Inspired by Who Do You Think You Are?

Although currently away from the library our colleague and genealogist Elizabeth is still providing lots of support for our WW1 queries and has even found the time to write this post – all about the resources shown on a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? -- Pictured: "Who Do You Think You Are?" Logo -- NBC Photo

Were you inspired to find out about an ancestor after seeing Cheryl in Who Do You Think You Are? She spent part of the episode following the story of her Great Grandfather, Joseph Wilson Ridley, who was in the thick of the fighting for nearly four years.

This post looks at the documents she viewed on the programme and how you might locate equivalents for your own ancestor. It finishes with a few documents and resources that would have been used but were not shown on screen.

Cheryl’s journey started with the 1911 census. We need to remember that soldiers in the Great War were very likely non-soldiers before it, and the census contains a ‘lost generation’ as well as men that came home. In Cheryl’s case the census showed Joseph as 29, a grocery warehouseman, married to Mary Ann for seven years with three children born and surviving. The census also includes his birthplace – Beamish, West Stanley – and his address, 44 Towneley Street (sic). All of this is useful information to take forward into military collections.

Next, she was able to view his army service record from the National Archives’ WO 364 collection, the First World War pension claims (referred to in the programme as his service record, the record set title rather than the series). Several pages are available covering his admission, discharge, postings, leave, address, next of kin, and more. Around 40% of service records survive for soldiers below officer rank, so Cheryl’s ancestor was one of the four in ten.

Both of these types of records can be found and viewed from Norfolk libraries through the service’s subscription to FindMyPast. They are also available on several other websites, including Ancestry, which is available at Norfolk Record Office along with FindMyPast.

The next record Cheryl viewed was a letter written by another descendant of ‘Old Man Ridley’ which gave a very personal insight into his character and circumstances. Similar information for your own subject might be found by tracing forwards from the 1911 census and identifying cousins that could help you. Perhaps they might be researching too, or they might have access to medals (with that all important regimental number) or other ephemera that could help you. To find relatives, you might like to try online family trees, the Lives of the First World War website, genealogy fora or even the local newspaper.

Cheryl was also given a photograph at the same time. If you find other descendants, they may be able to show you an image of your ancestor if you don’t have one already. In Norfolk, don’t forget to search Picture Norfolk’s incredible collection of brave boys, collected by the library in the 1920s.

While not a document, Cheryl was shown a Pioneer’s collar badge. Cap and collar badges and other insignia visible in photographs can be extremely helpful, especially where a service/pension record no longer survives. The library has several useful titles that could help you identify the rank and regiment of your ancestor. Try typing ‘cap badge’ into the library catalogue to find available titles, and then place a reservation to order one to your local library.

Finally, a diary entry was also found. This was a prime example of how the writings of another person can shed light on the experience of your own ancestor. As with letters, where diaries survive, they could be in several places. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have one in your possession, or know a family member with access. If not, you might find personal letters and diaries in Record Offices, Regimental Museums or town archives.

Behind the scenes, Cheryl’s story must have involved other reference material, very likely including battalion war diaries (many of which can be browsed on Ancestry or downloaded from the National Archives) and regimental histories. If you know which battalion your ancestor served with you are all set to find relevant diaries online and search catalogues for books written since the end of the war. If you only know the regiment, reading about its history may help you pinpoint the battalion by cross referencing with a certain place that you know your ancestor served in, or a particular battle you know they fought in.

As a final note, it’s important to say that there was more to the story than documents. While we may not all get the celebrity Who Do You Think You Are treatment, many of us now have opportunities to visit relevant places. Cheryl’s story was brought to life by visiting the battlefields and seeing not just where Joseph spent part of the war, but the sorts of trenches he was digging. She was also able to visit the memorial at Pozieres to pay her respects to those that never returned. I speak from experience when I say that nothing has such an impact as visiting the areas where your ancestors fought and died. The scale is astonishing, heartbreaking, and sombering.

For more on researching a First World War soldier, see the research guide (created by myself and colleagues) available in Norfolk’s museum shops, libraries and Norfolk Record Office or visit your local library and ask for help.

Good luck with your research!

This epsidode of WDYTYA will be available on the BBC Iplayer  until about the 15th January 2017.

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