Starting to Research Your Family History

In my last post I offered my 5 tips for organizing all the information you’re going to get while researching your family history and in a minute you’ll begin to realize just how much information will be coming your way… but just before you get started there is an important decision to make:

Who and how much are you going to research?

I decided on a broad sweep approach of tracing all my family on both sides e.g. the tree starts with me and fans out to my parents, then my four grandparents, my eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on….

Some people choose to concentrate on just their mother or father’s side, or one particular section/member of the family, or just follow their surname back. Whichever you choose, the first step is to write down everything you know already. And then the most important piece of advice I can offer you is this:

Talk to your relatives. Now.

Gather any information you can find – old photos, certificates, documents, family heirlooms, anything at all – and go talk to your family about them if you can. Find out names and nicknames, family members, birthdays, occupations, hobbies, old addresses, stories and anecdotes. Find out when and where people died. All these things and more will help you build a picture of your ancestors and put you on the path to discovering more.

If you need some inspiration, you need only do an internet search for “family history interview” and lots of ideas will appear.

Whatever information you uncover, record it carefully. All of it. Even the bits where the information or peoples’ recollections were fuzzy. At the time it may not appear to be that helpful, (and on some occasions you’ll come to find it wasn’t true at all) but down the line a throwaway comment or a vague recollection could really make a difference to a puzzle. You see now already how much information you could be gathering… and this is just the start!

Also, other relatives may be willing to share photos and documents so it really is worth asking them if they have anything useful, especially since your research is most likely going to encompass their family history too. Offering to share your findings could seal the deal.

Piecing It All Together – my example

All information, no matter how small, is helpful. Never feel defeated because you don’t have a lot to work with. In the vast majority of cases you will still be able to progress – you just need to be a bit more creative in how you do so. I had varying degrees of information to work with from my grandparents.

My nan had a lot of info – I was lucky that my nan was able to tell me quite a lot about her family and had a few old birth, marriage and death certificates and some old faded notebook pages on which her dad had written all the family birthdays.

My granddad had a bit of info – My granddad couldn’t tell me an awful lot about his family but he knew that his grandma’s brother was composer Albert Ketelbey. I found a book written by a cousin through which I learned a lot about that part of my family that I would otherwise never have known.

From granny I mainly had photographs only – I sadly never got the chance to sit down with my granny and grandpa on my dad’s side and talk about their families. I did, however,  have a pile of old photographs that dad found from granny’s family that she and her mother had thoughtfully written on the back of to tell you who was who.

For grandpa I had next to no info at all – My grandpa’s family I have pretty much had to research from the outset, having little or no information to go on at all other than a few small details. This is the only case where I HAD to order some birth and marriage certificates in order to proceed with anything. It has been the hardest part of my family to progress with and the only part where two real brick walls are thwarting my progress.

On the back of a photo

My Great-Grandmas's comments on the rear of an old photograph ... most helpful indeed!

I point this out to illustrate that, whilst you can still progress with little or no information, the more information option is always the most preferable. I can’t tell you how much I long to able to talk to my grandparents and to tell them all the interesting things I’ve found out. I’ve got so many things I want to ask them and no-one else will ever be able to tell me.

In my next family history post I’ll tell you how to start your internet research with some great free resources. I’ll tell you about some really useful websites and how to use them with different search techniques.

I hope this helps you think about how you’re going to start your research and if you’re already tracing your family, I’d love to hear your stories of how you started out, or if a random photograph or seemingly throwaway comment helped you to solve a puzzle in your family history.

5 Essential Organisational Tools for the Family Historian

For anyone considering researching their family history I have one major piece of advice: organisation right from the very start is key.

I hadn’t really considered this in the beginning since I had very little information to organise, but later I was finding myself having to flick through various notepads, odd bits of paper, web-links saved in my favourites with no explanation of what they were pointing to, notes of census pages to investigate but no clue as to exactly what to investigate when I looked again months later and a folder full of assorted printed sheets of paper that I would never remember the contents of again.

I did have a stab at organisation in that I bought a hardback writing book to try and collate all this information. But as the book filled up I lost track of what information was in it, where it was and who it was about and would often find myself randomly scanning backwards and forwards through it to find information, sometimes mistakenly recording things twice or in a lot of cases missing it altogether.

Now a few years down the line I have settled with a small but essential set of kit that keeps everything organised and at hand.

1. Ancestral Fan Chart

I have only ever been able to find one of these which was on the Genes Reunited website … it is far better printed A3 if you can. As you complete the names on it you can really see the progress you’re making and it helps you remember who was related to who. Start with yourself at the bottom and work upwards, filling in your parents’ names, grandparents and so on.

