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Duration 58:17

Introduction to Family History – British Sign Language video

Need advice on how to begin tracing your family’s past? Audrey Collins‘ talk is for anyone new to family history. As well as advising on good research habits, she provides an overview of the main resources available to family historians, such as birth and marriage certificates, online and offline resources, parish records, military records and newspapers.

Please note that this talk was recorded in 2008 and there are now many more online resources.


Okay, welcome to The National Archives, particularly those of you who’re on their very first visit. I’ll assume, because you’re in this talk, that you’re at least fairly new to family history, or you’re not new but you think maybe it’s time you found something out.

It’s an introduction to family history it’s not a blow-by-blow ‘how to’ – we do have other talks and lots of support on how to go about it precisely. It’s more a set of general guidelines and principles that, if you’re new, my driving instructor said, it’s just as easy to cultivate good habits as bad ones, and if you do things the right way from the beginning, and it becomes second nature, you will appreciate it in the future. It’s also very much a case of ‘don’t do what I do, do what I say’, and you’ll get, hopefully, the benefit of learning from my experience and all the things I did wrong.

Family history starts at home. Before you go off researching, before you go of to record offices, start surfing the internet, you start from your family and what you know about it.

[Show image]

This is a reasonably typical family gathering and I actually know who all the people are in this photograph, and that doesn’t always happen. One of the terrible things is you often have lots of lovely, lovely photographs and you don’t know who they all are. So even if you don’t do anything else, even if you decide, no, family history is not for me, I can’t be bothered. One thing you can do for future generations, and they will bless you for it, is that if you’ve got any photographs, write on the back – in pencil of course – who the blazes these people are, because , you know, you don’t need to label them for your own benefit! I mean I know, because I know that that’s uncle Davie and that’s my cousin Rosemary and there’s my Mum, and my Granny, and uncle Bob, and so forth, but my sons have no idea who these people are, they wouldn’t even recognise their Grandmother in that.

So don’t take for granted what you know. You know what you know, but the next generation, probably, doesn’t know, the generation after that certainly doesn’t, unless you tell them. So one of the important things about family history is not just delving back into the past, but recording the present. And, with photographs…print them out once in a while why don’t you? Now we’ve all got these wonderful digital things and I’m as guilty as anybody. We’ve got lots of things on memory cards, we’ve got them on computers, but you need the technology to view stuff. So if you don’t print them out occasionally, they could be just as lost as if you’d torn them up and thrown them away.

Now, the first thing you do, really, is you ask around. You see what free information you can get. You will discover at a fairly early stage you’re probably going have to buy birth, marriage, and death certificates, and they’re quite expensive. In the case of England and Wales these are seven pounds a go. So you start with all the free stuff, you might even have some of these things, but you ask around, you ask for information. There is a technique to this, you don’t just suddenly turn up on the doorstep of some elderly relative that you haven’t seen for ten years, and start interrogating them. They’d probably be inclined to be a bit prickly about that, but you can engage people in conversation. It just depends on the individual how you go about it, what your relationship is with them. Some people are quite happy to be recorded, some people you can’t shut up, frankly.

It’s often a good idea to get people together, because sometimes they will spark memories off in each other. They will also argue and disagree, but you will usually get information that you wouldn’t get if you’ve got people singly. So something like the photograph I’ve just showed you – a nice Christmas gathering – that’s actually quite a good time to get people together, and start reminiscing, and then you just have to pick the bones out of it and see what’s true, and what’s not. And that’s actually quite an art sometimes.

When I was a freelance researcher some years ago I used to get the starting information, which would usually be some sort of documentation – there might be the odd certificate – but very often there would be something along the lines of: ‘According to the family story … ‘, and then you’d get some interesting thing that was usually not true, but it was very rarely completely untrue either. A sort of classic one is: ‘Oh, according to my great-grandmother, we are descended from the Duck of Wellington.’ Okay, the Duke of Wellington did put himself about a bit, but the chances are you weren’t descended from him; although, the origin of this story might be, go back a few generations and you’ll find a great-great-great-grandfather who ran a pub called the Duke of Wellington, et cetera. There is usually some grain of truth and sometimes the real story is actually just as interesting, or even better than, the legend.

‘We are descended from Horatio Nelson’. Well, that might be true, but your Horatio Nelson might a boot mender in Stepney. You have to remember that names go in fashions and in the nineteenth century there were an awful lot of Nelson families who thought it was a really great idea to call one of their sons, Nelson. Similarly, most Nightingale families had a Florence and so on, and so on, so the family stories are always interesting.

Take them with a pinch of salt, but don’t discard them all together. It is very rare that you’ll get something that is a complete and utter fairy story, and sometimes that’s the sheer fun of it, figuring out what is right and what’s not. Sometimes it’s much more banal than that, that in the course of stories being passed down from generation to generation your wires get a bit crossed. And sometimes you’ll find that a story about your grandfather you find no basis for, whatsoever, and it turns out that actually somebody’s got a generation missed out – it applies to your great-grandfather, or maybe your grandfather on the other side – and somebody told somebody something that they slightly misinterpreted. So the stories are always useful, you just have to be careful, and try and find out, find the proof for them.

Now, you can ask questions, but you can also look for things as well, and under the general heading of memorabilia you might have things, if you’re very lucky, like medals. People love medals and there are quite a lot of these around. Very few families didn’t have some involvement with the Second World War, or the First World War, so there are a lot of old sideboard drawers that have got a box with some medals in it. I don’t know very much about medals, so please don’t ask me, but we do have experts who do. And you can often tell quite a lot from a medal, sometimes they will actually have the service number of the soldier concerned engraved on the rim.

