How I Started Researching My Family History – 7 people tell all
Here at the Society of Genealogists, we’re dedicated to helping people find their ancestors and build their family trees. We find it a real pleasure to get them started on their search. As part of this, some of our workshops and talks are aimed specifically at those new to family history, like our upcoming course, Getting Started: Family History for Beginners on Saturday 23 June.
As I was reading the outline for this half-day course, I thought back to my own first steps in genealogy. Then I wondered how the staff and volunteers at the SoG had got started. Why did they begin? Did they find it really easy? Would a ‘getting started’ course have helped?
So I launched a totally unscientific survey of some of our volunteers, members and staff. You won’t find a lot of balance in my survey - for age, gender or degree of obsession with family history. However, you might be surprised at the range of replies. Everyone was different – you will be too. Still, everyone did progress through certain stages.
My first question was, of course, ‘What got you started’?
Some people began when family papers were given to them.
“I was given a notebook a great-grandfather had written containing some of the research he had done – that was when I was about 12.” (Oliver)
“When I was 14 I came across a box of old papers and documents that had belonged to my great-grandmother. My grandparents gave me the box. My brother and I visited older relatives with a tripod and camera with a macro lens to photograph their precious old photos. My grandmother had a grand time setting up the appointments and was very persuasive. We now have an amazing photograph collection of family members.” (Lori)
Others discovered family history through websites or TV.
“From Friends Reunited, I found Genes Reunited. I managed to find my Great-Aunt Lil, who I’d known well, on the 1901 census as a 1 month old baby with my great-grandparents. I was hooked.” (Gary)
“I got started after watching Heir Hunters and WDYTYA on television.” (Catherine)
One or two wanted to confirm family stories:
“I had grown up with an unconfirmed rumour that my mother’s side of the family were Irish. I had always wanted to know more. Then my girlfriend began researching her family and I started too. (Jack)
“My Grandma told me that her English grandfather was a ship's captain and was shipwrecked four times. It seemed very romantic - not to him, I daresay. I was about 8 then. I was 12 when I got my Dad to take me to Somerset House to buy the first certificates. He only came the first time; after that I did it all on my own.” (Michael)
But, I wanted to know, ‘Was it difficult to get started’?
No one seemed to find it difficult to get started, even those people who had started before the internet age. Many had a lot of help initially from family members. But it wasn’t long before they were running into all sorts of problems. Some found websites like Ancestry and Findmypast difficult to use effectively. Others discovered that not understanding how to do research correctly was creating issues and errors.
“I took a genealogy course at the London Metropolitan Archives. It taught me how to do the research.” (Catherine)
“I made a number of mistakes based on assumptions in the early days.” (Gary)
“I’ve had to look at records from other parts of Europe, which has been a challenge – both linguistically and in terms of the number and quality of records that are available.” (Oliver)
This is when the SoG’s courses, remarkable Collections and access to the main pay-per-view websites become invaluable.
“I have had the resources of the SoG right outside my office for the last 24 years so I’ve really been lucky as we have had copies of NEARLY all the records I need here.” (Else)
“In the 1700s I had a good deal of trouble with missing marriages until the registers of the Fleet Prison were indexed then suddenly I had over a dozen ancestral marriages there and endless brothers and sisters.” (Michael)
As they build their family trees, everyone has exciting moments – finding something unusual, a hero, a villain or just an ancestor caught up in a famous moment of history. If you’re starting out, your exciting moments are still ahead of you. Everyone gave me lots of stories and I could feel the thrill, even in their written notes.
“My partner’s German and I have lived in Germany, so I’m always fascinated by people who up sticks and move to another country. I was very pleased to find that I’m not as ‘purely’ English as I thought. I have a Dutch merchant sailor, who settled in Dublin before his son moved to London; another Dutch sailor captured in an Anglo-Dutch war and sent to work on the docks in Chatham before settling down there; Huguenot ancestors, who settled in London; and a number of lines from Ireland. Being a Londoner, I’m pleased to have a potted history of the city amongst my ancestors.” (Gary)
“Way up amongst the female lines my mother has a Yeoman of the Guard who died in 1663 and left 40 pounds to one of his sons 'from the wages due to me when it shall please his majesty to pay me'. My father's side were Quakers from 1654 to 1778. They were endlessly fined and soldiers came to the meetings and arrested people. They were in prison in 1659/60 and released on an amnesty for the coronation of King Charles II.” (Michael)
“I got one line of my family back to the 16th century. Not only was there a book in the Family Histories section at the SoG, but also a large Special Collection.” (Catherine)
“I have a convict relative transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1846. I am descended from what the judge called “his more respectable brother”. I’ve spent many hours researching my convict, his convict wife and her convict first husband and her convict brother. Standing outside the Herefordshire beautiful period cottage where his father (my great-great-great-grandfather) lived until 1845 gave me my own Who Do You Think You Are? weepy moment.” (Else)
“I thought I was solidly English, with a bit of Irish mixed in, but have now discovered Welsh, Scottish, Romani and North African connections, which I definitely wasn’t expecting.” (Jack)
“My great-grandmother’s files included a letter written to her father by his cousin in 1923, who was undertaking family history research. I was able to track down a descendant of this cousin and we are still researching together after 40+ years and we are also firm friends.” (Lori)
Just because you’re fascinated, doesn’t mean your partner, teenage child or parents want to hear endless details. Although my husband entertains at dinner parties with stories of visits to graveyards. So I asked everyone ‘Do your family think you're slightly crazy, very boring or fascinating’?