Genes Reunited Fan Chart

2. Family Group Sheets

Again, I found these on Genes Reunited though I have seen them on other websites such as Ancestry.co.uk. They will help you keep track of all information relating to each couple in your family tree – birth, christening, marriage, death, burial dates and locations, occupations, parents, children, children’s marriages etc.

Family Group Sheet

It does look a little scary when you first open it as there’s room for lots of detail but it’s a useful way to keep all these facts together.

3. Census Record Sheet

Maybe I was looking in the wrong places but I have never found a sheet where I could record who I had found in what census and be able to track them through basic dates and so on.

Census Record Sheet

I made this record sheet myself and will happily allow anyone who finds it through this blog post to download and use it. It’s a Word doc and is shared from my Google Docs through this link. If it won’t open please drop me a line and I’ll share it directly.

4. A4 lined paper manuscript book with (lots of) numbered pages

I use this to actually write out the census info for each family and would suggest that you either find a book that has numbered pages or I just bought a cheap A4 diary (one day per page) and use the date as a form of page numbering.  Having your pages numbered just means that if you break off one family for a while, when you pick them up again you can indicate which page to go to instead of shuffling through pages to find people.

Its entirely up to you how you organise recording the info but I have the book divided into four under my grannie, grandpa, nan and granddad and then tend to divide each page in half and write the census info on the top half and any notes/comments and such at the bottom like this:

My Census/Information Record Book

5. An Evernote Account

Evernote is a brilliant organisational tool and best of all it’s free (unless you choose to upgrade to premium) but the free version is packed with features so it’s not really necessary. It’s a multi platform tool so it matters not whether you use a Mac or a PC, a Blackberry, iOS or Android mobile device. It has an on line version you can log into wherever you are and web clippers for copying information from pretty much any browser. All versions sync together so that you’re always looking at the most current information wherever you are.

Evernote Home Page

For genealogy purposes I use Evernote to:

Save information from the Internet – links, articles, pictures, contact details, library maps/opening times etc., book links, charts and other documents.

– Keep track of correspondence, store letters and emails (you can email, and tweet for those Twitter-ers out there, directly into your Evernote account).

Upload census page images and scans of certificates and other records with accompanying notes.

Take pictures of gravestones, or anything else for that matter, with my mobile phone and upload them directly to Evernote and make notes/record voice memos with the mobile app of any other relevant information while out in “the field”.

Every note can be tagged and is fully searchable meaning you can always lay your hands on that bit of information. Read about Evernote here and sign up for a free account. Free users can upload up to 60 MB of data per month in the form of “notes” which can be many types of documents,  images, typed notes, web clips, voice memos and so on.

Pulling it all together

On the fan chart, if you number each person in relation to the numbering on my census record sheet, you can then use those numbers on the family group record and in your manuscript book  and as a tag in Evernote to information pertaining to particular people. That way you can always be certain you’re referring to right individual (you may find that names get passed down through generations and you may have two or more ancestors with the exact same christian name and surname).

In my next post I’ll share my tips on how to get started.

Please let me know if this helps or if you have any other tips or ideas on how to organise your information.

Wednesday Wanderings … in Scotland (Pt 2)

We ended part one of this post after having spent an hour in the police station at Crieff. Following this slightly stressful morning we headed north up the A9, through the pretty town of Pitlochry and the Tay Forest Park along the north bank of Loch Tummel. Around a third of the way along the loch signs direct you to a viewpoint on your left. This is the Queens View, a supremely beautiful spot. Today it’s dull and misty but the views are stunning nonetheless.

There is usually a minimal charge for the car park but if you visit off-season like we did, parking is free in most pay and display car parks at tourist spots until 1st April.

Loch Tummel from the Queens View

The Queens View over Loch Tummel. Stunning even in dismal weather.

Leaving Queens View we continued west along Loch Tummel toward Loch Rannoch.The main reason we originally headed out this way is that Ben used to drive around the fictional Loch Rannoch racetrack in a racing game and wanted to drive the real thing. As we go further along it becomes quite clear, much to Ben’s disappointment, that the track he knew so well was actually nothing like the real road and indeed it takes far longer to drive along just one side than it would to race round the entire thing in his virtual racecar.

