As part of our interview series, MyHeritage.com recently interviewed Neil Fraser from Fraser & Fraser, the firm best-known for its work on the UK TV series Heir Hunters. The show, which began in 2007, is now on its fifth series, and has become a runaway success - almost always topping the ratings for its morning slot on UK television.
Fraser & Fraser are a team of genealogists and probate researchers in the business of finding heirs and proving their right to an inheritance. If a person dies and leaves an estate but no known relatives, Fraser & Fraser will trace back through their family tree to find that individual’s nearest living relatives, and let them know that they have an inheritance. The relatives may not even know, or only know vaguely, of their distant family member’s very existence.
With other competing firms chasing the same objective, it’s a profession that often requires the team to overcome significant research challenges in a short space of time. Neil spoke to us about some of these challenges, as well as his tips for genealogy more broadly. He began by telling us a bit of background about the firm.
“I’ve been working for Frasers for about 12 to 13 years, but it’s a family company and I’ve come in here on the back of my father who started with Frasers about 40 years ago. He got into it from his aunt – my great aunt – who founded her company in 1923. So it’s a family firm, and we’re certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, doing this kind of work.”
Neil explained a little about how the firm begins its cases, and where they get started. “The first bit is the ugly bit of it,” he said. “We have to start by looking at the money.”
The reason is that the value of an estate determines whether Fraser & Fraser can justify investing time into researching it. “On English domestic cases we’re not given the value of the estate we’re looking at, which is quite unique,” Neil explained. “So the first task is to try and identify if an estate is worth pursuing.” These estates needn’t be enormous, and Neil mentioned that firm can pursue cases of any size from about £5,000 to several million.
Once a case is seen to be worth following up, the genealogy kicks in. “We start at a very, very basic point,” said Neil. ”We go from the death and we try and ascertain if we have got a date of birth, and if we have a birth certificate or birth registration. Without that we start scratching our heads and thinking where the error is on the death certificate, because a death certificate is only as good as the information that’s recorded on it, and by the very nature of what we do – we’re looking for people’s next of kin because they’ve died not knowing any next of kin – that information can be sketchy in the first place.”
“Quite often for us we’ll find problems such as the middle name not being recorded on the death certificate. Although in England and Wales probably 99% of people with middle names have that middle name on the death certificate, with the deaths in our industry we’d be looking at a number nearer 60%. With regard to date of birth, probably 99.9% of all death certificates have the correct date on them, whereas in our industry it’s probably nearer to 95%.”
Neil mentioned that these inaccuracies have in some cases increased since data began being recorded electronically. “Gone are the days when a registrar fills in a record and puts down a little bit of an explanation behind why it could be the 13th or the 15th of March. Nowadays you can’t do anything like that. You can either put in the 13th or the 15th on a computer – one or the other – so you’re never seeing either/or dates put down anymore. The information we have is often only as good as these notes.”
Once these hurdles are overcome, and basic facts about an individual and some of their immediate family are established, the team can take things further. “In England and Wales we’re only allowed to research back to the grandparents of the deceased and their surviving descendants,” said Neil. “So the very nature of English and Welsh research is that we’re usually at most talking about someone being born in the 1870s, or 1880s. The very nature of that means in England and Wales we can deal with the civil registration details, because obviously they start a long time before that. So with England and Wales, because we’re only allowed to go back those two generations, we can use full records. In Scotland we’re allowed to go back as far as we like, so we can go back to great-grandparents and therefore we’ll be tracing forward to second cousins. Obviously Scottish indexes of civil registrations start in 1855, so there is a possibility that we get back to pre-registration in Scotland to find records – although it doesn’t happen very often.”
We then asked Neil about the records and sources he uses in research. “Most of our records are going to be civil registration – so most of the time it is birth, death, and marriage certificates. We complement them with the census records. And then we have a huge library, in fact the biggest private library in the world, of trade directories, and that helps us along the way as well.”
And what about online technologies? “We’re using online resource, and we’re using a lot of online resource. The birth, death, and marriage records, again, are all fully computerized. However, they’re only as good as the transcriber and the computer searching them, whereas the mk 1 human eyeball is able to look down a list and actually see that something is spelled wrong. So we use a lot more manual records than people give us credit for.”
Neil pointed out that, partly because of technology, there are new challenges appearing in the work the firm does. “There’s a few things which have happened which have changed how we work. Certainly the big change is the spread of computerized records, which has really changed a lot, but from a more historic point of view there’s the transient population. We used to deal with a fairly static population, certainly one generation ago the ancestors we were researching were people getting born, getting married, and dying all within 50 miles of a particular location. Nowadays we’ve got a very, very transient population and we travel all over the world, so it makes research harder."
Neil then offered some advice to those embarking on genealogy as a hobby. “For people who are starting off tracing their family history, the best tip I’ve ever heard is that you get the biggest piece of paper, you find the oldest person you can think of, and you go and sit with down with them and spend a couple of hours with a cup of coffee or a cup of tea and actually talk over all of what they know, because certainly they know a lot more than you’ll ever know at the start of your research. And from that family tree you start drawing it up and finding out the various research avenues, and then you can decide which one you want to go down - whether you’re trying to find everyone, or just trying to find a particular journey going back in time.
And what about the new series? “There is a lot more emphasis on the social side within the new series,” said Neil. “Certainly the social side – the real stories about people’s lives – is much more dramatic.”
From the first few episodes, this definitely seems to be the case. For those in the UK, this new series of Heir Hunters can be watched on weekdays at 9.15am on BBC 1. It can also be viewed on BBC iPlayer.