The Changing Face of UK Family History Research

Over the past ten years the popularity of Family History Research has grown exponentionally in the UK and the US.

When I started out, family history research was a case of travelling to busy records offices and poring through indexes, old books, dusty documents and microfiche readers.

To get a UK birth certificate (etc.) a visit to St Catherines House was often required. This was the equivalent of a long workout at the gym! The enormous, heavy, quarterly index books were deftly pulled from the shelves behind the researchers and slammed down onto the long, lectern height desks. A quick ruffle through the pages to find the required name either resulted in a reference number being written down, or a swift return of the book to the shelf behind, trying not to hit the others waiting to look at the books. It was quite amusing sometimes to see a frail old lady, or a newcomer having problems coping with the massive books and being given dirty looks by those who were making a good income by charging to obtain certificates for customers who could not make the trip themselves.

Now these details can be looked up on line and a certificate ordered and delivered for a lot less than it would cost to travel to London.

UK Census details were kept at a large building in Chancery Lane where a microfiche reader had to be booked. The lighting was subdued and there was always an odd atmosphere. Hushed and reverent, except for the zzzzzzz of motors as the films were being wound on or back, and an occasional flurry of activity when a reader came across a page they needed to copy. The film would be loaded onto a special copying machine and a charge made for the copy, which would be stamped with a warning not to publish the contents.

With the coming of the Internet, and the realization that money was to be made, the proliferation of family history pay sites began. Many of these have become incredibly successful and lucrative for their owners.

I began my family research in the late 1980s when I realized that many of my aunts and uncles were fast moving on to a better place!

It was a very good period to start as the cost of travel, both by car and public transport was quite affordable at the time. It was not uncommon to find a reference to an ancestor living in a certain town or area and to make a day out of visiting that town and its local church. I once had an amazingly successful result when I visited a church in Kent and found a tall memorial stone in the church yard with details of many of the members of the family I was researching. It named people and gave their wives’ and children’s names, even though they were not buried in the churchyard.

This kind of hands-on research is not so common today, although it could still be very useful. Researchers prefer to look up the details on line, and then look for pictures and articles about the towns, villages and areas their ancestors originated from.

Unfortunately, this can only work if some other person or organization has bothered to put that information on the ‘net.

I remember researchers who drew out massive family trees on rolls of wallpaper. Others kept file cards with all of their family members’ details noted down. Others had thick note books. Others had hundreds of scraps of paper interspersed with printouts of censuses and registration certificates. Now the information can be kept on purpose made family history software.

Some people seem to have an easy time of researching their tree, others not!

I have encountered people who have had problems getting back beyond their grandparents.

Others have walked into an old church and found a plaque on the wall showing their ancestors’ families and their connection with the area over the past few hundred years.

I have had mixed success with my own research. My mother’s line has been researched by others and myself and this has helped get us back to the sixteenth century.

My father’s line, however has been very hard to push back beyond about 1830. This is because records of common people in England, although kept, were not very comprehensive. It is common for English parish records not to record ages, addresses or wives’ surnames. The result is that you can have several people with the same name recorded as living in an area with nothing to give any clue as to which is which.

You may see a parish wedding recorded as “17th May 1789 Robert Smith to Ann”. Not really much to go on!

The difference is very apparent if the families involved had money!

“18th May 1789, Robert Smith, son of Edward Smith of Verilarge Hall to Ann Harding, daughter of Richard Harding of Giles Farm”

If you are unlucky enough to have to research somebody with a common surname the parish records can be of very little use.

Sometimes a “gem” of a parish record is found. It was the job of the local clergyman to record all the baptism, marriage and burial details for his area. Many just gave the basics, but now and then you may find details that were entered by a person who realized that the records were important. These men would put in extra details that are now of great historical use.

They may have not only recorded the burial but also details regarding the circumstances of the death.

They sometimes gave addresses and ages on marriages even though they were not required to.

These men would, today be putting historical information onto the net to help others, because they realized the importance of recording even the humblest of lives.

Luckily, today, a lot of similar, dedicated researchers have started free websites and groups to help others with their family history research. It is now much more likely for a new researcher to find that a lot of the information on their family has already been gathered by another person.

A search of the net for such free sites should always be the first step when researching.

Pay sites like Genesreunited in the UK have helped with this exchange of family research information. At first it carried no research information of its own and just allowed subscribers to create a free online family tree from their own research. It soon had a large amount of members with many hundreds of trees held on their site.

Other people could then check to see if somebody had put information regarding their name interests onto the GRU site. They then pay to subscribe to contact the other users. It is quite affordable even for a person with a casual interest.

My own feelings about this site are mixed. The up side is that a person can join and quickly contact a person who shares their ancestry. They often find that a family tree has already been compiled. The down side of this “family tree on a plate” situation is that it can give people the impression that family history research is easy.

Another problem is that users can propagate false details. It is very easy to make mistakes with research, especially if it is based on parish records. Anyone using this site for serious research should make sure they check out the source of the information they receive.

I once encountered a lady who sent me information that showed a family with three daughters, all with the same first name. That rang alarm bells! When I checked further I realized that the mother that was shown was still having children when she was 54 years old! Very unlikely, but easy mistakes for a novice to make.

Other sites like Ancestry, Findmypast and similar sites carry information gathered from government agencies and old records. These are usually indexed to make locating individual names a lot easier. As more and more information is being added, so the cost of subscribing to these sites is rising. Currently a year’s subscription to Ancestry’s UK site, and others, is nearly £108. This is now putting these sites beyond the reach of the novice to average researcher.

The future of family history research is assured. As more TV programmes such as WDYTYA, Coming Home (Welsh ancestors), Heir Hunters (modern inheritance research) and Empire’s Children make way for even newer versions, like the new, “prime-time” version of Heir Hunters, “Missing Millions”, more and more people will want to find out about their own family history.

As more and more information is made available on the ‘net, it will never have been easier to discover the origin of your family.

I am not even going to go into DNA research, except to mention it. This is very popular in the USA.

Americans do seem to have a need to ‘belong’ so a DNA test result can tell them instantly if they are related to a particular lineage, and where their family originated. It is not so popular in Britain, yet.

As more information is put on line by paysites, researchers must make a point of putting their own research on line where it can be seen for free.

There are lots of free sites and Groups that will store and share information, as well as providing help to researchers. We should all try to make the exchange of information a two way thing.

As more is learned about a person’s family history it can be used to teach and improve the future of that person.

Let us hope the hobby continues to grow and thrive.

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