Christmas is a time to collect those priceless family memories and folklore

As we approach Christmas it is a good idea to think about making the most of those precious times with family members – especially (although not exclusively) the older members. Christmas is often the only time we spend time with family members all year and often family gatherings will trigger memories and reminiscing. All too often genealogists and other family members will lament about not asking questions about grandad’s funny accent or finding out more about what uncle Billy did in the war when it is too late.

If done sensitively a wealth of factual and anecdotal information will help to bring alive those names and dates in your tree for generations to come.

Kimberly Power on About Parenting recommends some of the following tips:

  • Stay engaged with the storyteller(s) and enjoy the session
  • Don’t be afraid of silence and try not to interrupt. Sometimes it takes a moment to dig deep and find the information in the storyteller’s head or it may be that they are recalling something difficult.
  • Ask the right amount and type of questions but don’t make it feel like an interrogation. Having a pen and pad handy with some questions written out by way of a prompt might help and you can also jot down any thoughts on further investigations for after the session
  • Follow up on the good stuff by asking additional questions and digging a bit deeper
  • Be yourself and keep things natural
  • Get personal by probing dark corners but gauge carefully whether it is a ‘no go’ topic or can be addressed with humour or a sense of secrecy
  • Don’t challenge them on certain aspects as it is their view on a particular story
  • Use props such as photos or memorabilia to trigger the memories. Ask if you can bring your scanner and ask permission to scan them. Maybe offer to digitally enhance them and make prints or put them on CDs to share by way of a ‘Thank you’.
  • Make it a group session so the storytellers can work on an event or person together and fill in any missing gaps

To relax and enjoy the experience while still getting the most information out of the session I would recommend recording the session if the storyteller is happy with this. Nowadays this can be done unobtrusively with a smart phone or video camera which will soon become ‘invisible’ and give you a natural session. It’s always a good idea to practice and experiment beforehand to see what gives you the best results. Afterwards you can play and replay the recording to glean the information you want. However, please be mindful that these recordings are very personal and I would not recommend posting them on social media without explicit permission.

By capturing these memories it is a good idea to store them in such a way that they are not going to get ‘lost’. Remember to download the files and name them something that makes sense (especially years after the event) and put them in a folder that has a meaningful title and date. As always, a backup is a really good idea, especially to an external drive or memory stick which should be stored safely away from the tablet or PC in case there’s a theft or fire.

Finally, by way of a ‘Thank you’ it is a nice gesture to send the storyteller(s) a note or card. These oral histories are literally priceless and it is the least you can do – it might also ensure they will be willing to help again in the future.

For those interested in capturing oral history in a professional way, the Oral History Society has some training and also some tips –


It’s that time of year again!!!

voucher scanAs the summer in the UK seems to have ‘switched off’ immediately after the August public holiday, my thoughts have whisked from sunhats, sun protection and bottles of water to packing the summer furniture away and…Christmas!

In addition to making an effort to make many of the presents for my nearest and dearest (non-genealogy based, I hasten to add!), I do get requests for family tree help or gifts at the last minute which is a bit of a challenge.

It is very hard to research and create a family tree gift without the recipient knowing unless there is plenty of other family support. A much more practical idea is to give a gift voucher which the recipient can use at their leisure to start a family tree, convert their research into something ‘pretty’ or help with a brick wall. It’s novel and even if they get a similar voucher from elsewhere it is still of use.

Please see my website if you are interested

Now, where did I put that oasis foam and gluegun, best make a start on those presents now in case I still get a pre-Christmas rush on research!

A personal tribute to one of the many

James Mcphee company BThis time 100 years ago, my great grandfather James Archibald McPhee was unaware it was his last night alive. He was born in Glasgow in 1884 and on 1 August 1917 as part of the Battle of Passchendaele he lost his life, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters.

I obviously never met him but he was often talked about to keep his memory alive. He was a sign writer by trade but was a singer with a beautiful voice and it is thought he used to sing at local events. The battalion had a band called the Cuckoos and it’s quite likely that James would have participated in the much welcome musical distractions.

My great grandmother (yes, Nanny McPhee!) had a regretful experience of their parting, where James tipped her hat in an effort to make her laugh and lighten the mood. She got cross with him, the train pulled out and that was the last she saw of him. It left her a bitter and dour woman until she died in 1963.

