From grand stately homes set in extensive parkland, to refurbished mill workers’ housing, the UK is home to some of the world’s finest heritage attractions. But what do these have to do with your family tree, you might ask? Well, if you choose the right site and do a little homework beforehand, not only can you enjoy a fascinating day out, you’ll also come home armed with plenty more information for your family tree.
Before you go
To begin with, work out what type of site would help fill in the gaps on your family tree. If your ancestor worked in service you could visit the stately home where they were employed, or if you don’t know which ‘big house’ it was, choose one close to there your ancestor lived. Many sites have cottoned on to the fact that people like to know about the ordinary workers on a country estate as well as the aristocrats, and have opened up the servants’ quarters and kitchen areas of the house. Castle Coole in County Fermanagh, Belton House in Lincolnshire and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire are just a few of the grand houses with ‘below stairs’ exhibitions.
Or perhaps your ancestor was a mill worker and lived close to their place of work. Taking a trip to an industrial history attraction such as the World Heritage Village of Saltaire in West Yorkshire, or the Birmingham Back to Backs will give you a great idea of what living and working conditions would have been like. There are hundreds of social history and industrial history museums around the UK so there’s sure to be one where you can find out more about your ancestor’s occupation.
To make the most of your day, consider what you’d like to find out whilst you’re there. Is there a library or visitor centre on site? If so, draw up a list of questions you can either find out for yourself during your visit, or enlist the help of a member of staff at the attraction.
If it’s more general social history information you’re after, take a look at the attraction’s website and work out which areas of the site will be of most interest to you. Approach the visit from the point of view of a researcher as well as a visitor and you may be surprised at what you’re able to find out.
Enjoying the day
On the day of your visit, take along a pencil and notebook and if possible, a working copy of your family tree, or at least some of the details of the ancestor you’re researching. If the site offers guided tours, sign up, as you’ll often find out plenty more detail from your guide than is available on information boards in the various rooms. Site volunteers are usually very knowledgeable and many live in the local area and so may have information on local families of the past.
The site’s guidebook will also have lots of information that’s not on the website and don’t forget the gift shop, as these often stock local history books that can be difficult to find elsewhere. If you can, sign up for the site’s e-newsletter, as many of these give details of upcoming talks, behind the scenes tours and living history events.
Once your visit is complete, have a think about how what you’ve seen and learnt could take its place in your family’s story. Photographs of the place could be added to the relevant ancestor’s paper file or computer record, whilst details of working conditions or job roles can be kept on file to help build up a picture of what life was like for the ancestor in question.
* Check out this interactive map of UK museums, searchable by location and subject
* Heritage Open Days let you see behind the scenes of historic buildings each September
* Find more ideas for exploring your ancestry with Family Tree magazine
(Image shows Birmingham Back to Backs and is copyright Tony Hisgett)