Family History Workshops

Organised by Julia Laite (Birkbeck, University of London) in partnership with the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Historians Collaborate. These workshops were generously funded by the British Academy.

Table of Contents

The Ethics of Family History

This initial workshop will examine the very practice of family history and microhistory. What are we doing when we tell the small stories of our own and other people’s families? Are there ethical issues with digitizing, naming, and communicating the experiences of the dead?

Reflections from the field:

  • Justin Bengry – Queer Family History & it’s Ethical Quandaries & Possibilities
  • Darryl Leroux – Construction of Family Lore in False Claims to Indigenous Identity
  • Lucy Bland – ‘Brown Babies’: The Stories of Children Born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War
  • Mary Stewart and Cynthia Brown – Oral Histories and Ethics.

Images From the Workshop

Criminal Ancestors & the Politics of Justice

Almost every historical family has members who have been labelled as criminals. But what does this mean? How common was it for people to become lawbreakers in different times and places, and what were the consequences? What was the experience of arrest, trial, and punishment for criminals and their families, from capital and corporal punishment, transportation and prison, fines and rehabilitation? This session will also explore what it means and how it feels to have criminal ancestors.

Reflections from the field:

Images From the Workshop

Migrant Ancestors & the Politics of Mobility

As parts of huge waves of emigration from the British Isles, our family members past can be found across the world. Whether emigrating from or to the British Isles. This session focused on the context and experience of migration to and from the British Isles and the British empire.

Reflections from the field:

Images From the Workshop

Telling Small Stories, Telling Big Stories

Taking place over 2 days, the recordings for this special event have been divided by Panel. The event aimed to explore:

  • How historians (of all types) might better collaborate through family history
  • The ethical, methodological and political challenges of family history
  • How family history can change the way we think about our history and our present
  • How we might go about placing family histories in broader historical and political contexts and
  • How family history and genealogy might help more ‘traditional’ historians understand their subjects

Panel 1: With Family History at the Heart ~ Academic Research Informed By Genealogy


  • Zehra Miah – I’m Just a Historian: family history to academic history (and back)
  • Jean Smith – The personal is historical: Mental illness in academic and family history research
  • Sophie Michell – Reconstituting Community: Genealogy and Microhistory
  • Abigail Broomfield – Family Archaeology and long-lost connections

Panel 2: Putting the (hi)story in: New Ways of Working with Genealogical Sources and Family History


  • Natalie Pithers – A Drop in the Ocean of Janes: The importance of Storytelling in family history
  • Alison Baxter – Family history, creative writing and difficult issues
  • Suus Van der Berg – Striking a balance: family history, queer history and ethics
  • Nadine Attewell – Family history, community history and challenging historical narratives

Panel 3: The Missing, The Difficult, The Hidden: Myth, Memory and Other Challenges of Family History


Keynote by Katie Donington – The Bonds of Family: Slavery, Commerce and Culture in the British Atlantic World


  • Kate Bagnall – Collaborating in Family History: Challenges and Rewards
  • Alison Pedley – Who owns these stories? Difficult histories in family and academic history
  • Keira Gomez – Misremembering and Personal Truth: trauma and healing in family history
  • Rebecca Wynter – Sharing Histories: Families and the 1903 Colney Hatch Disaster

and keynote

Katie Donington – The Bonds of Family: Slavery, Commerce and Culture in the British Atlantic World

Panel 4: Access, Resources, Communication and Collaboration


  • Simon Fowler – ‘Untying both hands’: encouraging the use of online historical resources for both academics and genealogists
  • Elise Bath – Family histories, tracing services and the holocaust
  • Mary McKee – Behind the scenes: digitization and records at Find My Past
  • Ruth Beecher – Oral histories across generations
  • Joanne Begiato – The Inheriting the Family Project
  • Alison Light – Closing Thoughts

For all future events please see our Events page here.

