Family Portrait

I always get annoyed whenever I watch ‘Who do you think you are?’ on TV. All the featured celebrities have illustrious ancestors with fascinating occupations, interesting countries of origin and wonderful tales of daring and flight across continents in the midst of wars and famines. Ever since I was a child I’ve imagined that I too would have such a romantic and dashing family history; perhaps involving White Russian emigres, or Romany Gypsies, or illegitimate children of randy 18th century royalty. My flights of fancy were fuelled by the fact that neither of my parents seemed to know an awful lot about their respective family histories, and so the possibilities of me having regal or foreign or genius blood flowing in my veins remained endless.

Until I decided to research my family history, that is. It was my Nan’s 90th birthday last month, and as the last survivor of her large family, I felt it was about time I made some attempt to record her memories and get her genealogy down on paper before it was too late. So, I got cracking. Before I knew it, I was addicted, as was my flatmate. We sat side by side on the sofa every night for a week, signing up for free trials on genealogy websites and trawling through old census records to discover who exactly had spawned us. With each successive generation, my hopes of fame and fortune nestling in the branches of my extensive family tree dwindled. On my Nan’s (my dad’s mum) side of the family, no one had moved from the same ten mile radius of a patch of rural Dorset since 1660, until my Nan decided to up sticks and move to London, where she met my Granddad, who had also moved to London from the more rural setting of Norfolk, where none of his family had moved from a ten mile radius of Norwich since the 1700s. Aside from a paper making great great grandfather, which sounded very interesting, everyone was a labourer, fisherman, blacksmith, tailor, needlewoman, etc. No Gypsies, no aristocrats, not even any Irish.

Not to be deterred from my pursuit of greatness, I tried my mum’s side of the family. Sadly both of my maternal grandparents died while I was a teenager, and so I started with nothing but my mum’s vague knowledge of her grandparents. Soon I had built up an interesting family tree with a lot more movement;  though both of my grandparents were born in London, as were their parents and grandparents, originally, on my grandmother’s side, the family came from Wakefield, in Yorkshire – shocker – I am part Northern! We also hail from Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Sussex, suggesting a general migration downwards towards the Big Smoke in the Victorian era. However, no foreign blood, no royalty, no interesting jobs and really just a lot of working class salt of the earth types with hordes of children called Mary and William ad infinitum. My hopes of ‘Who do you think you are’ worthy pilgrimages to foreign cities, looking tearfully into the middle distance while the terrible history of my plague ravaged relatives was revealed to me by an unfeasibly attractive young male historian were well and truly dashed.

Despite this crushing disappointment, however, once I started digging a little deeper, I realised that my family were not as boring as they initially seemed. They might all have been staunchly English (seriously, not even any Scots/Irish/Welsh blood anywhere!!) and poor as church mice, but they did lead intriguing, and often tragic lives. Illegitimate children abound; widowed husbands married their wives’ sisters; women died in childbirth; parents lost upwards of six children before they had a chance to reach adulthood; children were orphaned and taken in by family members; families moved from shabbier to shabbier accommodation as their fortunes dwindled. Things I had taken for granted as being universal truths in the 19th century were disputed by my family history; not everyone did marry before having children, women who did get pregnant out of wedlock did not always give up their babies; people did not always marry young; and families, rather than being rather formal units, were actually very close, often naming children after brothers and sisters and living together in extended households of grandparents, aunts, cousins and parents-in-law.

Life was rather hard for the vast majority of my ancestors, but they appear to have soldiered on and made the best of things regardless. I wish I could find out more of the stories behind the birth and death dates, to bring them a bit more to life, but something I do know, now I’ve scratched beneath the surface, is that ordinary doesn’t have to be boring. There are a lot of marriages in the same year as births of first children in all branches of the family, which suggests men and women who weren’t afraid to take risks or break rules. That also goes for the women who had children out of wedlock; there are several of them! There are plenty of parents with six or more children; I bet their households were never dull places. There are women who worked as washerwomen and needlewomen and ‘tailoresses’ alongside bringing up their children; there are men who worked as cigar makers and fish hawkers and grocers and even mariners, involved in their local communities and probably central to the life of the small towns and villages where they chose to settle. There are nieces and nephews and grandchildren living in homes with distant relatives; what happened to their parents? And what of my great grandmother, who disappeared one day and never came back, leaving her three small children without a mother?

