7 Ways to Get To Know Your Ancestors Better

7 Ways to Get to now your ancestors better

1. “Home is where the heart is”

Item 1: Home is where the heart is

Our home is an important part of our lives, so it stands to reason it was the same for our ancestors. Finding out more about the places they lived gives you a valuable insight into their day-to-day lives. Did they come from a tiny village, where everyone knew everyone? Or did they live in a big city, full of diverse cultures? Did the place they lived in go through big changes? Was it effected by; epidemics, industrialisation, the civil war, plague, politics?

To find out more about the places your ancestors lived try these great websites:

Histpop – This fantastic website provides not only population reports for Britain and Ireland (1801 to 1937) but a wealth of other materials, from essays and texts to statistical analysis.

British History Online – A great resource for looking at the history of the places your pre-1800s ancestors lived within. The BHO contains both primary and secondary written sources. Simply type your place of interest into it’s search bar.

Historical Directories – Thanks to the University of Leicester, you can search a huge collection of historical directories online. Even if your ancestors are not listed within the ‘yellow pages’ of the past, you can still find out a lot about where they lived. Some directories contain a description of the places featured within their volume. Other commercial directories might give you clues as to your ancestors daily life – who was their local butcher, grocer, wheelwright? Who were the big players in the village, who took out large adverts?

The Local Population Studies Society – The LPSS have made available the back issues of its journal, Local Population Studies. Read publications from 1968 to 2011 free online.

2. Time Travel

Item 2: Time Travel

OK, I haven’t invented a tardis, but there are thousands of museums up and down the country that strive to ‘take’ their visitors ‘back in time’.

Would you like to walk down streets similar to those of your ancestors? Try visiting some ‘living’ museums;

Weald and Down: Located in South East England this unique museum offers an amazing, history filled day out for all the family. Weald and Down has rescued over 50 historic traditional rural buildings. Set in over 40 acres of beautiful landscape, it aims to take you back through a 1000 years of history. Buildings range from an Anglo Saxon Hall to a 17th Century Watermill, to a Victorian Smithy.

Milestones Museum: Located in Basingstoke (my own town), this family focused museum lets you walk the streets of the past, replicated inside this indoor museum – perfect for rainy days. You can visit a Edwardian pub, purchase sweets in the 1940s confectionery shop or perhaps play at the penny arcade.

Beamish Museum: Located in the North East of England, this open air museum lets you explore life in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. Attractions include a Pit Village, a 1940’s farm and even an Edwardian railway.

Iron Bridge Gorge Museums: The Iron Bridge Gorge is a World Heritage Site, and forms just one of 10 museums located in the Midlands. Visit Blists Hill Victorian Town to walk Victorian streets, or Darby Houses to see how the upper classes of the 18th and 19th century lived. Round off your trip with a walk across the first ever Iron Bridge, or perhaps take a trip down Tar Tunnel.

3. Earning A Crust

Item 3: Earning a crust

Many of our ancestors worked long hours, 6 or even 7 days a week. They might have been unskilled labourers or highly talented artisans. But how can you find out more about their working life? Again museums often offer a unique way to get to know our ancestors. Local museums often feature information on occupations that were specific to that area, from mining to straw plaiting.

Visit www.historic-uk.com to browse a map of museums or try Money Saving Expert for a list of free museums. If your planning a trip to the capital, try looking at www.visitlondon.com.

Alternatively try typing your ancestors occupation into google, followed by the word ‘museum’ or ‘experience’.

4. Taste the Past

Item 4: Taste the Past

Why not get a taste of your ancestors life, quite literally? There are a whole host of historic recipe books online at sites like the Internet Archive or Google Books. Why not cook and eat a meal popular during your ancestors life time? Now imagine how they would have cooked it? Would this meal have been a treat? Or everyday food?

Other sources for old recipes include Pinterest or visiting your local library to browse their cookbook collections.

5. Read Their Stories

Item 5: Read Their Stories

Although many of our ancestors may have been illiterate they still would have talked about the ‘news’. Sometimes people gathered together, with one literate person reading the paper aloud on behalf of everyone else. Local news would have been passed on orally, as tasty bits of gossip!

So what were your ancestors worried, shocked or amused by? How do the stories of the past compare to the headlines today? Don’t forget to view the personal adds which give a unique, and sometimes comedic insight into lives of the past.

The British Newspaper Archiveoffers a free search, and a limited about of free ‘views’. After this there is the option to subscribe (for either one month or a year). The collection is replicated at Find My Past, and available to it’s subscribers. Welsh papers are free at The National Library of Wales newspapers online site.

6. Ask the Experts

Item 6: Ask the Experts (read books)

There are countless history books written every year, dedicated to every possible period and aspect of “the past”. From military to the home, delve in and enjoy! Personally I’ve particularly liked, as quick easy reads; Bill Bryson’s At Home, pretty much anything by Antonia Fraser or Lucy Worsley (although sometimes her lack of footnote references is frustrating).

If you are not sure where to start, try looking at reviews and reading lists on GoodReads and Amazon. Local bookshops staff are often very helpful and of course you should always try your local library.

There are also several genealogy and history magazines you might want to try – BBC History, All About History, Family Tree Magazine, Who Do You Think You Are? and Discover Your Ancestors just to name a few.

If reading non-fiction isn’t your cup of tea, then try historical fiction (Sarah Walters, Ken Follet, Hilary Mantel or Phillipa Gregory). Just don’t forget that these types of stories will have a poetic licence and are not fact!

Alternatively why not try fiction written during the times your ancestors lived? What better way to get to know the Victorians than by reading the best-sellers of the age? Keep in mind that authors which are now famous were not always so well known or popular during their lifetime.

7. Get Dressed Up

Item 7: Get Dressed Up

The history of costume can tell us more than just ‘what was fashionable’ during our ancestors lives. It can tell us about the textiles available, and how these were made. What was worn by the wealthy and how did this compare to the items worn by the poor? What might your ancestors have worn? Did this restrict their movement, or was it practical, such as a uniform for work? How was clothing effected by war, such as during rationing? Understanding fashion can also help us to date historic photographs.

It’s not often we get to dress exactly like our ancestors, but I’m sure any woman that’s tried ‘shaping’ underwear has imagined life in a corset. Next time you put on your coat, really look at it – how is it similar/different to what your ancestors wore?

Explore the The Journal of Dress Historians or publications by Jayne Shrimpton.


This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many different aspects to our lives – from school days to old age, from celebrations to worries – from global warming to Donald Trump, from jubilees to fireworks nights. We live complicated lives, full of ups and downs, and our ancestors were no different. When your stuck for ideas, on how to get to know your ancestors better, perhaps try looking at your own life. What might be similar? What is vastly different? What have you done in the last week that you can compare or contrast? Dropped kids off at school? Visited the Doctor? Gone to work? Loaded the dishwasher? How does this compare to what your ancestors might have done in an ordinary week? What might it be like to “walk a mile in their shoes”?