Reflections on the Family History Workshops

By Julia Laite

In June, 2021, I ran a series of ‘Family History Workshops’ with the support of the British Academy and in partnership with Historians Collaborate and the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

The first was focused on the ‘Ethics of Family History’, and pondered questions such as: what are we doing when we tell the small stories of our own and other people’s families? Are there ethical issues with digitizing, naming, and communicating the experiences of the dead?  The second explored a common theme in family history—criminal ancestors—and thought through the cultural meaning we place on criminality in our family’s past, the historical context of law-breaking, and what this might mean. The third workshop looked at migration stories within family history, both in terms of the particular challenges and methodologies of researching migrant families, and in terms of what migration stories in the past might mean for reconceptualizing narratives of migration in the present day.

These three smaller workshops flowed into a two-day symposium called ‘Telling Small Stories, Telling Big Stories’, which brought together family historians and academic historians at various stages in their careers to talk about the collective project of family history, and how we might better collaborate and exchange ideas. Talks were wide-ranging, exploring themes such as the ethics and responsibilities of telling our family stories, the way that family history leads many into academic work, and the way that family history informs academic scholarship. We explored collaborations between academics and family historians, and the still at-times fraught relationship between family history and academic history.  We examined the ways that we might rethink the way we narrate, contextualize and add meaning to our family stories.

The event was augmented by a keynote lecture from Dr. Katie Donington, whose spoke about her recent book The Bonds of Family: Slavery, Commerce and Culture in the British Atlantic World, and how family history is both fraught and illuminating when deployed in the context of understanding enslavement and empire.  Alison Light provided moving and thought-provoking final remarks, in which she pondered the way that ‘family history dissolves the boundary between public and private’, which is both deeply discomfiting but also creative and productive.   She challenged us all to ‘start experimenting with words outside of family, like kith and kin’, and reflected on how ‘family history can change the historical narrative’—how it, with its inherently microhistorical, humane, people-centred approach can challenge stock characters, predictable narratives, and assumptions about generalizations and norms.   She closed by encouraging all historians—inside and outside the academy—to always keep ‘looking at the contradictions, pressing on all the discomforts, because that is where the new is born’.  Family history, in this way, can be full of revelations.

Attendees, who peaked at almost 150 people and reached around 300 total over these two days– included academic historians, family historians, historically-minded folks, and those who wore all these hats and more.  Some disparities in representation were noted:  the speakers and audience were mostly white and anglophone, and a significant majority of speakers were women.  Ethnicity, language and gender clearly help to shape the practice of family history in important ways—and are certainly things to explore more deeply and inclusively in the future.

Participants and speakers alike were incredibly engaged—and contributed to what was the most lively chat thread I’ve ever seen at an online event!  During discussions and over the chat, we exchanged research tips and news, made potential collaboration connections, and shared family stories: our great-grandmothers’ secret children; the material objects left behind by beloved ancestors; stories of harm and abuse, and joy and connection.  It was collegial, warm, and made for an excellent case study in the power of coming together in conversation.

The events were initially meant to be held in person, until we reached the end of the generous funding extension from the British Academy and had to go ahead online.  This turned out to largely be a blessing in disguise. The online format allowed for a much greater scale and diversity of attendance and participation, and was programmed with long breaks, short papers, and plenty of time for discussion to keep people engaged.   We were also extremely happy to have live-scribed graphics for the three smaller workshops, thanks to the artistic and interpretative skills of Laura Evans at Nifty Fox Creative!  These, and the recordings of all the talks, can be found above.

It is now clear that academic history and family history have begun to have a meaningful conversation.  A lot of this started when academic historians realised what family historians already knew—that family history is a profoundly important and productive way to understand and interpret the past.  But there is also a sense, I think, that family historians are seeking new ways to contextualize, narrate, and understand the history of their families beyond collecting names; that they are seeking breadth as well as depth. Family historians, as well as academic historians using family history techniques, have begun to use the stories of their families (and the process of finding these stories) to think through challenging ethical questions, to ponder sticky issues of remembering and misremembering, and to confront difficult pasts.  The time is ripe, in other words, for us to keep conversations going, share resources (especially the plentiful and often inaccessible resources of the academy), and collaborate on what is inarguably the most popular form of history-making in the world today.