So, if you’ve got some, if you’re lucky enough to have an actual artefact, something genuine like that, you may be able to follow that up. If you’re really posh you might have the sort of nice Victorian samplers made by young ladies and, typically, they had things like dates of birth on them. So they’re quite nice things to have and I’m very envious if you have, it means you had ancestors who could read and write, which puts you ahead of most of mine for a start.

But, mainly, what you’d hope to have are documents of some kind and these could be certificates, and at seven pounds a go it’s very nice if you can actually find some of these. Also, there’s a good chance that they will be the originals, which are going to be rather better than the copies that you get from the General Register Office, because by the time something is produced by the General Register Office it’s already been copied a couple of times. So if you’ve got one that was written on the day that your ancestor’s birth was registered, or the actual marriage certificate from the church, that will always be better, it will have original signatures. It might be in a bit of a state, but it’s always much better than a modern copy if you can possibly find it, quite apart from the money it will save you.

Again, if you’ve got literate ancestors you may even have letters. They may not necessarily give you huge, great insights, but they’re always rather nice to have, and family history is about more than just names, and dates, and births, and deaths, and marriages. It’s the incidental things; it’s the little details that really bring people to life. As well as letters you might have cards and telegrams. It’s not that long ago that if you couldn’t attend somebody’s wedding or golden wedding, or some special event, you’d send a greetings telegram. That was just a bit more special than a card. My mother has a box of these, some that she received. In fact there’s even one that I sent, I sent a greetings telegram to my parents on their silver wedding, and those are, again, quite nice things to have. For one thing, they’re usually attached to significant events like 21st birthdays and weddings, so they will give you a date, which can be quite a useful clue if you don’t already know it.

And, of course, the photographs; if you know who they are that’s a bonus, but even if you don’t, sometimes with a bit of detective work you can piece it together. But these are all the things that make your family real living, breathing people. At least they were living, breathing people even if they’re not now, but it makes them real families instead of just a set of names and dates, and this is just an example of some of the things that you might have.

[Shows images]

Now, I mentioned tatty old certificates and that one there is in fact my grandfather’s birth certificate, which is, it’s in fairly horrible state. It’s been mended and I’m very pleased to say that whoever mended it, I suspect my uncle John, mended it with paper tape and not with sellotape. Sellotape is very good for sticking things together, but it’s really, really bad for paper. It doesn’t last very well, it goes brittle, it does horrible things to paper, so don’t use sellotape to mend things that are for posterity. There is special mending tape you can get, there’re all sorts of inert plastic wallets. You can put things in there, but this is quite a nice thing and it’s quite illegally been defaced with rather helpful details of the date and place of his baptism. And I’ve never actually seen another certificate like that, but that’s just a nice thing to have. It’s also a particularly nice thing to have, because it’s a Scottish one and they’re better than English ones, but you can’t really help where your ancestors came from so I won’t dwell on that for those of you who are English.

There’s a medal at the bottom and I have to admit I cheated on that one, because we have got no medals, so I lifted that picture off our website. There’s a photograph there and this is a classic example, this is actually from my ex-husband’s family, and they know who she is, but nobody knows who is the man that she’s sitting with. It’s certainly not the man that she married. It could be a next door neighbour, it could be an old boyfriend, but nobody knows and the chances are nobody will ever know. So that’s a good reason why you should write on the back who the photographs are.

The one at the top, a happy pair thanks to Murphy’s. This does not involve my family history in any way at all, but it’s just a lovely bit of incidental detail. That is my ex-husband’s grandparents and in 1938, grand-pop sitting there very photogenic with a cigarette hangout of his mouth, they won the pools! And they thought that this was such an attractive looking couple that they’ve used them on the publicity, on their leaflets. Now, when you actually open that leaflet out, it has his name, his surname is completely misspelled, which is a nice cautionary tale; it happens, it happens in print, but it’s just quite a nice thing to have. We knew from the family that they had won the polls; in fact when I was given this grandmother was still alive, so she remembers it very well. So it doesn’t advance my knowledge of the family, but it is a lovely bit of ephemera.

Probably the most interesting thing, though, is the strange looking sort of purple and cream thing at the back. That is a school magazine, Loughborough Central School, and that is Loughborough Junction in Brixton, not Loughborough, Leicestershire. And, Loughborough Central School, children from that in 1939 were evacuated down to Swanage in Dorset, and this is their school magazine that they kept up while they were down there. And people of a certain age will probably recognise that sort of purple-jelly, duplicator thing where you had, you had these stencils, and you ran this off. We had one of those in one of my schools, ancient thing it was too. And you can see that that’s fairly tatty, cheap wartime paper.

The document itself is wonderful. You’ve got all these lovely South London, fairly streetwise, kids, who were perfectly at home with tarmac and traffic lights, and things, and you put them down in the countryside, and they are clueless. And it’s full of lovely little stories about how we walked along the beach. And then the tide came in and we got cut off and had to be rescued, or they go climbing trees and realise they can’t get down, so they have to be rescued, and then they go wandering across the farmers field, and there’s a bull, and they’re scared, and they have to be rescued. It must have been a complete pain in the neck for the natives of Langton Matravers, just near Swanage where they were, but it’s just the most wonderful, vivid picture of what life was like for these young evacuees.

