Starting your family history this Hobby Month…

It gave me a good chuckle to find out that January is ‘Hobby Month’!

I’m pretty sure that 2020 was Hobby Year! Being stuck inside and desperate to take out minds off the never ending news cycle or ‘doomscrolling’ social media (thank you to the lovely person who coined that phrase recently…), meant that many of us took up hobbies with the eagerness of a 5 year old in a toyshop. Sourdough anyone?  

But I’m going to throw another one into the mix of hobbies you can look at – family history.

Now many reading this probably already like researching family history so I guess I’m preaching to the choir there aren’t I! But before you stop reading, hold on…bear with me.

What do I need to do…

For many of our new found hobbies, we needed to go out and buy a load of tools and equipment. I’m not the only one who spent a fortune on new paints and papers from Cassart right? And don’t even get me started on potplants! (I love them all…except that weird spiky cactus one…)

There is absolutely no denying that you will need to spend a bit of cash at some point when doing your family history, but you can get started right this very minute without spending a single penny.

How?

First, put your phone or laptop down, and go find a pen and paper. You can even use the back of an envelope. (I can’t tell you the amount of notes Mum has written down literally on the back of an envelope when doing her family history!)

Next, call your parents. Granny. Grandad. Aunts and Uncles. Even the close family friends.

And ask them what they know.

Now each family is different and I know that sadly many might not have all their family around anymore, but reach out to those you know where you can. And now more than ever.

See, one of the awful things about the pandemic, is that our loved ones are succumbing to this virus. Suddenly. And of all ages. Talking about family history creates treasured memories and connections with them and carries on those stories before they are suddenly taken away from us. I can’t tell you the amount of times I wish I had asked…

What do I say?

You know your family best, but I’m guessing in most cases starting with “Hi Granny, It’s Sandy here. What was your mum’s name…” is not going to get you very far. That’s just rude.

The art of conversation really is an art, but it is in fact what you need – to have a conversation. It is not an interview for the BBC or an MI5 interrogation. In some cases you may not have spoken to the person for quite a while. You need to take the time to catchup. It may even feel a bit awkward at first. But you also need to level with them on why you’re calling too.

And don’t just use them for all their knowledge and ditch them…keep them in the loop on your discoveries too. Maybe they’re not interested. Or maybe it prompts a recollection that helps you. Either way…it’s rude not to give a little something back.

Top tips on talking to relatives

My top five tips for talking about family history to relatives are:

1. Keep quiet

I struggle with this. I mean really struggle. I’ve always been told I could talk the leg off a cast iron pot. But it’s not so good when you are trying to get information from someone else. Learn to keep quiet.

2. Have a list of questions

Be a good scout and come prepared. You might not answer all the questions but at least you have a starting point. And what should those questions be? The standard who, what, when, where and why questions are a good place to start.

Like all new hobbies, start with the basics – names and dates of births, deaths and marriages they know.

From there you can then fill in the gaps of life – where did they work, where did their parents work, where did their families come from, where did they go to school. And to be honest it is these ‘gaps of life’ that you really want.

There are archives that hold facts, but there are only memories in the school of life.

3. Take good notes – or ask if you can record it.

We have some fantastic cassette tapes (remember those!) of the family from when I was little. Just all the idle chatter and banter around the dinner table, or us kids playing.

I would suggest that next time you’re all around the table for a family dinner, record the conversation (making sure they know of course!). It’s also really interesting to hear different sides of the story! No one ever remembers events quite the same way, which means our family dinners are often very rowdy and hilarious!

One app that I have found really useful is Otter – it records and transcribes the speaking (not an affiliate link…just my opinion!). It may struggle with a Scott family dinner, but if it’s a one on one with your Nanna and a cuppa tea then it’s perfect, and allows you to concentrate on the conversation rather than your notes.

4. Use things to prompt their memory

I remember finding information about the childrens home in Stirling that my grandad was in. He had never spoken about his time there, and I thought that perhaps it was bad memories. And while that was in part true, I also suspect that it was more that the memories were buried deep and needed coaxing out. I can barely remember my own kindergarten classroom…why would I expect my 70 year old grandfather to!?

