As the centenary of the First World War sees family history come of age Michael Noble asks, what opportunities does this offer?
Recent years have seen a revolution in family history and amateur genealogy. The possibilities created by broadband internet, the digitisation of official and parish records and the advent of crowdsourcing have created an unprecedented boom in the pursuit of private histories. The popularity of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? testifies to the the mainstream success of this once esoteric hobby.
During the course of our project we have encountered people who have undertaken family history research and who have gathered documents, photographs and other artefacts. They are often older members of the household who have embarked on their project in retirement and have been motivated to do so because they have a personal memory of some of the individuals concerned, assuming a combatant birth year range from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century. As this generation ages, we will encounter a ‘succession problem’ of what to do with such collections that are too small and/or esoteric to be absorbed into mainstream collections. A related issue is the atomised nature of these items. They reside in spare rooms, on living room walls and in attics and could be hiding information useful to professional historians.
Two key problems:
1. How do we ensure the preservation of historically valuable collections?
2. How do we give access to them to professional historians and other researchers?
These are questions for family history in general but the centenary of the war can bring it into focus. The world wars, like items such as the 1901 census, act as ‘informational nodes’ for family historians and many of their researches converge on this event. This, combined with media coverage of the centenary and crowdsourcing schemes such as Operation War Diary and Lives of the First World War, offer an opportunity to test the value of family history and a chance to make it useful to mainstream historians without, I hope, robbing it of its very real value to those individuals who have been doing so much work in this area in their free time.
We are very keen to hear from people who have found or kept interesting First World War items and who are interesting in using them to foster a better understanding of the war, its effects and of the role of memory in family history and identity. We’re planning some events for 2015 that will help to ensure that these precious items continue to be of value as the war fades into history. If you have something to share, please get in touch.
Always wanted to investigate your family’s past? This weekend might be your chance to start…
One of the most desirable outcomes of the centenary period is that people will take the time to find out more about how the war affected their family, their community and the country as whole. A particularly affecting method for doing this is to trace the records of your ancestors using genealogical tools.
Genealogy was once considered a difficult or even impossible task, requiring intrepid hunters to spend hours in dusty archives on often fruitless searches. Recent years have seen a revolution in the hobby and, with the advent of online resources, it has become easier than ever to trace your personal heritage. If you have never attempted this sort of detective work yourself, this Remembrance weekend may be the perfect chance to start.
Find My Past is one of the country’s most popular genealogy resources that provides access to 1.6 billion searchable records. A paid membership is usually required to access this material but this weekend you can do so for free.
From midday, Friday to midday on Monday, Find My Past are giving everyone the opportunity to explore record sets that include:
Millions of birth, marriage and death records
Millions of census records from all over the world
International travel and migration records
Military records, including WW1 collections
By accessing the Findmypast record sets, you’ll be able to unlock brand new information about your ancestors, allowing you to bring your past to life.
Modern tools can help to illuminate the impact of the war to twenty-first century eyes. Michael Noble is impressed by the latest effort
Here’s a rather beautiful thing. Housing website Rightmove have created ‘Then & Now – An interactive journey around World War 1 Britain’
Blending archive photos with images fro m Google Street View, the site lets users merge the past with the present and examine how our streets have evolved from the days of the Great War.
Users simply use their mouse to “swipe” across the chosen Street View and reveal an insight into the past, as provided by the Imperial War Museum and other image resources. Clicking on the information icon reveals more about where and when the photo was taken.
In total, 13 photos from the duration of the conflict are used to help tell the story of the First World War on the home front.
Images include a house on Lonsdale Road in Scarborough, severely damaged by German naval shelling in December 1914 and a line of recruits outside Deptford town hall, who fade in and out of historu with a simple swipe of your mouse.
There’s a real sense of the uncanny in the images, they seem to make the war years at once distant and familiar. It’s also interesting to note how effective the repair work was on the shelled buildings. A 21st century pedestrian walking along these streets could be forgiven for his ignorance of the damgage that had been wrought in days gone by.