Exclusive Interview with 8 Expert Genealogists

It’s that time of year again. Yes, that’s right…the genealogy interviews you’ve all been waiting for! Top tips and 2020 predictions from 8 amazing expert genealogists.

This year our Ask the Experts special is bigger and better than ever before. In addition to our lovely 2019 experts, the wonderful Nick Barratt and Elsie Churchill have joined the fun.

So here in alphabetical order are our fantastic genealogists:

Photo of Nick Barratt

Nick Barratt

Founder of Sticks Research Agency, one of the UK’s leading historical research organisations. Broadcaster, author and historian Dr Nick Barratt (from TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, House Detectives and Find My Past) provides a range of products and services.

Paul Chiddicks

Paul Chiddicks

With a keen interest in military history and 15 years experience in genealogy, Paul Chiddicks is an avid blogger, updating his Chiddicks Family Tree site regularly. He often features in Family Tree magazine’s online blog.

Else Churchill

Else is the Genealogist at the Society of Genealogists (SoG), London. Founded in 1911 the SoG is the UK’s National Family History Centre and an Affiliate Family Search Library. Over the years it has amassed a truly magnificent genealogical library and archive, with more and more of its remarkable collections and resources being made available online for members.

Jackie Depelle

Jackie has been teaching Family History for 20 years, providing workshops & lectures to a wide variety of organisations. Having first started her involvement in adult
education through local history connections, Jackie continues her voluntary activities through chairing the countywide Yorkshire Group of Family History Societies and supporting The Guild of One Name Studies.

Emma Jolly

Emma Jolly

Emma Jolly MA is a professional genealogist, writer and historical researcher, based in London. Author of four books dedicated to different aspects of genealogical research and is a regular contributor to family history publications.

Genealogy Jude

Genealogy Jude

A professional genealogist since 1993 with an IHGS Diploma in Genealogy, Judith is dedicated to sharing her passion for family history. She’s best found here on Twitter.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard MA PgCert is a professional genealogist, DNA detective, speaker, writer and historian based in Glasgow. She offers a wide range of genealogical services but specialises in solving adoption and all manner of unknown ancestor mysteries with the use of DNA testing. She is also the official genetic genealogist of # AncestryHour

Helen Tovey

Helen Tovey

Helen Tovey is editor of Family Tree Magazine. She really enjoys encouraging people to do their family history and discover the indefinable magic that it will add to their lives. Whether it’s recording family anecdotes or researching a PhD, all avenues of tracing the past should be researched and relished.

Q1: Which TV programmes made the biggest impact on you during 2019?

Paul: I enjoyed “Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey”. Although clearly customised for TV, it certainly highlighted the whole DNA experience. It will have created a really large interest in DNA testing with the general public. That can only be good for the Family History Community!

Helen: “Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey” was definitely a noticeable one for me. I loved the way it engaged many people in the office (the non-family historians), getting them curious about DNA testing and family history more generally – always a good thing.

Else: For me personally the BBC documentary, “The Downfall of a King“. It showed the events leading to the Civil War and I teach on genealogy for that period. The “Who Do You Think You Are?” episode with Jack Whitehall and his father was excellent and relevant to my own family history.

Jackie: One TV programme which made a major impact on myself, students and colleagues was Gentleman Jack, portraying part of the life of Anne Lister.  This prompted a wide range of interactive class discussions each week relating to the social, cultural and industrial implications. These topics were covered for both the comfortably off as well as poor people. All wealth levels struggled to control their own lives at times.  Archive collections supporting the programme were promoted regularly on social media highlighting the vast amount of personal papers which can be found in Record Offices.

Michelle: I have become totally hooked on the TV programme “Murder, Mystery and My Family” – it’s a real gem of a programme in which top criminal barristers re-investigate historic cases at the behest of a family member of the convicted (in many cases hanged) person and then present their arguments to an eminent judge.  I love the insight into finding such a shock in your family tree and following the barristers and family members as they learn more about the cases and come to a conclusion.

Q2: Do you have any book, radio programme or podcasts recommendations?