My family all lived small lives; no fame or fortune ever came their way, and their names won’t be written on the pages of history books. However, the more I delve, the more fascinated I become by this motley crew of individuals, who, by chance or by fate, came together to form the ties that bind my very existence. The past has suddenly become very present; modern technology and the research done by lots of dedicated people means that I can see my ancestor’s handwriting on census forms, live on my computer screen, and Google Streetview enables me to type in the address of where my great grandparents lived in the 1800s, and view, open mouthed, the little cottage in a small Dorset village where they raised seven children. I’ve unearthed plenty of mysteries, found lots of nice surprises (like the fact that Rachel turns out to be a name that has been consistently used in my family for generations, unbenownst to my parents) and forged closer bonds with my grandparents. It’s also been a lovely experience to share what I’ve found with my own parents, triggering memories they’d forgotten about their childhoods and giving me stories I can pass on when I have my own children. I might not be related to royalty or have Russian blood like I’ve always hoped, but I am filled with the courage and tenacity of several generations of hardy English folk who worked hard, loved, laughed, lost, dreamed and bred like rabbits, and who made it possible for me to be walking here on this Earth today. They might have been just a bunch of everyday working people, but to me, they’re pretty extraordinary. They must have been, to create the likes of me, anyway!



  1. Dear Rachel, your paternal ancestors come from rural Dorset, my maternal ancestors come from rural Dorset …which part I wonder….if it’s from Sturminster Newton/Hazlebury Bryan, perhaps we’re related? Since rural inhabitants traditionally know everyone, the possibilities are endless What do you think, cuz?

    1. They’re from Corfe Mullen and Wareham mostly! Don’t know if that’s anywhere near?! I don’t doubt that we’re probably related…any Mitchells in your tree?

  2. Might be the most beautiful post you’ve ever written. You have the historical imagination, and the articulation to express it. This is eloquent, and could be a book. Among many of the books which, with my glass bowled elderly vision, I prophesy you will write…

    1. Oh Diana, you are far too good to me! Thank you, I’m so grateful for your praise and belief in me! One day perhaps…when I have time to sit and write anything other than the occasional dashed off blog post! And I will have your encouragement to thank!

  3. What a beautiful tribute to your family! They would be very proud. I don’t know much about my family history though I do know most of them came from somewhere in eastern Europe, mostly what is now Poland and Germany though I could be a bit Russian, you never know. Definitely working or lower-class people, I’m sure, no princess or illegitimate royalty in my family either! I do have one grandmother whose ancestors supposedly came to American back with the original Dutch settlers, but they were probably indentured, so not so elegant. Someday I should research this too.

    1. Thank you Karen. Your family history sounds fascinating – there are potentially some very good stories in there! I’m not sure how good the records are from those countries but you definitely should get researching!

  4. Oh, Rachel, there are no small lives, and your ancestors did what most of ours did, they lived and loved and obeyed the rules of their time, or didn’t, and they all weave the fabric that makes us who we are now. What love and attention you have put into your search and the start of some family history for you, your nephews, and the future. Your family’s history could not be in more capable hands of a writer like you. I’m proud of you!

    1. Penny, what a beautiful way of saying things you have – I quite agree. And thank you – how lovely you are! I am toying with the idea of writing something fictional based on their lives…when I have a moment!

