Climbing-the-Family-Tree by sdaferv


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									Climbing the Family Tree A CILIP Information Services Group (London & South East) one day seminar led by John Hanson FSG - 21st November 2008

The seminar aimed to give librarians an overview of the tools and resources available to those wishing to research the subject of family history, a topic which has attracted widespread interest in recent years, especially in the wake of television programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ John divided the day into five sections with each lecture focusing on a particular aspect of genealogical research. The introduction focused on a number of reasons why people might be interested in researching their past, such as curiosity or a desire to preserve the past for future generations. John also passed on a number of very useful hints and suggestions for the would-be researcher, such as videotaping interviews and getting in touch with local societies to share resources and tips. A large number of books cater for amateur researchers, such as the highly popular, ‘My Ancestor Was A…’ series. Magazines too can be a good way of keeping up to date with recent developments, as well as the internet of course. John mentioned a number of sites such Cindi’s List ( and Genuki ( Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths started in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. Birth, marriages and deaths are of course amongst the vital pieces of any family history puzzle, yet they must be consulted with caution. Prior to 1874 it was the district registrar’s duty to record births within his given area, yet after this period, it became the responsibility of the parent, who was obliged to inform the registrar within 42 days of the child’s birth. The parents’ answers to certain questions can also be misleading. A woman’s husband for example, is not necessarily the father of her child, as was apparent in a number of examples. Place of residence can be equally misleading, as a couple need only reside in an area for 15 days for it to be considered their legal residence. The stated occupation can also causes problems with some exaggerating their status, or simply not telling the truth. At the moment, none of these certificates can be seen online for England, Ireland or Wales. The printed versions are now housed in Christchurch and are not accessible, but they can still be consulted on microfiche in a number of libraries. The indexes can however, be accessed online and a number of sites allow paying subscribers to do this, the most popular being Find My Past ( Ancestry ( and The Genealogist ( For Scotland there is fortunately only one website which is Scotlands People (


These records can also be viewed via a number of free sites such as FreeBMD ( but it should be remembered that such sites rely on volunteers to retype entries. Parish records are a valuable source of information on baptisms, marriages and burials. These were kept before civil registration started and continue to be recorded. However, whilst there is a legal requirement for Church of England records to be deposited at county record offices there is no such requirement for Non-Conformist records. Some parish records can be viewed on the free website Family Search (, but as with using the paid sites Find my Past and Ancestry, you need to use the websites with care as there may be transcription errors and they there isn’t a complete coverage. John explained that we shouldn’t always assume we know where people got married, baptised or buried. Just because someone died in a particular place doesn’t mean they were also buried there. Migration is a very important, not to say problematic aspect of research that almost every amateur genealogist will encounter at some point. Our ancestors travelled a lot more than we often give them credit for due to a number of reasons. Some emigrated to seek a better life and new fortune. Some travelled due to the nature of their work, railway engineers being a good example, and some were forcibly expelled, such as convicts who as often as not, never returned. A good place to start is the Ships List ( which contains a selection of details as to passenger lists, although it should be remembered that there were no records kept prior to 1890 and no records at all with regard to travel within Europe. Interestingly enough, records were often more rigorously kept at the point of arrival rather than departure. A number of good websites for research purpose are Rootsweb ( Moving Here ( and of course, The National Archives ( John also mentioned the Family History Centre, a wonderful resource located just opposite the Science Museum which has a vast array of research tools and material ( Mention was also made of a number of websites which specialise in documents relating to commonwealth countries, such as Canada, New Zealand, India and Australia. The Victorian census is the one instance where copies of the original documents can be accessed online. The originals cannot be consulted, although it was possible to view them in the past. This is part of the reason why the 1861 census contains so many missing or damaged pages, as viewers were known to tear out pages that related to ancestors. Microfilm and microfiche copies of the census for England and Wales are available at the National Archives at Kew. It should be remembered that not all websites have a complete set of records and although Ancestry appears to have a better overall coverage, in many ways Find My Past is a better website.


