I recently wrote a post entitled, Top Ten Tips for Tracing Your Ancestors pre-1837. One of my main recommendations was to join a family history society. Some readers may be thinking that family history societies surely belong to an earlier era, when the genealogy landscape was very different. Research then had to be conducted nearly exclusively in archives, as the online world of genealogy websites did not exist. Since most records were unindexed, research was more difficult and there was a greater need for supportive groups. These groups also started projects to index some of their local records, such as the 1851 census returns for their area. Since most people only started researching their family history after they retired, when they were able to visit the archives, inevitably society members tended to be of a certain age. Perhaps you may still be under the impression that even today, family history societies are populated solely by retired people with time on their hands, and are therefore not for you. Think again! Although older people will inevitably form a large contingent in many societies, (and indeed, they do much of the voluntary work), many do attract a younger membership too, especially if the society has a good online presence. In this article, I will be looking at some of the reasons why you should consider joining a family history society.
I thought it would be useful to illustrate the benefits of family history society membership by focussing on a particular society. I belong to several different family history societies but recently, I have joined Wiltshire Family History Society, a society that I have had in my sights for some time. I have every reason to join this society, for if I look at my seize-quartiers, (my sixteen great great grandparents), nine were born in the county. Usually, family history society membership rates are very reasonable, and it costs just £12 for an annual subscription.
As stated on Wiltshire Family History Society’s website:
“the Society’s aim is to encourage the study of family history, including both Wiltshire ancestry of people world-wide and ancestry of Wiltshire residents”.
In order to find details of a family history society in your area, or in a place where you ancestors once lived, consult the A-Z listing of family history societies on the Federation of Family History Societies website:
One of the major benefits of joining a family history society is the sense of community that you can find. For this reason, many people opt to join a society in their locality so they can attend meetings in person. Here you have the opportunity to meet like-minded people who share the same interests. Interesting talks on different aspects of family and local history are arranged, usually on a monthly basis for the benefits of members. Similarly, outings to local archives or places of historic interest may be on offer. If you want to make friends with others in your area who enjoy family history, your local society is the place where you can find them. Wiltshire is a large county so Wiltshire Family History Society is divided into six branches. This has some advantages and if you live locally, you shouldn’t have to travel very far to attend meetings. There is a very welcoming message on the Society’s website:
“These meetings are open to all: if you live in the area or are just visiting why not pop in and discuss any family history related problems or just enjoy the evening?”
However, many members (including me!) join a society because it focuses on an area where their ancestors once lived, even if they live miles away. During the pandemic, many family history societies, no longer able to meet in person, have offered talks via Zoom to members, (though hopefully, in person meetings will resume soon). Several branches of Wiltshire Family History Society have organised Zoom talks over the past year or so, and it certainly is a way of engaging members who live at a distance, sometimes even those who live in a different country. It will be interesting to see how many societies will continue to offer talks on Zoom in the future, in addition to their in-person offerings. It would certainly be a big benefit to many members who live outside the area.
Perhaps you may feel that it is no longer necessary to join a society if you are looking for community, as there are plenty of Facebook groups, family history forums and Twitter, where you can engage with fellow family historians and have the opportunity to pose questions and ask for advice. Although there is a huge choice of online groups that one can participate in, that doesn’t mean to say that family history societies are now irrelevant, as many run their own online groups, particularly on Facebook, which are usually open to non-members too. Wiltshire Family History Society is just one of many societies that has its own Facebook page. There are many different ways in which one can find that sense of community, whether you are are local or not.
Traditionally, societies produce a journal full of interesting articles and news relevant to their area on a quarterly basis. Receiving the journal is one of the main benefits of becoming a member of a family history society. You never know, perhaps an article will feature your own family or give you some insights into the local history of an area where your ancestors were living. Given high postage costs, most societies give you the option of viewing journals online, sometimes for a cheaper membership rate. As a member of Wiltshire Family History Society, I have access to a back catalogue of 120 journals dating back as far as 1981, which are searchable and available to download online.
