How to find ancestors through letters and other personal writing


30 November 2016
Ancestors-letters-51656.jpg How to find ancestors through letters and other personal writing
Discover how to find out more about your ancestors through what they wrote

Discover how to find out more about your ancestors through what they wrote.

Did your ancestor leave any personal writings?

A soppy letter, a diary of domestic activity, a birthday book crammed with the details of family anniversaries, or even a hastily scrawled comment in his or her favourite novel?

If so, consider yourself lucky indeed, as while we might think that only the published writings of wealthy and educated people in the past can hold any interest for our family histories, in fact, ad hoc unpublished writing even by poor and semi-literate ancestors can give clues to their lives and identities in the past.

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Regular contributor to Family Tree, Ruth A Symes, has published a new book Tracing Ancestors Through Letters and Other Personal Writing, and here she shares some tips to help you find out more about your ancestors through their writing.

After the Education Act of 1870, levels of literacy among the British population rose swiftly.

Alongside this, the improvements (not least in the cost) of the postal service and the development of new means and methods of communication such as fountain pens, erasers, telegrams, postcards and greetings cards allowed for a new proliferation of personal writings of all kinds.

Industrialisation, and the development of better, faster modes of travel, changed perceptions of time in multiple ways encouraging people to record both their immediate past in journals and their immediate future in appointment diaries.

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Travellers, newly buzzing across the country and indeed the world, at previously unimaginable speeds, composed graphic accounts of their experiences.

People of all classes preserved items of interest – recipes, aphorisms, poems, etc - in notebooks (or commonplace books), and jotted in the margins of published books as they read, expostulating with pleasure and outrage, or capturing fleeting thoughts and opinions.

Catastrophic world events such as the First and Second World Wars caused people to turn more and more to their interior lives in diaries and letters. And with lives often radically different at their ends than at their beginnings (due to all sorts of historical factors), many more people than might be imagined tried their hand at a humble verse or fragment of autobiography.

For our ancestors, the urge to communicate with loved ones at a distance (or even to write material for themselves to read at a later date) frequently overcame their insecurities as writers.

Your ancestors’ efforts might, therefore, be far from perfect, spellings might have been guessed at, grammar poor, and punctuation ignored, original verse might be trite and poorly rhymed, and diaries sparse, or filled with seemingly mundane diurnal activity.

But don’t dismiss them out of hand.

Instead, if you have a favourite piece of writing by an ancestor have it by your side as you read my new book, Tracing Ancestors Through Letters and Other Personal Writing, out now. Each chapter ends with a series of questions designed to help you tease out more of the history behind the rambling lines of pencil and ink.

Postcard back


Find out when a particular kind of personal communication - such as the postcard - was most popular, and how communication by this means was regarded by society at the time. This badly spelled postcard from Maud in Birmingham to Doris in Northampton in 1913 shows how lack of expertise with a pen was no obstacle to communication during the postcard craze of the early years of the 20th century.

Credit: Author’s own collection.

Diary of Miss D M Field

Diary of Miss D M Field, 1916

Learn how to analyse a family diary. Do gaps, for instance, indicate that something momentous - such as a birth or an illness or a change of domicile - was happening at the time? Which details are selected and which are missed out? These are pages from one of four manuscript diaries kept by Miss D M Field, a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse (VAD), in France and Italy in 1916.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.



Soldier writing a letter

Soldier Writing a Letter

In the First World War, the swift passage of letters to and from the Western Front was considered vitally important to the maintenance of military morale, but don’t forget that your ancestors’ correspondence will have been censored to ensure that an upbeat tone was maintained.


Credit: Author’s own collection.






Handwritten jpurnal

Handwritten holiday journal of trip to Norway

Fascinating personal writings can appear in humble guisesIrene and Morna Beech, sisters from Lancashire, kept a handwritten record (in a simple ringbound notebook) of their holiday to Norway.

Credit: Author’s own collection.