Hello there, welcome to the 2nd edition of Voices of Genealogy. This is the 9th interview of the Voices of Genealogy series. This season we are expanding past professional genealogists and showcasings some other careers within genealogy and also some #GenZGenealogists.
Today’s interview comes from Natalie Pithers, Founder of Genealogy Stories and host of Twice Removed.
A little info about Natalie…
Natalie Pithers is the owner and founder of Genealogy Stories, a family history business dedicated to helping people explore their own unique past! She offers many services including traditional research services and a membership group focused on the historical context of your family history story.
The Interview Questions
Give us a brief introduction about yourself; how old were you when you began your genealogy journey?
I’m Natalie Pithers and I own Genealogy Stories, a family history business dedicated to helping people explore their unique past! Along with traditional research services I also run the Curious Descendants Club – a membership group focused on delving into historical context and writing up your family history stories. I was about 18 when I started my genealogy journey, spurred on by my Mum. I’m nearly 40 now and have 3 children of my own.
How did you get into genealogy? Did you do it by yourself or did someone help you?
During my early childhood I grew up listening to these fantastic stories from my Great-Grandmother. My blog post about visiting her in Chepstow, Wales was the first family story I ever shared. She would just tell these odd little tales, often with random details (like an ancestor died falling off the running board of a car…whilst escorting a lady to water). These same stories sparked my Mum’s interest in family history and she made a start on a family tree. However, she soon got stuck and found the hobby difficult to continue with. Trips to Somerset House for BMD certificates were expensive and challenging with 2 small children! However, I grew up looking at this blue folder of information my Mum had collected. I was fascinated. When the 1901 census came online Mum and I resumed the hobby together. We brought a book and started learning ‘how to’ by following its instructions.
What was it like being a young genealogist in the 90’s? Did you meet anyone your age at the time who also was interested in family history research?
I was lucky because my Mum shared my interest and she’d purchase all the subscription sites, certificates etc. I think financially I would have struggled without her support. It also meant I had someone to chat to, pour over problems with etc. We attended Who Do You Think You Are live together and a few small local talks / events, but I never met anyone else my own age. In fact, I felt a bit like a square peg in a round hole. My Mum was younger than most of the attendees – let alone me. People also would presume my Mum had more knowledge than me when in reality (at the time) we were very much on a parr, learning together.
How do you think genealogy research has changed since you started?
The amount of records online has just exploded and it’s made the hobby much more accessible. So too has a variety of learning opportunities. From online workshops to live events. I think the number of people tracing their family tree has grown considerably or at least is more visible. When I started out I do remember using chat forums to discuss brick walls or meet cousins but these were nowhere near as fast paced or as wide reaching as communities like Twitter or Facebook Groups. I’ve met so many family historians (indeed, all types of historians) via Twitter and that’s a joy I couldn’t have imagined back in the early noughties.
What were the challenges of searching for family back then? How did you do your research with limited technical or less access to information?
There was less information available online. Much that was available was transcription only. Mum and I took a one week holiday visiting various archives to access parish records. Although we dipped into records like quarter sessions, most of our time was spent looking at baptism, marriage and burial registers. Most of which I can now view online easily. On the plus side, that holiday trip also meant we visited local museums, learned about local trades and influences. I think we gained more context although the actual genealogy progressed at a slower pace.
What’s an interesting fact you have learned during your research for your own family?
Just so many! I can’t think of one thing. I tend to think in terms of stories and those are numerous. They can be as complex as a manslaughter case or as simple as a small newspaper article informing me that my elderly ancestor fell off a ladder and broke his wrist. I think tracing my family history has given me a far better understanding of the history of the UK generally. –
Can you speak to the importance of knowing the historical context of our family history and how historical events intertwine with our family’s stories?
