Start Your Quest

Start Your Quest

So you want to know more about your family. Where should you start digging? Andrew Chapman explains, and offers a roadmap to the features and tutorials that follow

Andrew Chapman, Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

Andrew Chapman

Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

Family history can take you to all manner of new places

Family history, like charity and flu, begins at home. Most of us have an album of old photos gathering dust somewhere. In there you’d probably expect to see pictures of parents and grandparents, but perhaps a generation further back or even another if you’re lucky. Although photography only started in the mid-19th century, it took off very quickly and half a dozen generations of people have been snapped now.

Hopefully somewhere near to the album you might find a file of old family documents – these could be birth and marriage certificates, diaries, newspaper cuttings, memorial cards, wills, school certificates or reports, ration books… All of these things can help you piece together the jigsaw puzzle of your ancestors’ lives and provide inspiration. Make notes on what you find and see what facts you can bring together.

The next thing to do is talk to your family, especially older relatives – and of course they may have more documents which throw light on things. Take your notebook, or even better a digital recorder if your relative doesn’t mind. ‘Oral history’ is an important element to historical research, and from a personal point of view it’s a good way to record your family reminiscences for posterity.

You might need to tread carefully, though. Only a couple of generations ago, subjects such as illegitimacy were often taboo, and older relatives may clam up about what they see as dark secrets in the family. If you’ve watched Who Do You Think You Are? on television, you’ll know how family secrets from bigamy to suicide, adultery to larceny can raise emotional issues.

You should also take family tales with a pinch of salt – they often have little basis in fact. In my own case, my grandfather’s mother had ‘Odell’ as her maiden name and my grandfather told tall tales of being descended from the ancient kings of Ireland. But this turns out to be a peculiarly English form of blarney, as Odell turns out to be a thoroughly English name from Bedfordshire.

However, I learnt that the Odells were brickmakers in Middlesex for a few generations, which to my mind is just as interesting as being royalty anyway. There’s nothing more rewarding than finding out what your ancestors did for a living and what their lives were like.

Having gathered as much information as you can from the family albums and relatives, it’s time to take stock. You can only do that if you keep careful records of what you’ve learned (see the box on recording your research). What you can’t realistically do is pursue too much at once. The danger with family history is that you can never run out of ancestors: as soon as you’ve pushed back a generation, you’ve found two more family lines to follow behind each individual.

Better, then, to focus on just one or two lines or individuals that interest you. Poring through the family files can help with this, as you may just find one individual in particular catches your curiosity. Perhaps you have a family mystery you’d like to solve: what happened to Great Uncle Eric in the 1910s, or why you have an unusual middle name (the latter sparked my own quest, which you can read about in the article ‘A mystery solved?’). If you’re really not drawn to one or another, pick someone with an unusual surname, as that will be easier than looking for a Smith, Jones or Brown!

Whichever path you want to follow, the golden rule of genealogy is to work backwards. There can be special exceptions to this: for example, tracing living relatives you didn’t previously know about involves climbing up one way and down another (see ‘How to: Find living relatives’ for more on this). And there can be times when you want to learn about someone’s siblings, which is effectively moving sideways.

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But in general, working backwards step-by-step, generation by generation, is the safest way to be sure you’re tracking the right people.

One of my great-grandfathers was called William Wright – a common enough name. If I just dive into one of the big family history websites and look up that name, the results are overwhelming – how can I know which is the right Wright? The answer is always by being methodical. Write down whatever dates you know, and where people were. My Wright was distinguished by having a more unusual middle name, Overton, which is helpful. But the surefire way to get started is to identify the ‘vital events’ in the person’s life – most importantly, birth, marriage and death – and use those to track back. A birth certificate gives you the name of the parents. You could then look back for their marriage certificate, which should name their fathers. Then you’ve got leads for the next generation further back, and so on.

Now, it’s not always that straightforward: sometimes people’s certificates were missing, or never filled in. Official birth registration in England and Wales began in 1837, but it only became compulsory in 1875, with a fine for non-compliance. Before that, as many as a third of births are estimated to have gone unrecorded. Even after 1875, someone might have dropped off the radar.

So you might be lucky and have a family that always did its duty and recorded these things – or you might not. The important thing to remember is that there is almost always more than one source of record to check – and the more evidence you find, the stronger the case.

You might expect that tracing nearer generations in the 20th century is the easiest, with the growth of technology, but you can’t assume that – some records relating to people who might still be alive are still classified; others have been lost in the world wars. The Victorian era is usually the happiest hunting ground for family history – not only with birth, marriage and death registration from 1837 onwards, but also with the 10-yearly censuses from 1841 on. But if you can’t find people in those, never give up hope: there are parish records, employment archives, military service papers and many others which can help. You will learn about lots of them in the pages that follow.

The internet has transformed family history, and the first port of call we’ll often recommend will be online. But research methods apply as much as ever, and always check scans of original documents where available as even the best sites have transcription errors sometimes. Internet research is fantastically convenient – but there will always be times when getting out and about will give you more of a sense of your ancestors’ lives. Going to local record offices will yield unique sources of information, and visiting the towns where your forebears lived and the churchyards where they were buried brings a more personal atmosphere to the facts and figures.

Filling in your family tree is fun, but I prefer to think of family history as an exercise of the imagination – putting yourself in your ancestors’ shoes, and seeing through their eyes. If you use your imagination tempered by disciplined research methods and a dash of common sense, you’ll be amazed what you can discover.

Intriguing old family photographs can often start your journey of discovery
Intriguing old family photographs can often start your journey of discovery

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