Discovering more about your ancestry
The most satisfying part of family history for me is when I can take some facts, that I have learnt from examining primary records, and then go and see where they took place.
This is often simplest for a baptism, wedding or funeral where the church remains standing to this day. Finding that my ancestor married and then had their child christened in a particular place may cause me to seek it out and lightly touch the font in a salute to my forebears who had gathered around it to watch the clergyman pour water over my ancestor’s head.
When I find out what an ancestor did for a living can equally have me making a trip to the place where they worked. This can be successful where, as in the case of a man who worked in the Royal Naval dockyards at Portsmouth, the buildings are still there and can be visited as a tourist attraction.
But it can also be disappointing when all trace of the former landscape has been obliterated by modern development on the site, as in the case of others of my ancestors’ places of employment – not to mention some of their homes.
What I like to do in this case is to see if I can make a visit to a museum that reflects the life of such an ancestor.
A visit to properties owned by The National Trust can reveal how your ancestors lived
Another excursion that I find useful is to visit several of The National Trust properties.
Hold on! I can hear people saying.
Surely the stately homes are only of interest to those who have aristocratic ancestors?
Well what about those of us that have identified ancestors that worked as staff for the ‘big house’? Some houses allow you to see ‘below stairs’, as well as the fine rooms up above.
For those of us that have found ancestors that had to enter the workhouse then a visit to The National Trust’s fine example at Southwell, that I have written about before in a post about workhouse ancestors.
On a recent visit to Birmingham I was able to take a tour around The National Trust’s Back to Back houses. These guided tours take you around the carefully restored, atmospheric 19th-century courtyard of working people’s houses.
These homes had windows only on one side as they were built, as the name implies, back to back with each other. To the rear was a courtyard that also housed the laundry and the outside toilets for up to 60 people to use!
What is fascinating, for family historians, is that the first house is dressed to reflect the 1840s. With tallow candles for light, no running water – requiring the teenage daughter to walk ten minutes to the nearest well pump carrying heavy wooden buckets. In this the house of a jeweller and his family we can get an idea of what life was like at the time of the 1841 census for working people that had moved to the cities to find a living.
Another of the houses reflected the 1870s and although they now used oil lamps and had a communal tap in the courtyard, and the outside privy now flushed rather than being an earth closet relying on the night soil men to carry away the human waste, times were still hard.
Upstairs the four sons slept ‘top and tail’ in a bed. A rough curtain slung across a rope divided the room so that another bed could be rented out to a lodger.
As if this lack of privacy was not enough, in the 1871 census it seems to identify that the house had a second lodger. The suggestion is that the male and female lodgers may well have been ‘hot bedding’ where one person has the use of the bed for the day, while the other for the night!
Theses types of windows into our past can really make us think about how our ancestors lived. It also brings home how rich we are now in the Western world that we are fascinated by the hardships of everyday life that our forebears simply took as normal. By using the records that are available to us and then relating them to conditions, that we can learn from studying the social history, enables us to build a better family story.
You can learn where to find the records that reveal your ancestors’ lives by taking the English/Welsh family history course. Read more here: