Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Discovering your past

Discovering your family’s past: a journey of discovery
This month’s speaker was Mr Mike Rees of Bryncethin, but formerly of Maesteg. Mr Rees, a professional family history researcher had previously phoned the Society regarding his relatives ,the Barclay family of Stag House Abergarwed , and when it turned out that he was also the same Mike Rees who had been in school with our secretary, he was asked to come to speak to us. He attended one of our lectures this year given by our President, Mr Phylip Jones who through pure chance was speaking on the same Barclay family.

Mr Rees began his talk by referring to the boom in internet electronic searches for family history. He described them as being useful tools but little more than that, since the joy of finding out the history of everyone’s family lay in the spade work of delving into the “shoe boxes”, and other archives which families possessed. He began by setting out the basic questions of any search:-

First – How far can you get? It is possible for anyone with grandparents born before 1911 to get back to the 1790 s .
Second – do you have any rich, notorious or unknown relatives.Be prepared for shocks and scandal.
Third – decide which line or lines you wish to take. After all you have many different family lines branching into grandparents, great grandparents etc. You cannot do them all at once.
Fourth – is there an intriguing and long standing family myth which you would like to resolve as a focus to your research?
Who, where, when?

The first stage is to find out how much you already know. Speak to other members of your family and other siblings, in which to get vital information regarding dates and location of births, occupations and other family details in order to construct a family tree. Mr Rees,stated that the 1911 Census, was now freely available online and was “gold dust”, in tracing ancestry. The censuses are in a reliable form to 1841 (first census 1801) and therefore would have included people born in the 1790s. The Civil registration of marriages also started in 1837. Before then, every legal marriage would take place in a Church, therefore the parish registers would take you further back.

Section of the 1911 Census

Mr Rees,then turned to the family archives, which are referred to as “shoe boxes”, even in digital form. These are literally containers with old photographs, certificates, cuttings and other materials which families habitually keep. He said that it was important at this point to mark each item in pencil and keep a log on each person in a pocket book for future cross referencing. In his case it was a tin box in a drawer which included lamp checks, family photographs of important events, title deeds, plans for houses, ration books, bills for funerals, National Identity cards from the 1940s and 50s, in memoriam notices and the medals and sashes of friendly societies.

The family Bible is also a trove of information, since it was the custom to write the the births, deaths and marriages with dates in these. The added advantage was that it was sometimes possible to work out the legitimacy of the birth and the existence of siblings who died between censuses in an age of incredibly high infant mortality. The attendance book at a Sunday school was also a valuable resource.

Mr Rees frequently referred to the importance of libraries (a vanishing resource in themselves) in keeping local records. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has extensive records of will and probate. Archives and Libraries also have microfiche records of local publications and newspapers in which relatives and events could be painstakingly traced. The procedure for getting access to some of these places can be quite a trial in themselves. Historical publications can also be a valuable resource, and Mr Rees referred to “The History of the Vale of Neath”, by D.Rhys Phillips as a classic example. Neath Library has many copies and there are also copies in the volunteer led Cyber and Resources Centre ( formerly the library), in Resolven.

Some more unusual sources of information are the asylum records of the nineteenth century. Mental illness was little understood and many people ended up in so called lunatic asylums but with the added advantage to the family researcher that a photograph was always included even as early as the 1860s.

To conclude, Mr Rees turned to various agencies which could prove short cuts or help. The Glamorgan Family History Society publishes ( in booklet form) indexes of parish registers, baptisms and burials. Churchyards and headstones are also catalogued. Censuses are also extremely useful, but personal recorda are kept for a century before publication. 1921 therefore will be the last meaningful resource since little remains of the 1931 Census owing to war damage and there was no census in 1941.  Following censuses are in a different format.
Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Rees for a fascinating talk.

The Society will now take a short break until September. However, there are two events scheduled:-

1. A Ghost walk with Robert King on Monday 18th May. Meet at the Church hall at 5:30 for a lift or meet at the bandstand in Victoria Gardens at 6:00. There will be a £3 charge.

2. Annual Trip – Cynffig and Ewenny Priory, Saturday 13th June.
Arrangements: Meet at Church hall – 11:00

Cost: £11 including buffet at the Prince of Wales in Kenfig.