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It was with contrasting feelings of excitement and trepidation that I agreed to my aging mothers request to look into our family tree. She was keen to see if one of her great uncles had left for America in the 19th century as family lore would have it.
For my part, I was more than aware that there were a number of skeletons on my father’s side of the family with name changes, divorces and war time affairs, to name just a few.
It’s all very well agreeing to undertake the project, it was quite another to have a clue where to start. There was a time, not all that long ago, when tracing your ancestors would have meant multiple visits to the National Records Office. There I’m told, it would have been a painstaking exercise in finding, referencing and cross referencing people in numerous different record sets.
Assuming you were even able to find what you were looking for, and to trace the whole family would have taken weeks, you’d then have to photocopy everything and manually collate it.
Fortunately, in part fuelled by TV programmes on the subject, tracing your ancestry has become very popular and moved online. There are now millions if not billions of records, transcribed and in original form on the internet. Don’t think it will be a cheap and cheerful exercise however. While there are sites who claim to do it for free, you’ll quickly find that it’s really a short trial. After that you need to pay for anything interesting. If they are free, you’ll probably find that their record set is very limited.
If you’re going to do it be prepared to part with at least £100 in subscriptions and extras, such as access to extremely valuable census information. I settled on a site quickly, probably too quickly but I think I lucked out. Not only does the site contain births, deaths, marriages and such like, but it also has access to military records, school records and transportation records to name but a few. Then there is the aforementioned census information. There are numerous from various years such as 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 and 1939. They detail who was living at which address, their ages, occupations and more.
I’m nowhere near done, in fact I’ve only scratched the surface. That scratching however has opened a web of over 150 relatives so far, dating back to the end of the 18th century. I’ve more leads than I can count to still follow up. While I’m yet to find the fabled relative who left for America, I discovered another one instead. An affair with an American GI left a relative in the UK with a father back in the US - that opens a whole different chapter.
I’d never known my ‘real’ grandad, I was aware that my grandmother had divorced twice, a scandal back in the day, and my father had never shown any interest in finding out more. Now my real grandfather is clearly long gone, there are obviously relatives that I’ve been blissfully ignorant of all my life.
Do you then reach out to them? That’s a wholly different question, and one I’m yet to decide the answer to just yet.