Starting Your Family Tree


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.

genealogy family tree research on the internet


genealogy family tree research on the internet

A lot of people find the prospect of researching their family history online slightly challenging.  It can be difficult to know where to start.  But the seemingly endless resources now available online should not frighten you off. The genealogical resources available on the internet offer an incredible opportunity to research hundreds of years back into your family history without ever leaving the comfort of your home – it’s an opportunity previous generations of genealogists could only have dreamt of…

Of course there is no one way to do this and researching your family history online is a massive topic, changing day by day as ever more information is made available via the internet.  Naturally, the results you can achieve will depend on what kind of answers you are looking for, where your ancestors lived and the time and money you are able to dedicate. The examples we have used here are mostly British, but thanks chiefly to our interest in Jewish genealogy, we also have considerable expertise in using a wide variety of international sites – particularly US-centric and European resources, so if you have a specific question about research in another country, please get in touch.

Irrespective of the particulars of your search, it’s useful to bear in mind a few golden rules when researching your family tree online whether you are just setting out on the journey or a more experienced researcher.

Our top tips for researching your family history on the internet
  • Prepare well – think about what you want to know, what you want to achieve, write it down! Check out our guides to getting started and interviewing your relatives.
  • Research whether available records are likely to answer your questions especially before paying for them!
  • Determine the best online tools for the job at hand – different sites are good for different things.  There is much overlap (see our favourite sites below).
  • Be logical – keep notes about what you have done, where you have searched to avoid duplication.
  • Revisit revisit revisit! – be prepared to retrace your steps with the benefit of new information especially when tackling ‘brick walls’
  • Think laterally – Google it!  Use secondary resources such as Google Maps, Wikipedia, Old London Street names and British History Online to help you understand ‘the territory’
  • Think about the story of your ancestors’ lives – the balance of probabilities – to tackle brick walls (in most cases they are where you expect them to be!)
  • Make sure you have the right family!  Don’t carried away… Heed fundamental inconsistencies which may indicate you are working on someone else’s family!
  • Beware of non-primary sources (transcription errors, masses of false/copied information online)
  • A lot but not everything can be done for free (make use of Library resources, look out for special offers!)
  • Much depends on location (town, county, country) – in terms of what info may/ may not be online
  • An awful lot, but not everything is available online, especially pre 1700 – but it doesn’t have to end there!  There is no substitute for ordering/accessing original records and they can often extend your research significantly.
Our favourite websites for UK genealogy
  • Ancestry – for building a family tree, sheer volume of records, international research, access to biggest archive of public member trees on the internet
  • Find My Past – great for British records including records of Britons overseas, easy to use indexes, excellent collection of parish records, brand new access to the British Newspaper Archive
  • Scotland’s People  – for Scottish vital records, census returns, valuation rolls and much more
  • RootsIreland – for Irish vital records, church records, 1901-1911 census returns
  • FamilySearch – for the International Genealogical Index (IGI) (parish records pre-1837), international research, and an overview of available records for particular areas of research
  • National Archives Catalogue – for an overview of particular areas of research and direct access to many records online for a small fee
  • Access to Archives – where to find regional records

Please get in touch if you would like help progressing your family history research.  We love to work in partnership with our clients, helping with particular questions, plugging gaps, overcoming brick walls and sharing the excitement of each new discovery.

For more information about working with us, please take a look at some of our recent client testimonials.
Happy hunting!
Find the right researcher for your family history journey


Find the right researcher for your family history journeyFinding the right researcher to investigate your family tree is not necessarily an easy task.  Professional genealogists are few and far between, and it can be difficult to know whether someone has the expertise, interests and communication skills you need.  This decision can be a significant one: researching your family history may be amongst the most meaningful personal journeys you ever embark on, so make sure that your guide is someone you trust, respect and perhaps most importantly, like!  The right genealogist will be able to bring your ancestors and the past back to life…

Here are some tips to help you identify the best family historian to guide you on your journey.
Professional credentials for a family historian

While there are no guarantees that a professional genealogist will be able to locate more information about your family history than you or a friendly amateur, if you are paying for research you want to make sure that a researcher is qualified to deliver the results you’re looking for.  AGRA in the UK and the APG in the US are the only genealogy associations that vet members and offer a formal regulatory framework, if anything goes wrong.  Their websites are likely to be the best places to start your search.  Use them to draw up a short list of genealogists that seem to suit your requirements, based on their specialism(s), location or maybe the languages they speak.

