Guest blog: A day in the life of a Family Detective

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This is not actually a picture of Sarah!

This week our guest blog is from Family Detective researcher, Sarah La Nauze:

This ought to be, ‘Lives in the day of a Family Historian’, because of the people we feel we get to know each day, and the stories of each from cradle to grave. It can be very emotional: A family loses all but one child; a baby is born after the father died at war; orphaned siblings are split up and sent to the workhouse; a man marries the sister of his dead wife … we are often drawn into events that cause sadness, joy or even anger.

Doing this job, which must be one of the most interesting occupations ever, is a great privilege. We are trusted with the responsibility of piecing together a long line of real people, over a period of about 200 years, concluding with our clients, their children and grandchildren.

This brief description of what we do makes the job sound very straightforward, but it is usually far more complex, which is why it’s so interesting.

The key requirements for being a family historian are probably:

  • Patience
  • A naturally enquiring (nosey!) personality
  • An eye for detail
  • Being a stickler for accuracy
  • Recording lots of information in a coherent way
  • Having a disposition for long spells of silence and concentration
  • Taking pleasure in relatively small events – I always get excited when the certificates come in the post each day, as they are our key to unlocking the next step!

Our main concerns are that we:

  • Find the correct family!
  • Stretch as far back as possible with each chosen branch of the family
  • Collect as much information as possible about each generation
  • Present our findings in an easy to read, interesting format.

One of the more frustrating elements of the task is knowing when to finish. For example, having found Joe Brown as a middle-aged man on the 1841 census, with his wife and children, we want to know as much as we can about him. We may need to check his address and then find that his old cottage is still there, so we try and find a nice view of it to include in the presentation. There are some noticeably large gaps of time between his children, and we suspect there may have been more that are omitted from the census, so we search all the baptism records to find that some of Joe’s children were transcribed under the surnames Bown, or Brow, or Krown, because of the scrawly writing on the originals. Sadly, some of Joe’s children died so we look for their burial records. We like to include all these in every project if possible. Joe was a shoe and boot maker, and so we check old local directories of that time to see if he was listed in them, and perhaps find an advertisement of his. On the way we stumble across a newspaper article that suggests Joe spent some time in prison for bigamy. We don’t want to include this if it was not the client’s ancestor, but if it was, he may have another wife and more children that need finding! By now, Joe has probably had more than his fair share of research time but it would be a pity to leave all this out.

A typical complication that might arise would be that Joe Brown has three or four cousins who share his name, all of a similar age living in the same village. They all seem to have married women called Mary or Elizabeth, and they all have sons and daughters with the same names. We know our man is called Joe because he was named on the marriage record of his son, who is our link, but the son left home and does not appear with his father on the census, so which Joe was his father? It becomes necessary to trace each man back and forth and rule them out by a process of elimination and deduction.

Trying to stick strictly to the brief is always a challenge. A recent project involved a family who were clay pipe manufacturers. It was fascinating to learn about their business, the kilns, the factories, the people they employed, what happened to the premises after they moved the business elsewhere, finding photos of some of the pipes that have survived, discovering old newspaper advertisements – you can imagine how absorbing this can be – and distracting! Our role is to trace the family, so we sometimes need to exercise self-control to stay on brief and not become carried away. This sounds easy but most people were so interesting, from music hall entertainers, hop growers, bakers, jewellers, gypsies, immigrants from Norway, Russia, Holland etc, all are fascinating in their own way and leave you wanting to know more. Even the humble gardener, agricultural labourer and coal miner usually lived and worked in a beautiful part of the country and were employers in their own right or were employed by a local landowner. The environments they inhabited, from remote Scottish highlands to the fields of Peckham, are always interesting, some having altered unrecognisably and others not at all. Some lanes have become dual carriageways, some residential areas have become car parks or industrial parks.

The world is changing all the time, and each family has survived all these changes.

Posting each finished presentation is always a big deal for us. I just hope all our clients enjoy the projects as much as we do!

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