There are many sources available to the family historian today, but many of us, particularly when we are starting out in the hobby, are guilty of sticking to the main genealogical sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. It’s very tempting to rush ahead to the next generation, collecting names and dates for your tree, so you can tell the world you’ve managed to research back 200 years; but our ancestors were real people, with real lives. They had their own daily routines, their own interests, and stories way beyond simple births, marriages and deaths.
I must note that Ancestry and FindMyPast offer a plethora of collections besides the usual censuses, birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial records. I certainly couldn’t conduct my research without these core databases; but I’d like to bring to your attention some of the under-utilised websites out there, which can also help you gain a greater understanding of the lives your ancestors led.
It’s always best to visit archives in person where and when you can, but that’s not always possible, and with more and more records being digitised, you can access much from the comfort of your own sofa. Here are some of my favourite websites that help add flesh to the bones of your family history (pun intended).
Well, where do I begin with TNA? I think this site warrants a blog entirely for itself! For now, I shall just touch upon a few of the wonderful benefits the home of our nation’s historical documents has to offer. The main website provides a fantastic selection of Research Guides with tips and advice on how to search collections within different subjects. There’s everything from Land Records and Maps, to Criminals, Courts and Prisons.
If you struggle with reading old handwriting (as I often do) the tutorial on palaeography is very handy. Then we have the online catalogue known as Discovery. You can search for records all across the UK, and the database will show you where the documents are held, and how to access them. You can filter your results to show records located at TNA or ‘Other Archives’, refine date ranges, even specific collections if you know what you’re looking for. It might seem a bit overwhelming at first, but once you become familiar with the site, you will find it invaluable.
The British Newspaper Archive is an absolute treasure of a site. Searching your ancestor’s name can bring up all sorts of stories from marriage announcements and obituaries, to criminal activities (yes, we all have a rogue or two in our family tree).
I’ve come across mention of people in sporting events, church celebrations, even names of winners of the weekly crossword! All these details give us an idea of who our forebears were as people. The website for British Newspaper Archive includes lots of tools to filter your results and bookmark articles. The OCR (Optical Character Recognition) can be frustrating at times when it doesn’t recognise the words/names you are searching for, so I don’t recommend you filter your results too strictly. You can always use the wildcards of ? and * to help look for variations.
Genuki is another go-to site for me. If I’m researching a location I’m not familiar with, I simply type the name of the village/town in Genuki’s search bar, and it brings up the history of the area.
You can learn about the community in which your ancestor lived, what the local industry/employment was, the distance to nearby towns, population statistics, or even discover the history of churches in the area. There are categories from Folklore to Probate, Schools to Directories. By clicking on each heading, you will see which records still exist, and where you might find them. It really is a very useful site.
Similarly, the Family Search ‘catalog’ is an excellent resource for finding out what collections are available for certain locations. The website is run and funded by the LDS church, offering free access to a wealth of material.
FamilySearch.org not only has this brilliant ‘catalog‘ which is searchable by Place, Surnames, Titles, Author, Subjects or Keywords; but many of the records have been digitised and are available to view online or at one of the Family History Centres. Family Search also has a subscription-free database, where you can search for the standard census returns and civil registration records (amongst other collections). Their ‘mapp‘ facility, whilst occasionally problematic, is fantastic if you are examining pre-1837 records. The map allows you to view the jurisdictions of a parish, and has links to the records associated with that place. If you are happy to share your findings, there is a single-worldwide family tree that has been constructed with the collaboration of thousands of family historians. You can search for your ancestors, submit data to their profile, or even create new ones if they don’t already exist. It’s an extraordinary project, with people across the world coming together for the love of genealogy.
Last but by no means least, I’ve picked local family history societies. Family History Federation has an A-Z list of groups, with links to their websites. Lots of wonderful FHS members across the UK have transcribed documents relating to families/businesses/churches etc. which can be accessed if you become a member.
You don’t necessarily need to live locally to join. If you have ancestors from a far away county, becoming a member of the relevant Family History Society can open up a trove of records that may contain information about your family. Many FHS’s have their own websites, some even digitising their transcriptions, photos and stories. During the pandemic, lots of groups held talks/presentations via platforms like Zoom and, due to their success, have decided to continue them in the future. Check out which online events are being held by your society.
It’s been difficult to choose my top five, I could easily have suggested a further dozen sources that are beneficial to genealogical research. Social media mustn’t be underestimated – Facebook groups for local communities can reveal all sorts about local families/occupations/photos. All these sources can be used in conjunction with each other to enrich your family’s story.
Discovering who our ancestors were, learning about their ups and downs, loves and losses, is far more rewarding than just marking out their life-span. It’s our duty to remember their existence as a whole, not just a label on a branch.