I’m very lucky to have that, because my mother-in-law is a great chucker-out of things, but I think she must have kept this, because there was a little article in it, which is her own account of Scottish country dancing. It’s terribly dull, but the rest of the magazine was probably kept because her name was in print and she was proud of it. So I’m very grateful for her little article on Scottish country dancing. It’s just a nice thing to have and there are lots of names in there, and you could do a lot of research on the other members of the school, and I have done a little bit.

Now, the chances are you won’t have that particular set of things, but you’ve probably got something. I mean you start asking around. Relatives will probably say, ‘oh, you’re doing the family I wonder if you’d be interested in this’, and you don’t know what they’re going to retrieve from lofts, and cupboards, and things. So that’s your family history starting at home.

Now, write this out 100 times before proceeding any further, you can’t do it all on the internet. You can do a lot on the internet and you can do more on the internet now than you could do this time last year. It’s a wonderful thing, but even for the progress that’s been made very recently, the amount of information, the documents, that is on the internet is still a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction. Just as, an example, here in The National Archives in our catalogue we have something more than ten million items. We have got more than 100 miles of shelving, that’s an awful lot of stuff.

Now, quite a lot of it will be of no interest whatsoever to family history, but a lot of it is, and just because something is hidden in a box somewhere, and not very well catalogued doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, and potentially important for your family history. The popular stuff, the commonly used stuff is increasingly becoming available online, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still an awful lot of stuff, which is still on a piece of paper in a box possibly not very well catalogued, possibly not catalogued at all, and stuff is being found all the time. So, you can make a good start on the internet, but it is only a start.

Now, the ideal things that you’d find online would be actual records, where you’ve got facsimiles of the documents themselves. The census is the obvious one. A lot of army service records of the First World War are online; Navy records; passenger lists; increasing numbers of popular records, documents with lots of names on. Wonderful! Those are the very best, because that’s the closest to an original, that’s a real source, but that’s an expensive and time consuming thing to do. So it’s nice, but it’s only going to be a small proportion of what you could do online.

Possibly, next best, there are lots of indexes and you have to remember an index is a means to an end; it’s not a record in itself. It will help you find something, but you should go and look at the original record that it came from for a whole variety of reasons, but I’ll come to that again, shortly.

There are also catalogues. Now, an index is very detailed and that will have things down to, for the family historian, down to name level, but catalogues can also be very helpful. Most record offices and libraries now have got a catalogue of some kind. Maybe not all of their holdings, but significant amounts of their holdings will be catalogued online. So even though you can’t get the raw data about particular people you can get a pretty good idea of what a record office or a library holds and you can make a judgement about whether it’s worth visiting, whether they’ve got what you want.

But it’s not just information about particular records, there’s lots of good help and advice if you look in the right place. Generally speaking, official websites, like our own website: the British Library; the County Record Office website, those are generally going to be good and reputable, and you can rely on them.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very good, one-man band, labour of love kind of websites. There was one in particular, which is extremely good, but generally speaking, if it’s official, then probably a bit more reliable. It’s also much more likely to still be there when you go back and look at it in a few months’ time. But there is lots of help and advice. Say, for example, you go to The National Archives’ website. Usually, flagged up on the front page, there are links to, not only our research guides, but to pages about starting your research, particularly on family history, but also on local history. And, although I know your instinct as a family historian is to dive straight into the lists of names – it’s what I do, it takes one to know one, and I’m one, and I’m looking at a whole room full – but sometimes it is good to just stop and take a deep breath, and read about the records before you dive in and pick out your particular names.

We’re not the only ones by any means. In most county record offices they’ve got quite good help and advice areas either about their own records, or general stuff on how to do family history, and how to conduct research.

Another thing you can use the internet for, and websites, is for making contact with other people that are researching the same name or the same subject as you. There are obvious ones like Genes Reunited, which is very popular. I’ve made contact with quite a number of second cousins and more distant cousins through that. Most of the big websites like Ancestry and Find My Past have got a facility to put your own family tree online and if you want to make contact with other people, and look at their trees, and see if you’ve got names in common. There are quite a lot that you can do that way.

You can also go onto various newsgroups and interest groups where you’re not necessarily looking for somebody who is related to the same Joe Bloggs as you’re related to, but people who could chat to you about family history, and there are quite a lot of these. Most counties have got a newsgroup where people will discuss genealogy in that county, or particularly interest groups. The one that I like best, or there are two in particular, one of which is specific to Scotland, it’s called Talking Scot. And there is another one, which is general, and it’s called Roots Chat. There are quite a lot, but that’s the one that I think is particularly good. It’s very well organised and well moderated, and it’s a good way of making contact with people who’ve got similar interests.

And it’s a very good place to post questions, because there are a lot of very knowledgeable people on quite a number of newsgroups. Sometimes if you ask a really odd esoteric question, something that you can’t easily look up, some odd little thing about the minutiae of some kind of record, you will often find that there is somebody there who really knows what they’re talking about. There are a lot of people whose helpfulness exceeds their knowledge, but you can usually figure out who they are, and there are genuine online communities now where you can learn quite a lot.

And, finally, you can get background, not specifically genealogical background, but you can find out about places and about general history, local history. It makes a lot of sense if you put your ancestors in context. You may find out from basic records of birth, marriage, and death, and from census that your family moved from one place to another, but if you know a bit of the background and the history you might be able to know why they moved.

A really basic one is you’ve got ancestors in Ireland, who go to America in the 1840s. Well, why did they do that? If you know a little bit of basic Irish history that was the decade of the potato famine. Most people in Ireland were trying very, very hard to be somewhere else, because Ireland was a horrible place to be, people were literally starving. That’s a very obvious one, but there’re lots of others. It could be something as mundane as the population of a village suddenly swelling to a huge amount, because somebody has just built a canning factory in an agricultural area, and it attracts people from all around to come and work there. So knowing the basic background history of the nation or the area can illuminate your family history, it can explain why; sometimes it can help you make an educated guess as well.

