Why am I writing about a long-dead guy called James Conway? Because he was one of my direct ancestors that has eluded tracking for many, many years.
Why am I excited to talk about him? Because I have been doing genealogical research for almost 25 years, and over those many years, have tried time and again to expand on my knowledge base of this individual.
And then recently, I spent two grueling days (not grueling, as in -suffering in the desert for weeks with no water or wifi – kind of grueling, although, sometimes it felt that way…) bouncing from website to website doing genealogical gymnastics in order to find a death record for James Conway. The ‘Right’ death record, because James Conways – there are many. Many.
I recently joined BIFHSGO (British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa), from which I was able to obtain access to some archived conference videos. In particular for this blog post, I listened to quite a few presentations given by Maurice Gleeson, who frequently attends Genetic Genealogy Ireland Conferences. He gave a lot of great talks on DNA testing and how to use it for Genealogy.
Despite the fact that Ireland is notoriously difficult to research (almost as difficult as ( Newfoundland), his talks gave me hope that I can probably find ‘something’. He suggested that Irish researchers try IrishGenealogy.ie because a lot of records are available for viewing at ‘no cost’. ‘No cost’ is great, because when you’re searching across many sites that aren’t free, credits/fees get unruly and costly. And I will tell you, that website was incredibly helpful and my husband has been trying to pry me out of it since I discovered it. Within it, I’ve also found records for my other family branches in Ireland.
So with my consortium of websites, new hope, and using the FAN (Family-Aquaintances-Neighbours) approach I achieved victory.
Websites: IrishGenealogy , FamilySearch , ScotlandsPeople , FindMyPast , National Archives of Ireland , GRONI (General Record Office Northern Ireland) / (Northern Ireland Direct) , EmeraldAncestors , Belfast City Council .
Different records can be found across different resources, but many also have the same records. For instance, Family Search (FS) is always my first place to go when I begin a research session because it has new content being uploaded all the time. It is also my primary resource because its contents are free and the search engine if very useful. For the time period I was searching, in most databases the vital records for Ireland are available in Index format, which is a great start. Some website search engines offer varying degree of information viewable, which is why it’s good to search more than one site when possible. They’ll likely duplicate one another, but sometimes they’re complementary too.
I actually went into IrishGenealogy (IG) trying to find a marriage record for James Conway and his wife Sarah Kirk. I had no idea if they were married in Ireland or in Scotland. Scotland? I thought you said you were searching in Ireland?? Haha! Yes, yes I did, BUT, as I’ve discovered over the years, during the 19th century people hopped the Irish Sea as frequently (and without paper trails) as people crossed the Canada-US border during the same time period.
From past research stints, I gathered that James Conway and his wife Sarah Kirk (as per their children’s’ BDM records) were living:
- 1841 Scotland Census – East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland
- 1845 Scotland – Christening of daughter Mary (b.1843 Lennoxtown, Stirlingshire)
- 1851 Scotland Census – Barony, Lanarkshire, Scotland
- 1863 – Ireland – Marriage of daughter Mary (Belfast, 1st husband)
- 1868 – Ireland – Street Directory [LennonWylie]
- 1868 – Ireland – Marriage of son John (Belfast)
- 1869 – Ireland – Marriage of daughter Mary (Belfast, 2nd husband)
The census records both indicate the James and Sarah were born in Ireland, but I wasn’t sure if they were married there, or met and married in Scotland, as I’d seen often enough with other families. I also wasn’t positive on the birthplaces of their sons (Thomas & John born ca.1838-1841)) because they weren’t consistent from census to census, and I haven’t yet been able to locate records for their births in Scotland, nor Ireland.
I was able to track information about John through the Burial records for Belfast City, which led to a death record as well as pointing toward his wife for a marriage record (1868) and some of their children, through the burial listing and the appearance of the family on the 1901 Ireland census.
From there, and still not able to find anything directly on James, I decided to try to find more information on their eldest son Thomas. This is where IG helped crack things open. I found Thomas’ full death record on that site, which led to 1911 census retrieval on the NAI site. After much index matching, I was able to find their marriage record (1872).
On all of the marriage records for the children, none of them had James listed as ‘deceased’ (whereas in some cases spouse fathers were). So I figured, he was still alive by 1872 and did more searching on IG& EA to try to narrow down options and gambled that his was the 1875 entry then went to the GRONI site to look at it and was ecstatic to find that I chose the right one. John was listed as present at time of death, the occupation was correct and the address was close to where his daughter Mary lived around that time. It also stated that he was a widower, so that lets me know that Sarah died before he did. I haven’t gone looking for her death record yet, but with all that I found recently, I have a lot of fleshing out to do.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to push back another generation with this family, since no parent names are listed on the death records, and as yet, I still haven’t found a marriage record for the couple.
The biggest help that I have had while searching this family – also that of Mary’s 2nd husband, is the occupation. James Conway was a Block Printer (also sometimes listed as CALICO printer) by trade, (way more useful than ‘labourer’) which isn’t something that I have seen a lot of – Mainly in those skilled families in the textile industry – especially in Renfrewshire Scotland (Glasgow region). Think Paisley – as in the famous Paisley shawl that was very popular during the early Victorian era.
According to Wikipedia: “Woodblock printing on textiles is the process of printing patterns on textiles, usually of linen, cotton or silk, by means of incised wooden blocks. It is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all methods of textile printing. Block printing by hand is a slow process. It is, however, capable of yielding highly artistic results, some of which are unobtainable by any other method.”
I would also surmise that it’s a toxic occupation, as most of the men that I have come across that were Block Printers, died young in the 50-60 age range. However, having said that, their causes of death might also be a combination of work environment and poor living conditions. Mary’s 2nd husband Robert and their eldest son James (my direct ancestor) were also Block Printers in Belfast. The family lived in row housing, seeming to move every few years or so. Both men also died young, the son having died of tuberculosis aged 32.
I mentioned them, because I’m pretty sure that Mary’s husband Robert learned the trade from her father James Conway along with her brothers, in Renfrewshire, long before she married him in Belfast.
If I could impart some of the most important aspects of genealogical research that I made use of in the discovery of the Death record of James Conway?
- The value of Genealogy Organisations like BIFHSGO, and knowledgable individuals like Maurice Gleeson
- FAN technique
- Cross-check and revisit multiple archival websites
- Tenacity and Flexibility
While it may all seem quite convoluted, it does come together in the end. There is so much involved in the research, revisit and cross-checking documents and websites, going back and forth in the timeline, moving between family members, jumping between countries, and cringing over subscription and credit costs… So much excitement from the seat of my armchair, in the comfort of my living room!