Family History


Genealogical serendipity (when lightning strikes)

Poor neglected blog. I’m prompted to get back to it, thanks to a recent run of what us family history dorks sometimes call ‘genealogical serendipity’. This will perhaps ring most bells with more experienced family historians but it has relevance for beginners too.

Genealogical serendipity tends to strike when a brick wall you’ve previously encountered in your research suddenly crumbles before your eyes with the discovery of a new record, a story or even a photo. Genealogist Christine Sievers says “If you have been doing genealogy for any length of time you will have experienced that wonderful chance happening that has opened up a whole new world.”  Some people attribute this to some sort of guidance from above. Some to some other sort of extra-corporeal or supernatural guiding spirit. Susan Soyinka speaks very powerfully about it in her extraordinary family memoir A Silence that Speaks.

Me – I’m perhaps a bit more pragmatic, a bit less mystical about it. I put it down to sheer personal brilliance, or rather more accurately, tenacity!

It is perhaps a truism that, like everything else in life, there seems to be a direct correlation between the work put in and the happenstance of genealogical serendipity. For me, it happens when I’m completely engaged and immersed in a subject.  When, by dint of thinking through all scenarios, probabilities and likely places to search, the evidence I’m looking for seems to miraculously appear before my eyes.  To cannibalise that seminal Kevin Costner line, “If you build it, they will come…”.

I hope this serves as a message of hope for those just setting out on their family’s story, but also for those who have been grappling with certain brick walls for more years than they care it remember!

It’s also about experience, I suppose.  Sometimes it’s not possible to be as entirely logical or rational in our research as we would hope to be.  Sometimes a cognitive leap is required to get at the answers we are looking for. This is a conundrum I encounter all the time as a specialist in Jewish family history where names families regularly migrate from one place to another, and names are changed again and again – often with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The usual rules simply don’t apply (see our post about chucking out the rule book in Jewish family history here).

It has been thanks to certain leaps of faith – based on hunch, but limited evidence – that some of my most steadfast brick walls have come tumbling down. And being able to make such jumps often requires a level of experience and immersion in the subject matter that comes with time. So, there’s cause for optimism for you more experienced researchers – it’s all been worth it, the answer is out there – yours for the taking…!)

I sometimes describe my job as ‘joining up the dots in the universe’.  It often feels like that.  I realised recently that I have been working for two completely independent clients whose families lived next door to each other in the East End 100 years earlier. On more than one other occasion, two independent clients were actually related via an ancestor in the old country. Perhaps it is no surprise, given that my chosen subject is a relatively small diaspora, geographically limited not just in their countries of origin but often in the places they came to call home.

Nonetheless, despite all my scepticism, it sent shivers up my spine when I discovered that the ancestors of a new client I began working with (who lives near me in a village of 2,000 people in the Sussex countryside) were neighbours of my own great-great-grandparents in a shtetl outside Lodz in the 1880s.

Isn’t that spooky?

If you would like help breaking down brick walls in your own research, please drop us a line.

Read some of our latest client testimonials here.


Earlier this week, I went to visit the site of The Keep, the new Archive and Record Office for East Sussex, which is currently under construction at Falmer, just outside of Brighton.

Like many people in the area, I have mixed feelings about the loss of the Brighton History Centre, once Brighton Reference Library, that is housed in what is now Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.  It is a great shame to lose this wonderful resource in the centre of Brighton’s North Laines, where a huge array of local history records are easily available on an open shelf basis, and unobtrusive guidance is provide by its team of helpful staff (read more here).

Nevertheless, in these straitened times, it is no surprise that there are not the resources to keep it open alongside The Keep and we must, I guess, be grateful that such a big investment is being made in local archives at all.  It also makes some sort of sense to house everything under one roof.  And, having now seen it, I must confess to being quite impressed by the prospect of researching at The Keep.

The £19.5m development is a joint initiative of Brighton & Hove City Council, East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), the University of Sussex and Sussex Family History Group.  When construction finishes in May 2013, the complete collections of ESRO and the Brighton History Centre, as well as the Special Collections of Sussex University, including the Mass Observation Archive, will be transferred to The Keep.  It will ultimately house the records of eight different Sussex archives in six miles of mobile racking, held in its 3-storey repository wing.  How long the respective archives will be effectively ‘closed’ for is not yet entirely clear – probably in the region of six months.  However, the project is apparently on target, on budget and on programme to open towards the end of 2013.

