Sunday, November 02, 2014


Many years ago, I read a book called "Farnham's Freehold'. It was a science fiction work by one of the great, though unknown of outside of SF circles, SF authors Robert Heinlein.

In this book, the author's 'heroes' suffer a variety of adventures including one in which they visit a world where the pinnacle of research is achieved by reading, digesting and analysing the works of others; the 'researcher' then decides which of the perused works, or which combination of their conclusions, gives the most logical and sensible answers to the problem being investigated. One fundamental factor is that the 'researcher' never gets their own hands dirty; they simply review the work of others.

That this is a horribly flawed approach to research is obvious to most. Sadly, it is not obvious to many of today's generation, particularly those who profess an interest in family history research. For many of this benighted generation 'research' means little more than trawling the internet, finding anything that vaguely fits in with what they would like to believe, and then asking questions of any contacts they can make. The result is a mish-mash of so-called 'family trees' that are a mixture of truth, half-truth, possibility and pure fantasy. These people call themselves researchers but are, in fact, simple plagiarists and fools, looking for simple answers to complex problems. The idea of conducting genuine research is far beyond them.

I've recently had the misfortune to be contacted by one such 'researcher' who has sent a succession of illiterate and vague questions, having found my on-line family tree. The tree is free and available for anyone to view, but this 'researcher' needs me to explain it all, and my position in it, to him. He's never said 'please' or 'thank you' for the responses I've given him already and simply asks for 'more', Oliver Twist style but without the necessity.

While researching one's family background is a wonderful pastime and can be extremely rewarding, it has to be done with proper understanding and genuine effort. Simply picking names from the internet is not enough, it's not even research; it's a bit of nonsense

Steer clear of such idiots if you can.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Now that you've gleaned all you can from close family members and drawn up a first draft of your family tree, the next step is to try to confirm what you've been told.
It is particularly important not to simply accept what great aunt Mildred told you without checking her story. In my own tree, my paternal grandfather was said to have had 4 sisters, 1 of whom died unmarried at about the age of 21; his father was, supposedly, Irish. The truth was somewhat different. His father did, indeed, have Irish ancestry but he had been born in London; the sister who died unmarried at the age of 21 actually had married her first cousin and died at the age of 25. She also had a daughter of whom no one in my branch of the tree had ever heard. To add to this story of hidden facts, my grandfather had an aunt who had 10 children, though she never married, and was the mother of the husband of my grandfather's sister who died. No one in my branch of the family had ever heard of this wayward aunt, and none of this was knowledge passed down to me by family members; it only came to light through in depth checking and cross-checking of what had been said.
For an overview of UK Genealogy and the available resources, the website at GenUKI cannot be beaten; a trawl through its pages will benefit everyone interested in researching their family history. There are a number of websites that carry indexes of birth marriage and death registrations, some of which are free. Checking to find the existence of these events for your ancestors is an essential element in confirming the accuracy of your tree; sometimes, it will be necessary to 'bite the bullet' and order a copy of a certificate, either from the relevant local Register Office or from the General Register Office  at Southport. Civil registration was introduced in England and Wales from 1st July 1837 and in Scotland from 1st January 1855; in Ireland, some marriages were registered from 1845 and all events were supposed to be registered from 1864. Before these dates, researchers have to rely on the parish records which generally contain less detail and can be more difficult to locate.
The other most used source for family history details are the censuses, conducted in the UK every 10 years since 1801. The first 4, those for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, have mostly not survived and, where they have, are of very limited use. From 1841, the census recorded greater detail and, theoretically, listed every single person in the country; the bulk of these later censuses have survived, with a few lost elements here and there, and are now searchable on a variety of websites. However, be prepared to find that not everyone was actually recorded and also be prepared to find that the details recorded may not be correct - ages and birthplaces can be particularly problematic. The third major issue affecting census records is that the transcriptions are often erroneous in one or more details, meaning that searching often has to be inventive and it is always necessary to look at the original record to be sure of what was recorded. UK census records are currently available up to 1911, a 100 years closure rule being in operation.
Indexes for the birth, marriage and death records from 1837 can be searched at a number of websites including :
The first of these sites is free but only has BMD records, though it has sister sites with limited access to both census and parish records; the second is also free but has a vast range of records from all over the world, including census records. The others all require payment, either through subscription or purchase of credits, but also have other records including census, parish, wills and much more. Scotland's people, as its name implies, carries only Scottish records. Indexes of the Irish records of civil registration are available at the Family Search and Ancestry websites, though only up until 1922; Irish census records have almost all been lost.

