How ‘Not What You Thought You Knew's’ Dr Fern Riddell uses Ancestry

Miss Lala, born Anna Olga Albertina Brown was a famous 19th-century acrobat | Public Domain | Wikipedia

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As we’ve already seen, Ancestry makes genealogy accessible to anyone – regardless of what you do or what your educational background is. Even if you’ve never so much as sketched a family tree out on a scrap of paper before, the Ancestry interface makes it easy to input the names of your nearest relatives and then use the search tools to unearth relevant historical records, go further back in time and surprise yourself with revelations relating to your ancestors.

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One Ancestry aficionado is a historian, broadcaster and author of Death in Ten Minutes, Dr Fern Riddell who also hosts the Ancestry-sponsored podcast, Not What You Thought You Knew. She spoke to Sky HISTORY about her experiences of using Ancestry, for her work and what a powerful tool it can be for everyone whether you are researching your own family history or the life of an almost forgotten 19th Century circus star, as Fern has found herself doing.

‘It’s absolutely changed my life as a historian,’ Dr Ridell says.

Prior to the rise of sites like Ancestry, historians like Fern and amateur genealogists s would have to do it the hard way manually, in person, at places like the National Archives, local council offices and parish registers. It would require time-consuming research following trails through census records and old marriage and birth certificates. But now, 'With Ancestry, you can do it all at the touch of a key,' explains Fern. 'It used to be that someone might take a lifetime to trace a family tree. You can do it in a week.’

For Fern, Ancestry proved particularly valuable when researching the life of Miss La La, a trailblazing acrobat of the Victorian Age. The fact she was mixed race led to Miss La La being brazenly exoticised by the advertising of the time – she was billed as the ‘Venus of the Tropics’ and ‘The African Princess’ and was immortalised by Degas in a painting depicting her dangling from a rope clenched between her teeth.

Fern was able to rapidly piece together the salient facts about the circus star by checking Ancestry’s global records, discovering a baptism record in Germany which revealed Miss La La’s full name, her parents’ names, and where exactly she was born in Prussia in 1858. Most tantalisingly of all, the trail on Ancestry then led Fern to passport applications which Miss La La made before the First World War – these yielded photos of the performer and her daughter.

‘So, within half an hour of starting this search for this person for whom the only reference I had was her name, I had her face. I had her daughter’s face. I had her locations across the world,’ Fern recalled. ‘It just builds you a world within half an hour, that would have taken months if not years to research.’

It helps that, as well as having so many records online, Ancestry has a highly intuitive, user-friendly interface. There is a Card Catalogue search function to scour all the records on the site, as well as search boxes for specific sub-divisions of documents. Fern particularly likes the way different strands of research can be merged. For example, if you’re looking into records which are potentially for two different people, and then realise they’re actually all for the same person, you can instantly merge these research strands together. ‘That’s a really important tool because we can keep everything very streamlined, very clear,’ Fern says.

Ancestry has been so useful to her that she’s actually used it to probe her own family tree, following in the footsteps of her mum who had laboriously combed parish records decades ago to find out about their relatives. Fern was able to do the job ‘in a matter of weeks’ thanks to Ancestry, and found herself disproving an old family myth that had been passed down the generations: namely, that their surname had a Scottish origin.

‘Through tracing the records and the family line through Ancestry, all the way back to the 1700s,’ she says, ‘it turned out that actually, we’ve mostly stayed in Dorset and London. Before that point in the 1700s it was an Irishman who moved over from Ireland and married into the family, and that’s it. That’s where the family name comes from.’

Through just a few clicks, and following a few research rabbit holes on the site, she had managed to reveal the truth behind a legend that had fooled generations of Riddells. (Not to mention, she also uncovered the particularly juicy historical tidbit that a distant ancestor had been convicted for stealing sheep.)

‘Databases like Ancestry have fundamentally changed how we can practice and research history in a way I think the wider community has yet to grasp,’ Fern says. The word is now out, as more of us realise how much we can learn when we start locking together the jigsaw pieces of the past.