Thursday, 30 March 2017

On having not one but three other families .........

My great aunt and the Pember family in Canada, 1947
“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”*

And anyone who has spent any time researching their family history can testify to that.

The surprises, along with the challenges to what you have been told can be challenging but also rewarding.

Now I am realistic enough to know that there was never a Princess, Duke or famous scientist in our family so no chance of being disappointed at the family story being shown to be fiction.

We were agricultural workers from the Highlands and the Midlands with an equal number of peasants from the lands around Cologne.

That said there is still an unexplored link with the sub Continent but even there we seem to  be dealing with seaman and stewards who worked the liners and tramp steamers that connected the great Empires of Europe with their far flung colonies and not  the dazzling family of an Indian ancestral dynasty.

Not that this is another of those ten point accounts of one person’s family history.

Instead it is a more general reflection on how family history can confront you with a mix of intellectual demands, some pretty harrowing stories and lots of the unexpected.

For me digging deep into the family past is about matching their lives with the bigger picture, otherwise how can you make sense of their experiences, their triumphs and disasters?

So to learn that one of the family was the first to get a University degree, when just four generations before most were illiterate and put a mark against official documents  is to see the transition in a family’s fortunes in a new light.

But it can also be a challenge and bring you up short to discover a close relative committed suicide or spent time in the Workhouse.

Nora Hall and children, that other family circa 1915
These are the sorts of revelations which do make you ponder on whether what you are doing is in some way a tad voyeuristic.

But then that bigger picture enables you to see that the Workhouse was a reality for many in the 19th century and that it walked beside a lot of working class families as a place not just of last resort but also a place to be used as an expedient when times were temporarily difficult.

And yet as grim as some discoveries can be there is the upside, when you come across new members of your family with their own histories to add to your own.

So just over four years ago I came across a second family.  They were the children of my great grandfather who having separated from my great grandmother, went off and married Nora, in Gravesend and in the fullness of time had another five children to add to the surviving four from his relationship with my great grandmother, Eliza.

And only this week a cousin in Canada who I had never spoken to made contact and the process of sharing and discovery began all over again.

Two nephews of my grandmother circa 1938
In the process all of us have learnt more not only about our immediate ancestors but a lot about the places and times that shaped their lives and by extension ours.

Nor is that quite it, because for many of us what starts as a vague wish to know more about great aunt Dolly becomes something much more.

It starts with talking a whole raft of new disciplines from research and writing up the stories, to getging involved in teaching the very skills which just a few months before you were mastering for the first time.

Not bad for a subscription to Ancestry and a trawl of old family documents.

Pictures; from the Pember family, Nita Luce and the collection of Andrew Simpson

*Monty Python

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