Genealogical specialisms

A good genealogist combines a broad knowlege of the framework of available records with rigorous research skills.  Crucially, he or she will be able to communicate the results of research to you clearly and accurately both on paper and verbally, and will be tenacious in the quest!

In theory, any good genealogist should be able to find answers to the questions you have about your family history.  In practice, no one knows everything!  It is likely to be most cost-effective for you to find someone who is familiar with the records which will yield the information you’re looking for, and can give you the benefit of other contacts in the field. Variables such as nationality, region, religion, ethnicity, occupation and gender will all dictate which sources a researcher will consult.  Research Roots specialises in Jewish family history, for example, which is quite a distinct discipline from other types of genealogy (more about this here and here).

With new record collections being digitised all the time, it is important that your researcher is familiar with the terrain of your family history in order to save you time and money.

Does a genealogist’s location matter?

Well, yes and no.  Since so many original records are now available online through sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, your researcher’s location is much less significant than it once was. However, many more obscure local records, which may help you get real colour and anecdotal detail have still not been digitised, so it may be handy if your researcher is near relevant archives.  You may also wish to consider whether it would be helpful to meet them in person, on a one-off or regular basis. Since we are based in Brighton, East Sussex, we do a lot of Sussex family history and are also within easy reach of the major London archives.

Professional genealogist costs & fee structure

Professional genealogists’ fees vary, sometimes quite considerably.  This may or may not be related to their level of experience, expertise and how in demand they are!  Shop around.  Get a sense of the going rate, and most importantly, before you enter into any agreement with a genealogist understand what is and isn’t included in the rate.  A good genealogist should have some clearly laid out terms of business (like these).

Some researchers will offer research packages for certain types of research but most prefer to work on the basis of an hourly fee, as it can be quite difficult to predict in advance how long certain pieces of research will take.  It is normal for a genealogist to ask for payment in advance (or some sort of deposit), but don’t be afraid to request in advance they account for how their time is spent in the form of a diary or log.  It’s good for everyone concerned to keep the lines of communication open!

Professional genealogists on the web

Most professional genealogists will have some sort of web presence.  Before making initial calls, you may find it useful to do a little online research yourself using the researcher’s website, LinkedIn and any press.  Testimonials and Google reviews can be a useful guide.  Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be a good way of gauging what a researcher is about and whether you like their vibe!

Chat with a pro

Once you’ve narrowed down a shortlist, make some calls.  As with most things in life, there is no substitute for having a conversation either face to face, or by phone or Skype.  Most genealogists will offer a free initial consultation of between 30-60 minutes to discuss your research needs, realistic goals, timings and costs.  If you haven’t had access to previous client testimonials, request them or ask if you can speak to previous clients.  Any researcher worth their salt should be able to give you this opportunity.

It is worth repeating, it really helps if you like the researcher you hire.  You are likely to be in regular contact with them, probably for weeks if not months, sometimes years – assuming you have the time, energy and budget!  Depending on the project, you may be sharing some quite personal information with them.  You need to feel confident that they are on the same page as you, understand (and can deliver) what you are after, and share your enthusiasm for the search.

Happy hunting!
Contact us today for your free initial consultation with Research Roots & read our latest client testimonials here.
6 cheeky tips for searching the census


6 cheeky tips for searching the censusAlongside birth, marriage and death records, census returns are likely to be amongst the first records that you encounter when researching your family tree – and are incredibly useful sources of information. 

Lots of background info about the censuses of individual countries is available online.  To give a potted overview of census records in the British Isles:- The first national census of England & Wales was taken in 1801, but records were not kept until 1841.  UK census records remain confidential for 100 years so currently only records from 1841-1911 are available.  Several genealogy websites including Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch allow you to search England & Wales census indexes for free, although there is usually a charge to view full transcriptions and download documents (alternatively check whether you can access these sites via your local library).  Scottish census records from 1841-1911 are available via Scotland’s People.   Whilst a national Irish census started as early as 1821, records are much more patchy.  Only the 1901 and 1911 censuses have survived in complete form, accessible free of charge on The National Archives of Ireland website.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to extract a great deal of detail from the census about your family history.  The  research tips suggested here apply not just to the national census records of the British Isles, but can also be used to get the most out of regional, city and state censuses as well as those in other countries, including the United States.