  5. Ditto lifeonthecutoff – ALL lives are extraordinary!! Courage and tenacity are much bigger virtues than royal bloodlines but admittedly, that would be very romantic to be able to claim, wouldn’t it? Great post 🙂

  6. It’s wonderful that Rachel began this research so early, while elderly people are still around. It’s so important to do it, now, as soon as possible, not “someday,” for memories fade, pictures get lost. The greatest experience of my life (next to things like marriage & childbirth!) was writing the biography of my grandmother, whom I had never known, being cut off by divorce. I only vaguely knew that she was supposed to be part Chinese and was a famous novelist. So you can imagine the astounding discoveries I made, as she turned out to be the first Asian American novelist, with fascinating novels and autobiographical fiction and an amazing life. The satisfaction was complete when the book was published by the University of Illinois Press, and my entire family (including all the “new” distant relations I met!) was thrilled. Family histories are deeply interesting, precious, infinitely worth researching and writing about. You don’t have to discover a famous ancestor; you discover that there’s more to people’s lives than that, as you uncover a picture of who your forbears were, what kind of lives they led, and how their lives intertwined, just as Rachel has done. It’s truly important and rewarding!

    1. I love this story of yours Diana – how fascinating and how thrilling for you! I must agree with you re: starting early – I implore people who are interested not to wait as I have found that even when you *think* you have good info such as names and dates, there can be plenty of people with the same name doing the same thing at the same time and unless there is someone still around to ask, you can get horribly stuck!

  7. Researching your family tree is fascinating. My ancestry is on the Isle of Wight, which makes things easier as the family didn’t move around much. The men were Agricultural Labourers, the women were Domestic Servants, my maternal grandmother is described as Housekeeper on her marriage certificate.

    As with your ancestry there are a number of births out of wedlock, or not very long afterwards. I got back to a marriage in 1699 and have hit a brick wall there, as I’m unable to find the baptism for that many times great grandfather. The entry in the parish register for their wedding, just gives the bride and groom’s names, and the date, no other helpful information.

    One of my cousins told me an anecdote about my maternal grandfather. He told her that he’d been involved with smuggling, but as this is hearsay can’t be certain, or indeed know what form of involvement he had. Hiding the smuggled goods, or taking part in moving the items around the Island, we’ll never know.

    1. I’m glad you’ve had the same rewarding experience, Geraldine – 1699 is a great date to get back to! I am back to the 1600s on one side but that’s through someone else’s research and not my own.

      How interesting – i wonder whether there’s a way you can find out about your grandfather’s smuggling past?! Quite the intrigue!

  8. Hi Rachel,
    It was a very interesting post. I too had imagined having royal lineages, but later I came to know from my Granpa that our family was all rural folk, who had paddy farms and cultivated rice. They were not very different from your folk except for the fact that they are Indians. I wish I could do a deeper research on my folk, but in India, we don’t get these genealogy stuff and my grandparents on both sides have passed away. But I am eager to find out more, especially after reading your post.
    Thanks, Sayantika

    1. Thank you Sayantika – I’m sorry that you’re not able to do the same research – it’s a shame that in some places documentation hasn’t been very good. I hope you will be able to find out some more and get some idea of where you are from!

  9. Lovely story. I am completely addicted to family history and like you don’t have anyone famous in my tree but the stories are good..well some are very sad too but always interesting and I often feel that it is a miracle that I am here at all!

    1. It is amazing when you think of it, isn’t it – all the children who died young etc, – the fact that our family lines have made it down to us at all is nothing short of miraculous!

      Family history IS addictive – I’ve been up til 1am some nights, just having to finish tracking down someone’s parents!!

  10. It’s amazing what a bond you can feel to your ancestors, purely because they are individuals and related to you, there’s a little part of them still alive in you. I still get upset about my great-aunt, who drowned at the age of 18. And if they knew, I’m sure all those Williams and Marys would be thrilled to think that someone cared enough to remember them.

    As for Who Do You Think You Are, a lot of the celebrities probably are picked because they do have ancestors with interesting histories. But some are quite humble too. I remember particularly Jeremy Paxman, moved to tears in Suffolk on learning of the hardships his relatives had borne as farm labourers in the nineteenth century. Nothing illustrious there, but the programme was still fascinating.