By the time we get to the far end of the loch (which is around 14km in length) it’s getting on for tea time and it’s a long way back to the hotel. However,  since the road from here only takes you toward Rannoch Moor and then simply stops, there is no choice but to turn and head back down the other side of Loch Rannoch toward Tummel Bridge. You can go no further than Rannoch Station by road if you want to explore the moor, which is a stunning but bleak wilderness. The A82 and the A9 will take you across part of the moor which is well worth a look.

If you ever find yourself in this area with time to kill I would urge you to take a leisurely drive around Loch Rannoch (and on to Rannoch Station). For the most part the road round the loch stays very close to the water’s edge and there are plenty of places to get out and have a walk.

Banks of Loch Rannoch

A view from the banks of Loch Rannoch

At Tummel Bridge once more, we head south and drive along Loch Tay toward Killin (at the south end of the loch) and the Falls of Dochart, through Glen Dochart itself and back alongside Loch Lomond. It’s dark now and the lights in the houses on the opposite side of the loch are twinkling in the reflections on the calm water. By the time we drive back through Glasgow it’s about time for nothing more than a cup of tea and then bed when we get back to the hotel.

The Falls of Dochart

Looking across the Falls of Dochart

Next morning we check out of Hamilton Days Inn and head east. Unable to check into the Travelodge until 4pm we have a day to kill, so decide to spend the rest of day touring the coast of Fife and see the Forth Bridges and Queensferry.

I did the drive around the Fife coastline a few years ago and there are lots of lovely places to stop along the way. We head first to St Andrews, famous for many things – but in the run up to Kate and Wills’ wedding, seemingly more famous as the place where they met at university. We park in the small car park by the beach and walk along the path, through the harbour and up the hill to town.

St Andrews Harbour

This was on a previous trip to St Andrews and is one of my favourite images I've ever captured

Driving back round the coast we try to stay as near to the sea as possible to visit some of the small fishing villages. But as the day goes on the wind picks up to such a degree that it’s actually difficult to even open the car door and the radio says that the Forth road bridge has been closed to high sided vehicles … as we drive across in the car it’s easy to feel why. Safely on the other side of the Firth of Forth having avoided being blown away by the strong winds, we park up on the main road just outside Queensferry to take a closer look at the two Forth Bridges. Tomorrow will be a long day in Edinburgh so it’s time to go back and check into the hotel and find some dinner.

..and Phil Max at the Forth Rail Bridge

Phil Max poses in front of the Forth rail bridge

Next morning we’re up early to get into town at a reasonable hour. Our first port of call is to be Camera Obscura which is near the castle. I’ve managed to locate an NCP which is within walking distance of the old town. Now a couple of words to the uninitiated about Edinburgh old town. It’s steep! From Princes Street it’s an uphill hike to the Royal Mile. Surely the people of Edinburgh must be among some of the fittest in the country? By the time we reach the castle at the top of the hill I’m sure everyone in the courtyard can hear me wheezing (memo to self: really must get fitter).

Camera Obscura has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s, though obviously much has been added to entice the modern tourist. There are several floors chock full of optical illusions, many of them interactive. I would recommend starting at the top (you’ve just walked all the way up the hill so you may as well just carry on up the steps to the top of the tower) and see the camera obscura itself and views all across Edinburgh. The heat sensitive camera and screen is good for a laugh, as is the head on a platter and the room which makes things seem disproportionately big or small (pictured below). The mirrored maze is quite amusing but the thing that finished me off was the vortex tunnel. No matter how much I told my mind that it was just a trick, when I stepped onto the gantry I felt like I was cartwheeling 360 degrees and almost fell over, which left me feeling like a right idiot and gave Ben plenty to laugh about. At me, rather than with me 😦

Optical Illusions at Camera Obscura

This is not how things really are!

Other than just having a general look round the old town the only other thing we had planned to do today was to join a Cadies and Witchery ghost tour in the evening so we found the shop and bought our tickets for later on then had a wander round for a few hours.  At 7.30pm we returned to the meeting point by the castle to wait for the tour guide. We were met by Dr Alexander Clapperton (deceased) and his sidekick,  the Mad Monk of Cowgate. Several people who had booked on the tour didn’t turn up so our group consisted of just two young French girls, Ben and myself. The guides offered us the choice to come on a later tour but my feet were already killing me so we elected to carry on. The guides were excellent; really entertaining. The Mad Monk of Cowgate rejoined us on several occasions throughout the tour in the guise of various infamous historical Edinburgh characters.

