I have only been working with Clive Reedman for a couple of months but we have got to know each other quite well. It is amazing how much you can share on a long car journey, in our case to and from Hertfordshire Archives, located in the county town of Hertford. I bombarded him with lots of questions because I have become interested in house history research over the last few months and wanted to know more about the topic; also how someone could become a specialist in such an interesting area.
Here is a summary of the questions I put to Clive and the answers that came my way;
What made you choose to move into the area of House History Research after a long career in unrelated areas?
For most of my working life I was involved in the identification of people and the placing of those people into crime scenes, or confirming a person’s identity through physical characteristics for use with passports etc. In these roles I had to apply investigatory skills that rely on both logic and lateral thinking. I have been interested in my own ancestry for many years and realised that the skills I had acquired in my working life fitted very well with both family and house history research.
How difficult has it been to make the change?
I never really made a dramatic ‘change’. My career and my somewhat faltering entry into genealogy overlapped for at least ten years, during a period in which I was my own boss. It was therefore a natural progression from one to the other, rather than a massive ground shift. The hard part was knuckling down to the years of study required to improve my research abilities and gain the confidence to use those abilities to support individuals and entities not connected with my own family.
To what extent has the change been as you would have predicted?
Following my time working as a paid staff member for the police, the Home Office, a hi-tec biometrics company and a number of industry bodies, I was self-employed for 15 years. This created the context for me to start Rowan Ancestry. Transitioning was not therefore too difficult from a business perspective. What has been surprising though is the amount of time I devote to the business. It certainly isn’t just a side-line to keep me active in retirement but is very much a full-time occupation.
How does job satisfaction compare with jobs in your previous career?
I believe that in work we should always seek to generate our own job satisfaction. I gained much of that satisfaction in my previous roles through knowing that I was a part of something that could improve lives. There is a thrill in applying skills and seeing them bring a benefit to others. In many ways building a family tree for a client, or tracing the past residents of their home and seeing the happiness it brings them, is as rewarding as helping catch criminals, or improving the flow of people through an airport.
What has gone well and what have been the particular challenges?
The things that have gone well are most definitely the projects that I have a personal connection with. For instance, a long and detailed research assignment regarding an 18th century house in Islington, London was a scary, but very rewarding introduction to professional house history research. The challenge was overcoming my own feelings of inadequacy and an ‘imposter syndrome’ that made me hesitant and fearful that the quality of my work would be judged as low. In fact, that particular project has just been expanded and much of the initial emotional challenge has been taken away.
What are the particular skills and behaviours that are needed to achieve success in House History Research?
It is actually in many ways easy to research a house history and most people with even rudimentary computer skills can have a go at it. However, to take that research to a level where it can be labelled as ‘professional’ requires a skill set that must include the application of acquired knowledge through formal study and ‘on the job’ experience. A methodical nature, good time management routines, building and utilising good peer support networks, business and project record keeping skills etc. are all essential. But you must also know when to change tack, or even stop.
How difficult is it to meet the expectations of those who want their houses researched?
It is vital that anybody seeking to build a history of a property understand that there are some constraints that simply cannot be overcome. Many prospective clients will have done some research into their own family history or made a start on finding out about past residents of their home. What I have to get across is that the vast majority of the records that could reveal the fuller story are not online. They exist in archives, or have simply been lost, or destroyed. The researcher needs therefore a combination of skill, knowledge, experience and (yes) luck. Sometimes the real skill is knowing when an expectation is unlikely to be met and politely declining the opportunity.
What are the most popular misconceptions around House History Research?
The most prevalent misconception is that building a ‘residency tree’ for a house is the same as building a ‘family tree’ using one of the off the shelf, internet-based packages available. In reality they differ in many respects and must be approached from a different research perspective. The wonderful television series ‘A House Through Time’ has fuelled the interest, but what isn’t shown is the months of research time, often in archives and private collections, that experts have to put in to produce material for the programme.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to research their house?
The first piece of advice is not to start with the actual house. It sounds a little odd, but the most important step is to first understand as much as you can about the location in which the house sits, the physical location and its social, economic and political roots. Search for the historical accounts that are available online, in libraries, or in archives. Locate as many historical maps as you can. Above all seek out and use local history societies, as much of what you need may already have been researched and documented.
What made you agree to join the Tring Rural History team and how have things worked out so far?
Coming across the existence of the Tring Rural History team was one of those lovely moments in life where you immediately know that there are people out there who have the , same interests as yourself and whom you might be able to help. Many of my ancestral roots are planted in Hertfordshire, many of them in or around Tring, Wilstone, Berkhamsted and Aldbury. Indeed, my parents live in Wilstone, where my father serves the community as Parish Warden. Giving up my time, knowledge and skills for such a wonderful undertaking was then a ‘no brainer’ for me. So far, I have enjoyed every minute of my involvement and I am making new friends who I hope will forgive both my dull lecturing, as well as my occasional over excitement!
The answers to these questions make it clear why we are very fortunate to have Clive in our team. He has taken on, as his first project, research into the history of the Half Moon pub in Wilstone and has also advised and supported those of us who are researching listed buildings in Long Marston and Puttenham.
Dull lecturing and occasional excitement are not a bad mix!
by Alan Warner