But one afternoon I read him the recollections of a lady who had lived in the same home around the same time he was there. Suddenly it all came flooding back to him. It was like a key. If you are finding the same thing, then get out the photo album, ask them about a picture on the wall, ask about an ornament on the side table that you know they hold dear, read to them some research you’ve found about the village where they grew up. You never know what stories they will have.

5. Say thankyou – know when time is up.

If you’re anything remotely like me you can prattle on about this hobby and newfound interest all day. And I suspect your relative might be able to as well, if they can see that you are genuinely interested in them and their life and family.

But no matter how keen, it is exhausting physically and emotionally. Know when to stop. Let them have a nap. Have a nap yourself even! And finish the stories another day.

And when you start digging through the records or find out something from another member of the family, don’t forget to share. It just might prompt another memory, or at the very least it is simple kind manners.

Doing your family history won’t happen in one afternoon. It takes years of patient research. And spoiler alert…not everything is online and free.

Ah…but Sandy, Great Aunt Martha ‘did’ the family tree years ago.

Someone in your family might have already done a lot of research and you think there’s no point. That’s ok. There is always more to look at. Did they look at events from the point of view of your branch of the family tree? I have been in contact with a distant cousin and their branch of the family were told my 3x grandfather was a murderer, but that wasn’t the case. Or perhaps you can focus on a part the other person hasn’t looked at.

And when did they do the research? The access to records has changed phenomenally in recent years. Searching microfiche in the library is (mostly) a thing of the past and you can make great strides searching online using the various well known fee-for-service companies.

There are records now that we couldn’t hope to have accessed years ago. Archives that were once scattered across the country…or globe, are often now available online. Or, if you’re able to, you can go into the offices and look up the records yourself.

Over time, archives that weren’t available in the past, are now made available due to privacy and copyright laws opening them up. Your hobby might be adding depth on the research already done by that other family member.

A word of advice…

One of the very first things I found out in my research, was that Granny and Grandad Davies (my 2xgreat grandparents) were never married! Now that was quite a shock to my dear Granny at first, but thinking about it, Grandad Davies was a bit of a rogue so it was no great surprise. He was a travelling picture show man through outback Queensland, and it seems that one night he left town with more than just a film projector!

Although we can laugh about that now, keep in mind that there might be things they don’t want uncovered. You might be full of enthusiasm about your new hobby, but if someone doesn’t want to talk about a topic, or get’s cagey, then don’t force the issue. It might bring up painful memories of a time they have long since pushed to the recesses of their mind.

I know this is the case in my own family. I never pushed Grandad too hard on his early life as he had grown up in children’s home where physical, mental and sexual abuse were a part of their daily lives. They are not the kinds of memories you want your sweet 70 year old grandad to be bringing up. But I’m not going to lie – I was so keen to know what his experience was like – not the abuse of course, but the adventures he must have had as a kid. The stories he could tell. But (I hope) I knew when to stop persisting for a chat on the subject.

Grandad on the day he met his mother in Scotland.

Don’t push the subject

In time, as the person feels comfortable to do so, they might tell you what happened. Or maybe they will tell you a little bit of what happened. But you are not their therapist. Don’t force the issue. Talking is not always therapy and everyone deals with trauma in their own way.

And it may be that you’re not the person they are to talk to about it. In my research, we were able to find my grandad’s childhood best mate who had come with him from Scotland on the boat all those years ago. They had been separated as children. Deliberately. So that the Scottish kids would better integrate (that’s a whooole other story). Decades later these two old men sat together and talked of places and people and stories that my Granny had never heard him mention. I regret so much that I wasn’t able to be there that day. But then again, maybe they wouldn’t have talked so freely if I was?

What next?

Now that you have a list of names and places…all jumbled up and written on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes, you need to get organised. I will talk about this in future posts, but for now …please trust me…just ask, listen, and write down what those dear older ones know. Write it all down and keep it safe.

Even if this isn’t one those hobbies that sticks for now, you have those notes for the future when you do have the time and money to take up the hobby in earnest, and those people may have passed away with their memories. Unlike a dead pot plants and dried up paint pots…this is one hobby can be revisited!

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