I had read about these “Jumper Ooters” so was thankfully prepared most times he came running out of some dark alley in his next costume. Everyone on the tour gets to take part at some point, or be made to look slightly ridiculous by the guides, but all in good humour. It was brilliant and I would recommend the tours to anyone. I would have liked to have gone on a later tour as a larger group would have been even better but I was certain my poor old feet couldn’t have carried me round for much longer.

Worn out we went back to the hotel for the last night before sadly leaving Scotland and returning home the next day.

Cadies and Witchery Tours

Alexander Clapperton (Deceased) and a wild and bloody highlander (and Phil Max)

Pumpkins 2011

Well, I know it appears that either the only things I make are Halloween pumpkins but I promise there will be other stuff here soon. In the meantime here are this years pumpkin offerings….

Pumpkins

Evie and Hayley's pumpkin on the left, mine on the right

Evie scooping out the pumpkin

My niece really likes to squelch all the pumpkin goo in her hands and generally make a mess.

How the obsession begins

Genealogy is a passion of mine. I have always had a keen interest in history and what could be more interesting than the story of your own flesh and blood? Where did they come from? How did they make a living? What was life like for them without some of the basic things we have all come to expect as a given?

Although I find social history generally fascinating, I do feel a real connection to my ancestors. Something however small or insignificant that each of them has passed down and passed down through the years and generations until it got to me. It would have only taken the smallest variation in their life to mean that I might not ever come to exist. That I may have ended up as somebody else entirely, living in a far away place. If at all.

I started to uncover my family tree many years ago when I was still in school, though I wasn’t really very serious about it at the time. I have no idea what triggered my interest but it didn’t last very long and after a while the bits of paper got put away and I didn’t bother with them again. I suspect I lost interest because genealogy at that time was so much less accessible. I didn’t really know how to go about it and as I sometimes do even to this day, I gave up (though I’m more stubborn as I’ve got older and have disciplined myself not to quit when faced with setback).

Years went by and then there was the internet and then there was Who Do You Think You Are on the telly back in 2004 and it was suddenly possible for anyone who was interested to at least have a go if they had the inclination. As time has passed and more records have become available (not to mention the eight series’s of WDYTYA in the UK alone fuelling the public’s interest) you really can go a LONG way back just sitting in front of your laptop with little or no financial outlay. In this part of my website I’d like to tell you how you best go about researching your family history and also to tell you a little about some of those people long gone by who made me who I am today.

Alexander Charles Coleman 1830 - 1884

My 3x Great Grandfather, Alexander Charles Coleman. Born in Chelsea in 1830, somehow ended up in Dudley. The 1841 census shows him and his two brothers Edward and William all living together in Dudley ages 11,12 and 14 with no parents. In 1952 he married Sarah Woddams in Dudley and sometime in the mid 1850s moved to Rotherham in Yorkshire and became a successful boot and shoe manufacturer. He died age 53. Imagine if he hadn't moved to Rotherham!

Wednesday Wanderings … in Scotland

In an effort to discipline myself to regular posting I’ve decided on some regular feature ideas. And so Wednesday Wanderings is born. This is where I get to share my travel experiences, offer tips, ask for tips and generally write about travel type “stuff”.

With a huge sea of things swirling round in my head to write about, the most logical place to start I suppose would be our last holiday to Scotland at the very end of March 2011. I’ve been to Scotland on several previous occasions myself and it’s without question one of my favourite places in the world. This was a first visit for Ben so I tried to plan an itinerary that would cover loads of places without too much rushing around.

The holiday came about in October last year when Days Inn ran a newspaper promotion to co-incide with their 10th birthday offering rooms for £10 per night at a variety of their hotels up and down the country. The choice of Days Inn hotels in Scotland was not vast to be honest, and even the furthest North was still quite far South! And so I booked 3 nights at the Hamilton Days Inn which is situated at the services on the M74 just south of Glasgow (OK, so not the most picturesque location in the world but it actually transpired to be a really great, convenient location for getting to, well, just about anything). Not long after I booked the Days Inn, Travelodge did one of their massive sales so I tagged on 2 nights near Edinburgh, for the princely total sum of £32.  Again, we were based at a service area on the bypass (Dreghorn Services) but it was convenient for getting around the area. 5 nights accommodation sorted for £62 – not bad!

Now there were mixed reviews about these two service area hotels and having now stayed in both, I think some people have been turning up expecting the Hilton but only wanting to pay for camping! I’m sure some of them had every right to be disgruntled, but in other cases I’d have to say if you don’t want to be disturbed by lorries driving past your window at 6am, don’t stay at a motorway services! Chances are it’s going to be a bit noisy, the view won’t be great and the decoration is probably not going to be immaculate. But for our part, as long as they’ve put the vacuum round, changed the sheets and cleaned the bath/shower then it’s fine for the price.

