Family History Friday

Family History Friday – getting started

When my parents first decided to move to Spain well over 10 years ago, I hadn’t realised I was about to embark on my own journey.  Welcome to Family History Friday, this week I’ll share the start of my journey and a few of my thoughts on getting started.  I’m no expert, just an enthusiast, but hopefully I can help answer questions you might have.

Family History Friday

As my parents started to pack in preparation for their big move, we spoke about our wider family, really for the first time.  I knew my Mum’s immediate relations, but I knew nothing about my Dad’s family.  I didn’t even know my Granny’s name at that time.  Why we’d never spoken about our family before, I have no idea.  Having always been fascinated with social history, I still find it hard to understand that I had never raised the question – where do I come from?

I was born in Kent, spent over ten years in Surrey, before moving to Oxfordshire when I was 14.  I’d never really felt I had clearly defined roots.  Sitting down with my parents was to prove a revelation.  A journey of discovery that brought relations together who had been apart for over 50 years, I found and forged relationships with family I never knew I had.

So where did it all begin?  For me, it was a few pieces of A4 paper and my parents memories.  My Dad has an amazing memory and once we’d sat down, he was off, names, dates and places.  Before I knew it my grandparents had names, I discovered that my grandfather was one of 13 children, Dad knew most of the names.  He knew nothing really of his grandparents but was able to tell me where they’d lived, what he thought my great grandfather’s occupation was.  From his mother’s side, there was another large family, more names, dates and places.  I had a gold mine of information and a lot to take in.

Considering I actually knew my Mum’s family, we soon realised we didn’t actually know a lot about the various members and their ancestors.  My Mum had an unusual maiden name, I thought this would make my life easier, but I’d never considered that the name would be ‘changed’ over the centuries.  But wonderfully, I have managed to find estranged family, I’ve travelled to France to meet cousins I never knew I had, I’ve found another branch of the family that was completely unknown to any of us.

So, sit your parents down and ask questions, lots of questions.  First names, middle names, where were people born, where did they marry, where did they die.  You will be amazed by how many people aren’t known within families by their first name.  This caught me out so many times in the early days. I thought my granddad was called Ernest, he was, but his first name was James.  Occupations are a great source of information and a way of pinpointing people too.  Army/Navy/Air Force details, I have family members who fought in both world wars, some survived, some died.  Any information that family members can provide will give you a good starting point.  Medals – even better, these will have person specific information running around the edges.  A goldmine.

So I had the names of my grandparents, I knew my Auntie and Uncle, I also had names for great Auntie and Uncles, some I knew, some I didn’t.  I knew surnames for the first time, I knew the towns these people lived in for the first time.  I had a few addresses, I had a few occupations.

Don’t be disheartened if you have a relatively common surname in your family.  My maiden name isn’t as common as Smith, Brown or Jones but it has a number of variants, to make life interesting when looking at old transcripts.

I created a hand drawn family tree for each side of the family – Maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather.  I started this project in 2003 and I collated a lot of paperwork, very quickly.  I have 4 huge lever arch files, one for each branch of the family. It soon became clear though that I’d really need a computerised system to store all of my information.

There are a number of companies offering Family History software.  I started with The Master Genealogist as a free disc from somewhere, loved it and stuck with it.  Sadly that software is no longer being updated, so at some point I will need to download my data to a different package.  You can export GEDCOM files between software packages so hopefully this won’t be too much of a drama.

If you are serious about researching you family history I would strongly recommend sourcing relevant software.  It makes it so much easier to keep on top of things, ensures you don’t duplicate information, AND makes it so much easier to print an actual family tree out.

Be prepared to hit brick walls.  It happens a lot.  It could be that information just isn’t available, you might even be following the wrong trail.  Every 10 years the census information from 100 years previously is released.  They provide so much information, but when you’re following a lead and you need to come forward 10 years and there’s nothing to help you!  Yes that’s annoying.

So we’ve got hand written notes from our parents, we’ve purchased family history software.  What next?

Before you spend lots of money on ordering certificates, joining Family History records sites, Family History societies, speak to other members of your family.  Send them a copy of what you have and ask them to fill in blanks, provide extra information, confirm or deny information you already have.  If they have any certificates ask if you can copy them.  They provide so much useful information to a researcher. Talk to them face to face if you can.  Little details, may not help you now, but in the future, knowing that someone ran off to Wiltshire might be invaluable.

My Mum’s mum couldn’t understand my interest in ‘dead people’ at all and refused to discuss anyone really with me.  But she would talk about her childhood, it gave me some leads for the future.  Her sister has always been totally different, she lent me her parent’s wedding certificate and shared lots of information. Be prepared that not everyone will be happy that you’re ‘digging around in the past’.  There can be all sorts of skeletons in the closet and you do need to be sensitive to other people’s feelings.

Family albums – another goldmine.  Names, places, holiday destinations. All useful.

Researching your family history is time-consuming, it sucks you in and takes over.  I have spent many hours looking at records over the years, and I have to be honest, since my son was born, it’s all been rather neglected.  But he has relationships now with people purely because I started out on this road.

I really knew so little about my family, I’ve now traced back to the 1700’s on all 4 sides of the family.  I am in regular contact with family from all branches of that family I didn’t knew existed when I started.  It has brought tears and so so much happiness.  It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done.

So we have the barest branches for our tree.  Hopefully in the weeks ahead I can show you how I filled those branches out.  What I found useful, what wasn’t worth the money. Regrets and wonderful discoveries. You don’t need to spend a fortune on family history, you do need to decide what you actually want to research.  So you really want to know about the family of someone 20 times removed or not?

Feel free to comment below with any questions you may have, and I’ll try to help with them in the weeks ahead.  I’d also love to hear of any triumphs you’ve had along the way.

Next time on Family History Friday we’ll look at census information, with records from 1911-1841.


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