Around New Year it is traditional to take stock and make resolutions. The findmypast Start Your Family Tree Week and GeneaBloggers Genealogy Do-over are current manifestations. There is no real reason to start a fresh phase at New Year. Dear Myrtle considered Starting Over back in June 2014, because she wanted to create better source citations and bring together all of her information in one place. Genealogical research is iterative, so ideally, each phase builds on knowledge previously gained. Unless your previous work is in a very bad state, I suggest a re-appraisal with some blunt honesty rather than starting from scratch. You probably did do some good research, and learning to recognise that is important.
It has often been repeated that you should work from the known. In the excitement of early discoveries you likely skipped over recent generations and dived in with grandparents or great-grandparents. Stop a moment. Who is the person you know the most about and have the most documents for? That person is you.
Start with yourself
How well have you documented your own life? Yes, you know all about it, you were there after all. That gives you a huge advantage as you know why documents were created, and the procedures involved. That understanding brings insights that would be much harder to come by using older documents from previous generations. Even if you have been researching your family for years, this is an exercise worth undertaking.
How many documents about yourself can you produce right now? My UK-centric list is as follows:
Identity & membership:
- driving licence
- birth certificate
- national health insurance card
- European health insurance card
- Library cards & readers tickets
- membership cards
- school reports
- school yearbooks
- academic qualifications, certificates, transcripts
- Vehicle registration certificate
- Vehicle excise duty disc (known as road tax)
- MOT certificate (Ministry of Transport test of vehicle roadworthiness)
- insurance cover note & insurance terms
- house deeds, mortgage documents, or tenancy agreement
- utility bills & contracts
- TV license
- bank account statements
- credit card statements
- invoices & receipts
- credit & debit cards
- store loyalty cards & discount cards
- cheque book
- shopping lists
- letters, birthday & Christmas cards, postcards
- baptism certificate
You will likely easily find important or current documents that serve to identify you, or demonstrate rights and assets (e.g. passport, driving license, current bills). What about the other stuff? Where are you on the spectrum between minimalist and hoarder?
Think like an archivist
Knowing what you have and where it came from is a vital first research step. A list of what you have, like mine is a starting point. Your own personal documents have an impeccable provenance – they were created because of your interactions with the world. But only you know about that context, so add some description to you list. Fill in the blanks that would really help a future researcher. For example, who was the Aunty Freda who sent you that holiday postcard depicting an elephant? For some more guidance on archival concepts take a look at Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description.
Go Slow, a Little Bit at a Time
Note that I have not yet done any analysis of what the documents contain, made any plans to seek more information, created source citations, or come to any conclusions. I have just taken stock of what documents I have that are about me.
I won’t describe every document at once, just a few at a time. Once I have recorded all that I know about a document, I will have the basis for a source citation. I certainly am not going to commit to a particular citation style, because I have several different audiences who have different understandings and expectations. Gradually, my personal archive will grow along with an archival-style catalogue. I plan to not need a future do-over!
© Sue Adams 2014
A century ago, on 6 November 1914, Richard Preece, the headmaster of Hitcham School wrote in the school log:
“19 recruits started off from the school gate to join the 5th Suffolk Regiment at Bury St Edmunds. They went away in three motors. A good many parishioners mustered outside and the children gave them a hearty send off. All but one are old scholars.”
Local historian David Turner reported that a photograph of the 19 volunteers with the school master was taken outside the school , and confirmed that photograph in my possession is a copy of it .
It is a lovely story, but can the claim that this photograph was taken to commemorate the event be corroborated?
First, I located the former school building, named School House and matched the spot.
The 1914 photo closely fits the area indicated by the red frame. The doorway is a distinctive shape and the level of the guttering relative to the door is the same in both photos. Although the building is now rendered, a patch of plaster had come off revealing the brickwork underneath, so the construction materials and architectural details match up. The 1872 date stone suggests the building was standing in 1914.
My photograph was inherited from Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997), son of Albert Walter Coulson (1888-1956). From other photographs in Raymond’s collection, I recognise Albert Walter Coulson and his brother Arthur Coulson as the two men standing at the right hand end of the second row. Facial recognition is not entirely reliable, so is not strong enough evidence by itself.
Arthur’s attestation paper, found in the National Archives’ collection of service pension records, gives his date of enlistment as 6 November 1914 . No service or pension records were found for Albert, but these record sets are known to be incomplete. Albert recorded his date of enlistment as 6 November 1914 in his Platoon Roll and Note Book, which was inherited with the photograph. Matching the dates of enlistment to the school log book entry is compelling evidence supporting the claim that the photo was taken on the 6 November 1914.
The recruits were initially assigned to the 2/5 Suffolk Regiment for training and re-assigned to other regiments later. These 19 recruits were only a proportion of Hitcham men who served during World War I.
Do you recognise any of the other recruits? Did your ancestor volunteer on the same date? I would really like to identify all 19, so please do let me know.
 Turner, David. (1999). Hitcham in the Wars. Memories from the twentieth century. Booklet no. 4. Discovering Historical Hitcham. [no publication details, distributed at Hitcham parish church]. p. 1.
 Turner, David. (29 January 2002). Letter to Sue Adams.
 Territorial Force Attestation (Army Form E 501). (6 November 1914). No. 2642, Arthur Coulson, 5th Suffolk; Digital image. British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920. C>Co>Cou. image no 13989 of 20031. Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 6 November 2104); citing The National Archives. (n.d.). Coulam, Ernest – Coult, George. War Office: Soldiers’ Documents from Pension Claims, First World War (Microfilm Copies). The National Archives, Kew. WO 364/815; citing Genealogical Society of Utah. (1990-1995) microfilm no 1735807.
 Coulson, Albert Walter. ca 1917-1918. Platoon Roll and Note Book. [Inherited from son Albert Walter Coulson, Raymond Walter Coulson.] Sue Adams private collection. RWC/4/1.
© Sue Adams 2014