Sunday, 24 March 2013

The experience of compiling my family tree

Most of us thirst, in some sense, to know more about where we have sprung from, in the family sense. People scoff at Biblical genealogies but they come from the practice of the ancient Jews in maintaining public family record offices for registering who “begat who”. They must have omitted siblings in the records, because branching trees get too complicated to record. The word “begat” suits all ages before the computer.   It denotes "the direct lineage".

My great grandmother, a milliner, around 1866

Until the age of computer, one had to pay quite a bit, to see any census return or birth certificates. Hence, the task that the Jews managed over two thousand years ago has fallen to our generation to reconstruct the history of our families. We now have at our fingertips technology so advanced that, if one wanted, one could visually construct the entire family tree of Prince William going back across Europe to the year "dot". This tool is which one can join for a two week period free (ideally when one is on leave). Working hard one could have, within a couple of weeks, over 500 blood relatives pictured on a massive and permanent tree, dating back to the mid-18th century. 

Some might think this is a huge waste of time but I would disagree. I have found it enormously engrossing because I love history and because my own family now offers me an alternative way of seeing the past from that offered by a Dickens novel or a vision propounded by secular Open University-inspired versions of history, dressed up by the BBC as "British history".  This is real history and real lives, people working hard and having fun to somehow feed, marry and have children. I highly commend the experience, for the following reasons:

a) one meets one’s “fourth cousins” who share an ancestor born around 1780.  You are on immediate first name terms with them, sharing your trees, photos and research.

b) one reconstructs the life stories and professions for people  with delicious names, such as my ancestor Susannah London, mother and London twine (string) dealer 1860, living in houses that may still exist refaced;

c) one discovers delightful professions that women have had in the past such as “ostrich feather curler” in Edwardian England;

d) one is amazed by the sheer energy of Victorian England, how making things was ‘what one did’. The workshop of Empire were small back rooms in the owned or rented homes of England;
e) one notes the expertise of women in former times, particularly about their head, hair and bodice, in stark contrast to casual slovenliness of today (see photo above);
f) one enriches one’s reach in finding family connections with places you never knew existed. For example, one of my ancestors around 1860 lived in a tied house at a country house ”The Grange” frequented by Tennyson which is now, in summer ,an opera centre.  Suddenly, I hear it mentioned on Classic FM and it means something to me. Shall we go?

I’ve also discovered the long term life of whole families.  Just as the solar system is part of a larger whole, the Milky Way, so our families are part of a larger whole, subject to the invisible flow of genes.  I see movements in my wider tree, such as; the preference for certain professions; the strength of some lines in producing descendants and the weakness of others;  the wider move into London circa 1840; the connection with Kent and the move back to the countryside in the late 20th century. These moves are connected to transport, speed of travel, remote working and jobs but also the innate bias towards certain things in your family.  

I noted our family aspirations e.g. for land, trade and buildings, turn into the aspiration for a gentleman’s way of life, for the Grand Tour, for having "a profession", for education, books and for writing, which replaced "making things" after the First World War.  One disturbing discovery is that there is little concrete left to show for our modern efforts, whereas our Victorian generations left books, buildings, worked wood, ships, copper prints, streets and children behind them.

Another fine discovery is one’s family connections with churches, many in central London, but also in rural places, where family marriages and baptisms have taken place. I find myself imagining my Victorian ancestress, looking like my mother in her youth, in her feminine, sprigged dress and ribboned bonnet at the altar saying her trustworthy vows to a husband looking spruced, in a strange, alien black hat. It is very weird and moving to see the photos of marriage registers signed in your ancestors literate hands around 1830 while sitting in your own living room, sipping tea in 2013.

I have sensed something of the sacredness of things, of sensing that their love so distant, still seems to flow into this moment now. At other times, I have wanted to ‘time travel’ and comfort my great, grandmothers X 2, struggling to keep their fatherless children fed. Of course, if I could, they would not feel such a strong connection with me and probably think that I am effete. In ages before oil and social security, most of us would have nothing much to offer them, while some would have a very strong faith to offer us.

One lesson I shall remember in 2021 is this: some ancestors told little fibs on census forms either about their profession, background or about their name.  One said he was a “mariner” but he wasn’t.  Another only once admitted her real birth name making it almost impossible to track her real, humble parents.  The lesson is:  lie on a census form (which is against the law) and your descendants will find out and they will not find it quite as amusing and gratifying as you do.....

We could be judged in future, by our census return.

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