Now, this is really the core of it, and this is what I, I’ve expanded, this is just the bullet points, but I’ve expanded this on the handout that I’ve given you: you work from what you know. And this can be, literally, just your own birth certificate. I did have a student in an evening class I taught who literally started from there. She knew exactly who she was, but her parents had died when she was very young and she’d been brought up by foster parents, so she knew absolutely nothing about her family. So she had no relatives that she could ask questions. She didn’t have all the advantages, she didn’t have boxes of family photographs, but she still got there, it just took her a little bit longer.

But what you mustn’t do is make a leap and assume that you are related to somebody, because you’ve got the same surname, and you come from the same place. You can end up by making unwarranted assumptions and not proving it you can end up with what Michael Gandhi, well known family historian said once, that you could have a folder marked, ‘ancestors I used to have’. And I’ve put that down on the handout, a little copyright thing there, because I jokingly said to him that that was a really good phrase and I was going to use it on every conceivable occasion, but I would always credit him. So just in case one of these falls into his hands, look, it says copyright Michael Gandhi, I’m crediting him.

It’s much better if you discover at an early stage that you’re on the wrong track than if you publish it on a website or print it out, and somebody else points out that you made a really basic mistake. You have to start from what you know and if you believe, there’s a family story that you are descended from somebody terribly interesting, you start from you and you work towards them. You don’t start from Oliver Cromwell, or whoever it is, and try and work towards yourself. That just doesn’t work. You work from what you know towards, if you like, something that you hope to prove.

But there is no such thing as a family tree that’s got a broken link in it. Unless you’ve linked it, you haven’t got a family tree with a missing link in it, you’ve got two separate trees, and it’s not one until you prove a connection. And that really leads onto never assume. If you find yourself saying or thinking, ‘well, I assume’, well, hang on a minute, why are you assuming, why don’t you know? If the reason you don’t know is that you haven’t bought the couple of certificates that would prove it or you haven’t gone to a particular record office to find the document that would prove it one way or the other, then do it. If you can’t do it right now then fair enough, but at least make a note that that’s something that you’ve got to do or somebody else has got to do on your behalf.

It may even be that there are no records that will prove it or you don’t know of any, but at the very least say, ‘well, I can’t prove that X is the father of Y, but it seems very likely’. And it’s okay to have something that’s speculative, so long as you know. What’s dangerous is if you put something down as fact, especially if you put it on your family tree on Genes Reunited, then somebody will seize on that and say, ‘Oh, it’s on the internet, it must be true’, or ‘it’s in print it must be true’. So, if you can’t prove something at least indicate that you can’t prove it, and maybe one day you will find the evidence. Always be prepared to be proved wrong as well.

And always read the instructions or the introduction to whatever it is you’re using. There used to be a sign in my mother’s local laundrette that said: ‘When all else fails please read the instructions’, so I thought it was quite a good watchword. It’s very tempting to dive straight in and think, ‘oh, an index’, and look for the name in it, but stop for a minute and see what’s this is an index to. Is it a complete index or is it just extracts? Does it cover the whole time period or even, sometimes, if it’s a printed index, it might be divided into various sections for some reason or anther, and if you just look at one bit of it, it might that … there are actually three separate indexes.

There is almost no limit to the variations that you’ll find in indexes whether they’re online or in print. Always look at the introduction. In fact, with some books, that’s all you need to read; the introduction summarises what the books got to say. So always be aware what it is that you’re getting into.  And look at the original document.  If you’re looking at an transcript or an index, well, that’s great; there are lots of these around in print and online, and they can help you find things that you otherwise wouldn’t find in a month of Sundays, but you need to look at the original document that it came from.

A very good example of this, well, the best known indexes around is the IGI – International Genealogical Index – on the family search website. Now, IGI stands for the International Genealogical Index . It’s a wonderful thing; it has literally millions of entries, but it helps if you think of IGI as standing for Incomplete Genealogical Index, because it is incomplete. Even the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons – don’t have unlimited time and money, and they don’t have permission to index absolutely everything. A lot of what they do is church records and if a bishop says, ‘no, you may not film and index my records’, then they can’t do it.

So it’s a great start, but it’s not complete, it’s not complete in the records that’s it’s filmed an index, it’s also incomplete in that it doesn’t take every single word from every entry. You will just get for a baptism, for example, the name of the person and the names of their parents, but the original entry will probably have extra information. It may have addresses, occupations, and little marginal notes.

You know there are all kinds of other indexes, particularly computerised ones where fields have been set up, and there are only three or four fields that have information entered in them, but the original document might have a lot more, so always look at the original document. Not just because it might have more information, the indexes may have been wrongly transcribed. Original documents can be in all sorts of horrible handwriting and if the person indexing it is not very experienced with it, or if they are experienced but the writing is exceptionally horrible, or the document is damaged, even their best guess may be wrong. Also, even if it’s perfectly accurate and it’s a complete transcription you want to look at not just that document, but if it’s, for example, an entry in a Parish register, it is really helpful to look at all the other entries around it. That will tell you a lot about how that register is kept and a very good and quite common example of this is marriage certificates.

