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Professor Nicholas Brooks > A Week at Vindolanda  > Who Do I Think I Am?  > The Myth of Roman Britain > Alex Agar >  


Who Do I Think I Am?

 Written by Colin W. Smith. Amended on 31st May 2012


I started to become interested in family history (FH) having watched the BBC programmes “Who Do You Think You Are” over the years. But how was I to go about finding information on my forbears? I’ve found that genealogy books for beginners are generally not that helpful, although it is worth pointing out that these books can be of use once you have become more familiar with researching your own FH. I took my first tentative steps after taking advice from friends of mine, who are very much involved in researching their FH’s, and trying out their suggestions. I then came back and asked more questions! I’ve written this article to demonstrate how absolute beginners can acquire skills enabling them to pursue this fascinating form of research. My information sources are placed in square brackets.

To begin FH research, always start from the present period and work backwards by getting hold of as many certificates, photographs and records that you can, and asking questions of members of your family, especially the older members. Very often those family “legends” may turn out to be true. The most important tool in your armoury is a computer, there is a vast amount of information online these days, and it is essential to make use of a web-site that is dedicated to FH. I use  for births, marriages, and deaths (BMD) indexes and census records dating from 1841 to 1901; and for the 1911 census records (there are several other sites that are also available). There comes a time as well when one needs to create a family tree. I purchased an inexpensive software package online for this purpose - Family History. There are two companies I’ve used to provide me with genealogical products, such as my family tree program, and books - MyHistory, which can  be found at and S & N Genealogy Supplies, which can be found at (These are my preferences, but there several other online companies available, who provide an extensive choice of family tree programs.)

The information gained whilst researching my mother’s side of my family tree illustrates how one piece of information starts to reveal the historical context of our other ancestors. Both my parents were born in Bermondsey, in the east end of London, and were married at St. James’s Church, Bermondsey, in 1931, and on their marriage certificate is an entry for the bride’s father Franklin Bennett (of Irish descent, a family belief confirmed by census records). I then found his marriage index using Ancestry, and used it to purchase a copy of his marriage certificate, online, from the General Register Office (GRO) at [marriage index/GRO]. Franklin married my Grandmother Florence Alice Lout, at Saint Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, in 1904. On this certificate Florence Alice’s father was shown to be Henry John Lout (of German descent, another family belief confirmed by censuses). Henry John Lout had married Emma Bullard in Saint Mary’s church, Rotherhithe, in 1877 [marriage index/GRO], and Emma’s father, on their marriage certificate, was my Great (2X) Grandfather Christopher Bullard. The Docklands area of east London has always been an area that has attracted people from all parts of the country (and many parts of the world) so, although there was no family legend about this I was not surprised to discover on the marriage certificate of Christopher Bullard and his wife Elizabeth Kirkby that they came from another part of Britain - Newark in Nottinghamshire. Christopher and Elizabeth were married at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Newark in 1841 [marriage index/GRO], their marriage certificate gives their respective fathers as – Joseph Bullard and William Kirkby, and the certificate also shows that Joseph Bullard was deceased. Furthermore, the marriage certificate shows that Elizabeth was resident at Water Lane on the eve of her wedding (a part of Newark has that featured prominently in the lives of many of the Bullards throughout the 1800’s, as further research has revealed). I was intrigued to find out what led Christopher and Elizabeth to move from what seemed to be a deprived part of Newark to the equally deprived Docklands in Rotherhithe, east London, so I continued to investigate this particular branch of the family tree.

    I purchased the National Burial Index for England and Wales (NBI), a database CD from MyHistory (published by the Federation of Family History Societies, mentioned in a book on FH) and accessed it for the name Bullard in the Newark region. I was astonished to find that at least six infants, some of whom were only a few days old, had died and had been interred in the graveyard of Saint Mary Magdalene, Newark. (I subsequently discovered that a seventh child had also died at an early age by trawling through the death indexes on Ancestry, but I do not know if he had been buried at Saint Mary Magdalene). That these were Elizabeth’s children was confirmed by my obtaining their death certificates and/or their birth certificates [death indexes/birth indexes/GRO]. The NBI also confirmed that my Great (3X) Grandfather Joseph Bullard was buried in Newark, in 1831 (dying at the age of 37 years).

