Delving into the Past: My Family History Research
Forty five years ago my dad died. A few years later I decided to start tracing my Ablett family tree. Why on earth hadn’t I asked him more while he was still alive? How many times have those researching their family histories asked themselves that question?
The Beginning of the Past
Back then there was very little information online, so it was a question of going to London, and trawling through the huge registers held in St Catherine’s House. It was quite a lonely occupation, with none of the immediate communication that we have today. But on the other hand it was quite sociable. Lots of chat over the registers about how long we’d all been working on our family history. In my case, it was about a month. I was amazed to hear of folk who had been at it for twenty, thirty or even forty years. My style is to throw myself into any project, crack it, and move on to the next. How on earth could they spend forty years on this?
Easy, of course is the answer as, forty years on, I now find myself back on the case. What happened in between? Well I got stuck. I got bored. I got busy. Life intervened. Retirement came and I decided I was way too active to sit indoors doing family history, and the same with lockdown. Then last summer the last remaining cousin of my dad died. He was 98, but he had done a lot of work on my dad’s mother’s family, and I had lost another chance to chat to someone in the family. That was the boost I needed.
Nowadays the world of family history research is a very different place and I’m almost glad I left it so long. Discovering Ancestry and the various other websites was a real eureka moment. It is now so much easier. I have a properly laid out tree, rather than the big piece of wallpaper with bits of paper stuck on the side. I can now access so many records online without the need to keep buying certificates. And, you get to see the results of other people’s labours.
Getting It Wrong
It is easy to go wrong, particularly if you follow a thread of folk, so it is still important to check thoroughly for yourself. And Ancestry can throw up some oddities. I couldn’t work out how a great uncle on my mother’s side, who was born, had worked, and was buried in the Forest of Dean, was credited on Ancestry with having died in South America. This was someone who had probably never left Gloucestershire!
For many people, the excitement comes from seeing how far back you can get. Yes, that’s interesting, but it does get harder the further back you go. There is less information available, and there was much less imagination in choice of names. I have three generations where a Jabez Ablett was the main player, and even more with John Boughtons. I got very hooked on a particular John Boughton. He had money and status, the first person in the family to have either – he was described as a gentleman and a merchant (trading cider on the River Severn and beyond), and in his will was giving away thousands of pounds, back in 1812. Eventually I came across a document which referred to him as a bachelor, so clearly he wasn’t the next generation back. I am still stuck on that line.
Probably of far more interest for me is the social history, the context in which the various families lived. That has been fascinating and I’ve learnt so much. On my mother’s side we have generations of free miners in the Forest of Dean; on my father’s lots of farmers in and around Cambridgeshire. My partner’s family were framework knitters in Leicestershire, with the odd mole catcher thrown in.
I guess all of us involved in family history are interested to see if there is or was any wealth in the family, or any skeletons, but finding interesting people brings a real flurry of excitement, even if the story is a sad one.
My dad’s father had died when my dad was just three. I know very little about him apart from his obituary in the local paper. I had always thought he was an only child. Turned out he was the youngest of eight! Bizarrely I know far more about his sister, my great aunt Eleanor Ann Ablett, simply because she was committed to, and died in, a lunacy asylum. I even have a photograph of her! Her’s is one of the saddest stories. I had a record of her living on the family farm in 1901. Her father died and the family farm was sold in 1904. I had no other record from that point until her death in 1939 in Fulbourn Lunacy Asylum. A search by the Cambridge Archives Service (money very well spent!) filled in some crucial gaps. It turns out she was admitted in 1903, having suffered from mania for 3 years, triggered by a bout of influenza. Her detailed case notes record a sad and steady decline. By 1917 she is recorded as being “a feeble, quiet dement, who is unintelligible and quite lost.” I was reassured to learn from the Visitor Records that her sister Mary visited regularly almost until the end.
Finding a criminal in the family is always interesting. There is the case of three sisters on my mother’s line who, at the ages of 16, 14 and 12, were found guilty of burglary and sentenced to two weeks hard labour. They followed in the footsteps of their father who also indulged in fairly frequent spells of burglary. Interestingly, their younger brother went to London and joined the police force!
Researching my partner’s family tree brought us into the world of two brothers who, in 1836, were sentenced to death for burglary – later commuted to a life sentence with deportation to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). This is a tale of convict ships; convict constables, bush rangers and subsequently the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s. It is strange that I know far more about these two brothers than many others in the family, simply because they committed a crime and were deported.
Tracing Your Own Tree
These stories just give a flavour of what you might find once you start delving. If you have an inner detective in you, then this is just the right activity to embark on.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Start with what you know (it may sound obvious but jot down names, dates, places)
- Talk to family and any friends who might be able to add to your story (and do remember to write down what they tell you but check your facts carefully as different people may well have very different recollections of the same person or event)
- Catalogue any family photographs you may have (make a note of who the people are, dates if known, and where the photo might have been taken)
- Collect any relevant documents or other material (family letters; war service records maps, etc)
- Take time to familiarise yourself with the wealth of material available online nowadays (births, deaths, marriages; census records; newspaper articles; grave records)
- Develop a good filing system, both paper and electronic (you will collect a huge amount of information and you need to be able to locate things easily)
- Check and double check the information you find (be particularly careful if you are looking at family trees done by other people as it is all too easy to replicate mistakes)
- If you are writing up the family story, as opposed to just building a tree, think carefully about how much information to include and how to present it
- Finally, a word of caution – family history is utterly addictive, don’t start too late in the evening or you’ll be up all night!
Author: Sue Ablett
Sue has had a varied career from Russian linguist for the Government, to University research (pulling in a PhD ‘for fun’), and for the last 20 years of her working life was Executive Director of a national children’s cancer charity. She is a keen traveller and has a big catalogue of travel talks. She set up and continues to chair Evesham Festival of Words. And now considers herself a family historian. This article is taken from her most recent talk ‘Delving into the Past, Family History Unveiled’.
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