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Tip of the day...Ask the family

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ProfilePosted byOptionsPost Date


Jonesey Report 1 Nov 2009 08:29

Can there I wonder, be anyone who is looking into their family history who has not at sometime wished that they had asked someone a question relating to it when they had the chance. It is an unfortunate fact but people die and contact is lost with others so that when that question finally pops into your head the person best able to answer it may no longer be available to us.

My tip is therefore to talk now to anyone who you think might be able to provide some information that could be helpful. As well as parents these could also include aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces.

What you get back will obviously depend not just on what they know but on what questions you ask and how you ask them. I cannot remember who first said it but the words Who, Where, What, Why, When and How in a sentence are good servants. They are words that cannot be answered easily with a yes or a no but will solicit a lengthier answer.

What you learn can also be affected by where and when you ask your questions. People are usually more relaxed in their own home so where possible visit the other person at their home. Find out when it is going to be convenient to visit. Verbal communication is better than written as when an answer is given you can expand on it. If visiting you may also find that they have documents or photographs that can help your research.

When dealing with older persons whose memory may not now be as sharp as it once was it sometimes pays to throw in a fact that you know may be wrong. This seems to focus the other persons mind and the person will react recalling the correct fact and often other facts relating to it. An example being to say something like “Your father was christened Bill wasn‘t he?” The response might well be something like, “No! He was actually christened Francis William after his grandfather”. This secondary fact can often then be used to enquire about the grandfather.

Whatever questions you ask the important thing is to ask them now before it is too late.


Jilliflower Report 1 Nov 2009 08:37

Brilliant point, uncle Jonesey!
A great deal of family information is usually retained in the minds of women who as little girls listened to the chatter and gossip of the older women. Many more men today are delving into family matters though.
I gleaned amazing info from a very elderly gentleman in Canada who's memory was questioned by his family but he gave me details of schools etc in England from when he was a boy which confirmed his earlier memories.
HOWEVER it is crucial NOT to feed anything you are doubtful about as you could well be feeding a FALSE memory into their mind. I made this mistake early on with an elderly relation and she led me on such a wild goose chase by relating back to me as fact the info I had giver her!
Thanks so much for the advice and help,


Chrissie2394 Report 1 Nov 2009 11:00

A very good point Jonesey. I've only been doing this for 15 months and already lost count of the times I wish I'd asked questions about our family over the years. I also wish I'd started research along time ago too.

I am very fortunate that I still have my nan who iss 99 years old, she has helped me immensely. I have learnt though not to ask a direct question but to bring the names of ancestors into the conversation and it's amazing what she tells me about them and others. Also facts she can't remember during one visit, are very clear in her memory during the next. I have also been able to back up what she has told me through certificates and the internet.



DazedConfused Report 1 Nov 2009 12:35

One thing to remember when talking to your very old relatives is to remember that things like bigamy & illegitimacy were & often still are to some them taboo subjects, so tread very carefully. If you ask a question & they skirt around the subject my advice is to leave it. Yes, we all want to know everything, but not at the expense of distressing others.
My g/grandmother lived in one house with her 2 youngest daughters (she was a "housekeeper") while her husband lived a few doors away. Now all the family know about this but when I asked about the old gentleman that g/granny looked after I was politely told that she remembered very little about this time. Now she was a teenager when he died, the house was left to her mother, she & her sister were able to sell this house when they both married & buy a house each. I have since found out that the old man died & the man she was housekeeper to was the son who was the same age as my g/granmother, draw your own conclusions from this, the rest of the family did!!

Gwyn in Kent

Gwyn in Kent Report 1 Nov 2009 13:40

I have found that information can be gleaned by an indirect approach too, so that it seems as if you are just chatting, ...not questioning.
Mentioning a special tea-set or other family heirloom will often set elderly people off remembering who gave it and when...... "Only to be used for visitors though"......

