Who Do You Think You Are?

Walking into the Grand Hall at London Olympia for Who Do You Think You are LIVE? was rather like embarking on a family history search: where on earth to begin?

With 200 exhibitors covering everything from a DNA workshop, photo restoration, books on local history, The Hall of Names (where you could research the meaning of your surname and see its Coat of Arms), creating a family tree and census searches, to a Military Pavilion with experts from The Ghurkha Museum and RAF, the place was heaving, even at 10am. There were 14,000 visitors over three days, and obviously a great interest in tracing forebears.  And the internet has made the whole thing much more accessible, with census and parish records viewable at the click of a mouse.

I’d done some family sleuthing via Ancestry.co.uk, which sponsors the event, and found that my father’s forebears include an eminent Victorian genealogist and vicar, so I felt I was coming full circle in finding out about him.

One very useful thing I did learn was that if you want to go back further than the first census in 1841, you no longer have to traipse around the country visiting far-flung parishes to view their records. The London Family History Centre, opposite the Science Museum, has over 8500 microfilms of church records for English and Welsh parishes as well as Irish, Caribbean, Scottish and US records, plus FamilySearch.org – the world’s largest collection of family history and genealogy resources – has billions of records and publications from over 100 countries.

Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE does enthuse you to start searching, with long queues forming, to consults experts and computer data. I also loved Roots Map – charts of England from a defined period in the 19th century – which allows you to see where your surname was concentrated. My mother’s name was Keeling, very clearly a West Midlands name, although counties around it also had some concentration of the name as people moved around. The less common the name, the more likely there is to be a defined geographical source.

Some sites were holding small workshops. At the stand for The Genealogist.co.uk they explained that one census filler described his wife’s occupation as ‘tea drinker’: presumably the census enumerator had asked what she does all day!

Another unimaginative family had twins on a Bank Holiday weekend and called one Bank and the other Holiday. So do ask Aunt Ethel about her brothers and sisters; even if she can’t remember birthdates, names will help.

Workshops galore cater for all amateur genealogists, whether you’re just starting out on the ancestral search or are looking for overseas family members, or just want to know which websites are good to know. And, of course, there was a celebrity element, with Esther Rantzen, Kate Humble and Rory Bremner all giving talks on the skeletons found in their particular closets.

All in all, this was a great place to get the genealogy bug – if you hadn’t got it already the sheer volume of sites, books, family tree maps and websites on offer got you tracing your relatives back over the centuries in no time.

Next year’s Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE 2011 will be held at London Olympia from 25-27 February.

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