Q&As with James Thomson

  1. Before we discuss your upcoming talk with us on April 13th, can you tell us a little about your own genealogy.
Almost the entire geographic remit of BIFHSGO is of interest to me, as the homes of my ancestors were in places as far afield as Inverness, Ireland and London. My father's families were from the Highlands and Perthshire, with one line from the Lake District and another from Whitby and the surrounding part of North Yorkshire --- splendidly picturesque destinations for research and genealogical tourism! My mother's families were from England (including Oxfordshire, Nottinghamshire and Hertfordshire) and from Ireland, and included a substantial contingent of Huguenots in East London --- mostly silk weavers in and around Spitalfields. I've been an early convert to genetic genealogy, and am intrigued by consistent suggestions of a not-insignificant helping of “Scandinavian” autosomal DNA (as well as by my U5 mtDNA haplogroup); I'm really looking forward to further advances in the field.   
  1. Did the research into your own family history lead you into mapping or did that interest originate elsewhere?
Although I'm not a map collector, I have always had a keen interest in reading and using maps for practical purposes. The new generation of maps and mapping tools have arrived at a time at which I am immersed in family and local history research, as well as in teaching and writing about research techniques and related topics --- and so my focus has been on learning about tools and considering techniques of prospective interest to family and local historians. I've developed and led a four week (eight hour) course on maps and mapping for genealogists, co-sponsored by Toronto Branch of the OGS and the Toronto Public Library, and I hope that a second run of that course may be on the horizon. I'm also working on a book on these same topics.
  1. Has the use of maps and their more modern interactive cousins led you to any discoveries (about your family history) that you may not have made otherwise – or not so easily?
Time and again, maps have come to my rescue in my research, permitting me to reach conclusions with far greater certainty -or with greater specificity- than otherwise could have been possible. For example, paying careful attention to jurisdictional boundary changes has led me to profitably-explored records of contiguous jurisdictions which at first had appeared irrelevant. Using very large-scale historical Ordnance Survey maps for urban areas, in conjunction with census schedules and other records, has allowed me to identify the exact buildings in which my ancestors lived. Newly-digitised and vastly more accessible Griffith's Valuation maps have shown me the location and outline of plots of land occupied by my people in nineteenth century Ireland. And using maps, including the new generation of interactive maps, has helped me to discern the proximity or otherwise of non-conformist chapels and other record-generating entities – helping me to identify, for instance, nearby dissenting Presbyterian congregations in Scotland (in whose records I subsequently found entries for my families). In fact, I'm not sure how it would be possible for a genealogist to conduct research efficiently or confidently without reference to maps; I know that I wouldn't be able to.
  1. Without revealing too much of your April talk, is there one element or highlight that might surprise some people or perhaps give a few an “Ah-ha” moment for their own research?
I'm sure that BIFHSGO members share with me the hope that our family history researches will permit us to gain an almost visual sense of past lives; to imagine ourselves in our ancestors' shoes, sharing -to the extent possible- their experiences of surroundings and events. As we know, family history research becomes so much more enriching when one starts to take account of context, rather than merely attaching names to pedigree charts. In the talk, we'll focus on a few of the marvellous ways in which a new generation of maps and mapping tools can illuminate that sort of historical journey. What perhaps might be surprising is how much can be achieved just with a systematic approach and quite simple tools --- ones that require no great technological expertise. Believe me in this: if I can get a handle on them, anyone can!
Thanks so much for inviting me to speak. I'm really, really looking forward to joining you on the 13th!