03:28PM BST - Monday, 21 October 2013
Contributed by: Alan Bunting
Thanks to television programmes such as 'Who do you think you are?', family history research has become an ever more popular activity for those interested in their ancestry, especially the geographical origins, trades or professions and lifestyles of their antecedents.
In the age of the internet, that research has been made much easier and less time-consuming and costly than in decades past, when the price and unpredictability of the postal services, to and from to distant parts of the world was a deterrent for many. Index-based websites, with titles like 'Family search', 'Find my past' and 'Ancestry', enable those with even the most cursory interest in their forebears to discover a great deal about those - typically with the same surname, such as Bunting - who preceded them in a family line. They have spawned what one might call a new breed of family historians with 'megalomaniac' tendencies, whose prime aim appears to be to construct a bigger family tree than anyone has managed previously -but alas all too often with doubtful accuracy and veracity.
But as Bunting Society chairman and record keeper Mary Rix points out, those electronic website records need to be approached with caution. It is all too easy for the unwary to be 'led astray'. There can be errors, unwittingly introduced by earlier compilers, which are hard to identify. Other 'self imposed' errors can creep in, through insufficient cross-checking, especially where, in times past, a family had a particular favourite forename, such as William or Anthony, bestowed on successive generations, or even on the children of same-generation siblings or cousins. Variations in spelling, of both surnames and forenames, were commonplace in past centuries, when only the select few were proficient in reading and writing. Such capricious spellings add to the challenges of genealogical research. Where exact name spellings are uncertain, online investigation can sometimes be helped through so-called 'fuzzy' searches, where a suspected one-letter name spelling discrepancy can be clarified by substituting a question mark for the uncertain letter. If the first and last letters of a name are known, but those in between and the length of the word are not known, an asterisk can be inserted to obtain the name in the electronic records which 'fits'.
More foolproof family tree research comes from the old-fashioned and painstaking method of leaving the computer behind for a while and getting out to physically trawl through parish registers, albeit with additional reference to census returns - most of which in the UK are now available online. Some enthusiastic family researchers are so proud of their efforts that they have set up their own 'private' family tree websites, which they are then prepared to share with others, though sometimes with access restricted to nominated individuals, that is through entering a password. Those 'lovingly tended' websites are often illustrated with photographs of family members going back several generations -something which provides to some degree a confirmation of accuracy.