As you explore the social history of your ancestors, it is quite likely that you will encounter a company, a business, a society or some organisation that touched their lives. Digging a little deeper will enrich your family story and help place your ancestor into the context of the world they lived in. But where do you look for more information?
If the organisation was prominent, you might find an article on Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is written by volunteers and not all articles are created equal, this can be an excellent place to start, not only for an overview of the history but to find other related materials in the form of references, bibliographies and external links normally displayed at the bottom of the article. As an example, in a recent article on The Social Historian that explored the beginnings of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the UK, the Wikipedia article about the NSPCC provided some facts about the organisation’s history. It is important, however, that you do not rely totally on what you find on Wikipedia, but instead do your due diligence and fact check what you find. In the case of this article, the history section credited Thomas Agnew with the formation of the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (LSPCC) but fact checking in historical newspapers showed that Mr T F A Agnew actually went by the name of Frederick and that while he might have been involved in the movement, there were many other philanthropists and politicians who also took key roles in the formation of the society.
If the company, business, society or organisation is still in existence, it is quite likely that their official website will have a section on their history. These can usually be found with a simple Google search or through a link from Wikipedia. A great example of this is the travel company founded by Thomas Cook back in 1841. Not only is there a history of the company on their ‘About us’ page, there is also a detailed list of the collections in the company archives and information about how to access the materials. Another great example is the Burberry brand of clothing in business since 1856. Find a wonderful history of their company on the Burberry history page.
Many of the companies, businesses, societies or organisations you will be researching will be mentioned in historical newspapers of the time. Look for details about the formation and about any newsworthy events associated with the organisation.
As an example, when I was researching my Barrow-in-Furness family who were associated with the Barrow Ship Building Works, I uncovered a story about a fatal boiler explosion in June of 1881 in the Lancaster Gazette on the British Newspaper Archive. This explosion seems to have taken place around a time when I know that my great-grandfather, a boiler-maker, was injured at work, so it is very possible that he was one of the unnamed injured.
Search for your company, business, society or organisation in online books on Google Books, the Internet Archive or other similar websites. For example, a search for the City of Toronto Gas Light and Water Company finds the Act to incorporate this company on Google Books in an 1841 copy of The Provincial Statutes of Canada. Another example is An account of the Highland Society of London written in 1813. Use the advanced search tools to target your search for the type of book or magazine and the time period of interest.
Web Search and More
It is perhaps somewhat obvious to do a simple web search for your company, business, society or organisation but make sure to use some of the advanced search options to target your search.
Try using your search term in the keyword field on databases like Ancestry. For example, my interest in the Barrow Ship Building company prompted me to enter those words in the keyword field on Ancestry with no other criteria. Using this method, I found many employees of the company who were working there at the time the 1911 census was taken who were likely co-workers with my Barrow Ship Building ancestors.
Always think outside the box.
Image Credits: Wikipedia