Tracing your ancestors through a family tree is a great way to learn more about the generations before you, and to discover more about yourself in the process. Though it requires dedication and a bit of hard graft, researching the people who came before you can be an incredibly gratifying process. And once you know how to get started, it can be a lot of fun too.

When Local Life’s very own Design Manager and Wigan-born Peter Bretherton delved into his family tree, he found a legacy which culminated in a stay at Rainhill Hospital for one of his ancestors – you really never know quite what you’ll find.

Peter didn’t know his grandparents. He decided he wanted to know more about them – and the rest of his family – when other relatives began their own family history research, and became determined to uncover more about his ancestors.

The earliest Brethertons Peter traced back lived in Ulnes Walton in Chorley. John Bretherton was born in 1793 and baptised in Leyland; in the 1851 census John was found to be a farmer of 61 acres at Runshaw Moor, two miles east of Croston. Two generations later, however, is where things began to show a tragic side to the Bretherton family tree, beginning with John Bretherton’s grandson James.

Through relatives’ accounts, census records and physical documents – which are a great resource for finding concrete information such as birthplaces, home addresses and maiden names – Peter delved deeper into his family tree.

James Bretherton was born in 1857 in Euxton, Chorley, one of seven children. In his childhood, James became friendly with Ann Robinson whose father ran the Plough Inn – which is still in business today – just across the road from Runshaw Farm where James lived. The couple eventually married in 1879 and moved to Chorley Lane – now Chorley Road in Standish – to begin a family, raising six children together: John, James, Elizabeth, Thomas, William and Alice.

Tragedy was lurking just around the corner. Ann Robinson died in 1896 aged just 39 years old, and James remarried another Ann – Ann Churchouse from Aspull – just a few months later. The couple had one child together before Ann too died of pneumonia in 1902, and one week later James’ son died of the same disease at just 19 years old. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that young Alice suffered a horrific accident which left her disfigured and which traumatised her father for life.

‘..the last straw’

Alice was thirteen and helping out at the local vicar’s home where his wife was in labour. ‘The midwife sent Alice downstairs to bring something from the mantelpiece,’ Peter explains.

‘Unfortunately she was wearing an apron that caught fire as she reached up to grasp it. She ran upstairs for help but the midwife ordered her out of the room, so Alice ran outside the house, where no doubt her clothes burned all the more readily.’

Alice spent the next twelve months in hospital, not expected to survive. She managed to defy the odds, but her father James was never the same again. ‘It must have been the last straw,’ Peter theorises, ‘having lost his first wife in 1896, his second wife and nineteen year old son in 1902 and then some four years later, his daughter maimed and disfigured for life.’

James’ daughter Lizzy was awakened one night to suspicious noises below her bedroom, and crept downstairs to discover her father preparing to set fire to their home. On another occasion, she found him out in the garden with a loaded gun; Lizzy wrestled the weapon from him and attempted to destroy it with an axe. The gun went off, but thankfully nobody was injured. James was eventually admitted to Rainhill Hospital where he died in 1911.

Meanwhile, Alice went to live with a wealthy uncle near Southport, who left her a small legacy. When Lizzy’s husband Francis went off to war, the then 24 year old Alice moved in with her sister in Haigh, taking a job at the local Post Office. Francis never returned home from war, and Lizzy died in 1928, leaving Alice to care for her children.

Alice passed away in March 1976 in the hospital where she had endured countless operations to treat the burns she suffered some seventy years prior.

Through a combination of sources, Peter was able to trace all the way from 1793 to the present day.

Double Check It All

It’s important not to add all the information you find to your family tree all at once, warns Margaret Hegan, who often liaises with the Wigan Family & Local History Society. It can be tempting to make names, birthdates and facts known on your family tree as soon as you source the information, but without checking these are correct, you could be misleading others who use your family tree as a way into their own.

If you’re going to make information public, make sure you double check it all beforehand. It’s a good idea to file this information away privately until you’re certain it’s factual.