I have his ‘dead man’s penny’ which I will always treasure but suspect his medals went to an uncle, John Houston,  who immigrated to Canada and then America.

Last year I took some time out to do some more research on him and using the war diaries online plus an excellent book titled A Short History of the 16th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters by Lieut Colonel R F Triscott OBE plus the trench maps held by the National Archives, I was able to plot his last days leading up to his death in some detail.

So tonight, James, I will raise a glass to one of many who endured unthinkable conditions over months and years in order that we can live our lives the way we do today. All being well, when the glare of publicity is over this year I’m coming to see you at Tyne Cot. May you be resting in peace.

Great when it comes together

As a professional researcher there’s no better feeling than when you have success with a commission and have happy clients!!! 

It was a small project but meant a lot to those involved.

It counteracts all those hours spent tracking down then wading through unindexed records only to find the vital piece of info… isn’t there!!! Then having to ‘justify’ the cost to an unhappy client.

As Forest said…life is like a box of chocolates….

Well, what happened there?

As I write this here in the glorious spring (or is it summer?) sunshine, I realise that all those long winter nights where I planned to dig in and get my research updated have passed me by. I don’t think I am unusual, but this winter has been difficult with a new job, a poorly relative, some private commissions and the general hub bub of day-to-day life. Before I knew it Who Do You Think You Are was almost upon me and I considered carefully whether to attend or not.

I considered what I gained from it last year…it was my first visit, and it was really interesting but I just didn’t capitalise on it. Still on the bookshelf is a bag with all the shiny new books, leaflets, some maps, CDs and magazines that have largely gone unread.

What happened, where did that time go?

So, sunshine or no sunshine, I resolve to get that bag out and go through it to get the maximum benefit. I’ll consider it my summer project! Then, maybe my conscience will let me consider attending again next year!

The more I dig the curioser it gets!

Over the Christmas break have had a little time to go over some of my own family tree. On my father’s side my lovely, belated uncle Ian Wigston had spent many years researching the Wigston line from Kent to Cumberland and then to Ireland before coming to a halt. Because he had done so much and had hit a brick wall with Irish records I had not previously paid much attention to that side of the family but now seemed a good time to have a deeper dig at it.

For some reason my attention was caught by my first cousin twice removed – not even a direct ancestor but his name popped up a couple of times. This was Thomas Wigston, born in 1881 in Fusehill Workhouse in Carlisle, UK. He is listed in the census with his mother, Sarah Ann Wigston aged just 17 and listed as a sewing machine worker.Oh dear! Curiously enough Sarah Ann appears in the census twice – once as an inmate in the workhouse and then also at home with parents William and Isabella Wigston. To me this indicates that maybe she had not been totally shunned by the family and maybe the door was half-open for her to return once she had found a home or disposed of the newborn Thomas…we may never know!

Thomas has proven hard to track down but I need to order some certificates to be sure of his journey. However he does pop up in the 1911 census married to Hannah Jane Wigston (nee Richardson as her father was conveniently staying with them on the night of the census). They had been married a year and had a 1 month old baby boy named William. By now Thomas was aged 30 and a fuelman on the railways in Carlisle.

Curious about what Thomas had been up to before marrying relatively late in life I searched for military records and as luck would have it his WWI records have survived and show that he served previously for 12 years in the Army Service Corps.So that is what he had been up to! Even more curious is that he had listed as a distinguishing mark a tattoo on his arm with a bust of a woman and the name S.I.S.S.I.E. – who was Sissie or was this done as a drunken dare or joke reflecting his nature as judged by his peers?!

Thomas then spent the war like a game of snakes and ladders being promoted and demoted being AWOL on occasions but also being mentioned in despatches.

It’s funny how some people just prick your curiosity and Thomas is one of those. I am lucky to have found the records I have so far but it’s made me greedy for more. Think he will be my personal 2017 genealogy project. As New Year approaches I raise a glass to you my Thomas!



Online Genealogy Dictionaries & Other References — Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter

The Web is fast replacing reference books. References to almost any information can be found online quickly. In fact, it is often faster to look up information online than to look in a book already on your bookshelf. Of course, an online lookup is also much cheaper than purchasing a reference book. Here are some […]

via Online Genealogy Dictionaries & Other References — Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter