A report from research associate, Dr Lauren O’Hagan, who ran a stall on ‘Book Inscriptions and Family History Research’ with civic engagement officer, Sara Huws, at the Family History Show at UWE Exhibition & Conference Centre, Bristol on 8 February.
People were already queuing in their hordes when I arrived at the UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre early on Saturday morning. Some with notepads and pens, some with cameras, some with flasks and packed lunches, some even with camping chairs. “I just can’t wait to see him in the flesh,” one woman exclaimed as I made my way to the entrance. No, we weren’t at a concert awaiting the arrival of Ed Sheeran or Drake; we were at the Family History Show, the biggest genealogical event in the South West of England, where dozens of avid amateur researchers had braved the rain to talk to experts in genealogy.
The Family History Show is the brainchild of Discover Your Ancestors magazine who first launched the show in York in 2011. Since then, its popularity has been growing steadily and, now, shows are run annually in York, London and Bristol, attracting hundreds of visitors from all across Britain. Judging from the crowd outside, today’s event in Bristol looked like it was going to be a big one!
As I entered the exhibition hall, I was met with four long rows of stalls featuring everything from dating old photographs and exploring historic maps to tracing ancestors in British India and discussing ethical dilemmas in genealogy. There were also opportunities to attend lectures on DNA testing, house dating and historic clothing, as well as to purchase postcards, books, folders and other genealogical paraphernalia.
A quick initial stroll around the hall made it clear that England was very well represented (with stallholders from the local Bristol area, as well as Devon, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and beyond), but we were the only stall representing Wales. This meant that not only did we have the task of promoting book inscriptions and family history research, but also the added pressure of flying the flag for Wales and all other heritage industries in the country!
We quickly set up our stall (a good central location!), adorning it with a selection of prize books, laminated inscriptions and pamphlets, as well as freebie tote bags and pencil crayons. If we couldn’t lure visitors with books, at least we could lure them with giveaways! But as it turned out, we didn’t need to worry about that.
At 10:00 on the dot, a loudspeaker announcement declared the opening of the show. And so the floodgates were opened and dozens of men and women piled in.
From the outset, our stall seemed to attract a lot of attention, setting the pace for the day ahead. For the next six hours, Sara and I barely had a moment to rest!
Visitors seemed genuinely fascinated to hear about my novel way of approaching family history research and were keen to take away a copy of the two-page pamphlet I had produced with ‘top tips’ for using book inscriptions to explore ancestry.
As people browsed through the selection of inscriptions on the table, they seemed temporarily transported back to their childhood and opened up, sharing their own family memories and stories. It was genuinely touching to hear personal perspectives on inscriptions and what they meant to individuals. Many of these stories concerned family Bibles and prayer books and how they were passed down from generation to generation until the present day. Most admitted that they had never read the books, but they would never get rid of them because they were such a tangible link to their ancestors. Some, on the other hand, confessed that they had binned the books but steamed off the prize labels to keep because to do otherwise would be “to erase history.”
My favourite stories of the day include the simple tale of how one woman’s great-grandmother saved up to buy a copy of The English House for her great-grandfather, a builder, as well as the moving story of how one pocket prayer book survived World War One with bullet holes through its cover. I was also fascinated to hear the number of stories about inscriptions as first-hand evidence of national events. One lady recalled how her great-aunt had witnessed the transportation of Queen Victoria’s coffin from Osborne House to mainland Britain and documented the event in an inscription. In it, she had described how the sun shone off the jewels on top of the coffin, something that “you would never get from official records.” As she told me, marks like these made you realise that “Queen Victoria was nobody special; she was just one of us.” These examples really show how inscriptions and books can offer personalised versions and, thus, new perspectives on national events.
One of the most positive things for me was the way in which my research seemed to stimulate people’s own interest and curiosity in book inscriptions. Many stated that they couldn’t wait to go back home and start rummaging around to find what old books they had. Several people even noted down my email address so that they could send me their own examples to add to my dataset. It was also encouraging to hear people say that I had changed their way of thinking and that they would now look at their books in a new light. One man informed me that my research had “a lovely way of humanising ancestors” and “bringing the past to life.”
Being the only Welsh presence at the Family History Show, we also received a surprising number of visitors who were interested in investigating their Welsh ancestry. Sara dealt expertly (in both English and Welsh) with a barrage of different questions about all aspects of Welsh identity, from religion and language to sports and jobs, and even skillfully handled a tricky debate on nationalism. She even convinced a few people to start learning Welsh. Result!
Feedback from visitors showed that most people were unaware that Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives existed, let alone that it was open to the general public and not just students and academics. After informing visitors of the types of records held there, many expressed an interest in visiting. We were also able to send a fair few people Glamorgan Archives’ way (you can thank us later, guys!). Many visitors also had no previous knowledge of Archives Hub, an excellent website for searching across archive collections held in the UK, so we were able to promote the resource too.
A key factor that seemed to unite all stalls across the event was the connection between the past and present and the idea that we are really no different to our ancestors. This theme came up time and time again, whether in the examples of postcards showing Edwardians ‘foodstagramming’ their meals at a table, confession books where friends and families took part in ‘clean copy challenges’ or bookplates which people used as ‘status updates’ and ‘selfies’. Just like now, people laughed, cried, worried and cared about similar things to us. Tangible objects like book inscriptions or photographs remind us of this and bring us back in touch with the human side of our ancestors, making them more than just a name on a census record.
The day just flew by and before we knew it, it was 4:00 and time to wrap up the show. Naturally, the show ended in the only way that a Family History Show could end: with a Tannoy announcement that somebody had left a copy of the 1933 electoral register on the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society stall. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else!
So, all in all, we had a brilliant day out and thoroughly enjoyed talking to different people, hearing fascinating stories and promoting the value of book inscriptions for family history research. I even received two public speaking invites and generated interest in my forthcoming exhibition and book (stay tuned for both!). And as a scholar of Edwardian book inscriptions, I was delighted to pick up a free copy of the latest edition of Discover Your Ancestors featuring who else but King Edward VII himself standing regally on the front cover looking over his subjects.
My first experience of a family history show but definitely not my last!