one of the presents i’m working on for christmas is a family tree. This is for my grandmother (who doesn’t read this blog… or rather, she does, but she reads it on paper – she doesn’t like computers – and its Mum who prints them out for her. Mom – don’t print this entry out for her!!) and my great aunt (who is 92 and doesn’t do computers either!). In fact, they’re sisters, so their geneology trees are going to be very very similar.

So i kick started the family history research. This has been an ongoing project of mine for the last 10-15 years now. I started with my grandmother, who put together a photo album of some of my relatives, many of whom i’d no idea existed. She also wrote out her memoirs, a small A5 clip file full of pages describing her life, her childhood, her family. Its an amazing thing to have done, considering she wrote it out in hand, and a few years afterwards i transcribed it to computer (although i’ve since lost the electronic copy of that and will have to type it all out again). Other relatives have added to the photo album, some of them going back years – i have a photo of my grandfather’s grandfather with his family around 1901 in West Ham, London – that’s an original. Its not the oldest one i possess though – another great aunt gave me a copy of a photograph from 1898, which depicts the same grandfather’s other great grandparents, on their golden wedding anniversary, surrounded by their children/grandchildren (and as such, it shows not only them, grandad’s grandparents and his mother as a young woman).

Obviously the age of the internet has made searching for relatives in days gone by a great deal easier and for years i tried to use the free resources that are out there. Access to the Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes are free, although its sometimes difficult to know which listing is your ancestor if you don’t know their date of birth, and the indexes don’t give information on the parents, or the specific date of birth (just the quarter and the year). For that information you must get copies of the birth certificates. For the marriage indexes, you can sometimes work out who the spouse was, as each page often only has 4 listings – 2 men and 2 women, thus giving you a choice of 2. to be sure you must order the marriage certificate. A similar state of affairs exists for the death indexes: scant details, for information such as cause and date of death, you must order the marriage certificate.

Obviously this can wind up expensive, so the release of the Population Censuses has been an absolute godsend for most researchers. Although some sites have free guest membership, often only one of the census returns is available to search, and you must pay to view the others. I finally got frustrated with this state of affairs and took out paid membership last week, and sat down to examine all the census returns. They do enable, once someone is found on the censuses, to backtrack to their childhood and often, find out at least the name of their father, and the christian name of the mother (she would’ve been listed by her married name on the census, not her maiden name). The census returns for 1841 (limited in scope), 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 are available. More recent returns aren’t yet available as the government has a duty to protect the privacy of the living. I assume the 1911 census will be made available in 1911.

Using both the census and the BMD indexes, plus other sources (family and newspapers, military rolls etc) it is possible to go back in most cases to the turn of the 19th century. I’ve managed to go back to the 1780s, back 6 generations. In the process i’ve found some fascinating stories: finding one ancestor had married once, had children (including my ancestor), then his wife died, and in the census return following her death he’s listed as living with the children.. and his niece.. in the following census, said niece is now married to her uncle!! I was most worried by this until my mom told me that “niece” was often used as a euphemism for a mistress. Phew!  It was also something of a shotgun wedding – their first child was born between 3 and 6 months after the wedding. Quite scandalous for the 1860s! Another lady showed true Victorian grit – she’s recorded in one of the later censuses as being a matron in a hospital, the head matron in fact.. at the age of 84. Quite incredible.

Although i’ve managed to go back this far, my job now is to correlate all the records: make sure each family member listed has the appropriate census returns attached to them, find all the brothers and sisters of each ancestor, and follow the links down as far as possible.. It’d be wonderful to find modern day descendents of some of these people. Sometimes its possible to find others who are also charting their ancestors, and find you’ve ancestors in common – this is a lovely way of expanding your research very quickly.

Its a time consuming job, and i think i will probably have to write an essay or somesuch for my grandmother to accompany the family tree (which will be framed) with information about all the people i’m uncovering. I think – i hope – it’ll be a really special present for both her and my great aunt (who presented a copy of the last lot of research i did to the town museum where her family came from), especially with all the new information i’ve been able to find out.