Researching your ancestors in India: where to start?

It is now February, 2015. Six months ago, I made the decision to research my ancestry – beginning with the Anglo-Indian heritage of my late Nana, Elaine Cynthia Wheeler (nee Hassett). Elaine died in February 1981. She was survived by her husband, Stanley, her five children, David, Douglas, Cynthia, Diane and Vivien, and their eight children. In May of 1981, Elaine’s eldest child, David, had a son, Mark. In October, Elaine’s youngest child, Vivien, gave birth to her first child, me (Daniel).

Sadly, I never got to meet Nana. Those who did meet her, describe her as ‘one in a million’, ‘too good to be true’, ‘everybody was always welcome in her home – the door was never locked’, ‘she LOVED children’. That does not do full justice to the great woman I am sure she was. Her memory lives on through three generations: Elaine’s five children, their thirteen children, and the fourteen children (so far) of the thirteen children(!)

For years I have planned, or rather said, I would unearth the roots of the family and uncover the generations of forefathers – especially those in India.

In July 2014, I (finally) started.

Fortunately, I now live in London, which provides a wealth of information and support for researching your ancestry – especially in India. I began the adventure the same way most would in 2014 – Google Search ‘family ancestry’. This brings up a host of commercial organisations offering subscription services to ancestry databases. To focus, I tried searching ‘Indian family ancestry’. This led me straight to the most valuable resource I have found so far: a charitable organisation called Families in British India Society (FIBIS). FIBIS describes itself as:

an organisation devoted to members with an interest in researching their ancestors and the background against which they led their lives in ‘British India’.

The Society was formed in November 1998 to provide a resource for people researching families and their social history in India from 1600 up to, and even after, Indian Independence in 1947.

This was perfect. I signed up for a membership with FIBIS and discovered that it is far more than just ‘a resource’. From the very beginning, FIBIS provided me with a lot of powerful information, none more so than the comprehensive guides it provides (via FIBISwiki) to the British Library in London.

I then invested in books about the history of India and Anglo-Indians (I wasn’t even sure what an ‘Anglo-Indian’ was), and spent a lot of time reading about the history of Anglo-Indian life. This was very useful, but what I should have done – in hindsight – was go straight to the British Library (armed with the guide from FIBIS).

In January 2015 – yes, five months later – I went to the British Library in London. I had my comprehensive guide from FIBIS, the name and date of birth of my nana, Elaine Cynthia Wheeler, the name of my granddad, Stanley Wheeler, Elaine’s mothers name, Edith Hassett and the fact they resided in Bombay (which I later learned was one of three presidencies in British India). That was all.

What happened next was incredible.

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 Pictured from left to right (with relationship to me in brackets): (Uncle) Douglas, (Aunty) Cynthia, (Granddad) Stanley, (Nana) Elaine, (Mam) Vivien, (Aunty) Diane, (Uncle) David.

Cover picture credit: Vivien Marshall

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