Tracing Immigrant Ancestors at the Society of Genealogists

The ships they sailed on were small and crowded. Many of them could barely read and write, and had only a vague notion of where they were going. Farewells to parents and family were difficult as they never expected to see them again. They probably walked from where they lived to the port for embarkation. Most were desperate for a better life. They are your ancestors: part of the massive migration of people from Britain to the ‘New World’ and the colonies.

Now you would like to know more about where they came from. You’d like to find records for their parents and grandparents. Maybe, you’d like to visit the church where they were baptised or married, the graveyard that holds other family members. At the very least, you know that finding out about the families and the home towns left behind will complete their story for you.

The Society of Genealogists are uniquely placed to help you. As the National Family History Centre, we are based in the centre of London and easily accessible. We have three floors of family history treasures and records, directories and databases. We store and index family stories and documents from all over the UK, aiming to keep them safe and make them as available as possible to everyone. Just consider some of the options we offer.

For a start, many families have deposited or bequeathed us their family history documents, images and records. There’s a chance that some of these families are related to your ancestors. The collection includes legal documents, wills, photos, newspaper clippings and letters. All these items are collated and indexed, usually by surname. To see what’s in the collection, you can browse the indexes. There are more than 44,000 surnames – yours is probably included. When you visit us, we’ll let you sit down and explore all the boxes that relate to your family names.

Another way to look for your family, is to check out our Birth Briefs. We always encourage family historians to share information and collaborate. So, when Members join us, we ask them to record, on a Birth Brief form, all their ancestors back to their great-great-grandparents. Many Briefs refer to family members that migrated to other countries. You can browse our indexes, holding in excess of 30,000 Briefs, to look for your family names. When you visit us, you can look at the actual Birth Briefs. You could find that a distant relative is a Member, loves family history just like you, and has already found some of your ancestors.

It’s highly possible that you have been quite successful in finding records held online by the main genealogical websites. You have probably also discovered an issue: there’s not that many records from the 18th and 17th centuries and you’re not sure where to go next.

The Society of Genealogists really steps up to help you here. You can search for your family in marriage settlements, apprenticeships, wills and pedigrees. Many documents are originals and some date back to the 15th century. We have stored in our library a large number of published family history stories, ready to share with you. Our collection of 57,000 microfilms, received from FamilySearch, covers England, Scotland, Ireland, Jamaica and other Caribbean Islands, and many Jewish records. So, we have things that you might not expect to find.

A highlight when you trace your family tree back to Britain is finding the place they came from, the parish church, maybe a headstone in a graveyard. Before you set out on that adventure, remember to look at our collection of maps that show parishes and towns as they were, and almanacs and directories for addresses across Britain, that give you a picture of the community, the streets and the shops.

Don’t just take our word for it. Maurice York’s ancestors migrated from Britain to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. In London on holiday from Australia, he discovered 11 boxes relating to his family names. Within the first hour, he found a small brown Kodak envelope. Inside were colour slides of his 4 x great-grandfather, 4 x great-grandmother and 3 x great-grandmother that he’d never seen before. Having slightly changed his travel plans, Maurice told us ‘Almost all the amazing moments of our family history journey have come about because fellow researchers keep detail, research thoroughly and are prepared to share and work together collaboratively to pass on a great legacy to our children.’

-Sherryl Abrahart

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