Indexes & Publications
Traditionally, family societies, through their volunteers, have always produced indexes and transcriptions that can be purchased, helping family historians everywhere and providing much needed funds for the society. This work continues and most societies are engaged in different projects. Many of the record sources will only be found in the local archives and are not available on one of the big genealogy websites. Wiltshire Family Society have an online sales leaflet that lists over 600 publications:
The assortment of CDs and booklets can be purchased through GenFair (https://genfair.co.uk/) or through the Society when representatives are present, perhaps at a family history show or conference. All publications are also available as online PDF downloads.
Many societies have taken the decision to make some of their record transcriptions also available on one of the large commercial genealogy websites, as an additional means of income. In the case of Wiltshire Family History Society, a number of their records, particularly their parish register transcriptions, can be found on FindmyPast (http://www.findmypast.co.uk/). Even if you are not a subscriber, you can still search FindMyPast for free to see if there are any entries of interest, though you need a subscription to view the full details.
Details of the Wiltshire Family History Society collections on FindMyPast can be found here with handy links to each record group:
Free Name Indexes
Many family history societies provide free name indexes to a number of their records for members and non-members alike. These can help you decide if a publication is likely to be of interest. Here are further details of the free name indexes offered by Wiltshire Family History Society:
Specifically, there are name indexes to the following Wiltshire records:
Marriage Licence Bonds
Passing Through (Vagrancy)
Poor Law in Wiltshire
Manorial Court Records
Wiltshire Strays * See Members Only Resources
Wiltshire Friendly Society * See Members Only Resources
Parish Register Transcriptions ** See below
Parish Register Transcriptions
Volunteers at many family history societies are busily engaged in producing transcriptions of parish registers. In a remarkable feat, Wiltshire Family History Society has nearly covered the whole county with its pre-1837 parish register transcription project. As well as providing high quality transcriptions of baptisms and burials to FindmyPast, the Society has produced transcripts of baptisms and burials for individual parishes that can be purchased on GenFair, (https://genfair.co.uk/) either in book form or as a download. On the Society’s website, under Resources, there is a free map of Wiltshire, showing parishes in 1936, which can be downloaded and searched:
There are also thirty seven CDs that are available for purchase that cover parish registers (and bishops’ transcripts). One CD may cover a single parish if it is a town, e.g. Calne, or many more, depending on the parish’s size and the number of entries. The CD will provide the full details that have been transcribed from the original registers. Though the full transcriptions of baptisms and burials can also be viewed on FindMyPast (if you have a subscription) these CDs make it easier to trace extended family lines and see all entries for a name from a particular locality. To minimise the risk of purchasing a CD and finding no reference to your missing ancestor, the Society have produced a simple name index to these records. If you are still unsure, which CD you might need, there is a link on the society’s website to a Wiltshire Parish Register Transcripts Map, which is available as a PDF. This provides a detailed breakdown of the specific parishes covered by each CD:
I can trace my mother’s ancestral line of Bullock back to Roger Bullock, who was baptised in Malmesbury in 1664, the son of John Bullock and his wife, Susanna. Malmesbury and sixteen surrounding parishes are covered by the CD, CMB-34. I checked the CMB-34 PDF index and found a big chunk of Bullock entries. Both the surname and forename are listed, though it should be noted that years and specific parishes are not given in the index. One also needs to be on the look out for variants, as these are not grouped together in the index.
