A recent chat with a fellow family historian prompted me to think about how helpful it can be to draw on the resources of family history societies, heritage groups and local history organisations.
Usually these groups are run by volunteers and focus on a subject of common interest, like the area where ancestors lived or originated from. Other societies are based on religious affiliation e.g. the Quaker FHS or ethnic background e.g. the Romany and Traveller FHS. Some groups cover a broader subject area, such as the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS).
Paying to join a society is customary and although these charges vary, they’re usually fairly affordable. However, society meetings are often open to non-members for an entrance fee, and are one of the most accessible aspects of family history societies’ work. Attending a meeting can be a good way of gauging whether membership will benefit you. Check out your local family history society’s website for their calendar of upcoming events in your area, as well as membership rates and details of ongoing heritage projects.
Another feature of many societies is their local research premises, sometimes hosted in a library or archive. Here you can access indexes to census returns, gravestone inscriptions, parish registers, newspapers and other resources that society members have compiled or collected. Some may have microfilm copies of original records to browse through.
One of the aims of family history societies is to connect members who have common ancestry. They do this by compiling a register of members’ interests and publishing society magazines or newsletters. Access to these is included in membership fees.
So how do you identify a society that covers your area of interest – for instance, the county where your forebears hailed from? A good starting point is the website of a national umbrella group. In the UK, these include the Federation of Family History Societies and the Scottish Association of Family History Societies. Links to other historical societies and genealogical groups from around the world are found at genealogy directory Cyndi's List.
You can also try searching on social media for an organisation related to your ancestors; many FH societies have Facebook or Twitter accounts, offering another way to get in touch with them.
One very active group is the Families in British India Society. Their website hosts resources and ideas for tracing those in your tree who, for example, served in the British Army or the East India Company in the subcontinent.
The Ulster Historical Foundation boasts a rather impressive website which includes a bookshop for those hard-to-find genealogical publications, and some free finding tools such as a list of Ulster graveyards.
One example of a society which has a broad reach is the Northumberland and Durham FHS, which has branches not only in local towns but also in London – this is true of other organisations, like the Aberdeen and North-East Scotland FHS, which also has groups in Glasgow and Manchester.
When you’re researching an area for the first time, an excellent way to learn more is to contact the relevant family history society for advice. You’ll find the members are more than happy to give you pointers on where to look for the information you need, especially when the organisation has close links to local archives. Some FH societies offer remote research for a charge, if you aren’t able to visit the area in person.
My tip this week is to look at the branch, twig, or leaf of your family tree that’s causing you the most headaches, and then find a society in that county or town to check out online. Contact them with your question and ask them to suggest a solution. If they are helpful, consider making a donation if you aren’t going to become a member. Societies like these depend on voluntary donations from their members and others who have used their resources. And if you do join a family history society, get involved and give back, especially to those who follow in your footsteps.