Great base for touring

Hamilton Days Inn is situated between junctions 5 and 6 of the M74 which are only about two miles apart. Strathclyde Loch is on the eastern side of the motorway which is nice for a walk. There is a Toby Carvery Restaurant just by junction 5 and a huge 24hr Asda supermarket by junction 6. I wouldn’t bother paying for the breakfast offered by the hotel which you take at the services; the breakfast at the Toby Carvery (served 7-10am) is far better value and quality and at the time we visited they were offering a Two-For-One deal. Yippee!

Touring Loch Lomond – Glencoe

Being right on the motorway network its fairly easy to get around and if you don’t mind a bit of driving you can really see a lot. The next day we went all over the place; Loch Lomond, Inveraray, Oban, Glencoe. As a guide, going from the hotel up to Luss (a beautiful little village on the western banks of Loch Lomond) takes about an hour if you don’t get stuck in Glasgow traffic. From there to Inverary on Loch Fyne is another 30 miles/about 40 minutes. We travelled on afterwards to Oban which is about 37miles/50 minutes. With the scenery around there you honestly don’t notice how you rack up the mileage as we were constantly stopping so I could jump out and take pictures. If you wanted to drive that route all the way up to Glencoe like we did, which is another 38 miles / 1 hour away, it would take about 3 and a half hours driving in total for the 153 mile trip plus stops on the way. Then of course at the end of the day there’s the drive back which whilst very scenic, is somewhat tiring.

Scotland piccies

Swans at Luss, a fishing boat on Loch Fyne and Phil Max at Inveraray

Famous Grouse Experience

It rained on Wednesday morning (a lot), so we tried to find something indoors to keep us occupied and ended up heading for the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery in Crieff, primarily because I had a load of Tesco Clubcard Days Out vouchers to use which you can use towards your admission price here. Now I’ve been on distillery tours before and hoped that this would be equally as interesting. Alas what I actually found is that it seems to do no more than cash in on the popularity of the Famous Grouse advertising campaigns and little else and to be honest, some of it is a bit crass.

About half the time is taken up touring the distillery which seemed to be rushed through and didnt really fill me with the desire to ask questions or make remarks. The rest of the time was spent in the modern visitor centre watching Famous Grouse TV adverts and then pretending to be a grouse, flying over the Scottish countryside. Genuinely a group of paying customers all standing with their arms outstretched banking left and right while our young tour guide tried to egg us all on. Purlease! They try to make everyone feel better by plying them with 2 shots of whisky each . I had both of Bens drinks as well as the two of my own (hic!). That’s 4 in total and we were only on the basic tour. God knows how much they ply you with on the longer tours. I’m sure the young girl who was our tour guide was doing her best but she wasn’t very engaging –  maybe it’s best to be in the grip of some spirits? And Famous Grouse isn’t even produced here… the Glenturret single malt is one of the whiskies that goes into the Famous Grouse blend so it all just seems a bit false.

They could learn a lot from the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain up in the Highlands north of Inverness. I went on that tour  a few years ago and it was better in every way. The tour guides were engaging, you were allowed to take pictures inside the distillery, you didn’t have to pay extra to see the warehouse (which is every bit as interesting as the distillery itself) and you were only given one shot of whisky where they sat everyone down in a pleasant little room and explained their different whiskys and ways of drinking them. And to top it all off the admission is only £2.50 even now compared with £6.95 for the cheapest tour at Glenturret. If you want to see the warehouse at Glenturret it’s £40!!!!

All that free whisky is probably why someone reversed into our car in the carpark and left a great big dent in the front bumper before driving off without bothering to leave details and then to find they have no cctv covering the carpark. I enjoyed spending the next hour after we left in the police station in Crieff to report the incident so that we had a crime number for the insurance company (since there were no witnesses to the “hit and run” and no details from the driver who had probably had at least one too many whiskies! Thanks for that whoever you are. I only hope they didn’t crash into anyone else. Does anyone else think it’s irresponsible to be giving away multiple free whiskies to people who are then going to get in a car and drive away?

Scotland piccies

A hairy coo, Oban and reflections on Loch Linnhe

The journey continues in post two where we visit Lochs Tummel and Rannoch, St Andrews and the Kingdom of Fife.

My Travel Map

Been updating my travel map on Tripadvisor so I thought I would post it on my blog. Then I need to update all my Virtual Tourist pages too!