Digging for the Gold in Genealogical Mother Lode

Times Staff Writer

Looking up one's family tree is a very popular tourist pursuit in this city. But just finding the world-famous office of the Society of Genealogists can sometimes be the hardest part of the search.

The society is the mother lode for persons panning for nuggets about their British ancestors. Situated in a three-story office building in east London, near the new Barbican Centre, the society has books and records and old newspaper clippings that can quickly transport someone from 1987 to 1587--and centuries beyond.

Going back in time, however, is easier than trying to find the society office. The proper address of the society is 14 Charterhouse Buildings--which sounds like a structure, but turns out to be an obscure, tiny street not on most maps of the city.

Charterhouse Buildings, the street, is about half a mile from--but not connected to--a better-known area of London called Charterhouse Square. Ask for directions to the society; even professional guides and natives of London frequently misdirect tourists to Charterhouse Square.

So, for family-tree searchers headed for London, here's a tip: Take the subway to the Barbican Station. Then walk north on Aldersgate Street (which becomes Goswell Road) to the intersection of Goswell Road and Clerkenwell Road. Turn left on Clerkenwell, then look carefully for the sign that points to the Society of Genealogists at the end of the little cul-de-sac named Charterhouse Buildings.

Another tip: The society offices are closed to the public on Sundays, Mondays and holidays. The office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.

Inside, a friendly receptionist will welcome you and explain how the fee varies for use of the extensive genealogical libraries. For one hour's research, the fee is 2 ($3.40 U.S.) per person; for half a day, 5, and for all day, 7 1/2.

Visitors From Around World

A sign-in register quickly shows that on any given day in the society office, people from the far corners of the world are inside the libraries, shaking their family trees. A recent visitor from Huntington Beach found he was signing in immediately after a man from neighboring Newport Beach.

"People from all over come here," says Doris Pullen, one of the librarians. "One day one of the visitors turned out to be related to me--a cousin, in fact. It's interesting how people find things here. The question that most people usually ask me is, 'How can I find out about my ancestors?' "

To such general questions, Pullen will direct the searcher to books, files or areas of the library that might give clues to family forebears.

Veteran genealogists come to the society carrying lists of names and dates and other known facts about family roots. With more information in hand, a search is easier and often more successful, librarians at the society stress. But even starting from scratch, amateur genealogists sometimes can also turn up a surprising amount of family information.

The books in the library include thousands of detailed family trees. If one is lucky enough to have a family name already researched, sometimes it's just a matter of reading one book. For most, however, the trail means looking through hundreds of books and documents, with no success guaranteed. The search itself is fun, however, and tourist-visitors smile at one another as they lug ancient books to library tables, the better to search out the elusive forebear.

Instant Success Not Likely

If one has ancestors from Great Britain, a visit to the friendly office of the genealogists society can put a very personal imprint on a trip to London. Don't expect instant success, however, in finding old Sir What's His Name from your family tree.

"People come in here sometimes and say, 'I want my family tree, please,' " says Mina Patria, a receptionist at the society. "They seem to think they can do it all in an hour," she added, shaking her head in mock exasperation.

Visitors to the obscure 14 Charterhouse Buildings office may not find they're related to royal blood. But this off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction is a nice place to visit, and if you're touring St. Paul's Cathedral, you're within walking distance. Just make sure you're armed with good directions.

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