Ancestral Trails


The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History

by M.D. Herber

Published by: Sutton Publishing, in association with the Society of Genealogists (1997) xiv, 674p. ISBN 0-7509-148-1.

CONTENTS: An Introduction to Genealogical Research; Personal Collections and Memorabilia; Organisation of Your Research Material; General Problems Encountered by Researchers; Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths; Census Returns; Parish Registers; Churchyards and Cemeteries; Directories; Combining Sources of Information; Archives, Libraries and Family History Societies; Wills and Administrations; Catholic, Non-Conformist and Jewish Records; Marriage and Divorce; Maps, Land Registration and Property Records; Local and Social History; Newspapers and Elections; Parish and Town Records; Records of the Army, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force; Records of Shipping and Seamen; Records of Trades, Professions and Business; Oaths, Taxation and Insurance Records; Records of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Courts; Education; Peerages, the Gentry, Famous People and Heraldry; Further Property Records; Tracing Migrants and Living Relatives; Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; Immigration, Emigration and Investigation Abroad.
APPENDICES: Codes for Areas and Volumes in the GRO Indexes; Indexes to Other GRO Records; Chapman County Codes; Seize Quartiers of Bessie Maude Symes; Extracts from the Bulleid and Keates Family Trees; Public Record Office Information Leaflets; County Record Offices and Other Archives; Commencement Dates of the Reigns of English and British Monarchs; Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury: A Summary of Finding Aids; Records of the Courts of Chancery: A Summary of Finding Aids.

From the dust jacket:

"This unique book sets out to guide the genealogist and family historian through the substantial British records - perhaps the richest genealogical material in the world - with a detailed view of the archives and the published sources available. Each type of record, from personal recollections, photographs, and other memorabilia to civil, legal and religious records, newspapers and directories, is analysed and the researcher is guided to the many detailed finding aids and indexes. Ancestral Trails will be equally useful to the beginner and to those who have started the search for their roots. . . . For more experienced researchers, the book will be a mine of information on the records that are harder to find and use, such as legal and property records. Research in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands is also covered, as are the latest developments in information technology applications on CD and through the Internet. No other publication gives such comprehensive and up-to-date guidance on tracing British ancestry and researching family history. Illustrated throughout with more than ninety examples of the major types of records, and with detailed lists of further reading."

The above description is in fact well-justified, including the implied comparisons with other recent books - the book really is amazingly comprehensive, though a hesitant beginner, not yet sure how committed he or she is to their new hobby, might prefer something smaller (and cheaper - the UK edition costs 30 pounds), and more prettified with picturesque old photographic portraits and historic views. (The book in fact contains a large number of well-chosen illustrations, but almost all of them are of documents and the like.)

One of the major strengths of the book is the very detailed yet clear and readable way in which the author illustrates the multifarious types of information that exist, and how they can be found and interpreted, and related to other information. He does this, in the main, using records relating to his own ancestors. As a result there are a large number of examples relating to London, Devon and Bedfordshire - a nice bonus for readers who have interests in these areas - though other areas of England and Wales are by no means neglected. (There is also one very good chapter on other parts of the British Isles.)

It is evident that the author is very accustomed to doing his research at the Library of the Society of Genealogists and the Public Record Office, and also in various County Record Offices in England. However he does make a good number of references to major resources that are available worldwide through the resources of the LDS (Mormon) network of Family History Centres, and to ones that are available via the Internet - though one has the impression that he is not personally very familiar with these sources of information. Similarly, he does not attempt to disguise that he himself makes only limited use of a computer - but even on these topics, leave alone the many on which he is evidently extremely expert, he provides highly sensible advice backed up by a very large number of well- chosen references to other books and journal articles. (The very impressive bibliography comprises nearly a thousand items.)

In summary, anyone who has progressed beyond what might be termed mere "name-spotting", in other words with a serious interest in British genealogy, is strongly advised to obtain and study this book carefully. This is particularly the case if their interest encompasses not just genealogy but also family history, i.e. if they are (to quote from the Foreword by John Titford) "keen to move beyond the constraints of mere pedigree-making and to arrive at an understanding of their ancestors within the broader contexts of time and place". Brian.Randell[at]newcastle.ac[dot]uk