In general terms censuses are useful because they provide details about individuals within family groups or households.  They tell you where your ancestor lived and what they did for a living, sometimes in quite a lot of detail.  Searching the census is a lot easier if you know roughly what you are looking for, so keep on hand a list of names, nicknames and pseudonyms, approximate birth dates of birth, places associated with your family members and any other circumstantial information you have.  With a few notable exceptions (such as Jewish and other migrant families), it is surprising how often ancestors are found exactly where you expect them to be.

Start big, go small

Unless you are dealing with an extremely common name, it generally works best to keep your initial search as broad as possible. Enter the name of the person you are searching for but avoid ‘exact matches’ in the search engine, and enter an age range rather than an exact age. Keeping things open helps avoid being tripped up by variant spellings, transcription errors and the outright fibs our ancestors sometimes told census enumerators!  Searching by county is usually the most manageable method.  Avoid limiting the search too specifically by place, unless you know for sure where your ancestors were living.  Tracking down the right record is often simply a process of elimination.  If you can’t find someone where you expect them to be, check neighbouring counties; ancestors living near county boundaries can be a real stumbling block.  It is also a good idea to keep a note of where you have looked.

Experiment with different search engines

Bear in mind that though only one census was taken, different organisations have over the years produced different indexes to the same census records, which can vary quite considerably. Each index is only as good as the transcriber.  Unusual or foreign-sounding names, or simply poor handwriting can cause problems.  For this reason it is sometimes worth doing the same search on a couple of different websites; for example, Ancestry and Find My Past have different search engines.

Go wild with wildcards

Sometimes it is possible to locate hard-to-find relatives by second-guessing transcription errors in the index, or the original mistakes a census enumerator might have made. Ancestors did not always have the opportunity or literacy to be able to correct mistakes.  In England & Wales, it was not until 1911 that families were left to fill out census forms for themselves and so are prone to error, even with common names: Stephens mis-transcribed as Stevens, for example. In these cases, difficult-to-find ancestors can sometimes be located using wildcard searches. I am currently researching a family called Slavotinsky but could only find records using the wildcard search: Sl*v*t*nsk*. Equally, it can be helpful to leave first names open; often people go by middle names and nicknames which can confuse census searching.

Play Sherlock

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a census record is right, even when certain details seem to match. This is especially relevant when searching common surnames: Davies in Wales is especially problematic! It is crucial to analyse the record carefully for circumstantial clues and consider the balance of probabilities. Don’t be put off if certain pieces of information in a census return don’t seem to fit. A missing child, an inconsistent age, even a different name does not necessarily mean the record is not right. For a variety of reasons, accidental and non-, census information can be wrong. If you can, cross-check problem records against censuses from other years and vital records. Information from vital records should be considered more reliable.

Look for the stories

If you can’t find a particular individual you expect to see in a family census record, seek out other records to explain the possible reasons why. Have they died or got married? Are they in service? Are they in the military or in prison? Or have they simply moved away? Looking at census records for one family over a span of 10, 40 or 70 years can tell you a huge amount about the shape of their lives and the key events that took place in them.

Spy on the neighbours!

Don’t forget that families were, by and large, not so widely spread as they are today. Sometimes by looking at neighbours’ entries on a census, and a page or two either side, you can find details of other relatives living nearby. In this way, census records tell us quite a bit about the social conditions and kinship groups in which ancestors lived.

Happy hunting!

Please contact us if you would like help researching your family tree.
5 ways to find out about your Jewish roots


5 ways to find out about your Jewish roots

We do a great deal of research into Jewish families, and encounter a lot of people who think they have Jewish ancestry but don’t know where or how to find out more. Given that the vast majority of Jews in England are descended from   late nineteenth and early twentieth century Eastern European immigrants, it is amazing how quickly that heritage has been lost. In many cases, in just a 3 or 4 generations, only the sketchiest details of a family’s ‘Jewishness’ survive.

