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There's nothing like getting your hands dirty with original genealogical records

Generally speaking, genealogists love an opportunity to travel near and far for the pleasure of delving into dusty (and sometimes downright filthy) archival records. I'm talking here about records that have yet to be (and may never be) digitized and made accessible online.

Picture of a travelling genealogist -

Can anything match that sense of anticipation every time the archivist brings out the next item on your order list - be it a tatty old box file or perhaps an ancient register book that is so large and so heavy you can barely lift it? What family secrets of generations past will they yield?

I'm unashamedly a travelling genealogist at any and every opportunity. I'm currently in the UK for client as well as personal family history research. A couple of weeks ago I spent two productive days at what I think of as the Mothership, aka the UK National Archives in Kew.

That wonderful institution is an exemplar of support for researchers of all descriptions, not least of which are genealogists and family historians like us. And I had the filthy hands to prove the many hours I spent scouring old files and registers from the early 1800s.

Picture of the National Archives in Kew, UK -

Above : The National Archives in Kew, UK (c) Therese Lynch 2019

A week ago I added a visit to the Devon Family History Society in Exeter for some personal research. Thanks to one of the very helpful volunteers, I was able to locate and work through some old microfiche parish records from the 1700s which are not available elsewhere. I managed to find baptism, marriage and burial records for some ancestors for whom I only had minimal index details. I also managed to go back another generation beyond what I already knew on my mother's paternal line. As I'm sure you will understand, that was a happy dance day.

Picture of my 4xgreat grandfather's  baptism registration - from my own photo collection

Above : John Edwards, my 4xgreat grandfather's 1786 parish baptism registration showing his parents' names (Roger and Sarah Edwards).

My research trail continued to the Portsmouth History Centre and Archives Office for some client research. The staff there couldn't have been more helpful - even before I arrived when I contacted them to order the records I wanted.

So did I find what I was looking for in the Portsmouth records? Not specifically, but one reference led to another which led to a third which led to a book which contained multiple photos of nurses for the period I was researching. Bingo! The uniforms from one hospital exactly matched that worn by my client's ancestor in a photo taken in the same era. So even though the staff records for the period I sought haven't survived, I can at least answer the question "At which hospital did she work?"

The lesson here is that even where specific records don't survive, don't give up and don't overlook other research options including:

  • history books;

  • old card indexes in Libraries;

  • photos;

  • maps;

  • newspapers and journals.

In the situation I mentioned above the Archivist pointed me to their old card indexes which had a section on hospitals in the area. I found a dozen references worth following up - some of them photos and history books. The photos were on the Archives' offline computers. Unfortunately the photos didn't lead anywhere, but I persevered and traced the books on the nearby shelves. That's when I struck gold.

As I was reminded in Portsmouth, it's always worth talking to the Achivist on duty who is likely to know their holdings far better than the average visiting researcher. It was her idea that I might find some useful pointers in the old card index. How right she was and how glad I was to have sought her advice when the hospital staff records I requested were not available. (Don't you hate the 100 year release prohibition rules? Although they had the records I wanted, the Archivist found that some of the indexes therein were less than 100 years old. Consequently, I could not view any of them.)


As family historians we need to remember to always think outside the box and focus on what records or information exist beyond official records.

Until next time, happy ancestor hunting.


Your Family Genealogist

Pictures : from my own collection and also Pixabay

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