How do I uncover my family tree?

Vera and John Walkden, Les' mother and father Picture: Les Walkden

Vera and John Walkden, Les' mother and father Picture: Les Walkden - Credit: Archant

Ipswich resident Les Walkden explains how he’s uncovered his family history back to the 15th century - and how you can too

Les' family tree on his computer Picture: Les Walkden

Les' family tree on his computer Picture: Les Walkden - Credit: Archant

Les Walkden has spent the past three years uncovering his roots and building his family tree – going as far back as 1450 on his paternal side.

With the help of DNA testing, ancestry websites and census records, he has still got a lot to unearth, and intends to delve even deeper into his and his wife’s backgrounds.

Retired, Les lives in Ipswich and explained how he first got into genealogy. “I have found lots of graves in cemeteries in Ipswich and across Suffolk, throwing up lots of questions - and it’s great fun finding the answers,” he said.

“I joined in 2017, and my wife Carol and I had our DNA taken. This is when I was inspired to research our family history, because once parents and older family members pass away, there is no one to answer your questions regarding the past.”

Vera and John Walkden, Les' mother and father Picture: Les Walkden

Vera and John Walkden, Les' mother and father Picture: Les Walkden - Credit: Archant

Les took a DNA test, which broke down his genetic makeup. “My original DNA test revealed that I was 57% Great Britain, 18% Scandinavian, 16% Western European, 5% was from Ireland, 2% Southern Europe, and 2% came from Others,” he said.

Les has since had those results updated, which has provided a much more detailed and specific genetic breakdown, revealing his ethnicity estimate to be comprised of the following: 79% England, Wales and North Western Europe (including North Western England, Lancashire and Greater Manchester, The Midlands and The Potteries), 10% Germanic Europe, 5% Norway, 4% France and 2% Ireland & Scotland.

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Commenting on his Scandinavian heritage, Les said: “I think from the Scandinavian and Norwegian DNA results, it might explain why my father, my son and I all have had piercing light blue eyes. It must be from Viking stock.”

In regards to his maternal side, Les notes how his mother had olive skin and black hair. “She looked Italian or Maltese. Where did this come from in her past? She did not know, so I was curious about that,” he added.

The gravestone of William Cook, Les' great-grandfather, at St Mary's Church, Benhall Picture: Les Wa

The gravestone of William Cook, Les' great-grandfather, at St Mary's Church, Benhall Picture: Les Walkden - Credit: Archant

Armed with his newfound DNA results, and resources such as, Les has been able to uncover his paternal heritage as far back as the 15th century.

“My paternal line is centred in Bolton, Manchester and the Cheshire area, which I have back to 1450 and 1523,” he said.

So how has Les managed to go so far back?

He began by focusing on his paternal grandparents, and worked from there. “My father, John Walkden, was born in Liscard, Cheshire in 1911, and was the youngest of nine children. He was orphaned in 1920 at the age of nine and spent time living with some of his siblings, but ended up in an orphanage.

The Walkden coat of arms Picture: Les Walkden / Ancestry

The Walkden coat of arms Picture: Les Walkden / Ancestry - Credit: Archant

“When he was able to, he joined the RAF in January 1928. He went through the ranks, eventually finishing his RAF career at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, as flight lieutenant Walkden in 1948 and remained on the RAF retirement list until 1950. It was when he was stationed at Martlesham that he met and married my mother Vera Cook, a Suffolk girl.”

With Les’ father having been orphaned at such a young age, his knowledge of his parents was far and few between, so it was up to Les to see what missing pieces of the Walkden family puzzle he could fill in.

“I have now traced my father’s family back to Thomas Walkden, my tenth great-grandfather who lived between 1527 and 1622. His wife, Joanne Stone, lived between 1530 and 1588, and has family going back as far as 1365, but this is quite new information which I am still researching.”

Les also had little information on his grandparents on his mother’s side. He knew that once he uncovered those missing links, he could trace his maternal lineage further back.

The current day The Ship Inn at Blaxhall. According to the 1871 census, Les' ancestor Charles Abbott

The current day The Ship Inn at Blaxhall. According to the 1871 census, Les' ancestor Charles Abbott was its publican Picture: Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

“My grandfather on my mother Vera Cook’s side died in 1943, so I did not get to meet him either. My grandmother lived until she was 80, but we never did speak much of past families.”

Through the power of research and historical resources, Les has since managed to trace his maternal side all the way back to his seventh great-grandfather, who was born in 1659, in Bedingfield, Suffolk.

“Most Cooks were agricultural workers in Earl Soham, Farnham and Benhall in Suffolk,” he explained. “My grandfather William Cook married Ellen Abbott in Benhall Church in 1909, and on a visit to the church, we found my great-grandparent’s gravestone, with assistance from the extremely helpful church wardens.”

