What started your interest in genealogy?
I grew up with a copy of my mother’s family tree on the wall so like many people naively assumed that it was ‘done’. My interest in books and local history led me to a job at Birmingham Library working in local studies and archives. And so I also entered a world full of mystifying terms such as ‘IGI’, ‘parish register indexes’ and ‘census fiche’! To prevent the sense of sheer panic I felt when confronted by yet another family historian asking incomprehensible questions I decided I would have to at least learn the basics. And what better way than to take another look at my own family and that was when I realised that the family tree on the wall was far from done, contained a fair few gaps and errors but most importantly it lacked both evidence to back up its assumptions and equally importantly it lacked any sense of narrative. Where were the stories? Who were these people? Why had they lived the lives they had? But from that point on I was hooked and the more I learnt the more I wanted to know and after a few years embarked on the Postgrad Certificate and Diploma course via distance learning from the University of Strathclyde. Admittedly I did have my eye on the post of genealogist at the new Library of Birmingham but when this post didn’t materialize and there were over 100 redundancies I took the decision to become a freelance genealogist. And I’ve not looked back!
What are your specialist areas of interest and why have you chosen them?
I still spend a lot of time in Birmingham archives but now I am on the other side of the counter doing research for clients or with volunteers on local community heritage projects. I particularly relish opportunities to access some of my favourite records which include those of Middlemore Child Emigration Homes and Coroners’ Inquest records. I also visit other archives in the West Midlands as the need arises and undertake a lot of computer based research too.
As an adoptee myself I get particular satisfaction from helping people trace lost relatives as there is the added element of making a real difference to someone’s life. And I enjoy teaching people how to do genealogical and local history research for themselves and encouraging them to venture into local archives to discover the vast array of material that hasn’t yet been digitised.
Your most exciting discovery, either personal or professional
The most important personal research I have done was to trace my own birth mother nearly 30 years ago via the use of electoral registers, but this was a couple of decades before I got the genealogy bug. My own genealogical research has (so far!) been on my adopted family and one of the discoveries I found most exciting was an old newspaper clipping found amongst family papers in my sister’s loft. It revealed that two spinster sisters of my GGgrandmother hadn’t entirely lived the genteel and mundane life I’d assumed from tracking them through the census records but had in fact been nurses during the Crimean war, and that one had been the nursing superintendent at the hospital in Smyrna. A wake up call to not jump to conclusions or fill in gaps from my own stereotypical views of Victorian life.
A typical day’s work
No such thing as a typical day in the life of most freelancers. I combine genealogical research for a range of clients, co-ordinating and training volunteers on community heritage projects plus occasional talks to local and family history groups and writing for publication.
I’m not much of a morning person so start at a leisurely pace most days checking through emails and getting my head round my tasks for the day. If it’s a day for an archives visit I will have already booked an appointment and submitted a list of references for items to view. I use Evernote to track my tasks and whilst at a library or archives make notes or take photos and keep it altogether within the app which I can access via phone, laptop or tablet. I try to avoid doing too much on paper if I can help it. Birmingham archives doesn’t open till 11am but I generally book to go on a Tuesday when it stays open till 7. Likewise, if I go to the Hive at Worcester I go on a Wednesday when they stay open till late.
Keeping track of opening days and times plus scheduled closures for stock takes or cataloguing weeks is quite a logistical exercise in itself.
The day after an archives or library visit I will review my research and incorporate findings into the appropriate family tree plus client report.
Sometimes the commission is finished and I can finish the report and mail it to the client with an invoice but if only partially complete I will consider what the next steps are and either undertake more online research or track down more appropriate records to view in person and make the necessary arrangements.
I work concurrently with several community heritage projects so there may be meetings to attend or volunteer training sessions to prepare for. I have to keep a close eye on deadlines for material for newsletters, blogs and print publications and sometimes have to chase up project volunteers for submissions. I’ve been working with my local churchyard heritage project and having recorded all the monumental inscriptions I am now training the volunteers how to research the individuals and families buried there. We have a fortnightly session looking at a different genealogical resource and although I have powerpoint presentations I have used before I like to tweak them to make them relevant to the project – and to incorporate some of the volunteers’ findings too. I tend to do this with presentations to other groups too so, for instance, this week when I gave my talk on house history to an inner city local history group I tailored some of the images of houses and maps to better represent their local housing stock. It went down well and generated a lot of interaction.
I’ve just finished co-ordinating a WW1 project looking at the lives of children during the war in Birmingham and am now working with some of the volunteers to write another bid for Heritage Lottery funding for a subsequent project. And I’m just starting work on another completely different heritage project for Friends of the Earth Birmingham looking at their 40 years of history; not much genealogical research needed on this one although I am using some of my people searching skills to track down folk that were involved with the group in the 1970s.
And to relax I’m just starting a new blog about Coroners’ Inquest records of Birmingham and am developing another local history talk on the “Chuggers of WW1” about the role of flag days in raising funds for war charities based on my own (small!) collection of charity flags.