Thanks for the help everyone. I'm going to rephrase this entry to highlight the solution in case anyone else searches and ends up here.

I had to re-install all my data from a saved backup. I use thunderbird and wanted to keep my old saved emails. To create this backup I had copied the folder /home/[USERID]/ onto an external backup along with all its subfolders. To save emails, inside this folder is a subfolder .thunderbird/ , and inside that is another subfolder that has a name consisting of some random characters: let's call it [old_folder_name].default. So on my new system, I now had to take what was saved on the external hard drive (HD) in /home/[USERID]/.thunderbird/[old_folder_name].default/ and import it to my local machine.

Following advice I was given below, I launched thunderbird from scratch (after deleting the previous ~/.thunderbird folder to make sure I was starting clean) and then closed it again. That created a new folder inside ~/.thunderbird/ which I'll call [new_folder_name].default/ . I then copied the contents of [old_folder_name].default/ into [new_folder_name].default/ and relaunched thunderbird.

Normally, this should work. The reason I was having problems is that the external HD I was using wasn't giving me adequate permissions to manage these files, so I had to go to [new_folder_name].default/ and use

$ chmod -R 777 *

which might actually be a bit too permissive (I'm not sure if this is a security liability), but I just wanted to get something working.

To answer a question below: my external drive was using Ext4 formatting. To create the backup I had been doing this every once in a while:

$ rsync -rv [directory to be backed up]  [directory to send to it]

sending the data from my local HD to the external media to back it up, and then vice-versa to put it back onto my local HD. I had assumed that that would preserve the same permissions (I kept the same username, although I did change the name of my PC in my new OS installation).

Can anyone suggest a way to rsync without running these sort of permission problems? (or, alternatively, another way to back things up where I can review the contents?) thanks again for your help.

  • Is there maybe still an instance of Thunderbird running? Try killall thunderbird and delete .parentlock again, in case it reappeared. – David Foerster Nov 11 '14 at 21:29
  • Was your backup in a NTFS partition? That does not support ownership & permissions, so you would have to reset. Or if you changed userid it may also require reset. – oldfred Nov 16 '14 at 4:45

All you need is your so called 'profile' folder from your backup. This is a folder with the .default extension (the foldername itself will be some random numbers and letters ). It will be located in ~/.thundebird .

In a clean install of mozilla thunderbird, you then need to copy that folder into the same directory on your newly installed Ubuntu machine. Then copy the name of the .default folder that was already there, delete that folder and give the foldername you copied to the folder from your backup. Restart thunderbird and you should be good to go.

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