" Did your family have visitors at all?"................brought a reply
" Oh yes. Aunty Jinny used to come from Hereford and bring her daughter Laura to see us. In the autumn they sent nuts from their hedges and we buried them in the garden to keep them fresh for Christmas"

All valuable snippets to add to the family story.

I still keep in touch with Mum's elderly sisters. Just this morning one of them phoned and we chatted. I asked about various members of her immediate family and heard of the birth of a new great grandson.
He shares my blood-line, but I'd never know of Australia.... unless I kept in touch with my aunts.


Jill 2011 (aka Warrior Princess of Cilla!)

Jill 2011 (aka Warrior Princess of Cilla!) Report 1 Nov 2009 16:15

And sometimes they need memory joggers.

My MIL is 88 now and I chat to her about info that I've found on her family.

In the very early days when I was struggling to put together a very basic tree for her and was trying to find the marriage of her grandfather I was chasing completely the wrong info.

I'd convinced myself (how dangerous to make assumptions!) that the middle name of Kent given to several boys over the last few generations was the maiden name of MIL's grandma. But the only marriage that fit with all the info I had at the time was a woman called Mary Byford.

When I mentioned this to MIL she said "Oh yes, that [Byford] was Aunty Jessie's middle name." That was the first I'd heard of that one! So sharing the puzzles and struggles with them can jog memories.

(She now has a full printout of all info so far - backed up by certs etc ...)



InspectorGreenPen Report 1 Nov 2009 17:54

We have had a lot of really good information from our families but have also had a lot of rubbish.

My wife's father, who died some ten years ago, kept a little black book of information he had gleaned from his family. This actually started us off in researching our families but we have found there is a lot of hearsay in there which with further research has been proven to be completely wrong.

My wife's mother, now almost 90 has been a brilliant source of information but then again some of what she has told us, in some cases on several occasions isn't correct, although she remains to be convinced.


InspectorGreenPen Report 1 Nov 2009 18:02

Jill Grumpy,

I suspect you are probably right. We also have a situation where all the children were given the mother's surname as their second name.

We know that the eldest's birth was registered without a father, but having seen the WW1 records of her mums later to be husband have no doubt he was the father. 9 months to the day after he was granted leave to visit his sweetheart!


FRANK06 Report 1 Nov 2009 19:04

Spot on Jonesey,

I wish I had paid attention to my Great Uncle who used to regale anyone who would listen with his stories always backed up by his wallet full of photographs.
We always ran a mile..............until of course you get right into family genealogy and that's where all the fun starts.
I grabbed everything I could find and really worried some people when Census and Birth certificates "suggested" that after the premature death my Great Grandfather's wife, he had got a bit too close to the domestic servant who went on to be my Great Grandmother!
World War Three and it got worse.................she ended up marrying three times.

Whoo- hoo!!


Jilliflower Report 1 Nov 2009 19:44

I was very lucky to have had to live with my grandmother while my mother was in hospital for a year. She told me many family stories which I was able to compare with the similar stories my elderly aunt told me in later years. Also I was able to compare stories with a cousin in Canada as our grandmothers were sisters and we found much of it was accurate.
Wish people didn't glaze over when the old folk start to reminisce but got out their tape recorders.
The most fruitful source is if you can ever get two elderly relations reminiscing together!
Lovely thread, uncle Jonesey


Christine Report 21 Apr 2010 11:32

My mother is 96 and is becoming rather forgetful. I had always thought that with age, the earlier memories became clearer, whilst later ones were forgotten. However, having used things that she had told me whilst researching, when having family discussions about what I have found, she will say "who told you that?". On telling her that she did, she now says she knows nothing about it!

One of these things was that my grandparent's marriage foundered because my grandmother found a letter in his pocket from a lady with whom he had a daughter in France in WW1. My mother told me about this some 30 years ago and I have always hoped I could find her half-sister one day. None of the rest of the family know anything about it - my mother's original "memory" seems to be the only evidence!