While The Keep is never going to offer the charm and sense of living history of working in the Brighton History Centre, a great deal of thought and careful planning has gone into the new building.  Attention has been focused on sustainability with its external energy centre and biomass boiler, and future-proofing the new site. There should be enough space for new acquisitions for the next 20 years.  The very latest technologies are being used, including climate control technology currently undergoing 12 weeks of testing in the repository before records arrive.  A bespoke repository is being built on the first floor for photographic material and glass plate negatives.  The risk of fire is also being carefully managed, especially important when Sussex’s records will be henceforth mostly under one roof!

The exterior of the building is plain and modern, wrapped with an original ornamental panel alluding to various aspects of Sussex life.  Inside the main block, the space is light and airy, with two workrooms downstairs.  One of the rooms will be reserved for ‘open shelf’ study, hopefully on the same basis now provided by the History Centre, and will include lots of desk space and PC terminals.  The adjoining room, on the other side of  a glass wall next to the ‘Document production room’, will be for accessing more sensitive or fragile  original records and maps.  There is a separate room for the collection of the Sussex Family History Group, and another large flexible workspace that can be divided into three rooms for teaching, school visits, talks and other events.  Wifi access will be available throughout the building.  Sophisticated copying facilities are currently being worked out and consideration is also being given to the possibility of housing original films from the Screen Archive South East.  Upstairs, the second floor of the main block, there are bespoke new facilities for ongoing digitisation projects, masterminded by the record office and staffed by volunteers, as well as staff rooms and offices.  There will also be a cafe and green space outside for picnicking!

All looks very promising, if rather utilitarian especially on a bleak November day while under construction!  My only concern on visiting the site was that the two main ground floor workrooms might not be big enough, once equipped with shelving, desks and PCs but it will remain to be seen how things pan out.  They key to the success of the new archive will be its staff’s ability to make the site and the space work for its users.  Some of the finer details including transport links are still being ironed out; new bus routes, timetables and vehicle access are still to be negotiated.  Consideration will also need to be given to opening hours, including evening and weekend access.  Hopefully, the new website planned to accompany The Keep will also help to make the new resource approachable and accessible for all its users, in a straightforward and intuitive way.

Above all, the planners and staff will need to work hard to quell the doubters by making sure users can still easily access the existing resources and have appropriate support in finding the answers they seek, as well as acquainting users with the benefits of the new facilities and technology The Keep promises to provide.  The attitude of the planners and the personal approach of the staff will play a crucial part in transforming a pristine edifice into a living, breathing, useful resource.

Please contact us if you would like help researching your family history in Sussex.

Research your family history


Discovering my grandfatherThis post has been generously contributed by recent client, Christine Glover, who we have helped to trace the life of a grandfather she never met. If you would like help exploring your own family stories, please contact us for further information.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been curious about my paternal grandfather, William, a British citizen living in Egypt, who was expelled during the Suez crisis in 1956. He left behind my grandmother and their two young children; my father, aged ten, and his five year old sister. Already in his late fifties at the time, and having lived abroad for all his adult life, he returned to England, where he lost contact with the family. They eventually heard of his death in 1965.

My grandfather was born in 1897 in Yeovil, Somerset. I had been told that he was an only child, orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. He left England as soon as he could, and after travelling the world, settled in Egypt, at that time a colonial outpost. I knew from my father that my grandfather had been previously married to an Italian lady, and that they had a daughter before divorcing. My father didn’t know his half-sister’s name, though, or what had happened to her after her parents’ divorce.

Wanting to find out more, I had at various times tried to look for official documentation relating to my grandfather and his parents. Despite having the details of his date and place of birth on my own birth certificate, I could never find any trace of a birth certificate for him, or anything confirming the existence of his parents, whose names I’d been told were Walter and Hilda. When public records including census returns started to be made available online, I searched again, but still nothing appeared. I wondered about his mysterious daughter, my father’s elder half-sister who had disappeared without trace; what had happened to her, and whether she had any inkling that she had other family. She could be anywhere in the world, and I had so little information about her that I had no idea where to start the search.

