Getting to grips with finding my past

Bronwen from Central Library’s Art and Design and Music team offers an insight into her first steps in family history…

“One of the great offers from the Library’s eresources over the lockdown period has been the opportunity to search the genealogy site Findmypast from outside the Library’s computer network. The site has always grabbed my attention but I’ve always been too busy… well, now’s the time and the opportunity.

With help and encouragement from the Library’s Digital Team guidance posted on Stay at home family history help, I’ve been dipping into this fantastic resource on family history. I’ve been focusing my search on one of my relatives.

Clarice Mary Watkins was my maternal grandmother. She later became Clarice Mary McGregor after she married my grandfather Michael Joseph McGregor in 1924 in Monmouthshire, Wales. Clarice died when I was 17 and for my part I knew her to be kind, softly spoken, an abstainer of alcohol and very good at making apple charlotte. After my own parents died I was passed down some of my grandmother’s writings and diaries. Married to an army school teacher she’d lived in Egypt, India and Germany at significant stages in the history of these countries and she’d written down much of her impressions of these experiences. I was fascinated to know more about this lady.

Clarice Mary Watkins

To begin with I found it quite difficult to find much information on Clarice. I was jumping in at the deep end wanting to insert a name and find records pinging back at me in a matter of seconds. It’s not as easy as that and takes a bit of patience.

Findmypast has some really good advice on how to start your family tree journey, writing down what you think you know, and asking relatives for information. There’s lots of advice on how to start creating and building a family tree should you wish to record this. For myself, I needed to go back to the basics.

I started off with the obvious – putting in the name Clarice Mary Watkins. I was fortunate to know my grandmother’s full name but you can use wildcards if you don’t know someone’s full name or the spelling, for example I could have searched for Clar* Watkins but I’d need to wade through more results. I knew she was slightly older than my grandfather who was born in 1900, so when some results came back with records dating 1896, I thought I’d struck lucky. I found a record for what was my grandmother’s birth and also a record for her in the 1911 Census but the dates of birth were out by a year. I knew the Census was a correct record because the names of her parents’ occupations and her brothers and sisters were correct. I’d learned a valuable lesson; not all dates, names, places etc are transcribed correctly in records at the time or later.

I started searching under my grandfather’s name to look for more information that might lead me back to Clarice. I was more sure of my grandfather’s birth and death dates but the only information I could find initially was an entry in the 1901 Census, and to me more interestingly, the record of his marriage to Clarice.

Findmypast includes information taken from many sources of records. This includes census returns, birth, death and marriage certificates and parish records but also some more unusual records, for example, passenger lists of people leaving the UK. Searching again under Clarice’s married name of Clarice Mary McGregor I found her bound for Port Said, Egypt in 1933: one of the clever features of Findmypast is that it lists other people with the same surname on the ship and there was my grandfather’s name Michael Joseph and my mother and her elder sister, so I knew for certain this was the right Clarice. Her date of birth on the passenger list was different to the earlier Census return and birth certificate so I now had her date of birth listed variously as 1898, 1897, and 1896 – and they say ladies don’t always tell the truth about their age!

Rather frustratingly I could never find my grandmother’s death dates nor my grandfather. I knew the dates of their deaths and also that they both died in Cupar, Fife. However, what I’ve learnt is that although Findmypast is a brilliant resources, it doesn’t have all the answers. With guidance from my library colleagues I was referred back to ScotlandsPeople where I was able to track down confirmation of Clarice’s death in 1980 and my grandfather a little later on.

I’m just on the start of my family history journey here. What I’ve learnt is this journey takes persistence but also patience and that you need to look at various sources and records. Different websites offer access to different sets of information and records from Scotland can be different from the rest of the U.K. A good starting point is to quiz relatives and stretch your own memory, gather together what you know, and be prepared to search records in different ways. But it’s addictive and I’ve discovered a brother to Clarice, a Benjamin Llewellyn Watkins, born 1895, who I’d never heard of before … he was never mentioned by the family … now that’s another story and given the timeframe I’m guessing one that didn’t end well.”

Find out more about how to gain temporary access to Find my Past from home and go to the Library’s Family Tree guide providing information on Library resources to help you trace your family tree.

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