The 1841 census shows that Christopher Bullard (just before he was married), his sister Ann and his brother Joseph were living with a Joseph Lilly and his wife Elizabeth Lilly. The 1851 census has Elizabeth Lilly, her daughter Ann Bigg (originally Bullard) and Granddaughter Elizabeth Bigg living in the same household. I wanted to find out more about the marital status of Elizabeth Lilly, but because civil BMD records were not introduced until 1837, I had to seek out parish records to obtain information on earlier events. Scanning the Phillimore Nottinghamshire Marriage Registers I found a record of Joseph Bullard marrying Elizabeth Hall in 1820, and another, unrelated, record of an Elizabeth Bullard marrying a Joseph Lilly in 1835.1 Since Christopher’s marriage certificate and the NBI entry show that his father Joseph Bullard was deceased before 1841, this evidence, and the census evidence mentioned here, establishes, without any doubt, that Elizabeth Hall and Elizabeth Bullard were the same person. Christopher’s mother had married again to Joseph Lilly. (By1851 Christopher’s brother, Joseph, had also left the Lilly household, and the 1851 census shows that he was serving in the 33rd Foot, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.)

Several certificates that I have purchased, relevant to Christopher Bullard and his wife Elizabeth, give a range of occupations that Christopher had during the period when they lived in Newark, revealing insights into his work. For example, he was a gas lighter man (a local newspaper article of the time gives a detailed description of the installation of gas street lighting in Newark).2 A few years later he was described as an “engine driver” (and later on a brickmaker). In fact Christopher was in charge of a steam driven engine that worked a grinding mill, at a brickworks, which was used to recycle damaged or imperfect bricks. This information was revealed in a most unexpected manner! The Nottinghamshire Guardian gave an account of a terrible accident that occurred at the brickworks on the 3rd of September 1853.3 Bricks that were damaged in a severe storm the previous night were being added to the steam engine, for grinding so as to rework the clay, by a “youth” – John Haywood. He slipped and fell between unprotected cog wheels. Christopher stopped the engine but it was too late, John was crushed to death. This is just one example of many of the poor working conditions of those times.

Christopher and Elizabeth would have travelled down to Rotherhithe in about 1858 with their two remaining children William and my Great Grandmother, Emma. Shockingly, in May 1859, Christopher died tragically; his death certificate [death index/GRO] showed that this was as a result of drowning in the Thames – according to a short coroner’s report included in the certificate. Within a few months Elizabeth married again [censuses, marriage index, GRO] (there was nothing unusual in a widow remarrying fairly quickly, the workhouse was the only alternative in the days before the Welfare State). In the 1861census the two Bullard children can now be seen to be living with their mother and her new husband, who also originated from Newark. (She subsequently bore at least two more children, but these also died very young [censuses/death indexes/GRO]). (I visited the Southwark Library, Borough Road, Southwark, to look at some microfiche records of local newspapers of the mid 1800’s to see if there were accounts of Christopher’s death, but unfortunately the records did not reveal any further information.)

Civil registration started in 1837, and censuses only really became useful by 1841, so finding ancestral information for earlier generations starts to become difficult, and parish records aren’t always easy to find. However, there is another useful source of free BMD records available – the International Genealogical Index (IGI), these indexes can be found on Using this web-site I have been able to trace back the maternal branch of my family tree to the mid 1700’s, it is advisable, however, to verify, if possible, information obtained from this site. Another collection of online parish records, useful if your ancestors originated from the London/Greater London area, are those provided by the London Metropolitan Archives, these are available on the Ancestry web-site, and can go back to 1538 if you are very lucky. (Thomas Cromwell published his Ordinance in1538, in an attempt at ordering the keeping of parish records.)

The more that I found out about my Bullard ancestors, the more I wanted to see the town where generations of them had lived. In the autumn of 2010 I contacted Newark Library and arranged for a convenient time that I could visit them.4 Newark, an attractive small market town in the north east Midlands, is full of historical, and archaeological, interest, which is hardly surprising considering the position of the town on the River Trent near to the convergence of three Roman roads has placed it, over the centuries, in a strategically important location.5, 6 Its strategic importance was exploited during the First English Civil War; it was occupied by a Royalist garrison, that was a thorn in the side of two besieging Parliamentarian armies. Famously, after successfully withstanding three sieges, on the cessation of hostilities, the besiegers, allowed the defenders to march out under terms of surrender that were very generous – “noblemen, gentlemen and clergy were allowed to return to their homes provided that they did nothing further to Parliament, and officers and men were allowed to march away with horses, arms and possessions. The personal safety of the townspeople was guaranteed, as was the preservation of their privileges, goods and estates”. This was an acknowledgement of the courage and tenacity of the garrison and townspeople.6

