Many people watch programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and think they’ll have a go, especially in the early years when the subject of the programme was shown arriving at a records office to collect a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate.
It all looked so easy but alas, whilst many people started on their family history trail, some gave up when they realised that it wasn’t quite as easy and as quick as the programmes made it appear. Yes, it can be a long process but it can be so very well worth it and I’d encourage anybody to have a go, to learn about their roots.
To help us as we spend long hours slaving over a hot computer endeavouring to track down elusive ancestors, I have developed the Family History Detective Kit.
Magnifying Glass: the hat adds a certain gravitas, the pipe is optional but the magnifying glass is essential when peering at badly written census pages or images of ancient parish registers.
Note taking: genealogy has been studied for hundreds of years. Whether you use a computer or not, you need a way to record all your findings, including where you found them. You may think you’ll remember all the sources but you won’t. And then, like me a couple of years after I started, you’ll have to spend months redoing it all.
And yes, when I began, I’d read that you must record your sources but…. when caught up in the excitement of the trail…. it’s so easy to get carried away and forget to do so.
Swear Box: not that I’m inferring that anybody reading this would have need of such a thing, but it is a good way of saving those £2 coins for a rainy day (yes, the price of swearing has gone up these days too) unless, like mine, it’s full of IOUs.
Patience: we are told that patience is a virtue though I have my doubts about that.
Sometimes you can hit a winning streak and you appear to move effortlessly from one ancestor to the next. But, every so often, you come up against a brick wall. People aren’t where you expect them to be. Bad, sometimes nearly illegible writing has been mis-transcribed or, before the days of standardised spelling, the entries in the parish registers are not as you’d expect them to be and you have to ponder over just how many ways there were to spell a particular name and check out each one. Yes, patience is certainly needed in family history.
Food and drink: It helps if you have somebody to bring you sustenance on a regular basis.
If not, and if you’re like me and tend to forget about such mundane necessities, I recommend that you set a timer to go off periodically to remind you to go and get some food. Of course, if you’re like my brother and have the type of stomach which will complain if it hasn’t been fed in a while, you won’t need the timer, just a ready supply of food in the fridge.
This does mean that you’ll have to spend some valuable time away from the computer and go to the supermarket but it can’t be helped. And the ancestors won’t mind. They’ve been there for many years, hundreds of years; they’ll be happy to wait whilst you find food and drink to keep your body and brain cells going. After all, if you keel over for lack of sustenance, they’ll have no chance of being found.
Now, you have the choice of two bottles….or the use of both of them. Just be careful which bottle you use for which purpose.
Hair dye: Back in 2004, When I started researching family history I was a brunette. Now look at me.
Whatever hair I haven’t torn out in moments of extreme frustration has turned grey (though there is quite a fetching white streak which my hairdresser assures me would be quite expensive to have added artificially).
So you may expect the hours spent tracing your family history to turn your hair grey and, if you care about such matters, you can colour your hair unless, like me, you’re allergic to hair dye.
Tipple of choice: If allergic to hair dye, opt for the second bottle: gin, or your tipple of choice.
It can be used to celebrate a breakthrough, when you’ve finally tracked down that elusive ancestor or have worked out how they got from A to B.
Alternatively, it can be used to drown your sorrows when what looked to be a promising avenue for exploration turns out to be a dead end.
Tenacity: When I was putting these pictures together for a talk I was giving, as well as patience, I wanted something to illustrate the tenacity needed.
I am a taurean, and taureans are known for being stubborn, though I prefer the more positive ‘tenacious’ as a boss once referred to me. I chose to think he was complimenting me…. The zodiac sign for taureans is the bull.
The person who chose this picture swore that he’d seen me looking just like this [assuming posture and facial expression] when addressing the ancestors on the computer screen. I’m sure he’s exaggerating. However, one of my clients described me as a terrier, unwilling ever to let go once on the family history trail, which is perhaps a better image.
Chocolate Cake: also for celebration or commiseration.
Plus, it keeps the blood sugar levels up so that you don’t get to midnight wondering why you’re feeling faint from hunger, though you’ll still need to find the matches to prop up your eye lids whilst you stagger off to bed.
Fireworks: for the ‘eureka’ moments. And you will have those moments when you finally find the person who you’ve spent so long looking for. Or you’ve broken through those brick walls.
Unfortunately, in my early days researching, my eureka moments generally happened in the middle of the night and my brother had an aversion to being woken by the phone and an excited voice saying “Guess who I’ve found”.
Others may call us family historians but we know that we are actually detectives. We’re not necessarily investigating crimes though sometimes we’ll come across reports of an ancestor involved in a crime, as the perpetrator, a witness or the investigating police officer, all three of which feature in my family history.
Detection is the process of finding, discovering and identifying the presence of something which has been concealed, hidden from view, not previously visible or, in our case, buried in the mists of time.
We want to know who our ancestors were, what they were doing, where they were. It is frustrating that, having found the answers, we then find ourselves asking how and why but with little hope of finding the answers to those particular questions.
We are shining a light on the world of our ancestors and, in the process, discovering our roots.
Now, having packed your kit, you are equipped to set off on the long family history trail. Who knows what lies beyond the next bend, over the hill, through the valley? Whatever you discover, I am sure you’ll have a rewarding trip.
Do send me a postcard and let me know if you think of anything else that should be added to the kit.