How a visit to the Society of Genealogists sparked a surprise interest in my family history

Society of Genealogists

Earlier today, I went on a fascinating tour of the Library of the Society of Genealogists. My interest in visiting this incredible archive was twofold: to learn more about the work that the Society does, and to see for myself the kinds of resources that are available to those keen to find out more about genealogy and / or research their own family history.

The Society’s headquarters are tucked away in Charterhouse Buildings, an attractive cul-de-sac on the junction of Goswell Road and Clerkenwell Road – the perfect location for this organisation, given that all the major London Record offices are within a 10-15 minute walk of the Society and each other.

Our guide, the wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable Genealogist Else Churchill (no relation to Winston, we were reliably informed), began the tour by explaining how the Society, also known as the National Family History Centre, is the UK’s largest genealogical members’ society. Founded in 1911 as a meeting place and library for family historians, the Society was originally based in offices on the Strand. Since then, it has outgrown four successive buildings and its current home now holds around 140,000 items. These include virtually every kind of document relating to genealogy that you can imagine: parish and non-conformist registers, census indexes, gravestone inscriptions, marriage licences, wills, newspapers, personal family histories…you name it, you are likely to find it here.

Genealogy has never before been so popular; the Society’s membership has grown from 50 in 1911 to over 11,000 today. And change is in the air: on the day we visited, workmen were busy renovating the building, in preparation for the Library taking in 60,000 microfilms from the London FamilySearch Centre, currently located at the National Archives at Kew. These take the form of church and local records from the UK and Ireland, probate records for England and Wales before & after 1858 and selected items for Caribbean research.

The Society is also going to host the Library of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (JGSGB). The latter, a secular organisation, was founded in 1992 to encourage research into the genealogy of the UK’s Jewish community and to promote the preservation of Jewish genealogical records and resources.

Fantastic though the Society’s physical resources are, they form only just one part of the Society’s remit. The Society also runs a thriving Education Programme through which it hosts lectures seminars, day schools and distance learning courses; in fact, it has its very own lecture room, which is put to frequent use.

We began our tour in the Lower Library, described by Else as containing “unique and special” documents. Else explained how births, deaths, marriages and censuses tend to be the first port of call for anyone researching their family history, followed by records of places where ancestors come from, e.g. parish records. All of these are detailed in the Library Catalogue and the Lower Library contains a suite of computers which you can use to view the Catalogue. These computers also provide access – free-of-charge – to the major online genealogical websites.

Else also talked about the Special Collections, of which the Society possesses over 3,000. These are ‘research lists’, donated to the Society, which tend to comprise the life’s work of members. A Special Collection doesn’t necessarily belong to an individual, though – sometimes it contains documents not wanted by a larger institution and passed to the Society as a last resort. The Bank of England’s Will Collection is one example, as is a collection of personnel records from UK Customs and Excise.

Next stop: the Society’s Middle Library. This is where you find the main enquiry desk, as well as a repository of thousands of books relating to “place”, i.e. where our ancestors lived. Books and records on England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are all stored in here; those relating to Ireland are kept upstairs, in the Upper Library, purely because the Middle Library is now full to the brim. Bear in mind, while using this resource, that “Counties” are ordered as they were when our ancestors lived in them – so, for example, you will find Southwark in Surrey and Lewisham in Kent. Gazetteers will help you to determine the correct parish.

The Middle Library is a treasure trove of information, but Else did recommend referring to the Library Catalogue before visiting its shelves – you may find yourself overwhelmed, otherwise.

While we were in here, Else took the opportunity to talk about the Individual Advice Sessions which the Society holds on Saturdays and which are aimed at helping beginners or those who have hit a brick wall with their research. Society members can also join an online forum that enables them to help each other by sharing information and experiences.

Finally, we headed for the Society’s Upper Library, which again is stashed full of books of varying ages and dimensions: a knowledge-lover’s paradise. Here, having already established who your ancestors were and where they lived, you can find out what they actually did with their lives, both education and employment-wise. Public schools and universities are covered, as are professions, trades and apprenticeships. Should your ancestors be of the illustrious type (I have a sneaking suspicion that mine are not), you can look up the peerage and investigate heraldry.

The Upper Library also boasts a large “Overseas” section containing information about Britons who travelled overseas to work or live in the colonies. India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. are all present; the section relating to India, we were informed, is particularly extensive.

Researching your family history can be a daunting, nay overwhelming, task. Else was at pains to points out how the Society’s resources are aimed at all levels of family historians, from complete beginners to skilled researchers. I haven’t yet decided whether this is a road I wish to travel down, but I do know that, should the opportunity present itself, the Society of Genealogists will be my very first port of call.

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