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Beyond t he of ficial record: rediscovering lost family papers

The official records can only take you so far in your family history research. Michael Heafford shows how it is well worth investigating whether more personal documents exist that might give you an insight to the personalities, interests and leisure occupations of your ancestors. What might you discover?


The first task of the family historian is to establish the family tree through parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, back as far as possible. This task is usually greatly assisted in the early stages by personal knowledge and by the ability to communicate with family members, close and extended. Beyond the limits of personal knowledge and living memory, the existence of official records, particularly birth, marriage and death certificates along with census returns, can help us back into the first half of the 19th century.

This route into the past, straightforward though it may seem, is often beset with difficulties caused by such factors as the misleading recollections of family members, the faulty transcriptions of officials, the wayward cataloguing of records or their loss, the muddying of the waters which result from possibly unexpected, even clandestine relationships, such as concealed adoption and illegitimacy.

The creation of a basic family tree having been completed as far as possible, we should have a much clearer idea of our ancestors than before: their occupations, the size of their families, their place of residence.

However, alongside these official records that we have used to create our family tree, there is a whole world of other records with possible relevance to our families of which we may be unaware. It is of these I wish to write.

What did our ancestors record about themselves?

While registrars, enumerators and employers were recording key facts about individuals, those individuals were recording all sorts of information about themselves, their friends and others they met.

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About Family Tree

There's something undeniably special about visiting our ancestors' final resting places. Read the guide in the latest issue of Family Tree about graveyards and we will help you step back in time. Graveyards and cemeteries are a very real reminder of earlier generations and visiting them will not only spark thought-provoking memories - they may also provide you with new clues and details... And speaking of 'new clues' - don't miss our brand new series 'Taken a DNA test? Now what?'. This is the advice you need if you want to get the most from your DNA test. Discover how to make sense of the results, find more details and grow that fabulous family tree of yours! Join in with the DNA adventure today! We also have a fabulous free guide for you in this bumper issue, Heritage Days Out, packed full of ideas for family and local history trips to take this summer. Enjoy your travels through time!