When I was little, one of the first things our family did when visiting a new place on holiday or days out, was visit the churchyard. I never quite knew why, but as I grew older, the reason why my Mum would stare at each of the weathered gravestones in turn, quietly making out the words on them while we played in the sunshine, became apparent to me.
My mother was orphaned when she was very young, and knew very little about her parents’ families. And when she went to a new place, she looked for them. However small the chance of finding them, she never gave up.
In my twenties, the search became a little more focussed. Records became available, for amateur genealogists to painstakingly search through, and I used to go with my mother, helping her lift the heavy record books and flip through miles of microfiche. Because we had very little to start from, we didn’t get very far.
And then, in 2001 the 1901 census became available online. At last, we had a database – a searchable record, of everyone living in the UK in that year. I applied myself to the problem once again, and found four families who I was sure were related to us. It gave us a place to start when looking at the paper records and it was a huge and exciting step forward!
Over the years, more and more became available online. One by one, the census records back to 1841 were digitised, along with parish records and other information and slowly I began to build a picture. There were a lot of false starts and red herrings along the way – I learned that three separate pieces of information are necessary before you can make a definite link between generations, and that’s often difficult to find. I also learned that just because something’s written down, it isn’t always accurate – in the days before centralised records existed, when information was given verbally, there were often spelling mistakes and sometimes a little deliberate massaging of the truth.
But finally we came full circle – although this time it was me who organised the outing and not my parents. My mother and I stood in a country churchyard together, on a sunny day much like those of my childhood, deciphering the worn letters on the gravestone of her 4 x greats grandfather.
I know it meant a lot to her, and over the years the search had come to mean a lot to me. People who started out as just names and dates began to emerge as real people, as I put them into the context of where they lived and when, and what they did. We didn’t have any lords and ladies, but we had something we liked much better – a diverse mix of miners, seafarers, shopkeepers, farmers, smugglers, shoemakers, schoolmistresses… Families who were servants and families who had servants.
There were tales of terrible suffering – the woman who became destitute and died in the workhouse. The mother who lost three of her children in one month, perhaps to an epidemic in the village where she lived. Stories of endeavour – the young couple who left the poverty of the pit village where they were born, and ended up living on their own means in a prosperous London suburb. And there was the family wedding where, between them, the bride and groom’s siblings numbered twenty five! A family tree stretching back to the 1600’s in some places. If the records indicated that some of our family might have been rogues, we couldn’t have cared less. They were our rogues.
Now, I think that I’ve probably exhausted all of the available records, and gone about as far as I can – I was lucky to be able to find out so much. And I wonder sometimes why it was so important to me to keep going, long after I’d answered my mother’s questions about her grandparents and their families. But it was something we both loved – finding where each new generation lived and worked, and looking up the historical events which shaped their lives. It gave both of us a feeling of place and belonging, and we found out that we belonged in a few places we’d never imagined! It was a tale of ordinary families who’d somehow, despite all the odds, managed to survive through hundreds of years. Theirs were the shoulders that we stood on.
And most of all, it gave us stories. Even if there was no way that we could really know the reasons for our ancestors doing the things they did, it didn’t stop us from making a few guesses 🙂 My sister, who always stubbornly thought the best of everyone, made up sweet stories. My mother, ever the pragmatist, imagined more practical motives. And I wondered what I might have done in my ancestor’s shoes. Perhaps that’s the appeal for me – as a writer one of the things that fascinates me is putting my characters into different situations, and wondering what I might do.
What about you? Do you love your old family stories? If you have any you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them. Or, although one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, do you prefer to look forward, rather than back?