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Cat Whiteaway's tips for creating a three-dimensional family tree

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:58 UK time, Wednesday, 7 December 2011

People often ask me if I can do their family tree for them. While this is a lovely compliment I always decline the offer, since it is far more satisfying to research your own family history.

There is so much more to it than the simple flat two-dimensional family tree that people think can be printed off using a magical computer.

I try to encourage people to compare the process to that of buying a jigsaw puzzle in a charity shop, with the lid missing! You can't be sure of how it will end up and there may well be a few pieces absent.

The best thing to do is to try and gather all the details you can from as many sources as possible, from as far and wide as you can. Make sure you start by quizzing the older people in your family, and your siblings and cousins - especially the women, as they seem to be the keepers of this type of knowledge.

Family certificates

Certificates, service records and invitations are an important part of creating a rounded family history

Dig out all the old photographs and medals and any old documents and certificates you can find. Not just birth, death and marriage certificates but school certificates, wills, apprenticeships, service records, tickets, invitations and receipts for burial plots and so on, and store them all away carefully in a special memory box.

Aim to build a whole picture of your ancestors not just one that fits neatly onto a flat family tree. Some of the best examples I have seen include timelines and storyboards so that the research and evidence relates to the history of the time.

As a child I loathed history. I couldn't see the point and dropped it as soon as I could, but since working in genealogy I've learned about Corn Laws and social reform and understood the industrial revolution and the push and pull causes of migration.

Cat and Patrick Mower

Cat with Patrick Mower

Mind you, I don't think any number of history lessons could have prepared me for the reason why Patrick Mower's ancestor moved away from Carmarthen to Porth. After much digging deep down into the roots of his family tree I was amazed to discover that David Price, Patrick's great-great grandfather, actually turned out to be David Samuel who fled Carmarthenshire after being accused of committing a murder in the 1820s.

All of the details, the witnesses, the police statements, coroner's reports and court records, including verbatim details of the trial, were laid out for all to read in the newspapers. This was truly like discovering gold and a real bonus for the Coming Home programme.

And while you may not have (or want) a murder in your family history, think back to the days before the internet and how people relied on newspapers to share news of a birth or death in their family. They may be one of the hardest resources to use but in my experience there is little that can compare to being lost in time while reading through the old newspapers and learning what the world was like for your ancestors.

If you missed Cat's first article for BBC Wales history on tracing your family tree, you can read it here.

Actor Trevor Eve finds out about his Welsh roots tonight on Coming Home, Wednesday 7 December, 8.30pm on BBC Cymru Wales.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Cat
    Apologies for this as this is probably not your issue but I am hoping someone can help. The BBC is not easy to contact directly!

    I hear that the Trevor Eve episode of Coming Home included the Woosnams from Montgomery. My g-g-grandfather was Thomas Woosnam who was born in Trelystan near Montgomery so I am very interested in this. I live in Australia so cannot see the program on iPlayer so I am hoping someone can help me beg, borrow or buy the episode. Will it be available at the BBC shop?


  • Comment number 2.

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment. As far as I am aware there are no plans for 'Coming Home: Trevor Eve' to be available to buy from the BBC Shop. Sorry about that.

    This page offers iPlayer help for those trying to view BBC content from outside the UK.

    Wales History

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Cat
    I have just read your article on family trees and agree that they should be more than dates and facts. I have spent some time researching my family tree and the time has come to put it into print. Is it possible to see examples of family trees, perhaps on the internet, which will be interesting to read and use them as a guide for my own. If there are any such trees out there I would appreciate any pointers where to look .
    Thanks Verjon


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