Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Starting up as a professional genealogist


    Today is a day of celebration for me: eight years ago today I started up in business as a professional genealogist. This has been an incredible eight years, filled with the most amazing opportunities. I am now in the fortunate position of regularly being fully booked with genealogy research work, have spent time on the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) Council and Board of Assessors, am a Tutor for both the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) and Pharos and run courses at the Society of Genealogists. I have also met some of the most amazing people and gained some fabulous friends. Do you know what else? I love this job! I’m often asked whether it as as much fun researching other people’s families as it is my own, YES! The “thrill of the chase” never goes away.

    Are you thinking about starting up as a professional genealogist yourself? As it’s been 8 years for me here are my 8 top tips on how to be a (good) professional genealogist:



    Be honest

    Be honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t. I guarantee you don’t know everything yet. Do you have enough knowledge and experience to begin working for others yet or do you need to learn more about genealogy sources first (see Learn More below)?


    Be ethical

    Don’t take on jobs that you don’t have the knowledge or experience for, stick with work that is focused on the simple sources to start with until you learn more. If you need to look at something new take time out in your own time to build your knowledge.

    When you make suggestions for further work possibilities be honest, if there is only a slim chance you will find anything over a ten hour search, say so.


    Be patient

    You’ve printed off your business cards and your website has gone live. Surely now the queue of paying customers will begin to form? The harsh reality is no, it does take time and it takes longer than you think it might. Be patient and don’t give up!


    Talk to others

    Genealogists are a nice bunch of people! Get in touch and say “hi” to those in your area. Ask for advice. They may even offer you some work.


    Learn more

    We all have something to learn, a new case will still often bring something new for me, but do you need qualifications to be a professional genealogist? The long serving stalwart of genealogy will tell you “I’ve been doing this 25 years and I’ve never needed to go and get a qualification”, the qualified genealogist may tell you “how can you work as a professional without qualifications?”

    In my opinion both are true: after all, there are many very good professional genealogists with no genealogy qualifications but lots and lots of experience on the job. There are also some genealogists with qualifications who may know a lot about genealogical sources but don’t have the skills to cut it doing professional work.

    Let me ask you a question though: you decide to start up in business but you are not alone. There are more and more aspiring professional genealogists, after the surge of programmes like WDYTYA and Heir Hunters. How do you stand apart from the rest? The best way is to be the best you can from the outset. Yes you can wait 25 years to gain all that experience but focussed learning will give you the much needed in depth knowledge more quickly as you work on real life cases and gain experience at the same time.

    There’s some useful information on the formal courses here (click on the image):

    If financial commitment is a worry, start small. There are shorter courses available from IHGS, Pharos, the SoG and Strathclyde University or you could begin with talks from your local Family History Society.


    Aim for accreditation

    This is a huge area of passion for me. Why? Working at the highest standards is all about providing the best possible service to your clients. How do clients know that the nicely polished family tree a “professional” has produced is not in fact riddled with errors? Organisations such as AGRA (ASGRA in Scotland, AGI in Ireland) only grant full membership after assessment of examples of your professional work.

    Much has been written on this recently by Paul Gorry, a professional genealogist and member of AGI. In fact this book has been causing something of a stir on social media, on both sides of the Atlantic. Should professional genealogists be accredited and what constitutes accreditation? It is the latter point that Paul has perhaps caused the most controversy with, blending factual information from many professional organisations and societies with forthright opinion. Not for the easily offended, I have to say I do agree with a lot of what’s in this book and its underlying messages: in order to protect our clients from the unscrupulous and the “just not ready” for professional work we must make efforts to rubber stamp our work.




    It is easy to get distracted when working on your own research but you cannot do that when you are getting paid. Self-discipline and clear research plans are essential.


    Giving it away for free

    We do this job because we love it and it is so easy to go over the time we have been paid for to do a good job. I’ve been guilty of that myself. However, this is business and don’t forget: if you do twenty hours instead of the paid ten this time, your client will expect the same amount of work for the same money next time!


    Taking it further

    If you are interesting in becoming a professional genealogist and want to know more, the latest dates for my Pharos Professional Genealogist – Become One Become a Better One are now available HERE. This is a four week distance learning course and covers everything from starting up in business, setting rates and marketing to dealing with client commissions and report writing.

