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How to get started on your Family History

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How to get started on your family history...

Whilst attending a recent family funeral, I was pondering the conflicting emotions which come into play on these occasions. A mixture of grief and sadness obviously, and often regret at the premature curtailment of a full and happy life.

It is true to say, however, that, coupled with the obvious sadness of the occasion and sympathy for the bereaved, a funeral does also offer some positives. It occasions the coming together  of friends and family, some of whom may live a distance apart, which can be both life-affirming and comfort giving. It gives us the opportunity to reminisce and think back to past memories as well as offering the chance of a catch up with those you haven’t seen for a long time.

We also were able to meet for the first time an elderly and until then unknown, cousin who proved to be a fount of family knowledge and who confirmed a story which we had rather assumed to be apocryphal, of a family member who was shot down by the Red Baron. 

Amazingly newly-found Cousin Janet who is now 85, confirmed that this story was indeed true and remembers her mother telling her the sad tale of her older half brother, George Macdonald Watt, who had died in 1916, shot down by Baron von Richthoven. Young George, the product of my husband’s grandfather’s first marriage (which ended in the death of his first wife), was at the time employed with the Colonial Service in Burma and travelled back to Britain in the Summer of 1916 to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. Following a short three month training period, he gained his wings in January 1917 and was immediately deployed on active service at the Front, flying Gypsy Moth surveillance bi-planes with his navigator Ernest Howlett and reporting on and photographing German trenches and troop numbers. Just two months after his deployment, on 17th MArch 1917,  he was engaged by the Red Baron in a dog fight and was forced to put the aircraft into such a steep dive to avoid his pursuer that both wings fell off and he crashed in a hail of machine gun fire to a swift death. He was just 27 and his navigator 26 years old. They are both buried in Bruay Cemetary... casualties of that terrible war. a1sx2_v2_GeorgeWatt.jpg

As one gets older, many people start showing a growing interest in their family history. Most people probably have a sketchy knowledge of immediate family (although often not of all four grandparents, especially if already dead) but usually possess very little information prior to this time. Yet these are the forebears who have shaped us - both genetically determining our colouring, build and hair shade, and our circumstances and social standing, both in terms of relative wealth and poverty. In fact it is often surprising how fast the fortunes of a family can ebb and flow with the vagaries of life.


The story of our families is one which is truly fascinating and well worth the voyage of discovery. The advent of the internet and increasing digitalisation of records of all kinds now means that the process of exploration of family history is becoming increasingly simplified and accessible with every passing year. Research which only a few years ago would have necessitated myriad trips to different locations around the UK and many hours of painstaking and frustrating research trawling through endless record books can now be achieved at the click of a mouse and ever more sophisticated search tools speed the process no end. We were recently able to trace one line of my husband’s family right back to around 1700 in little more than a couple of hours and, having found the address of the cottage in which his multiple x grandmother had lived, then pulled up the photo of it on google Street View and was able to look at the exact same view from the front door as she would have enjoyed all those years ago - the only alteration of the view down to the old harbour being the addition of some double yellow lines on the cobbled street!

Highlands ancestors family history genealogyThis increasing ease of access has now led to a massive increase in the number of people actively tracing their family history. It is estimated that over 11 million people in the English speaking world alone are now actively looking into their past. By any reckoning that is a lot of people and this has of course spawned a large number of businesses and products catering to their needs. From magazines and specialist databases to personal historical researchers and specialist storage and filing providers - there are many tools and areas of help available to the would-be researcher. The fact remains though that it is great fun and rather addictive to do it yourself! But how best to start?

  • Firstly start with the obvious - contact all known living members of your family and ask for their help and that of any contacts they may in turn have. Ask about any family stories, professions, names and nicknames and whether they have any documents or photos. Record all possible data and use this as a basis for starting off. Key information includes full names and dates of birth, marriage and death


  • Move on armed with this basic information to start your research using online records, starting with broadbase searches and then refining these as you gather more and more information


  • It is easier to work methodically from a known fact such as a date of birth or death than to start trying to trace down from a person you haven’t got any hard facts about. Once you have tracked down the likely person using records, you then need to order up a copy of the relevant birth/marriage or death certificate in order to verify the info and glean the other family information which it will contain. Many sites such as http://www.ancestry.co.uk/ will provide this service but it is much cheaper to order one yourself via the National Archives office (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/)



  • There are many useful computer software packages that will help you keep your records in an orderly manner and help draw up pedigrees and family groups sheets so you know who you are dealing with.Try to stick with one branch of the family at a time or you risk getting sidetracked with sensory overload! And do keep notes in an orderly fashion!


  • Remember that many records were written down by people with limited literacy and so often contained spelling errors and incorrect dates. It is thus always worth  looking at several years either side of a specific date if you can’t immediately find a record. Equally, check for similar spellings of the same name. Obviously it does also help to track a branch of the family with a more unusual name - trying to trace back a family of Williams or Jones in South Wales will prove to be very tricky indeed, whereas if you come from a family of Shufflebottoms or Gotobeds you will probably find your task is somewhat easier!