Margaret hit a few obstacles when conducting her own research twenty-five years ago; namely that she had moved to Wigan from Hertfordshire, and at the time, nothing was available online. She has since found that her Tarleton-born great-grandfather was a master carpenter who worked on the Leeds & Liverpool canal for 51 years. Richard Forshaw died in 1926 aged 83, just two years after his retirement from the Wigan boatyard.

‘Richard married Mary Gill, a boatwoman, and that’s how my family history research journey started – with the canal families,’ Margaret explains. ‘That’s also how the boatfamilies website was born, where over the years we’ve shared information and encouraged each other – along with discovering relatives we didn’t know about.’

A branch of the Ormskirk & District Family History Society, features information about canal family trees and surnames associated with the Leeds & Liverpool canal and its connected waterways. It’s a great tool for finding out more about ancestors who worked on the canals in the local area.

Joining a family history research society can also help you along your journey into the past. Not only will you gain access to new resources and a veritable font of knowledge from experienced researchers, but you’ll meet new people who are also interested in learning more about their family trees – and who knows, maybe a distant relative!

The Wigan Family & Local History Society meet on the second Wednesday of the month at St. Andrew’s Parish Centre on Woodhouse Lane, Springfield (WN6 7LZ), and aim to provide support, help and ideas for anyone interested in conducting their own research. The society also run a regular help desk at the Museum of Wigan Life on Library Street every Monday from 10:30am-12:30pm. Membership costs £14 for UK members or £25 for overseas members. For further information about the Wigan Family & Local History Society, visit

Interested in researching your own family tree?

Read our top tips to get started.

– The first step in beginning your family history search is to gather as much information as you can. Whether this is vague facts from your own recollections or first-hand accounts from close family members, write it all down.

– It’s a good idea to start an organisation system – labelled folders, physical or electronic, are great for locating information quickly, while photo albums organised by theme or date can link you to specific periods in your family history. Find a method that works best for you, but remember to collect any and all information you find – however insignificant it first appears.

– Physical documents tend to be the key to uncovering more about your ancestors – and you never know what might be lurking in the loft or at a relative’s house. Archives also hold census records or military service documents which can be incredibly useful when conducting in-depth research – head over to for more information.

– Local sources are perfect if you know where your ancestors originated. Wigan and Leigh Archives hold a vast array of documents and a wealth of information to kick-start your research. Based out of Leigh Town Hall (WN7 1DY), you can contact the archives online at or by calling 01942 404430. For records in the Manchester registration district, try searching the archives at Manchester Central Library, which might give you some additional information.

– Local museums can also be a great method of getting inspired if you hit a block. They’ll usually go into detail about local industry, and might even mention a few surprising surnames…

– Another great local resource is the Lancashire BMD Project. This website compiles birth, death and marriage records from across the county in an accessible search tool, with accounts dating back to 1837 – the year civil registration started.

– Lancashire Parish Clerks provides baptism, marriage and burial records compiled from a huge variety of sources including parish registers, churchwardens accounts, land tax records and business directories.

– Never underestimate the microfiche. Usually squirrelled away at the back of a musty library room, microfiche readers allow users to search through local historical newspapers, which can be a key tool in finding specific events or incidents. Although this can be a laborious process, microfilm records are labelled by date, so it works best if you have a starting point in mind.

– If browsing the archives for census records and trawling through microfilm seems like a daunting process, don’t be put off just yet – there are a lot of useful websites that can help you get started. Sites such as charge you a membership fee but boast huge record collections and a family tree tool. Start by adding some family members to the electronic tree, and find new leads through the site’s suggestions. Meanwhile, free sites such as Find A Grave and Billion Graves help locate tombstones across the world, while allowing you to add personal history information to each grave. It’s worth looking around at various genealogy websites to find which is most suited to your research.

– Another useful website is the National Library of Scotland (, where you can search by area for historical maps. It’s great for envisioning where ancestors would have roamed and for finding old addresses for areas that have undergone name changes or where new roads have been built.

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