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!