Now, if you get a marriage certificate through the General Register Office, particularly a 19th Century one, but a lot of 20th Century ones as well, the chances are the marriage was in a church, because church marriages were still much the most popular until well into the 20th Century. Now, marriage certificate in isolation is very interesting, but the one that you get from the General Register Office, is a copy. It’s a copy of a copy. Well, the index is a copy of a copy of a copy, but what you get is from the copy that the vicar or the clerk made at the end of every quarter, and sent to the General Register Office, and the original marriage entry would be in the church register. And the more I look, the more I find discrepancies between the original church entry and the copy that a possibly overworked, or not very good with paperwork, vicar, made, maybe in a rush, three months after the wedding. It may not be significant differences. It may be that they missed out a middle name here, saw one where there were three witnesses on the original, and he only put two. Well, that’s not a hanging offence, that’s not going to make a significant difference.

I’ve got one, in fact I’ve got two, I’ve got two copies of the same marriage, one from Stockport Register Office, who hold the church register, and one from the GRO. And the details on the two are the same, except that the groom’s name on the original is Joseph, and on the GRO copy it’s John, and this is because the vicar made a mistake. When he copied down, what they called the quarterly returns, he just put down John when he should’ve put Joseph. The man’s father was called John. In this particular family everybody in it was called John, Joseph, and James – they had no imagination. But this was a family tree I was doing for a friend and it held me up, good and proper, for about six years before I discovered the mistake, and I have seen far worse ones than that.

Now, most of it is going to be fairly accurate, but it’s always a good idea to look at the original just in case it’s different. The other thing is – when I said about context – another thing you’ll often find on a marriage certificate is where it says father’s name sometimes you will see a blank and you think, ‘oh dear, illegitimate, I’ve hit a brick wall!’ Well, that may well be the case, but sometimes it isn’t. I have found a few parishes where that particular vicar maybe was very harassed or lazy, or whatever, but he just didn’t bother putting down the fathers’ names most of the times. There is one parish in Cheshire where you would think it was a complete den of immorality and hardly any of the brides and grooms who married there seemed to have been born in wedlock. Well, of course, this is not true. It was just that this particular vicar was being tight with his ink or just didn’t like writing very much, or he was in a rush, and he just couldn’t bother to record that information.

Now, if I only saw the General Register Office copy I would be thinking, ‘oh, this person was illegitimate’ and I could go off on completely the wrong track. As it happens I was looking at the church copies, because the family I was researching happen to be called Brown, and they had no imagination with Christian names either.  But I knew that they’d been in the same little village for about two centuries, so I was looking at the church register, because it was easier. And that’s when I discovered for the first time just what some of these registers could be like. So that’s another reason for looking at the original and I could probably spend anther couple of hours coming up with suitable examples, but I’ll spare you that. I’m sure you can come up with your own.

It’s often helpful to figure out why the record was made in the first place. This can affect the way people answered questions. For example, on the census; the census was taken basically for statistical purposes, but the way the questions were phrased and the way people understood them might have coloured their answers. Now, a lot depends on who was asking the questions. Now, the census, for example, is meant to be confidential and it is there are quite strict rules about it. That’s why even though you can look at bits of the 1911 census, the column about disabilities is blanked out, you can’t see that until the census is officially released in 2012, but the bits that are released already you can look at everything except that column. So, quite strict rules about confidentiality.

But, who’s taking the census? It’s a local man, it’s quite possibly a Poor Law official. And even though this is confidential, you think, ‘yeah, that bit of paper is confidential’, but if I tell this man, who is the local relieving officer, that I was actually born in Ireland, when I’m going and knocking on the door asking for parish relief in few weeks – which I’m reasonably certain I will be, because I’m very poor – I don’t want them sending me back to Ireland, so I’ll say I was born here. That’s a fairly typical one.

So, why was the record made in the first place? And who was asking the questions? And why might somebody have may be coloured the answers a bit?

Another classic one – it’s back to the marriage certificates – is people so often lie about their ages. Sometimes they’re not lying, sometimes they genuinely don’t know, but sometimes it’s the way a question was interpreted. And you will see a lot of people on marriage certificates who are 21. Now, this might mean that they were actually 20 and a half, but they said they’re 21, because it saves the paperwork of getting the permission forms from the parents; or they might say they were 21 when they were actually 19, because they were running away and marrying without parents permission; or they might say that they were 21 when in fact they were 42, and they weren’t necessarily lying.

If you think about nowadays, if you go into a pub, and, okay, it’s a while since this has happened to me, but if you go into a pub when you’re still quite young, and they say, ‘are you 18?’ Now, you know, and the landlord knows that what they mean isn’t: are you literally eighteen, as in between 17 and 19? What they mean is, are you 18 and upwards? Are you old enough to be drinking in my pub? Similarly, a vicar might say, are you 21? And it’s quite obvious that neither party has seen 21 for a couple of decades, but the whole point of it is 21 and upwards. So I’m always a little bit suspicious if both parties are 21 and, again, if you look at the whole register it might be that everybody there is either 21, or minor, you don’t know. So that can be quite misleading.

And the point of that piece of information was is somebody over 21, or are they under 21?  And that was what was important about that question. Their exact age is very helpful for us, but it didn’t actually matter at the time. It was are you of age or are you not of age? And, again, you could probably come up with lots of examples, I certainly could.

And sometimes people just misunderstood questions or they embroider the truth a bit, they made their occupation sound a bit grander than it actually was, you know. ‘Rodent operative’, instead of rat catcher, and that sort of thing! Be sceptical.