    1. Yes it is, isn’t it Helen – I feel quite touched that all these people unknowingly contributed to making me, me – if just one of them in that long chain hadn’t existed I wouldn’t be here. How sad about your great aunt – I had a great great aunt, Flora, who died of whooping cough aged 7. That made me so sad when I read that – just a little childhood illness and she died of it. How devastated her parents must have been.

      Oh yes, I don’t doubt that they’re picked – but I find the ones like Jeremy Paxman much more interesting though because I can relate – my family were probably just like his. The fancy families are interesting to hear about but you can’t feel connected in the same way.

  11. What a fascintating post! I loved reading about your family. And what a lovely idea. I don’t think we have any great claim to fame within my family, but on my mothers side one of my female ancestors was a maid to Marie Antoinette, and she needed to get a signed disponsation from Marie Antoinette to agree her marriage to her partner, who worked within the Kings household somewhere. Sadly the disponsation with Marie Antoinette’s signature went missing a while ago, but my mother can remember seeing it when she was a girl!

  12. This is a great post. Funny, my husband and I were just talking the other day about family lineage. My uncle traced my dad’s family in the early 80s (read: no computers) and found things dating back to the 1600s (family name Turner traced to Scottish and English ancestors). Now I am intrigued to do this for all sides of my family. What a great project and gift for your grandmother and you. ~~Bliss

    1. Wow, how amazing – and in a time before computers too! You should get searching – it’s so easy now everything’s online! Thank you – I am yet to reveal my findings to my grandparents so I hope they’ll be pleased with what I’ve found!

  13. Social history of ordinary people beats celebs who suddenly discover their ancestors owned great estates anyday (not that it wasn’t fascinating to see, but hardly un expected, you can always tell which celebs have posh ancestors). But this: ‘And what of my great grandmother, who disappeared one day and never came back, leaving her three small children without a mother?’ sounds very WDYTYA? to me Rachel, except it’s usually the men who’ve left in that show.

    1. Oh absolutely – how else did they become celebs in the first place?!

      Yes that does sound quite interesting doesn’t it – and I didn’t even know until I asked my mum about her grandmother last week to fill in my tree and she just said very casually ‘I’ve no idea, I never met her – she ran off when mum was a child.’ It shocks me that no one thinks to MENTION this stuff – no wonder so many family stories get lost in the midsts of time!

  14. Rachel, so great to learn more about your background. I am a fan of history and family history and I have felt like I have researched mine thoroughly, although now and again there are a few little gaps that we have yet to fill. If I had the money, then I would order more birth, marriage certificates to then be able to trace back further with more lines opening.

    There are no famous people in my background. Only having done my mum’s side because my father’s side is Irish and a lot of these records were lost in the troubles. Interestingly, my mum’s mum and dad besides being married to each other were also half first cousin once removed!

    Actually I think ordinary people are much more interesting than the famous ones. Who do You Think You Are actually only pick people who actually have an interesting story to tell!

    You have got to love social history.

    1. Thanks Jo, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading. It’s so much fun doing the research isn’t it? It’s amazing how many online resources there are now. I’ve got to the stage where I need to order certificates and it’s going to have to wait until my finances have recovered from Christmas. I need to get the marriage certificate of my grandparents to find out who my missing great grandmother was – we don’t even know where she came from.

      How sad that all those Irish records have been lost – I wonder whether you’ll ever be able to plug those gaps.

      Yes I quite agree – and I think they pre-screen people before they let them go on Who do you think you are as well – every week I just sit there rolling my eyes because it’s so obvious they’ve been cherry picked to tell a good story!!

  15. My parents took up genealogical research after my dad’s retirement and, as my dad cautioned (with a twinkle), those looking at who was on their family tree should be prepared to find a few hanging from it. So, while you may not have found royal blood, you were spared ignoble ancestors of another sort.

    1. Oh yes – I love that phrase! I was sort of hoping to find someone who’d been up to no good, but no! Everyone so far has been very well behaved, though there are more people I can delve into so you never know!

  16. I researched my father’s side of the family and got back to the 1750s, when my ancestors were living about 5 miles away from where I live now. Having a family that never moves certainly makes the research easier!

