Monday, 17 April 2017

We Are Family

I've been researching my family tree for nearly 10 years. Piggybacking on the work of my, now sadly deceased, great aunt Joy I made some great progress. But it was only ever a mild flirtation with family history for one very big reason: I thought my family was boring.

After a decade of research I knew this much: the majority of my ancestors in the last 300 years have lived in the Weald, an area straddling east Sussex and west Kent. There were strong Yorkshire, Lancashire, Essex and Suffolk influences too, don't get me wrong. But the Weald was like a spider's web, entrapping any ancestor foolish enough to wander in.

But that isn't really why they were boring to me. They were boring because they didn't do anything. They were born, they married, they became agricultural labourers, they had children and they died. Repeat that by 6 or 7 generations and that's hundreds of very uninteresting looking stories.

Turns out that it wasn't my ancestors who were boring. I was just doing family history wrong. I treated it like a spreadsheet, filling in dates and taking some small but short-lived pleasure in filling in gaps or moving back another generation on a branch.

This year I changed my approach. It all started when, two years after her death, I finally got started on scanning Joy's vast photo collection. She was a terror at any family event, sending children, and the camera shy, scurrying. Whilst other's inherited her house and money, I inherited her photos and some family paraphernalia. I'd promised to scan and share her collection so the whole family could enjoy our recent history and, finally, grow to appreciate her dedication to cataloguing every moment of our lives.

So I started doing that and, 300 photos in, there's another 2000 or so to go. We'll get there. Eventually! Whilst doing that I found something else. Two old family photo albums from the Edwardian era through to the 1950s. Here were faces I didn't recognise, people who I'd never met. These were the people I'd marked by birth dates and death dates. They were smiling with family and friends, living lives I'd never knew about. And suddenly it clicked. There was the photo of the new born baby. There was the photo from their wedding. Here was a photo of a great uncle with his mates in an orchard just weeks before the outbreak of World War I and the deaths that awaited a few of those smiling happy young faces.

This was family history. Getting to know your ancestors. Finding out their stories. I revisited my tree. Dredged up newspaper articles. Revealed the criminal tendencies of a worrying number of my ancestors. Discovered the deeply disturbing death of my great-great-granddad (accidentally impaled on a broomstick through a very sensitive body area whilst jumping from a lorry in front of his wife and my great-grandmother). Suddenly these weren't just names and numbers but real people. The 1939 register revealed the closeness of my maternal grandmother's family whilst showing, in stark contrast, the final signs of the total break up of my maternal grandfather's family in the wake of his father abandoning the family two years before.

Still, I thought, these folks were now more interesting but let's face it. They never went anywhere. I was probably descended from a bunch of Anglo-Saxons who'd never bothered to leave the area after the Norman invasion. I was probably more British than anyone else on Earth. So I got my DNA tested via Ancestry more out of interest in finding cousins to help break through a couple of brick walls in my research than curiosity about my actual ancestry.

So when it came back looking like the below, I was a little surprised.

Now things really got interesting... I was spurred into more research. Suddenly the need to push backwards was more than just a need to get an earlier date for the sake of it. Now I had some explaining to do. These estimates obviously show your ancestry from a 1000 years ago... and mine was not what I expected.

And that is how I finally broke through into my "noble heritage". My family have, until the 1990s, been poor. And evidence suggests it has been that way for 200 years. But one branch was wealthy enough to be leaving wills bequeathing the equivalent of thousands of pounds back then. Pushing back and the next generation were even wealthier. Soon there were Sirs. And quickly there were Wikipedia worthy people. Before long I got to Royalty. And going back down to the "middle class" family and branching off in another direction... achieved a similar result. Not only can I document my ancestry back to Edward III (and obviously well beyond) but there are also, totally independent of the English monarch lineages, links back to the Castillian royal family.

Wow. WOW! These were people with real stories, history, they died in battles and were characters in the works of Shakespeare. WOW! Turns out I'm very, very Norman. More Norman than William the Conqueror (who features in my tree too many times to be healthy). But that isn't actually the amazing part... we all flipping have some Norman in us. This article makes it clear.

So that led to the final realisation... the journey to these discoveries is more important than the final (unreachable) destination. What genealogy eventually teaches us is that we are all related. We all know that, deep down, of course. Science is pretty clear on the subject. But when you trace your heritage back you really feel how interlinked we all are. Not only that but it totally blows nationalism out the water. My humble little family (and likely yours if you're British!), working class coal miners and agricultural labourers, is descended not only from Anglo-Saxon Kings, Scottish clan leaders, the Normans and British nobility but also from French Huguenot refugees, European royalty and Mohammed.

We are family. And genealogy brings us all together.