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Goodbye 2020 – Why It Was My Crazy Genealogy Year

Looking back on 2020, I’m put in mind of Charles Dickens’ opening of A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

(A Tale of Two Cities, para. 1, line 1)

Never before in my lifetime has a single year resonated so strongly to these words. What a strange, crazy year it has been. The pandemic, of course, has been the central thread woven into every story this year, however big, however small, however personal.

With one hand 2020 has taken away so many things from us: many personal freedoms to travel, meet friends and family, go to a shop, eat out; for far too many it has taken away health, wealth and even life itself. With the other hand 2020 has given us things that we were missing or had forgotten: renewed senses of community, helping and caring for others, innovative ways to communicate and keep in touch through enforced separation, and new ways of giving and receiving the personal support that we’ve all needed this year.

This has been especially true of my genealogy year. I had specific plans for 2020 (didn’t we all!), many of which ended in tatters. But for almost every plan that was cancelled or changed, a new opportunity arose.


I had booked to attend three genealogy conferences in England in 2020, all of which were cancelled in the early days of the pandemic. I love genealogy conferences – they are such a wonderful opportunity to learn from the very best in our community, top up my bulging genealogy library and meet up with many of my genie buddies from across the country and the world – so I was very sad to see them fall victim to the emerging crisis.

But our genealogy community is full of innovators who rose to the challenge of 2020. The team at Family Tree Magazine quickly put together an online conference, which was a great success. Later in the year the Family History Federation ran their FHF Really Useful Show, a much larger and more ambitious affair – it had a few teething problems, but was successful enough that they have already arranged a second show in early 2021 ( RootsTech were not to be beaten – unable to run either RootsTech London in late 2020 or the main RootsTech 2021 in Salt Lake City, they have launched RootsTech Connect, an enormous three day extravaganza of an online conference which will be completely FREE! (

Family History Societies

I’m a member of Oxfordshire Family History Society ( as, although I have no Oxfordshire ancestors, they are my local society and I enjoy attending the monthly meetings. The team at OFHS have a lively, informative talks programme and I’ve also enjoyed being a Family History Advisor for the society, offering free genealogy advice clinics in libraries around the county. The pandemic has meant the closure of our meeting hall and ceasing all face-to-face advice clinics.

But the society was not to be daunted. The committee quickly adapted the talk programme to be deployed online via Zoom. The outcome has been a tremendous success for the society: numbers attending each talk have gone up(!), attracting new members, attendees from outside the county and even other countries.

There was an unexpected personal upside for me from this change. I’m a member of OFHS’s Online Meeting Group committee, and had offered to give a talk to the society based on my blog article Solving Tough Genealogy Problems. I gave the talk back in June, while the UK was in its first lockdown. It was warmly received. Emboldened by this, I offered to deliver another talk for the society, this time on Organising Your Research With Evernote. I delivered this in October, and it was again warmly received. Much to my surprise, I was quickly approached by several other societies asking if I would deliver the same talk for them. Quite accidentally, I seem to have become a speaker on the British genealogy circuit.

Oxfordshire isn’t my only online society though. I’m also a co-founder of a group called Pro-Am Genies, a mutual support group for aspiring professional genealogists, all of whom have completed the Professional Genealogy online course offered by Pharos Tutors ( This year we’ve built to a critical mass of members and have lively monthly Zoom meetings. We discuss the challenges of establishing oneself in the professional genealogy world and offer assistance to one another with specific skills and knowledge domains. More than that though, we’ve become good buddies.


I started this blog in 2019, relating the story of my elusive ancestor Mary Jane Hyland and using this as a springboard to make the case for using structured methods and best practices in genealogy research. My final article of 2019, Solving Tough Genealogy Problems (, was a big success and is still my most widely read article. My plan for 2020 was a monthly series of methodology articles covering all the key elements of a structured approach to genealogy research.

