A couple of years ago, I became interested in my family tree. No wait, did I say interested? I meant obsessed. Completely, irrationally, overwhelmed with the need to track down my ancestors. I’m not sure why, although it may have had something to do with the birth of my second child and wanting to give my children a sense of their own history. Either that, or just the inescapable realisation that I’m hurtling towards my own death at an ever increasing rate and need to sort this stuff out quick before I shuffle off.
There seemed to be so much to do. With each step backwards through the generations there were twice as many people to track down and twice as many potential dead ends. I soon discovered that for all the beautifully hand written census documents and parish records, the people of the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t all that into accuracy or clarity. Ask a woman how old she is in 1861 and chances are, she’ll give an age approximately 5 years older than the last census, 10 years earlier.
I repeatedly came unstuck as I traced an ancestor back to a village, or even a street, where they were one of about eleventy-million people with the same name and the same year of birth. Almost certainly with at least 20 children each who were all either called William or Margery.
My great-grandad was one of those many Williams, with a normal sounding but not-very-common surname. This particular William moved to Essex from County Durham with his wife and four children, probably in the 1930s. This always fascinated me, as a move of that distance, although mundane today, seemed quite unusual at the time. That was as much as I knew about him though and questions directed at my dad were generally met with a bemused shrug.
So I ran into a few problems1. But it was when I thought I had completely stalled on my dad’s side that something rather wonderful happened.
Using this fantastic tool, I made a heatmap of my dad’s normal sounding but not-very-common surname in the UK and found that they were all coalescing around the Durham area, as expected. Barnard Castle to be more precise. (Which in practice, meant that I was 37 before I met anyone with the same name as me2 who wasn’t a member of my immediate family. It would be fair to say that I was more excited about it than they were.)
My map looked like this-
I started searching more specifically for references to Barnard Castle along with my own surname and I got my bingo moment. Not from Durham though, but from Alberta in Canada. On a genealogy message board I saw a very old message from someone who was tracking down their own family, with the same name as mine, only in the USA. Someone else had posted a fairly anonymous looking email address for someone called Joe, with the promise that they knew everything there was to know about the family line. I emailed Joe, with no idea if he would reply or even if he would ever read the email.
It turned out that Joe was not only happy to hear from me, but was also my 6th cousin twice removed. He sent me a file with his family tree containing over 1,000 names. Including mine. In the time it took to load on my screen, the entire, lost, history of my dad’s family was magically restored. It was more than any of us had ever known and more than I ever hoped to find.
We exchanged a few emails back and forth, filled in a few gaps. I found out how Joe’s branch of the tree had ended up in Canada and I gave him my own family history. While we were talking, I gathered information and data and realised just how prolific my family were in the north east. Several generations lived, over many years, in a farmhouse which turned up over and over again in the census returns. I looked it up on google earth to see if it was still standing, which it was and almost as remote as it would have been two hundred years ago.
In one of his emails, Joe gave me the details for my third cousin twice removed who, he told me, had even more information than he did. I contacted Desmond, who filled me in a little more before mentioning that his son lived in the very same farmhouse that had been occupied by so many of my ancestors in the past. So when I had been eyeing up the old family farmhouse via the internet, I had actually been looking at the home of my cousin.
Suddenly, I was no longer just filling in blanks, but anchoring my entire family line to a time and place. These people who have all added in some way to my existence weren’t just names on a census. They had jobs and neighbourhoods, they wrote wills and had obituaries written about them in the paper. They travelled and settled and belonged. Actual people.
I’ve passed that family tree around now and added my own family to it. All the people descended from that Durham line are intrigued and fascinated by it. Everyone loves deciphering an old census or parish record, it’s like solving a GCHQ puzzle and I’m delighted and self-congratulatory about my discoveries. And then I remember that this is only one fraction of one half of my generic story and only one quarter of my children’s. I still have a lot to do.
- My mum’s family history, until I started researching, was a notable void but I discovered some super exciting things when I started looking into that lot, I can tell you (and I will, another time).
- Well I have a different name now, I changed it when I married but you know what I mean.