The eagerly awaited 1911 census which is scheduled to go online next year will initially only be available through Find My Past. At the present, only Ancestry has a public library license, but this may well change in the next few years and libraries may well have the chance to choose between subscribing to either Ancestry or Find My Past in the future. The census is obviously an invaluable tool, but sadly, there are gaps. The 1931 census was destroyed during the second world war and there was no census taken during 1940, again due to the war, although interestingly, ration books were maintained through this period which provide a fascinating source of information. The first census was carried out in 1801 although few sections prior to 1841 survive. The first census to be of particular use is that of 1851 as it has the date of birth, and relationship of the members of a household to its head, although here, as almost everywhere else, caution must be exercised. ‘Son’ for example could actually stand for ‘Son-in-law’, or even ‘Step-son’. It’s hoped that the 1911 census will answer a number of questions that have puzzled researchers for some time. For example, it will be possible to see the actual schedule that the householder filled out. It will also have a woman’s maiden name as well as the number of years she has been married to her husband as well as how many children they had and how many died. John briefly presented a number of reasons why ancestors may not appear, ranging from the simple, such as they weren’t in the country to the more complex such as the enumerator making a mistake or failure to provide information. Those serving in the armed forces are a particularly good example, as those who were abroad would not be on the census whereas those quartered in barracks would. The census is also bedevilled with transcription errors. ‘George’ would often be transcribed as ‘Geroge’ and likewise ‘Joseph’ was transformed into ‘Jospech’. One useful principle for searching was that less is actually more. Specific searches often result in few or even no hits being returned. A good tip is often to leave out the first name or even the gender. It’s not uncommon to find male names such as ‘Henry’ entered as ‘female’. John suggested searching just by initials or occupation or place of birth if you are having difficulty tracking down an ancestor or are not sure of a surname. John rounded off the afternoon by briefly discussing a number of other sources, some of which are often over looked. Newspapers provide a good example of this as they prove to be a valuable source of births, deaths and marriages. They can also contain a wealth of information about local events and happenings. The British Library’s newspaper library is sadly closing in 2012, their holdings are being transferred to Boston Spa, but a number will still be available on microfilm at the British Library. A large number of our ancestors served in the armed forces in past conflicts and there are a number of records which can provide information on personnel. The National Archives at Kew are an obvious starting point, but many documents are now available


online. A notable site is the Commonwealth War Graves ( which lists those who died in the two world wars, including civilians. Find My Past, as always, is very useful, providing details of where soldiers where from and when they enlisted during the Great War. Ancestry has access to some service and pension records and medal rolls. Military records are often very thorough and can therefore be of great assistance to researchers. Fortunately, the internet caters well for those who wish to investigate this aspect of family history, a selection of websites includes Western Front Association (, Roll of Honour ( and World War One Overview ( Wills and trade directors can be a useful if often forgotten source of information. Wills sometimes appear online but searches are often hampered due to a lack of an online index. Websites include Documents Online ( And Medieval Genealogy ( Trade directories can be useful for tracing particular family members who were perhaps known to be in a certain line of business. They can also be used to ascertain when roads were built in large cities. Some directories can be consulted at Finally, a much neglected resource is the quarter sessions. One of the perils of family research is uncovering old secrets and the statistical probability of their being a criminal in ones family is surprisingly high. As with all records, these must be treated with caution. Instances have been found where someone has been sentenced to death only for them to be reprieved. Likewise, those transported to Australia have on occasion been known to return having served their time. A good starting point is the Old Bailey’s website ( if your ancestor was located in London as until 1913 the Old Bailey was a criminal court for London. John concluded the session by mentioning a number of general resources such as The National Archives, (, Archive Hub (, and A2A (, as well as reminding us to stay focused in our research endeavours. Azar Hussain Note from Anne Hayward, CILIP Information Services Group (London & South East) committee Our thanks to John for leading such an interesting and comprehensive course. He covered a lot in such a short time and the list of useful websites will come in very useful! A copy of the handout for the seminar, with useful websites, is available on ISG (L&SE)’s website e


The main learning point for me was the need to try more than one of the main family history websites when trying to track down ancestors because they differ in coverage and have different errors and quality of transcriptions. Also a useful tip was to search indexes on websites using as few search boxes as possible because fields may be left blank or have errors. Please contact Anne Hayward if you require any more information about the course.


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