ID: PBH_CTH_036 / Eric Hall

TitleResearching Your Family History - Birch Centenary Chronicle 36
AbstractResearching Your Family History

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 36.

Published in Parish News - November 2004

Family history is a very popular pastime and a TV series is now showing where to search for records. "Essex Matters" recently outlined information available in the County. Magazines on the subject and references in local newspapers, may account for the wide appeal of genealogy and local history. The Editor receives a number of requests for help so it may be helpful to start by saying that he does not have a stock of "family trees" nor do we hold a collection of original documents which we can search through. Nevertheless we know people willing to help if they can. One, possibly, unique item we have is an index of names of people mentioned in an incomplete run of the Parish Newsletters between 1908 up to the early 1940s.

Local library staff can help you locate local resources. But first there are a few basic steps to follow. Ask your family for their recollections and do not restrict this to dates for births, marriages and deaths. Links to national events such as "the day war broke out" or "when President Kennedy died" may help. Ensure that photographs are dated and that the names are recorded - preferably showing where they fit in the family. Next, and often a time saving move, is to check to see if anyone else has researched your family name - some libraries hold directories containing such details. A local family history society may be of help. Many run courses and have lists of family names researched. They publish magazines and research papers and transcribe some of the most useful documents. To take a local example the Essex Society for Family History has transcribed the monumental inscriptions from many churchyards including ours.

One reason for the recent interest has been the availability of material on the Internet but be careful, as much of that information has been retyped from original documents. Check back to the originals if possible.

As with all hobbies, it is not as easy as it seems at first. Much depends on the surname you are researching - Hall is a good example as it is among the top 20 most common in the UK so making life difficult. My two grandmothers had far less common maiden names and it is possible to research them with assurance that one's findings can be fitted together. Some say one should concentrate on the female side of the family as that is less uncertain than the male line! One thing to watch for is spelling, particularly in the days when many people were illiterate. Today we may be very conscious that a family by the name of Clark is very different to their Clarke neighbours. Go back 200 years and either may have been recorded as Clerk. One of my "uncommon" grandmothers names has six letters in the modern surname but there are at least seven variations of spelling in the ancestors we have traced!

Locality is often a clue and if you know where your families were living in 1901 then it should be possible to find them in the census taken that year. Be careful of spelling and be aware that the information recorded may have come from a third party. My great uncles are all recorded in the 1891 census with names correct but ages wrong! Once the census entries are found you know exactly where the family were living. Then go back ten years for a new search and, hopefully so on until 1851. This may not be easy but country dwellers seem to have moved less than those in towns, especially the poorest families who may have been forced by "economic pressure". If your family moved into or through London then the job becomes that much harder.

The census was taken every ten years starting in 1801 BUT few returns survive prior to 1841 and those that have provide only the name of the head of the household and the number of other residents. In 1841 we have names but little in the way of identifying residences, ages were limited to giving the nearest five years for those over 15 and the place of birth is given as a Y or an N - either within or outside the county. There is no relationship shown to link the entries. From 1851 onwards we find much more information and so can trace the head of the household; other residents giving their relationship to the head - or if they were servants, lodgers and so on. Of vital importance is the place of birth. Remember that all the details are as recorded by a third party, and often as recollected by whoever was advising the recorder.

The current system of Registrars of Births, Marriages and Deaths started in 1837 and even then for the next 40 or so years it is by no means certain that all incidents were registered. A tightening up of the system in the 1870s led to a very high proportion of events were registered. The Family Records Centre, 1 Myddelton Street, London EC1R 1UW, (FRC) houses all the indexes you will need for finding registrations in England and Wales and has a link to Scottish records. The records are in the form of an index to registers and to obtain the actual certificate requires the payment of a fee. You may find a birth of John Smith in the quarter ending September 1871 but this will leave you having to decide which John Smith is the one you need! Once that decision is made you can buy the certificate which will be supplied in a week or so. If family history really does take off more as a result of all the planned hype then one must have sympathy for the already overworked staff either at the FRC, or in the local Record Offices

If you can be sure that your ancestors lived in a specific parish it may be cheaper to search the parish registers in the local record office - in Essex Chelmsford, Colchester or Southend where most records are found. Phone the Office ahead of a visit to check availability and to book a machine as most records nowadays are held on microfiche or microfilm, to preserve the original documents. If your families were fairly static then all well and good. You can "travel" back through time noting every occurrence of the surname of interest. Do not skip items or be diverted by something of interest as a side issue! Time enough to come back later.

As mentioned above, my grandmothers had uncommon surnames and while tracing one a reference was found to a Hall family and there was an unusual pairing of Christian names - in fact they were my father´s names but almost 200 years before he was born. A note was made at the time and it was several years before I was able to go back only to find that the eldest Hall son had the same two Christian names for 200 years. However when my father was told this he told me that was wrong as he did not have the same name as his father and they were both the oldest sons - he had no idea that his grandfather had been married twice and we have failed to trace the other family!

Jumping to conclusions is dangerous at any time but in genealogy it is a particular hazard. The fact that the bride and groom gave the same address before marriage did not necessarily mean the same in the 19th century as it may do today - it was a way of saving on the fees for calling the banns. Failure to find an entry in the Registrars records, or the parish registers, is not sinister. One explanation is that some people avoided officialdom in any form or were registered under a slightly different name. One grandmother was baptised under a different Christian name to that by which she was registered. My other grandmother had a third Christian name never used subsequently but which has since proved very useful as it was her mother´s maiden name!

Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, very addictive, and probably ought to banned as a health hazard but, if tackled as a means of finding out more about our ancestors, and how and where they lived and worked, it can be very rewarding. No one seems to have traced the family fortune by researching the family but there are other rewards. Family tales can be proved - and most have an element of truth in them - lost relatives can be traced and links made to families unknown at the outset. Local Record Offices, family history societies, directories, official records of many kinds, should all be searched and other researchers contacted.

Finally why not let us know of your discoveries whether of relevance to this area or of an unusual context. If you have found the family treasure then we will be even more interested! In the meantime good hunting. Do bear in mind that it is possible to upset people who may see your enquiries as prying into subjects best left alone. There are all manner of reasons for researching and an equal number of reasons for leaving well alone as some revelations may come as a very unwelcome surprise. If genealogists had a motto then "discretion" should be part of it.

Eric Hall

AuthorEric Hall
PublishedNovember 2004
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath