Find out your family history

Image above: Old Chiswick 

Professional genealogist Gill Thomas suggests how to get started

Gill Thomas is a professional genealogist who has worked on events such as the Who Do You Think You Are? exhibition, helping the public with queries about how to trace their family history. Like the rest of the world, she’s taken her activities online and is planning some interactive sessions about how to do family research. Read her introductory blog and let her know if you would be interested in taking part in one of her online Ask the Expert sessions.

Family history “so compelling I left my job”

Welcome. I seem to have joined the ranks of the ‘bloggerati’ as part of The Chiswick Calendar’s Lockdown-things to do. I began my own ancestral research many years ago when I worked in Marketing, and found it so compelling that I left the corporate world, re-trained and have run my own research practice Who What Where Research ever since.

This is the first blog of the series. I will be covering different topics such as tips on interpreting Census returns; searching for parish records; researching military ancestors; organising your own One-Street Study and DNA testing, but if anyone has a particular topic that would be of interest do get in touch.

I need to gauge your level of knowledge and interest so I can target sessions most usefully, so the more feedback and questions I get from you, the better. I am also going to be researching Chiswick Calendar editor Bridget Osborne’s ancestral history as part of the series, so you can follow the project as it unfolds.

Images above: Gill’s two grandfathers, James Percy Davies (L); Benjamin Arthur Thomas (R)

No time like the present

If like many others you have always intended to start researching your family history but never had the time before, the good news is that there have never been as many online resources available as there are now. Normally I spend a lot of time telling researchers to get out there and visit archives, but in the temporary absence of those – where to begin?

Use your living family

The best starting point is to collect relevant information for all your family members starting with yourself, working backwards through the generations listing key dates (i.e. Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths). Involving older relatives in the project might well reveal useful information about ancestors.

Some family historians like to record everything on paper and there are many free options available online which you can access by searching for family history charts, using sites such as Alternatively, there are various genealogy software packages available so you can store all the information you collect in one place. (This can be doubly useful if you want to share information with other family members and can also be used to print out ancestral charts). Family Tree Maker, Family Historian and Legacy are some of the best-known packages. The internet is full of advice as to which might offer the best solution for your needs. (See for reviews.)

Image above: 1911 census for retired army officer Samuel Moores’ household in Woodstock Rd

UK civil and religious records

Following on from what you have gleaned from family members, your research will most probably lead to UK civil and religious records. Census returns made between 1841-1911 are available online, as is the 1939 UK Register taken for the purposes of evaluating rationing needs.

The subscription websites Ancestry and Find My Past have extensive datasets available, as does Family Search (which is free to access). Scottish information can be accessed via Scotland’s People, a credit-based service.

I should at this point issue a genealogical health warning … do not assume that the family trees posted online by other researchers are correct. Do your own research and keep a note of where you found the source. When I began researching my own ancestral history many years ago, this was the biggest rookie error that I made, which led to lots of wasted time and effort.

Sometimes this can arise as a result of what I term Victorian vanity publishing syndrome, the result of a researcher finding a published/printed family history and accepting it at face value, when instead it might just as easily be re-classified as a work of fiction, no matter how well-intentioned the author.

Images above: Front cover of the West Middlesex Family History Society Journal, March 2020 issue; 1915 pram advert from a shop in Turnham Green Terrace

Family History Societies

If you are not familiar with the area from which your ancestors hailed, it could be very useful to join the local Family History Society. Not only do they have experienced volunteers, but they will have local knowledge. For me, local societies are the unsung heroes of genealogical research. Not only to do they provide unique sources of information, they tend to charge very modest membership subscriptions and often publish a journal a couple of times a year.

Don’t forget to walk the dog

Embarking on your own family history project could be just the thing to engage with during these challenging times, especially to keep the ‘grey matter’ ticking over. But I warn you, it can be all-consuming! Just remember that the dog still needs a walk and you really ought to get up for a screen break and to make a cup of tea every now and again, but on the plus side you can stay in your pj’s as long as you like and no-one will know!

To make this blog as useful as possible, do please send me your questions and thoughts. My next blog will include tips about interpreting Census returns.

Gill is a professional Genealogist and Member of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA). She also lectures at the Society of Genealogists. If you don’t feel like starting a research project yourself or are looking for a gift for a special occasion, she is also available to take commissions including house histories.