Blog post

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Post Script to the birth notice posts


Post Script

I tested the strategies described in Perfecting Newspaper Searches: Birth Notices–Part 2 as I wrote the post. Although I didn’t find the birth notices I was targeting, I did find plenty of new-to-me information. Among other things, I found:

  • A loving memorial notice for ancestor whose death had eluded me for 25 years.
  • A child’s death notice that mentioned her grandparents.
  • Two insolvencies.
  • An arrest for assault.
  • A public health violation.
  • Request for tender to build a new house and shop.
  • False charges of assault against three teenage boys.

I can’t complain about that!

Perfecting Newspaper Searches: Birth Notices–Part 2

In this post I will turn the series of charts from my post Perfecting Newspaper Searches: Birth Notices - Part 1 into a search strategy. I will tell you why I am suggesting the searches, and I will give some tips on how to create an appropriate search string in Trove.

In each case, it’s a good idea to narrow the date range to a sensible window. You can also do it with the filters on the side after you search but “Refine search” or the advanced search form allows you to choose any range you want, not just a single decade, year, month, or day. “Refine search” becomes available once you’ve run the search:


I like to hold off on narrowing down my searches any further than that for as long as I can. Notices can sometimes turn up in unexpected places, and they are the ones you most want to find!

The series of searches I have come up with based on my previous post, and taking into account Trove search capabilities, is as follows:

  1. Surname only
  2. Surname and place
  3. Surname and father’s name
  4. Surname and mother’s name (after about 1910)
  5. Surname and child’s name (after about 1910)
  6. Surname and parents’ first names (after about 1940)
  7. Address only... or anything else you’ve got! (if all else fails)

Read on for more detail.

1. Surname only

Reason: Every birth notice included the surname at least once.

Search tips:
Depending on the surname, you may wish to expand or restrict the search.

Expand the search by searching for known variations, or by using a wildcard.

couper OR coupar OR cooper OR cowper


Trove adds some fuzziness to your search terms by default. You can restrict the search to exactly the term you want by specifying that only the exact term you entered should be returned.


Adding fulltext gets me from 603,972 results down to 34,878. I can see that it gets rid of news about coups, and advertisements for coupes – but I don’t know what else I might have lost. Still, that’s too many to read through. I have to hope the birth notice I want is on the first page or two, or start using the state and notice type filters to narrow it down!

Assuming you have more results than you can reasonably review, the next searches to try are:

2. Surname and place

Reason: Until the 1950s, the majority of birth notices included place names that a family researcher might know to look for.

Search tips:
The birth notices I reviewed included street and/or suburb names. Look at your information and identify all the places and addresses where the family was known to be during the date range of interest as well as immediately before and after. You may have to do a few different searches if there are a lot! 

Birth notices are rarely as long as 30 words. I found that the surname would usually appear at the beginning of the notice, and often in the middle as well (as part of the father’s full name). This means that the surname and place name you are looking for are likely to be no more than 10 words apart. You can safely restrict your results by specifying that the words you are interested must be near to each other. If Trove is in a good mood, you do that by specifying the amount of “phrase slop” to allow (I didn’t make up that expression, it’s what the Trove help page calls it!)

My Couper family lived in Rugby Road, Oakleigh. I might search for: “couper oakleigh”~10

When I started writing this post, Trove handled searches like the one above with no problem. The previous few days it has struggled – but seemed happier if I snuck up on it by trying smaller numbers first. Today it’s running complicated searches quite happily.

You can use “fulltext” with phrases – put it outside the brackets:
fulltext:“couper oakleigh”~10

Depending on how many surname variations you have, and how many place name parts you need to manage, you might have to mix and match surnames and place names. You can search on each combination one at a time, but I like an all-in-one search if I can manage it. For example:

“couper oakleigh”~10 OR “couper rugby”~10 OR “cowper oakleigh”~10 OR “cowper rugby”~10

I prefer that because separate search strings often bring up duplicated results. By running them all at once I don’t have to look through pages of the same articles to find the ones I want.

If you try a search like this and Trove isn’t co-operative, or it just seems too complicated to set up, here is another approach:

(couper OR cowper) AND (oakleigh OR rugby)

This search tells Trove to find articles that have any of the surname variations AND have any of the place names. Note the use of brackets, to assist Trove’s search engine make sense of the query.

This will bring up all the same results as the search above, but will also bring up more results that are not relevant because it doesn’t limit the distance between the search terms. Theoretically, articles where the words are closer together should appear closer to the top of the search results.  

3. Surname and father’s name

Reason: Over 85% of notices included the father’s name in some form. I suggested searching for places first, even though “searchable places” don’t appear quite so often, because places tend to have fewer name variations to work around.

Search tips:
The father’s name was sometimes shown as the given name, sometimes as initials, sometimes an abbreviation of a name (Chas, for Charles) and sometimes a mixture of these. This means that if I was searching for children of James William French, I would need to try:

  • “J French”      
  • “J W French”
  • “James French”
  • “James W French”
  • “Jas French”
  • “Jas W French”
  • “J William French”
  • “J Will French”

… you get the idea.

A reasonable starting point would be:

“J French” OR “James French” OR “Jas French”

I have deliberately ignored the W in the middle in this search as the default phrase search is equivalent to a search with ~1. Depending on how common the name you are searching for is, you might need to try more variations.

“J W French”~0 OR “James W French”~0 OR  [continue adding name variations]

That ~0 means that there can be no “slop”, the name must be exactly as written. Of course, the name in the newspaper may be written just like that but you still might not find it due to character recognition difficulties.

If after about 1910:

4. Surname and mother’s name

Reason: Increasingly from about the 1910s, birth notices started to mention the mother’s name.

Search tips: Sometimes the article included the maiden name, sometimes the given name(s) and sometimes both.

We saw the maiden name, if included, was always within a few words of the surname. A search that would find “Couper (nee Mary Allsop)” is:

“Couper Allsop”~2

Given name was sometimes included with the surname, as above, and sometimes in the middle of the text.

“Mary Allsop” is worth a shot. So is “Mary Couper”~10.

The name in a birth notice is often the name the mother went by, rather than as her full name so remember to search for Kate as well as for Catherine.

If after about 1910:  

5. Surname and child’s name

Reason: Increasingly from about the 1910s, birth notices started to mention the child’s name.

Search tips:
When included, the child’s name was written out with both the first and middle name, not nicknames, and was usually at the end of the notice. A search that insists on the first names and surname being close together won’t work.

French AND “James Henry”

If after about 1940:

5. Surname and parents first names

Reason: From about the 1940s birth notices became less formal in tone and often mentioned both parents by their first name, mother first.  

Search tips: Try casual and nickname forms of the names of interest first.

If you still have no luck, leave out the surname:

6. Address – or any other information you have to use!

Reason: Sometimes, the surname simply isn’t picked up accurately by the character recognition process.

Search tips:
Leave off the surname, and use whatever you’ve got! Just the address is good option as many birth notices included an address, and it is quite specific:

“12 rugby road” OR “12 rugby rd”

In this case I left in the word road (and included both “road” and “rd”), to avoid articles about rugby scores. If the street name was not such a common word I would have left “road” and “rd” off.

You could also use anything you know about the family that is a bit unusual. Very few birth notices mention anything other than the information I’ve discussed, but there were exceptions.

If after all that you still can’t find a birth notice… perhaps there wasn’t one, or perhaps the right newspaper just isn’t online yet. It cost money to place a notice, families were large, and for many times were tough.


Did these strategies work for you? Is there a strategy that I’ve missed out? Do you have clever ideas about how to put together a search string using what we know about birth notices? I’ve love to hear about it!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Taking my own advice

I’m in the process of writing my “next” post. In it I will talk about how I am trying to create Trove newspaper searches taking into account what I learned in my post Perfecting newspaper searches: Birth notices–Part 1.

Warning: this post contains two rambles about information I have found. If you find a paragraph going off the rails, you can safely skip to the next para. You’ll still get the gist of the post.

As I’ve been writing my “next” post (or posts, I’m still undecided), I have been trying out various search ideas. Along the way, I found a memorial notice for my 2 x great grandfather, James Bennett (1831-1900). The details of his death had eluded me for the past 26 years! This prompted me to take another look at his family. I took a chance and purchased an unlikely marriage certificate (30 – count them – 30 years after the birth of their first child) and at last I found James’s marriage to my 2 x great grandmother, Catherine Lucy Darcy. Suddenly I had the correct name of her parents AND her father’s occupation so naturally I tried searching some Irish newspapers for her parents along similar lines and… you get the idea.

After that excitement I got my mind back on the task I started out on. A blog post about combining what we know about birth notices with what we know about searching Trove in order to find birth notices in Trove. Right! I needed to do another quick Trove search, to make sure things work as expected. I thought it best to stay away from the Bennett family. How about the Coupers? My next search turned up an article that followed on from the one I described in my post Bad smelling fat and putrid bones. It was titled “Slaughtering in the suburbs”. I couldn’t put that aside while I finished my “next” blog post, now could I?

So, this is a quick post to say that the “next” post is coming, but if it takes a long time it’s only because these searches are working out so well for me!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Perfecting newspaper searches: Birth notices–Part 1

In order to search effectively, you really do have to know what you are looking for! You might know that you are looking for the birth notice for John Doe and the search seems pretty straightforward. Enter the words “John Doe” and narrow down the year range. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to find John Doe’s birth notice (assuming he has one) even one if the entry is transcribed correctly.

What you need to know as you enter your search terms is not the name “John Doe”, but the unique combination of words that are used in John Doe’s birth notice. If you are looking for a historical notice it’s entirely possible, even likely, that the notice will not contain his name at all.

Over the past few days I’ve been compiling information about the information included in birth notices in The Argus (Victoria, Australia on the Trove website), from 1850 to 1955. I selected Family Notices articles spread across the years. I aimed to choose articles with multiple notices in order to process them in batches, and did not reject any batch once I had clicked on it. I stopped searching for additional birth notices within each decade when I had reviewed at least 30.