Jude: This year I’ve spent a lot of time researching the life of my uncle, Gordon Batchelor, an RAF Spitfire pilot, who died as a prisoner of war in 1942. To find out more about what life was like for these young pilots, I read a wonderful autobiographical book, “Scramble” by Tom Neil.  Tom joined the RAF at a similar time as my uncle and was also a Battle of Britain pilot. His account gave me a real insight into the day to day experiences of these brave young men without whose help, the War may have been lost. I then had the pleasure of meeting Tom’s son over lunch when I attended the Battle of Britain Memorial Day in July at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent. The stunning film “Spitfire” (produced to commemorate the centenary of the RAF) complimented the book nicely.  “Spitfire” combines beautiful aerial photography and archive footage, with the story of the Spitfire aeroplane, told in the words of the last surviving veterans.  The soundtrack is pretty spectacular too. 

Michelle: In terms of books I can’t not mention that I co-authored a new book on DNA testing this year, “Tracing Your Ancestors Using DNA: A Guide For Family Historians“, and I really enjoyed reading the chapters by my colleagues.

Q3: Aside from the obvious big boys, if you could recommend one group or website to subscribe to – which would it be?

Jackie: Deceased Online.  The burial records on this site from Council cemeteries and crematoria can provide essential links and pointers for family history research.  Geographic coverage is clearly explained and if your main research areas are included then it’s well worth taking out a subscription.

Michelle: I would recommend subscribing to Legacy Family Tree Webinars – for a low price they offer a massive library of over 1,000 webinars that covers a vast gamut of genealogy topics.  It’s a fantastic resource for genealogy education and several brand new webinars are released every week. I often find myself wanting to learn about something in particular and checking Legacy to see if there’s something on that topic and invariably there is. On a personal note (plug incoming!) I have presented several webinars for Legacy so if you do have a subscription you can watch my DNA-related webinars and also my most recent webinar for them which is a special presentation on my work on the WW1 Fromelles Genealogy Project (an emotional one for me!)

Helen: Talking of DNA, the site “DNA Help for Genealogy (UK)” is both really informative and friendly. It’s a good place to go to get info and also to see what people are finding perplexing too.

Paul: It has to be The British Newspaper Archive website. Even if you think that your humble Ancestors never did anything to warrant making the Newspapers, believe me they did! There is so much to discover. You will be amazed at the detail and the small things that were reported in the past. I had one Funeral announcement on one of my Ancestors that listed three generations of the family, including in-laws, all the respective children, plus one Ancestor’s Military Service, with full regiment and Battalion details! Where else can you find such detailed information in one document?!

Jude: I agree with Paul. I finally caved in this year and subscribed to the British Newspaper Archive. Already I have found so many gems. If you want to find out more about the lives of your ancestors I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. You never know what interesting titbit you might come across. I loved discovering that great granddad won first prize in the show for his root vegetables!

Else: I have to be loyal to the Society of Genealogists as its has some really niche datasets from our library. I also look enviously at American Ancestors the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and wish we could make the SoG site like that.

Emma: If you are interested in researching European ancestors in India, the Families in British India Society (FIBIS) is a must. Their website https://www.fibis.org encompasses a database, Wiki, and image gallery, as well as special features for members.

Q4: If you had all the time in the world, what genealogy or history project would you undertake?

Jude: As the keeper of the family albums, a big ongoing project is to scan and catalogue all the family photographs. It is so important to preserve them for future generations.

Paul: Can I include all the money in the world as well? If so, one of my other research projects, that truly inspires me, is finding the graves and final resting place of as many of my Ancestor’s as I can. I have made so much progress, systematically going through, generation by generation finding their final resting places. What I would dearly love to do, is have a headstone made for all the unmarked ones, as there are so many. So given the time and of course plenty of money, that’s what I would do!

Else: A rather surprising DNA result has suddenly given me a need to understand Greek genealogy and get my head round Greek naming patterns. Plus a WHOLE NEW set of records to try and understand!

Jackie: Extend and develop my own research. Teaching family history enables me to facilitate and encourage students to undertake many exciting and unexpected research projects. I’d love to dig deeper into the Archive material that I am aware would be very informative on my own ancestry. An example would be Chancery documents, which are slow to follow up at a distance especially as they are off-site at The National Archives.

Helen: What a brilliant question. I’d like to dig deeper into the lives of my textile worker ancestors, and those that enjoyed textiles for fun too – i.e the cottage workers, factory workers, and the passionate embroiderers and seamstresses too.

