There aren’t a whole bunch of positives to be found in having a chronic illness and being confined to bed for weeks on end!
One thing I do have to thank my illness for is my newfound passion for ancestry research.
Since 2014, I’ve been putting together a comprehensive family tree and I must say, it’s now one of my favourite hobbies. At last count there were 1,964 people on my tree.
I’m still not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I have fits and starts of dedication to the cause (though this can sometimes actually be helpful, I’ll tell you why later) but I’ve really enjoyed researching and uncovering details about my ancestors and working out how everything and everyone fits together. It’s so satisfying when you find a new clue, or relative, and it’s also been a great conversation starter when I’ve had periods of being inactive for a long time – rather than just saying to my mum ‘I’ve been in bed all day’ I can actually say ‘did you know you are descended from Romany royalty!’
In fact, my mum and I went on a family history trip to Liverpool a couple of years back for her birthday. Through my research we had found addresses, cemeteries and areas associated with her dad’s family – it was such an emotional and rewarding trip and a great excuse to spend the weekend with my mum exploring a new city.
I’m also a real nosey parker – I should have been an anthropologist – so finding out every little detail about people’s lives makes me very excited!
Anyway, now that I’m a few years into my journey I thought I would share with you my top 5 tips for starting off a family tree, and some of my favourite discoveries – I hope it’s helpful. Happy hunting!
1. Begin with, YOU! (And what’s around you.)
Fact: there is absolutely no substitute for oral history, and that which you keep in a shoebox under your bed. Without doubt – my first piece of advice is to look at what is under your nose. Photographs, documents, certificates, letters and so forth will give you so many clues to get started! Aside from this, talk to your family! Seems obvious, but as someone who has no direct aunties and uncles, no grandparents and no older siblings I really am envious of those who can pop round to their grandmother’s house and ask all about the family tree. For me, I’ve had to ask my parents to wrack their brains, and I’ve remembered old stories my grandmother told me before she died. Silly things like names of dogs can be strangely helpful! I relied massively on the paper trail though, and I’ve studied photographs and documents in ways I never thought possible! I digitized all my old photographs, and put them online, as well as birth, marriage and death certificates for my immediate family. I have been amazed at the number of people who have been in touch since, and given me further clues – they had just been waiting for my branch of the family to upload a sign of existence!
Also, it does help to begin by starting the tree with you! Your date of birth, marriage etc, and details of your parents – you’ll start getting hints extremely quickly and can work backwards from there. One thing I’ve been sure to do is write down EVERY substantial date on my online tree, where I’ve lived, what I studied at university, when I met my husband. No ancestor of mine is going to wonder what my life was all about (although perhaps the mystique is part of the charm?!)
2. Keep track:
Learn from my mistake here! This is a simple one, but one which I forgot in the excitement of a tonne of sexy online documents. Write things down. Make notes of key dates, save copies of documents in a folder online. Back up all your findings on a memory stick. Family trees can grow rapidly – very quickly. Something I realized when I reached 500 family members in about a week and then completely lost track! You’ll have very similar names within the tree, so keep note of which William is which, and which John is married to which Anne! I now have notebooks for each set of grandparents going back through the generations and it makes starting up again after a break much easier.
3. The census is your best friend – study it well.
I’m just going to use a particular example from my own family tree to illustrate this.
There had long been rumors in my family that we were descended from Romany Gypsies on my maternal great grandfather’s side. Guess what – most travellers (particularly in the 1800s) weren’t easy to pin down! Neither did they read and write, so documentation is harder to find. Again, use that oral history folks, all this research came from an age-old whisper in the family.
But the 1851-1911 censuses gave me some vital clues to confirm that yes; I am descended from a very well known gypsy family.
So, how did the census tell me this? I had to work from the present, backwards. My great-grandfather is first recorded on the 1911 census. The family owned a farm by this point – nothing particularly interesting there – but the location of each child’s birth gave me reason to investigate further. Shropshire, Gloucester, Oswestry, Montgomery, Haverfordwest. Some would deduce that they were moving around a lot, no? The border counties were also prime areas for travelling sites.
Let’s move on to the occupation of my great-great grandfather in the 1861 census. Hawker – Horse Dealer – Razor Grinder – Basket Maker. He sure did have a lot of trades – all of which were common amongst travellers.
And then we go right back to 1851. At first it didn’t look too promising in terms of detail – but then I took a closer look at the address. Forest Road seemed legitimate enough – but on closer inspection, above it faintly in pencil (and in neighboring ‘homes’) the word ‘Tent.’
