Community journalism: The Centre for Heritage and Family History

Our Community Journalist Catherine Martindale has been finding out about the volunteer-led Berkshire Family History Society (BFHS) and The Centre for Heritage and Family History on the second floor of Reading Central Library. This overview is the first in a series of three articles exploring their work.

The Centre for Heritage and Family History is the main research facility for BFHS, which also has six branches around the county. Based on the second floor of Reading Central library, it boasts an excellent range of online research archives and databases, including free access to paid-for genealogy and history resources.

Twenty years ago, tracing your family history meant either a trip to the now defunct Public Records Office in London or trawling through local archives across the country. Fine, if your family are from Wokingham, less convenient if they originated in Carlisle. Now, digital access to archives and genealogy databases has facilitated an unprecedented enthusiasm for family history. Some members of BHFS live locally but have no known Berkshire roots, others, including members from Australasia, Canada and the United States, hope to uncover their Berkshire ancestry.

A BFHS volunteer with Cherise Williams from Utah, helping her trace her family roots in West Berkshire.

Volunteers help visitors to the Centre make the most of the resources available. Pat, one of the research assistants, says ‘you don’t necessarily have to be an expert…we help you get to know the resources that we provide’. Catherine Sampson, the chair of BFHS says that ‘Our aim is to broaden people’s understanding, so they get more out of what they see…education is a big objective, to promote good family history research and preserve records’.

The society’s relationship with Berkshire Record Office means that volunteers also work on some fascinating transcription projects, with the pleasure of handling centuries-old registers, steeped in history. The record office often relies on the society’s transcriptions or copies for public use, because the originals are too fragile to handle and prone to damage. Catherine says that ‘you don’t need to know everything’ to become a transcriber but records must be copied with a high level of accuracy and checked repeatedly. Other volunteer projects involve transcribing and photographing gravestones and war memorials and mapping burial areas.

Every quarter, the Reading branch offers talks, exploring one theme through five different facets: from April to June 2020, speakers will be exploring the theme of Royalty, including Windsor Castle, the daughters of Queen Victoria, Royal Weddings, Reading during the age of Elizabeth I and Surviving the Virgin Queen. There are also courses, workshops and historic walks on offer each quarter – including topical twenty-first century topics such as getting the most out of your DNA result.

A visit to St George’s – one of the visits BFHS arranges each year, open to members and usually non-members as well.

Images courtesy of Berkshire Family History Society. Main photo: a BFHS volunteer at work transcribing old parish registers in the Berkshire Record Office.
Further information
  • Berkshire Family History Society and The Centre for Heritage and Family History is based on the second floor of Reading Central Library, Abbey Square, Reading RG1 3BQ. Phone 0118 950 9553.
  • Opening hours are Monday: 11am – 4pm, Tuesday: 10.30 am – 4pm, and 6.45pm – 9pm, Saturday: 10.30am -2.30pm and the last Thursday of each month 10.30 am – 4pm.
  • Use of the computers, paid for internet resources (e.g. Ancestry UK and Find My Past) and the expertise of the volunteers is free to members and non-members of BFH. However, a small donation is always appreciated as it is a charity and not grant funded.
  • There are six branches of Berkshire Family History Society at Abingdon, Bracknell, Newbury, Reading, Windsor and Woodley. Please check the BFHS website for details of events, talks, and public drop-in sessions, which are held in the Centre and also at local libraries and halls.
  • Single membership is £18, joint membership is £22, please contact The Centre for Heritage and Family History or check the website for details.
Next week: find out more about the Centre’s volunteer research assistants.