Family History Information
This section could be sub-titled 'what information can you get for nothing?'
The most obvious starting point is the material - documents, certificates, pictures, letters and any
biographical information - held by the family. Add to this the oral history one can access: the memories and stories
in the minds of relatives. It may be possible to start building quite a detailed tree with attendant notes on character, occupation,
and so on.
Many older people will be happy to yarn extensively about their relatives from the past. For example, in the author's case, 'interviewing' a great-aunt, it was possible to rekindle a memeory of the aunt's own
grandmother describing a great-grandparent born over 150 years ago. Note-taking or even recording their reminiscences
could be a rich source of information at a later date. Such memories are likely to be unformed, perhaps rambling, and
may not make much sense as one hears it but at a future time when more structured information is available, the oral accounts
may give you useful insights and hints about new directions worth investigating.
It would be unfair to give family members the 'third degree' but a few interviewing tips and tricks would not go amiss.
Questions beginning with Who? What? Why? When? Where? will help flesh out information and provide useful new avenues to follow.
There are pitfalls to this. No-one has perfect memory: sometimes names can be confused or forgotten;
stories can be attached to the wrong person; periods of time may be shortened or lengthened; whole sequences or
individuals can be obliterated. People have likes and dislikes, exaggerating the characteristics of a person from the
past and up- or down-grading them in their importance and influence on events - the proverbial 'black sheep'
associated entirely with negatives and others painted as saints or angels. Often memories come from childhood: a child's
perspective is entirely different from that of an adult. Actions and events may be misunderstood or interpreted in the
Where possible get two or more opinions on the same event or person. If this is not possible, or even if it is,
look to see if dates, events, etc. can be confirmed by documentary evidence. Think of any detail, oral or written as a
piece of jigsaw - the apparently mundane can be the key to unlocking a story. The difference between this kind of
jigsaw and its cardboard equivalent is that a piece not only fills a gap but also changes a part, or all, of the picture.
The existence of written material is very much a matter of luck. The writer's great-grandfather kept
annual diaries throughout most of his life, according to surviving relatives. They were not the equivalent of Samuel Pepys' diary, or
even those of modern politicians more concerned about self-promoting memoirs than in detailed facts. No, they were the
commercial appointment-type diaries used for recording doctors/dentists visits and other trivia, along with the occasional sentence or two
of commentary. But they would have told us a great deal about the daily pattern of his life. And although born some 140
years ago, he had a few adventures, including trips to Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.
The same relatives recount how all those diaries, together with an unknown quantity of personal records and
ephemera were neatly piled in the back garden and burned! All except a single diary kept because it recored details of a
Written materials may be retained in some families with more appreciation and respect for them as pieces of family history.
The author's wife was fortunate to receive a small parcel of letters written to a cousin in the 1920's and 1930's. These
had been kept by the cousin and her son and were then forwarded to a descendant of the writer by his bereaved wife in the
early 2000's. They contained references to relatives, to a family wedding, to their jobs, fashions, foods, and visits to
Portsmouth dockyard. These were all references in ordinary letters between ordinary people that enriched our knowledge
of their lives, proved relationships and provided unthought of opportunities to follow up more family connections.
Another type of communication that can be a rich source of information, albeit fragmentary, is the family
postcard. Many people retain postcards for years, and collecting them has always been popular. First developed at the end of the
19th century, they became the e-mails or text messages of their day. Postal collections and deliveries in the pre-telephone age were sufficiently
frequent to allow a card to be sent and a reply received on the same day. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a
good collection of family cards you may be able to follow a 'conversation' about an interesting event in your family
Other forms of ephemera include receipts and invoices, birthday and anniversary cards, wedding invitations,
and lists, funeral service programmes and newspaper cuttings. We will consider newspaper records more fully later. Other, more
formal documents such as certificates, wills, property records and inventories will also be discussed in later sections.
Family bibles can be productive sources of genealogical information. Large family bibles were
commercially produced in the early 20th century with pages laid out for the recording of births, deaths, marriages and,
particularly after the First World War, military service and wartime deaths.
Photograph albums were first compiled in the second half of the 19th century but often the photos were
untitled. Many of us have albums or boxes of anonymous individuals who will remain unidentified.
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