  • Families often used the same traditional Christian names, thus if father and grandfather were both George, it is a good idea to look for a George in the previous generations. Remember also that sometimes people used their second given name or indeed a nickname which can muddy the water somewhat when researching!


  • Records of births, marriages and deaths were kept by individual parishes from around 1530 onwards. This practice then became a legal requirement in 1830 after the explosion of population which occurred in the mid 19th Century. The key repositories of these parish records are:


The National Archives http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ Family Records Office in London

The Borthwich Insitute of Historical Research in York http://www.york.ac.uk/borthwick/

The General Register of Scotland in Edinburgh, http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/


The General Register of Ireland http://timeline.ie/general-register-office/ in both Belfast and Dublin

(Research in Southern Ireland can often prove very tricky as many of the old records were burnt in the Irish Civil War in the early part of the 20th Century and thus no longer exist.)

The British Library http://www.bl.uk/ holds records dating from the days of the Raj and Colonial Service


  • Other areas which can prove useful sources of info are military and naval records https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/(the Air Force did not exist in its own right until March 1918, being part of the the Navy and Army prior to this date (the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps)
  • The National Census http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html which takes place every ten years and is an invaluable tool for locating people. The information contained is only release to the general public after 100 years thus the most recent available to study currently dates from 1911


Generally speaking, your very best tool is the internet and whilst there are myriad sites out there, among the most useful are probably:

www.ancestry.co.uk, the Mormon organisation which is probably the largest resource of digitalised records in the world

 http://www.genesreunited.co.uk/  is a non-commercial service, maintained by a charitable trust  which provides a virtual reference library of genealogical information of particular relevance to the UK and Ireland. 

Of course every English County has its own archives - eg. www.hants.gov.uk/archives and a Family History society which can be located via the FFHS federation of Family History Societies http://www.ffhs.org.uk/

Many professions and trades also retain extensive records or apprenticeships and qualifications so if you know that your ancestor was, for instance, a goldsmith or a shipwright, then it is worth contacting the relevant trade body and see what you can glean. 

Military service records are also often very helpful and most have now been digitalised on www.forcesreunited.org.uk/

Also the Victorians were meticulous record keepers so service in the colonies was often well documented.

Social network sites like RoootsWeb, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ Familyrelatives, http://www.familyrelatives.com/  and LostCousins  http://www.lostcousins.com/  allow people to register their research interests and could also be a way of finding information. 

The Society of Genealogists http://www.sog.org.uk/ library collects published and unpublished family histories and research notes. It’s free library catalogue can be found on the library pages of the website which also list the surnames names in its various collections. 

You can also upload your research onto one of these websites, or put in a search request for a specific name, and you may link up with other unknown people who may have relevant research and you can then pool your knowledge to everyone’s advantage.

Of course there is a burgeoning industry of genealogical researchers out there who will undertake to do your research for a fee - and sometimes, if you get really stuck, it can be helpful to use the services of a professional, however really the fun is in doing the digging yourself!

Delving into your family history is both fascinating and really addictive. I would so recommend it and do get started before all the older generation are gone - it does make life so much easier! You never know what amazing stories you might uncover...

And speaking of amazing stories, I will finish with the story of a collage I created recently - an amazing tale of bravery, resourcefulness and a happy ending! This tale of a Flt Lt in the Royal flying Corps. Shot down on the Western Front, taken prisoner and incarcerated in a POW camp, he managed to escape with the help of a secret code, a smuggled map and with huge resourcefulness, he succeeded in returning to Britain to be reunited with his new born son. Truly a happy ending. Now obviously not everyone will unearth such an extraordinary story as this one, but everybody’s stories are interesting in their own way and in doing your bit to explore and by keeping a record of even a part of the story of your family, you are keeping alive the memories for the generations to come.

WW1 First World War POW Escape genealogy family history Fleet Air Arm

With the advent of scanners and digital photography, it is also now possible to both restore and preserve those old and fading photographs of generations past. I would urge you to scan and log with details as many as  you can whilst you still have the knowledge within the family as to who everyone is. There are specialist companies out there who will restore, digitalise and catalogue old family photos and documents.

Or you can come to us! When doing family history collages for clients, we at The Collage Company can improve the colouration of most old photos and also repair digitally where they have been damaged with age - all part of the service! Once the collage is created, we then encourage our clients to stick a ‘map’ of who is who in the collage on the back so that the information is recorded with the photos for posterity.

I do hope I have manage to ignite a spark of interest and that you will be inspired to delve a little into your own family history and record those memories before they all get dead and buried in time.

The Collage Company creates bespoke photo collages of all of your own special memories

Just send us your family photos & memorabilia, call us on 01420 562208 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. - we would love to hear from you!



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Emmy Watt set up ‘The Collage Company’ in 2010 after finding a gap in the digital photographic market. Instead of creating photo books, which end up on the shelf along with long-forgotten photo albums, they wanted to find a way of getting all your favourite photos out on show and still produce a quality product. Taking their marketing and design experience they have taken the traditional collage idea into the 21st century...


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