My interest in things past, and a bent for detective work, led to my involvement in genealogy. I began researching the local history of Herefordshire in the 1980s and worked on a variety of projects with other writers as well as a local government department. I was a family history researcher for over ten years and helped scores of people worldwide to link up with their Herefordshire ancestors.
Never before has genealogy been as popular as it is today, but what is it that urges us to probe further. Perhaps it's a family legend of royal connections, a secret linked to a notorious forebear, or simply a burning curiosity to know who we really are.
For my own part, two intriguing stories came up when looking into my history: Churchill and a bare knuckle boxer. My grandfather, who was a master builder, is said to have met Churchill at some point and had his work admired by the esteemed politician. I'm yet to find the bare knuckle boxer, but who knows!
Whatever your reason, there are intriguing ancestors – and plenty of them – in everyone's family tree. This fact never ceases to amaze people: for every generation we go back, we double the number of our direct ancestors – two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and so on. By the time we reach the 16th century (and many of us can do this with the help of parish records), we could each be looking for over one thousand people!
But, for me, genealogy isn't just about drawing up a pedigree with a long list of names that go back to the year dot. It's about widening our knowledge of the times our ancestors lived through, finding out where they spent their lives, what they did, and getting to know the sort of people they were. By doing this, I believe we bring our own unique history to life.
My granddad with what I believe to be my great grandfather
When I first began researching, there was far less dependable information online. Now there's a plethora of info to be had. But a word to the wise if you are relying solely on the Internet: like anything else, a transcribed document is only as reliable as the person who transcribed it and there are still many errors and missing links on the www.
Don't forget to visit your local county archives who hold, among many other things, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, censuses, old school records and biological data.
But before you start searching further afield, begin at the beginning: collect all the evidence you can from those nearest to you: parents, siblings and other relatives (things are often handed down and stored in a box somewhere – usually in the attic!). It's quite likely photos and other papers were handed down through another family line, for example your great aunt may have been entrusted to look after family photographs, documents or the family Bible rather than your own grandmother.
Last year my cousin gave me photographs of our grandfather as a young man. I was thrilled as I'd never seen these before. The other man in one of the pictures might be my great grandfather; you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive these treasures (see top picture).
Many sources are available
In my role as a researcher, I've shared in people's joys and frustrations. I've had a great deal of fun and met some wonderful people – and a few eccentrics – along the way. I've been asked to prove connections to several famous people in history, from British monarchs to pioneers of the American Wild West. But all my clients have had one thing in common – a fascination for discovering their personal genealogy.
Trace Your Roots is the book I wrote to help others discover all the tricks of the trade I learned when I was researching other people's genealogies. From how to begin from scratch, to what the most helpful records are, and where these can be found. And, the most useful info of all, what to do if you get stuck!
My genealogy blog
Top Online Sources
Build your family tree and connect with possible family members.
International Genealogical Index
A free resource compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. www.familysearch.org/eng
Free countrywide online index here:
General Register Office index
Births, marriages and deaths have been recorded by the GRO since 1837 (England and Wales), 1855 (Scotland) and 1894 (Ireland).
The world's largest online genealogy website.
Guild of One-Name Studies
The organisation with thousands of surnames on its searchable list.
Family History Society
Each Society focuses on the genealogy of a specific region and hold many useful resources.