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. Reading up on the ancestors

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    Over the last week I have been teaching students about the various routes to Continuing Professional Development in professional genealogy and it made me think about the increasing pile of books I’ve been accumulating, but still haven’t found time to read. Is it just me? I’m a self confessed book buying addict, if I don’t have a copy I need one. Perhaps it’s a genealogist thing.


    A selection of my reading material


    I decided to take some time out and have some dedicated reading time. As this was a luxury in itself I went a step further and picked a couple of titles relevant to my own research! I was born in Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, so many of my recent ancestors came from the Birmingham area. Ah, I have a book about that.



    My maternal grandfather, George Hollings Jenkins, was born in Hunslet, Leeds in 1908. George is shown pictured centre in the photograph below, with his younger brothers Alfred (left) and Tom (right). Tom Jenkins was a violinist, famed for his position as leader of the BBC Palm Court Orchestra in the radio programme “Grand Hotel”. By the mid 1930s George had moved down to Birmingham.


    Albert, George and Tom Jenkins c.1917


    It therefore made sense to focus on Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors and Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors together and I thought I would share my views of these two titles with you*.

    The Tracing Your… series is a popular series from publishers Pen and Sword. The difficulty with reading two books from the same publisher about tracing ancestors in cities is that you do notice more the similarities, a formula starts to shine through. However, there were some definite differences in style and content.


    Tracing Your Birmingham Ancestors (Michael Sharpe)



    This is a very well written and thoroughly enjoyable account of the unique nature of Birmingham and the surrounding areas, including Solihull and Sutton Coldfield (where I was born). Mike Sharpe describes the growth of Birmingham from its days as a rather insignificant parish compared to its neighbouring, more wealthy, Aston to the modern conurbation we see today. The complexity of changes in boundaries and jurisdictions is explained: “Where is Birmingham?”, “It depends” and put into context with the search for genealogical records. The history of Birmingham is followed by a description of the major genealogical sources and where to find them. Rather than attempt to teach the basics of family history, not appropriate in a volume of this type, the descriptions are focused on the records available for Birmingham. Areas of focus include religion, trades, education, health, transport, crime and housing. I found the section on industry particularly interesting as a number of my ancestors were in the trades: brass workers, wire drawers, gunmakers and even a brass bedstead maker.

    The major repositories in the Midlands area are described, references provided for the major classes of records and details given of many indexes and paper catalogues not available through the online catalogues. However, Mike doesn’t just focus on archives in Birmingham but also tells you where else to get access to Birmingham records. There are many references to specialist websites and museums and the BMSGH (Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry) and the Midlands Historical Data website feature repeatedly.

    Thoroughly recommended for anyone with ancestors from Birmingham and the Midlands.


    Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors (Rachel Bellerby)



    A very specific title but useful to those, like myself, with ancestors from Leeds. Whilst the scope of the book is quite small an attempt is made to cover a vast array of material. There are excellent chapters on the history and development of the city and the rest of the book is broken down into themes, e.g. trades, education, poverty. Records and repositories relevant to Leeds are described in detail and information included about where to find different record types (not as straightforward as you might believe).

    However, I wonder whether an attempt has not been made to cover too much in one volume. Whilst the majority of the book is written with Leeds specific research in mind there are some areas, e.g. Basic Resources, when an attempt is made to generalise and this is not always successful. The description of general family history resources is too brief and a referral to a general family history text would have been better placed. House history, a significant subject in it own right, gets only a page and a half of coverage.

    Overall though, well worth a read if you have ancestors from Leeds.

    * Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of Tracing Your Leeds Ancestors in exchange for a review, though this was such a long time ago they may not even remember!

  3. Family Anecdotes of an Explosive Nature

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    The fundamental starting point when beginning to research your family history is to start with what you know. You hear it time and time again – dig out old documents and talk to family members. The trouble with talking to family members is, of course, where do you start? If you sit down Great Aunt Edith and say “tell me about the family” it’s going to be a short conversation. You need to be careful with how you word your questions to ensure you get the most information. Any family anecdotes add colour to your story and may include snippets of information that will later help progress your research. A student of mine told me other day that she’d been tracing one line for a while and stumbled upon the record of a potential family grave which had a huge impact on the direction research should take. When she questioned the family she was told they knew all about it but “didn’t think it was important”.

    I’ve been questioning my poor Dad relentlessly since I became interested in family history and I thought I’d extracted all the humorous tales over the years. Until the other weekend when the sentence started “the day the policeman brought me home”! I’m sorry, what?

    Pictured below is my Dad aged two. A sweet looking child I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Youngs of Birmingham


    So my, until now crime-free, Dad was messing about with some friends near an old hollow tree when the local Bobby walked by. Suspicion aroused by their cagey behaviour he approached them to ask them what they were up to and stuck his head into the tree for a closer look just as the bangers they’d thrown in exploded! Dad was understandably walked home so the policeman could have a word with his parents. This was the 1950s and the front door wasn’t often used. Dad automatically took the policeman around the back of the house where he was given a friendly greeting by the family Alsatian. The policeman, or in the dog’s eyes, the intruder didn’t fare so well and my Dad left him pinned against the garden wall whilst he went to fetch my Grandma.

    Unfortunately it appears that playing with explosives runs in the family. During the Second World War Birmingham was hit a number of times by incendiary bombs. On one of these raids my great grandfather secured an unexploded incendiary bomb as a “souvenir”. I know what you’re thinking: he wasn’t daft. A mechanic by trade, he carefully unwound the end of the bomb containing the explosive and removed the explosive, thus making it safe. He then proceeded to engrave the date on the side of the bomb casing for posterity and it was hung above the fireplace. Years later after my great grandparents had died and my grandparents had inherited the souvenir, some remodelling was ongoing and my Grandma wanted rid of it. She is quoted as saying to my Grandad “you can’t put a bomb in the bin!” So he decided the best thing to do was build a nice big bonfire, get it nice and hot and melt it. At the time my Dad and his friends (let’s just call them the “hooligans” now shall we?) were playing out on an area behind the bottom of the garden. They heard the massive explosion and ran to see what had happened just in time to see my Grandad crawling back out of the hedge on the other side of the garden that the blast had thrown him into. So apparently there was also an small explosive charge in an incendiary bomb, the device that had hung over the family fireplace for years. I believe the local Constable made a visit that day too.

    Remember to keep questioning your relatives, you never know what you’ll uncover!

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