28 July 2019
Learn how you can follow in your ancestors’ footsteps, like Naomie Harris, as Family Tree editor Helen Tovey shares some simple steps
After watching the latest episode of BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, we're feeling inspired by Naomie Harris’s family history journey. Learn how you can follow in your ancestors’ footsteps, like Naomie as Family Tree editor Helen Tovey shares some simple steps to get started on the epic journey of your own family’s past...
001. Ask questions… and more questions!!
Once Naomie Harris became curious about her family, in just one conversation with her Dad she learnt that he was one of eight siblings, and that he’d come to London from Trinidad as a child, aged seven, with his parents, and lived in Muswell Hill. These gave Naomie Harris so many clues to go on, and look into further, to trace her family story back in time.
Tip: It can be hard asking questions. Go slowly, and let people answer in their own time. Do make notes of key details (names, dates and places), because as the clues mount up it can be easy to get in a muddle.
002. Track down family photos
Naomie Harris didn’t know anything about her father’s side of the family: ‘My Dad was not part of my life growing up at all. If you ask me about my Dad’s family, I know zilch.’
Even if you’re not in close contact with family it can be well worth tracking down relations, even distant cousins, to see whether they may have copies of family photos they can share with you. Naomie spotted family likenesses between her Dad and old family photos he had.
003. Location, location, location
‘So they were just up the road from me, during my entire…[childhood]. Gosh it’s all coming out now’ – Naomie Harris learnt that her Dad’s family had lived in a nearby street to the one she grew up, but they weren’t in contact with her.
When discovering our family’s past we can all come across things that might be difficult or upsetting to process. Once we’ve got used to those latest discoveries, use those details to learn more. Eg learning about the place that your ancestor once lived is invaluable: it will give you clues about their places of work and places of worship, the sort of community they lived in, which local record offices and archives might be able to help you.
Tip: To find an archive for a place, visit the archive directory
004. Ask the elders
While Naomie Harris’s father didn’t know anything much beyond his parents, his older brother Sabba did. It’s always worth asking the oldest relatives in the family if they can shed light and share info.
Different relations remember different family anecdotes, inherit different artefacts, have different bonds. The more people you talk too, the deeper your knowledge will come. Naomie says of her Uncle Sabba: ‘It was really wonderful meeting Sabba. It was really special to meet him. He’s filling all these huge gaps I have in my history.’
005. Take a heritage road trip
Naomie Harris travelled to Trinidad and Grenada to try to trace clues and records about her ancestors. Time and money can restrict many of our dreams to take such huge trips right away, but there’s a lot you can do closer to home.
- Check out places using Google Maps and Google Earth to make a virtual road trip
- Make contact with archives – many have research services and can make copies of records and email or post them to you
- Plan trips closer to home – many of our families have family members who have lived in many different places. While you save for that big trip, be sure to visit places nearer to home and gather all the clues that you can in the meantime
006. Get a feel for history
‘I would not be excited to find that I’m related to some slave owner.’
Naomie Harris had to deal with tough news – that her ancestor was an estate overseer (the man responsible for discipline and order on the plantation).
In addition, Naomie Harris learnt that even decades after the abolition of slavery by the British, African people were still employed as indentured labourers on British-controlled plantations. Many slaves and indentured servants came to have the surname of the estate managers or owners. Estate records show many slaves with the surname Langdon, that of Naomie Harris’s ancestor overseer.
Many of us will have to deal with controversial, complex and difficult topics. It’s well worth learning about the history of past eras so that you get an understanding of the world that your ancestors once lived in. You can do this by reading widely. Study history books, old newspapers and also exploring the archives widely.
007. Take a DNA test
At the start, Naomie Harris said, ‘To be honest I’ve never ever been interested in my family history. And then my mum for my birthday got me a DNA kit…’
When this revealed her ethnicity was 48% from Nigeria, there was no turning back, and Naomie Harris just had to find out more: ‘I don’t know why. But it just had such a huge impact on me… All these questions were triggered, just by doing a DNA test’.
LivingDNA tests, for instance, will tell you about your father line, mother line and autosomal (all branches of your family tree) if you are male. Or mother line and autosomal (all branches of your family tree) if you are female.
If you too would like to do a DNA test, or would like to buy one as a gift, click here.
‘Has my whole life been a lie?’. Naomie Harris wonders whether she is really a Tulloch not a Harris, as Harris is her grandfather’s stepfather’s name.
Sometimes the facts you find will be unexpected. Sometimes people have secrets. But secrets aren’t always ‘lies’. The world in decades past has been very different, and sometimes people prefer not to discuss some things. Learning about these differences in opinion and values is something we all have to come to terms with when we do our family history.
Naomie Harris remembers that her grandfather loved her dearly and was a very honourable man: ‘What I immediately felt when I started researching my grandfather’s line was a deep connection. And I realise that I’ve been searching for this kind of missing link in my childhood, being “fathered”, because my father was absent. And what I realised when I started searching was actually I was “fathered”… My grandfather was much more important in my life, and much more influential than I ever could have imagined. And I think I would have died, not knowing what an impact my grandfather had had on me, if I hadn’t have done this…’
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This episode of Who Do You Think You Are? aired on BBC Monday 29th July 2019; available to watch on iplayer