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John Gilbert researching his family tree.

We speak to John Gilbert (aged 61, pictured above), who has been researching his family history, and in the process discovered the truth about a family legend.

Why did you decide to research your family tree?

It all began with a story that my father-in-law used to tell. He said that historically, the Charsley family had been wealthy, but his line had been disinherited when his ancestor married a Catholic serving girl. I wanted to find out how much truth there was in this story.

How did you get started?

I started 40 years ago which was before computers, so (my wife) Mary and I went to Somerset House, where all the records of births, deaths and marriages from 1837 were kept at the time. There were an impressive number of large dusty books and we ploughed through to find our family name along with the dates of marriages, birth and deaths, which we scribbled down on paper.

From this we had a good idea of when and where most Charsleys were born, so we set off to county record offices in Aylesbury and Stafford, where we could read copies of Wills dating back to the 17th-century. Thinking about their occupations, the working conditions of the time, and the role that religion played in society, we could really start to build a picture of these people’s lives.

The next stage was to use telephone directories to phone several people in other branches of the family. We wrote to them in Buckinghamshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Scotland and Canada and everyone wrote back. They were all interested and wanted to find out more and some had even done their own research into their side of the family.

What did you find out?

We found that there was some truth in the family story, but there was also a twist! The character that appears to have been disinherited had worked as an ensign (flag bearer) during the Napoleonic wars before he died in 1855. He had left his army pension to his wife, but we were surprised to find that his Will had been contested by another wife, so he appears to have been a bigamist!

Another exciting find was recently spotting a name on a war memorial that gave us a missing part of the puzzle. We had been aware of a Major R.B. Charsley who had married in 1917, but could see no record of death, which was unusual. Following up the information from the memorial we found that he had died in action just 5 months after his wedding.

Did you enjoy all this investigating?

Yes, we found ourselves going off on tangents, learning about the different social conditions and working conditions for instance. Mary and I just couldn’t put it down for years because it was so interesting and we wanted to speak to people about it and share what we’d found.

I once found the name of a Charsley on a public information tablet alongside the name of one of the founding fathers, William Penn. And when you find clues like that about who your ancestors may have associated with, you can really embellish the story and it becomes a living history.

It's a great sense of achievement to know that we can trace a direct line back to 1580, not many people can say that. And it’s never ending, you always want to get further under the skin and find out as much as possible about these people, even though they are long dead.

What would you say to anyone thinking of researching their own family tree?

I would definitely recommend that people take this up, but be warned that it can take a lot of time. I've been lucky to be able to investigate a fairly unusual name, but you might be in for more of a challenge if you're following a common name.

It's also worth noting variations in the spelling of a name, because when large numbers of the population were illiterate, names were often recorded phonetically and could vary by accent. Do look online for advice, or try magazines that sometimes come with DVDs and recommend processes you can follow.

Find out more about researching your family tree

Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 678 1174