And so, at last, my first book Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records is due to be published by Pen and Sword Books on 21 February 2013. It is culmination of seven months hard work and much research and also of an idea that came to me back in 2005 when I first started running my family history classes.
I began tracing my own family history when I was fifteen, my curiosity having been sparked by stories related to me by my Mum. She in turn had got many of them from her great uncle George Dickinson …… but more of that another time! And so began my passion for family history! After a fumbling start I soon learnt that my primary sources were the General Register Office index of births, marriage and deaths and the census returns. And thus my pedigree grew, on my Mother’s side at least. Dad’s side had to wait another few years until I plucked up courage to ask him. He was traditionally silent on any aspect relating to his family! After school I chose to study history at university and one of the primary reasons for choosing to go to college in London was easy access to both family history records (St Catherine’s House, Somerset House and the Society of Genealogists) and also the Royal Opera House! My two loves were equally shared at that time between family history and opera.
Shoot forward to 2005, by this time I had spent some sixteen years working as a Civil Servant (something as a child I always swore I would never be!). I now had an extensive family history and with it had come the realisation that, although I knew a lot about the subject, there was much more to know. Therefore I had begun the Higher Certificate in Genealogy course courtesy of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies a few years earlier – purely to improve my own knowledge. At this stage I certainly had no thoughts of genealogy as a career. Then one day Josie, one of my colleagues, came to me and asked me if I would start up some family history courses for those colleagues that were interested. Family history by this time was at the start of its tremendous rise in popularity partly due to the showing of the first series of Who Do You Think You Are? the previous year and, of course, the increasing amount of data becoming available via the internet.
I can remember my initial reply to Josie was something along the lines of ‘I don’t know that much really’ and her typically direct reaction was, ‘’Don’t be ridiculous! You know far more than we do!’ And so it began: by the following year I had opened my classes to the general public and was inundated with students and the same year I answered a job advert to work at the Institute for Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury and to my surprise I was successful!
But it was while I was writing classes for my very first set of students at work that I decided instead of writing a traditional lesson about wills and probate records to follow on from sessions on BMDs, census records and parish registers, I would write a module that encompassed a much wider range of records – those records that were all either created at death or, like wills, activated at death.
A few years before I had had a wake-up call which showed me the importance of all types of death records. Quite by chance I had discovered that my great great grandfather Edwin Barnes had died unexpectedly and very suddenly in his thirties and that his death had had a devastating effect on his family.
I had not actively sought out his death record, having made the presumption that he and his wife had almost certainly carried on living the typical lives of the working-class Londoners of this time, probably dying some time in their 50s or 60s! If I had not stumbled across their young daughter in an orphanage in the 1891 census I would no doubt have carried on in my erroneous presumption and missed out on a wonderful pile of data about my family!
As I pondered more on my ‘lucky find’ I realised that it is death records that often tell us far more about our family than any of the record actually created during their lifetimes. It also struck me that if we don’t seek out our ancestor’s death records, in many cases we will fail to realise what their lives were like in their later days. An ancestor’s circumstances could change rapidly at any point in his or her life (for better or worse) but even more so in their later years as their ability to earn a living waned. There could be a very great difference between someone’s life at the time they were at their peak, working and raising a family, compared to life after the family had fled the nest. Failing to locate death records means you know nothing about an important section of their lives.
The most important death record in Edwin’s case was an inquest record. From it I learnt not only about how his tragic death occurred, but gained an understanding of the family’s life and the consequences that Edwin’s early death had for them; especially for his youngest child Mary Ann who was only six when he died. You can read the full story in Chapter 4 of the book.
For those ancestors who did not die a tragic and or sudden death and for whom, therefore, there will be no inquest records, there is still a rich seam of other death records which will tell you plenty about them and I will explore some of these in later blog posts.