‘History from Inside’: An Introduction to Researching Your Family Tree
Updated 15 February 2022
By Lauren Chaloner
There are many misconceptions and questions about researching your family tree. Is it going to be costly and time-consuming? What if you only come from a long line of bucket and nail makers?
With the likes of Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Families being increasingly popular amongst television audiences; being an observer can feel more attractive than becoming your own armchair historian. But people have a lot to gain from researching family histories.
This is a brief introduction into the joy of researching family ancestry by using personal experiences to tackle misconceptions.
‘Family history is time-consuming’
With the Christmas holiday fast-approaching, family history is an ideal way to unwind whilst still being immersed within the joyful world of history. You might not be a professional historian yet, but research can develop transferable skills. These skills look great on a CV or personal statement - especially for students hoping to progress onto postgraduate study.
Sometimes the time and effort is also really worth the results. Whether it is something as simple as finding out the name of your great-grandmother, or on the ‘slightly’ more extreme side finding out that your relative is a murderer, family history is a road of discovery.
‘Family history is costly’
Most family history sites require a paid subscription like Ancestry.com or FindMyPast, but access to census records on these sites are often free and a great place to start. My own research started by looking at the free 1911 census. There, I found my great-great-grandad Alfred, his wife Alice and their eight children living in a small town in the West Midlands.
The census records can reveal occupations like bucket making and chain-making, as well as domestic services. Looking at the occupations of ancestors also reflects the socio-economic conditions of England during the Industrial Revolution, but also the low-skilled work undertaken by my family members indicates their low class status. Despite only offering a small glimpse into our ancestors, having the census as a starting point is a cost-effective way to explore the past. This is particularly great for people who are more interested in immediate family histories.
Similarly, for those interested in the First and Second World War, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also offers a free search tool for finding family members who died in the First or Second World War. It not only reveals the name of their next of kin and address, but it also lists where they were killed and buried.
Although this information might feel like it is heading towards a dead end, it can be used for further research. For example, when researching my family tree, I discovered that one of my ancestors died in the Second World War on the HMS Formidable. Instead of giving up here and loading up Netflix, I searched for the ship on the internet.
There I found that it was attacked by a German Stuka in 1942 and my great-great-uncle was one of twelve men who were killed - my notorious bad luck clearly runs in the family. But from this, I could then research the role that the ship played in the Second World War to understand my ancestor’s experiences.
Even verbal stories that are passed down through the generations can reveal an insight into our ancestors. For example, without my grandparents’ stories, I would never have known that my great-grandad served at the Somme in 1916 and lay face down in the mud for three days pretending to be dead!
Whilst I will admit that spending Christmas researching this does not sound as fun as visiting the Christmas market - researching family trees can be an invaluable experience that can be treasured for years to come. Sure, you can’t get mulled wine or a Yorkshire pudding wrap, but the discoveries are timeless.
Therefore, it is definitely not essential to pay for subscription sites. Sometimes sites even offer 14-day free trials - so there is no excuse in not getting involved!
‘What if I only find a trail of bucket and nail makers?’
Not everyone is going to be related to King Henry VIII but researching family ancestry can lead to both physical and emotional journeys. After investigating the maternal side of my family tree, I went on an armchair discovery from Ireland to Kent to Scotland. This traced the family across physical and overseas borders - such as my distant grandfather serving as a Navy officer - but also emotional borders.
When the family left for Kent, they spent ten years in a workhouse only to be ‘rescued’ by the father when he returned from war. In this space: they lost children, became ill and finally migrated to Scotland where the family continued to live until my grandmother moved to England in the 1950s to work in the WRAF and marry my English grandfather. I’m not sure that she had much of a choice when he got a tattoo of her name on his arm - thankfully the tattoo fixers were not needed back in the 1950s.
But these emotional boundaries that ancestry can cross proves that people can make strong connections to their ancestral past. Even finding family mementoes like diaries, photographs and letters are all very important sources which can be preserved - not only as a reflection of our own histories - but as an insight into past societies. This is particularly important for developing the history of emotions.
However, family history also crosses international borders. The database of war records found in The Commonwealth War Graves Commission again offers a great example of this. During the early 2000s, the commission exhumed the bodies of soldiers in No Man’s Land across Europe, most notably in France and Belgium.
Having many family members who served in both World Wars - three of my ancestors died in the First World War and one in the Second World War - I was interested to find out where they were buried. I found that two were located in France and one was in Belgium, but instead of being satisfied with this, I travelled to France and Belgium. This was particularly poignant as I was probably the first family member that had ever visited their graves as their parents were unlikely to have had the money for overseas travel.
Of course I’m not advocating for everyone to jump of the next flight to Europe; especially not in the current situation! But even if family history does not seem appealing, for anyone who likes to travel and seek adventure, researching family history is certainly an excellent way to fulfil this.
Family history might be frowned upon in the academic world, but it is vital to understanding our own origins. ‘History from below’ is becoming increasing important to our reconstructions of the past, but what is history if those who represent our personal past are ignored in the history books?
Finding the voices of those who are muted in society will not get them onto the GCSE History syllabus, but it can forge belonging. It gives our ancestors value in society even if at the time they were overlooked. After all, as Alison Light suggests, recasting ‘history from below’ as a ‘history from inside’ is a personal and joyful experience so it should reflect those who represent us most.
Common People: The History of an English Family - review, History books - The Guardian
Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (London, 2015)