A basic family tree (sometimes called a pedigree) gives names and dates of the three vital facts – birth, marriage and death.
Now, if this is all you want to find out about your ancestors, that’s fair enough: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But you may find out odd little additional details from records (I’m thinking particularly of the census here), or you might want to put a bit of foliage on the bare branches of your tree, and find out about the bigger picture.
There are plenty of sources you can refer to to discover these additional details, and many of them don’t actually cost very much. Here’s a few ideas:
1. You should be able to search the indices of the big commercial sites for free: you only need to pay to see the detailed record/transcription (although you will almost certainly need to register for a free account). Try sites such as Ancestry, Find My Past, Genes Reunited or The Genealogist.
It’s always worth registering for a free account with these sites in any case, as you may find they will send you details of any free offers they have (Ancestry is particularly good for this) when you can search a certain batch of records for absolutely nothing.
2. Your local library or Record Office/Archive may offer free access to one of the commercial sites.
3. Also remember to check whether your local library offers off-site online access to any resources. By using my library card I can access the Dictionary of National Biography and the marvellous Burney collection of local newpapers. All you have to do is go to the collection and enter your ancestor’s name. Amazing what you can find…
4. Google (or Bing, or Yahoo, or whatever search engine you use) can be your friend here. Again, type in a name (particularly if it’s an unusual name) and see what comes up. And if at first you don’t succeed, try Google Archive.
5. While we’re on the subject on unusual names, have a look at the website of the Guild Of One-Name Studies. Someone else may have a record of that name.
6. The British Newspaper Archive – which I’ve mentioned before – is a pay-to-view site, but registering for a free account entitles you not only to search for free, but also to view three records. Make a note of anything you find in the index – the best value for money is, in my opinion the two day subscription, which for £6.95 enables you to view up to 200 pages in a 48 hour period. I save up a list of names to search all at one time.
7. Online archive catalogues are a wonderful resource, but many do not give 100% coverage of an archive’s holdings (and if you’ve ever been behind the scenes at an archive, you’ll realise why). Try searching not only for an ancestor’s name, but an address, or even an occupation.
8. Trade directories: again these provide a wealth of information. If your ancestor ran his own business, you may find an advertisement: or you can use them to discover the socio-economic makeup of an area over time.
9. Books, even if they don’t directly mention your family name, can give you a taste of the wider view, such as working and living conditions. Look out in particular for the various Royal Commission reports into working conditions.
10. Look out for photographs of places (towns, streets and churches) connected with your family. Maps are interesting, as well.
11. Sometimes you just can’t fill in much detail. It happens. Take for example, my 5x great grandfather, Thomas Westwood. All I know about him him is his date of baptism, marriage and death, residence, that he was a coal-miner, and that he died when he accidentally fell down a pit-shaft. Oh, and I do know who he was working for in the year before he died (thanks to his wife, who noted this bit of information in the Family Bible). I have no photograph of him (he died in 1852); the area in which he lived and worked has been redeveloped; I have been unable to find his grave. But I do have a few visual snippets with which I can illustrate his life. I have photographs of the churches in which he was baptised and married; and I have a photograph of the locomotive “Agenoria”.
And why am I interested in her? Because “Agenoria”, bless her, was the wonder of the age, at least as far as Kingswinford was concerned. She was built for the Earl of Dudley’s Shutt End Colliery Railway at Kingswinford in 1829, and ran until 1864. And Thomas must have seen her every single day of his working life. He probably took his children to see her when they were small. She may have influenced, in some small way, my family’s life-long interest in railways. She is a distant link to that ancestor of mine who left so little trace of his life.
And every time I see her in the National Railway Museum (my second port of call – the first is always ‘Mallard’, of which more at a later date) I think about that link. Because she is something tangible that I can almost reach out and touch, that had a direct affect on a life that ended so tragically over 160 years ago.
Happy decorating. Next week – the final post before Christmas – I’ll be donning my Santa outfit and handing you out some Christmas presents.