Genealogists of the Past – Ben Nicholls

Hello there! Our blog writer, Tyler, is starting a new series of blog posts called “Genealogists of the Past.” This series will be a collection of interviews from people who were young (early teens to early 20s) genealogists from different decades! Our first interview comes from experienced genealogist and book writer, Ben Nicholls! So if you began genealogy as a teenager or a young adult in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, or beyond, please consider contacting our co-founder, Tyler, for an interview.

A Little Info about Ben…

This year, Ben Nicholls will be celebrating his 20th anniversary of starting genealogy and we feel this post would be a great way to celebrate. He began his genealogy journey in 2001 while studying at university, in London, at the age of 23. So far, he has written two books about genealogy, Bond of Blood and Trial by Fire. Not to mention, Ben runs a successful website, which provides their own genealogical services. Their mission statement is “We reconnect families past and present.” Ben has agreed to an interview with Hidden Branch team member, Tyler, about what genealogy was like back 20 years ago when he started.

Ben (circa. 2007) with his two books, Bond of Blood and Trial by Fire.
Bond of Blood
Trial by Fire

The Interview Questions…

  • Give us a brief introduction about yourself; how old were you when you began your genealogy journey?

“I was 23 when I started actively researching my family history. Before then I had taken an interest and asked older relatives to show me photos of ancestors and help me draw up family trees. However, it was when I was at university in London, that I actually started researching myself.”

  • How did you get into genealogy? Did you do it by yourself or did someone help you?

“I wanted to find out about my dad’s dad because he was the only grandparent I knew nothing about. Because I was studying in London, my dad told me to go to Somerset House where I could get a copy of his birth certificate. Somerset House happened to be on my bus journey home from uni so I stopped off one day and went to enquire. I was told that all the family records had been moved to the Family Records Centre in Islington. So I went up there and someone helped me get hold of a copy of my grandad’s birth certificate. Then they helped me find him on the 1881 census. From there, I got on with things myself and asked questions when I got stuck.”

1881 U.K. Census record for Ben’s grandfather, Robert James Nicholls.
  • What was it like being a young genealogist in the early 2000s? Did you meet anyone your age at the time who also was interested in family history research?

“The early 2000s was an exciting time to be a young genealogist and looking back now, I consider myself very lucky to have started my research at this time. In January 2002, the 1901 census for England and Wales was published online and you could search for your ancestors by name. Up to that point, the only English/Welsh census you could search by name was the 1881 census. Every other census was searchable only by address. And if you wanted to search birth, death and marriage records (post 1837), you had to look through huge books – four quarters to a year – one at a time! However, there was a project starting at this time to make those records searchable online – which is now complete. The other reason I consider myself lucky to have started at this time is because it took a lot more time to find the information you were looking for and so the sense of joy and satisfaction when you did find it was that much greater.

I didn’t meet anyone my age researching their family history. Nowhere near! Everyone in the Family Records Centre going through those books with me was about three times my age. But that didn’t bother me. I was on a mission and I was loving it.”

  • How do you think genealogy research has changed since you started back in 2001?

“Massively. There were just a handful of databases searchable online in 2001. Research back then was very manual. You had to trawl through books and microfiche and microfilm for hours on end. You had to travel to places to look at more localized records and visit churchyards on the off chance a gravestone might still be standing and legible. That was half the fun though. Nowadays there is so much online it’s unbelievable. The convenience of that is great but it has taken away a bit of the magic. For example, you can type into Ancestry the name of an ancestor born in England in 1830 and within moments you can read their name on all the census returns from 1841 to 1911 inclusive. Now that’s cool but I remember seeing my grandad’s name on the 1881 census after all the effort I’d gone to find him which gave me such a buzz that you don’t get in the same way after a quick online search!”

  • What were the challenges of searching for family back then? How did you do your research with limited technical or less access to information?

“Back then I had to trawl through a lot more paper records than I do today. In that respect, one of the challenges was time. However, I was a student so time was not such an issue for me! Another challenge was money. I had to order a lot more certificates in those days because that was the only way to find out information and then use that information to consult other sources. As a student, this was a challenge!

The third main challenge back then was travel. I had to travel to archives in places where my ancestors came from to access information that was not available at the centralized London repositories. I really enjoyed this aspect though. Whilst I was visiting these places, I got a feel for my ancestors who lived there.”

  • Tell us a bit more about your work as a genealogist and as an author:

“For most of my 20 years as a genealogist, I have helped friends and family with their research and about 5 years ago, I decided to formalize this and set up a business called Footsteps so I now get paid for doing my hobby. I provide a complete family history service so as well as research, I work with an adoption agency and a calligrapher who produces beautiful hand-written family trees. Recently I’ve been fascinated by the idea of bringing people’s family history to life so I’m working on an immersive Victorian experience where people can effectively travel back in time and live a day in the life of their British Victorian ancestors. For more information about all of this, you can visit my website: www.footstepsfamily.co.uk

I love exploring various family history themes through writing novels. About 15 years ago I wrote and published two novels about family history and time travel called Trial By Fire and Bond Of Blood. I am currently writing a novel about a character who was adopted and goes on a search for birth parents and a sense of identity and belonging.”

Conclusion

To sum it up, it is crazy to see just how much the field of genealogy has changed in just the span of 20 years. Back when Ben was beginning his genealogy journey while at university, he had to spend many hours looking through physical records, searching for family clues. He also had to travel to actual libraries, local cemeteries, and archives to do his research. Since the rise of the internet, researching your heritage has never been easier. You often never have to leave your home to do a solid majority of the work. Despite this, Ben still said that he found researching back in the 90’s fun and enjoyable, explaining that there was sort of “magic” to it. Back then it was more of an adventure and you had to go some digging out in the “real” world.

Again – if you started researching family history genealogy as a teenager or young adult (early 20s) in a previous decade. Please consider contacting Tyler for an interview just like this one!

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