Telling it like it was, Joan Rosier-Jones

Joan Rosier-Jones examines the craze for family history

In 1996 Bob Ross at Tandem Press asked me to write a book based on the courses I had been running for Continuing Education at the University of Auckland. Writing Your Family History (Tandem, 1997) was the result. It was not a runaway bestseller, but it sold steadily. The emphasis was on recording family history in a readable fashion. On the topic of background research I tentatively discussed the matter of the internet. I had a computer, but was not connected to the net at that time, and to help with the chapter on background research I went to a cyber café where, for a little under $10, I received a free cup of coffee and half an hour’s tuition on using the internet. Six years later it seemed time for the book to be updated, and what a change had taken place!

More and more people across generational and geographical divides are researching their family histories. But is it important? I think so. Maori have always known the value of their whakapapa. As the traditional nuclear family disintegrates, workers become more transient, and the world more alienating, people are searching for meaning in their lives. Nostalgia provides a useful counterpoint to the hurly-burly of the daily round. People yearn for a time when life was lived at a slower pace, and what better place to start the journey into the past than by mapping your own family history. In addition, advances in understanding genetic codes make it even more pressing to know who the immediate preceding generations were.

Researching your family history nowadays is perceived to be cheap and easy. It is easier today than it used to be, but still not as easy as some might think. With the increasing global reach of the internet, interest in researching the family history has risen exponentially. Without leaving their homes, family historians have access to an enormous range of research facilities. Many national archives and registers in the English-speaking world have databases. Then there are the search collections and family history societies, the Guild of One Name Studies, not to mention individual family history websites. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, are the giants in this area and have made their archives openly and freely available over the years. This is because their doctrine holds that an ancestor named is another soul saved, and they were amongst the first to see the potential of the worldwide web.

As simple as researching the family history on the net sounds, there is a need for caution. It is seductive and can be enormously time-consuming. Furthermore, not all the information is reliable. The most dependable sites are the official ones. The new researcher’s task is to sift through thousands of possibilities to find the most useful and trustworthy. In the first edition of Writing Your Family History, I referred to three websites. In the revised edition (Random, 2005) I have 60 websites as an appendix, and these were carefully selected from the plethora.

Researching the family history is not inexpensive, but some sites, such as are, as the name suggests, free. This is an ongoing project, the aim of which is to transcribe the Civil Registration index of births, deaths and marriages for England and Wales and to provide free internet access to the transcribed records. It is allied to FreeCEN and FreeREG, census data and parish registers respectively. However, many sites make a charge, often after a free taster. There are other non-electronic repositories, such as newspapers, obituaries, coroners’ records, military and church records, shipping and cemetery records. Large businesses and state enterprises often save archival material, and libraries hold some of the family historian’s best resources.

It is not possible to complete the research over the internet. Only copies of the original documentation will suffice as authentication. Money changes hands in varying amounts, but the sums do add up. Even then certificates cannot be deemed utterly reliable. I cite the case of my maternal grandfather’s death certificate in Writing Your Family History: it was not until my sister made a personal visit to his homeland, the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, that we learned his name had never been Jonsson (anglicised to Johnson). His father was unknown and consequently he was registered as his mother, Gustava’s son. This feminine version bore the stigma of his illegitimacy, so when he ran away to sea he changed his name to the more acceptable Jon’s son.

But my interest and the focus of Writing Your Family History lie more in recording than researching the family history. It is one thing to gather information about ancestors and the lives they may have led, but it is quite another thing to write these details up into a lasting record which others will want to read. There are family “histories” in some repositories which are beautifully bound in leather and tooled with gold lettering but which are nothing more than the family tree and a collection of births, deaths and marriage certificates. The book might look grand and the contents may well be an accurate record but it does not tell the story of the family.

In simple terms, people are born, they get married and they die. But they do not do so in a vacuum. They live in a real home, in a real community in a real world. Language provides us with narrative. All our lives are narrative, and it is the family historian’s job to relate the narrative of their ancestors in as interesting a way as possible. Many people who come to my classes have incredible stories to tell. Others have less dramatic tales, but the same skills are required. One student wrote about himself and his immediate family for his children. His was not an extraordinary life; many lives of his era were the same. He grew up in suburban Auckland, went to war, came home, married, became an engineer by studying at night, bought a house and had children. He managed to make all of this not just interesting, but compelling.

Another student, Cherry Simmonds, made it to the bestseller list in Britain with Nobody in Particular (Transworld, 2003), the story of her deprived childhood in Liverpool during the 1960s. It is a book that makes you laugh and cry at the same time, with not a trace of mawkishness.

The characteristic of these books is a strong narrative drive. Handled well, the family history or personal memoir will exploit dramatic moments; rouse the reader’s curiosity by raising questions which they want answered; make the reader care about the people in the story and help the reader to become emotionally involved in their lives. Cherry Simmonds is a natural storyteller, if not a natural writer – it took her years to perfect Nobody in Particular – and she maintains the dramatic moment with understatement which helps the process enormously. When her older brother Joey takes ill, she writes:

I woke next morning having slept in. I hadn’t taken me Mam her usual morning cup of tea. There would be hell to pay. I rushed to get dressed. As I came down the stairs I could hear all the activity. The family was gathered in the kitchen.
“How’s our Joey?” I asked, pressing my cheek to Mum’s face.
“He’s dead.”
No frills, no dressing up words, just “He’s dead.” No tone to the voice, no expression on her face, Mam said it again, “He’s dead. Gone.”
Lost for words I looked at Teddy. “What does she mean?”
I watched his colour deepen. “Bugger off and leave me alone.”


If this task is too daunting, another way for the family historian to create interest for the reader in a straightforward account is to make it visually interesting. Journalist and author Graeme Hunt features in Writing Your Family History with a beautifully designed family history. The narrative is told in snippets, thematically, and each is accompanied by appropriate photos. Boxes, headings and sub-headings all add to the visual appeal. It is a history the family would be proud of. Also featured is 80-year-old Nan Booth whose charming memoir is handwritten and photocopied in A4 format. She includes old shopping lists and delightful line drawings as well as photographs: it is simple but effective.

Many questions beset the family historian who has completed the research and begun the writing – where to start; whether to fictionalise the story or not; whether to tell the whole truth, warts and all; where to stop and who the target “market” is. Once the story is written there comes the question of how it is going to be recorded. Technology allows for electronic copying and dissemination broadly and inexpensively. However, this should only be in addition to a printed record. A while ago I had some old 8mm family movies put on to video and since then I have had them put onto a DVD. Technology is changing so rapidly these days that the family history encapsulated on a compact disc or some other electronic form could be locked away in obsolete technology for those who might be interested a hundred years down the track. There is still nothing like a book!


Tagged with: ,
Posted in Comment
Search the archive
Search by category