With information gained from the above, you should now be able to start making real progress in your quest to identify more of your ancestry, well back into the mid, and even early, years of the 19th century. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012


If, despite my warnings, you've decided that family history is for you, then your first step has to be to talk to your living relatives, the older the better.
My maternal grandfather died before I was born and his wife died when I was 12, so I had no real chance to find out anything from either of them. To add to the difficulties on this side of my family, both were born abroad and neither ever passed on much knowledge to their children. In fact, until I started investigating the family, my mother was unaware that her mother came from Germany rather than Switzerland as she had always let people believe, and didn't even know the name of her own maternal grandmother. I still haven't made any progress at all with the family of my grandfather on this side.
My father's family has been a bit easier as, although my grandfather died when I was 13, my grandmother lived to be 96 and I was able to talk to her at length. Details that she passed on gave me a starting point and continue to provide confirmation with various discoveries I've made in the archives.
If grandparents aren't around, try finding elderly aunts and uncles or, better still, great aunts and uncles. Try talking to cousins whose own parents may have learnt more about their ancestors than did yours. Some may even have old photographs or documents of which your own parents are unaware.
Once you've gained as much knowledge as you can from these investigations, draw up a family tree with as much detail as you have. Only then should you really start to get stuck into the business of researching, be it on the internet or in archives. With the information you've already obtained from family members, what you find from further research will have a solid foundation as you'll be able to more easily dismiss misleading lines of enquiry, at least in the early generations.
With a solid base, your tree will grow reliably, unlike many that are around today.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Anyone who intends researching their family's history needs to consider a few points before they start.
First and foremost, are they properly prepared for what they may find ? While most of us today have little concern about illegitimacy, it can come as bit of a shock to discover that granny wasn't only illegitimate, she was abandoned at birth and brought up in the local workhouse. Worse still, her mother went on to have another 8 or 9 children and never married any of the fathers; she may even have worked as a prostitute and was probably an alcoholic.
If any part of the above shocks you, don't even think of starting to invetsigate; if it intrigues you, then carry on. In my own tree, I have evidence of most of the situations outlined, plus the likelihood of a murder or 2, armed robbers, instances of bigamy, lots of adultery and so on, and so on. Far from being horrified, I find it all quite fascinating, but not everyone does. Some people find such situations, even when backed up by solid evidence, wholly unpalatable and will go as far as to deny the truth and cut off communication with the perpetrator of what they see as 'wicked lies'.
Secondly, do they understand that family history is not something that can be 'done' in a few hours or days; it is an all-consuming passion that can take over your life. If you're prepared to spend hours, days, weeks and years researching, then get on with it; if your idea of constructing a family tree is to copy the unsourced work of others, don't bother.
Finally, while researching family history is cheaper than some hobbies, it does have its costs, which can be significant. Joining websites such as 'Ancestry' , 'Find My Past'  and 'The Genealogist' can cost up to £150 per year for each, copies of birth, marriage and death certificates cost £9.25 each and other documents, such as parish register extracts or Wills also have a cost attached. Incurring all of these costs isn't essential but without the help that can be gained from these sources, the research process is made much more difficult.

For those who are not put off by any of these issues, carry on ! For those who find the potential hurdles a little daunting, perhaps they should stick to gardening.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


There was a time when I was a new family historian and was very keen to not only learn all I could but also to pass on the little that I did know to others. In those days, internet genealogy was a relatively new innovation and there was much to be learnt from various lists and newsgroups. I even became so arrogant with my own expertise as to create my own advice 'Blog' together with a list of websites that provided useful information for other researchers. This list was, at the time, considered good enough to be publicised by the Rootsweb London list and was appreciated by many members of the list.
Since that far off time much of my advice has fallen by the wayside and many of the websites probably no longer exist; something that hasn't changed, however, is the validity of the advice I gave about being sure of one's research. What has changed is the number of websites that purport to show family trees that have been researched when, in reality, they are based on nothing other than the ill-researched work of someone else. Websites such as 'Ancestry' and 'Genes Reunited' do excellent work in providing access to huge amounts af information but, at the same time, proliferate huge amounts of rubbish. Ancestry, in particular, allows its members to simply copy the tree of one member to that of another and many people never bother to check the authenticity of what they are adding to their own trees. Consequently, there are many trees on the Ancestry website that are composed of little more than utter drivel.
When I started, tracing family history was still a relatively difficult task, with very limited digital resources. Much of the work had to be done by visiting dusty ofices and trawling through vast tomes, in order to trace the one relevant record that you needed. Today, much, though by no means all, can be accomplished on the internet; there is no doubt that the task is easier. The problem is that many people fail to understand that ease of access may not always lead to correct answers. Transcriptions of records are frequently wrong and there is no substitute for looking at the original record. Many of these, although available online, have not been indexed and are, consequently, just as difficult to research as they were in the 'old days'.
I am increasingly fed up with the efforts of the morons who copy trees with no conception of their accuracy or of the relevance to their own. The lack of any sort of rigour in the construction of these nonsensical trees is not only an unending problem for proper family historians but is also a source of nothing but confusion for future generations. In common with any academic discipline, Family History is a subject which deserves proper effort, thought and consideration; those who undertake it should approach it in this light. They should not see it as an easy bit of fluff with which to adorn their lives, together with some entirely fictitious 'family crest' to which they have no right. Sadly, far too many do.