I felt the first stirrings of interest in Family History when my only uncle died in 1990, and we had to clear his cottage, where he had lived most of his life. I took home quite a lot of family documents and photos, and I was jokingly nominated as the family historian. I did very little in that role at the time, the documents were put in the loft, and Family History was forgotten for a while. In 1994 my mother died, and with her a great deal of information I now wish I had asked her about when I had the chance. She was Belgian, and my father met her when he was serving in the RAF during the Second World War. They married in Brussels, and after the war made their home in Suffolk, in the east of England.
Mum & Dad's Wedding in Brussels
Shortly before her death, my father and a friend wrote a short booklet about life in the 1920s and 1930s, in Rushmere St Andrew, the village they lived in, and eventually died in. That briefly revived my interest in Family History, but again I did very little to gather the information I should have gathered while I still had the opportunity to do so. When, in 1997, my father died suddenly, any hope of getting first hand knowledge of my ancestors was gone, because I am now the oldest member of the family, and I have no living relatives that I am aware of, apart from my sisters and their families, and of course my own children and their familes.
Naturally, at this point, my interest in Family History finally sprang into full bloom, about ten years too late.
Putting together a rudimentary family tree of my father's ancestors started off reasonably easily. I already knew, and had met as a young child, his parents, although like all grandparents in those days just after the war, they looked very, very old, and in fact were fairly old, as they both died at around 80 years of age. I knew my grandmother's maiden name, and the names of her parents, although not her mother's maiden name, but the tree was started, and the Family History had begun in earnest.
A quick rummage through the old documents, now released from their banishment to the loft, produced a gold mine of useful data. I found my grandfather's Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates, which were very helpful. The Birth Certificate gave me his father's and mother's names, and his mother's maiden name, which, after a long search allowed me to obtain their Marriage Certificate, although I had to order a copy from the Records Office, as no original copy was among the documents I had.
In a similar way I traced my grandmother's grandparents, through a copy of her parent's Marriage Certificate found in local Parish Records. As anyone who has delved into Family History will know, Marriage Certificates are great, because they always include the names of the bride's and groom's fathers and their occupations, so you automatically step back another generation.
The Belgian side of my family was at first a big stumbling block. I lived in Belgium for a year or two as a child, but despite going to a French speaking school there, and being fluent in French, nowadays I seem to have almost totally forgotten how to say even the simplest thing. I never did learn to speak any Flemish, or Dutch, although I could understand most of what was being said. Initially I had decided to accept that I would never be able to research beyond my grandparents.
Then, about four or five years ago, the elder of my two sisters started looking into researching Family History in Belgium. She discovered that the usual method is to contact the mayor's office in the town or area of the city where the people you are researching lived, and make arrangements with their archivists, who can do some of the searches for you. Purely by chance, one of the archivists involved personally knew a nephew of our grandfather, and knowing that we were planning a visit to Brussels, kindly arranged for us to meet him in the City Hall of the area of Brussels he lived in, which was also the very building our parents were married in.
While in Brussels we visited the main record office, and tried to do some research there, but were seriously hampered by the language problem. A very pleasant Belgian man helped us out quite a lot, and later told us that he was a professional genealogist, and offered his services researching our grandfather's line. His estimated charges were very reasonable, so we accepted his offer, and the following year we returned to Brussels to pay him. He had already sent us the information via the internet, so he must have considered us trustworthy. We have now decided to ask him to trace our grandmother's line, and my sister was planning to contact him, but at the moment I don't know if she has been able to do so.
We now have a Family Tree that stretches back to the early 1700s on the Belgian side, which is over a hundred years further than we have so far managed on the British side. My wife's Family Tree, which is a separate tree to keep things manageable, also goes back to the early 1700s, because by chance one of her distant relatives contacted her, and he is also a professional genealogist. It obviously is possible to go back a long way in the UK, if you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, I'm still a bit of a novice, but I'm slowly making progress.
Tracing your Family History can at times be frustrating, but it can also be a very satisfying hobby. If you decide to try it, start talking to the oldest members of your family now, and get as much detail as they can remember. Don't leave it until it's too late, like I did. Even if you don't intend to get heavily involved right now, get the information and keep it safe. It will make things much easier when you do decide to start seriously researching your ancestors.