Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Going Back to my Roots, by Annie Claydon

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?


12 thoughts on “Going Back to my Roots, by Annie Claydon”

  1. I love family history. I have an account on Ancestry.com and have traced my family tree back to my 9th great grandfather in Germany who was born in 1580. He is a forebearer of my paternal grandmother. I wish I had the stories that let me know why all my relatives came to the USA from Germany, Austria, England, Scotland and Ireland. When you’re a child you don’t want to sit and listen to your elders and hear stories. In 2006, my great aunt passed away and I brought all the family albums home to Florida and gave them to my mom. We spent a couple afternoons going through pictures and putting names to faces. SO glad I did that because less than 2 weeks later she unexpectedly passed away, and I would never know who these folks were. My dad had started his family tree before he passed in 1991, and he did have some stories he wrote down about his family. There are still some family mysteries to be solved. My father had an older step brother from his dad’s first marriage. The step-brother went to live with my dad’s grandparents in another state, and nobody really spoke about him. I found him a couple years ago in California, and have been able to talk to his grandson a few times. Can’t find a record of my grandfather ever divorcing, and the first wife was a member of a prominent musical family in the 1920’s. The big mystery is a pack of Army portraits of my father I found under the loose lining of his cuff link box a couple years ago. He is posing with a cigarette in one hand wearing a wedding ring, and in a few casual snapshots with the ring on, and another with his arms around a young lady in a drindl, and they both had wedding bands on.(He was stationed in Germany) The photo has the name Maria on the back in my dad’s writing. He was in the army 1951-53, and came home alone.. He started dating my mom in 1954, and they married in 1955. So who was Maria? Was my dad married? And why, when he came back from Germany did he never drive again? (I heard that he was maybe in an bad accident while in Germany and quit driving) O)f course there is nobody left to ask, except for 2 of my aunts on my mom’s side who knew nothing about it, and there is no branch on the family tree he did with a first wife. Gotta love a good mystery!

    1. Wow, Laurie! (This is one of those blogs where the comments are ten times more interesting than the blog itself 🙂 You’ve found some fascinating things in your research.)

      It would be great to know why our ancestors did what they did – particularly in taking such a big step and emigrating from one continent to another. My great-grandparents emigrated to the US, had children and were settled and doing well. Then, some 15 years later they upped sticks and came back to the UK again, ending up a couple of miles away from where they were born. We have no clue about what motivated them to leave, or to return.

      I wonder who Maria was, and whether there was any connection between her and your father giving up driving after his accident. What will the next generation will do, when photos are all kept digitally, and there are none of those handwritten pencil inscriptions on the back, which bring them alive for us.

  2. Oh Annie what a fabulous story wow so heart warming, I stumbled across our family tree on my Dads side by accident on the internet years ago someone had already done all of the hard work and when I emailed him he asked about this side of the family and I helped where I could it is The Urry Family tree and it goes back to William the Conqueror 🙂

    have Fun


    1. My goodness, Helen! How amazing to be able to get all the way back to William the Conqueror! And how lucky to find that someone had already done all the hard work. I’m officially in awe 🙂

  3. I love your story, Annie! I haven’t tried to pursue my family history much on either side, but I do have amazing photos of my great-grandmother plowing fields in Canada on a wagon behind a horse (they emigrated from England to the U.S. but her sister emigrated to Canada) and other interesting things. I’m lucky that my mother, frustrated by old photos she had where she didn’t know who the people were, took a lot of time late in her life to write names and connections on the back of photos when she did know. She also shared a lo of stories about her parents and grandparents and what they did and how they lived their lives, so I’m lucky there. But the prior generations? No clue.

    My father’s Greek family is mostly a mystery to me, probably because he didn’t care that much, though I do know a few sad stories of hardship. I should have asked his sisters more questions when they were alive, and I do have cousins I know. You’ve inspired me to ask them what history they’re aware of, and dig into it a little. Thanks!

    1. What wonderful photos to have, Robin. We hear so many stories of these formidable pioneer women, but your great-grandmother sounds really special.

      My mother had the same thought as yours, and wrote names and details on the back of all her photos, and carefully documented what family stories she did know. Two very sensible ladies 🙂 So often people become interested in their family history in later life (I suspect that earlier on we’re all to busy adding to that history) and by that time, the number of people we can ask has dwindled.

  4. Great story Annie – absolutely fascinating – and shows your dedication! I always have bursts of enthusiasm then content myself with some vague tales of my ancestors being book-loving horse thieves…which sounds about right!

    1. Book-loving horse thieves! I have a couple of horse thieves too – so they sound like my kind of guys. We should form a gang 🙂 (Actually, I think in my case the horse thievery was the result of a night’s hard drinking and then finding that it was a very a long way home. So more a case of horse borrowers.)

  5. What a great post, Annie. My grandfather has n my Dad’s side was always a mystery. He left when my father was about three years old and I always wondered about William Edward. Who was he? Was he a great man? Did he have another family?
    We eventually found out, through ancestry, that he’d not died until 1989 and that for the majority of his life, he had lived just a few streets away from my Dad when he was little. Alas, the only thing he was good at, was being a criminal! He was in prison many times and one of the prisons were able to search their archives and send us a picture of what he’d looked like. He was the spitting image of my Dad, only dressed like Al Capone, complete with hat and dead-eyed stare.
    Looking up family histories are extremely interesting. And sometimes a little bit sad, too.

    1. What a story, Louisa! It always gives me pause for thought, that it was possible for our grandparents and great grandparents to disappear completely, without going very far at all. That wouldn’t be quite so easy these days. How amazing to find a photograph of your grandfather though, and to finally see what he looked like.

      It is sometimes sad, isn’t it. I think that’s one thing I’d say to anyone contemplating finding their family history – there are a lot of good things but be prepared to find the sad things too, because they’ll always be there. I found that most of my family stories were true – but often not quite in the way I thought they were.

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