  2. The Cowlings of Cambridgeshire

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    It has been a while since I have written about my own family history. I am lucky enough to conduct professional research in the archives where some of my own ancestors are recorded (if only there was more “spare” time!) and thought I would share some of the treasures I have found.

    The photo below is my favourite family photo: the Cowling family. My Grandma, Joyce Cowling, is in the front row, second from the right. My great grandparents, Hubert John Cowling and Edith Dent are at the far left of the photo. The chap at the back with the magnificent moustache is my great grandfather, John Cowling.


    The Cowlings of Cambridgeshire


    Grandma and her two sisters were born in Birmingham but their father, Hubert, was from a long line of Cambridgeshire Cowlings. Hubert was born 30th April 1888 in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, the third of four children: Wilfred, Winifred, Hubert and Cyril. As well as tracing the family through online records such as certificates and census records, I have found a host of records at Cambridgeshire Archives and elsewhere.

    For example, all four children are recorded in the Sawston school log books. Hubert arrived at the infant school on 16th February 1892 “Have admitted two new pupils this week, Hubert Cowling & Bertie Woolley, both 4 yrs of age…”. Wilfred and Cyril both gained scholarships to attend schools in  Cambridge, Wilfred’s being to the prestigious Perse School. Winifred (pictured in the centre of the photo above) went on to become a teacher in Sawston. The infant school log book from 30th November 1900 reads “Miss Barker leaves to-day… I have every hope that Winnie Cowling will in time turn out to be a useful teacher & I should be glad if she could be appointed as monitress in this school.” Indeed, Winifred appears in the staff lists from 1900. The School Board Minutes from 5th November 1901 record “… The Indentures of Miss E Wilson and Miss W Cowling were read over in their presence with their fathers and duly sealed by all.”  On 2nd November 1906 Winifred was recorded in the log books as  “absent… for the day” and on 17th November 1906 she left the school. It seems likely that she was absent to attend a job interview. Certainly by 1911 she was working as a teacher in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire. Winifred later married and moved to The Midlands like her brother, Hubert.

    The future for Hubert’s two brothers was not so bright. Wilfred died from pneumonia at only 16 years old. Cyril died in the First World War and is remembered on the Sawston War Memorial. My search for Cyril in a number of military records has been the subject of other blog posts.

    Hubert’s father, John Cowling, was a compositor and the foreman in the printing office at Cramptons of Sawston and can be seen at work in his suit in the photograph below.



    John Cowling at Cramptons, taken from T F Teversham’s The Story of a Country Printing House


    John was a man of standing in Sawston: the Cambridge Independent Press of 21st March 1913 reports that John Cowling was a member of the Parish Council who was re-elected at the AGM. John’s wife, Agnes, was probably the “Mrs Cowling” who came second place for her fern in the plant section in the Sawston Annual Show, reported in The Cambridge Independent Press, 8th August 1913.

    However, John was not born in Sawston; he was born a few miles down the road in Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, the middle of five children of Daniel Cowling. John came from a number of generations of agricultural labourers and was the third generation of Cowlings to have been born in Ickleton.


    Ickleton parish church


    The older generations of the Cowling family: Daniel (b. 1832), another John Cowling (b c.1804), and Sell Cowling (b. c.1775) all appear at various times in the Ickleton charity accounts, in receipt of “Chrisell Charity money”. This volume of accounts gives us lots of information. The very first payment found was in 1825 to “Cell (sic) Cowling, 6 children“, confirming the number of surviving children by this time. John Cowling (b. c.1804)’s death can be traced through these accounts as his payment then went to his widow. Birth certificates for Daniel Cowling’s children indicate that he left Ickleton for Saffron Walden, Essex between November 1861 and August 1865. The charity accounts narrow this window to between September 1864 and August 1865.

    The Cowling family can be traced back to Sell Cowling who was born in around 1775, but there the trail goes cold for now. Sell died in 1850, frustratingly the year before the 1851 census, and the 1841 census tells us only that he was born in Cambridgeshire. There is no baptism for him in the Cambridgeshire records. He may not have been baptised but I have a couple of hunches where there are gaps in the records. More research required! However, as the only evidence of Sell’s place of birth is essentially a single squiggle on the 1841 census, which could have been copied wrongly, my research is also taking me further out into the surrounding counties.

    Do you have Cowlings in your family tree? If so I would love to hear from you.

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