Local History Month: Ancestral stories open a window to the past

Madelaine Baker, from Ilford, has been researching her family history for two-and-a-half years, with

Madelaine Baker, from Ilford, has been researching her family history for two-and-a-half years, with the help of Redbridge Central Library's Information and Heritage Service - Credit: Archant

Prime-time shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, where showbiz figures trace back their roots, have sparked off a huge interest in genealogy, through our natural curiosity about other people’s lives.

Census files are an important source for family historians. Here registar general Michael Reed looks

Census files are an important source for family historians. Here registar general Michael Reed looks over some of the old files at the General Register Office in Somerset House, London, with Allen Field, in the 1960s. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

But how simple is it to uncover your own ancestors? And can exciting nuggets of information be found without an abundance of expert researchers?

The answer would be yes. Ilford resident Madelaine Baker has built up a family tree dating back to the early-1700s with the help of Redbridge Heritage Service, based in Redbridge Central Library.

She began the studies two and a half years ago, as a way to occupy her time when her husband of 45 years, who has since died, fell ill and went into a care home.

“I remember somebody mentioned something about family trees. I had two names, my grandmother and my mother,” said Madelaine.

“I went to the library, and from there I started getting certificates like marriage certificates, and went on to the census.”

Through her research, Madelaine has discovered all sorts of information about her family, from their careers (coffee house keepers, glassblower, soda water maker), to where they lived, who they married and how many children they had.

The Hammersmith Workhouse, London, c1900.

The Hammersmith Workhouse, London, c1900. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

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“A few of them went into the workhouse in the 1800s, life was hard then,” said Madelaine.

One tale involves a woman called Margaret, her husband and their four children.

“They went into the workhouse in 1848. A policeman found the children and Margaret in a pub in Westminster, the husband promised to look after them, but they went back into the workhouse again.

“Margaret later went to prison for stealing a handkerchief. She died in prison in 1890. One of the children, a daughter, Frances, went to Australia on the Omega, from Southampton, on September 16, 1856.

“She could read and write, was of the Church of the England, a domestic worker. She married and had a son Charles, and died aged 51 in Australia.”

Madelaine’s family tree reaches up to a gentleman born in 1710.

Redbridge Central Library, where the museum is based

Redbridge Central Library, where the museum is based - Credit: Archant

Her mother Mary Margaret, who died in the 1960s, had two brothers – but one died when he was five.

Mary’s mother Emily Louise, married to Frank Richard Mansfield, was one of 12 children.

Madelaine often attends a family history group at Gants Hill Library, and through this and her time spent at the heritage service, she has found a social aspect to researching.

“I have made some very good friends,” she said. “And the heritage staff in the Ilford library are fantastic. When you find something everyone gets excited.”

Her advice for newcomers is to keep a notebook and write down everything you discover, utilise the full range of records available (from the census to marriage certificates and information on baptisms and burials) and don’t forget to seek help from Redbridge Heritage and other archives if you are struggling.

Madelaine also encourages researchers to not rule out records with slight discrepancies – a wrong spelling, or a date out by a few years – as they could be the right ones.

“You can find out as much as you want or as little,” she added.

“People sometimes spend a long time doing this, even 30 years, but I couldn’t cope with not having something finished in that amount of time.

“I don’t think it’s too time-consuming, I’m enjoying it, it’s a pleasurable pastime.”


Vast borough archives can aid your search

Sue Page, from Redbridge Heritage Service, in the Central Library, Ilford, gives some tips on researching your family history:

There is no right or wrong way to research your family history but the most important thing is to be methodical and to make notes on all of the sources that you have used. Work your way backwards through the generations.

The first step is to talk to your family to find out what is already known about your ancestors. Write this down or better still record it, either on a film camera or on your phone.

Make sure you have a list of questions and try to structure the conversation in a logical order. Ask them about their earliest memories, their home life, family celebrations and so on and then go on to find out what they remember about their parents and grandparents. They might also have family photographs and all of this information can be used in your research.

However, don’t assume that everything that you are told is accurate and be careful in case you uncover difficult or painful memories. Redbridge Museum and Heritage Service staff can provide support and training in how best to undertake oral history.

Secondly, look for any birth, marriage or death certificates that you or your family have or any other family documents which will provide information about your ancestors. Record all of the information collected on a family tree diagram.

You can then begin to search for information to fill in the gaps. Birth certificates will show the date of birth, name of parents and their occupations. Marriage certificates will provide ages, occupations and the names of the fathers of the couple, enabling you to go back one further generation in your search. Death certificates give age and cause of death.

Certificates issued in the United Kingdom can be purchased for a small fee. The UK Census, available for the years 1841 to 1911 in all Redbridge libraries, will show you where your British ancestors were living, who they were living with and what their occupations were. Redbridge Heritage Library also has resources such as local newspapers, building plans, maps and many other archives which will help your search, including free access to websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.

If your family was born overseas, for example in the Indian sub-continent, Africa or the Caribbean, there are other sources to use. Websites such as FamilySearch, The National Archives and the British Library are useful for this.

For anyone starting to research their family history, it is best to visit Redbridge Heritage Service, which is due to reopen in Redbridge Central Library in June after an extensive refurbishment.