    1. Isn’t it amazing how little movement some families had? I can’t believe mine were in the same place for so long…it’s strange to think that no one thought to go anywhere, but as you say, it does make the research a lot easier!!

  17. I loved that little phrase of yours: ‘small lives’ – I can think of several of my family who never managed anything but the simplest existence. Their lives were small through no fault of their own. So I can’t agree with a couple of your readers’ comments. War got in the way, sometimes women had to stay at home to act as unpaid maids, some men spent their days in mines. And NOTHING happened to them, they died disappointed. I really believe this. BUT that doesn’t mean they were worthless people, just that they were obliged to live wasted lives.

    Both my grandmothers came to south London to work in service, one from Yorkshire, the other from Lancashire. I remember the Lancashire one calling me ‘ducks’ and it sounded like ‘dooks’ after all those years living in New Cross.

    What a wise and thoughtful person you are, Rachel. And aren’t we fortunate to live now with all that’s on offer? Smashing post – it moved me very much.

    1. Thanks Chrissy – yes, I totally agree. Not worthless lives at all – just lives lacking in opportunity, really. I’m sure they had no different ambitions to me but just didn’t have the money/education/support to do fulfil them. Everyone has worth no matter how ‘small’ and unrecorded their life.

      My nan still has a very strong Daaaarset accent despite spending only her first 20 or so years there…interesting!

      Thank you Chrissy, how sweet you are – I’m so glad you enjoyed reading.

  18. I love this sort of thing, and especially love when people share the a similar passion! My aunt did this research for our family last year and it was so addictive….most of my ancestors were pretty normal, other than my mother’s maternal grandparents were both from Ireland except that her Grandmother was a well to do Anglo Irishwoman, that married her husband, a poor Irish farmer after they moved to America and the walls disappeared…All very ‘Far and Away’/’The Last September.

    The most interesting story came from my father’s mother, who was given up for adoption and sent to live with staunch Catholics. Her biological parents had a long history in America and Canada. Her mother Belledena was a decent of French Huguenot’s escaping to Canada, and her father was a decendant of people that came over on the Mayflower! We laugh at the irony!

  19. Amusing and poignant post , Rachel. I know that if I started researching family history I would end up spending hours and hours on it so I’ll save it for when I retire. I like the fact that Rachel – a biblical name – recurs throughout your history.

  20. I starred this post forever-ago on my Google Reader and have only now had a chance to drop by.

    I love this line in your post: “[T]he more I delve, the more fascinated I become by this motley crew of individuals, who, by chance or by fate, came together to form the ties that bind my very existence.”

    That’s what I love about exploring my family’s history!! The further back I go, the wider the crowd of indiciduals who combined to make me! I too came from Sussex through one relative, who left England to join the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1600s. His house was still standing in 1904, so I’ve actually seen a picture of it.

    On my other side, I traced all the way back to 700AD in Scotland, then England, then France, then some weird country that no longer exists, that I think now lies in France. This branch of course also weaves to America in the 1600s. I learned that the boat dropped off my ancestor in Scotland, then took his dad back home to Kilbernie, Scotland. I guess Daddy ancestor wanted to see his boy safely to the shoreline. (So sweet!) Another hunt showed me that a distant grandfather of mine was a child at Jamestown when both his parents died of disease and starvation during a harsh winter — but he survived. That’s what I think is the most amazing — we are born of the ones who survived.

    I also found Confederate soldiers in my background, as well as a Madame in Alabama, and I learned that my grandfather’s father told a tall tale about being a Royal Mounted policeman, when really he was a horse thief.

    So much more to explore! Very best of luck to you in your adventure!

  21. Dear Rachel, I loved reading your blog and I was wondering if you’d be interested in seeing a much edited version in Prima magazine (it’s a UK women’s monthly magazine)? I write the Family Matters pages each month and there’s a lovely lead which is about 500 words and is generally a nice, gentle family memoir. I think this would fit nicely! If anyone else reading this is interested, please get in touch. My email is – thanks!

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