Les was then able to explore his mother’s maternal side, uncovering more of the lineage, and tracing the Abbotts back to the 18th century. “My third great-grandfather Abraham Abbott was born in Ipswich in 1798 and lived until 1872,” he said.

Carol Walkden's great-great-grandfather, George Child's gravestone at Ipswich Cemetery Picture: Les

Carol Walkden's great-great-grandfather, George Child's gravestone at Ipswich Cemetery Picture: Les Walkden - Credit: Archant

According to the 1841 census, Abraham Abbott was an innkeeper in Tunstall, Suffolk, and had three sons, Abraham, Charles and Alfred. “His son Abraham was found guilty of ‘larceny by servant’, and subjected to six months hard labour. A ‘servant’ in this case means somebody in a position of trust, or a contractor, who has gained possession of goods lawfully and then stolen them. He was a shoe fitter according to the 1861 census – so perhaps he stole shoes?” Les said.

The 1871 census revealed that Abraham’s son, Charles, was a publican at the Ship Inn at Blaxhall. Ten years later, that census showed that Charles had moved and was now the publican at the Eight Bells Inn in Kelsale, Suffolk.

“My wife and I visited the Ship Inn to have a few drinks, and we had a lovely conversation with the current landlord,” Les said.

“We then drove to Kelsale but could not find a public house. The second person we asked was a local builder, who took us to where the pub stood. The Inn was closed in 1987 and is now a private house - still called The Eight Bells.”

With an interesting and in-depth history on Les’ side, he and his wife Carol (née Coleman) began the journey of uncovering her roots next, starting with some headstones in the local cemetery.

“My wife’s family history and subsequent searching has been so interesting. After my wife’s mother passed away in 2005, she was cremated and her ashes were interred in her parent’s grave in Ipswich Old Cemetery,” Les said. “We have since found five graves from her mother’s side and four from her fathers’ side - all within 500 metres that none of the family knew about. Most were buried in public graves with no headstones, but we did find a well-kept headstone of her great-great-grandparents.”

“Ipswich Cemetery has been great,” Les explained. “When searching for a grave, you can tell them who you are looking for and supply them with the date of death, and they will give you the grave number and even temporarily mark the grave if you need assistance in finding it.”

“The best find so far has been my wife’s seventh great-grandfather Edmund from 1647, who was married to Mary Gipps and lived in Great Welnetham, Suffolk,” Les explained.

Through research, they have found out that Mary was the sister of Sir Richard Gipps, who was knighted by King Charles II for services rendered to the crown.

“I am 90% sure of these facts leading to Edmund, but can only prove the facts 100% up to Lionel, fifth great-grandfather, who lived between approximately 1714 and 1780. I still cannot find a positive connection, or written proof of his father, but I am still looking for this and need to get back to the Suffolk register office again once it opens. Nothing should be claimed until 100% proof is obtained,” he added.

Les’ in-depth dedication to uncovering his and his wife’s ancestry has also allowed him to connect with living relatives he didn’t know he had – with some as far afield as the Southern Hemisphere. “Via DNA through Ancestry, I have been matched with 245 fourth cousins or closer.

“I have made contact with four second cousins in Cheshire, Chelmsford, Diss and even New Zealand,” he said.

For anyone wishing to uncover their own family history, Les has a few tips to share with readers.

“I joined on Thursday 2 November 2017. In that time, I have amassed 2,479 people in my tree, including 5,152 records, 473 photos and 11,320 hints. The hints are provided by ancestry from other people’s records - some are correct, and others are not.”

In regards to any incorrect information that you may stumble across in the course of your research, Les recommends being extra thorough, and questioning everything. He said: “You must check and double check information by dates, names, relationships and places before you add anything to your tree. I often find people who grow their tree with wrong information.

“A simple search via dates, and you can prove if something is wrong. I have seen relationships where the father has a child at eight years old, or a man who married a woman who had died ten years before him. Check, check, and check again.”

With an abundance of information available online for you to access, you may find yourself falling down the deepest of rabbit holes. “Most of my information comes from including national census forms, births, deaths and weddings, and other family trees who have additional details on the same families” Les said. “Also, there’s files at the Suffolk register office in Ipswich, parish registers and local cemeteries.”

While it may sound daunting at first, it’s an incredibly rewarding hobby that Les recommends.

“You will never finish working on your tree,” Les said. “As it grows, you will get more and more information that you have to sift through.

“It is a fabulous hobby and you will be amazed at how much interesting stuff you will find,” he added.

If you think you could be related to Les, or have your own local ancestry story you’d like to share, please get in touch by emailing

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