Monday, November 13, 2006

Why I started to research my family history

The story of why I started to research my family history is a long one. I shall write a few brief details here initially, and add to them when I get time.

I've always had a long standing interest in social history, particulary in the history of individuals and families rather than of monarchs or religions. I belive this sort of history is sometimes described as being from the 'pew' rather than from the 'pulpit', or is sometimes termed 'history from below'.

Another interest I've always had has been in demography, migration and population dynamics. I've always found it fascinating to understand what motivated the movement of people. Why would some members of a family remain in the place they and generations of their ancestors were born and why would others move to the other side of the world?

I've also been very keen in trying to understand concepts of ethnicity and identity, and how one associates and identifies with other members of a group or area. For instance, what makes someone a Yorkshireman? or English? What does it mean to have Welsh, Irish or Southern ancestry? And the further back in time you go and the more direct ancestors you find, does this matter more for how you view your own identity or does it make absolutely no difference whatsoever?

I explored some of these interests during my time doing an undergraduate degree in Human Sciences in Oxford. Additionally, I developed my knowledge and interest in genetics, heredity and inhertiance. When I was looking for an underaduate project I had the idea that it may be interesting to look at the degree of inbreeding in small villages by looking at the incidences of same-surname marriages. See here for work by Prof Nick Mascie-Taylor, who has done some excellent work in this area. This led me to York Library to see what records may be available to me for this purpose. Whilst I eventually decided against doing this project (I did one instead on the evolution of emotion in man and animals), it did expose me to what records were available. This was in about 1999 just before the internet boom took off.

When I left Oxford in 1999, I had a long Summer Vacation to fill before going off to start my PhD at Cambridge in behavioural genetics. It suddenly dawned on me that a great thing to do would be to find out a little about my family tree.

I initially only had one question. I knew my great-grandfather was Harold Wright and that he was from Acomb. All I wanted to know originally was who were his parents? On this day at the Borthwick Institute, I managed to find not only who his parents were but who his grandparents were also. The next day I found his great-grandparents. A great success for two days work. This was all very exciting and got me fixed on family history. But, after starting with one question, I now had about another 10. As you continue with your family history, the number of questions (and sometimes answers) only ever increases!

While my current job is very time-consuming, the availability of online records has enabled me to do a little family history from time to time. I hope one day to be able to get back to spending time in record offices and finding out even more of the really interesting bits and pieces that you seem to forever come across in the records.

As I started doing my family history work before the internet, most of my early research took place at local records offices and so it mostly concentrated on my family in the York area. Now I have been able to do work on other branches of my family in other areas, but to fill in the details I really need to get to the record offices. I hope this blog will provide you with information on all the branches that I have researched - some with more success than others.

If you are new to family history, Randy Seaver's blog has a good page on internet guides to starting your family history, which you can find here.

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