Like many people I research my family history as a hobby. My interest began after an evening out with my dad. During a conversation about my grandparents, he revealed to me that he had never met his paternal grandfather. Surprised that I didn’t already know this, I asked why? His grandfather, he explained, was a taboo subject. Any mention of his name was strictly forbidden by dad’s grandmother. All he was told was that he had abandoned his wife and children, and no-one knew where he was. As a young boy, my dad simply accepted this, but as an adult, he admitted that he was more than a little curious. He knew almost nothing about the man, other than he might have been in the army. He didn’t even know his first name. I was so intrigued that I decided I would track my great-grandfather down.

Get Ancestry and Find My Past free from East Sussex Libraries

I’d never researched my family history before, and I wasn’t sure where to start. A friend suggested trying the local library, so I headed down to see what was available. The librarian showed me some helpful books, but also explained that I could get free access to and in any East Sussex library. These websites offer access to census records, telephone directories, electoral registers and army service records. They’re the cornerstone of any family history research.

Get access during the lockdown

With the libraries currently shut, we’ve opened access to these packages for you to use for free at home. Visit our online library and scroll to the bottom of the home page to find out how. You can also find a range of eBooks that can help you with your research. All you need is library account. Don’t worry if you’re not currently a member, you can join online and get access immediately.

My investigation begins

So what did I find out about my great-grandfather? All I had to go on was a last name and my best guess at a date of birth. It wasn’t a great starting point, until I realised that my grandfather’s unusual middle name was actually a clue. He had inherited it from his father.

Now I had a middle and last name, and luckily for me, that narrowed the search down to one person. John was born in Liverpool and moved to Fulham with his parents at the end of the 19th century. I discovered that his father was something of a character who appeared in newspapers on several occasions as the librarian who toured exhibitions with a homemade ant house. Again, the library was able to help me as they offer a range of online research tools, including the Times archive and the British Newspaper Archive.

Unexpected outcomes

John joined the army at 19 and was serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps when the first world war started. I think it was the trauma of this event that caused the rift in the family, although I’ll probably never know for certain. The records revealed that rather than returning home at the end of the war, he took a posting in Bombay. He remained there for several years before returning to England on retirement. Here, the story took an unexpected turn. When I started my research, I’d recently moved to a new town. As far as I knew, there were no family ties. Yet, I discovered that John had been drawn to the exact same area 70 years earlier. His last home was on the next street along from my new house, and I walked past it every day.

With so much time at home, this is a great opportunity to start your own adventure. You will likely discover something you didn’t know, and perhaps even something very unexpected. Happy researching!

You might also be interested in all the ways the libraries can help you during the lockdown.