Cheryl Report 21 Apr 2010 18:58

As my mum is an only child I very often joke with her that I have to pick her brains while she is still here. She is a hyperactive 72 year old who still works at B&Q for 16 hours a week. We seem to think our parents will go on forever, however that , sadly is never the case.
My mum was born in avillage about 12 miles from where we live and her closest cousin was raised by the grandparents, in the same village. Last year I took them both over to the village for a trip down memory lane. We went to the churchyard and then to the local pub for lunch. We walked from one end of the village to the other and they chatted about who did what to who and who lived where.
It was brilliant, and when I got in I wrote it all down. The trip jogged their memories , as they corrected each other on events that they remembered, and like you said they each remebered them differenlty.
We had a lovely time. We were only gone about 3 hours but it felt like I had been transported back to the 1950's. We even stood at the same place at the pub bar where my great grandad stood and spoke to a man that new him.
It was a simple idea for a day out that proved very fruitfull.


Flick Report 21 Apr 2010 22:16

Sadly, not everyone has family to ask .


Jonesey Report 22 Apr 2010 09:17

I agree Flick, sadly not everyone now has family to ask. They probably once did have however.

The tip was prompted by my own missed opportunities. Had I have asked my father about his parents and his siblings when I had the chance then I am sure that those individuals would now be much more than just names on certificates. Because of the physical distance between us I can only recall meeting my paternal grandparents once and until I obtained a copy of my fathers birth certificate I didn't even know their names. From memory I recalled him once telling me that he had had a sister and brother, both of whom had died whilst still quite young. It was only the early release of the 1911 census that provided me with their names. I also remember my father once saying that he had some cousins in Massachusetts in the USA. What a pity that I did not ask him more about that side of his family.

The point is that if you have family to ask, ask them now for tomorrow may be too late.


Flick Report 22 Apr 2010 09:45


My comment was very much based on my own situation, like yours.

My mother died when I was 7, my father and his only brother when I was 15. I was a 'late' child, being born when both of my parents were over 40 and I have no siblings.

The 1901 census was the spark which kindled my interest, but that was 45 years after my father's death!


Eddieisagrandad Report 22 Apr 2010 10:25

I did ask the family and some of what I was told was utter bulls**t, some was blatant lies and nobody had the decency to tell me about the half-sister who was taken by relatives to live over the other side of the country. Fortunately I found her myself and my daughter now has a much loved Aunt.


JanieH Report 22 Apr 2010 13:42

I have only recently started looking at my dad's family tree and there is so much I don't know about his family. Sadly both he and my mum died a long time ago and I have no siblings. It just never occurred to me when I had the opportunity, to ask all the questions that I now have. I am trying to pluck up the courage to phone the one person left who may have some of the answers, but because of her, not always happy, situation within the family she may not want to help. On the plus side though I have discovered there is an American branch to my family which I didn’t know existed.

Shirley~I,m getting the hang of it

Shirley~I,m getting the hang of it Report 22 Apr 2010 13:56

Depending on how old you are but when i was younger and the grandmothers were still around you didnt ask questions cos they were old school and children were to be seen and not heard,
When i was pregnant with our daughter in 1958 my maternal gran came to live with my parents she seemed an old lady but goodness i am her age now !!lol, anyway, I used to sit with her in the afternoon and we had tea and cakes and she did get quite chatty and I was able to ask questions in the course of conversation BUT nothing too personal still. The problem is that I cant remember now the things she did say about family .


Patricia Report 26 May 2010 17:06

Yes it was only by my parents telling me that my father married my mother under his brother's name that I would ever have been able to find the record of their marriage.

They married while my dad was AWOL from the army and he used his brother's papers. Luckily his brother never married!

I don't suppose he was the only one during both wars.


grannyfranny Report 3 Jul 2010 22:05

And try to note indirect info too. 'his father died when he was young', 'I think there were 3 or 4 children', all of these can give you clues when you start searching. Once you do have some accurate info, by feeding it back to your elderly rellies they often remember other useful stuff.