Nick: I’d spend all my time hunting down leads to find out who my maternal grandmother was – still a mystery despite DNA, overseas research and a growing cache of family material. Pinning hopes on the 1921 census to help a bit…

Michelle: Great question!  There are several swimming around my head and most would be very geeky! I’d like to Y-DNA test all my lines out to 2nd great grandparent level. That’s sixteen different surnames, although I know one has “daughtered out”.  I would also like to test many more family members and complete visual phasing projects for sets of siblings. This would aid me in mapping as much of my ancestors’ DNA as possible with a view to eventually creating kits for deceased ancestors! So actually it’s not just all the time in the world I need, it’s also a lottery win to fund it all!

Q5: Is there anything in 2019 that you wish had gone better, or that concerned you for the future?

Else: All the new genealogy shows mean we  spread our resources and audience too thinly. Id like to see some consolidation and a regular routine so we know how to plan.

Paul: On a personal level I think that I lost a bit of momentum and focus in the middle of the year. This resulted in me taking out additional subscriptions that I probably did not need. For me maintaining my focus next year will be key. Sometimes being side tracked isn’t always a bad thing, providing the wheels don’t come off completely! Luckily I was able to re-focus my efforts and thoughts later in the year, which got me back on track. In general genealogy terms, I think that the rumblings around privacy concerns surrounding DNA testing are still there and are not going away. If we are to resolve people’s reluctance to test over privacy concerns, then we do need to look at what can be done to protect those rights and address those concerns. This is not something that is going to go away.

Michelle: The thing that concerned me the most in 2019 was seeing the odd misleading, scaremongering or mis-representative article about DNA testing – it stands to reason that journalists who don’t really understand DNA testing may choose to focus solely on negatives (and I agree there are some!) but I would love to see well-researched and balanced reporting on DNA testing.  Many also only focus on the ethnicity aspect of testing which again can be frustrating.

Jackie: The well being of Family History Societies, the grass roots of so many indexing projects which are taken for granted today.  Some are growing well whilst others are challenged.

Q6 Which websites / projects do you think we should pay extra special attention to during 2020, and why?

Else: Society of Genealogists (SoG) because we hope to redesign and make it much easier to use!

Paul: I have recently joined a new Genealogy Community called Walk My Past it’s a wonderful new Genealogy Community which I found via Twitter. It’s run by Abbie Allen and is a simple idea, the best ones normally are! Abbie is looking for people who can literally “walk the past” on behalf of others, in locations they otherwise couldn’t get to. Basically a “Genie” researcher in every town across the Globe! There are 3 ways to get involved, all for free! Become a Genie Volunteer, or submit a help request, or conduct a search. It’s a wonderful idea which I hope will continue to grow. I have registered a profile on the site and I have already carried out a successful help request for somebody. Have a look yourself and give it a try!

Nick: I hope we see the next generation of personal archiving websites, so we focus on today’s content as a legacy for tomorrow given the uncertain digital landscape we work in.

Jackie: Name and Place appears to be something different, looking forward to trying it out with both Local and Family History material.

Jude: I am particularly interested in projects and websites that harness modern technology to create useful tools for family historians. For example, A Street Near You which maps the locations of men and women that died in World War One. You can search by place, street or postcode and there are links to associated record sources, which is really useful. Perhaps one of those remembered even lived in your house! The website really brings home the impact their deaths must have had on their local community. It provides more information on the names recorded on local war memorials. Remembrance Sunday becomes ever more meaningful.

Q7: 2019 saw the return & creation of lots of new genealogy conferences. Did you enjoy any of these in particular, & how important are these events to budding genealogists?

Nick: It was a great honour to be the host at RootsTech London, and I was very impressed by its approach to learning and education. That said, the other more traditional shows tapped into a different audience and were equally uplifting – more time to meet and greet!

Else: See Question 5! But, I think shows have potential to bring family historians together and Rootstech London really blew me away!

Jude: I attended Family Tree Live and RootsTech London. I love having the opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones too. It’s important to keep up to date and get inspired so I also appreciate the wide selection of lectures one can attend. I particular enjoyed Family Tree Live because of the friendly atmosphere and the many family history societies that were represented.

Jackie: Top marks has to go to RootsTech London, it was an amazing experience to be part of as both a delegate and speaker.  Enthusiasm, motivation, friendship, learning all brought together in one location with great efficiency whilst maintaining a personal touch at a major international event.

Paul: I attended Family Tree Live and RootsTech London. The two shows were both excellent, but for completely different reasons. Family Tree Live had a far more “family and personal” feel to the whole experience. The exhibitors included more local family history societies. There was an amazing choice of talks and workshops, which made it incredibly great value. RootsTech was a much larger show. It being of American origin, I was pleasantly surprised to see every effort had been made to aim the show at the UK researcher. Again a vast array of talks to attend, but unless you was fortunate enough to get an early bird ticket price, the prices were expensive when compared to Family Tree Live. Albeit they were two entirely different shows! Both shows allowed you to mix and mingle with fellow family history enthusiasts and meet up with old friends and make some new ones.

Emma: I love attending family history shows as they offer the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends from across the genealogy community. It’s amazing to gather so many enthusiasts from all over the world who are all so friendly. You are never short of conversation at a family history show! I’m a Londoner with a busy work and family life, so this year I attended events local to me: Family Tree Live and RootsTech London. 

Q8: In 2019, our experts predicted an explosion in DNA testing. Do you think that’s come to fruition?

Double helix

Jude: I believe more and more people are getting tested worldwide, but I would love to see more British people taking DNA tests. The number of DNA matches I have at 4th cousin (or closer) has not increased much this past year.  

Paul: I don’t think we saw “the explosion” that we all predicted, I think things moved along at a steadier pace than we’d all predicted. But, DNA testing is here to stay and can be used liked any other research tool in you Genealogy Armoury. It will never replace the tried and tested paper trail, but the two go hand in hand, so why not use them together?

I think there were a number of issues surrounding the website GedMatch early in the Year, that probably caused a slow down in the uptake of DNA testing. Concerns over legal issues and privacy concerns have not been completely resolved. However, I think there is a clearer picture and choice now for individuals to make. 

Helen: DNA has become such a mainstream topic, one that everyone has an opinion on. And I think this is a good thing! DNA isn’t just for family history! Its use is going to have far-reaching implications. The better we can educate ourselves about DNA, about the pros and also the risks involved, then the better equipped we’ll be for the future. If we are clear-headed about our own intentions, we’ll also be able to advise our family and friends. On the family history front it’s been particularly exciting to see the emergence of Ancestry’s Thrulines and MyHeritage’s Theory of Relativity – far from relegating traditional family history to the margins, these two DNA tools go to prove that the old school research of names, dates and places is more important and useful than ever for today’s family historian.

Jackie: Yes there has definitely been a boom in DNA testing coupled to concerns about privacy, ethics, counselling and support mechanisms.  Hopefully these aspects will develop in 2020.

Nick: It’s certainly growing, but I think we’ve only just started to tackle the interpretation element of DNA testing and connectivity.

Emma: I am thrilled by what is happening with DNA currently. I have experienced major breakthroughs this year in my family history research and personal health knowledge thanks to the various tests I have taken. I am looking forward to more exciting developments next year!

Michelle: It hasn’t come to fruition in quite the way we expected as there has been a slowdown in DNA testing uptake in comparison to 2018. Yet it has still been a very steady year with databases expanding. I also think many people who buy DNA tests have become savvier in how they go about it: many will wait for sale times like DNA Day or Black Friday before purchasing kits. So there can be pretty slow times of the year when not many new matches seem to come in – followed by a real influx after those sale times.

Q9: What are your predictions for 2020? (exciting developments, changes in focus etc)

Crystal ball

Paul: Collaboration! I have already seen online various new collaborative projects being started. These include collaborations with individuals and societies that are not directly associated with Family History itself. These could be Universities carrying out Social Studies Research and History based research projects, as well as lots of other studies, that you would not directly associate with Family History. Collaborations between Museums, Archive offices and individuals are already ongoing, with a new emphasis of working together. So my prediction is that you will see lots more of these combined research projects, which can only help the Family History Community.

Nick: I think there’s an exciting opportunity for data scientists to work with genealogists and ‘the big guys’ to transform the way we connect our data online, creating metadata and narrative around content and connectivity so that we’re cleaning up the online family tree.

Jude: DNA will continue to dominate the news, of course, but I am hopeful that more tools will continue to be developed to make it less of a steep learning curve.

Emma: I hope to see the return of RootsTech to London, I think there will be changes in the genetic genealogy landscape, and I expect to see more high-quality family history TV. I’d also like to see more of the American, Australian, and Scandinavian programmes on UK screens.

Michelle: I predict that DNA testing will continue to evolve and become more mainstream, with more coverage in the press and on television shows. I suspect we’ll have more bumps in the road in terms of law enforcement usage of databases to navigate. But, databases will continue to grow at a steady pace and DNA will continue to be recognised as one of the most invaluable tools in a genealogist’s arsenal.

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