At some point in our lives, most of us wonder about our ancestors. Where did they live? Were there any famous — or infamous — people in our family trees? Are we related to royalty? I knew there would most likely be more questions than answers, but in deciding to uncover what I could of my family’s history, I had no idea it would become such an absorbing, intriguing mystery.
After watching the BBC‘s recent series of Who Do You Think You Are? in which various celebrities are helped by experts to dig into their family heritage, often with surprising results, I became interested in tracing what I could of my own family’s roots. So a couple of weeks ago I signed up at GenesReunited. I chose this site simply because I’m already a member of FriendsReunited and although I rarely visit that site, the association of GenesReunited with FriendsReunited was enough to suggest it to me as a starting point. There are, of course, many other genealogy sites, which I may discuss in later posts.
GenesReunited provides access to information held in the registers of England and Wales — i.e. not Scotland or Northern Ireland. (To look through these, researchers must turn to other sites.) The registers cover Births, Marriages and Deaths from 1837 to 1983 and from 1984 to 2002, as well as the results of the Census held every ten years from 1841 to 1901 (with the exception of 1881). There are also two military registers containing information on WW1 and WW2 Deaths.
When I first signed up, I very soon found myself paying £5 for 50 credits which were valid for seven days. These credits allow you to view the more detailed information held in the registers, because initial searches using the GenesReunited search engine will provide only scant details that don’t actually tell you very much. I found I was looking at so many entries and using up my 50 credits so quickly that a couple of days later I signed up for a six-month membership for £34.95 which gives unlimited access to the records.
The register entries in the Births, Marriages and Deaths are listed in quarterly blocks for each year — January to March, April to June, July to September and October to December. The older the records, the more difficult the original documents (presented in PDF format) can be to read, particularly where they are hand-written. Fortunately, in the case of Census information at least, the GenesReunited search engine presents the extracted information matching your search query in a much clearer form, together with an option to view the original register entry. However, the entries in the registers are not the actual birth, marriage or death certificates — they are merely the register entries with references to Volume and Page numbers that will assist the government’s General Register Office (part of the Office of National Statistics) locate the original document when you apply to have a copy sent to you (at a cost of £7.00 per certificate). So if you’re unsure of your ancestor’s year of birth, for example, you can make some assumptions based on the search results, which may provide a clue such as the district where the birth was registered. This will allow you to discard some results while concentrating on others.
So — having described the ground rules for some basic research, how did I get on?
In order for me to continue my explanation beyond this point, I now have to reveal some personal information that may be new to you: Bob Kingsley is not the name I was given at birth. As a youngster with a wish to pursue a career in broadcasting, I’d decided my given name wasn’t really a suitable “on-air” name, so I unoffically adopted the name Bob Kingsley during my last couple of years at school (when I was honing my DJ skills at hospital radio), and then made it official by Deed Poll many years later.
I was born Ian Michael French in 1955. (That’s me on the left, at four years of age!) Here’s my entry, amongst a long list of French births (it’s a common surname), as it appears in the register for April to June 1955:
You can see that it shows my first name, my middle initial, my mother’s maiden name, the District in which the birth was registered and the Volume and Page reference (which I’ve deliberately obscured).
It’s easier to trace one’s family tree backwards through the paternal line rather than the maternal side because the family surname is always passed from father to son. When daughters marry, their given surname is replaced by their husband’s surname, so it’s fortunate that many of the register entries — and particularly the actual certificates — include the mother’s or wife’s maiden name, giving you at least a fighting chance of tracing the maternal line backwards to a certain extent.
Of course, one of the best places to start researching your family tree is by having conversations with the immediate members of your own family. In my case, only my elder sister Jean (pictured right in 2008) survives. I was able to establish and confirm the most recent familial connections with Jean’s help — and also by examining copies of some of the family’s birth, marriage and death certificates she’s kept safely in a little box for many years.
Jean is the eldest child in our family, having been born in 1941. Our brother, Edward (“Ted” – pictured left, around 1968) was born in 1946, but died in 1969 at only 23 years of age. I was an unexpected late arrival in 1955. Our father, born Frank John Edward French in 1915, was an Elecrical Engineer who worked for the London Electricity Board (LEB). He died in 1964 at the age of 49 after a long illness, when I was only nine. Our mother, born Margaret Annie Una Wells, was born in 1917 and died aged 79 in 1996. It’s to my regret that I never really discussed the family’s history with Mum — or when I did, I never committed any of it to memory or paper.
My immediate family tree
I never knew either of my grandfathers, as they had both died before I was born. I knew my grandmother on my mother’s side better than my paternal grandmother, but to be honest I have only hazy memories of both. However, my mother’s birth certificate from 1917 provided the names of my maternal grandfather and grandmother: they were Harry Wells and Margaret Wells, formerly Hands (pictured left). Grandfather Harry’s occupation was listed as Pioneer Royal Engineer (Dock Labourer). They lived in Lynmouth Road, Walthamstow, then in the county of Essex. (I remember my mother telling me that in her young days Walthamstow was a quiet country hamlet. It’s long since been subsumed into east London.)
