Jul 31, 2020

A Return to Norfolk

July 31, 2020

When  I began researching my family history many years ago, one of the first families I chose to focus on was my mother’s paternal grandparents. I knew very little about the Dawson Family other than that my great grandparents had been born and raised in Norfolk, England and had immigrated to the United States in the early 1870s.


I soon learned that one of the basic record sets for English research is church records. Like most countries in Europe, England historically had a state church which kept records for everyone in the country. In the days when I was beginning my research, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City had microfilmed copies of nearly all English parish records, which I could order into my local Family History Center in Fort Collins. Luckily for me, one of the few pieces of information I’d gleaned on my mystery great grandparents was found in cemetery records from the Utah cemetery where they were buried. Not only did those cemetery records state that the couple had been born in England, but they also listed their exact place of birth: Swanton Novers, Norfolk, England. I quickly ordered the relevant parish records and spent many afternoons plowing through those grainy microfilms and piecing together family groups from baptism, marriage and burial records. The records were often pretty sketchy, and my surnames in the area were common so I soon ran into difficulties distinguishing which records really were for my ancestors.


I did learn that civil registration records were kept starting in 1837, so I ordered copies of birth, marriage and death records for my direct ancestors from that time until they left England in the 1870s. I also ordered a smattering of records for some of my collateral relatives, but the certificates were pricey, and I soon exhausted my budget.


Between the church records and civil registration certificates, I was able to trace my Norfolk families back to my third great grandparents but stalled out there. Message boards were a big thing back in those early internet days, and I did post several queries about my Norfolk families on the appropriate boards. While I got answers, no one could really confirm my lines any further back. There were just too many Dawsons and their associated lines and too few records. After adding what I’d found to my family tree, I eventually moved on to other research.


Twenty years went by in a flash, and my Norfolk ancestors spent all of that time languishing in a file cabinet and on a neglected branch of my family tree. Suddenly this summer, I have no genealogy meetings or seminars or workshops to attend, and my slow internet balks at slow Zoom meeting and streaming programs in general. What’s a desperate genealogist going to do to meet her need for new genealogy horizons to conquer? In my case, it has meant I’ve taken another pass at my Norfolk ancestors, and what I’ve found has been a revelation. All of a sudden, while I wasn’t looking, a bunch of new resources have become available online, and I can suddenly find sources and documents that have allowed me to trace several of my Norfolk lines back to the 1500s.


My first stop when I decided to revisit Norfolk was to check out what the Familysearch Wiki had to say about Norfolk genealogy. It turns out that there was quite a lot that was new to me at,_England_Genealogy. I was able to refresh my Norfolk research skills by reading a number of articles and learned of records that I hadn’t known existed way back when. Of course, the Wiki is a helpful resource when starting a new research project, but I also recommend the Wiki as a quick way to refresh your skills when returning to a long neglected topic.


Once I learned about all of the new records for Norfolk available online now, I knew I’d probably be able to find far more records than I had all those years ago. Way back then, there were few indexes, and finding a pertinent record often meant hours of churning through microfilms. Nowadays, it often takes minutes to find records that eluded us back then. In addition, there are record sets available online now that I had never even known existed in the olden days. For example, although my Norfolk ancestors weren’t well-to-do by any stretch of the imagination, several of them left probates which have helped me fill in the blanks in several cases.


Most researchers are aware that Find my Past ( ) has long been a good source for United Kingdom records. I’ve used it on and off for many years, but honestly I’ve often found it clunky to use so I typically rely more on Ancestry and Familysearch because both of them also have a good collection of English records. However, in my recent delve into Norfolk, I decided to try Find My Past since I know that they do have British Isles newspapers that aren’t available elsewhere. I’ve been surprised and pleased to find that Find My Past must have updated their website since I last looked. It is now much more user friendly, and I have been able to find copies of church records, accompanied in nearly all cases with a transcription, which can often be helpful when trying to decipher some of the earlier records. They also have the English census from 1841 through 1911, again a copy of the original record as well as a transcription. In addition, they have the 1939 Register which is a great tool to follow descendants of collateral relatives forward in time. I mentioned that Find my Past has good newspaper coverage, and while the British newspapers don’t seem to cover the more folksy types of things that American small town papers do (or at least the ones I found didn’t), I was able to find, for example, an article about a local fete in the small town of Bawdeswell where there was a contest for the family who had the most children in “service.” My third great grandfather took second place with six of his children working as cooks, maids and gardeners!


All in all, I’ve been enjoying my return to Norfolk and feel that I’m learning more about my lines there than I ever thought I might. I’d recommend a virtual return trip to any of your ancestral homes that you haven’t visited for a while. I think you’ll be amazed at what you find.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large