A quest to unlock the secrets of our ancestors

Why did the 1901 census spark such extraordinary interest when it appeared on the web last week?
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The Independent Online

Barbara McDeson has got a bit stuck. Her father's grandparents on his mother's side do not appear to have filled in the 1881 census. Mrs McDeson cannot find them anyway, so for the moment she has given up looking, and instead started researching her sister-in-law's family tree. It turns out that one of her sets of ancestors did not fill in the 1881 census either.

Such are the frustrations of the amateur genealogist. But, not to be outdone, Mrs McDeson was settling into another day at the Family Records Centre in Clerkenwell in central London last week. She was going through spools of microfiche, cross-referencing birth and marriage certificates, and checking names against earlier discoveries, in the hope that something would provide a breakthrough. And when such moments come, she said: "It's a real thrill."

At the Public Record Office in Kew, Stephen Jacobs was similarly engaged in delving into his family's past. "There was always a bit of a mystery," he said. "Neither my mother nor father would really talk about their parents, and now that they have died it has become a challenge for me to find out."

Mr Jacobs's two-year search has yielded a treasure-trove of family records, with always the promise of more to come. The "mystery", he says, is one that is peculiar to almost every family in the land: illegitimacy. And then there is the revelation that his great-great-grandfather might have led a double life – that the "John Jackson" who fought in the Crimean War was really Mark Jacobs.

Mrs McDeson, from Camden, north London, and Mr Jacobs, from Barnes, west London, are part of an astonishing boom in interest in family history – a trend highlighted last week when the Public Record Office released the 1901 census on the internet, only for the site to crash under the weight of an estimated 20 million hits.

We have, it seems, gone family history mad. The prospect of being able to reach out across the generations and glimpse a little bit of ourselves in a hitherto lost ancestor – even in the bare details that official records provide – speaks to an age more inclined to look back rather than forward.

"We have endless discussions in the pub about why all this has taken off," said Lee Oliver, the Family Records Centre manager. "One theory is to do with the apparent decline of religion. People are now looking to their roots as something to cling on to. They see their ancestors as their identity."

In times when it was much more common for one generation to live close by another than it is now, there was scope to exchange family tales. In a dislocated society, with family breakdown on the increase and more people living on their own, such shared experience is on the wane. But the desire to know certainly is not.

The Family Records Centre – the repository of all births, marriages and death certificates – and the Public Record Office – which houses a wealth of military material – provide the building blocks for research into family history. The Mormon Church, in which genealogy plays an important part, has also built up a vast database. Records spawn other records, and the internet has opened the subject up further. For the descendants of the West Indian immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1950s, records such as ships' passenger lists are vital in helping them to trace their roots.

Nobody is able to put a figure on the numbers engaged in family history, but they all agree that it is a pursuit that can take over your life. "It's like a disease," Mr Oliver said. "Once you've got it, that's it. We see the same people coming in day after day." Mr Jacobs said that friends ask him what he will do when he's finished. "But I tell them, you never finish."

The response to the 1901 census told its own story, and even if many of those trying to access the website were casual visitors drawn by the publicity, that still leaves a growing core of amateur genealogists. These people tend to be retired. They have time to devote to research, and the requisite sense of history. According to Mr Oliver, they are often prompted into action by the death of a parent and the disappearance of oral history. But more and more younger genealogists are helping to swell the ranks.

In 1997 the Family Records Centre opened, bringing a range of material under one roof. Use went up 60 per cent, and it has continued to increase. In the past 20 years, membership of the Society of Genealogists has more than doubled to 15,000. Family Tree magazine, the only title of its kind when it was launched in 1984, has a circulation of 46,000, some 50 per cent up on 10 years ago. Other titles have now been launched. Beyond these figures, there is an even wider and deeper interest.

Gone are the days when you had to be landed gentry to boast of any kind of family history. We all have one, and it is waiting to be uncovered. Truly, genealogy is the people's pastime – and it might just have come of age.