Getting help

Occasionally I made some headway, but every time I found some information that I thought might lead me to my grandfather, the link was too tenuous. I suspected that he was illegitimate; in my over-active imagination, I toyed with the idea that he was a bigamist, perhaps even a criminal, an elusive character hiding a dark secret, who escaped all my efforts to track him down. I eventually realised that I would need professional help to dig deeper, but work and family commitments meant that I kept postponing looking into things further.

At the beginning of this year, I heard that Naomi Leon, a former colleague, had set up Research Roots. This spurred me to renew my efforts; I spent the morning typing up everything I had ever been told about my grandfather, and emailed it off to Naomi, not expecting to hear back for a few days. I’ll always remember the moment I emerged from the darkness of the tube station on my way home from work that January evening; the most incredible email from Naomi flashed on my phone screen, outlining the first twenty or so years of my grandfather’s life in amazing detail. Since then, I have read and re-read this document too many times to count.

My grandfather’s story

Naomi confirmed what I suspected; the reason I had never been able to find a birth certificate for my grandfather was because he was born under another surname, the illegitimate son of a 21 year old glove maker. A year after my grandfather’s birth, his mother married his step-father, a railway platelayer, with whom she went on to have eleven more children. Walter was my grandfather’s step-father, and presumably the only father figure he had ever known, but for some reason, my grandfather had concealed the first name of his mother, who was not called Hilda, but Jane. Hilda was actually one of my grandfather’s younger sisters; strangely, despite the confusion about her first name, Jane’s maiden name was correct.

At some point, my grandfather had informally adopted his step-father’s surname; he used both his first and second names, William and Reginald, interchangeably, so he was known by a combination of four names. No wonder I had found it so hard to track him down. I had chanced upon this family in my previous census searches, but too much differed from what I had been told, so I had never made the connection. The key had been in his army records; Naomi had managed to put the next-of-kin information from these together with census information and birth and marriage records, to corroborate that she had found the right family. With eleven half-siblings, my grandfather was obviously not an only child as we had been led to believe, and he was not orphaned young either; he was a grown man serving in the army when Jane died of heart disease in 1918 shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child at the age of 41. Walter lived to quite an old age, dying in 1945.

I had suspected that my grandfather might have been institutionalized as a child, as I could never find any trace of the uncle he said had raised him. But what Naomi uncovered in the 1911 census was even more shocking. At the age of nine, with his mother and step-father living in Yeovil with their other children, my grandfather was in Bath, detained at an industrial school, a semi-penal institution set up to take in children who were destitute or in danger of falling into bad ways. I wondered what terrible deed a child of nine could have committed to be sent away to such an institution. Had he been abandoned by his family?

With Naomi’s help, I wrote off to the Somerset Archives for the school’s records, and spent several weeks anticipating the worst. When the records arrived, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His character was described as “good” and his “sentence of detention” until the age of sixteen was for “non-attendance”. I obtained a copy of the school rules; discipline was harsh, and children were allowed little contact with their families. My grandfather was an inmate there until the age of fifteen. He was released early, with a much better education than he would have received otherwise, and a glowing reference (“he should do well in life”) to join the army as a boy soldier in 1912.

This could have been the best thing that ever happened to him; he escaped the horrors of the trenches, having been already stationed in India and China when the First World War broke out, and was eventually posted in Cairo. Army life was not for him though; a series of incidents including “improper behaviour before the band president” and kit going missing, culminated in him being court martialled for going AWOL. He eventually bought his way into a civilian job with the Cairo police for £35 in 1920, and settled in the country that was to be his home for the next thirty five years of his life.

Now I knew that my grandfather’s first marriage probably took place in Egypt. After doing some more research, Naomi managed to locate the marriage in 1921; the information about his first wife being Italian proved to be correct; her name was Maria, and I was shocked to see that she was only sixteen at the time of her marriage to my twenty four year old grandfather.

