Putting your family history in context

Although researching and writing your family history gives you the opportunity to explore and write about the lives of people you have a personal connection to, there will also be many experiences they shared with their contemporaries. By putting your family history in context you can add so much more interest and depth to your narrative which will take your research and stories to a whole new level.

How do you start putting your family history in context?

Pick out just one or two of your ancestors (may be ancestors with a particularly fascinating story) and then start to look beyond their personal lives. For example, what do you know about the social, political, environmental and economic conditions both in your ancestor’s community or neighbourhood and in the world beyond and what impact (if any) did these have on their lives?

Find out more about what people wore at that time, what they ate and drank, what they did to entertain themselves, whether they benefitted from an education, what means of transport they used and whether they ever travelled beyond their own village or town.

Rural areas witnessed the most dramatic changes during the industrial revolution and so how did this affect the lives and work of the local community in which your ancestors lived? Did they live through a war or a period of economic uncertainty and if so how did this affect their lives?  Look at old maps to find out whether your ancestor lived in or close to an area that experienced a significant historical event, a natural disaster or epidemic and how these might have shaped their lives.

Adding historical context through online research

The research needed to discover what life was really like for your ancestors can be very time consuming so here are some online resources which provide some very useful background information for adding historical context.

BBC family history research timeline

The BBC Family History Research Timeline enables you to delve into four fascinating areas of your family history. Use the Family Secrets timeline to find out how to discover the skeletons and scandals in your ancestors’ closets. Search the Working Life timeline to find out how your predecessors made a living. Discover how wars and conflicts may have affected your family history using the Military timeline or follow the trail of ancestors who migrated on the Migration timeline. Even though all of these pages have now been archived and are therefore no longer updated, they still provide some very useful background information.


The HistoryLines website enables you to explore the culture, lifestyle and historical events surrounding the lives of your ancestors using an interactive timeline. You can either enter the details of your family directly into HistoryLines or you can import your own family tree as GEDCOM file from a variety of family-tree creation websites. You can try out HistoryLines for free (in the free version you are limited to two stories) or you can pay for an annual or monthly subscription and create an unlimited number of stories.

HistoryLines automatically creates a narrative and a timeline for each ancestor you enter or choose from your family tree. In addition to the historical details on the timeline you can also discover more about the life and times of an ancestor from the clothes they wore and the food they ate to advances in medical science in their life time and the politics of the day. You can edit your stories, add your own photos and notes, create a PDF file for printing and share your stories on social media.

Newspaper archives

Newspaper reports are a great way of discovering more about the life and times of your ancestors and it is now possible to access a lot of this information online. The British Newspaper Archive enables you to access hundreds of historic newspapers from all over Britain and Ireland. Find My Past has a newspaper collection which includes thousands of local and regional publications across England, Wales, and Scotland. Each page has been digitized and fully indexed so you can search every word within an article.

Travel and migration records

If any of your ancestors emigrated, Find My Past can help you to trace the whereabouts of your emigrant ancestors through their migration records and passenger lists. Ancestry also provides a collection of immigration and travel records which reveal your ancestors’ origins and where they ended up. Also check out the immigration records on the National Archives website.

Military records

If you want to find out more about an ancestor’s military service then Find My Past has 60 million military and conflict records which cover both world wars as well as a range of other national and international conflicts dating from 1760 to the 20th century. Forces War Records enables you to search more than 10 million military records which include memories and experiences from those who served and pictures and videos. They also have an online library of more than 1,700 historic documents.

To conclude

Nobody’s ancestors lived in isolation and with some additional research it is possible to create unique stories which combine historical details with the anecdotes and stories you have uncovered about your family members. Take a look at the links above to see what you can discover or do your own online (or offline) research. There is a wealth of information now available online which will give you an insight into what life must have been like for your ancestors thus enabling you to start putting your family history in context.

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Family history and social history have close links


Putting your family history in context

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