Okay, you can’t assume than everybody’s lying all the time, but sometimes they were and, again, think about the motives. Why might they have answered something in a particular way to make themselves look a bit better? And I keep coming back to marriage certificates, but they really are the most terrific source of misinterpretation. If you were born out of wedlock you might as well just invent a father for the sake of respectability. You’ve got all your future in-laws sitting on the other side of the church, so you might just, in the interests of respectability, pretend that your parents were married, and that your father died a hero’s death at sea when, in fact, your mother didn’t even know what his name was. But, it works both ways; you get people who look as though they were illegitimate and it’s a lazy vicar, just not writing down the fathers’ names, and you get people who look as though they were legitimate, but they weren’t, they just made up a farther to look respectable on the marriage certificate, and so on, and so on.

Keep good records, and this is the ‘don’t do what I do, do what I say’. Start as you mean to go on. And I don’t just mean good records of your family tree, you know, the supposed finished article, but when you’re researching. And I think this is particularly true now. When I started, everything was pencil and paper, and you had to write everything down. Now it’s terribly easy to do searches and you’re quizzing around on the keyboard, and you have kept no record whatsoever of what it was you just searched, because you just got so carried away, and I do this, and I shouldn’t do it, and I should know better, I’ve no excuse. But, sometimes, I think, I think ‘I’ve done this before, but I couldn’t be bothered to write it down at the time, so now I’m doing it again…Oh, no, this looks awfully familiar!’ Write it down; get into the habit of doing it! And that means making a note of what you were searching in and what you were searching for.

It’s no good saying, ‘Searched parish records of Maidstone, found nothing.’ Well, no, there are things in the parish records at Maidstone; it’s not full of blank paper. What was I searching? Were you searching baptism, marriages, burials? What period were you searching? What were you searching for? A particular person, everybody of a particular surname? Did you look at the spelling variants or did you just stick to the one spelling? Did you look at Clarke with an ‘E’ or just Clark, without an ‘E’? All those sort of things.

Trust me. When you come back to look at those notes in five years time you probably won’t remember what was going through your head at the time when you made the notes in the first place. You might remember next week, but as time goes on … Particularly if you leave the research to one side, and typically you do, most people can’t indulge themselves and do family history every day of every week. You know we have things like earning a living and a lot of the time the descendants have to take precedence over the ancestors. So, typically, you do a bit of family history and then you leave it to one side for a while and you come back to it. So don’t trust your memory, write stuff down.

It doesn’t just stop you repeating things it also means that it makes a lot of sense. Assume that the person reading them in five years’ time is a different person. It will still be you, but don’t assume that that person will have the same memories that you’ve got now. It’s almost an advantage if you’ve got a rotten memory, because if you know you’ve got a rotten memory you’re probably in the habit of writing things down. If you’ve got quite a good memory – and I have – that’s when I fall into the habit of, ‘oh, I don’t need to write this down, because I’ll remember it’, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. So learn from my mistakes please, because I don’t.

And then when you’re writing stuff up and you’re keeping it, whether you’re keeping on paper or on a computer package, note where you got information from: did it come from a birth certificate? Did it come from a family Bible? Was it a newspaper cutting? Because that means that you can go back and check just in case you’ve mistyped, and I’ve certainly done this. And it means that other people can check it as well, and add to it, and, again, not repeat the searches that you’ve already done.

Family history software is very, very good for helping you record things and it often flags up when you put something down that looks contradictory. Are you sure you meant this person to be born in 1869, because you’ve just said he got married in 1832? Oops! That sort of thing. The software will often stop you making stupid contradictory mistakes and it does help you keep things in order.

And go back and look again; I said that you should write things down as though somebody else is going to be looking at them in five years’ time, even if that somebody else is you five years on. The more research that you do the more experienced you get, but also you will have done more research in sheer quantity. So something that didn’t strike you as being significant when you looked at something in the first place may turn out to be very useful: Census returns – you find your person on it and you don’t notice the name, the other names on the page, or maybe you do, but they don’t mean anything to you, but sometime onwards you may discover that, hang on, I’ve seen that name somewhere before. And it is quite good getting out your notes and spreading them out over the table or the floor or whatever it is, and just looking at things together, because you might get piece of information ‘A’ from one Record Office one year, and five years’ later you get something else from a completely different source. And until you put the two together they don’t necessarily mean anything, so always go back and look at what you’ve already got. You will discover things that didn’t really leap out at you at the time.

I’ve already said, you know, some of the health warnings about using the internet, use it with caution. Just because something’s in print or online doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely necessarily true. Some people are much better at building websites than they are at conveying accurate information. So just because it looks good and nice and glossy, doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is as accurate as you might like.

Always try and check something. A good website should tell you where the information came from, so that you can go and check in a particularly record. But, on balance, the internet is a wonderful thing for family history; it’s made a huge difference.

And don’t let all your hard work go to waste, don’t wait until you’ve finished researching before you start putting together your family tree, because that never happens, there’s always something else that you can do. So keep it up as you go along and, again, this is where family-history software packages are very useful, because you can do that very nicely. But, as I said with the photographs, print it out. It’s no good having something on a family-history package, on an obsolete computer. You know you can leave it to your grandchildren in your will, but if they don’t have something that will read a five-and-a-quarter floppy disk, which some people have still got information on, it’s no damn use to anybody.

Some of you might remember in 1986, which was the big anniversary of the Domesday, and the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane made a big deal out of this, and there was a fabulous sort of modern doomsday survey that was done on laser-discs! And it’s terrific! Now, there are very few machines in existence that can read these wonderful discs now, and this is, not that long, this is only just over 20 years ago. Now, we have, actually, got at least one and I think that was because we bought it on e-Bay. It occurred to somebody that maybe we should do this.

