You know how it is. You’re going through the attic, hoping to find the instructions for the video recorder, or your wedding suit, or the cat. And you come across that box of old papers that Auntie Nora gave you.
You start to go through them. Old photos in black and white, a programme for the London Palladium in the thirties, a ration book with a bus ticket peeping out of it – pieces in a jigsaw you might never solve. Or might you…?
If you feel the urge to find out more about your ancestors, you don’t need a BBC film crew to help you, you need Westminster Libraries and Archives. A job lot of amazing resources and all free to library members.
Let’s start at the Archives Centre. Just behind Vince Cable’s Victoria Street empire in SW1, this is a purpose-built archives and local history centre, with purpose-built experts to guide you in your quest. Naturally most of the archives they’ve got refer to Westminster. But their expertise spreads far beyond the city limits, across the land and into the ether. Which brings me to the databases.
I’ve mentioned Ancestry and FindMyPast before in these posts for people with a keen eye for the cost-free solution. They aren’t free to everyone – Westminster Libraries and Archives pay a sub for them, so your library card is the key to the door of these twin treasure houses. Births, marriages, deaths, census returns, shipping lists, army lists, laundry lists – sorry, I made the last one up, but the others are all there, along with many other ways to pin down your family members. Why both? Because each has stuff the other doesn’t, and competition encourages them to add new features as often as possible.
Unfortunately you can’t use either Ancestry or FIndMyPast at home. You have to use them on a library computer. But you can visit any Westminster library, or the Archives Centre, and ask to be logged on. They are worth the trip.
What you can get at home (or work… or anywhere…) is online help. Mind you, Googling it won’t really serve – the range of offers to help is bewildering, and many of them are really trying to sell you things, which is not what you are after. Turn instead to the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites, and select ‘Family history‘. The links you will find here have been tested by hard-bitten experts and found to be reliable, up-to-date and free (or have enough free content to be worth the attention of us spending-averse folk).
And while you’re glancing through the Westminster website, have a quick look in the News & Events page. Every so often, you will find a course on ancestor-hunting. Book early – they’re rather popular. And free, of course.