“Grandad, do you remember the First World War?” I once remember asking. My Grandad, born in 1908, was 6 years old when it started. He said, “Aye lad, I do”.….and that was it. Typical. But he was always a man of few words and obviously preferred not to dwell on it. To me, it was history in school textbooks. To him, it was a troubling period in his own childhood (I didn’t discover quite how troubling until many years later). I knew enough not to ask him any more questions.
I’ve been interested in my family history since I was little, eager for stories about ‘the olden days’ in our hometown of Blackburn, Lancashire. As I grew older I was particularly keen to find out about my dad’s side – something about the passing of a surname down the male line through the centuries appealed to me. Trouble is, blokes aren’t generally very good at talking about family history. Whereas Mum could give me colourful characters, stories, names, locations and dates, as well as carefully hoarded photos and documents, Dad’s information tended to be randomly delivered in small, half-remembered nuggets.
As a teenager, I spent hours in Blackburn Library looking at old electoral rolls and newspapers gleaning names and addresses for what I assumed were my Victorian ancestors (Rimmer is not a common surname in the town). I even went round the streets of Blackburn with a camera taking snaps of the old terraced houses they may have lived in – just in time as it turned out, as many of them were demolished in the mid-80s. However, these were the days before the internet. I had a few sources, but couldn’t (or couldn’t be bothered to) match up the dots. I was a teenager after all. I shortly discovered beer and girls and the family history stuff ended up in a bedroom drawer, and then the attic, where it stayed for nearly 20 years.
Things kick started again with the release of 1901 UK Census data online by the National Archives in 2002. At that time Family History on the web was proving to be real boom area of interest and sites containing useful historical sources and data were sprouting up everywhere. Fledgling free sites such as FreeBMD and Lancashire Online Parish Clerk blossomed as eager volunteers chipped in with transcribing original records. Paid sites like snowballed into market leaders. I subjected Dad to a much more forensic grilling about our past, and cross referred his input to more reliable sources such as his older sister (thanks Aunty Jean). Concentrating on my Rimmer ancestors, I finally put the jigsaw pieces together and got back as far as my great-great-great grandfather William, born near Bolton in 1804. And then I promptly hit a brick wall for a number of months. One of the reasons why family history is such a great hobby is that if you do get halted in your tracks, there are plenty of other lines of research to be getting on with. But my main goal remained to get back as far as I possibly could with my own surname. My breakthrough with the Rimmers came from an unexpected source. Following some idle surfing on the net, I came across a site belonging to an old boy called Harry Rimmer from Liverpool, who turned out to be a distant relation. He’d spent his life doing family history the hard way, getting out and about to old churches, graveyards and records offices. Luckily, he’d posted the carefully researched fruits of his labour onto his site and I was able to cut and paste my way back to 1660. Naturally I e-mailed him to thank him and to share what I had found. I got a very sweet reply back saying that he was thrilled both to have helped and that I had given him more Rimmers to add to his tree. So, my most distant recorded ancestor is Nicholas Rimmer 1657-1717, a yeoman farmer in the village of Allerton, now a modern day suburb of Liverpool. There were no national census records back then, but I did I managed to track down a copy of his will through Lancashire Will Search. If you find a match on there you can get a microfilm number you can take to your nearest Family History Centre branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, i.e. the Mormons (see FamilySearch). The Mormons have the largest free collection of genealogical data in the world, they are encouraged to research their family tree so that their ancestors can be baptised into their church. Luckily, you don’t have to buy into any of this to benefit from the records. I went to my local branch and found the people there very friendly and helpful. Their records were set out in a small library which contained microfiche reading machines and shelves of microfilm reels. My microfilm had to be ordered from their HQ in Salt Lake City (it cost under a fiver for a short term loan). I went back later to view my piece and photocopy it. The copy and my attempt to transcribe it are here.
Finding ancestors any earlier than Nicholas has proved to be another brick wall for years now and I think I’m unlikely to get any further back through historical records – I blame it on the disruption of the English Civil War, which tore into Lancashire at that time. In frustration, I recently deployed the ‘super weapon’ of family history research – DNA Y-Chromosome Testing; this contains some amazing discoveries going back thousands of years into pre-history, which I have written about here. Bringing ancestors to life with photos and documents is the most fulfilling aspect of family history research. This is where networking sites like can pay dividends. For a relatively small annual fee you can seek out other members who share common ancestors. It was from one such source that I managed to get a copy of an old photograph of my Blackburn Rimmers from 1911.
Back row, left to right: James Aspin, Amy Rimmer, John Rimmer, Clara Rimmer (nee Worthington)
Middle row, left to right: Jane Aspin (nee Rimmer), Mary Ellen Rimmer (nee Bolland), John Edward Rimmer, Robert Rimmer, Dorothy Rimmer
Front row, left to right: Ann Aspin, Frank Aspin
It is a great feeling when you discover a census return detailing a grandparent as a child, but it is even more amazing to actually see what they looked like. There was Grandad Rimmer in a sailor suit, stood between his own grandparents Robert and Mary Ellen. Standing behind him are his parents, John and Clara. My favourite bit of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, where celebrities delve into their own family history, is at the very end when they report their findings back to their own parents. My dad had never seen what his own great grandparents looked like, so being be able to show him was priceless.
These days, the quality of records in’s collection is unsurpassed. I have an annual subscription for UK records which is pricey at over £100, but they upload new records regularly enough to keep you hooked. They also have a very active community network posting individual family trees, documents and photos. Census records going back to 1841 are their staple, but my favourites are their. Finding a relative’s records from this batch is a bit of lottery as 60% of the records were destroyed during WW2 in the Blitz on London. However, if your ancestors served in the British Army in WW1 and their records survived, they are absolute dynamite. Luckily, my great grandfather John Rimmer’s were amongst them. I found out he had a horrendous time in Gallipoli in 1915 and I’ve written about his experiences here. I also discovered that his enlistment in the Army in October 1914 occurred just weeks before the death of his daughter, Amy, aged 3. So Amy was my Grandad’s younger sister. Given what life must have been like at home between 1914 and 1918, with dad away at war and mum grieving, it’s no wonder that period of his childhood was best left forgotten as far as my old Grandad was concerned.