Accident permeates life. In this exploration of my ancestors accident features prominently. Miners tragically killed by roof falls and explosions. Accidents of birth. Childhood misadventures. Verdicts of accidental death that would not be acceptable today. And not least the accident that led me here in the first place.
On 10 July 2004 my father slipped on a wet slab and broke his thigh. It was something of a shock to both of us, he medically, shaking uncontrollably, me seeing my father, normally fit as a flea, in such a terrible state. He would be in hospital for six to eight weeks and, though very fit for seventy eight, he would need further rehabilitation. What on Earth would we talk about in all those hospital visits?
I was vaguely aware that the 1901 England census had been published online some months earlier and thought it may help to resolve some family mysteries. There were two of these that I was interested in at the time. First Nan, second “the pub Dennises”.
Had you suggested it at the time, I would never have believed that it would take nine years to find Nan in the 1901 census, or that I would find that my family had so many cousins of whom they knew so little.
Other published or broadcast family histories, for example Alison Light’s Common People or the BBC television series of Who Do You Think You Are?, or even Heir Hunters, are presented in a logical, methodical way, as though each successive step is taken one after the other in direct lines towards the goals of the researchers (though the heir hunters are sometimes blown off course by apparently missing records only to return to a case many years later to bring it to satisfactory resolution). Those who began their research when so little was available online more often lurched from one course to another as information became available. The process has similarities with completing a large jigsaw puzzle; you find a bit of sky that fits that bit of wispy cloud you thought might be somewhere central only to find it belongs in the corner with some other pieces. Before you know it that top corner is completed.
Alison Light presents her research mainly as backward time travel, defying entropy so that people grow younger, return to the womb, pass the twinkle in the eye and into an ante-oblivion in which their future appearance cannot be forecast.
As she says, WDYTYA does something similar, but with a succession of professional researchers, often in places far beyond our shores, though I was to require few foreign services. The amateur has no such luck, but their success is, I suggest, all the more joyous. True, there are sources of help out there, and I will identify some of them. I will also go through some of the processes of working out just who was an ancestor, for example which John Brown really was great great grandfather (and where did he lie a-mouldering?) and which Mary Smith married into the family. Roadblocks created by repetitious names can be frustrating and very time-consuming: did the same William and Elizabeth really have twenty seven children? But overcoming these obstacles feels very rewarding.
My own time travel was more haphazard, jumping from place to place, generation to generation, backwards and forwards, and even round in circles, but here I bring some order so that it is easier to follow. Some conclusions are made on the balance of probability, but this is clear, and all based on records such as the censuses, parish registers and newspapers (which may also be speculation!). I try to get a sense of how some of the great legislative and political changes and the advancements in science and technology affected my ancestors’ lives, reaching what, for me at least, was an unexpected conclusion about the Victorian age.
The ancestors that I have discovered were almost exclusively from the English Midlands, though the odd bit of Welsh peasantry, Irish Aristocracy and Viking shows up in isolated places. Mainly, they were the families of coal miners, with a number of publicans, farm hands, canal boatmen, young women in service and general labourers. Some died young and tragically. They were not the great and good, and they were not even all good, but somehow enough survived the perils of pestilence, war and workplace into the twentieth century.
WDYTYA generally sticks to the immediate family, but identity is derived from the experiences of other people’s lives, for example those siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, friends, neighbours and workmates who did something different, or who died in some terrible industrial disaster. Or by the children they buried. Or those who survived disease and war. Or inventors and legislators. More than ever our lives are influenced by famous people, but to some extent this has always been true: how many girls would be named Florence had it not been for that famous nurse? How many children were named after kings and queens, princesses and princes? Andrew, you may wonder: well, he was named after me!
The author introduced to a cairn terrier.