Computer technology is relatively new, but it gets out of date very, very quickly, and, because so much family history material is now on computer, and we keep it on computer, don’t forget to keep updating it. And print it out! Belt and braces, if you’ve got an electronic copy and a hard copy, if something goes wrong with one of them you should have the other one. It’s a terrible shame to do all that work and then let it go to waste.

Now, quickly, I’ll just go some of the sources. As I said this is not really a ‘how to’, but just to give you a flavour of some of the sources that you’ll use. First of all you’ll probably use civil registration. [Shows image] And that’s a birth certificate just in case you haven’t seen one. I suspect it’s probably not news to you. And it’s an English one, not as good as the Scottish ones, but then you can’t help that.

[Shows image] And a marriage certificate. Although English death certificates are not all that good compared to most other countries, recent ones – by which I mean 1969 onwards – give a lot more information, but earlier than that, they’re not useless, but they don’t automatically lead you on the way to another stage of research in the way that births and marriages do.

Basically, the information on the birth certificate will give you enough that you can go and look for the marriage of that child’s parents, because a birth certificate, assuming the parents are married, of course, will give you the man’s full name, and the woman’s full name including her maiden name, and that is enough to look for a marriage. And a marriage certificate will give you their names, their ages; although, in this case – this is a very early one – it just says ‘of full age’, which is better than nothing, but it could be more helpful. But it will give you their names, their ages, their names of their fathers; unfortunately only the father’s, not the mother’s on an English one. But that’s still a reasonable amount of information, and armed with that you can go, basically, birth-marriage, birth-marriage, until you run out of civil registration.

Death certificates may be useful or they may tell you absolutely nothing you didn’t already know. So I would never say ignore death certificates, but the core of English research, at least, is births and marriages. And then when you get back to people who were alive in 1901 and soon, 1911 when that’s released, you can start using the census.

[Shows image]

Now, this is a census schedule that you don’t often see, but this is the paper that was given to the householder. Nowadays, you get a thumping great big booklet, but in all the one’s that are released – and 1911 which is coming out soon – it was a single sheet of paper. It got bigger as the years went on, but it was basically a single sheet of paper. On this side you filled in your name and address and these were all the instructions as to how you were to fill it in, and then is the side that you filled in.

Most of these were destroyed once they were written up into the enumeration books and that’s what we look at when we look at the census. It’s the enumerator’s copies and he puts family after family on the same page, but there are a few of these that do survive. There’s a whole chunk of them from 1851, Newcastle on Tyne. It’s not even a whole district, but there’s a whole run of them where there isn’t an enumeration book, but you’ve just got household schedules, so it’s quite nice to see those. And these are, of course, in the handwriting of probably the head of the household or at least somebody within the household.

Incidentally, when 1911 is released, that is the first census where you’d get all the household schedules – they were not written up by enumerators. So they are actually original documents, they weren’t copied. There’s no mid-stage of copying where things can go awry, you’ll get something that looks a bit like that only more elaborate.

[Shows image]

That is an a enumeration book, but this is a bit that you will often miss nowadays, because you’re typically using the census on Ancestry or some other site, and you search by name, and it goes zap, straight to the page that the ancestor’s name is on. But at the front of the enumeration book you get a nice description of the area that’s covered, and this can be quite useful. This one I rather like, because there’s a note on here that the enumerator, who happen to be the local vicar, had got an old lady upwards of 73 years of age, wrote up the enumeration book for him. My mother takes great exception to this; it was an ‘old’ lady upwards of 73. Well, my mother is 76 and she doesn’t think she’s that old at all. That’s just nice little things and sometimes you get little bits of detail about enumerators moaning about how hard the work was, and how little money they got. Occasionally, they’ll put little sketch maps in, so they’re quite nice things to look at and you will often miss those, but they are worth looking at.

[Shows image]

And that is the familiar page from a bit of the actual census and this page, it’s got nothing to do with that enumeration book, but I picked this one, because, if you can read at the very top line, the man there, his occupation is a Clerk in the Census Office. So you’d hope that his bit was very accurate indeed.  But that’s a fairly typical bit of census, there’s nothing remarkable about it at all. And those are your basic tools.

Just a word of warning, what I said about ages, this is a cartoon from 1861. It’s a rather clumsy satire on women lying about their ages, but I have to say it was quite even handed, because there is a companion page showing that men too lie about their age …

Wills and probate. Not everybody left a will, but when they did they can be terribly informative. [Shows image] Now, this one is just a single page. This is from 1924 and it’s got lots of nice, useful, family information on there. Wills are great because when you do get them they are one of the very few documents that link together various family members. You don’t really get that on many other kinds of records. And this one is lovely, you could do quite a decent family tree just from that will. You’d need other documents to make complete sense of it. For example, the man names various grandchildren, who had the same surname as himself, and all you can tell from that is that they are, presumably – and in fact they are, because I’ve checked – they are the children of his sons. But he had four sons, so you can’t tell just from that will which child belonged to which father, but it’s a pretty good start.

But the thing I really like about wills is not just the hard information, although goodness knows that helpful, but the little personal bits where they put in little phrases, and this one I rather like. [Shows image] It’s a fairly business-like will; he only leaves this amount of money to this person and that person. It’s a family of green grocers and he leaves this bit:

‘To my brother, George, the sum of £10 for a new barrow to be built by Mr Hales, East Street, Sittingbourne.’

Now, it’s the nice little personal touches that I like.

