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Finding Your Ancestors

Imagine spending 35 days on a storm-tossed sailing ship, carrying everything you own in an unwieldy trunk, trying to cope with seasickness, cramped conditions and lousy food, while watching some of your fellow passengers fall ill or die from cholera or typhus. It’s a chilling thought but it may have been the challenge faced by one of your ancestors, setting out from Britain, the place your family has probably called home for several generations, to start a new life in a distant land

Until the 1860s it took 35 days to sail from one of the emigration ports such as Plymouth, Southampton or Liverpool to the United States or Canada. For those heading to Australia or New Zealand, 10 to 17 weeks was nearer the mark.

Thanks partly to the aid and impetus the Internet has given amateur researchers, more and more people are coming to Britain in search of their family’s roots. When you consider that over nine million emigrants sailed from Liverpool alone in just one hundred-year period (1830-1930) imagine how many more millions around the world can trace their ancestry to the UK.

2007 marks the 400th anniversary of the first British settlement in North America. The modern USA has its roots in Jamestown, Virginia when, in 1607 – a decade before the Pilgrim Fathers founded Plymouth, Massachusetts – a band of intrepid adventurers from Eastern England landed there. Those who think they may be related to one of the original Jamestown settlers can log on to special websites to find out more. 50% of potential Australian and New Zealand visitors to Britain would also like to research their acncestry as part of their trip. Scotland welcomes more than 250,000 visitors looking into their family history every year.

Ancestral tourism visitors to Britain are much like any other sort, wanting to take in the popular sights, go shopping and sample a range of restaurants and pubs. For these people, however, their trip seems to have a deeper meaning as they also go in search of the little village where their ancestor grew up, or the country graveyard which is the resting place of family members. Research carried out in spare moments at home takes becomes real as the places where kith and kin were born, married or died are sought out, visited, and photographed.

Tourist organisations are making life easier by presenting material on websites designed to cater for this type of special interest travel.

The Scottish site, Ancestral Scotland includes a listing of events which may have a specific clan link, such as Highland Games.
Discover Ireland taps into the Irish Genealogical Project with its 15 million records dating from the 17th century.

People who venture to Britain will also stumble upon some finds that are remarkable in their own right. Those following the Gosnold Trail in honour of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, the ‘prime mover’ of the Jamestown expedition of 1606-7 in the county of Suffolk, can visit his ancestral home, Otley Hall near Ipswich. This 16th century moated house with its minstrels’ gallery, great hall and decorative chimneys is filled with the spirit of the Elizabethan age and visitors are often shown around by the enthusiastic current owners.

Visitors to Kent can explore the historic dockyard at Chatham, the heart of Maritime Britain where wooden sailing ships were built and more than 400 years of naval history reside. In the north-west, the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool has a fascinating gallery dedicated to emigration from Britain, where the statistics take on human faces and individual tales are recounted of hardships, endurance, and journeys to new lands.

At some point, every family historian is likely to use the services of the National Archives, which holds the records of the UK government from the 11th century to the present. A visit to the National Archives
offices, in Kew, West London, is worthwhile in researching ancestors as it is possible to see and handle a wide range of documents, see regularly-changing exhibitions and relax in a bookshop and café.

Four hundred miles north in Edinburgh, an exciting development is taking place for those researching their Scottish roots. A new Scottish family history centre creates a ‘one-stop-shop’ for genealogy research in the centre of the capital by bringing together services currently provided separately by several organisations. Called Scotland People’s Centre it enables visitors to search records, trace their family tree, and get a glimpse into the richness of Scotland’s past. It includes exhibitions, search rooms, and retail spaces and is open to everyone.

But why is there such a growing interest in ancestral tourism? Perhaps it is something to do with an urge to return to our roots, a human homing instinct. In the words of Deirdre Livingstone, head of Project Jamestown at VisitBritain, "People want to see, touch and feel their past. To find and actually touch the gravestones of your ancestors is a powerful thing."

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