These are strategies applicable to all family history research:
- Keep an open mind. Evaluate everything, assume nothing. What you think you know about dates, ages, relationships or places may be wrong and may be preventing you from looking in the right place.
- Use all available sources. Never be content with just the readily available BMD and census information. More sources equal more pieces of the jigsaw.
- Research related lines. Siblings share parents and first cousins share their grandparents. Work backwards through them and then come forwards down the tree again. Find living relatives. Different stories, photos and documents are passed down different lines. Distant cousins may hold vital clues. They may even help you research.
- Use the internet. More and more images of primary sources are online, plus incredibly helpful indexes and search engines. The internet is an amazing tool, which has revolutionised genealogy. Use it!
- Share your research. This combines the last two points. Publish your research online and watch the new cousins roll up and the brick walls tumble.
Learn the geography.
"Mr Weller's knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar". Dickens
You need to "do the knowledge” like a London cabbie.
- Learn the administrative structure. London consisted of the City of London plus parts of Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Essex. There were different boundaries for registration districts, poor law unions, Church of England parishes and electoral wards. These overlapped in confusing ways. There were also frequent changes. During the 19th century there was repeated sub-division of Church of England parishes and, in 1889, the London County Council was created.
- Study 19th century growth. London was transformed by the coming of the railways in the 1830s, leading for the first time to a divide between the inner city and the suburbs. There was new building on a massive scale, with the development of Islington, Paddington, Belgravia, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Southwark and Lambeth.
- Research street name changes. Many streets disappeared as a result of new road construction such as Kingsway in central London. Many had their names changed (sometimes more than once) to remove duplications. To track the changes you need maps. Reproductions of old Ordnance Survey maps and the A to Z of Victorian London are particularly helpful.
- Consider migration routes. Identify possible routes into London from your ancestors' rural places of origin. For example, the Gurney family moved from Norfolk to Bedfordshire to Hertfordshire to North London. And remember that they didn't just travel by road. You should look at the pattern of rivers and railways as well, when trying to identify where they came from or where they went.
Understand the society
"London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained." Conan Doyle
To do this you must read, read, read. Some helpful starting points are:
- Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography
- Dickens, Charles. Any of his London based novels. See Dickensian London: A character in itself.
- Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844.
- Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor.
- Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of the People of London. The London School of Economics has put Booth's poverty maps and notebooks online. If you are lucky, you may find a detailed description of your ancestor’s street.
Remember the history
"If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!" Coleridge
- Your ancestors did not live in a vacuum, isolated from the great events of their day. To see the connections, superimpose a timeline of historical and/or local events on a chronological list of events in your ancestor's life. Tools to help you do this can be found in many genealogy software programs.
Are some of your male ancestors missing from the 1901 census? This baffled people when the 1901 census was first released. They had forgotten about the Boer War.
Did your ancestors appear in London out of nowhere in the 1840s/1850s? Remember the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852 and that Irish people did not necessarily have uniquely Irish surnames. 1848 is known as the Year of Revolution across Europe. Uprisings took place in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland, and their suppression was the trigger for a wave of emigration. Many ended up in London.