Who do you think I am?
Written by Colin W. Smith. Amended on 31st May 2012
I started to become interested in family history (FH) having watched the BBC programmes "Who Do You Think You Are" over the years. But how was I to go about finding information on my forbears? I've found that genealogy books for beginners are generally not that helpful, although it is worth pointing out that these books can be of use once you have become more familiar with researching your own FH. I took my first tentative steps after taking advice from friends of mine, who are very much involved in researching their FH's, and trying out their suggestions. I then came back and asked more questions! I've written this article to demonstrate how absolute beginners can acquire skills enabling them to pursue this fascinating form of research. My information sources are placed in square brackets.
To begin FH research, always start from the present period and work backwards by getting hold of as many certificates, photographs and records that you can, and asking questions of members of your family, especially the older members. Very often those family "legends" may turn out to be true. The most important tool in your armoury is a computer, there is a vast amount of information online these days, and it is essential to make use of a web-site that is dedicated to FH. I use for births, marriages, and deaths (BMD) indexes and census records dating from 1841 to 1901; and www.Findmypast.co.uk for the 1911 census records (there are several other sites that are also available). There comes a time as well when one needs to create a family tree. I purchased an inexpensive software package online for this purpose - Family History. There are two companies I've used to provide me with genealogical products, such as my family tree program, and books - MyHistory, which can be found at www.My-History.co.uk and S & N Genealogy Supplies, which can be found at www.GenealogySupplies.com (These are my preferences, but there several other online companies available, who provide an extensive choice of family tree programs.)
The information gained whilst researching my mother's side of my family tree illustrates how one piece of information starts to reveal the historical context of our other ancestors. Both my parents were born in Bermondsey, in the east end of London, and were married at St. James's Church, Bermondsey, in 1931, and on their marriage certificate is an entry for the bride's father Franklin Bennett (of Irish descent, a family belief confirmed by census records). I then found his marriage index using Ancestry, and used it to purchase a copy of his marriage certificate, online, from the General Register Office (GRO) at www.gro.gov.uk [marriage index/GRO]. Franklin married my Grandmother Florence Alice Lout, at Saint Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, in 1904. On this certificate Florence Alice's father was shown to be Henry John Lout (of German descent, another family belief confirmed by censuses). Henry John Lout had married Emma Bullard in Saint Mary's church, Rotherhithe, in 1877 [marriage index/GRO], and Emma's father, on their marriage certificate, was my Great (2X) Grandfather Christopher Bullard. The Docklands area of east London has always been an area that has attracted people from all parts of the country (and many parts of the world) so, although there was no family legend about this I was not surprised to discover on the marriage certificate of Christopher Bullard and his wife Elizabeth Kirkby that they came from another part of Britain - Newark in Nottinghamshire. Christopher and Elizabeth were married at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Newark in 1841 [marriage index/GRO], their marriage certificate gives their respective fathers as – Joseph Bullard and William Kirkby, and the certificate also shows that Joseph Bullard was deceased. Furthermore, the marriage certificate shows that Elizabeth was resident at Water Lane on the eve of her wedding (a part of Newark has that featured prominently in the lives of many of the Bullards throughout the 1800's, as further research has revealed). I was intrigued to find out what led Christopher and Elizabeth to move from what seemed to be a deprived part of Newark to the equally deprived Docklands in Rotherhithe, east London, so I continued to investigate this particular branch of the family tree.
I purchased the National Burial Index for England and Wales (NBI), a database CD from MyHistory (published by the Federation of Family History Societies, mentioned in a book on FH) and accessed it for the name Bullard in the Newark region. I was astonished to find that at least six infants, some of whom were only a few days old, had died and had been interred in the graveyard of Saint Mary Magdalene, Newark. (I subsequently discovered that a seventh child had also died at an early age by trawling through the death indexes on Ancestry, but I do not know if he had been buried at Saint Mary Magdalene). That these were Elizabeth's children was confirmed by my obtaining their death certificates and/or their birth certificates [death indexes/birth indexes/GRO]. The NBI also confirmed that my Great (3X) Grandfather Joseph Bullard was buried in Newark, in 1831 (dying at the age of 37 years).
The 1841 census shows that Christopher Bullard (just before he was married), his sister Ann and his brother Joseph were living with a Joseph Lilly and his wife Elizabeth Lilly. The 1851 census has Elizabeth Lilly, her daughter Ann Bigg (originally Bullard) and Granddaughter Elizabeth Bigg living in the same household. I wanted to find out more about the marital status of Elizabeth Lilly, but because civil BMD records were not introduced until 1837, I had to seek out parish records to obtain information on earlier events. Scanning the Phillimore Nottinghamshire Marriage Registers I found a record of Joseph Bullard marrying Elizabeth Hall in 1820, and another, unrelated, record of an Elizabeth Bullard marrying a Joseph Lilly in 1835.1 Since Christopher's marriage certificate and the NBI entry show that his father Joseph Bullard was deceased before 1841, this evidence, and the census evidence mentioned here, establishes, without any doubt, that Elizabeth Hall and Elizabeth Bullard were the same person. Christopher's mother had married again to Joseph Lilly. (By1851 Christopher's brother, Joseph, had also left the Lilly household, and the 1851 census shows that he was serving in the 33rd Foot, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment.)
Several certificates that I have purchased, relevant to Christopher Bullard and his wife Elizabeth, give a range of occupations that Christopher had during the period when they lived in Newark, revealing insights into his work. For example, he was a gas lighter man (a local newspaper article of the time gives a detailed description of the installation of gas street lighting in Newark).2 A few years later he was described as an "engine driver" (and later on a brickmaker). In fact Christopher was in charge of a steam driven engine that worked a grinding mill, at a brickworks, which was used to recycle damaged or imperfect bricks. This information was revealed in a most unexpected manner! The Nottinghamshire Guardian gave an account of a terrible accident that occurred at the brickworks on the 3rd of September 1853.3 Bricks that were damaged in a severe storm the previous night were being added to the steam engine, for grinding so as to rework the clay, by a "youth" – John Haywood. He slipped and fell between unprotected cog wheels. Christopher stopped the engine but it was too late, John was crushed to death. This is just one example of many of the poor working conditions of those times.