Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Meet the Ancestors

I’ve been researching my extended family tree, as well as the ancestral lines of those people who married into it. As a result, I have nearly 1500 records of individuals on, many lines going back to 1760. England has been a perfectly recorded nation for centuries, in which far-sighted church and state officials have almost dreamt of the future invention of computerised databases, to bring all their hard work together.

My great grandmother, immaculately coiffured in the 1860s

Does it change or build my identity, to know them all? No or not yet.  Identity comes from parents, education, genes, relationships and faith, not from family history, roots or places ancestors came from or their lives. You can live without ever knowing your ancestors. Identity even comes from the very ignorance of one's past that one can destroy, through doing research.  None of my ancestors were Christian workers as far as I can see - no preachers, deacons or missionaries, though a few were believing Baptists and Presbyterians. By profession, they were:  carpenters, hatmakers, shoemakers, farmers, lacemakers, census officials, china merchants, housebuilders, film actors, performing musicians, pianists, composers, milliners, dressmakers, publicans, civil servants, lawyers, engineers and teachers - just like many other average English family, based in Southern England.

The “eureka" discoveries are quite addictive: they shed sudden light on unknown people and family myths. Some aspiring Victorians, slightly ashamed of their less educated Regency ancestors, made up more interesting ones, not realising that such stories would not stand the test of computerised research. One of our family's whispered stories was that we were “descended from Thomas Moore, the musician, Irish romantic poet, Times editor and composer of Drink to me only with your Eyes”. This would have been fascinating - if it were true. We are, in fact, descended from Thomas Moore (1811-1864), who was not a poet, but a horse-loving ostler, in a lovely Kent village, who may have inspired Charles Dickens. I find him just as fascinating. I am going to visit his grave, in due course, proudly, grateful that I can write, unlike him.

I've discovered that our outward lives are about surviving change, successfully living through economic, industrial, technological, social even spiritual flux to maintain an income, genes, work and lives. Now and then there is born an outstanding, gifted family member who ends up in a huge mansion. On the whole, people end up roughly where they started, or a little better off, unless they fall ill, die young or go "off the rails”. Generally speaking, it takes two generations to go from a carpenter's cottage to being mistress of an elegant house. Victorian women used to make that leap through careful coiffure, making their own, stylish clothes, good housekeeping and elocution. Those with inherited money and/or a successful professional careers, end up most comfortably off. However, the wealthy, even those who leave money generously, may not be the ones remembered with the keenest sense of loss. The person whose memory still makes my relatives weep was a live-in cook, nothing at all to look at, never married, but was a lovely, caring person.

Wealth generally stays in the same hands. Most of wealthy Chelsea and Kensington is still peopled by the direct descendants of the Normans, our invaders back in 1066. In some ways, we are all getting poorer. All those London fashionable "media" people, living in “posh” Victorian terraced houses costing £1m or more, are living where Victorian tradesmen and workers used to, albeit on one floor in rented rooms. We (thankfully) have no servants, which some ancestors had.

Marriage is closely linked to money and property. In the longer term, family lines are about reproduction, linked to marriage. Some families are infinitely better than others at passing on their genes - incomparably so. There appears to be no clear explanation why. In terms of aspiring to be in someone’s direct family tree in 100 years time, the only way to do that is to have children, who have children. If you do not have children, the only way to be valued and remembered in a 100 years is to do something unusual,  leave a film or sound recording, a valued piece of tapestry, painting or jewellery, write a book or famous poem, build a solid house or leave a legacy to an establishment in your name. In terms of Wills, if you have children, it is worth ensuring they are well-drafted, fair and intelligent. Expressing affection and duty is a real bonus.

"Breathtaking" moments of my research that I will not forget are:
  • finding that a house owned by my family in the 1920s, was named after the village of my newly discovered great grandmother, a Bedfordshire lacemaker who earned her own living aged 6 and that this house named a modern street in London (but she never knew that). 
  • connecting up my relatives to a villager in remote Devon in 1780, through his surname being a middle name of his descendant, who died in 1944 
  • finding that all my great grandparents and my grandfather are lying within yards of each other in a single Kent cemetery and that no one would have known this, but for hundreds of hours of research and the website “deceasedonline”. 
Who is the hero of my family? All of them - and one of them. All of them for staying married, for living in cramped houses (four or five sisters used to share one bedroom in Victorian England and did jobs, even then), for wanting something more, for leaving rural England and Scotland to find work, for being decent, for working very hard without labour saving devices, welfare or pensions, for fighting the First World War, for not ending up in the workhouse and for staying together, in spite of the massive social upheavals of Victorian England. I also admire their immaculate presentation in photos. But for me, the “best of the best” is expressed in a Christian, prophetic poem of self-sacrifice by my uncle sitting on the beach in Sicily in 1943, aged 21. He was one of “the greatest generation” - now widely recognised.

Would I recommend doing such research? Yes: it is the task of our generation. Other generations sailed to the New World or created an Empire, but these are our discoveries which can only be made once. If you have time to do it properly and analytically, with perseverance, it is a very rich experience. One learns much about social history: the past really comes alive. I've started looking at old buildings and areas differently, as once belonging to other breathers - for their past was “another country”. In the future, generations will be able to recreate these people and even us, through census returns, through our computer blogs. They will know who lived in their own house. They will even be able to recreate “January 2014” and share how we feel, right now. Future generations will become time travellers.

Once you know your ancestors, you still have your own destiny, your own life to finish off and fulfil - your own legacy to try to offer the world and your wider family. That destiny needs to be directed by God -  not by one’s ancestors....

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