My mother’s immediate family tree
(click for larger image)
My mother (pictured right in the mid-1980s) had several siblings: Sidney, Harry, Stanley, Leslie, Gladys, Patricia, Dennis and Reginald. Only a few are still living. I spoke to Reg and to Pat in an effort to fill in as many gaps as I could on Mum’s side of the tree. Reg told me that his mother Margaret had the unusual middle name of McKenzie (i.e. Margaret McKenzie Hands), was born in Edinburgh in Scotland, and at some point migrated with her mother and father (whom he could only remember ever calling “Mr and Mrs Hands”) south to London, where she met Harry, who was born a Londoner. As GenesReunited doesn’t have any records for Scotland, I’ve not been able to work on tracing “Mr and Mrs Hands”, grandmother Margaret’s parents — but I think it’s a strong possibility that Margaret Hands was given the middle name of McKenzie because that was her mother’s maiden name.
Mr & Mrs Hands – my great-grandparents on my mother’s side
I’ve not done any work tracing back along grandfather Harry’s line yet, because at this stage I’m more interested in finding out more about my father’s line as I have a little more information to go on.
One interesting aside is the fact that my father had a younger sister, Elizabeth French (“Bet”), and Bet married one of my mother’s brothers, Harry Wells. Bet and Harry became professional ballroom dancers. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find any information about them on the web, so if you’re reading this and can provide me with any information, I’d be grateful if you’d contact me.
So what about my father, Frank John Edward French (pictured left in 1959), and his line? Jean and I knew he was born on 3rd January 1915 and that he’d died on 2nd February 1964. Jean provided me with a copy of my parent’s marriage certificate from 1939, which lists Dad’s father — my paternal grandfather — as Frank John French. (The passing on of fathers’ and mothers’ first names to their offspring is a frequent occurrence in family trees.) My father’s residence at the time of the marriage was Farmilo Road in Walthamstow, while my mother lived in Boundary Road, Walthamstow. Grandfather Frank’s occupation was given as Cabinet Maker.
Jean didn’t know exactly when grandfather Frank died — she could only remember that she was quite young at the time. So I began searching the GenesReunited death records for any Frank French who’d died between 1941 (Jean’s birth year) and 1955 (the year I was born), with the death registered in the Essex S.W. District, which I knew to be the area where he’d lived all his adult life and therefore the likeliest area where he’d died. I found three possible candidates:
Frank J. French - aged 75 - died Jul-Sep 1942 (born 1867)
Frank French - aged 69 - died Jan-Mar 1948 (born 1879)
Frank J. French - aged 64 - died Oct-Dec 1952 (born 1888)
Years of birth are not given in the register of deaths, so I worked them out by subtracting their ages at the time of death from the year they died. Then I worked out their ages in 1915 when my father was born. The first Frank would have been 48, the second Frank 36 and the third Frank 27 years old. I felt intuitively that the first Frank was too old to be a likely candidate, the second was borderline, which left the third as the most likely candidate.
I rang Jean to tell her what I’d found. She was doubtful that the third Frank would turn out to be the “real” grandfather Frank; she seemed to remember being younger than eleven years old when he died, so she favoured the middle Frank, who’d died in 1948 when she was seven. Also, as we didn’t have a copy of our father’s birth certificate, I’d already ordered one, which would take about a week to arrive. This would provide the address where our father’s parents were living when Dad was born, as well as confirming his mother’s full name, including her maiden name. Jean had an idea that her first name might have been Elizabeth — which I thought was most likely: grandfather Frank John French had passed his forenames on to his son (Frank John Edward), so I thought it reasonable to suppose that if his wife was indeed an Elizabeth, they would have named their only daughter Elizabeth too — and we knew Dad had a younger sister called Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, to help narrow things down, I searched the Marriage entries for a Frank French marriage in the year before his son was born, i.e. 1914. I found one: a Frank J. French married a woman with the surname Lewis in the West Ham District of London in July-September 1914. I cross-referenced this by searching for a Lewis marriage to a French in the West Ham District in the same quarter of 1914, and found it: an Elizabeth E. Lewis married a man with the surname French.
When my father’s birth certificate arrived, it confirmed, in very neat hand-writing, that our grandmother’s name was, indeed, what we’d surmised — Elizabeth Eleanor French, formerly Lewis. They lived in Church Road, Leyton. Grandfather Frank’s occupation was listed as Cabinet Makers [sic] Pine Worker.
