Storyhouse is giving people the chance to explore their own unique stories with the help of a special Family History ‘Buddy’.
Genealogy guru Gill Campbell helps people to uncover fascinating facts about their forebears in free weekly drop-in sessions at Hunter Street.
Gill’s own passion for genealogy started when she was seven, fired at the knee of her father and great-aunt who drew a family tree on the back of a sheet of wallpaper and who shared captivating family fables – not all of which, she discovered when she looked into them in later years, turned out to be strictly true.
While her career as a nurse, and later a nursing lecturer at university, took over her life, when she took early retirement six years ago, she determined to go back to her first love.
The proud Cestrian – born within the city’s historic walls – joined the Chester branch of the Cheshire Family History Society and five years ago offered her volunteer services to the city library.
When the library moved into Storyhouse in 2017, so did Gill, running her weekly Family History Buddy mornings every Tuesday.
And her family history expertise is always in demand.
“The first week we opened here, I had 15 people all turn up on the first day and they all arrived at the same time,” she recalls. “I had to do a group talk about family history, what I did and how I might be able to help them, and then take two or three examples of what we might be able to find.”
In a normal two-hour session she will see two or three people, whom she deals with on a one-to-one basis. Some are one-off visitors, some regulars.
Most people seeking help are from an older generation, although within that the demographic is almost evenly split between men and women.
Gill explains: “I think it’s only as you age that you realise you are the sum of what came before, and the hardships people went through are what makes you, you.
“I think when you’re young, they’re just dead people, and you’re not very interested in old people, never mind dead people!”
Often those who come seeking her help and research skills know very little, even about even close relatives.
Gill says: “Sometimes I’ll get elderly people who don’t even know their parents’ first names. They always knew them as father and mother. That can be quite hard.
“I’m challenged every week. And sometimes despite my best efforts, I have to come back to people and tell them that I haven’t been able to help them.”
In addition, even if they exist, records are only as accurate as the information they are based on. As Gill points out, people have always had the capacity to be economical with the truth, be it about an age, a marital status or a relationship.
Errors can also be accidental – sometimes with unfortunate consequences.
“The best transcription I ever found was where it was a Protestant minister who was recorded as a prostitute manager!” Gill laughs. “This man would be spinning in his grave if he knew that.”
Family History Buddy sessions are open to anyone, whether they are genealogical beginners or want to enlist Gill’s help on a tricky search.
“People come for all sorts of different reasons. Sometimes because they know nothing. Sometimes because they’ve done their family history, are stuck and want somebody to look at it with fresh eyes.
“Some people don’t want me to do it, they want me to show them how to do it so they can go away and do it themselves.”
After the Brexit vote in 2016, a number of people approach her to help find Irish ancestors to fulfil Ireland’s passport requirements.
And more recently, a Chester expat visiting from South Africa enlisted her help to track down an old schoolfriend, which led to a happy reunion.
So with all the people she’s seen and family stories she’s heard, are there any amazing revelations or discoveries to share? Famous faces or infamous tales?
“No is the answer! But lots of stories none the less,” Gill says. “I’ve had people come in telling me that they’re related to famous people, and almost without exception we’ve been able to prove they weren’t.
“People want to be famous – or infamous. It’s the inbetweeners who don’t really do anything, for whom there are no records, that’s most of us – we lead an honest, good life, but we don’t do anything remarkable.”
For Gill, these individual stories that sit at the crossroads of family, local and social history are just as important as headline names and life-changing national events. And the fact that it’s not her own family doesn’t make them any less interesting to her.
“It’s the searching and that detective work and finding the stories. It doesn’t matter that you’re not related to them,” she says.
“I’m very privileged because I get to share people’s stories and people tell me all sorts of things that they wouldn’t necessarily share with everybody; hearing about what somebody’s family has done, and the hardships that sometimes they’ve had.”
She smiles: “Researching your family history is addictive. You never finish, and I love it. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink excessively, I don’t spend an awful lot – this is what I spend my money on, and it gives me great pleasure.”
Visitors to Storyhouse can find Gill in the library every Tuesday between 10am – 12pm. There is no need to make an appointment.