The Concise Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of 'Genealogy' as 'a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor'. Some cultures, such as the Chinese, have a strong oral tradition and have always remembered and been able to recite lengthy family descents, while other cultures have very little or no sense of the past.
In British culture, the development of recorded genealogy began when the College of Arms was established in the early medieval period for the proclamation and organisation of tournaments. The Heralds soon acquired an expert knowledge of the arms that knights bore on their shields and the crests that they wore on their helmets during these tournaments. This led to them ultimately becoming responsible for the recording of arms, and later for the controlling of their use as jousting declined and the civilian, social and antiquarian uses of heraldry grew. By the 15th century, the 'nouveau riche' were using coats of arms to which they were not entitled to create their own impressive pedigrees.
Thus, from 1530 onwards at intervals of about 30 years the Heralds toured the country to examine gentlemen's claims to 'bear arms', taking into account records of previous visitations, family muniments and traditions before authenticating, or not, as the case might be. Pedigrees of varying detail were prepared as part of this process; all of those not authenticated were recorded as lists of 'disclaimers'. These visitations continued until 1686. The Harleian Society has published printed copies of many of these visitation pedigrees.
With the coming of the industrial revolution and expansion of the middle classes, and the marriage of this 'new money' into the established aristocracy, there was a steady trade in tracing aristocratic ancestries. The division of the social classes was still very strong and many of the 'nouveau riche' wanted to show that they had noble forebears, befitting their new position in society: there were always those willing to supply concocted pedigrees to prove their client's claims.
Parish Register Societies (often organised on a county basis) were established during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century to transcribe and index mainly parish registers. These volumes were available to subscribers, a practice that continues to the present day. At this time very little genealogy research was actually done by ordinary people.
A more general interest in genealogy did not really begin until after the Second World War, with increased prosperity, mobility and communication and the availability of more leisure time. Things really started to take off, however, in the 1960s with the increasing enthusiasm for history of all kinds.
Rapidly changing, easily available technology from the early 1980s allowed the completion of projects such as the indexing and transcription of the 1881 Census for England, Scotland and Wales on microfiche and later CD by the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints (1), in collaboration with family history societies, making accessibility to the data much easier.
In the 21st century we are more interested in pursuing the truth, even if that results in unspectacular family trees. The indexing and computerisation of the 1901 Census for the first time allowed everyone easy access to their own ancestors – wherever they may be within England, Scotland and Wales – via the internet. This in turn has led to the growth in many commercial companies offering access to data online.
An old English proverb says that 'He that has no fools, knaves or beggars in his family was begot by a flash of lightning', so perhaps there is hope for all of us.
People's desire to discover more about their personal heritage has led, over the last 50 years, to the establishment of a large number of family history and genealogical societies around the British Isles. Each county in addition has its own society or societies; there may also be societies covering a town or city and its surrounding area.
There are also a number of specialist societies covering areas such as Anglo-Germans, Anglo-Italians, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, families in British India, railway ancestors and Romanys and Travellers. Another specialist type of 'society' is a 'one name study' – a 'project' researching all occurrences of a specific surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors or descendants of one person). The Guild of One-Name Studies is their umbrella organisation and brings together those with an interest in one-name studies and other forms of surname study (such as DNA projects).
Most societies produce a quarterly journal containing articles about local life, local records and indexes and what's new or going on in the area. These journals also list members' research interests, allowing individuals to contact others researching the same family lines.
Societies hold regular meetings which usually consist of a lecture given by an expert speaker. Perhaps more importantly, however, these meetings give attendees the opportunity to obtain expert help with their research and to meet others with similar interests. A bookstall may also be available, allowing visitors to peruse the latest local and family history book titles.
Some societies also organise conferences and courses. These are always interesting and extremely entertaining, and can help attendees extend their level of expertise. Many societies organise trips to The National Archives and other record repositories. Some have research rooms containing various general family history sources: transcribed records, indexes and sometimes historical material relating to their area of interest.
For a number of years societies have been transcribing and indexing their local records. Much of this work has been published in various formats, including book, microfiche and CD and is available to purchase. Some of this material is even available on the internet.
The umbrella organisation for family history societies is the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) which encompasses 219 societies representing 300,000 members. Its website includes links to all its member societies as well as tips, including a list of useful websites, to help with research. The FFHS also produces a free bi-monthly electronic newsletter, FFHS Ezine, giving up-to-date information on what's happening in the genealogy world. More details are available on the FFHS website.
Maggie Loughran is the Joint Administrator, Federation of Family History Societies.