Handwritten family trees containing names of a million and a quarter people from the medieval period onwards will be shared online by Britain’s leading genealogy society.
Digital images of the 10,000 manuscript pedigrees in the Society of Genealogists’ collection, dating from the 16th to 20th centuries, will be made available alongside transcripts as part of a broader accessibility drive.
Much of the information in the pedigrees, collected over the past 100 years, has only been available to visitors to the society’s library, where they take up 100sqm of shelf space in storage. This means the project is likely to knock down “brick walls” in the trees of people who could not previously get to the records.
Some of the pedigrees are elaborate works of art, with fine calligraphy and coats of arms, such as the 14ft Eyre roll dating from 1813 and tracing the “very ancient” Derbyshire Eyres. Others contain barbed comments, with one pair of brothers, John and James Abbot, described as an “Extravagant Dandy” who died bankrupt, and a “Ne’er do well”, respectively.
One pedigree traces the descent of the Enlightenment physician Erasmus Darwin and his son Charles Darwin, the naturalist, from Isaac II Angelus, one of the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire’s least successful rulers.
While a number of other pedigrees trace the descents of gentry families from medieval royalty, many were written by amateur genealogists tracing their own families of ordinary farming folk or tradespeople.
A sample of the digitised pedigrees, including the Darwins’ Byzantine descent, can be viewed at sog.org.uk and the remainder will be made available to members over the next 6-12 months.
The digitisation, drawing on funding from Arts Council England and the work of volunteers, is part of a wider transformation seeking to bring the society’s collections to new audiences.
The society was founded in 1911 and has over 7,000 members and the largest specialist genealogy library outside North America. However, given the public appetite for genealogy, boosted by TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, growing availability of records online, and £60 DNA tests, its board felt that some of its resources were underused.
Last year, Dr Wanda Wyporska, a historian and former head of The Equality Trust, was appointed CEO with a brief to bring the society up to date.
While the society will put more of its records, talks and courses online, it is also searching for a new London HQ to become a centre not only for family historians but for all historians and the wider community, including schools. In October it moved from cramped premises in Clerkenwell to a temporary base in Holloway, North London, while it searches for this new home.
“The new building is really going to be a destination for people,” said Wyporska, adding that new facilities might include a café and exhibition space and there would be a busy programme of on-site courses and events. “It’s putting the society back into society. I’m really looking forward to making this a really lively venue, as well as somewhere where you might be just sitting, having a cup of tea in between your research and overhear a conversation and your mind starts to work. And then you have a three-hour long chat.”
She added: “We are talking about making this a hub for family historians, but also the wider history community. At HistFest [the annual history festival], I was interviewing Joanne Paul, about her new book The House of Dudley and of course, that is all about the family relationships, the power relationships and how those intertwine, particularly in the Tudor period. But in any period it’s about knowing those relationships, knowing that family history, whether it’s a big famous family or not. It’s a key part of what history is, and it’s social history at its finest, really.”
Among other efforts, the society is seeking to do more to serve minority communities, which have been underrepresented in the genealogical community. Wyporska said that DNA testing and digitisation projects had opened up new avenues for descendants of Afro-Caribbean slaves. “We’ve been told for so long that there aren’t the records. And now there has been a bit of a pushback against that, with people tracing their stories and saying look, actually, we can, we can get back to that generational slavery, even if we can’t necessarily go back as far as we want.”
It is also working more closely with young genealogists and, in April, hosted a Future of Genealogy: Young Genealogists at the Helm conference for under-35s. Wyporska said: “Any member organisation shouldn’t be exclusively bogged down in its current demographic. You need to bring people on, because particularly for an organisation that’s been around for over 100 years, you’ve always got to be looking for the next generation. There are really bright, articulate, creative and successful young people I’d be pleased to have an on a board or involved in organising things.”
Else Churchill, genealogist at the society, said she remembers being the youngest person in the room at family history society meetings and events. “It was unusual and people mentored and supported me — and you’ve got to pass that on.”
A recent survey from the society, along with the Family History Federation and Free UK Genealogy, polling more than 6,400 family historians, found that almost three-quarters of respondents were retired people and 88 per cent were aged over 55.
Almost a third spent over ten hours a week on the hobby, and 60 per cent spent between £100 and £500 a year on it. More than half of respondents belonged to local or county family history societies and 84 per cent subscribed to the genealogy website Ancestry while 67 per cent subscribed to Findmpast. Having more records available online was No. 1 on the respondents’ wish list, with over 70 per cent saying this would most improve their experience.