How much do you know about your family background? On the surface of it my family seem fairly conventional, all living in England over as many generations as I know of, however digging only a couple of layers in and there are gaps and mysteries. This is the joy of technology meeting a mental workout to rival the twists and turns of any detective novel and gives us the opportunity to create something lasting that can be passed down. Plus we’re currently in lockdown, it’s raining outside and so what better time for this activity.
Why do people want to find out more about their family history? There are many reasons, you may want to explore: to find health information, understand your ethnic origins or how you got to be where you are now geographically. Do I share passions or characteristics with my ancestors? Clearly people do want to know where they are from, millions of individual DNA profiling kits have been sold. I haven’t but my daughter has done one, and I figure our results will be very similar (very northern European we are!).
One thing about family trees is that it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. If fame and fortune hunting excites you then bear in mind if you go back just 5 generations you will have 64 great-great-great-great grandparents so the chances of one of that whole group of grandparents being famous, a criminal, aristocracy, royalty etc increases rapidly. By the same token in 1800 (roughly 5 generations ago for me) the population of England and Wales was 15.9 million people compared to 59.5 million today. All those years ago there was just a much smaller pond. In 1999, the Yale statistician Joseph Chang showed that if you go back far enough – say, 32 generations, or 900 years – you’d find that everyone alive today shares a common ancestor. We are all descended from royalty…if that’s your thing!
My motivation is to learn more about my family and to create a record. None of my grandparents are living, I was close to them, but like many people I didn’t ask them lots of questions when they were alive and wish I had. This isn’t really a one week challenge but like many things it’s the getting started that is the biggest hurdle and I have made a start. I have started to sketch out just one side of my family (my uncle has done a lot of work on the other side) which helps to keep it a bit simpler. You will quickly find that it’s difficult to keep a focus where so many avenues of information are open to you, I have already looked at certificates, registers, many maps and applied for further documents on other sites. Plus of course having a long tea fuelled chat with my mum, always the best place to start if you can!
Putting together the tools was fun too. I had the joy of listening to hit songs from 1945 for atmosphere (the year one set of Grandparents got married) and whiling away some happy hours using a genealogy search tool. I used findmypast.co.uk on a subscription to get my research started, backed up by some existing family papers that I have. I would recommend Adam Rutherford’s excellent book ‘A Brief History of Everyone who has Ever Lived’. I also bought a book about archiving family items and papers for ideas on storing or presenting any physical items.
I’m excited to start this investigation and happy to feel that it’s something I could do a lot or just a little. Whilst I’m employed I can dabble, later on I could do a more comprehensive job and perhaps even travel to new places based on family links. I already know I’d really like to visit a war grave in France and Shimla in Northern India and of course family home turf in Yorkshire 🙂
So I’d score this activity highly, it’s really absorbing, relatively cheap, easily accessible and depending on the extent of any travel you add in is environmentally friendly. There is the added bonus that it might just prompt some real conversations that otherwise you might not have with your relatives and family friends.