Research your ancestors’ worlds

As lovers of history we relish feasting on the latest historical books, and soaking up the newest series on the telly – and absolutely quite right too. But history doesn’t have to be something you solely watch from the sidelines. It’s something you can dive into, join in with, something you too can research – with pleasure and with a real purpose. And an excellent way to do this is by tracing your family history.

If you’ve not yet tried it, you may be wondering about the appeal – however, once you begin finding out about your family history, I guarantee you’ll be absorbed.

So what’s family history all about? Going up into the roof and hauling down those boxes of papers and photos? Yes certainly. Booking yourself on a battlefield tour, or taking a DNA test? Yes those too. Unearthing skeletons, little-known stories and long-lost relations? Yes (we all have the skellies but they’re not so scary).

But as someone passionate about history, one of the things I think you’ll find most appealing about family history is that first-hand look at the past. Actually tracking down the records (in the archives and online) that tell us about our ancestors’ lives and the world they once lived in. Discovering the miles of records that are held in the thousands of archives nationwide (helpfully increasingly now digitised too). Wrestling with the crabbed old handwriting. Making sense of what that record can tell you about the past.

Think back to 1939 and the start of World War 2 for instance. We know about the Nazi invasions Europe-wide, the gas masks dished out on the Home Front, and the young evacuees whisked away to rural safety. Now look at September 1939 with a family historian’s eye. Yes we do want to know about the wider historical context for sure. But we also want to find out about our family and pinpoint their place in history, so we turn to the 1939 Register.

Taken on 29 September 1939, within weeks of Britain joining the war, the 1939 Register is a time capsule of our ancestors on the brink of the dark years of war that were to follow. It’s literally a role call of the nation – names, birthdays, home addresses. But already the tentacles of war had crept in and disrupted our ancestors’ lives. Have a serviceman or woman in the family? They won’t be listed, being recorded separately by the military. Looking for a youngster in the family? Don’t be surprised if you can’t find them at home – Operation Pied Piper, launched earlier in the month – had relocated millions of young and vulnerable people in the national evacuation programme.

But look closely and you will find further clues about your ancestors too. Notes, perhaps, that someone was an air raid warden, or maybe a change of surname – as the register continued to be used by the fledgling post-war NHS. And why was the register taken in the first place? To make sure the war effort worked – to allocate and organise ID cards, conscription and rationing. Turn to Hansard (freely available online), and the transcripts of the discussions in Parliament through that long summer of 1939, and you can read of the politicians’ concerns about how to manage with the clouds of war gathering, concerns about how to feed the nation, about what Emergency Powers would be needed.

This is all part of our families’ history. The events that were common to all, and the individual story of each person’s life and experiences. By finding out your family story, piecing together the tales, tragedies and adventures of your ancestors’ lives you’ll be setting yourself on a time travel trip back into the past where history is truly, poignantly very much alive.

Helen Tovey is the Editor of Family Tree Magazine. In her talk on 30th June at Chalke Valley History Festival, she will be looking at ten types of historic records, and seeing what light each one can shed about our family history, our ancestors and the world they once lived in. You can book tickets for the ‘My Heritage and Ancestry Morning’ here.