Genealogy Guide - A Personal Account

After forty years of having an interest in history, Mary Hayward from Aylesbury, finally managed to research her family history. Read her story.


"I first became interested in researching my family while at school. The history teacher pinned up a chart showing the Royal Family's line of descent and talked about what life might have been like for our ancestors during the various reigns.

I was fascinated by the subject and decided to find out about my ancestors but I was young, there were places to go, people to see, things to do, then I married and started my own family and though I still thought about doing a family tree there never seemed to be enough time and forty years elapsed before I finally asked my mother about her family.

She gave me the names of her parents, their siblings, her paternal and maternal grandparents and their siblings. I now had the information at last but did not know how to use it so I bought a book 'Beginning your family history' written by George Pelling - this contained advice on how to trace your family history and the author suggested, amongst other things, going to the local reference library and checking census records, parish church records etc.

I went to the County Library and the staff were extremely helpful, showing me how to access indexes of films and microfiches, use the film readers and where to locate relevant reference books. Initially I trawled through films relevant to the village where my grandfather was born making a note of all references to the family name but it was hard going, some pages of the early records were torn; some Parish Registers had separate columns for Marriages, Baptisms and Burials but in others the records were mixed up on the same page; many entries were almost illegible; there was a variation in the spelling of names even though they were in the same family (i.e. Reed; Reid; Read); early records did not contain much information; marriages only gave the name of the bride and groom; baptisms only named the child (though sometimes the father's name was given); burial records did not include ages. This made it difficult to work out if that person belonged in the family.

Over time more information was included; marriage certificates named witnesses; baptismal records included the mother's name; and most burial records gave the age of the person. Later still came more improvements; Marriage certificates included ages of the bride and groom; place of residence at the time of marriage and more importantly the name and occupation of their fathers. This additional information helped prove the link to the family.

Census records after 1841 were a good source of information; they gave the relationship of people mentioned to the head of the household - i.e. wife; son; daughter; sister; mother; father; servant; they also listed ages, occupations; and places of origin, which helped if they came from somewhere within the county as I could then check parish records for that area for baptismal and/or marriage details. I soon learned that research is like doing a jigsaw puzzle; looking through the various records for 'bits that fit'. I would search for hours without success then suddenly I would spot a name I wanted and the information gained would often lead me to the next piece of the puzzle.

Then came a lucky break, I heard that a local man had compiled a book on my grandfather's village, I purchased a copy and found it contained typed lists of Census records for the village from 1841-1891; Parish Registers for the Church listing Baptisms 1560-1927; Marriages 1561-1959; and Burials 1560-1874; there were also Baptisms (1855-1902) and Burials (1848-1956) for the Chapel; these typed lists were much easier to read !

I checked the Census Records starting at 1891; my grandfather was then 15 years old so was listed then I worked backwards. By the time I got to 1841 I had found the names of my grandfather (1875-1956); great grandfather (1844-1929); 2 x great grandfather (1810-?); 3 x great grandfather (1773-1851) and 4 x great grandfather (?-1805).

(With hindsight I realised that when I first visited the library I should have started looking at the Census records before checking Parish records and would advise anyone just starting out to do that, it can save a lot of time - one thing! to note about Census records though - for some reason ages were often rounded 'up' or 'down' by as much as five years so when checking for baptismal certificates allow for this and extend the search either side of the 'supposed' birth date).

Now that I knew approximate ages I went through the Baptismal, Marriage and Burial records cross referencing the information. I could not find any baptismal records for my 4 x great grandparents nor were there any for my mother and her siblings which seemed strange, only one marriage was listed - my great grandparents - (though later I found an entry for my mother and father's marriage) and I could not find Burial records for everyone (after 1874 records are kept in London and though details are on microfilm you need to know the approximate date of death to save time searching). Later on during my research I visited the two villages where my grandparents had been born and walked round the church and chapel grounds reading the monumental inscriptions (where legible) and managed to acquire further information from those.

I then wrote to the author of the village history asking for advice on how to proceed and received a helpful reply. He explained the variation in spellings occurred because clerics were often from distant places and the Bucks accent must have been hard to understand, also a large percentage of people were unable to write so they put a cross as opposed to signing their names and the cleric wrote down what he thought he heard. He stressed that this is an important fact to take note of when carrying out research as a lot of people tend to ignore names that do not have the 'right' spelling. He suggested that I contact the local Family History Society who held databases for baptisms, marriages and burials for the county and would do a search for a reasonable fee. Whenever, I was unable to locate a particular record I contacted the FHS who were able to help in a significant number of cases but they were unable to find details of where my 4 x great grandparents were born or married which suggests they came from outside the county; I knew their eldest child was baptised in the village in 1764; that my 4 x g.g. was buried there in 1805; also his wife in 1806 but I was then well and truly stuck.

I continued going to the library so I could research my maternal grandmother's family (who came from the next village along from my grandfather's). This time I started with the Census records before using the film reader and microfiches and I traced back to my grandmother's paternal grandfather (my 2 x g.g. ?-1867) but no further because just had been the case with my mother and her siblings there were no baptismal records for my grandmother, her siblings, her father or her grandfather and the FHS could not find anything on their database. The library staff thought it possible the family were baptised at a chapel but so far I have checked chapel records in the area and am unable to find any further information. I did discover though that my grandparents were married in grandmother's home village so that was one more piece to add to the jigsaw. I also traced my grandmother's maternal grandfather (my 2 x g.g. 1797-1869).

Unable to find further information for my ancestors I began researching my husband's family tree (his father and my mother were born in the same village). I traced back to his paternal 3 x great grandfather (c1784-1874) but as he had originated in Oxford I was unable to go back further at the time. I did uncover two interesting facts though, (a) my husband's 2 x great grandfather's father in law and my 2 x great grandmother (on my grandmother's side) were brother and sister! And (b) my husband's grandmother had a brother who had been killed during the Great War aged just 22. My son accessed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and obtained a printout showing name, rank, regiment, date of death and the name of the Cemetery in Somme where he lies.

I would have liked to find that I was related to some famous people but my male ancestors were listed as agricultural labourers - with two exceptions; (a) my great grandfather; according to Census records at 26 he was a Parish Clerk; at 36 he was a Master Baker and at 54 he was a baker and farmer; (b) my 3 x great grandfather was a carpenter. In 1784 my 4 times great grandfather had been listed as owning a house and land but according to Census records his son (my 3 times great grandfather) was a pauper in his latter years and was living with his son, so it seems the 'family estate' was no more. My female ancestors were listed as straw plaiters or lacemakers though one was a dressmaker.

Large families were quite common with many women having as many as 10 or more children well into their late forties. There were many cases of children dying either in infancy or at a young age. Another thing I found was that most of my family tended to live all their lives in the village where they were born and if any did move away it was only to the next village.

I appreciate that some people spend years researching and only obtain half the amount of information I found so quickly and count myself lucky to have found what proved to be such an invaluable book. I noticed, however, that the reference library had copies of books written by local people about the town and/or surrounding villages which might contain relevant information and it is worth checking this with staff.

There is still a lot of research to be done and I have now acquired my first ever computer so hope I will soon be competent enough to join other 'silver surfers' in checking out the genealogy websites now available to see if I can find at least some, if not all, of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. My biggest regret is that I did not start my research much earlier than I did because my mother passed away a few months after giving me the details of her family and I am sure she could have told me stories and/or information which would have given me a much bigger insight into my ancestors."