My wife, my younger daughter and I visited Newark for the first time, that autumn. We were amazed by what we saw, it was a time capsule. In the centre of the town a large cobble-stoned square is surrounded by half-timbered houses, many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Narrow roads and alleyways (generally called gates) feed onto the square like spokes of a wheel, and to the edge of the town, overlooking the River Trent, are the ruins of Newark Castle ( where King John was taken just before he died). But the most dominant building in the area is the beautiful, cathedralesque, church of Saint Mary Magdalene, where the NBI showed that many of my ancestors had been buried. Sadly, but inevitably, the graveyard has been cleared, and the head stones now lie along the edge of the cemetery, that has been renamed as the “Garden of Rest”.  Evidence of the first English Civil War can still be found within the town, from the hole in the church steeple, said to have been a result of a cannon ball strike, to cannon ball damage on the castle walls. A sophisticated turf bank/ditch defensive system, interspersed with twenty interval bastions, was built in 1644, and the essential plan of these defences can still be discerned along some of the streets. An outer defensive English Civil War period structure – the Queen’s Sconce, very advanced for its time, is extant, and is well worth a visit.

At Newark library, my daughter and I scanned the microfiche parish records, but we only found a small amount of information on close relatives of my ancestors. My wife occupied herself by trawling through information in the Local Studies section only to make an important discovery. She came across what are called poll records that were published locally, in two thin volumes in 1829 and 1830; which listed ordinary working men as well as those with traditional property rights. This information amazed me since I had not heard of such records before, I was always under the impression that full male suffrage (let alone universal suffrage) only started to become a fact of life following a number of reforms throughout the 19th century. Listed in these documents were my Great (3X) Grandfathers Joseph Bullard and William Kirkby, who were living in Water Lane. These records showed who voted (William Kirkby declined) and, significantly, whom they voted for. These poll records have effectively served me as unofficial census records, since, as has been pointed out already, official census records only really started in 1841, by which time one of my Great (3X) Grandfathers, Joseph, had died.

I have never found out what made Christopher and his family try to find a new life in the Docklands of east London, he may have been reminded of the horrific accident that he witnessed every day of his working life in Newark, or perhaps also a clue might be found as to why he and his wife wanted to leave Newark within the death certificates of their young children. Several died from “infantile convulsions”, two died from measles and another died from scarlet fever. (Local newspaper reports of just a few years before, reproduced in a book kept in the Local Studies section of Newark Library, mentioned that outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, rabies, measles and influenza, among others, had “caused many deaths”.)7 It is probable that Christopher Bullard and his wife wanted to find a better life where there was more, and better paid, work, in what they must also have hoped was a better environment. I suspect that, although there was work in the docklands, they were unaware that the east end of London was every bit as deprived as Newark. As a footnote, records found in the Local Studies section of Newark Library, mentioned that most of the buildings in Water Lane were demolished by 1905. Relatively new housing now occupies part of Water Lane, and the remaining area has become a recycling site.

I’ve shown how important a computer is as an aid in family history research; often one can find “primary sources” as well as transcripts (secondary sources).  Spending hours of traipsing around churches and graveyards is generally no longer as necessary as it once was because a large proportion of the parish records that were held by churches have usually been photographed and are held in archives of various kinds, although they are not always available online. It is also worth stressing that when it comes to studying primary material The National Archives (TNA), Kew, are well worth a visit; you can either access the TNA web-site at, and trawl through “the catalogue” to see if information is held there before going along, or just ask for advice on how to obtain records from the staff at the various counters situated throughout the first floor if you do choose to visit. Recently, I went along to study the muster rolls of the 33rd Foot for the period between 1851 and 1856, to find out how Joseph Bullard, Christopher Bullard’s brother, managed to survive the Crimean War. I did find out, but that is another story.  


1.      Parish records are predominantly church records, and a good source of marriage parish records can be obtained from web-sites, such as, who provide Phillimore’s registers as pdf files for a small sum.

2.      Internet. Information; Newark Advertiser Co. Ltd.

3.      I am indebted to a member of the public who read my original article on the MAS web-site and who brought my attention to this report from the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 8th September 1853, kept at the British Newspaper Archives. I now know that I share the same Great Grandmother – Emma Bullard, with this lady. We are in fact second cousins! The importance of this newspaper report prompted me to amend this document.

4.      Appropriate genealogical contact information is published by Blatchford, R., Blatchford, E.; The Family and Local History Handbook 12. Robert Blatchford Publishing Ltd.

5.      Hadley, D. M.; THE VIKINGS IN ENGLAND, Settlement, society and culture. Publ. by Manchester University Press. ISBN 978 0 7190 5982 7

6.       Hopkins, Glynn; The Third & Final siege if Newark. Internet information.

7.      Newark Library; Vernon, Rolf; Newark Before Victoria, 1827-1837