Finding Aunt Nelly

Then followed a period of tracing different leads; after a couple of false starts ordering birth certificates of girls with the same surname born in Egypt, Naomi found the birth certificate of their daughter, my father’s half-sister, Nelly, who was born in 1922; strangely, her birth was only registered when she was thirteen years old. My father then remembered that following their divorce, my grandfather’s first wife had subsequently married an RAF pilot before leaving Egypt, so we tried to find this marriage certificate in the hopes that this would lead us to where Maria and Nelly had eventually settled.

Naomi managed to locate Maria’s second marriage to a pilot called Jim, in of all places, Barnsley, Yorkshire. But Jim’s job meant that they moved around, and it was tricky to trace them. Naomi made some contacts from Jim’s family through a genealogy website, and was told that he and Maria had moved to Wales. In August this year, Naomi told me that she had traced Nelly. Sadly, we were too late as she had passed away some years ago. However, Naomi had made contact with Nelly’s daughter, my first cousin, Lydia, who now lives in Canada.

Approaching my relatives

I wondered how Lydia would react to my contacting her. After all, I didn’t know under what circumstances her grandparents’ marriage had broken down, and what she had been told about our grandfather. I had nothing to worry about, as Lydia was delighted to hear from me and fascinated to hear all about the information Naomi had uncovered. She also had some amazing stories of her own to share, including how Maria had married our grandfather to get away from her controlling father, and how after their separation, our grandfather had taken Nelly away, and she was found several days later in an Arab tent. Apparently, the disappearance even made the press!

Aside from Lydia, I have made contact with several other cousins, the children of our grandfather’s siblings. Poignantly, the first cousin I made contact with, told me that his mother Lillie’s last memory our grandfather, her elder brother, was of her running in the field waving goodbye as his train pulled out of the station to take him to join up. Apparently, he kept in touch with Lillie for some years, but the letters eventually petered out. After their mother’s death, Walter didn’t remarry, and Lillie raised the remaining younger siblings. My grandfather never returned to Somerset, settling in Portsmouth when he was expelled from Egypt in 1956.

I’ll never know why he lost contact with all his family, but exactly a century since he left, it has been an incredible experience for me to connect with them. I now know the names not only of my great grandparents, but also of my great-great grandparents, what they did for a living, how many children each generation had, and where they are all buried. I hope to visit Somerset soon to see my new-found cousin Ann, who will be the first member of my extended family on my grandfather’s side I have ever met in person.

Photos reproduced with thanks by kind permission of the family.

[nggallery id=4]

Research your family tree using local libraries


Research your family tree using local librariesSo yesterday, I put on my specs and my best brown sandals and headed out on an exploratory visit to Brighton History Centre to reacquaint myself with local records.

I have to confess an interest and an affinity with the place.  My mother worked in what was then Brighton Reference Library when I was a child and I have vague memories of it, seen from behind her skirt and tinged with the smell of the long, polished wooden trestles that used to be there.  While the old desks have long gone, the History Centre for the time being is still recognisable.  A grand, airy room, housed in the Dome next to the lovely Brighton Museum & Gallery (and convenient tea room!), adorned with ornate cornices and plasterwork – and shelves upon open shelves of genealogical material, ready for the picking.  A veritable sweet shop…

With the great wealth of material now available online through sites like Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch, it’s easy to forget what amazing and accessible resources local libraries and history centres are for family history research.  From the novice to the experienced genealogist, it is incredibly helpful to be able to browse for relevant material without having to contend with sometimes complex and incomplete catalogues.

Typical of many other local reference libraries, Brighton History Centre’s resources include:- City and professional directories, census returns and electoral rolls, newspapers dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, parish registers, rate books, maps and surveys, criminal records, workhouse registers, muster rolls and much, much more.  There are also a number of collections of photographs, and private research projects, donated by people who took the time and trouble to observe the city around them and give back to it.  It is nothing short of a treasure trove and invaluable to our house and pub histories of the local area – see here.

It is then a great shame that the History Centre, currently easily accessible in the bustling heart of Brighton’s North Laines, is set to close in the next couple of years.  Having already been granted several reprieves, its collection is due to go behind closed doors at the soon-to-be-opened ‘Keep’ at Falmer, an outpost of East Sussex Record Office.  That is, unless the efforts of the Friends of Brighton History Centre are successful.  The collection will still be available for public use but no longer on its joyous open-shelf basis.   I will be joining the Friends petition.  For more details of how to get involved in the campaign, please contact the History Centre.

