Margaret Elm's journey into the world of genealogy began with a rhyme, and has led her down a path into the past ever since. It all began when she listened into conversations between her mother and grandfather at around 14-years-old.
"My grandfather and mother used to often talk about the old days, the funny and sad stories and tales, our English and German ancestors and relatives. My mother could rattle off the names of all 12 children in her mother's family in the form of a rhyme and I was fascinated by it so I was determined to learn it. This led me to wanting to know more about these people."
Margaret joined the NZ Society of Genealogists Inc. in 1978 and then the Hawke's Bay branch around 1991, which she is currently the secretary/editor of. The branch will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.
She says the society attracts a wide range of people from all walks of life and professions — age is no barrier.
"I guess it's for anyone who is curious and wants to know more about their background, where they come from and what makes them like they are — and perhaps who they take after."
The Hawke's Bay branch has around 80 members, with attendance fluctuating from one meeting to the next depending on the time of day and the meeting topic.
"We could have 20 at one meeting and 40 at the next. Some members live too far away but like to stay connected with people of like mind and keep up to date with genealogical happenings through the branch newsletters."
Margaret says membership has declined in the past 10 years, which is mainly due to age and a surge in material now available online.
"We now have Ancestry, FindMyPast and LDS FamilySearch websites which means younger people do not see the need to belong to a group. But most genealogy branches have material that can't be found on the internet."
Margaret believes anything can trigger an interest in a person's genealogy.
"It might be for health reasons to see if there is an hereditary illness, some might have an unusual Christian or surname and want to know where it comes from, some might believe they have royal blood or are connected to a famous person and want to prove it."
She says perhaps someone has suggested a family reunion and they need to find living relatives, some could have an intriguing family story they want to know more about or maybe they are adopted and want to know who their biological family is.
"Or perhaps they have been left something in a will and they want to know where it came from and why it has been kept, maybe a parent was interested and passed all their research on to them. Each person has their own reason."
Two HB branch meetings are held each month from February to November — an evening meeting on the third Monday from 7.30pm and a day meeting on the fourth Monday from 10am to noon. Both are held at Stoneycroft House, Omahu Rd, Hastings.
Different topics and speakers are arranged for meetings, catering for all interests relating to genealogy "as not everything appeals to everyone".
"In recent times we have had a talk by a member who had been searching for a missing great-grandmother and two local authors have spoken about books they have written – one on the Fletcher family from Onga Onga and the other about Miss Jerome Spencer, founder of the Country Women's Institute."
Members have visited the MTG archives collection and the Faraday Centre and have had a talk about 'What do you do with your stuff when you snuff?' and 'What is required to put together a family publication'. Margaret says the group has learned about how to care for headstones, fragile documents, papers, old materials and also how to date old photographs.
"We have sharing information sessions and try to help members 'break down brick walls'. Next year we hope to cover 'How to keep information private on public genealogy websites' like Ancestry, hear about an historic house on Napier Hill and what resources can be found at the National Archives in Wellington."
She says not all people are interested in their family backgrounds, but for the passionate genealogist, it is very important to research and gather as much information as you can before it is too late.
"The information amassed then becomes your legacy that you can pass on to future generations. Your grandchildren might not thank you right now but as they get older, they will be appreciate all the hard work that you have done. One of the NZSG mottos is 'Preserving the past for the future'. It's a hobby that can be picked up and put down as the mood takes and it is something that is never going to go away."
Family histories are displayed in a variety of ways, with many people using family tree computer programmes to record their family histories on different electronic devices like a home PC, laptop, smart phones or tablets. Margaret says if using these methods of recording, it is most important that backups should be taken regularly and copies saved in other locations.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with keeping it all on paper, it's a personal choice. Copies of that too can be held by other family members in the event of floods, fire or theft. Some people have their research published in hard copy form or share it in the public arena and some just keep the information within the family for their own use."
Margaret says although nothing very exciting has popped up in her own family tree, there is a family story of a figure of a relative in the Chamber of Horrors in Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum in London.
"I am still working to find the connection. My paternal great-great-grandmother was a publican of a public house in Bexley, Kent for many years which is still operating. I visited it when I went to England several years ago and raised a glass to her memory – it was on my bucket list."
She says getting a DNA test has become quite fashionable and can open doors to many relatives around the world.
"Some find that what they believed was their origin is not actually true. It can also reveal things that perhaps their ancestor had kept a secret and didn't want them to know about. It has a positive side though – in my own case we knew our great-grandfather was illegitimate and while we had guessed who the father was, DNA has helped us to confirm that what we had assumed is correct."
The HB Branch does not do research for people, but is there to offer help and advice.
"We encourage everyone to do their own research. There is a lot of material out there that can be found for free, it just takes time, patience and perseverance to find it."
Margaret warns that people searching their family history should never rely on just one source of information as not everything on the internet is correct, even on the major family tree sites.
"A good genealogist should verify a particular piece of information through three unrelated avenues before they can claim it as correct and belongs to their tree. A recent find on a major site had the person buried 42 years before they died."
Every few months the NZSG publishes The New Zealand Genealogist, which contains stories and information on a variety of subjects.
"It also gives members the opportunity to place advertisements for missing ancestors and/or getting in touch with unknown family lines. Upcoming family reunions can also be advertised."
The Hawke's Bay branch has a biographical index which Margaret says is a great asset for members looking for Hawke's Bay people.
"Nowhere else can this eclectic collection be found. It was started many years ago and has become quite large – some 154,000-plus slip-cards. We are currently working to expand this index."
The HB Branch also participates in community events and for the past 20 years has provided 'early settlers or immigrants' — members dressed in period costume — for the Waitangi Day pageant and celebrations at Clive.
"We have had display tables at the open days at Stoneycroft House and at the first Onga Onga Victorian Market Day last year. Recently a helpdesk was established at Stoneycroft House and branch volunteers offer free assistance and/or advice one afternoon a month. Members however can ask for help at any time."
August is Family History Month. The HB branch usually has small displays in the Hastings and Taradale libraries highlighting family history. Some areas run lectures and workshops during this month. In both libraries there is a small genealogy section which in Taradale is located at the back of the building on the right hand side.
"Don't be afraid to ask for help. And finally, a thought to ponder on. If you are the last living link between your grandparents and your grandchildren - don't break the chain."
■ HB Branch celebration is to be held at the Hawke's Bay Club, Napier on Saturday, February 12, 2022 starting at 2pm. Afternoon tea provided. Registration essential (limit 80). All members and former members welcome. To register or for more details email email@example.com or phone (06) 844 2892 or (06) 843 227 Margaret Elms, 027 604 9340.
For more information about the local genealogy society branch contact convenor, Margaret D (06 843 2272), treasurer, Diane F (06 844 2892) or secretary, Margaret E (06 8765 462 evenings).