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Family History - Who do you think you are?

Release Date: 18 Aug 2017

This month’s blog post looks at the Family History Service, exploring some of our earliest records, the process for researching them and how we provide families with access.

Barnardo’s Archive Family History Service gives people the opportunity to access the records of ancestors who were in the charity’s care, dating right back to its establishment in 1870.

The Making Connections team receive around 1,500 enquiries for this service each year, and the popularity of television programmes such as ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘Long Lost Families’ often mean a surge in applications.

Making Connections books

It is no secret that Thomas Barnardo’s work with children in poverty stricken London during the late Victorian period was pioneering, but his astuteness and keen desire to record his actions was just as remarkable.

Thanks to this, the Archive holds a vast range of records which document the early lives of those who were in Barnardo’s residential homes, adopted through the charity or - in more recent years - have received support from Barnardo’s projects.

The Archive’s collection of children’s records consists of around 1,000 ledgers, 4,500 rolls of microfilm, 500,000 photographs and a large collection of digital records, which means researching the records can be a challenging task for the Archive team.

For each new enquiry to the Family History Service, an initial search for records is undertaken. That can often be a test in itself, particularly when it relates to older records in the Archive. This is because record keeping practice and literacy levels would have been extremely poor for vulnerable members of Victorian society, and therefore the spelling of children’s names can vary greatly. In these instances other basic information provided by families, including birth, marriage, death and census records, are extremely useful in helping to identify children.

Making Connections Archive room

When a child is identified and the enquiry reaches the top of the waiting list, a member of the team  begin the research. This involves using various finding aids to discover and assemble copies of the child’s records.

The volume and types of records each family receive within their package differs depending on when the child was admitted and how long they spent in Barnardo’s care. A package might include, for example, admission histories, photographs, daily recordings, school reports and birth certificates.

Below is just one early example of an admission record relating to John Mills, who came into Barnardo’s in January 1875. The Archive was recently able to identify him as one of the 510 children buried at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, during a memorial dedication project.

Although John sadly passed away in March 1876, his admission history provides vital information about his background, appearance and circumstances at the time he came into the charity’s care.

Making Connections John Mills

This document tells a story familiar in many of the Archive’s earliest records; that of unimaginable circumstance, extreme poverty and family hardship during the Victorian period.

More recently, a member of the Archive team compiled a package of records for the descendants of Willie Cross, who was admitted to Barnardo’s with two brothers, Henry and Alfred, following the death of their mother.

Unfortunately, their father was not in the position to care for them and so in 1889 Willie went to stay at Leopold House, East London. In 1891, he was emigrated to Canada.

Making Connections Willie Cross

One photograph shows Willie at the time of his admission. Another, believed to have been taken in 1948, shows a then 70-year-old with his son, grandson and great-grandson.

Making Connections Willie Cross 2

On receiving the information and photographs the Cross family wrote:

‘Please accept a HUGE Thank You from myself and the rest of my family! The work you do in helping us to understand our past/roots is FANTASTIC!!!’

Records like these really are invaluable to those accessing the Family History Service and the ability to provide them is extremely important. It is fascinating and rewarding work which offers the opportunity to tell these children’s stories. It also gives descendants the potential to unlock mysteries within their family trees and hopefully answer some of the questions they have about their ancestor’s early lives.

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