David Hey’s books already fill much of my ‘genealogy’ shelves. What makes this one stand out – apart from the imprimatur of the National Archives – is its layout and use of illustrations. It is also full of cogent advice laced with some occasional witty asides.
This is a review of the 2004 edition. It comprises an introduction and four chapters. Like genealogy itself, these four chapters work backwards chronologically, from recent times, through the nineteenth century, the early modern period and so back to the Middle Ages.
Each of these four chapters is itself split into two parts. In the first (‘Exploring Your Past’) Hey provides a context of the times, looking at features such as the size of families, the quality of housing, the nature of work and travel. These are only broad pictures but which can add flavour to the genealogy itself. These sections are very well-written. Hey has perforce to concentrate on generalities, but he has nevertheless managed to make references to particular areas of the country in order to provide pertinent examples.
The second parts of each chapter (‘Finding Your Ancestors’) guide the reader into how flesh can be put on the bones of your family tree. Examples here include advice not only on the immediately obvious such as registers and census records, but also on gravestones, photographs, newspapers, etc.
Taking the subject of newspapers, Hey is here already a little out of date, since most newspapers are now online and are fully searchable (for a fee, of course). Things have moved on elsewhere too: Hey mentions the FreeBMD project as “in progress,” and most of us now no longer need to visit London to scan the registers or the census entries. Even such items as Post Office staff appointments and surname distribution maps are now online. And so it goes on. Recently World war One service records started appearing as well as twentieth century voters’ lists, the last not mentioned by Hey.
More generally, though, it can be asked, in the age of the internet, what use are these kinds of books? Well, as Hey points out in his preface, “Even the most skilled computer buff still has to book a place at the local records office and search through the archives, we still have to know which records to look at, to learn how to read various styles of handwriting, and to understand what the documents are telling us.”
But there is still much to learn from this book, such as the fact that BMD records are arranged by districts rather than parishes, or that the ages in the 1841 census were largely rounded down. And there is much guidance about searching for elusive ancestors in physical records can easily be transformed into search engines online.
In his introduction Hey advises that the beginner’s first port of call is what he already knows (or has been told) about his family tree, and to seek out relations to trawl through memories. Hey then briefly touches on organising the information gained, remarking how “we each have our own ways of doing things and it is pointless recommending a single approach.”
If there is one complaint, it is that too many of Hey’s examples are from his native Sheffield and surrounding districts and counties. It is also very much an English focus with Wales, Scotland, and Ireland barely mentioned. Nevertheless, this book is a valuable resource bank for those new to genealogy, and old hands will also find it of worth.