How much detail you will be able to find about your ancestors in any generation does very much depend upon the type of family or person they are. Although it seems unfair, the ordinary worker who isn’t very rich and isn’t very poor, will be the most difficult to find detail about. Once you go beyond the reach of the census returns (before 1841) and before the reach of compulsory registration (1837), the parish records may be your only source of information. Often they will only give names and no profession or address for families, and deaths may not include details like ages, either. Of course it can help if your ancestor was a victim of crime, too. Sometimes you can “hear” their voices in the witness statements given in court.
There is always a serendipitous chance that your ancestor might have been in the right place at the right time, to be interviewed by journalists about a news story of the day, or photographed by a passing Quaker, like the “Spitalfields nipper” above. This is one of a series of photographs taken by Horace Warner (1871-1939), a Friend who worked with William Morris by day and was a photographer of East End children by night. The story of the discovery of more photographs by Horace Warner is told on the Spitalfields Life site, along with more photographs of the nippers.
How much easier it is if you have a black sheep in the family, who steals shirts, gets drunk persistently, begs or defrauds old ladies! There are free and paid-for resources to help you find out about the criminal past of your family. Find my Past has 1.9 million historical records of crime, and a persistent criminal in the family may lead to a gold mine of information. Some records are available online for free, for example the proceedings of the Old Bailey are available to search online.
Very poor families may appear in the poor law records, as being in receipt of money from the parish – the equivalent of being on benefits today. A poor rate was charged to richer inhabitants and the money disbursed to families in need. Sometimes a family would be returned to their previous parish in order to obtain poor law relief, and so that can be very useful in tracing back a family who would otherwise have left no trace on history. The national archives produces a guide on their website to finding poor law records. You may also find the local history societies keep copies of the records for their area.
Finally, although it seems most unfair, the rich are much easier to trace, because they tend to own land, leave wills, and often are part of families which have a known genealogy. A “gateway ancestor” into the aristocracy may be a connection to genealogies which stretch back to William the Conqueror and beyond. Be vigilant, however. Sources like Wikipedia can be a rich seam of detail for such ancestor, but they may also lead you astray. Those that depend on entries in Burke’s Peerage, or Burke’s landed gentry may be unreliable… you will still need to take care to check the information you find there, but it may help enormously to speed your family history if you are linked to a family with an established family history.
I think most people with an English genealogy should be able to find a gateway ancestor at some point in their history. The very fact that by the time one is back to the 14th century there are more ancestors than people in the land indicates that we are indeed all related in some way. In my own tree, one of my least promising ancestors, a hotel servant, was the six greats grandson of Sir William Fowler.
If you need help with your genealogy, or would like to give the gift of a family tree to a relative, why not contact me using the button above?