Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Family history pitfalls (part 1)

A belated Happy New Year!

Last year I embarked on a series of posts about places where my ancestors once lived. Over the year we've travelled from rural Essex and industrial Lancashire to the bustling streets of Sydney, Adelaide and Limerick. They were interesting posts to research and write, and I hope you enjoyed reading them.

This year I'm not sure what to post. I've been running this site for eight years now. Although family history is never complete, and there's always something new to discover, I've already covered most of what I know of my own family history. The site also needs some behind-the-scenes work to bring all the links and cross-links up to date, add summary sheets for people where they are missing and so on. 

While I'm updating the site and deciding what to do next, I thought I'd post some extracts from my booklet Family History Pitfalls, which comes free with a subscription to my email Readers List. It discusses, as the title suggests, some of the hazards of researching your family history, including some that may be unexpected.


“Hazardous” is not a term usually associated with family history research. And certainly, the physical hazards of such research are few—perhaps having a heavy parish register fall onto your toes, or developing “computer stoop” from spending too many hours on-line might be examples. 
But family history research involves families, families involve relationships, and relationships are the source of many emotional hazards. Anyone who gets very far in researching their family history is likely to find themselves faced with tricky and complex questions about how they share their findings with others. 
Family history research also involves (obviously) history. Our forebears seldom had us in mind when they went about recording, or hiding, the details of their lives. The joy of discovering new information is often balanced by the frustrations of trying to find, decipher and interpret it. 
I’m not trying to dissuade you, here at the beginning, from researching your family history. What I want to do is to disillusion you from the idea that delving into your family history is a purely personal hobby and what you discover will be fascinating but harmless information. Unlike bird-watching, or stamp collecting, or even local history research, family history research inevitably involves and affects other people in ways that you may not expect

 Memories are fallible and legends may be fables
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll be offered when you begin researching your family history is “Start with what you know”. You know your own name and date of birth. You probably know your parents’ names and their dates of birth. You may even have your grandparents’ names and, if you’re lucky, one or both of your grandmothers’ maiden names.  
Maybe there are also a few interesting stories about an aunt or cousin, or a great grandfather, that have been passed on to you. That gives you quite a bit to work with.
If you are fortunate enough to also have official documents, such as birth, marriage or death certificates, then the information you have is likely to be reliable and detailed, though as we’ll see, don’t count on that. But how reliable is word-of-mouth information? It’s easy to assume that what you’ve been told is true, but is it?  
That leads to the second most important piece of advice you’ll receive from any book or article on researching family history. Whatever information you have should be considered unproven until you’ve found confirmation, no matter where the information came from.  
Human memories are fallible, especially as we grow older, and names and dates can be forgotten or mis-remembered. Stories passed on by word of mouth can get caught up in a multi-generational game of Chinese whispers. Every family has stories that have gradually changed over time, with some elements omitted and lost, and elaborations and embellishments added to others. 
When I began researching my own family tree, I already had the names and dates of birth of all four of my grandparents, provided to me by my parents. It didn’t take long to confirm these birth dates, and to find marriage and death records for each of them.
But when I came to my great grandparents’ generation, I only had stories to guide me. 
On my father’s side, I had the tale of my paternal great grandmother Eliza’s birth in Australia, even though the rest of the family were solidly English. According to my father’s Aunt Mill, her grandfather, David Whybrew, (my great great grandfather) had been stationed in Western Australia with the British Army. Her mother (my great grandmother Eliza) was born while he and his wife were living there. A year or two after Eliza was born the family returned to England. 
I thought it would be easy to trace the birth of a child with the surname Whybrew in Western Australia, especially since that’s where I now live. It’s not a common name. I knew roughly what time period to look at, based on the history of the British army presence in Western Australia. Counting back twenty to thirty years from my grandmother’s date of birth gave me a likely date of birth for her mother. But my search through the microfilm records at the State Library was fruitless.  
The reason for this became apparent when, much later, I found the family on the 1881 UK census. Eliza had been born, not in Western Australia, but in South Australia. So either Aunt Mill’s memory, or my own memory of her story, had proved misleading on that point. 
But there was a bigger surprise to be found on the census. Eliza’s mother Susan had also been born in South Australia. Throughout my search I’d assumed, for no good reason, that Susan had married her soldier husband David Whybrew in England, before he was posted to Australia. I’d wasted hours trying to find their marriage in the English records. Once I knew that they’d married in South Australia, it was easy to trace their marriage.
The fallibility of human memories can cause problems with the reliability of your family history research. Checking your facts carefully before you share them with other researchers is important. But discovering that remembered “facts” are not really accurate can create other, more personal, problems. How do you tell members of your family that, based on your research, what they’ve told you is wrong, without upsetting or insulting them?  

I'll continue this extract in my next post. In the meantime, if you'd like to download and read the whole book, you can, by subscribing to my email  newsletter, The Scribbler. It appears once a month, with interesting articles, useful links and news about what I'm writing. Here's one sample and here's another.

You can unsubscribe at any time, and keep the book. But I hope you'll find the newsletters entertaining and informative enough to stay.


  1. Congratulations! Your blog has been included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at


    Thank you, Chris