319143_973534886490_36921826_46780212_2098142940_nCuriously, the pressure on British Jews to assimilate seems to have been at the expense of their Jewish identity in a way that it was not amongst their cousins in the US.  While one of the challenges of researching Jewish families all over the world is the habitual translation and adoption of new names, American Jews seem to have maintained closer ties to their previous identities. Within a few years of my great-grandparents’ arrival in the UK, they cut ties with the past by calling themselves ‘Leon’, whereas siblings in New York held onto the family name of ‘Lefkowitz’. Indeed, it was only through researching American records that I was able to access details about my Lewkowicz great-great-grandparents back in Poland.  Having researched a great many other families subsequently, this is a familiar story amongst Anglo-Jews.

I’ve previously posted some golden rules for researching your Jewish roots.  The best way to start is usually by asking your relatives.  However, if you are still not sure whether you have Jewish ancestry or would like more detail than your relatives can provide, it can be quite straightforward to find out, if you know where to look and how to read the signs.

1.  What’s in a name?

The rigour of British Jews’ assimilation can often obscure the clues that lead us back to our roots.  My surname leads most people to suspect I’m Spanish rather than a mischling Jew.  Even if your name is not Cohen or Levy or a variation thereof, bear in mind that many Jews chose English surnames that alluded to their tribal identities: Lewis/ Louis, Daniel(s), Benjamin, Jacob(s), Simon(s), Isaac(s), Nathan, for example.  It’s also worth noting that names that were chosen for their similar sounds – Cohen to Coleman for instance, Pollak to Pollock, Warszawski to Warshaw – or simply shortened Vallinsky to Vallin, Zuchowitsky to Suchoff.  It’s helpful to pay attention to the sounds of names.

In other cases, the reasoning is not so clear and names seem to have been selected arbitrarily, which can make families difficult to trace – just this week I’m researching a family called Michalowski who became Foster!  Sometimes surnames were derived from personal names, as in another current research project: three brothers became Isaac Isaacs, Simon Simons and Jack Jacobs.  Whatever the scenario, chances are that there will be a name change somewhere along the line if you are dealing with a Jewish family.  Search indexes of vital records and look out for announcements in the index of the London Gazette.

2.  Jewish trades and occupations

At the risk of oversimplifying, and to paraphrase Bernard Kops’ wonderful memoir The World is a Wedding, “Jews were not dockers, they were furriers and tailors”.  Census records (available up to 1911 and often for free) are a great place to look for clues about your Jewish ancestry.  Of course Jewish people carried out a wide variety of occupations in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Britain, but they were especially strongly represented in the garment trade, and as tobacconists, cabinet makers, shopkeepers and merchants.  Many Sephardi families especially were associated with international trade and export.  Jews are often listed as ‘journeymen’ in censuses and other official documents – less because of any association with a professional company guild, but more literally to indicate their migrant status.  As well as looking for clues in occupations, scrutinise census records for details of where your family lived and who their neighbours were.

3.  Order a marriage certificate

If members of your family were married in a synagogue, they were Jewish!  Marriage authorisation certificates were required in Britain from the mid-eighteenth century to satisfy the rabbi and the synagogue authorities that both parties were halachically Jewish or that they had an acceptable certificate of conversion.  These certificates can in themselves be a rich source of genealogical information.  Yet, even if your relatives married in church, it doesn’t mean that they were not Jewish.  Anglican churches did not require the same burden of proof.  Of course, registry office marriages do not indicate anything one way or another, but sometimes certificates indicate that the marriage was conducted under the auspices of the Jewish religion.  If your direct ancestors did not marry in church, look into marriages of their siblings.  Often you find inconsistencies within families.

4.  Find burial records

Again, for your relatives to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, the authorities would have to be satisfied that they were halachically Jewish.  Jewish cemeteries, especially the large London metropolitan ones such as Edmonton, Bushey and Rainham (all Ashkenazi), tend to be well maintained and indexed.  Cemetery caretakers are usually helpful and knowledgable.  Again, bear in mind that being buried in a non-Jewish cemetery is no proof that your relatives were not Jewish – you may simply need to look for other clues. See here for more information about researching graves.

