How to Get To Know Your Ancestors Better (without a Tardis)

We could all benefit from getting to know our ancestors better. After all, isn’t that the point of tracing your family tree? Before you protest, with cries of “but I do know my ancestors” have a think about exactly what you know. Do you know facts, like when they were born and died? Or do you know what their life was like? You need more than genealogical data to get to know your ancestors. An understanding of their time and place is essential. What were their lives like? Here’s 7 ways to help you to get to know your ancestors better (without a Tardis) and all from the comfort of your own home.

1. There’s No Place Like Home

Item 1: Home is where the heart is

They say “home is where the heart is”. And for good reason. Our home, be it our physical house or our community, is an important part of our daily existence. The same was true for our ancestors. The places they lived had a big impact upon their everyday lives. Finding out more about these places is crucial, if you want to get to know your ancestors. Did they come from a tiny village, where everybody knew everybody? Or did they live in a diverse and vibrant city? How was the place they lived in effected by local, national or global events? From the introduction of street lighting to industrialisation. From the local crime rate to WWI.

Place: Online Essentials

University of Cambridge’s Populations Past

Populations Past allows users to review a range of maps showing various demographic measures. Taken from the 1851 to 1911 census data, view stats from a range of topics. Including, fertility, infant mortality, age composition of households, population size, and occupational statuses

British History Online (BHO)

The BHO is a virtual encyclopedia on the history of places, pre-1800. It contains a mix of primary and secondary written sources. Simply type your place of interest into the site’s search bar and hit enter.

Society for One-Place Studies

This society does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s members study our ancestors within the context of the places they lived within. Check to see whether any ‘one-placer’ has looked at your area of interest. Check out the host of video resources on the site, explaining various place sources and more!

2. Time Travel

Item 2: Time Travel

OK, I haven’t invented a Tardis, but there are thousands of TV programmes and YouTube videos focused on the past. Many of which feature ordinary people trying to emulate time travel. These programmes are a great way of comparing and contrasting our experiences with those of our ancestors.

Time Travel: Online Essentials

The BBC iPlayer is the first place to look for these programmes. Followed by YouTube.

Back In Time Series: There have been a plethora of these popular ‘Back In Time’ programmes. All focused on daily life and often featuring food. These include Back In Time for the Weekend, School, Factory, Tea, Dinner and Corner Shop.

The 1900s House and The 1940s House

The Victorian Slum

The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts

1900s Island

Many programmes featuring historian, Ruth Goodman. Including Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Victorian Pharmacy.

3. Visit a Museum (Virtually)

Item 3: Earning a crust

OK, so history museums are an obvious source of information and experiences. But, art and other cultural museums can still be very helpful. After all art history often dovetails with wider history. For example, the arts and crafts movement was a rebellion against mass reproduction of furniture etc. Art reflects the time period it was created within.

However, at the time of writing this we have been struck by a pandemic. Millions of people are unable to leave their home. Coronavirus has led to the closure of museums across the globe. Thankfully some of these institutions are trying to bring their collections online.

Earning A Crust: Online Essentials

Museums with Virtual Tours

London Museums List

4. Taste the Past

Item 4: Taste the Past

Why not get a taste of your ancestors life, quite literally? Cooking and eating are a big part of our everyday lives. Compare and contrast your cooking experiences to your ancestors. Find a recipe from the past and recreate it. Taste what your ancestors tasted.

Taste the Past: Online Essentials

Check out historic recipe books online at sites like the Internet Archive, the Wellcome Collection and Google Books.

If you really want to go all out you could even try living on WW2 rations. Visit The 1940s Experiment for recipes and more.

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 a newspaper aloud on behalf of everybody else. Local news would have been passed on orally, just as gossip is passed on today!

So what were your ancestors worried, shocked or amused by? How do the stories of the past compare to the headlines of today?

Reading personal ads can give a unique, sometimes comedic, insight into our ancestors lives. Adverts too can be revealing. Just which soap was being used during the 1918 “Spanish” Flu epidemic?

Read Their Stories: Online Essentials

The British Newspaper Archive offers a free search and a limited number of free ‘views’. After this there is the option to subscribe (either by month or for a year). The collection is replicated on Find My Past, for subscribers. Welsh newspapers are free online at The National Library of Wales. For more information on newspapers read my article: Newspapers for Genealogy: 8 Mistakes to Avoid

6. Ask the Experts

Item 6: Ask the Experts (read books)

There are countless history books written every year. Books dedicated to every possible period and every aspect of the past. From military to the home, delve in and enjoy.

Alternatively, why not read a popular book written at the time your ancestor was alive. One they may well have read or heard about themselves?

Ask an Expert: Online Essentials

Scribd are currently giving a free one month trial to their collection of books, audiobooks and magazines.

Open Library also has an incredible range of historic and current books. Both fiction and non-fiction.

For free historic texts see Project Guttenberg.

If you are not sure where to start than try looking at reviews and reading lists on GoodReads. Your local library may also have tech available so pop onto their website.

7. Get Dressed Up

Item 7: Get Dressed Up

The history of costume can tell us more than just ‘what was fashionable’. It can tell us about the textiles available. The amount of work that went into making a garment and how much our clothing cost. What was worn by the wealthy? How did this compare to the items worn by the poor? How practical was our clothing? Or comfortable? How did women’s clothing evolve? What can that tell us about women’s rights? It’s not often we get to dress exactly like our ancestors. But I’m sure that any woman that’s tried ‘shaping’ underwear has imagined just how uncomfortable life in a corset would be.

Get Dressed Up: Online Essentials

Explore the wonderful Journal of Dress Historians or treat yourself to a publication by dress historian, Jayne Shrimpton. Visit the blog for the London V&A Museum.


Take a little time to explore your ancestors lives. You wont be disappointed. The past is a fascinating place, understanding it will help you to get to know your ancestors better.


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