Finding background colour and detail for your family history

Once upon a time, in another life before I had children, I worked for the ship classification society Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.  My colleagues were an interesting and talented lot, and so it is no surprise that they have gone on to writing careers and successful publication.  I used to spend lunchtimes with the Shipping Information Services Information officers, who spent their time researching historical enquiries for members of the public and companies about ships and shipowners.

One of them, Kath Langrish, has moved into children’s fiction and has written some very well received books, some of them about Trolls and their activities.  One other, Jean Hood, still specializes in maritime history, and has written a number of very interesting books including Marked For Misfortune, a compelling tale about the Honourable East India Company’s Ship Winterton.

Her books are painstakingly researched, and it turned out, relevant to the family history of Alistair McGowan, when he was featured on Who do you think you are?  a few years ago.  You can read her fuller explanation on Jean’s own website here. I can thoroughly recommend the book, I learned a lot from it, and found it an interesting and gripping read, despite having no ancestors that I have yet come across who went to India.

Collecting background for your family history has become so much easier since the development of the internet.  The Internet Archive is now packed with books which are out of copyright and have been uploaded to the archive, registers, family histories, books on towns and cities, and even myths and legends, may provide you with background to a family tale. Many out of copyright books have illustrations which will provide colour for those years in which you have neither photography nor painted illustrations.

Don’t dismiss the possibilities that old paintings and new photographs may give you interesting illustrations.  There are many sites which will allow you to download copies of out-of-copyright photographs.  Flickr Commons contains pictures which are designated creative commons, but beware the different types of creative commons – some require you to acknowledge the author and give attribution, some do not.  Some allow commercial use and some do not.  It’s best to check the exact designation or search only for those photographs with no known restrictions on reuse.

Wikimedia commons also is a resource for family historians, with similar provisos that some authors require attribution or use only in non-commercial settings.

Many American museums and galleries allow free download for their collections.  As I have said before, sometimes images that UK galleries will charge you for, if you wish to reuse them, can be found for free in American institutions.  There are an amazing number of resources for photographs and illustrations which can be used free of charge, online.

Background reading around a subject is never wasted time if you want to understand and write about a subject in your family history.  Sometimes diaries and autobiographies can give you just the little details you want to make your story live.  Certainly I would say that there is a lot of detail in Marked for Misfortune which would enhance a family history for one of the passengers aboard the ship, like Suetonius McGowan and his sister.

This picture above is from Flickr Commons with no known restrictions on use, and shows the East India Docks in London.  It’s by William Daniell (1769-1837) and is dated between 1802 and 1808.



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