Family Matters

Read what leading figures in the family history world are saying about Family Matters as a timely and ground-breaking study of British genealogy. fm title 

Family Matters: A History of Genealogy, by Michael Sharpe, published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, October 2011.

Lifting the Lid on British Genealogy

Heraldic VisitationFamily Matters is about the growth of one of Britain's most popular pastimes - genealogy (or 'family history'). It's impossible to turn on the radio or television these days without coming across genealogy programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Tracing Your Roots, Heir Hunters or Missing Millions. Family history websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past, Family Relatives and Genes Reunited have major followings. And family history is a frequent source of pub or dinner-party conversation. Everybody these days, it seems, is tracing their roots.

Surveys show around six million people in Britain - one in ten of the population - are researching their family trees, and genealogy is one of the top categories for online searches. Many factors have contributed to this growth in popularity: the digitisation of historical records, the growth of family history societies, and the introduction of computers and the internet have all helped make the subject more affordable and accessible.

While recent developments have brought family history into the mainstream, ancestor hunting is nothing new. In fact, genealogy has a fascinating, but little known, history stretching back many hundreds of years.

It is this hidden history of genealogy that I explore in Family Matters. The book traces the rise of genealogy from an esoteric interest of scholars and the upper classes to the popular pastime of today. It describes the landmark events and the personalities behind them, telling the story of the evolution of family history through the eyes of those involved.

Family Matters is one of the few books to put family history itself under the microscope, rather than being a 'how to' guide to family history research, presenting the first popular history of the subject published in the last 50 years. It offers, I hope, a fresh perspective on an activity that is not just a fast-growing leisure pursuit but also a rapidly expanding business sector and an important field for public policy.


Chapter Synopses

medieval genealogy diagramFamily Matters comprises nine chapters. The first two set the scene by describing the nature of family history in Britain today and an overview of the genealogist's art and the records they consult. The next six chapters tell the story, chronicling the development of genealogy from medieval times through to the present day. The final chapter brings it all together, reflecting on key themes and looking ahead to what the future might hold.

  • CHAPTER 1: THIS ANCESTRY BUSINESS: Reflections on the rapid growth in interest in family history in Britain over recent years and the social phenomenon it has become. Aspects include: the origins of genealogy (its significance in societies and cultures through the ages); definitions of key terms; characterisation of modern-day family historians, their motivations and how they work; and uses and applications of genealogy (in law, biography, history, genetics & medicine, and eugenics).
  • CHAPTER 2: THE NATION'S MEMORY: A brief history of the public records focusing on the four main classes used by family historians: parish registers, civil registration, censuses and wills. For each class of records, the drivers, key dates and developments are discussed. This chapter also describes the creation of the General Register Office (1836); and the Public Record Office (1838) and the beginnings of archival legislation.
  • CHAPTER 3: THE CRANE'S FOOT (pre-19th Century): Genealogy in Britain has its origins in the rigid hierarchical structures of the feudal system. In the centuries that followed, it was appropriated to the needs of raising taxes (through the heralds' visitations) and determining the inheritance of peerages. Antiquarians pursued genealogy alongside many other things historical, while gentleman used it to seek aristocratic or celebrity connections with little regard for the truth.
  • CHAPTER 4: SOCIETIES AND PEERS (the 19th century): Modern genealogy has its origins in the institutions and bureaucracy of Victorian times. The introduction of civil registration in 1837; the ten-yearly census begun in 1841; and reform in the administration of wills in 1858 and 1882 meant people's lives were documented as never before. Meanwhile, the setting up of the Public Records Office, together with many local and specialist historical societies, ensured such records would be preserved for posterity.
  • Dugdale shieldsCHAPTER 5: GENTLEMEN GENEALOGISTS (1900 – 1950): While less esoteric than in the 19th century, genealogy in the early twentieth century was still largely the preserve of the wealthy and educated. The field was dominated by a single institution – the Society of Genealogists – and in particular by a few individuals who took upon themselves projects of epic proportions. Many of the indexes compiled during this period are still consulted to this day.
  • CHAPTER 6: 'BEYOND MERE GENEALOGY' (1950-60s): The post-War years saw genealogy emerge as a mainstream hobby. The emphasis was on the historical context of one's ancestors ('family history') rather than just a person's lineage. This period saw major public records legislation; the strengthening of links between genealogy and local history; the launch of the first locally-based clubs and societies; as well as many important community projects.
  • CHAPTER 7: BACK TO OUR ROOTS (1970s-80s): In Britain, the 1970s and 80s put family history firmly on the map. The community continued to become more organised, culminating in the creation of a nationwide federation and the hosting of a major international conference. Technological changes made records easier to access, while two landmark TV series - Roots and Family History - put the idea of ancestry firmly in the public consciousness.
  • CHAPTER 8: SWIVEL-CHAIR GENIES (1990s – 2000s): Focusing on the growth of computers, the influence of the internet, the rush for content and digitisation of records, and the emergence of new family history businesses. Media interest (e.g. Who Do You Think You Are?) and new technology and business models drive family history into the ultra-mass market.
  • CHAPTER 9: THE FAMILY HELIX: The present and future of genealogy, drawing together themes from previous chapters and focusing on the new frontier being opened up by genetics. Aspects include: our legacy for future family historians; public policy on archives; commercialisation of public sector information; family history – a community or a market?

The text is fully referenced and there is an extensive bibliography and index. The book also includes 20 black and white plates illustrating key personalities and events.


What They Are Saying About Family Matters

nb quotePositive reviews continue to flow in for Family Matters. I'm particularly grateful to David Hey, Emeritus Professor of Local & Family History at the University of Sheffield for his generous review published in the August 2012 edition of The Local Historian, the journal of the British Association for Local History.

'This is a fascinating account of the rise of genealogy from a quirky hobby to a mainstream industry, lifting the lid on the personalities and politics behind the scenes.'
Nick Barratt

'A readable account of how the centuries-old genteel pursuit of the genealogy of the landed and professional classes was transformed in recent times by an explosion of interest in democratic family history'.  '...The importance of this book lies in its being the first detailed account of the family history movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s, when research was a time-consuming and laborious task'.
David Hey, Emeritus Professor of Local & Family History, University of Sheffield

'The best history of family history'
Simon Fowler

'A magnificent history of British genealogy'
Peter Calver, Lost Cousins newsletter, October 2013

'A reflective, intelligent and sometimes controversial 'inside story'
Family Tree magazine, March 2012

'A captivating read to inspire genealogists whatever their level – not to be missed.'
Family History Monthly, March 2012

'The many people and organisations at the forefront of particular stages in the growth of the subject are accorded suitable credits; ...if you have heard of them they are almost certainly in here.
Bristol & Avon Family History Society, March 2012

'A cracker!'
Chris Paton, British Genealogy Blog

' 'I must read on' book'.
Joyce Finnemore, BMSGH



How to Order

fm smallFamily Matters is published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd and can be ordered from their website: or via high-street booksellers.

Hardback, 278 pages
ISBN: 9781848845596

Pen & Sword has also released Family Matters in eBook formats. Available at £4.99 from Pen & Sword for Kindle or ePub, or £7.20 from Amazon.


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