Bev Hopwood is the award-winning author of Gladys & Jack and its sequel, Kate & Ozzie, two historical novels that resulted from intensive research into her own family history. Today she lends us her expertise on unearthing stories from a genealogical past
Are you interested in your family’s history and genealogy? Great, and if you have already started researching and putting facts together, even better. Knowing some general history will also help you immensely. When did the train come through, who was on the throne, what was happening in the countryside on the farms, or what natural disaster hit? Your family history will usually fit in with the general history of the time.
Many people want to stick to a family name and take it back as far as they can. When I see a straight line back from father to grandfather to great-grandfather and so forth for centuries, I get a little concerned that somewhere along the line an error could have been made, or an incorrect assumption. What family line is straight, anyway? Widening the search to include aunts, uncles, siblings, other children and so forth is much safer and necessary if you wish to be correct. It can also prove very interesting, especially when it comes to following family names.
There are many good books out there on how to research your genealogy, but some things are learned by experience. It helps to know that for censuses, there were different questions asked, and there were times when ages were rounded up or down, for example. In Britain, the earliest country-wide census was 1841. Be aware of name changes in counties. Montgomeryshire became Powys in Wales. Country boundaries in Europe changed often. What town name you heard in family stories may be the name of a cottage or farm. Others might not be the real name at all, and when it is pronounced by a local, it may sound very different.
My mother-in-law always referred to her parents’ home town as Rudd. In an old booklet the name of the town was Ruddington. When I went searching for an updated version of the booklet in England, I asked for the one on Ruddington. The sales woman was fairly sure there was no such one. Suddenly, I spied it, and pointed it out. “Oh, Roodington, you mean. Yes, there it is”. In the same town, the name Price was pronounced “Prause”. So, you may find misspellings not just because of illiteracy, but accents and dialects. If you have seen an original census, you will know how varied the writers’ abilities can be. Some are works of art, clear, easily read, and others are not. Some records faded because they used pencil and unfortunately, some records were destroyed in fires, in war, or through carelessness.
I find that most genealogy books do not emphasize enough the use of maps. Modern road atlases of the area can be extremely helpful, especially of foreign countries. In Britain, finding the place where a birth, death, or marriage was registered on the map can be very useful in knowing which of several registrations might be you ancestor. This can be helpful when you are trying to narrow down ordering copies of the original certificate especially if it is a common name. There were only certain centers where these registrations took place, so don’t expect them to necessarily be your ancestors’ home town.
The use of old maps is also extremely helpful. These might have older names, of places, different borders to counties, and parishes of churches which can be very important for Church of England relations. Before 1837, many dissenters were named in the Church of England registrations, and were often buried in their churchyard as well, if no other was available.
Some copies of these older maps can be purchased in Canada and the U.S., but the National Archives Record Office in Kew, London, England has the entire collection of historical maps including over one hundred for London and area alone.
Do not be intimated when going to a records office and they ask you what you are looking for. Have a plan, have all your information with you, and have an open mind. Sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for until you see what they have available. I found a map of damage done to the West End, London, England during World War 2 in Kew, London. It was helpful in showing the area where my grandmother was born and brought up before reconstruction after the war, but I hadn’t known it existed.
Another unusual find was a blueprint of my grandfather’s ice business in the 1930’s. The Bay of Quinte, Trenton, Ontario was marked off in sections, each section indicated how much ice would be taken, and his name, O.W. Martin was clearly marked. The only thing missing was the date, but this confirmed my cousins’ story that he sold ice. The most unusual thing was that I found this blueprint among a great-uncle’s papers held in the Glen Bow Museum in Calgary. My grandfather must have sent it to his brother-in-law.
One last thing: if you are not interested in doing the research—putting names to old photos, or who is in your family tree—don’t throw anything out, including documents of all sorts, certificates, mortgages, deeds and unidentified photos. They can perhaps be given to another family member who is interested, or they can wait until one of the younger generations is interested. If these things are discarded, they will be lost forever, and may have been valuable to fill out the facts or verify or just as important, refute stories or facts.
Beverley Hopwood, former teacher of music and English, has researched the archives in Britain, Ontario, and Alberta for two decades. She has written two novels based on her family history: Gladys & Jack and its sequel, Kate & Ozzie. She continues to connect with cousins and pursue further research, knowing that the stories never end. Gladys and Jack won The Word Guild’s prize for best novel in The Word Awards for 2013.
Learn more about the writer and her stories on her website.