Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Friday, 11 November 2011
Saturday, 23 January 2010
I’m struck by the variety of work I get in response to my adverts. You might think it’s obvious what requests will ping into the inbox of someone advertising family history research in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset – please find my westcountry ancestors. But it seems that task comes in many forms.
Recent work for me has ranged from ‘please find my father’, to ‘please find details of the life of this specific 19th century surgeon’, to ‘please find all my ancestors’.
It was the second time in recent months that I had been asked to find someone’s father. This was puzzling, as I hadn’t advertised as a private investigator. It was not a task I had anticipated, but I had a go. I didn’t succeed, unfortunately, but in the process of trying, I did uncover enough new information about the client’s family to make it more likely the father will be traced at some point in the future.
I love research into individuals. At least, I love it when that individual left enough traces for something to be found. Tracking down enough to transform a name into a personality is very satisfying. And when that person is the ancestor of your client, it’s delightful to be able to help them imagine that person as a living thing, rather than a mention on a burial register. It’s a kind of resurrection by archive.
I am often astonished at how much information there is, even on relatively low-status people, although it doesn’t always seem like that to start with.
It’s a process of accumulation: a mention here, a connection there, this website, that paper archive ... leads and clues, and luck, Of course, it doesn’t always feel as if progress is being made. But, after a while, you review what you have, patch it all together and realise a person is taking shape.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
WORKING in different archives in the South West I’m often struck by how many people there are using the microfiche readers to trace back their family trees, but how few there are looking at the documents which survive from that parish.
Many family history enthusiasts only look at the parish registers, while some might type their surname into the national archives catalogue A2A. Sometimes that search immediately comes up trumps because, for example, their ancestor claimed parish relief and was interviewed by the parish officials, or because their ancestor’s name is on the lease of a property.
But many people do not realise that the majority of surviving parish and other documents, at least in the record offices I visit, have not been fully catalogued.
Staff at the record offices do not have time to go through the pages of many of these volumes to extract the names they contain.
Therefore they catalogue the name of the volume or set of documents, but not its contents.
So all we see is a dull-sounding description, such as ‘Tiverton St Peter vestry minutes 1744-1779’ or ‘bundle of bills 1823-1837’. But wait until you look inside – vestry minutes are often full of names and bills can tell you more than you might think.
Vestry minutes are hardly ever looked at. You might expect them to be limited to discussions on the state of the church roof, yet they often record in great detail the work of all the parish officials, including the overseers who dealt with the poor.
They, and similar parish volumes, can also include unexpected lists of householders and their properties, made for the purpose of taxing them, as well as of workers employed to repair parish buildings, farmers who sold grain to the parish, and so on.
If you know your ancestor was likely to be living in a certain place at a certain time, it really is worth looking at them.
Bills helped me in researching my own family at the Devon Record Office recently.
One of my ancestors worked for the aristocratic Petre family, and his name appears occasionally in the catalogue of their papers. But in researching him previously I had overlooked the bundles of documents which had not been catalogued in detail.
So the other day I ordered up a set of documents which were boringly described in the catalogue as ‘a bundle of receipts’, but which had a range of dates which fitted his time with the family.
Inside I quickly found a bill paid by my ancestor, which was a nice find, but better than that, it was from an inn-keeper, and listed what my ancestor had eaten, when he had stayed, how his horse was cared for — enough to help me imagine his life in Devon in the early 18th century in more detail.
Friday, 4 September 2009
What’s the difference between genealogy and family history?
They’re the same thing in many respects: both concern the tracing of ancestors. For many the terms are interchangeable.
But for me there is a big difference, and one which put me off the whole business for years.
Way back, in the days before computers, I decided to try to trace my ancestors. I was full of enthusiasm, but short on knowledge.
I wrote to dozens of people who shared my surname, finding their names and addresses in the phone book.
I got some interesting replies, and several suggestions to contact a man who had done a lot of work tracing the family through records of births, marriages and deaths.
So I wrote to him, and received in reply a pack of information. I was thrilled, but less excited when I examined it more closely. There were names, and more names, and dates and so on. Sheets and sheets of them.
And there were requests for information from me, written in the language of genealogy: asking for me to fill in my ‘segment’, etc.
It was a roll call of people with my surname, but they were stick figures in ink, generational markers with no substance, background or lives.
They had no occupations, and they existed as markers on a page without context: lacking information about the places they came from, or the history they lived through.
Years later, when I returned to the subject, I was eternally grateful to this distant relative, because his hard work gave me a spring-board with which to jump back in time more quickly.
I used his information to search the archives, finding documentary treasures which threw light on the lives of the people he had traced.
But his approach was, to my mind, the essence of pure genealogy: a dry exercise which ultimately results in the ability to spout a list of names.Family history, on the other hand, is about taking those names and trying to turn them into people.