get any decent sleep since I left the UK on Wednesday morning, having got up ridiculously early. This poses its own problems in terms of attention span and capacity to comprehend complicated papers; I’ve just struggled through a seminar on cloud databases by two highly intelligent and articulate presenters from Savvis, a company that has produced a nifty system for safe and licence-free cloud database storage called Symphony. Unfortunately, the jargon was so intense that I rather lost the thread of why it was so nifty; the graphics looked good though. It is further evidence, to my mind, that I fundamentally need my IT manager.

In contrast, the morning started with a convivial networking breakfast – a stimulating conversation with the great and the good in the North American genealogy world, speaking pretty much the same language. It was quickly followed by a simply brilliant presentation by Josh Coates, talking about the evolution of social networks and the potential expansion of data storage from terabytes to petabytes, and then eventually exabytes – the equivalent number of pages required to duplicate the same data in books would require 30 billion trees. Josh wandered on barefoot and delivered his technology information with consummate ease, interspersed with accessible and humorous examples – such as what happens when the democratic power of social networks is unleashed upon unsuspecting and innocent campaigns to name a whale to be tracked by the scientific community which thereafter was referred to as Mr Splashy Pants.

family search
by pandrcutts under CC BY  with


I had some very interesting meetings with members of Family Search, following on from yesterday’s keynote speech by Jay Verkler and his calls for greater collaboration within the sector. Thereafter I went to see the British Research floor of the Family History Library, and was delighted to be invited to give an impromptu talk to the staff there. I was privileged to meet John Kitzmiller, author of the invaluable military guide ‘In Search of the Forlorn Hope’ who gifted me a copy, including the third volume – which I’m not sure how many people were aware existed!

During the afternoon, I attended a session presented by Dallan Quass on his new open source project to provide far better accuracy rates when conducting name-match searches. Having created a new computer algorithm to combine elements of existing tools, he’s produced a new model via his site that’s 28% more accurate than Soundex – and encourages users to make the system even more effective by helping fine tune the existing list of possible matches.

An added benefit is that the first episode of season 3 of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are has just aired –Martin Sheen is the celebrity – and I won’t spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it yet…

More tomorrow,


RootsTech Day 1

I’m currently on the other side of the world in Salt Lake City, Utah, attending the Roots Tech 2012 conference. There are nearly 4,000 delegates gathered together in one place to hear the leading experts in genealogy and technology unite to explain the latest developments that will shape the way we participate in family history online, both in the ways we access data and also the tools we’ll have at our disposal to organise the material we find. This is my first experience of Roots Tech, and it is hugely impressive….

I will put together a short blog summarising the key sessions I’ve attended, as well as news and views from other delegates.

Salt Lake City temple
by mbush_utah under CC BY  with


First, a massive vote of thanks to Mike Hall, who met me at the airport with a bag of home-made cookies and has looked after me ever since. After a 19 hour journey, I dropped straight into the end of a presentation dinner announcing the collaborative project to digitise and crowd-source transcribe the 1940 US census, with Bright Solid – owners of Find My Past – taking a full partnership roll alongside and Familysearch. Bright Solid also announced their soft launch of their US census site and, later this year, the full launch of – direct entry into the US market.

Today saw the official start of the conference, and a keynote speech by Jay Verkler who outlined his vision of the future for family history technology; it is very exciting, if it can be delivered, and is based around co-operative ventures between rival commercial companies, online file-share platforms and volunteer groups. His emphasis – which is music to my ears – is for open source software and collaboration, with standardisation in data capture, operability and descriptions. He concluded by suggesting that genealogy would be a mainstream education activity if the platforms can deliver the tools and data to inspire people to become involved.

There are multi-stream sessions taking place throughout the day, and so far I’ve been to ones featuring e-learning tools, lessons learned from the 1911 census, the future of scanning technology, new gedcom files and digital preservation communities. For light relief, there was a presentation lunch hosted by Find My Past explaining their strategy for the US.

Much of the content is heavily weighted towards the technological, and much relates to work in progress or wish-list planning; however, it is possible to perceive the ways that this will impact upon our work as genealogists and the recurring themes coming across are collaboration, volunteer-led transcription projects and technology that’s more focused on helping us organise, share and tell stories as much as acquiring more data.

For those who follow us on Twitter, I’ve been posting regular tweets from the Roots Tech conference in Salt Lake City during each session so you can keep up with events as they happen.

More tomorrow…



A busy few weeks…

One of the drawbacks of running your own business is that your diary can quickly run away with you, unless there’s someone to say NO! every now and again to meeting and speaking requests. I’ve just sat down to plan some pieces of work, and have realised that the schedule for the next few weeks is getting very cramped! It shows, though, how active the family history community is and that the supposedly ‘quiet’ months – January to March – are actually some of the busiest in the year.

First up, Roots Tech which is next week – I’m very much looking forward to attending the conference as (I’m ashamed to say) it will be my first visit to Salt Lake City. I hope to catch up with some of the leading developers for the benefit of the Open Genealogy Alliance and the FreeGEN projects – there are some exciting proposals for an open source transcription tool that everyone could use (Family History Societies, community archive project and other groups alike) and I’ll keep you posted as the plan progresses. It should be an interesting few days, and I’ll write about it next week. I’d also like to thank in advance various members of the LDS for kindly assisting with my arrangements for the trip.

Almost as soon as I’m back, I head into a round of meetings relating to public history, including a speaking engagement at Kingston University on 22 February relating to ancestral tourism, digitisation and heritage. However, before that comes the Listed Property Owners Club event at Olympia on 18 and 19 February, where I’ll be talking about house history; it’s free entry but you need a ticket – if you’d like one, drop me an email via the website and I can send one out. My lecture is on Saturday morning.

Finally, the big one – Who Do You Think You Are Live on 24, 25 and 26 February, again at Olympia and through our website you can obtain special offer discounted tickets. I’ll be talking about Family History and Education on Friday, Family History and Ancestral Tourism on Saturday and The Future of Family History on Sunday (at great personal sacrifice, I might add – being a lifelong Liverpool fan, I was naturally delighted that the team are returning to Wembley after 16 long years to contest the Carling Cup Final, tempered only by the realisation that my lecture on Sunday clashes with the game!) As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, we’ll be filming for the website on Saturday and will be looking to interview you about your amazing discoveries and incredible personal archives; as always, more details to follow once I’m back from the US.

Going to Who Do Think You Are Live 2012?

Not got your tickets yet?

Click on the image and use the code FLY2425 to get two tickets for £25

I’m then due to deliver a workshop on house history on 3 March in Peterborough, a talk on family history on 10 March in Harrogate, and various talks in the following weeks; for those interested in attending, I can put together a mini-events calendar for the website. However, at this rate I think my next free weekend is likely to be in April!



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