Researching our Twentieth Century Ancestors

As genealogists, we often shy away from researching our twentieth century ancestors, treating them differently from earlier generations. When we begin our quest to uncover our family’s story, the inclination is to rush backwards as far as possible, as fast as possible. Often, our knowledge reaches back to the early years of the twentieth century without us having to do any documentary research. Here are people we have known and whose personal reminiscences, memorabilia and vital records may well be in our possession, or held by close family. For some of us, there is the tendency to view the twentieth century as ‘not really history’; after all we may well have lived through half of it. Our starting point may well be a granny or great granddad who was born in 1895. Family historians will often, justifiably, comment that it is easier to research in the nineteenth century than it is the twentieth. Records that are closed to public view, families that are increasingly mobile and just sheer numbers of people, all add to the difficulties of more recent research. This means we sometimes gloss over the recent members of our family tree, relying on what the family can tell us and instead we immerse ourselves in the stories of our earlier ancestors.

If you have never really focussed on your more recent relatives, I would like to encourage you to do so. This is not just about a family tree, it is about recreating your family’s lives. There is so much context that can be brought in to stories of ancestors who were alive between 1900 and 1950: two World Wars, the changing role of women, the Great Depression, to name but a few. If you have an English family you might add the General Strike, in Ireland the fight for Home Rule. This period may see your family owning a bicycle, a camera or a radio for the first time. Can you find out what they might have seen at the cinema, listened to on the phonograph or played with as children? Fashions, communications, travel and social welfare all changed immeasurably between 1900 and 1950; how would this have affected your family?

Taking time out from your quest for earlier generations, to concentrate on those from this period, can bring great benefits. Just selecting a few decades really focuses the mind and you will probably be surprised how much you can find out about these relatives, their homes and localities and the lives they may have led. There is much to help you tell that story. You may well have photographs of this period. Even if you do not have photographs of your own ancestors, there are others available to evoke the era. There will be newspaper reports that again might not name your own relatives but will tell you what was going on in their communities. Would granny have attended the church bazaar? Did granddad win the ploughing match? Would your family have been affected by the closure of a major local business? It is much more likely that you will have precise addresses for twentieth century ancestors and it is also more likely that those homes are still standing. This opens up opportunities to include photographs of those homes in your stories.

For those of you with British ancestors in this period, if you feel that this is a project that you might like to try and you would welcome further guidance, the next presentation of my five week online course Discovering your British Family and Community in the Early Twentieth Century, run by Pharos Tutoring and Teaching starts in January.

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.