For the time being, we must make the most of what we have.  Here are my top tips for making the most of local library resources…

Tips for getting the most out of your local library visit
Plan ahead

Work out what information you want to gain from your visit, so as to make sure you make the most of your time. Have a good look around the library’s website and online catalogue (if there is one) in advance, so you know roughly what you can expect from the visit. Prepare a list of questions to help focus your visit. Check whether you need to be a member to access records and what ID is required before you go; sometimes membership applications have to be processed in advance of your actual visit.

Take the right kit

Alongside any ID you need for membership, make sure you take along materials for making notes, a good quality camera (you will need to check whether photos are allowed!) and change for photocopying. The latter is likely to be the only cost you incur.

Ask for a guided tour

You may want to arrange this in advance at a time when the library is usually quiet. If you are new to the library, it is really helpful to be given an overview of the library’s range of records and resources before you get started. Librarians may not thank me for this!

Make use of librarians’ knowledge

Reference librarians may not know the answers to your questions but their detailed understanding of how records are kept should help you to find them. Many librarians are incredible repositories of local knowledge so make sure you ask them for help and guidance.  They may also be able to tell you where you can find other records to answer questions your visit may have raised.

Allow time for specialist resources

Bear in mind that a variety of (expensive) specialist resources may be accessible through the library, that can be used alongside original records. Many libraries, for example, subscribe to key newspaper archives such as The Times Digital Archive and the British Newspaper Archive, electoral information through 192.com, the Dictionary of National Biography Online, as well as key genealogical websites like Ancestry and Find My Past.

Happy hunting!

Jewish genealogy specialists


Jewish genealogy specialistsSeveral years ago when I began researching my own Jewish ancestry, an elderly relative sent me a scuffed piece of paper with a list of unfamiliar names.  These, I was told, were my great-grandfather’s siblings – the Lewkowicz family – from Lodz, Poland.  Then, I knew little more than my great-grandfather’s name and that he had died aged 52 in Kensington Infirmary, of tuberculosis aggravated by his tailoring work.

Fast forward to the present day, and I not only know what became of each one of those siblings, their children, and grandchildren – but, I am in touch with more than thirty 2nd and 3rd cousins in the US.  I know exactly where my great-grandfather grew up, what his street and his synagogue looked like, the names of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as 1740, how and when he came to London, the family he left behind…

The point of this story?  With a little persistence, everything is possible.  Do not assume that your Jewish ancestry cannot be uncovered! I have since researched a number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have learned a few clear lessons along the way.

Chuck out the rule book

The usual principles of genealogical research do not apply.  Clearly, you cannot rely on your Jewish ancestors staying in the same place, as most English families traditionally did, or using the same names.  Even in “the old country” our ancestors typically went by a variety of names and epithets in several languages, and spelled surnames in multiple ways.  These challenges are compounded by translation and adoption of new names in new countries.  It is wise to keep an open mind when searching records and not to discount sources too quickly if certain details appear inaccurate.

Assume nothing

It is surprising how many Jewish records survive in Eastern Europe and beyond, despite best efforts to obliterate them.  Do not assume there is no information to be had.  It may be possible to find birth, marriage and death records; books of Jewish residents; business directories; cemetery records and much more.

Ask the questions

You won’t get answers if you don’t ask the questions!  Use the internet to research which archives might be helpful to you. Write or email, explain what you want to find out, ideally in bite-size chunks, and ask what records are available.  Though archivists are employed to retrieve records, not to do the work for you, they often provide an amount of informal research.  It pays to do your homework first.  Be prepared to chase! If you do not know where your ancestors came from, use old census returns and vital records to locate them.

Muster your resources

Use every tool at your disposal – a larger toolbox is required to research a Jewish family tree, though it need not be specialist.  Start by contacting relatives and ask them what they know.  As well as genealogical resources online (many of which are free, see below), use Google translate to help communicate with overseas archives, XE.com to calculate currency conversion fees. Utilise Facebook, the Israeli telephone directory, US White Pages…

Expect nothing… and everything

Obviously there is no guarantee you will find what you are looking for.  However, the particular challenges of researching Jewish ancestry make the fruits all the sweeter.  And, often, the stories uncovered about our ancestors’ rich past are of a peculiarly fascinating scope.