Historical context is absolutely vital. If you met someone living today that came from a totally different environment to you, perhaps with a different religion, different foods, different customs and practices – you couldn’t get to know them without asking them about their culture – without striving to understand it and their place within it. Well, the same is true for our ancestors. How can you understand why an ancestor committed bigamy if you don’t try to understand when and how people got married, what other options were or weren’t available to them and what the consquences for comitting bigamy were when they commited it?! We can’t even begin to comprehend who our ancestors were unless we try to imagine what their lives were like. Historical events intertwine with our family stories all the time. Sometimes that’s obvious – the story of an ancestor who went to war and never came home again. Other times it’s more subtle – a group of ancestors stopped working in one trade and moved on to another. Perhaps because of environmental or social economic causes – like the industrial revolution, or mechanisation replacing a hand-craft.
Can you talk about some of the experiences you’ve had doing your one-on-one research?
Every single time I take on a new one-to-one research client I learn something fascinating. I’ve discovered adventurers, war heroes, fishermen that became merchants, wealthy landowners that went bankrupt, women that ran businesses, people that suffered far too much and yet someone survived to a very old age. It’s incredible and I could fill volumes with all those different stories. Stories of love, betrayal, bad luck, entrepreneurship, friendship, resilience. The list really is endless. I love sharing those discoveries with clients and seeing their amazement, pride or empathy for people that died 100s of years ago.
What are some of your favorite topics that you have covered on your #TwiceRemoved Series?
That’s a really hard one as I’ve loved every interview! I think perhaps the one that really deepened my interest in social history was my chat with Mark Crail about Chartism. It made me want to go out and find the voices of my working class ancestors and really celebrate them. I think my chat with Caitlin Hollander (effortlessly cat) was probably the one that taught me the most about a culture different to my own – Caitlin explained her Jewish heritage and some fascinating naming traditions. I think my interview with Suzie Lennox on Body Snatching made me laugh the most and my interview with Packed With Potential about Anne LIster really taught me how important it is to be able to find people you can identify with, to find your own history.
What are 3 pieces of advice you have for young people who are starting their family history journey?
1. Meet and share stories with others, it’s a great way of learning so many different skills – genealogy, historical research, storytelling. Plus with a little luck you’ll meet lots of like minded people and develop some great friendships. Personally I love Twitter and my blog for connecting with others.
2. Start as you mean to go on – record your sources, make extensive notes (I really wish I’d been better at this earlier on, it’s amazing how quickly a tree can get really really big and you start to forget things), embrace technology and all that it can offer. I’ve always been grateful I was an early adopter of family history software, it’s helped me generate reports, analyse my tree, create timelines etc.
3. Enjoy it – I know this sounds daft but I think sometimes there is a lot of pressure to do family history a certain way. If it interests you most to explore one family member, do that. If you love tracking down descendants and seeing how wide a tree goes – do that. If you want to flit between different lines, do that. If you want to leave your own family history and do a local study or get fascinated by a particular project – go do that and enjoy it. Don’t lose the passion by restricting yourself based on what you think you “should” do. It’s your hobby, take it in whatever direction inspires you.
Why is family history important to you?
So many many reasons! I find the past fascinating, but finding your own ancestors within the past is just incredible. It’s like opening an old dusty book and finding a secret story, one within which you are a character. I think we connect with people through stories and family history is the ultimate storytelling hobby. Each of your ancestors’ stories is a little part of you because that story influenced who they were, which influenced how they brought up their children. Those children added to that story, or changed it and passed that along to their children and so on and so on until you came into being. And if any one of those people from the past hadn’t existed or was different, then you would be different – or perhaps not even exist. I just find that mind blowing! Our ancestor’s stories also challenge us. They aren’t cozy, they are often ethically grey. The past is not always a ‘nice’ place. Our ancestors’ stories make me really think about what’s wrong and right and the way we judge that. They challenge my political, moral and sometimes even religious ideals. How do I feel about a poverty stricken ancestor that started a fight for money and ended up killing someone? What has changed since his life that prevents me from walking in his footsteps? What hasn’t changed? How much is down to the luck and circumstances of my birth? These stories challenge me as an individual, they make me think and I hope that makes me a more empathetic human being or at least more able to relate to a wider range of other living people. How can we understand ourselves, our society and how can we make it better, if we don’t know how it came to be the way it is today?
If you wish to follow Natalie and her work, check out the links below: