Where to start when tracing relatives and the meaning behind some Dorset surnames
PUBLISHED: 15:23 23 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:27 23 October 2014
It's fascinating tracing relatives but where do you start? In a new series genealogist Luke Mouland provides useful tips and turns up some interesting Dorset names
Have you ever thought about tracing your family tree? You wouldn’t be alone. Researching family history has become increasingly popular in recent years, largely thanks to television programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Heir Hunters.
It all looks rather straightforward on the television - but for a beginner, the process can seem daunting. Here are some tips to help get you started.
1. Write down what you already know
What stories can you remember being told as a child? What do you know about your immediate family? Whilst it might only be basic details about your parents or grandparents, this will be the most important starting block for your research. The key is to start with yourself and then work backwards logically, generation by generation. This will help you to stay organised and ensure you have verified your sources at each stage.
2. Interview your relatives
What can your relatives, especially the eldest, remember about their parents or grandparents? What stories did they hear about family members from previous generations? The smallest piece of information could prove useful at a later date. However, do bear in mind that some memories and family stories aren’t always completely accurate or factual.
3. Find the family bible
Before trawling through the records, find out what documents and items you or your relatives may already have. Look out any birth, marriage or death certificates. Is there a family bible, with names and dates of birth recorded on the flyleaf? Perhaps you have newspaper cuttings, old letters, or memorial cards? These will all provide valuable clues, and will save you time in the long run. Note down all the details, or ask to take good quality copies if the documents belong to someone else.
4. Choosing your line
Be careful not to choose a common surname - such as Smith or Jones - for your first attempt, as the chances are this will prove too difficult. Instead, opt for a more unusual surname to begin with, as it will stand out better in the records. You can always come back to the more difficult names later on once you’ve had a chance to get to grips with using the records.
5. Has it been done already?
More and more people are now deciding to store and share their family trees online, while others deposit copies of their work at local archives or reference libraries for the benefit of other researchers. The Society of Genealogists has a good index of the pedigrees they hold, which can be searched online for free at sog.org.uk/search-records/pedigrees. Whilst you may wish to use others’ work as a guide for your own research, remember that efforts should always be made to verify the information by consulting the original sources.
6. Hatch, match and dispatch
The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837 and these records are the first port of call for family historians, as they provide information about the key events in our ancestors’ lives. You can search the indexes online at a number of subscription websites, though some entries are being transcribed and made available for free at freebmd.org.uk. Once you think you have found the correct entry, you can use the details to apply for a copy of the original certificate from the General Register Office. This will include details such as full names, dates, addresses and occupations.
7. Making sense of the Census
The census has been taken every ten years since 1801, though only those from 1841 to 1911 are available for our use. The records reveal a large amount of valuable data about our ancestors, such as names, occupations, ages, and places of birth. They can be searched online on a number of subscription websites, though some libraries, societies and archives provide free access to these.
8. Recording your research
You may wish to purchase one of the many family tree software programs currently available, as these will help you to record your work in an accessible format – and most will allow you to record the sources you’ve checked, which will help you to ensure your efforts aren’t duplicated.
9. Seeking assistance
Family History Societies offer guidance and support, and often have an annual programme of events, workshops and lectures to help further your knowledge. If you hit a ‘brick wall’ in your research, don’t be afraid to enlist the services of a professional genealogist – they will often be able to consult records you don’t have access to, and help steer you through any challenges you might face.
10. Stick with it!
As with most hobbies, you will need to invest both time and money to get results, but tracing your family history is a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit. Once you have got to grips with the basics, you will begin to gain the experience and confidence you need to take it further.
We can learn a lot about our ancestors from surnames. Here are some local examples:
• Cornick: Common in Dorset, this topographical surname is Cornish and describes someone who lived by a rocky feature. It derives from the Celtic word, ‘carr’, meaning rock, and the Gaelic word, ‘cnoc’, meaning the top of a hill.
• Guppy: A locational surname, its origins can be traced back to the tiny hamlet of Guppy, near Wootton Fitzpaine, in Dorset. This was first recorded in the 12th century as Gupehegh, and was probably a farmstead belonging to a person called Guppa.
• Sartin: This is an example of a nickname, having been derived from the Old French word, ‘certeyn’. It denotes someone who is self-assured, confident or determined, and was introduced into England some time after the Norman Conquest of 1066.
• Dominey: An unusual surname, this is a diminutive (or ‘pet’ form) of the French medieval given name, Dominique. It originates from the Latin, ‘dominicus’, and may have been given to children born on a Sunday (i.e. ‘dies dominica’, meaning ‘day of the Lord’).
• Vacher: This is an occupational surname, and is derived from the Old French, ‘vache’, meaning cow, or ‘vacherie’, meaning cow house. It denoted a dairy farmer, and appears to have come to England following the Norman Conquest.
My Top Three Dorset Archives
Dorset History Centre
Situated in Dorchester, the Dorset History Centre houses the joint archives service for Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole, and the Dorset Local Studies Collection. Anyone can visit the archives to carry out research free of charge, though you will need to take some forms of identification with you on your first visit to sign up for a reader’s card. It is also worth checking their online catalogue or contacting them before you visit to ensure they hold the records you require for your research.
Dorset History Centre, Bridport Road, Dorchester, DT1 1RP
Telephone: 01305 250550
Somerset & Dorset Family History Society
The SDFHS help people to research their family history and can be found at the Family History Centre on The Parade, in the heart of Sherborne (between Connells Estate Agents and Sherborne Museum). Membership costs £18 per annum, and benefits include: guidance from the Society’s family historians; the Society’s quarterly journal, The Greenwood Tree; talks and workshops; and access to an extensive family and local history library and bookshop. To join, call in to the Centre for an application form, or download one from their website.
SDFHS, PO Box 4502, Sherborne, DT9 6YL
Telephone: 01935 389611
Dorset Family History Society
The DFHS is based at the research centre in Poole. Membership costs £12 per annum, which entitles you to: monthly meetings and a programme of workshops and events; research support from the Society’s volunteers; the Society’s quarterly journal, The DFHS Journal; access to a large lending library and selection of exchange journals; and a regular email newsletter. Pick up an application form from the research centre, or download one online.
The Treetops Research Centre, Suite 5, Stanley House, 3 Fleets Lane, Poole, BH15 3AJ
Telephone: 01202 785623
Luke Mouland is a professional geneaologist and historian. He runs the website Kith and Kin from his home near Sherborne (kithandkinresearch.co.uk).