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18 March 2011

Judy Avery's Report from London and Who Do You Think You Are – Live 2011

There seems to be no doubt that NBC's You Do You Think You Are? is having an impact on interest in genealogy in the U.S. but we are several years behind the U.K. where the show started in 2004 and where the mother-of-all genealogical conferences just finished its fifth year. CGS member Judy Avery attended her second Who Do You Think You Are – Live! in London and sent this report.

After a wonderful visit in February 2010, here I was again, at the Who Do You Think You Are – LIVE! 2011 exposition in London! It’s billed as the “world’s largest family history event” and fills the Olympia Conference Center with sponsors such as, the Society of Genealogists, FamilyTree DNA, FindMyPast, FamilySearch, and many other vendors and local family history associations. A group of thirteen of us from the New England Historic Genealogical Society had a great week packed with genealogy and history.

First of all, we had an unforgettable tour of CNN London television studios, thanks to NEHGS member Jim Boulden. It was the same day events in Libya were changing by the minute and the studio was filled with eager young people rushing between offices, typing, watching four monitors at once, and editing footage. We heard the man in charge of CNN’s extensive plans for the royal wedding in April, who told us that four billion(!) people are expected to watch the ceremonies worldwide.  A tidbit – the wedding of William and Kate is not a “state wedding” since it doesn’t involve the next heir to the throne. Therefore heads of state are not on the invitation list as they were for Charles and Diana’s wedding.

We were lucky to hear George Redmonds - there is no one like him for knowledge of English surnames, geography, history, folkways, and language. He is fascinated with pre-Tudor England when there wasn’t a concept of a nation and no common language, only regional dialects. Custom and living memory were relied on instead of parish registers and statutes. George said in the 13th and 14th centuries people didn’t have a single name as is popularly thought. In the records there are thousands of “by-names,” which weren’t inherited. He gave examples of by-names which were descriptive of occupation (William Whitebrow, plasterer), physical attributes (Simon Doggeschanke, Nicholas Saddebely) the morally and physically challenged (William, son of Dokefot; Thomas Neverathom).

George and Ann-Marie Redmonds

Author Roger Thompson entertained the NEHGS group with stories of researching for his many books on colonial New England. He has a history of 17th century Charlestown, Massachusetts coming out soon. Nick Bunker, a former reporter for the Financial Times, recently published “Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and their World.” He told us about the importance of the beaver fur trade to the early colonists and the extensive inland trading routes used by native tribes to bring furs to the coastal settlements.

Parish Church of St. Andrew Undershaft with "The Gherkin" in background.

In a break from the drizzle, we had a rare sunny day for a walking tour of parish churches within the compact City of London, led by John Titford. They are sandwiched between old or modern office buildings and most are small and serene inside. Favorites were the Temple Church, setting for “The Da Vinci Code,” and St. Bride’s Church, whose spire is the inspiration for tiered wedding cakes.

St. Stephen Walbrook, built by Wren.

In the evening we had a tour of the College of Arms where we were welcomed by Thomas Woodcock, Garter King of Arms. What a privilege to be allowed into the inner sanctum, lined with ancient books illustrating coats of arms through the centuries. These are not digitized or copied in any form – the original hand-painted books. 

College of Arms

Now on to an exhausting and fascinating two days at the fifth annual WDYTYA – LIVE! exposition! Fortunately we had “jump passes” on opening day which let us go right in. Everyone there was so friendly, eager to hear questions and offer suggestions. People lined up for a popular section called “Ask an Expert” where you could have fifteen minutes to discuss your questions with a genealogist. I got some helpful advice on looking for records of a British soldier in the 1800s. From another booth I bought a paperback Your Ancestor’s Life in Textiles to give insight into life working in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Brenton Simons and Gary Boyd Roberts were having a great time checking out several booksellers’ stalls to make additions to the NEHGS library.

NEHGS Booth with Josh Taylor, Meriwether Schmid, Gary Boyd Roberts

A visit to the Huguenot Society of London booth was a highlight for me, where I asked about a 17th century ancestor in London. They immediately did a search on their laptop and found several references to him. Later in California, I got an email saying there was even more in the files and offering to send me copies. Needless to say, I thought a membership was well worth it.

Family Tree DNA was a big presence and featured talks every hour in their area on this evolving field. A lot of it is still over my head, but I keep thinking if I listen to enough lectures, I’ll finally get it! Their Family Finder test is used to predict if two people have a common ancestor within 3 or 4 generations. It’s the test for finding half-siblings or for adoptees and goes across M-F lines. Another talk was about the National Genographic Project, started in 2003 by the National Geographic Society, and Family Tree does the testing for it. It’s useful for anthropological studies, migration patterns and deep ancestral background. An important point – National Genographic keeps its samples for five years but Family Tree DNA preserves your sample for 25 years. You can transfer your results easily from National Genographic to Family Tree – so I’m going to do that soon. Family Tree is going to start offering upgrades to test for 111 markers.

Maureen Taylor was identifying pictures in the photo booth and reported business was booming. I wish I could have gotten around to all the booths for local history societies or vendors of maps and charts. What a treat the week was for travelers and genealogists!
– Judy Avery

Photographs courtesy of Judy Avery.

Copyright © 2011 by Kathryn M. Doyle, California Genealogical Society and Library