“I think they are vaguely interested in the family history stuff, but whenever I talk about the social history side of things (professions, poverty, workhouses, etc.) I can see them mentally checking out, so I try not to bring it up very often.” (Jack)
“Most of my family are interested in the results of my research if I don’t talk about it too long and their eyes start to glaze over.” (Lori)
“Sometimes there are challenges when what people are sure they remember turns out not to be completely accurate. It isn’t always easy to share things like an ancestor having been in prison or, and actually this was the same ancestor, ending up in an asylum!” (Oliver)
“Most like to hear the stories but don’t pay that much attention to the detail or research. However, I do have relatives who genuinely think an interest in the past is unhealthy introspection and that can lead to some lively dinner party discussions!!” (Else)
“My mother likes to know some of the details I find out, but I think my father thinks I’m slightly strange. My 9-year-old niece finds it interesting, so hopefully one day I’ll get a new convert to genealogy.” (Gary)
“My wife was already interested when we met. One of our daughters (aged about 10) was in the car once and said 'Oh, look over there'. So we all looked and couldn't see anything. General chorus of ‘What?’ She said 'Oh, nothing, but there was a cemetery on the other side and I thought you might want to get out'. So her spirit of self-preservation was already highly developed.” (Michael)
We’ve all made mistakes and found family that have nothing to do with us. So I asked: Did you make any really crashing mistakes when you first got started? Can you tell us or does it still make you cry?
“Many! It’s easy to rush through all the censuses and parish records, making assumptions about people who might be your ancestors. I followed a number of lines back to the 17th century only to find later that I’d chosen the wrong person in the 19th century and the line was no longer mine.” (Gary)
“My father and I ‘knew’ my grandfather had retired in 1960 so we assumed he was 65. He had a distinctive name and we found a perfectly good certificate from Wandsworth, which we bought. However when we asked round everyone said ‘No, he was born in Tottenham and anyway he didn't retire till he was 75’. Even that turned out to be wrong: he had added a couple of years on to his age to join the army; he was born in 1888 so he was 72 when he retired. Of course if we had bought his marriage certificate we would have seen that the father's names were different.” (Michael)
“When I first started I didn’t write down what I had already looked at. This led to having to replicate work which was a huge waste of time.” (Catherine)
“Reliance on online data has led me up the wrong line occasionally until I’ve checked the original record. I was related to Winston and the ‘posh’ Churchill’s for very brief weekend and I still keep that ‘wrong’ pedigree in my files to remind me.” (Else)
I’m going to leave the last words to two people:
“I’ve chased a few lines that turned out to be completely wrong, but I wasn’t too disheartened. The fun part of genealogy, for me, is getting to know more about people from the past; it’s a bonus if you’re actually related to them.” (Jack)
“I feel we owe it to our ancestors who are looking down on us (or I’m sure up in some cases!) and saying ‘that’s not me’, to be as accurate as possible.” (Gary)
‘Getting Started: Family History for Beginners’ is on Saturday morning 23 June. Join other people who are just beginning to build their family trees as Dave Annal introduces the key sources, the most important websites and the best strategies and techniques.
‘Fit for Purpose? How to make your genealogy more credible and useful to others’ is on Wednesday 18 July at 2 pm. Dr Ian Macdonald shows how to ensure that others can follow in your footsteps and come to the same conclusions about your family tree as you.
Thank you to the following people who so generously gave me their time and their stories: Else Churchill, Jack Sharp, Michael Gandy, Catherine Hopkins, Oliver Levy, Gary Taylor-Raebel and Lori Weinstein.