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“I created a family tree – and found the answer to a lifelong question”

All my life I knew that a certain family member of mine (okay, my grandfather) had a… dark past. And like all older people from the East End of London, there were plenty of stories about him hanging out with the Krays and getting into fights in Chinese restaurants that ended with him being given the last rites (okay, maybe not all older people from the East End). At his funeral I also learned that he had spent quite a long time in prison – but no one could (or would) ever confirm why. My father and uncle had theories, of course, but they were never privy to the full facts and I knew this was not a subject I should discuss further with my grandmother.

Yet over a decade after her death, and because I’m a curious journalist, I’ve still found myself wondering about my family history. Because whether we like it or not, I believe that where we come from and where we come from must have at least some influence on how we turned out. Of course, it’s not everything, nature vs. nurture and so on… but it’s certainly fascinating to think about.

The mysteries surrounding my family’s past have always fascinated me, so I set out to track down as much information as I could to get a better picture, not just of my father’s side of the family, but of my mother’s as well. I quickly learned that it’s actually quite easy to create your own family tree – and discover the truth behind questions that have long remained unanswered.

How do you create a family tree?

After seeing advertisements for Ancestry, the UK’s largest family history website, I decided to start there and set up an account (memberships start at £10.99, and if you want access to a decent amount of records, it’s worth the money – otherwise the process can be painfully slow and tedious, and you’ll probably need to enlist the help of your local library and various other records offices).

When you sign up for Ancestry, you start by entering your own information (name, birth date, etc.) and are prompted to add as much information as possible about your parents and grandparents. It helps if you know things like their birthdays, death dates, and marriage dates, but if you’re missing this information, don’t despair.

“As you begin building your tree, you’ll receive alerts that point you to records in our database that may be relevant to your family,” explains Laura House, a genealogist at Ancestry (within the ProGenealogists division, which helps people track down everything from information to long-lost relatives). “These records can tell you where your ancestors lived, what jobs they had, what socioeconomic circumstances they lived in, and more. Soon, you’ll be discovering new ancestors and adding more generations to your tree.”

As someone who has used the site, I can attest that after I added my parents and grandparents to my tree, Ancestry provided me with plenty of records to review—from census records to birth certificates—and many of them were spot on. However, you do need to be patient and compare and review the data, especially if it’s a record linked to someone with a common name (shoutout to the 417 people in my tree named “Margaret Anderson”).

a group of cards and coinsa group of cards and coins

Grandfather – Getty Images

But what if you have no family history at all?

“If you don’t know anything about your family, interview your oldest relatives and ask them for birth, marriage and death dates of their parents, grandparents and anyone else they can remember,” recommends House, saying it’s always best to ask open-ended questions. Think: Instead of asking “Was your father born in Lancashire?”, ask “Where was your father born?”

For those who know little or nothing about their biological family (for example, if they are adopted), House recommends an AncestryDNA test, “which will connect them with genetic relatives and allow them to identify their biological ancestors.”

A friend of mine whose mother is adopted did this recently and discovered ten new aunts and uncles she had no idea about (plus learned that her great-grandfather was named Harry Potter, LOL)! She plans to meet up with one of them soon (an aunt, not a wizard).

How far back can you trace your family tree?

House reveals that birth, marriage and death records in England and Wales go back to 1837, in Scotland to 1855 and in Ireland to 1864. So most of us in Britain can easily trace our history back to the Victorian era. Exciting!

“Before the introduction of civil registration certificates, (you could) look at other records such as workhouse records, apprenticeship indentures and baptism registers,” she adds. “The scope of these records varies by region, but in some parishes baptisms, marriages and funerals are traced back to 1538. So with a little luck and a bit of determination, you may be able to trace your ancestors back to the 16th century. If you have noble or royal ancestors, you should be able to go back even further.”

It’s not necessary to use a website like Ancestry to do this (some library branches may have resources that can help you with your search, for example), but it certainly makes the process a lot easier.

What does a genealogist do?

If you want to dig even deeper or really need help finding answers, it might be worth considering the services of a genealogist. “I work for AncestryProGenealogists, the research arm of Ancestry, which consists of a large number of professional genealogists from around the world,” says House. “Professional genealogists tend to specialize in certain geographic areas, time periods, or technical niches. For example, I’m a specialist in British Isles research and DNA, so most of my clients are people from the British Isles who want to identify an unknown parent but don’t know where to start.”

She adds that many of her clients have made good progress themselves but have encountered obstacles along the way. “We know if it’s possible to solve their puzzle and exactly where to look to find the information they need.”

How much does a genealogist cost?

House says if you contact Ancestry’s team of genealogists, the price is £137 (or $175) per hour and clients must book a minimum of 20 hours of sessions. That’s £2,754 in total – so it’s not the cheapest option, but if you’re really after answers, it could be worth considering.

House’s work has included helping people reunite with their biological parents. She has a knack for bringing family stories to life, using every tool at her disposal to create vivid images of characters from the past, using old newspaper clippings and sometimes even original photographs.

“I worked on a BBC3 documentary called Stranger in my Family, where the protagonist Luke took a DNA test and discovered he was biracial,” she recalls. “He then set off on a journey to find his biological father and learn more about his newfound cultural heritage. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was an incredibly moving project and a fantastic example of the power of DNA and genealogy to change lives and answer decades-old questions.”

Tips for creating a family tree

A key tip from me is to not limit your search to official government documents, but also check military records and the newspaper archive Newspapers.com (access to these is included with some Ancestry membership levels). This finally helped me solve the family mystery of my grandfather’s “unique” career and the reason for his prison sentence… many newspaper clippings surfaced confirming that he was caught with explosives in his car, possibly on his way to a bank robbery (which matched some rumors I had already heard). Additionally, by digging up old articles, House found that my grandfather was later caught again trying to break into an office (and apparently answered the question “What are you doing?” with “Getting caught,” as one article puts it). Scream.

“Newspapers.com is a fantastic resource for uncovering stories about your ancestors and overcoming research challenges,” agrees House. “If you want to search for a specific name or phrase, use quotation marks – ‘like this’. If your ancestor used different spellings for his name, use wildcards like ‘*’ and ‘?’ when searching.

“For example, if you search for ‘*liz* Sm?th’ you’ll get results for Elizabeth Smith, Elizabeth Smyth, Lizzie Smith, Eliza Smyth, and others.” Again, you’ll need patience to go through all the results, but once you get into the flow of searching, it’s quite entertaining and meditative.

If your ancestor had a common name, it can also be helpful to limit your search to a specific county or newspaper, House advises. “You can find birth, marriage and death notices, obituaries, court proceedings, human interest stories and much more.”

So there you have it: your guide to starting to build your family tree and answering the questions you’ve been wondering about your relatives for years! Brilliant. I hope yours aren’t as scandalous (or are, if that’s what you want) as some of mine…

Ancestry membership starts at £10.99 per month, more information here. They also offer DNA tests from £79.99 (plus postage), more information here.

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