The first few steps can be tricky, but persevere and researching your family history could be one of the most rewarding things you ever do, says Findmypast's UK content editor Max Anderton
I started my role at Findmypast with very little family history knowledge. I mean, I had never even heard of genealogy before. In the interviews for the role, I might have over-egged my interest in the subject just a little bit, but I wasn't lying when I said that history fascinates me. It always has, and, I think, as long as I have half a brain, it always will.
During my first week here I had a crack at starting my family tree. I ran into problems immediately. Chief among them was that with no living grandparents, beyond my siblings and parents I had no clue about my extended family. In fact, I didn't even know my parents' exact birth date. I made zero progress. Not a good start.
It's Good to Talk
The first mistake I made was neglecting to do the most basic, initial research before getting started. I now know any good genealogist will tell you that the first port of call should be to ask your older living relatives for as much info about the family as they can possible give you. Next time I spoke to my mum I asked if she could provide me with the details I needed about her and my dad, and how much she knew about her family history.
By the end of that phone call my interest had been well and truly piqued. Turns out, my mum's biological father scarpered before she was born and her mother was adopted (but the year before the official adoption records began). On my father's side, his dad committed suicide when my father was young, and was also adopted, but not through official channels. How did I not know this and how would I be able to explore my lineage with such confusion so early on?
Next time I visited home, mum and I dug out all the info she had and started building a tree. My experience? Wow, just wow.
I know you're probably reading this thinking, 'well, of course he's going to rant and rave about how brilliant Findmypast is. He'd be fired if he said anything else.' And you'd be partly right, but believe me when I say that the hour or so I spent with my mother inputting names and dates into my family tree was one of the most exciting things I'd done in a while. And probably the best experience I've shared with mumsy of my whole adult life.
We made no progress with the more difficult aspects (adoptions throw up a load of problems, that I'll be addressing in a future blog post once I've figured them out – in fact, if you're reading this and have any tips you would like to pass on, or even fancy writing about the subject then please do get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org) but the tree builder's hints system helped us go back four generations on my biological grandfather's side.
The scoundrel skipped out on my mum before she was even born, but thanks to census records we tracked that side of my lineage all the way to the start of the 19 th century. Once we had him and his father that section of my tree was brimming with hints bubbles, and with just a few clicks (and zero searching on our part) it was soon filling itself out as if by magic.
Journey of Discovery
So, what did we find out? My mum's biological dad died just a few years after he had left my grandmother. The three previous generations of men were all bakers. My mother's biological grandfather (my great grandfather) who she had never met died on the exact same day I was born. And lastly, that whole bloodline lived in a house only a few streets from where I now live in east London. I grew up in Portsmouth and both my parents are from Northampton, so this last one was a particularly exciting discovery. My mind was officially blown.
Not only am I now a fully-fledged genealogist (I interrogated all my extended family over Christmas, iPad in hand), I'm a family history evangelist. And if you've felt the same rush of excitement I did when discovering unknown family for the first time you'll know exactly why. I'm now concentrating on my father's mother's side and can't wait to see what I'll find. So, to reiterate: family history is tough at first, but totally, enormously, completely worth it!