What was that you wrote?

Continuing the series for starting out in genealogy...

Paleography, or Deciphering old handwriting, where words may be spelled differently and writing conventions are different can be quite a challenge!  Patience and persistence are often required, and from my experience, a good husband who sees things a little differently to me is a real asset.

Here is one of the documents I recently tried to work through, its the last will and testament of Edmund Charles Clark.  Quite a challenge, even though it is a very clear scan in comparison to other documents.  It was written in the late 1800's, and the script has quite a lot of flourish in it, plus some of the words are a little unfamiliar.

Here are my tips and tricks for working through these documents:

Scanner - If you have paper documents you are trying to work through, scan them so that you can manipulate them with a viewer, it will help give you some clues.

Photoshop -  Possibly the best program to use when viewing documents.  First try adjusting the viewing size so that you can see it in a larger font.  If this does not work, try the auto filters for brightness and contrast to bring the writing forward and the background back.  Convert it to black and white if you need to.  Play around with the photoshop options until you get the best copy then save it as a copy.  I cant stress this enough, AS A COPY!  I once lost a valuable document by not doing this.

Paint is an alternative to photoshop, but I have not found it as useful.

Magnifiers -  A good magnifying glass can turn out to be a good friend, it allows you to look at a very narrow group of words and might just be the help you need.  And use other people to view the document as well, they often come at it from a different viewpoint and can help you work out letters and words.

Google maps - You will find you know, or can find out a lot more than you think when it comes to place names.  I have put into the search on google maps what I think is the place name, and it has corrected my spelling.  If you know the rough location, use the zoom on google maps to see if a village nearby has the name you are looking for.  

Assumption -  Usually I would advise don't assume anything, but by using letters from words in the document that you can read  you may be able to piece together the letters in the words you are having trouble with. One trick is to start by looking for dates, which are usually present in genealogical documents. Then use the letters in the month, day of the week, etc. to help determine the writer's style.  You will hear the words "how does he write his J's?" often.

Transcription -  Transcribe the document as you go, this will often help you work out words that are spelled differently or give you clues.
Online resources - Here is a list of tutorials for reading old handwriting.  Ancestry has a article, so does this site from Ancestry Wiki.  Family Search learning centre has a series of videos that will help, and they cover a comprehensive list of languages.  Just search using "HANDWRITTEN DOCUMENTS" for a complete list.  For a more extensive list of online resources take a look at Cyndi's List

Above all else, have patience and don't give up. If you need to, stop and come back to the document.  If you are feeling confident, and like a challenge have a go at this document  from a WW1 court marshal.  Its not the worst document I have, but I have found it quite difficult.:

???  his answers were not satisfactory and I arrested him.
Accused on oath states;-
I marched up to   Verne  by ??   on the 20th August.  We  halted for tea.  The enemy began shelling us, some fell near.  I lost self-control and  I don’t know what I did after that.  I went back to sxxxed.  I stopped there hoping to join the unit later.  Then I was arrested   by Lt. Carroll.
I enlisted on the 27/1/15.
I was in Rullicount  ??? (Mayrtulv?)  ???(Uessiuis?)
By the Court
I  asume  the date may  be 20th August  when I left the Unit

Do you have any tips and tricks you use for deciphering documents?  Pop them into the comments of this post so we can all share them.

I leave the last word to Syrie James from the "Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen", because we all hope for just this experience when we begin our journey as genealogists:

 “To my amazement, miraculously, the lid suddenly loosened and slid all the way open, revealing its hidden cargo: A stack of small paper booklets. Dozens and dozens of them. Booklets made of ordinary sheets of white writing paper, folded in half, and hand-stitched along the spine. Booklets in remarkably pristine condition, all covered in a small, neat handwriting that I instantly recognized. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I could hardly breathe.”



  1. Barb,

    Some help with this bit ...

    Then I was arrested ??? ??l ??? on the 27/1/15.

    Then I was arrested by Lt. Carroll.
    I enlisted on 27/1/15

    Susan Swiggum

    1. Thanks Susan, I think you may be right!
      It is a story that was repeated throughout the war I think, so many young men went on what they thought was the big adventure.
      Hope you are enjoying the blog.


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