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Hunting those Ancestors            

                                  January 2009

Hunting those Ancestors


AncestorsTracing your family tree has become a recognised leisure activity – and something that is continuing to grow in popularity. I am not surprised as it is fascinating to learn more about one’s ancestors and that thread, however thin, gives us a personal link into history and the past.

Knowing more about your past can also help with modern life. A friend of mine who had emigrated to Australia couldn’t settle down until she discovered an ancestor of hers had also settled there in 1860. While there was no modern day connection, she said it gave her a small personal link with her new country that made an enormous difference. A similar thing happened with a friend of mine who went to live in Cornwall; when he found his father’s family had come from the west country, instead of feeling unsettled, he had a new feeling that he had really come home.

Recent television programmes have increased the popularity of ancestor search – the BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are programme has had us enthralled as stars revealed unusual pasts and surprising ancestors.

The show’s genealogist Nick Barratt has become very well known now as one of the country’s leading experts on discovering family histories. Last autumn he published a book Who Do You Think You Are? and he included some useful tips:

1 Getting started

Not as easy as people think and family gatherings are a good initial source. They can generate an easy sense of nostalgia when folk naturally start to reminisce. Nick suggests you bring out old family photographs - they always revive long-lost memories.

He also recommends you put together a clear set of questions - topics and people - that you want to ask about. Who was Great-Aunt Alice? When was she born? Once you've got as much biographical data as you can, it's time to ask what people were actually like.

Do remember to be diplomatic and don’t use too much pressure – some memories can be painful, especially from the war.  Instead, you can suggest much older relatives write down their secrets and leaves them to you in their will.

You should be prepared to find out more than you bargained for - illegitimacy, adoption, bigamy and even crime may creep into your family tree.

Bear in mind, people do ramble and the memory can play tricks.

2 What next?

Once you have found names, dates, places and occupations from living memory, start looking for physical clues. Search everywhere you can think of - your granny's attic, your uncle's garage.

Make a special effort to find birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates as these can help verify information from relatives.

Wills are particularly useful because they often fill in the gaps. And take old pictures out of frames to look on the back for a note or date.

If official papers haven't survived, you may find newspaper articles about your relatives that have been kept. Wedding announcements were especially popular in the 19th Century. Old letters are also invaluable.

3 Check your facts

Birth, marriage and death certificates date back to 1837 in England and Wales, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland. They are the building blocks that can help you verify and learn new information.

Duplicate certificates can be located via the General Register Office's website, This is possibly the most expensive part of building your family tree as there is a fee to be paid for each certificate.

But it will not always be possible - or desirable - to investigate online. There are various databases to help you find libraries, archives, record offices, museums, cemeteries and repositories around the UK and even around the world.

Tracing your ancestors can become an obsession, but even doing a little bit here and there can bring enormous rewards.

There are numerous websites and organisations that can help now; some are free and some charge subscriptions or costs. Addresses that can help get you started include:,,,,

And of course there is Nick Barratt’s book, Who Do You Think You Are, published by HarperCollins, £25.



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