The best family history advice I never had

Do you remember the defining moments when suddenly something clicked into place, or you learned something the hard way without reading about it or attending a class?   I can count the following seven “aha” moments as some of my best learning experiences.

1. Don’t skip on collecting all relevant information.  When I joined the Society of Genealogists and was given a birth brief to fill out, I remember the sudden realisation – Oh, so I should be collecting all the births, marriages and deaths of all my ancestors!   Such methodical collecting had simply not occurred to me.  But give me a form to fill in and I like to set to and fill it in.  From then on I was doubly hooked and the tree really started to take solid shape, instead of being an odd collection of bits of information.


2. Names in later life are not always exactly the same as at birth (duh).  Exactly how much time I wasted looking for Elizabeth Sutton only, I don’t want to confess.  The name on the back of the photograph said Lizzie, surely she had to be Elizabeth?  It was totally beside the point that my own mother only uses her middle name and never her first name.  I was boxed in by my assumption. For a long time I thought Lizzie’s birth was unregistered, but it was there all the time under Susan Elizabeth Sutton.

3. Multiple marriage partners may have had the same first name.  A man named John might marry a woman named Mary, then after Mary dies, he might marry another woman called Mary!  This one causes a lot of confusion, but when you spot it, it makes you proud to be such a good detective.  It is worthwhile collecting all the possible marriage details for your John, even after you think you have the one and only marriage for him.  The clue is usually a gap in the children’s births, and maybe an anomalous age for Mary in the census.  This lesson might also come under the heading buy all the civil registration certificates that you can afford.

4. Don’t rely on your parents or grandparents to have got the dates for their own parents and grandparents right.  Invariably you need to widen the searches to include far further back than you have been given to believe.   ‘She must have died in the 1950s’, means she died around 1932!  I now understand more about how memory is a very inexact thing, and can lead to totally false bits of information.  In fact, I no longer rely on any information given by relatives unless I can see the documents, or it involves their own birthday.

5. If you have a rare surname, collect everyoneThis one occurred to me early on,when I first understood that it would be possible to collect all the known instances of a rare surname from various indexes and then analyse the results – Aha, now I might be able to put together all the missing bits in the tree.  Of course, I started out by sticking to just one spelling, but I soon had that idea knocked out of me.

6. Helpful documents are sometimes available in printed collections and available from the library or on the bookshelves of the archives. It is not always necessary to call up an original document at the National Archives or the local record office – often there is a printed copy published by the local record society and they tend to be indexed!  Not only that, but it prevents you having to struggle with difficult handwriting, so saves you time (gnashing of teeth as I once spent a whole day on the original hearth tax returns for Wandsworth, without making a great deal of sense of them, before finding that in fact they were printed by the Surrey Record Society and all I had to do was look in the book, which just happened to be in a room quite close to where I ordered up the originals.

7. Don’t set out for the record office without all your information  – without double checking the parish, county and archdeaconry, and knowing the names, places and date ranges you are searching for.  This one still happens to me, although I have got very much better than I used to be.


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