Of course, the pandemic interfered! Somehow, during the long, dark days of lockdown, I found the task of writing difficult. Too much exposure to rolling news, family worries and internalised anxiety stifled the writing spark. I think I’m not alone in having experienced something like that in this wretched year. I only managed seven blog articles through the year (eight including this one), which was well short of my target:

  1. What is Evidence?
  2. Linking Genealogical Evidence: A Method – Part 1
  3. Linking Genealogical Evidence: A Method – Part 2
  4. What is Proof?
  5. How to Build a Research Plan
  6. Understanding Genealogical Sources
  7. Four Genealogy Books Which Will Improve Your Research

Happily, they’ve been increasingly well received as the year has gone along. Much to my surprise I have found my blog listed in Feedspot’s Top 100 Genealogy Blogs and Websites in 2020 for Genealogists and Family History Researchers. I was as pleased as punch to find my little blog listed here, but quite astonished to find it given 18th place!

Research Trips

I had pre-planned two research trips for 2020, taking in three archives and relating to four different research questions I was hoping to solve.

My planned trip to the National Archives at Kew was specifically to research the activities of 58 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, a bomber squadron based at Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire, during the first year of the second world war. I have a relative, Leonard Isherwood, who served in this squadron and was sadly killed in July 1940. The research was specific to a set of records called the ORBs, or Operations Record Books, kept by each squadron in two parts and filed monthly, now to be found in class AIR 27 at the National Archives. For the period I was interested in there were eighteen ORBs to be read and information to be extracted. They were available for download from TNA’s website for £3.50 per file, but it would’ve come to £63 for the records I needed. It was going to be cheaper to visit Kew in person!

The Reading Rooms at Kew were closed early in the pandemic, so my plan was halted – another research project to be put off to another year, I feared. But then, in an unexpected move, the National Archives decided to remove the paywall on their online holdings for the duration of the pandemic. I was able to download and analyse all the ORBs that had references to poor Leonard. The files hold a detailed and fascinating story of courage against the odds and ultimate sacrifice at a time of existential national struggle. It will be one of my 2021 objectives to write up and present this story for you all to read.

My other planned research trip, back to the local studies libraries and archive of my native Cheshire, were of course cancelled. I had some newspaper research on WWI relatives to conduct as well as looking for a 1726 legal case in the Cheshire Quarter Sessions – these I put aside for another time.

I replaced this project with a search for a collateral Isherwood line that disappears from British records some time in the mid-1830s. I suspected that my missing Isherwoods had probably emigrated – but where to? I took some time to research the likeliest destinations for my errant bunch and eventually found likely candidates arriving in New York in December 1838 and settling in New Jersey. I’d never done research in American records before, so I set about finding out what to look for and where to try to find it (I attended a great online talk by American genealogist Dave Macdonald organised by the Society of Genealogists in London (, and purchased a very useful book The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood). Using the direction provided by these resources I’ve uncovered a hitherto unknown branch of New Jersey Isherwoods, some of whom live there still. Interestingly, the youngest son of the emigrant family, John Isherwood, born in Stockton Heath, Cheshire in 1827, was drafted into the Union army in 1864 and served in the final year of the American Civil War. I can already see the title of a future article, A Cheshire Lad in the US Cavalry, that will tell his extraordinary story.

Bring On 2021

So, as the lights go down on 2020 (literally, it’s sunset on New Year’s Eve as I write), what have I learned this year? That the genealogy community is a thriving, positive force in the lives of many. That my friends and colleagues in societies and groups are great innovators and friends. That adversity and opportunity go hand in hand.

Seeing The Wood For The Trees will go on in 2021. I think future articles will be more specific to my research projects and a little less over-arching, but they will always try to highlight the role of techniques and tools that you too can use.

Happy new year to all my readers!



Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

Join the Conversation


  1. I found your talk on Evernote really useful thank you. How do you use tags to retrieve information about a specific Isherwood ancestor? So far I’ve numbered my Wight ancestors because most of them are called William or Walter. Do you use multiple tags, eg first name and surname and date of birth and occupation so that in combination they identify the right person?


    1. As always with Evernote – the answer is “it depends”! I used upper case tags for each of my surnames, but I try to include forenames in the title of the document (it’s a document image, for e.g.) or I transcribe the contents of the image into the note itself. I then combine my tag search on the surname with a text search on the forename. Et voila!

      So, you really need to think about the content in your notes and what the best technique would be for retrieving that note in the future.

      Best regards,


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