Researching your ancestors from scratch

By Jon Bauckham, 31 July 2013 - 11:00pm

Research your ancestors using historic documents

When researching a celebrity’s family tree for the show, we start by finding out what they know already. You should do the same!

1 - Write down what you know already. Take a pencil and blank sheet of paper and write down what you know about your relatives in a family tree diagram. Write your name and date of birth at the bottom of the page, with your siblings either side and a branch up to your parents’ names, adding any significant dates. Continue back as far as you can. This way you’ll be able to see where the gaps are.

2 - Track down the family archive. Gather any family documents, letters and photographs you have lying around the house as these often provide precise dates and places for births, marriages and deaths, and can help you to start filling in some of those blanks. Raiding the family archive is a great cost-cutting step – birth, marriage and death certificates cost £9.25 each from the General Register Office (GRO) for England and Wales. You might find unique original documents and photos within the family.

3 - Make a plan. While you’re drawing up your tree start to think about what you would like to find out. This is a really important question that we ask all of the celebrities, because it will form a framework around which we can plan our research. The next step is to talk to as many relations as possible to try to fill in some of the gaps. The WDYTYA? team does this for every celebrity. Older relations are particularly helpful, since they may remember people who were alive as long as 100 years ago.

Grandfather and grandson talking about family history

4 - Contact family members. Extended family can alert you to additional mysteries that need resolving, and have documents and photographs you’ve never seen before. Keep notes of all your conversations. As you progress in your research you might pick up on something significant in your initial notes that you didn’t think was very important at the time.

5 - Collaborate with others. See if you can collaborate with another family history addict in the family. Two pairs of eyes are often better than one. It’s also helpful if you can divide the cost of purchasing document copies and joining subscription websites. Some websites like MyHeritage, GenesReunited and Ancestry allow members to save their family trees online and get in touch with other tree owners who share an ancestor. We often use this method of tracing people for WDYTYA?. Remember, online and even printed family trees can contain errors, so be sure to verify the facts with as many sources as possible.

6 - Get organised! You’ll need to keep well-organised notes. Archive-quality storage boxes are useful for paper copies gathered. Regularly updated records of each step you’ve taken will save you duplicating searches. There are lots of genealogy software packages designed to input your ancestors’ details and build trees including Legacy, Family Tree Maker, Family Historian and Reunion. Many genealogy websites offer similar services. At WDYTYA? we also compile a Word report for each celebrity, giving an overview of the records found for each ancestor, with transcriptions of all the documents we’ve located.

From the show: Boris Johnson

WDYTYA? celebrity Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

Gathering information from family members before you start your research can save a lot of time in the long run. Boris’s father Stanley knew that his grandfather Wilfred Johnson was in fact born with the name Osman Wilfred Kemal in 1909, and he had an original copy of his English birth certificate, proving that the father was Ali Kemal.

Stanley told us that Wilfred's mother died during childbirth and that Ali returned to live in Turkey where he was eventually assassinated for his political views. Stanley knew Wilfred was raised by his maternal grandmother Margaret Johnson, who was responsible for changing Wilfred's name.

In the programme, Boris and his dad pondered over the fact that their surname should really have been Kemal and not Johnson! However, a change of name did not need to be registered legally, so without this inside family information we would have struggled to locate a birth certificate for 'Wilfred Johnson', which is what he was listed as on his marriage certificate and his son's birth certificate.

All of this information from Stanley helped us to piece together the additional documentation that survived in England, and to plan a trip to Turkey where Boris could discover more about his Turkish roots.


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