Tracing your ancestors: a guide for family historians

Simon Fowler, ( Pen and Sword Books, 2011), A5, 193pp

Simon Fowler is a leading authority on military and family history, who has written extensively on these subjects. For about 20 years he worked as an archivist at the National Archives (TNA). Now his brings his expertise to this introductory guide to family history.

Family history begins at home, and in the opening chapter the author descdibes how one gets started by searching for family heirlooms, documents and photographs. Beginners are recommended to talk to their oldest relations. A checklist of questions to ask is given as an appendix. Advice is given about dating old photographs and looking after documents and heirlooms. Finally in this chapter the author offers thoughts on organising the information gleaned.

There is a chapter on finding information online, which includes information about the main genealogy websites and also those of archives such as TNA. The addresses of a number of useful websites are given, but with the caveat that they were accurate at the time of writing (November 2010) and therefore subject to change. The next chapter recommends that beginners visit archives and libraries. The information that may be obtained from county record offices is mentioned, such as papers from local companies, the local courts, local government, parish registers, poor law and local newspapers. Beginners are also advised to visit  their local public libraries where other records or online resources may be available.

Birth, marriage and death certificates are among the most important records that beginners will need to create their family tree. An extensive description of the civil registration system starting in 1837 is given, together with hints and tips about finding and obtaining certificates. Other possible sources for obtaining these records are described, such as local registration offices, church records and announcements in local newspapers. For the period before 1837 researchers will need to access parish registers. There are normally held inn local record offices and could date from 1538. The problem that many of them are not indexed is recognised, and suggestions are made about search techniques. Possible alternative sources such as Boyd's Marriage Index, the FamilySearch website, the National Burial Index and memorial inscriptions are suggested. There is a chapter on the censuses. These are key resources for the period 1841 to 1911, and the process of preparing censuses and their contents is described. Access to most censuses is not free. Some alternative, free sources are noted, perhaps at your local library, local studies libraries, Society of Genealogists and family history society research centres. Hints and tips are given to assist beginners to find their relatives.

The chapter on wills describes how to find them and the related probate records. The ecclesiastical court system that existed before 1858 is explained. From 1858 wills and probate records have been held by the Principal Probate Registry. These are indexed and available as the National Probate Calendar. The author also mentions death duties, and records of these are at TNA.

There are two lengthy chapters on military records. The author describes the records that exist at TNA for soldiers and officers who were discharged before 1914 and who were awarded a pension. For seamen in the Royal Navy, centralised records exist only from 1853; prior to that, researchers will need to locate a man's certificate of service, and these are held at TNA. The surviving records of the First World War servicemen are also online, but researchers are warned that only about a third of the records survive; the remainder were destroyed in the Second World War. What does survive complete is the collection of Medal Index Cards, and these could well lead to regimental records that may hold details of a serviceman's service.

For the Second World War the record remain in the hands of the Ministry of Defence. Details are given of how servicemen themselves or their next of kin may obtain a copy of their records. Other Second World War records are described, including operational records and war diaries at TNA. The Royal Airforce compiled operational books on a daily basis, and these are also held at TNA, as are operational records for the Royal Navy.

For those who died in either war the Commonwealth War Graves Commission hold information about burials and cemeteries. Other sources for family historians are discussed, such as apprenticeships, merchant seamen, the police, the post office, railways, changes of name, criminal records, Freemasonry, poor law, charities and school records. There is a separate discussion on immigration and emmigration, and the records available are described.

Printed sources are described: directories, electoral registers and newspapers. The usefulness of the many types of maps, both old and new, is referred to. For those with ancestors from Scotland and Ireland the commonly accessible records are briefly described. Several specialised books dealing with research on Scottish and Irish ancestors and archives are listed.

Appendix 1 is a proforma suggesting questions to be asked of your relatives. The importance of obtaining and retaining this information is stressed. Appendix 2 is a selection of books recommended for further reading and Appendix 3 lists a number of useful addresses.

I think that this book is extremely useful to all family researchers, whether they be beginners or more experienced researchers who have reached that inevitable brick wall, and who need reminders of the basics of family history research. For a number of years we have recommended to beginners George Pelling's book Beginning your family history. This is now out of print, and I would be happy to recommend Tracing your ancestors as a most suitable replacement.

Ivan Dickason

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