I recently watched Stephen Fry uncover the hidden secrets of his family history on Who Do You Think You Are, and was quite captivated by something he said. At the start of his trip down genealogy lane he described his initial reaction to uncovering the past of his ancestors.
It's amazing how intimately interwoven with history we all are".
Now while most of the words that Mr. Fry utters are cause for interest and intrigue, these particular words made me think, an admitted rarity for my tennis ball brain. However having recently lost my grandparents, I became acutely aware of what I've missed out on. I rarely asked them what it was like to live through the war, what they did and how it changed their lives. Stupid really. Many of us spend our time reading about what it was like, watching a documentary on National Geographic or stumbling through the pages of Wikipedia, intent on correctly answering a general knowledge question on the dates of Stalingrad (yes those little wedges in Trivial Pursuit are important). But surely getting first hand knowledge from your family over a cup of tea and a hob-nob is much more interesting. An emotive experience that is almost impossible to replicate with the idle click of a mouse. All of the experiences, trials and tribulations our ancestors went through, make us what we are today.
New research on Behavioural Epigenetics has made the connection between our ancestors and ourselves much closer than we think. It highlights that the experiences of our parents, grandparents etc. leave molecular scars on our DNA, influencing the way we actually behave. If our grandmother experienced neglect as a child, then we can become predisposed to depression and anxiety. No longer to be used as a metaphor, but understanding our past really does help us understand who we are today.
So, with all this rushing through my little yellow brain, I signed myself up for a free beginners course in genealogy at the Society of Genealogists in London. Better late than never.
The talk was taken by Else Churchill, and apart from being rather interesting, had some useful tips for beginners that have no idea (like myself) on how, or where to start researching our family history. So for all of you who would like to understand your past a little better, here are some of the tips.
Speak with your family An obvious place to start, but do it sooner rather than later. If your grandparents can give you the names of their grandparents, what they did, when they were born, then you can quite easily cover off 100 years during a 5-minute conversation. Write down everything you know somewhere safe and use this as a springboard for the rest of your research. If you don't mind looking or feeling like a reporter, you can always ask if you can record the conversation. Not only will this be a useful record, but a sentimental reminder for the generations to come.
Sketch your family tree
Depending on your own artistic ability, you may decide to draw this yourself, or there are many free online services that allow you to start creating a family tree. It's not that complicated (although completing it may be a challenge) and try to use the correct terminology (m=marriage b=birth d=death MBD in short). If possible make copies of your initial findings as its likely mistakes will be made. Update your original or master copy only when you've confirmed the information is correct.
Be aware of different spellings My own surname has changed over the years. I've had C's replaced with X's, the letter "A" has completely vanished and I'm starting to wonder if my ancestors were all criminals, intent on hiding their identity from the authorities. However, the point is, that just like the English language, surnames can change over time. Be aware of any alterations especially if you come across a dead-end.
Rummage Behaving like a badger can uncover many surprising and useful finds. We all have those boxes that are hidden under the bed or at the back of closets, filled with letters, documents and things we can't bring ourselves to throw away.
Things to look out for are:
- Service records during the war
- Birth, death and marriage certificates
- Books with inscriptions on the inside cover (bibles apparently often have these)
- Photo's, again look on the back for any notes
Archive and storage
When you start to collect and organise your research, try to keep a trail of all the documents, certificates, letters and photos in chronological order. Old documents may be fragile and you'll want to keep them either in an acid free genealogy storage box, or in varying sized acid-free pocket refill sleeves within a binder album organiser to keep them safe and prevent further deterioration when showing them to your friends and family.
Places to research
When you've exhausted the research you can conduct at home it will be time to venture further afield. There are many sources for gathering your genealogical information. Some will be free, others, like ordering birth certificates from the General Register Office, will come with a relatively small fee.
Places to research include:
- Online. There are literally hundreds of genealogy websites.
- Specialist archives
- Parish records
- Local family history societies
- Census records (only available from 1844-1911)
- Wills, birth, death and marriage certificates
Magazines to help with research
There are a number of family history magazines that can also provide advice, tips and research information.
- Who Do You think You Are
- Family History
- Family Tree
- Your Family Tree
- Discover your ancestors
- Discover Your Ancestors
A good example was given on the process of compiling your family tree. If you know the name of your great-grandfather, order a copy of his birth certificate from the General Register Office. On this document will be the names of his parents. And so another step backwards-in time has been taken. You can then continue this journey, or investigate the various lives and experiences of the people you come across. After all, what they went through and the choices they made, have a large part to play in your existence on this planet. Without them we'd still be just a twinkle in the milkman's eye.
Hi: Your name popped for me as my mother is a Huxted in Saskatchewan Canada. Her father was 3 yrs when his parent first came to canada in 1906. I have traced the line back to 1767 in Selling/Sheldwich Kent and of course I have now come to a halt. It is good to see another family member working on their ancestry.
Annette Randall (from Thomas Huxsted 1767-1812 of Selling family)