Writing a family history with only basic information
Genealogy research is exciting, and in the process we accumulate numerous documents, files, photographs and notes. But what is the point of having all this information unless we have some way of telling the story, the ‘what happened’, that will interest and inspire the future generations. How do you go from researching your family history to writing a family history?
Most people will have researched beyond the basic birth, marriage and death details, beyond the census, and tried to find the ‘deeper’ history of ancestors’ lives. However, this is not always possible. With the best will in the world, sometimes all we have are some dates and places, an occupation, and not much else.
How can you construct a life story from such basic details? If you are writing up your family history, perhaps for your children, or as a gift for members of your family, how can you make an ancestor’s life sound interesting when all you know is his birth, marriage and death details?
Like putting together a jigsaw, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Learn a bit of background history and things begin to fall into place.
Let’s take for example an ancestor named John Walker Bott, and the only information you have is the usual baptism, census details, marriage and death. However, by piecing together the known facts, and by researching history and using pictorial resources, you can write his biography.
The key point is in getting to know the times your ancestor lived in. The internet is full of useful information, maps and pictorial images that you could use to illustrate your story (be careful about the copyright on images and if in doubt, ask permission from the website if you are going to make your work public). Museums, libraries and churches are also a good source for local parish history.
To illustrate, here is an excerpt from “John Walker Bott’s” history:
When John Walker Bott and his sister were born in 1814, the nation was celebrating the downfall of Napoleon, Jane Austen had just published Mansfield Park, and the actor Edmund Kean had made his debut as Shylock at Drury Lane Theatre.
While these bits of information have nothing to do Bott personally, they set the context for the world into which he was born.
Books about the history of costume or housing are also very useful, and again you can find websites about fashion through the ages, which can help you to get an idea of how your ancestor dressed.
Find out about the history of the places where your ancestors were born and lived, to provide a setting for their lives. Here is what life was like where Bott was born:
By the time of JWB’s birth, Newcastle-under-Lyme was a well appointed town, with good paving, gas lighting and a supply of good water. It had two churches, the main one being St. Giles where John was later to be married…… It would have been a very busy and bustling town at this time, lying on the main turnpike road from Liverpool and Manchester to Birmingham and London….
Following Bott through the census, his life follows the usual pattern of the head of a Victorian family; the birth of five children, the death of his wife, Louisa, his second marriage two years later and the birth of further children. By looking at the number of rooms and by researching the addresses, we can see that his fortunes were increasing as the quality of housing improved. He goes from ‘employed’ to ‘employer’, and at one point there were 10 people living in the household, including stepchildren from his second wife’s previous marriage.
Back to the history books, and if we look at the history of education, we can see that the 1872 Education Act made school compulsory for all children between 5 and 13, so John’s children were likely to have been scholars at the nearby school, next to St. Mark’s Church.
Here are some of the closing words of John’s story:
John Walker Bott died on 14th August 1874 at the age of 60. For a hard-working man in a physically tough trade this was a good age at this time.
Throughout his life he would have seen many changes as the Victorian age grew and developed. He had lived through the cholera epidemics of the 1830s and 40s. When the young Queen Victoria came to the throne he would have been a young man of 23…. He experienced the rapid growth and expansion of the railways, and would have known about the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Did he, like many others, travel by train to visit this amazing international exhibition?
Writing a family history therefore does not have to be just a chronological list of personal events. It can be enriched with all the information you can find that would have touched the lives of your family. Your family history then becomes a living, breathing account of real people with real lives that will inspire the next generation.