Piecing together a historical puzzle

Travelling workshop teaches seniors how to chart their ancestry

Carlton House resident Muriel Fairbarns with some of her treasured family photographs. Fairbarns hopes that taking part in a genealogy workshop called Ask Granny

Carlton House resident Muriel Fairbarns with some of her treasured family photographs. Fairbarns hopes that taking part in a genealogy workshop called Ask Granny

Muriel Fairbarns scans a photograph, looking for a familiar face. After a few moments, she finds it, in the middle of a group of 50 or 60 girls.


“There I am. I would be about 13, something like that,” says Fairbarns. “That would have been taken in about ‘34, around then.”

The school photo, from Fairbarns’ childhood in England, is one of a few that the Carlton House resident has collected as she attempts to piece together her family history. Along with portraits of her parents, and even one of her great-great-grandparents, they represent pieces of a larger puzzle, one which Fairbarns hopes to continue putting together so that her two children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren can have a fuller picture of their ancestry.

One of the obstacles Fairbarns has faced is simply knowing how to put together all the bits of information so that they form a cohesive story.

“I’ve got masses of stuff, you see, and I’ve been trying to put it in some sort of order – not very successfully,” she says.

Fortunately for Fairbarns, she’s got an opportunity to do just that, thanks to a mobile workshop run by the Victoria Genealogical Society, taking place at Carlton House today (Feb. 15). The hour-long seminar, dubbed Ask Granny, is intended to give seniors the tools to help them chart their family history.

“Making the process simpler and simpler is what Ask Granny is all about,” says Merv Scott, VGS programs director. With the help of a few VGS volunteers, Scott runs the workshops, which are held once a month at different seniors’ residences around the Capital Region. Despite the name, men are equally welcome to attend. “In fact, a few months ago I had my first centenarian, and he was a man. Grandpas are more than welcome,” Scott says with a laugh.

Although many important family milestones – birth and death notices, wedding announcements, and so on – can be found with a little digging online, there are two problems with that when it comes to seniors says Scott. For one, it can be daunting to navigate the Internet. And secondly, though there is plenty of early historical information available, there’s not nearly as much from the recent past, due in large part to ever-strengthening privacy laws.

“If we can get a parent or grandparent to write some information down about themselves, they might be able to go back a generation where we can start finding information on the computer,” says Scott.

The Ask Granny seminars were created by an American couple in 2009, and since Scott introduced the material to Greater Victoria, he’s hosted nine workshops attended by close to 100 people. Scott limits the maximum number of participants per session to 12, so that each can be given one-on-one help in filling out their family history charts.

“The whole thing is meant to be something that they take back and pull out every so often as they remember something or come across some photo or document,” says Scott.

This is the first time Carlton House is hosting an Ask Granny workshop. Events like this offer an opportunity for residents to get to know each other better while providing a valuable service, says Rowena Hendriks, manager of leisure services at the residence.

“We’re really keen on having activities that cause people to be able to talk to each other, to tell each other their stories, and to be known within their community,” says Hendriks.

Helping people tell those stories is one of the main functions of the VGS. The society, which has more than 300 members, offers a range of genealogical services and resources to anyone who needs them. They operate a library in Vic West, publish genealogical journals, and have even created an online educational resource for teachers and students. But after several years of being supported in part by provincial grants, the society no longer receives government funding. Scott is hopeful that they can find other sources of revenue.

“We’re trying to attract more members, which has helped, because membership fees are a big part of our revenue, but we’re still scrambling.”

For now, however, it’s business as usual, and Fairbarns is looking forward to the workshop and the chance it will afford her to put some more pieces of her family puzzle into place.

“It’s something that has been necessary for several generations, so I’m very pleased that we’re all beginning to do something about it,” she says.