By Hudson, Jules; Barratt, Nick
History Today , Vol. 57, No. 4
'EVERYONE'S GOTTA BE SOMEWHERE,' said the Coal Man, arias Peter Sellers, when asked what he was doing in a cellar during a memorable Goon Show. His answer was funny but also incisive, for as well as being somewhere we all have to be someone too. If history means anything to us, knowing where we came from brings insight about the people we are.
Over the last five years, the growth of popularity in the field of personal heritage, and in particular family history, has soared. Every year, thousands of people set out on a personal odyssey to uncover the lives of their ancestors in an attempt to learn more about themselves. To give an example of the numbers involved, the Federation of Family History Societies boasts over 219 member societies that represent over 300,000 individuals. Archives and record offices have never been busier.
Tracing your roots has never seemed easier either. The digital age has revolutionized our ability to gain access to personal data that has traditionally been locked away, out of sight and reach. As a nation, we have been ardent recordkeepers ever since the Domesday Book was commissioned by William I, but it was the nineteenth century that saw a proliferation of records that captured every aspect of life from cradle to grave with the introduction of civil registration of birth, marriage and death, whilst census records provided a snapshot of daily life in every household.
Today, these records are available online for all to see. The internet contains a huge amount of information about the past in the form of digitized images and associated name databases, most of which have appeared in the last five years. This rapid expansion of data is especially remarkable considering so much of it was handwritten in often impenetrable script; this is now transformed into typed entries that all can read.
A number of dedicated sites will lead you back in time, and introduce you to your ancestors. Offsite, the Family Records Centre holds original civil registration indexes for England and Wales, as well as census records from 1841-1901. Guidance about how to get started is provided on an associated website, www.familyrecords.gov.uk. Most people, though, gravitate to one of the online dataset providers that allow you to search by name. Ancestry.co.uk is perhaps the biggest, with no fewer than 540 million records available through its associated databases incorporating all public census records for England, Scotland and Wales. Other sites include www.origins.net, www.findmypast.com, www.scotlandspeople.gov. uk and www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. Yet prior to the growth in state interest in recording the journey of life, this task had fallen upon the Church ever since 1536 when Thomas Cromwell made it mandatory for each parish to record baptisms, marriages and burials in parish registers. Today parish records still form the core of much of what we can learn about our ancestors, and the Parish Register Transcription Societies must be thanked for first making these records available nationwide. By 1900 many of our great city libraries had a vast range of parish records from all over the country open to inspection. This work has been taken to a new level by the activities of the Church of Latter Day Saints--the Mormons--who have made their own extensive transcripts of British parish registers available online via www.familysearch.org.
Today, most of us with forebears born in Britain stand a reasonable chance of tracing our lineage back to the nineteenth, if not the eighteenth century, but beyond that records are increasingly patchy and often depend on social rank. Often the trail simply goes cold prior to the early eighteenth century because people simply didn't appear in written records unless they were landholders or fell foul of the law. Even then, many of these records are lost to posterity (if ever they were made). One researcher has described spending ten years tracing just one generation! …