There we have it– by working backwards through three census sheets – I had deduced that at some point, my great granddad’s family had been travellers. I subsequently found lots of articles about said family, I will link it below.
4. Think laterally to solve road-blocks – and don’t be afraid to take a break.
Family hunting can be extremely fun, enjoyable and rewarding. It can also be the most frustrating thing in the world! Here are a couple of things that tripped me up, and what you can do to move forward.
A) Search for name variations. I have a great granddad called Worell. Now, is that Worell, or Worrell, or perhaps Worell, or how about Warell? In fact – it’s all of the above. He is recorded under various different names on different official documents. Add his surname Price – which can also be spelt Pryce – and you’ll see how a letter can be extremely significant!
B) Newspapers can be helpful. I have family down in Cardigan in West Wales, and searching for the name of a pub they once owned gave me huge clues when I was stuck. Seeing an article about drunken behavior in the Ceredigion herald told me that my great-great grandfather Captain William Owen Thomas was away at sea and his wife had become landlady, which opened all sorts of new doors!
C) Don’t forget siblings. You might just be looking for direct relatives, but siblings can often lead you to new and unexpected discoveries and information. A brother or sister might provide the names of parents in a record while your own direct ancestor did not. Tracing wide instead of deep into family lines can also identify distant cousins, aunts and uncles who might have useful information.
D) Before becoming too frustrated, don’t be afraid to take a short break from your research. Putting away your research for a few hours, days, or weeks allows you to approach your research with a fresh set of eyes. Many genealogists find that taking a longer break can be beneficial as new record sets may appear online that provides important information that moves the research forward.
5) Use the ancestry community & be generous in sharing your own knowledge.
One thing I have definitely found to be true, is that other people are the best source of help when trying to locate ancestors. The genealogy community is so friendly and inclusive – it’s one of my fave things about my new hobby. Don’t be afraid to reach out to real people (shock horror!) in your search for the past. There are numerous blogs and social media groups you can comment on or join. You could enquire about local genealogists, or even visit a local record collection or library.
However, If you discover information about one of your ancestors on an internet forum or online tree, always double check the facts before adding the data to your own tree.
And finally – share your own knowledge – you may have the answer to a road block that someone has been ruminating over for months!
The Internet can be a brilliant tool for contacting relatives and finding data.
The Society of Genealogist website has useful free information leaflets with guides to starting your family history and links to useful websites
Additionally, the GENUKI website has lots of free information and links to local experts and sources for the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Here are some of my favourite findings so far:
- I always knew I had wandering blood, and I do love a good story. Here’s the detail on my Romany Price relatives, which also contains interesting information and help for others searching for Romany / Travelling ancestors. Romani Cymru
- Searching through Naval records to find details of my great granddad’s appearance. He had a Welsh Three Feathers tattoo – I don’t know why but that filled me with a lot of pride. and felt like an intimate detail about someone I love, but never met. My Great Uncle who also served in the Navy was apparently unusually short (I blame him for my vertically challenged nature!) and had ‘piercing blue eyes’ – lush!
- Finding out where my funny bone came from. Through a fellow relative hunter’s work, I found out that one of the original Goons, Sir Harry Secombe was a cousin of mine. Still searching for my connection to Spike Milligan.
- Wondering why I am so rubbish at sport, when it so obviously runs in my blood. I’ve always been proud of my cousin Gareth Williams who is a well- known rugby player and former British and Irish Lion. But my connections to Welsh sporting greats don’t stop there. My maternal grandfather has gifted me a cousin in rugby player Deiniol Jones, my cousin Christian Williams is a successful horse jockey, two great Uncles were Welsh International football players, and another was a very well respected international football referee.
- My family nearly averted the sinking of the Titanic. You’ve heard of man flu. Well, my great uncle, Howard Thomas, was second in line to captain the Titanic, but he couldn’t, because, in April 1912, he had a cold (apparently!) However, the rumours in my family are that he wasn’t well connected enough or posh enough, so they gave the job to Smith instead. What could have been ey!
- Another great uncle – Morgan Walters founded the Labour Party in the Rhondda. Here’s a chapter on him in a book about Welsh history.
- Most importantly however, has been finding new relatives for my mum. My mum was an only child, and lost all her grandparents and parents young – there was also a falling out in her family which meant she grew up thinking she had no family. She now has cousins in Portsmouth, Bristol, Kent, America and Canada (and I’m not finished yet!) coming across these relatives online has been life affirming and life changing, and goes to show there are answers out there that will make a difference to someone’s life.
Let me know if you have any further tips and I will add them on!