5.  Explore Jewish sources

Here are some suggestions of free sources which may help you find out more about your Jewish roots.

The Knowles Collection

Synagogue Scribes

Anglo-Jewish Family Trees at the JGSGB Library

Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry

Consolidated Jewish Surname Index

Expect that you may need to employ a combination of tactics to uncover your Jewish roots.  Jewish genealogy demands a high level of creativity and much tenacity.

Happy hunting!

While the focus of this post is British Jewry, we can offer help and some free advice with Jewish research in many other countries.  Please give us a call on 01273 558728 or get in touch here.
Research your family history


Research your family history

Interviewing your relatives is by far the most effective way of gathering knowledge quickly as you start to build your family tree.  You can often discover tons of information going back several generations with just a quick chat.  However, as with all research, there are ways and means of going about this in order to get the most out of it.

Talk to your elderly relatives

The key point here is ask sooner rather than later.  Many of us don’t ask the questions we wished we had while we had the opportunity, particularly because people often don’t get interested in their family tree until they get older.  So much information dies with each generation, make the most of the relatives you have right now!  The information they provide will likely give direction and colour to your research.  If you don’t have anyone older to ask: siblings and cousins may know some details which haven’t yet been passed on to you.

Prepare in advance

It is worth having an idea of the questions you want to ask your relatives beforehand.  You might feel a little nervous about interviewing your relatives (and they might too) so having a list of questions is a useful fallback.  But don’t stick to them like a script.  You will often get more out of the conversation if you allow it to flow naturally.  You can always ask to arrange another visit if you don’t cover all the ground you’d hoped.  It’s also a good idea to record the conversation so you are not distracted by having to note take.

Ask the right questions in the right way

Your relatives are likely to be most forthcoming if they feel relaxed, so keep things informal and jolly!  Bear in mind that they may be able to supply personal anecdotes and colour that the records will not provide so try to keep your questions as open ended as possible to avoid yes/no answers, e.g. “I’m really interested in Grandma Moe.  What do you remember about her?”   Help them contextualise memories and dates with references such as, “Was she born before the war?”  Sharing information and photos you already have often helps to grease the wheels and don’t forget to ask them about their own lives.  Everyone (secretly) likes to talk about themselves and their experiences will be fascinating for future generations.

Overcome reluctance to provide information

Some relatives will be more helpful than others and you will probably know instinctively the best places to start, but even the most habitually tight-lipped may have interesting things to tell.  Often talking about your shared family history can be a really good way of opening up and connecting with your older relatives, in particular.   Be sensitive to painful memories and reluctance to talk about slightly taboo subjects such as illegitimacy.  You may want to offer reassurance as to why you want to find out your family history and how you will handle the information provided.  Again, sharing photos and records can help move conversation along.

Root out the family records

During your chat, it might be worth trying to find out if your relative has any family records and documents they wouldn’t mind sharing with you. If they don’t have them, you might discover who has them, at least. The same is true of photographs, which may have been passed down a different family line.  You might ask to borrow photos for copying.  Make sure you ask your relatives the ‘who’, ‘where’,’what’ of each photograph and treat them with the care they deserve.

Follow up

It is good practice to write up notes immediately after every interview.  You just won’t remember all the details in a year’s time!  If you don’t feel inclined to type up the conversation verbatim, particularly if you have recorded it, write up the key points and make sure your recording is clearly labelled and stored out of harm’s way.  Unwittingly, not all the information you are given may be correct.  Family stories can get embellished, and memories fade over time, so it’s really important to check the accuracy of your information against other sources before you transpose them onto your family tree.  Nevertheless, you now no doubt have a great deal more information on which to focus your research.  It’s good to share with your relatives any new information or memorabilia you find in the course of your research – they can often elicit further reminiscences.

And make sure you say thanks (a thank you card goes a long way!), so they feel disposed to help you further!

Here’s a useful list of questions that may help you prepare: 50 Questions for Family History Interviews.

Happy hunting!

For more information or support with tracing your family tree, please drop us a line.

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