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For more years than I care to remember, I have been researching my family tree.

In 1981, I was studying in London for a degree in Librarianship. As part of my course, I went on placement working with Durham Libraries. Although I grew up in Staffordshire, I was born in Durham so I was able to stay with my aunt and uncle who lived in an old mining village just outside Durham city.

As a family we had always shared stories about relatives and their foibles. My aunt and uncle regaled me with yet more tales of older relatives and curiosity began to grow. We started to try to piece together how all of these people were related to us. Here began a lifelong project of tracing my family tree!

In the olden days (the 1980s!) there were no online resources; it was all good old-fashioned ledgers, registers and microfilms. I mentioned my library placement because being based in the public library in Durham meant I was in the perfect place to access those ledgers, registers and microfilms. Every lunchtime, I trawled through census returns and the like.

On returning to London, I was again blessed to have access to the resources of St Catherine’s House, the home of the General Register Office, to track births, deaths and marriages. Blessed? Hours and hours were spent dragging enormous ledgers from the shelves and working through the records.

I was joined on many of my missions to St Catherine’s House by my Auntie Betty who travelled down for day trips from Leicester. Auntie Betty was not a blood relative so she was researching quite independently of me but it was grand to have company. However, Auntie Betty was quite excitable and on one occasion we were reprimanded by the GRO staff…

After hours of searching, Auntie Betty finally found the marriage details of her great grandparents, she shrieked across the Reading Room – “Oh my goodness!!! What a scandal…they married three years after my grandad was born!” We were shushed very loudly by all and sundry…a great embarrassment for a trainee librarian!

After graduating, I worked for Staffordshire and then Stoke-on-Trent Libraries and supported lots of genealogists in their family tree research but had pretty much shelved my own research whilst I raised my family.

In the early 2000s, we invested in a subscription to Ancestry. OMG!!! How the world of genealogy had changed! My husband, who had done no research previously, caught up with my 20 years of plodding through ledgers, registers and microfilms in just over two weeks!

Be warned…the journey you travel with family history research is seriously addictive and, now that it can be done from your own armchair, you will probably find yourself burning the midnight oil too!

During our Coronavirus lockdowns, I’ve shared my love of family history research and have undertaken research on behalf of several people and delivered my Beginners Guide to Tracing Your Family Tree course via Zoom!

I love hearing the stories people uncover and helping them to piece together aspects of their family story but I also like to understand the sort of lives that people might have been living. If you have toyed with the idea of researching your family, I would certainly encourage you to do so. I always caution people that the pieces don’t always fall in to place as easily as it may appear on Who Do You Think You Are! Working in libraries, we met several people who were under the impression that research on their family was all done and ready for them to click a button to collect!

My top tips for starting off with family history research would be:

  1. Talk to, or record the reminiscences of, as many older relatives as you can.
  2. Gather information from them about names, dates and places of birth, jobs, other family members, etc. etc. Try to get a sense of the people they remember.
  3. Check and double check whatever your relatives tell you. So many family legends develop over the years and each generation has a tendency to add an extra bit to the stories they pass down! For example:
  4. My husband’s great grandad was a master boiler maker and went out to India to work, taking his family with him. One of the children became ill and the family returned home. The family legend was that they came home during WW1 and the ship they were on was chased by German U-boats. It transpired that they came home in 1912! They were more likely to have encountered the Titanic than a U-boat! What was the truth? Well Great grandad John travelled back and forth to India until 1928, including during WW1, so it was probably only John that was aboard the ship that was anxious about U-boats!
  5. If your relatives have any certificates or other documents take copies of them rather than jotting down information…being able to refer back to original documents is invaluable. I tend to take photographs of documents on my phone now!
  6. Check all of your old family photographs. Many people wrote on the back of photographs and the information can give some great clues. Below is a photo of my great-grandma Elizabeth Balls who was born in Norfolk in 1862. In later life, Elizabeth jotted on the back of the photo explaining that it was taken just before her 18th birthday and that she is pictured with her brother Isaac. The information she provides means we know the photo was taken in 1880.
  7. Collect as much information about other family members (brothers and sisters of your ancestor and their ages) as you can as this will help you to verify your research as you go on. Remember that families generally followed naming patterns with their children – first son would be named after his paternal grandfather, first daughter after her maternal grandmother, etc.
  8. Family history research is not a race to get as far back as possible. Instead, you should focus on building the picture of the lives of your ancestors.
  9. Read around to add context to what you discover. There are lots of local history books and websites which you can dip in to.
  10. Free access to websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past is available through most library services. During the Coronavirus lockdown, many library services have provided members with free access at home…check out your local library before paying for a subscription!
  11. Best advice – check, verify and check again…it is very easy to wander off down the wrong path!

One of my personal favourites is going back to 1792, my 4x great grandfather John Balls remarried late in life and fathered another son born on 25th December. The child was given the rather wonderful name of Christmas Balls! Not unusual to name a child born on 25th December “Christmas”, but, when combined with the surname, it truly is a classic name!

Happy researching!

Author - Kath Reynolds

Kath’s library role allowed her the opportunity to develop her passion for reminiscence work both in terms of delivering sessions and training others. Together with a colleague from Stoke-on-Trent Museums, she wrote an OCN accredited course, “Delivering Reminiscence”. This course was very successful and she delivered it for more than six years. She described herself as “keenly interested in people; their lives and their communities”. Her talks and reminiscence sessions reflect a great many years of collecting stories, memories and musings from the people of Staffordshire and surrounding counties. She is always vigilant to research and verify “facts” – although she often share the “facts” which are clearly fiction… purely because they are entertaining!

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