In total, I reviewed 447 birth notice items from The Argus. I also spot-checked other newspapers and states, and looked more carefully at an extra 162 birth notices for other states in order to test if the results I found are generally applicable for Australian newspapers.

I this post I will describe what I found. In my next, I hope you will join me in a discussion of what the results means for constructing birth notice searches in Trove.

The birth notices had three common features:

  • They were quite short, most were 30 words or less (newspapers would charge extra to insert a longer than standard notice).
  • They all included the surname of the person.
  • They all included the words “son” or “daughter”.

You will notice that I have not listed “they included the child’s name” or “they included the mother’s name” as common features. Before the 1950s, these were quite uncommon features!

Person’s surname

Every birth notice included the surname. The surname was usually given in capital letters at the start of each notice, and would also often appear in the middle of the notice when the parents’ names were mentioned. However, early birth notices did not start with the surname. The position of the surname relative to other search terms we might want to use becomes relevant when we consider how we might search Trove.

Child’s name

No birth notices prior to 1910 (in my Argus sample) included the child’s name. Inclusion of the child’s name was above 60% in the 1920s and 1950s. Still, even in those years more than 30% of birth notices did not name the person who had been born!

When the name of the child was given, it was almost always in brackets at the end of the notice.

Chart 1:  Proportion of birth notices that included the child’s name


Mother’s name

In the earlier papers, the mother was almost always referred to as “wife of …” or “Mrs husband’s name”. Almost always. Occasionally she wasn’t referred to at all.

The first instance of including the mother’s maiden name in my sample occurred in the 1900s. This practice had become more popular in the 1920s and by the ‘40s I found that more than 60% of sampled birth notices included the mother’s maiden name.

Where the maiden name was included, it was almost always placed in brackets immediately following the child’s surname at the start of the notice. There were some variations in the detail – use of the word “nee”, or inclusion of the given name.

    • SURNAME (mother’s surname)
    • SURNAME (nee mother’s surname)
    • SURNAME (nee mother’s full name)

Inclusion of the mother’s given name, either with the surname as above or in the text of the notice, also started taking off in the 1920s. In the 1950s over 80% of birth notices would include the mother’s given name.

Although I did not make a tally, it was my impression that in most cases the name the mother went by was included, rather than her full name. That is, “Dot”, rather than “Dorothy Jane”. Her name was often paired with her husband’s name in the text ie “Dot and Wal”.

Chart 2:  Proportion of birth notices that included the mother’s name


Father’s name

The father’s name was almost always included in some form. This would either be his full name or his initials. I did not tally whether “Mr. J. W. Doe” or “Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Doe” were more common - both were frequently used.

In the earlier time periods, the father’s name was more often spelled out in full. In later time periods, when inclusion of the father’s given name again became the norm it was more often included paired with the wife’s name eg “Dot and Wal”.

Chart 3:  Proportion of birth notices that included the father’s name


Other information

While there was very occasional reference to occupations (usually in the earlier notices) or sibling names (only in the later notices) these were quite rare.

I saw quite a lot of notices that included the word “twins” and sadly even more that included the word “stillborn”. In the later years I also saw the word “caesarean” in a few notices. These words might be useful if you already knew a bit about the birth.

The only other information frequently included was place names. Almost every birth notice included a place name, either the residence or place of birth. Not all of these would be useful when construction a search. In tallying inclusion of place names, I made a completely subjective judgement in each case as to whether the place name was one that a researcher would be likely to know was connected to the family, and sufficiently unusual that it wouldn’t bring up too many false positive results.  For example, if the place was a hospital (without mention of a suburb), I did not suppose the researcher would have information that would lead them to search on that term.

While most birth notices through most of the time period included potentially “searchable” places, this dropped of in the 1950s. Two things seemed to be happening:

  • A shift to including information about the immediate family instead of place of residence.
  • Possibly, more births were occurring in hospital. I generally did not include a hospital name without a suburb as a “searchable place”.

Chart 4:  Proportion of birth notices that included a searchable place


Other States

A spot-check of other newspapers and other States suggested that the patterns I saw in the Argus were generally relevant. I was not keen on replicating the whole exercise across every State… but I did want a bit more information to reassure myself on this point. The decade starting 1910 seemed to be a turning point for inclusion of mother and child names in the Argus and that is the decade I chose for comparison.

For each State, I chose items from the newspaper with the most “Family Notice” articles in that State. Apologies to Tasmania and the Northern Territory. You were not forgotten. It was just that the small number of birth notices per article made the data extraction task more onerous. I’m doing this in my spare time, remember!

Results were reasonably consistent. Victoria was perhaps a little ahead in including details of the mother and child.


Of course, I only looked at a few hundred out of potentially millions of birth notices in total (as at the time of writing there are 1,543,548 “Family Notices” articles in Trove, many of which would contain multiple birth notices). Local newspapers especially may have entirely different patterns. It would always be worthwhile to look at some birth notices for the paper and era you are searching, to make sure that the terms you are searching for were used at that time and place.



Copyright 2015 Shelley Crawford