Community journalism: the volunteer research assistants at 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. For the second of three features, Catherine met Catherine Sampson, the chair of BFHS, and Pat and Peter, two research assistant volunteers at the Centre. Read the previous article here.

Research assistants help researchers make optimum use of the Centre’s resources, including normally paid-for services such as Worldwide Ancestry, Genealogy and Find my Past. Pat appeared at the centre in 2018, asking if they needed any assistance and was recruited on the spot! It took time for her to build up her skills and confidence, but in her words ‘you don’t have to be an expert in family history’. Catherine Sampson agreed that the main requirement is a willingness to learn, although empathy and discretion are also needed. Once, Catherine discovered a shocking secret, while helping a family examine prison records. The volunteer research assistants also help people to think about the wider historical context of the records they access – newspaper archives, for example, can present intriguing snippets of contemporary life and public attitudes.

Longstanding volunteer Peter joined BHFS in 1984, initially researching his own family. After retiring, he wanted to share his knowledge with others as a volunteer. ‘Doing my own research, I’ve used every resource we have’, Peter says. ‘It’s like detective work’. He encourages researchers to think laterally. He explained how he used school attendance records to locate family addresses and the probate calendar (a register of all the wills approved by probate) to evidence a family’s financial position or to discover forgotten relatives.

The research assistants at BFHS sometimes also locate descendants of war veterans for commemorative events.

Winifred Helen Burtenshaw

Winifred Helen Burtenshaw, a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, joined Basildon Park’s temporary war hospital in 1915, before transferring to Battle Hospital. Her death from cancer on 23 October 1919 was probably accelerated by a physical attack by a shellshock/PTSD victim. She was buried with full military honours with other war veterans at St Nicholas Church, Sulham.


For the St Nicholas church’s Centenary commemoration of the end of World War I, Winifred was the focus for the Remembrance Sunday Service. The society was delighted to help the family with their research and help publicise the event to a wider audience.


Robert Chanin

BHFS were also happy to trace the descendants of RAF Sergeant Robert Chanin, who died in 10 February 1942. Robert was part of the crew of a Handley Page Hampden bomber, flying back from an overseas mission. The plane was damaged by German gunfire. While attempting to divert to RAF Oulton in Norfolk, it crashed with no survivors, in a field in Cawston, half a mile from the base.


Cawston Historical Society planned to commemorate the four airmen with a memorial and asked Pat to provide background information on Robert. Using various sources, including an article reporting Robert’s death in the Reading Chronicle, she discovered his address at 93 London Street, his parents’ names and even his former employer, an accountancy firm in the Forbury. Pat also traced and contacted a surviving nephew, who attended the ceremony.


When Pat took the call about Robert Chanin, she was unaware that Catherine Sampson’s paternal family were from Cawston. Catherine’s late father had previously contacted the Cawston Historical Society to share memories of his wartime childhood. Describing the crash, he mentioned that the pilot had remained on board but the other three had also died because the plane was too low for their parachutes to open. This was information that he knew because his father was the policeman who recovered the bodies. Cawston Historical Society’s decision to commemorate the airmen was a direct result of this account.

This illustrates perfectly Catherine’s explanation of why research assistants enjoy volunteering at the Centre. It is an opportunity to be part of a community of friendly, like-minded people but there also “a certain frisson, because you never know who is going to come through the door… it gives a sense of satisfaction and great stories to tell.”

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 transcription volunteers.