Members Only Benefits
Even if in-person meetings are not possible due to your busy lifestyle or lack of geographic proximity, you can still collaborate with others who are researching the same families. Most societies have a list of the surname interests of members making it easy to contact distant cousins who are also interested in family history. It is so helpful to collaborate with other family historians who are researching the same families as you. Perhaps you are stuck on a particular research problem but they have been able to make a breakthrough. You can also learn a lot about collateral lines, which can give you a wider perspective and of course, precious family photographs may come to light. On the Wiltshire Family History Society website, it is possible to search for surname interests of members, even if you are not a member yourself. The search field is very flexible and you can search by Location, Member ID, County and Century, as well as by Name. If you are a member, you can get in touch with fellow members by email but if you are a non-member, (or even if you are having trouble contacting a member), you are encouraged to send an email to the the society’s Member Surname Interests Secretary. I thought it would be helpful to briefly outline my family research in Wiltshire. The parish is the place where I have traced each family to the earliest date, this being usually a record of baptism or marriage:
|Small||Barford St Martin||1687|
|Shepherd||Bradford on Avon||1751|
|Sayer||Bradford on Avon||1751|
|Gale||Chitterne All Saints||1800|
|Compton||Chitterne St Mary||1702|
|Cockerell||Codford St Peter||1719|
|Furnel||Codford St Peter||1719|
|Naish||Fisherton de la Mere||1782|
|Penny||Fisherton de la Mere||1782|
|Renger||Fisherton de la Mere||1764|
|Comly||Kington St Michael||1719|
|Priaulx||St Thomas Salisbury||1677|
|Ward||St Thomas Salisbury||1665|
|Fry||St Martin Salisbury||1693|
|Wheeler||St Martin Salisbury||1693|
As an illustration, through searching by Name in the Members’ Surname Interests database, I found twelve entries for my mother’s maiden name of Bullock, recorded by six members:
|889||BULLOCK||Bradford on Avon||WIL||19c|
My Bullock family were resident in the parish of Compton Bassett in the 19th century and were living largely in Yatesbury in the 18th century. Members 702 and 814 are likely to be distant cousins so it would be well worth me getting in touch with them. I can use the database to repeat the same exercise for any of my family names.
Wiltshire Friendly society
The Wiltshire Friendly Society commenced in 1828, which means that many of its members were born before registration of births began in 1837. The records of those joining include considerable information, which varied from time to time and increased in later years. All entrants were given a membership number and other information recorded might include:
Date of enrolment
Place of enrolment or abode at time of entry
Parents’ names (for children)
Date of birth
Age next birthday
Place of birth
Other notes (occasionally)
Every record has been transcribed and a summary index is available as a free name index. The full details are available as a PDF for members to view and almost every record has the person’s date and place of birth.
wiltshire dialect words
There are many words that are unique to Wiltshire so the Society has compiled a handy and charming list of local dialect words and expressions.
wiltshire strays collection
This a collection of records about people who have left the county but then appear in various documents elsewhere, available as a searchable PDF document.
Opportunities to Volunteer
You might also enjoy volunteering for a society. Without volunteers, family historians would not enjoy all the amazing resources, transcriptions and indexes that can be of tremendous benefit to one’s research. By volunteering, you can give something back to the genealogy community and work alongside others who share your interests.
help with your research
Family history societies are run by volunteers, many of whom have considerable expertise and knowledge of their local area and archives. Many societies offer a research service and welcome enquiries from members. Usually only a modest research fee is charged. Volunteers from Wiltshire Family History Society help run a Resources Centre in Devizes.
Some societies provide a Useful links section on their website, which provides details of other organisations that could prove helpful in your research. There is a Useful Links section on the Wiltshire Family History Society website, which has a focus on Wiltshire:
There are so many reasons why you should join a family history society. If there is one in your locality, you can attend meetings and find that sense of community. Even if you live at a distance, you can join their Facebook group and maybe attend a Zoom talk. Each society is different, but all offer specific benefits to members, such as a quarterly journal or exclusive access to particular record sources on their website. Many of their records are not available on the big genealogy websites but could be of huge benefit to your research. You might also consider volunteering for the society, perhaps taking on a specific role, or doing that all important transcription work that helps other family historians all over the world discover more about their family history. Given the vital work that family history societies do as educational charities, it is also important to support their efforts. For the price of a small membership fee, you can do your bit to ensure that they and their work will continue in the future.
© Judith Batchelor 2021