Many of you will have heard stories of wealth and prestige in your family. These are great fun to follow up, and often take you in quite unexpected directions. Few of you, though, will have been quite as surprised - and disappointed – by what you found as Rupert Everett, who seemed positively heartbroken to discover he has as many roots in Balham as in Piccadilly!
I thought last night’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode was a terrific example of how you can combine a variety of records to trace your lineage back through the generations. Rupert followed good family history practice as he used censuses and birth, marriage and death certificates to create outlines of his ancestors’ lives, then filled in the detail through more specialised records. I was particularly pleased to see him ordering a will and the accompanying probate records from the Probate Service – these documents are vastly under-used, and can be incredibly enlightening about the way your ancestors lived their lives.
I must admit, though, I was a little disappointed by Rupert’s obsession with money and status. Family history is a great leveller, as all family trees grow across class barriers. Some of the most moving tales come from our less fortunate forebears, and it would have been nice to see the privileged thespian acknowledge his poorer relations a little more.
We have records from both ends of the spectrum. If you’d like to follow up stories of nobility and lost fortunes, a great place to start is Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, which traces the lineage of the British Empire’s titled famililes. We also have several records of heraldic visitations - which will reveal if an ancestor earned a coat of arms – and even royal pedigrees. Search them all here.
Alternatively, if you’re following a less privileged path, our London Poor Law records are a mammoth resource. They include workhouse admission lists, school registers, records of sick and mentally ill people, and many more emotive documents.
Whichever side of the track your ancestors walked, their stories provide the basis for who you are today. I think Rupert Everett would do well to remember that.