Where to start?

Start with the present and work your way back logically, making notes of significant names, places and dates.  You may wish to make use of the following resources:

JewishGen – the most comprehensive repository of Jewish genealogical information.
Ancestry – register a free subscription to build a tree, and explore its vast records, including the Jewish Online World Burial Registry, Jewish family history collections, passenger and immigration records.
Yad Vashem – trace relatives in wartime Europe using the Shoah Names Database, which draws on personal testimonies and WW2-era records.
Avotaynu – investigate the extensive resources of this leading Jewish genealogical publisher, including the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, a gateway to 700,000 Jewish surnames.

Happy hunting!

A version of this piece appears in the Rosh Hashanah 2012 issue of Amuse, the biannual magazine of Edgeware Synagogue and Sussex Jewish News
East End Family History


In the opening of The Go-Between (1953), the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote famously: “The past is a foreign country…”.  The phrase has been overused to the point of proverb, but it returned to mind recently when working on the history of an East End London family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This family resided for more than 150 years near the Thames in Stepney, Ratcliff and Shadwell, working on the dockside as labourers and coopers and selling fruit and vegetables in the local markets.  Occasionally someone branched out into a new profession such as ‘cabinet-making’ or ventured north to the environs of Bethnal Green, but seldom for long.

Yet, despite the family’s deep roots and very evident sense of rootedness in Stepney, finding them in the records and understanding the context of their lives often proved a significant challenge.  And, it’s a challenge that is common to other parts of the capital.

Pre-war streets

One of the principal tests in researching this part of London is that today it looks nothing like it did pre-WW2.  Many of the streets in which Victorian Londoners lived and worked simply no longer exist.  Give or take the odd surviving landmark such as St. Dunstan’s Church (built in the 15th century), the 20th century decline of Thames trade, the Blitz and slum clearance initiatives of the 1960s, have cumulatively rendered Stepney and its neighbouring districts unrecognisable.  The Victorians who navigated its highways and byways, its wharves and markets in the nineteenth century occupied a terrain that is literally and figuratively “a foreign country.”

Ways of mapping

As the excellent BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets recently highlighted, there are a few tools available to help us overcome this, to ‘map’ and understand the geographical context of London lives.  The ‘Poverty Maps‘, produced by Victorian social reformer Charles Booth between 1886 and 1903, are a fascinating and incredibly valuable source of information.  They describe the socio-economic condition of each one of London’s streets according to a detailed colour key.  By comparing present day maps to other contemporaneous maps, such as Reynold’s Map of East London (1882), we can also locate streets that have over time completely disappeared.

Understanding the terminology

The unfamiliarity of Victorian London is not helped by the fact that terms used in the records can be very confusing.  The same names may be used in different contexts to indicate a parish registration district or borough, and the boundaries of these units themselves also changed over time as London expanded.  Stepney and Bethnal Green, for example, were part of Middlesex before they were incorporated into the county of London in 1889.

Finding relatives

Of course the challenges of researching East London ancestors are not just geographical.   Some are associated with the general problems of carrying out research in a densely populated metropolis.  Simply, there are many more variables to contend with in a city than in a rural community.  The Victorian East End is especially challenging given that during the nineteenth century it contained some of the poorest and most overcrowded neighbourhoods in the capital.  Life expectancy was lower than in other parts of the city and infant mortality more common.  To boot, the population was relatively transient and the area was a traditional magnet for immigrants arriving in the capital – from Huguenots in the eighteenth century to Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Some of the most atmospheric sources of information about Victorian East London are early photographs.  It can be useful to consult these to get a feel for the world beyond the records. The missionary John Galt took an amazing collection of photographs of Poverty in East London, some of which you can see here.  The Museum of London, the British Library and the Guidhall also have some fascinating online collections.

Here are some other useful sources of information for researching London ancestors:
Do get in touch if you would like some help researching your own London ancestors.
1 2

Watch us on ‘The Secrets In My Family’