And an even better one than that is the home-made will where people are writing something down, and you know what they mean, but it doesn’t quite come out right. And this is one that – I didn’t find this someone else did – but I think it’s absolutely lovely:

‘I would like to leave to the Salvation Army the clothes, which belonged to my dear wife before she entered paradise, hanging in the wardrobe.’

On her way to Narnia no doubt! [Laughter] But that’s, that’s just a beautiful thing.

Another very common thing are service records.  Most families have got somebody who was involved in one of the armed services. And, although, there’s a lot of stuff for the First World War, and, well, Second World War Records aren’t released yet, there’s still an awful lot that goes further back.

[Shows image]

This one, though, this is rather nice. This is from the First World War. This is a sort of relative by marriage of mine, James Calderhead, and this is him joining up in 1914, terribly keen. He was extremely keen. He says there he was 19, in fact a few months later they discovered that no, he wasn’t actually 19. You see it says there, ‘Date of birth: ‘According to birth certificate, 25th March 1901’, which would make him 13 when he enlisted. Actually, he wasn’t, he was 25th March 1900, but he was still way too young to join the army, and then ‘discharged confirmed’. Technically, that was a medical discharge on the grounds of immaturity and he must have been terribly keen to get away from home, because in 1915 he had another go. So this time he was actually 15 and he applied and he got in, and then a few months later they caught up with him and flung him out again, and then after that he actually joined the Navy. And by this time, he was still a bit too young to serve, but he was obviously a bit older and a bit bigger and the Navy hung on to him. Determined or what?

Service records. [Shows image] That’s a First World War one, but it’s actually very, very similar in format to the one’s that you’ll get a hundred years earlier than that. The earlier ones have got a bit less detail, but they’re still broadly similar, and they’ve got a lot of lovely information. And the best ones are actually for the other ranks, for the private soldiers and the ordinary able seaman, because you get physical descriptions; you get height, you get chest expansion, you get scars, colour of hair, colour of eyes. Wonderful! Not just for the enrichment of the lives of 21st Century genealogists. It was because pre-photography, if the man deserted you had a good detailed description to put out, and the Navy one’s are particularly good, because they often had tattoos, which they describe in loving detail.  That’s just a sort of thing that you will probably find some member of your family in.

Parish registers, very briefly. [Shows image] This is what a Baptism Register looks like; from 1813 onwards there was a nice set formula. You’ve got columns, you’ve got the name, and you’ve got the name of the father, the name of the mother, unfortunately, not her maiden name, except in very rare cases, and occupation, and an address of some kind. The level of detail varies. What you don’t get, usually, is the date of birth. Sometimes you do, but generally it wasn’t required. Earlier than that, the only requirement was the Parish Registers were kept, and the level of detail varied according to the whim of the clergyman, and generally it was less rather than more, though there are exceptions.

[Shows image] This is a marriage and they look terribly pretty. Again, this was the form of marriages from 1753 up to 1837. It doesn’t, unfortunately, tell you a great deal although it looks rather nice. It’s the first thing you notice about parish registers. When you’ve gone through civil registration and then you emerge out the other side of 1837, the first thing you notice that you get less information on baptisms, marriages, and burials, than you do on births, deaths and marriages. That just means that you have to try and find other sources to supplement it. [Shows image] Again, that’s a burial register from, again, from 1813 onwards. You don’t get very much there, but at least they’re legible and they’re in columns.

Newspapers – one of my very favourites, and they’re becoming increasingly accessible, because a lot of them are being scanned and digitised and indexed after a fashion. [Shows image] And this is, again, just an ordinary man, about 100 years ago he died. He had served in the Crimean War; he was a Sergeant, and yet the most fabulous account of his funeral. He didn’t rise beyond the rank of Sergeant; he wasn’t a big, local dignitary or anything. He was just an ordinary serving soldier. He died in the garrison town where they did make a big deal out of old soldiers, but there’s a most magnificent account of his funeral, and all the relatives who were there and the one’s who couldn’t attend because they lived in Canada.

[Shows image] That is an engraving taken from a photograph and unfortunately it doesn’t reproduce well by the time it’s been copied a few times, but one of the details about him was that in the Crimea he’d lost an eye. So the original engraving of that you can see that there’s a sort of socket where one of his eyes used to be, it’s rather wonderful.

And this one is another [Shows image] … Bad news is good news. If you find a sudden, untimely death, it brings out the nasty side in family historians. You think: ‘Oh, goody, there’ll be an inquest!’ And this was a fairly unremarkable one, it was just somebody who had collapsed and died in his own home. He’d been ill for some time, and I won’t read it all out, but the level of detail!

‘The deceased’s lungs in an advanced state of dilation, the right lung overlapping the left, and the heart was greatly enlarged, and weighed 24 ounces, where the normal weight was only ten to twelve.’

Well, just how much detail do you want about your ancestor? And newspapers are often worth following up, one of my very favourites.

And, finally, you’ll be glad to know, just a little bit about record offices and catalogues, I have touched on this. This is a genuine catalogue description of a document here in The National Archives and you can look this up: ‘Sundry loose papers, more or less interesting.’


Now, I’ve looked at them and on balance I would say less, but it’s just a wonderful illustration that it’s just not possible to catalogue everything in the detail that we would like. So there’s always the possibility that you will find something wonderful. So if you ordered the wrong document by mistake, always have a look, you never know what might be in it, and they’re just full of surprises. And you are just as likely to make an astonishing discovery, as an experienced researcher. It’s just great. And that you will be relieved to know is that and now you’re going to rush off, full of ideas, and do all sorts of family history I hope, or if you don’t, I’ll never know.


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