My father’s immediate family tree
I’ve ordered my grandparents’ marriage certificate, so that I can pinpoint the exact date of their marriage. Meanwhile, something interesting reveals itself by examining the dates already established: my father’s parents married on a date between the 1st of July and the 30th of September 1914. My father was born on the 3rd of January 1915 … which is somewhat less than nine months after their marriage.
While registrations of births and deaths rely on a member of the new-born’s or the deceased’s family or friends actually doing the registering, and sometimes there can be quite a gap between the event and the act of registration, marriages are conducted by officials who register the event immediately. So it’s most unlikely that my grandparents married in the previous quarter of 1914, i.e. during April, May or June. Even if it turns out that they married on 1st July, that was only six months before my father was born.
So it seems he was conceived out of wedlock — not an unusual event in those days, especially with World War One looming and soldiers being sent to the front never knowing whether they would return alive. My grandfather Frank would have been around 26 years old and was most probably conscripted into the armed forces (though I’ve yet to confirm that). I can imagine a scenario where he and his sweetheart Elizabeth took the opportunity to indulge in a little intimacy before he went off to war, after which Elizabeth soon found she was pregnant and Frank then “did the right thing” by marrying her as soon as possible.
My sister Jean remembers little about grandfather Frank’s demeanor — but she does recall that in the few years she knew him before he died, he was what she described as a “hard man”, often ordering his wife around in an unpleasant way. “I remember one time, when we were visiting, how he just sat in his armchair,” she recounted to me, “while he shouted at this wife to go and lug the coal in for the fire — and she was only a slight thing,” she added. “He wasn’t a nice man. The family didn’t really want anything to do with him.”
I suppose it’s possible that grandfather Frank, while “doing the right thing”, was very unhappy at being “trapped” into a marriage he really didn’t want and he took it out on his wife for years afterwards. Or perhaps his unpleasant manner in later years can be put down to having lived through the horrors of the trenches in the Great War. Maybe it was a combination of the two — but whatever the reasons, it’s a shame to discover there’s what sounds like such a nasty bloke in my tree.
I still felt reasonably confident that the Frank J. French who died in 1952 was the correct one to follow, so I ordered his death certificate. This would give me his exact date of death and the name of the person who registered it. While I waited for it to arrive, I checked the birth records for likely candidates that corresponded with 1888, his year of birth. There were only two:
Frank French - Yeovil - born Oct-Dec 1888
Frank French - Tendring - born Jan-Mar 1889
I was particularly interested in the Yeovil birth because Yeovil is in Somerset, far west of London — but it’s the county in which I now live. Tendring is in Essex, on the east coast of England and relatively close to the east side of London where grandfather Frank eventually settled — but more difficult for me to travel to, if it proves necessary, in order to check local parish records first-hand.
Because of the delays that often ensue between a birth event and its registration, it was reasonable to suppose the “Yeovil” Frank could have been born anywhere in the six month period between the 1st of July and the 31st December 1888, while the “Tendring” Frank could have been born between the 1st of October 1888 and the 31st March 1889. Both of them would have been 64 years of age if they’d died in 1952.
Jean feels convinced the “Tendring” Frank, having his roots closer to east London, is the more likely candidate, while I favour the “Yeovil” Frank because of his Somerset connection. The problem I face in deciding which of these two Franks is actually the real grandfather Frank is that the latest available online Census information is from 1901, and while I’ve been able to find both Franks living in their home counties in that Census, at present I have no clue as to their movements between 1901 and 1915, by which time grandfather Frank had married Elizabeth, sired my father and had settled in Church Road Leyton. The 1911 Census would be invaluable in filling in this gap — but because of the “100-year law” restricting the publication of official records, it won’t be released to the public until 2011.
The death certificate for my choice of the Frank-who-might-be-Grandad arrived: I was correct. It confirmed that this Frank John French died on the 20th of October 1952, aged 64. His occupation was listed as a Journeyman Cabinet Maker. He’d been living in Farmilo Road, Leyton — the same address he’d been living at in 1939 when my Mum and Dad were married (the district boundaries must have changed in the meantime because Farmilo Road had changed from being in Walthamstow to Leyton). The death was registered by his son (my father) F. J. French, living in Lea Bridge Road, Leyton — the address where I was to be born two and a half years later.
Being keen to research “Yeovil” Frank’s roots, I ordered his birth certificate. While I waited for it arrive, I started digging into the records to see what else I could discover about him and his family.
It’s at this point I’ll now split my research into separate branches, written up in pages rather than posts — one following “Yeovil” Frank, the other tracing “Tendring” Frank. I’ve not done much on “Tendring” Frank yet, but I’ve found out quite a lot about “Yeovil” Frank’s line — and uncovered a number of intriguing mysteries along the way …
Update 25th February 2009: Further research has shown that neither of these two candidates can be my grandfather. Read the next post in the series, published 25th February 2009: My Family Tree: Root And Branch Reform.
Feel free to append comments about this research here on this post.