"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Family Histories

Please don't start yawning, I promise not to tell you the carryings on of my naughty great great grandad [they are being saved for the book anyway!] Having studied family history for years I am used to my family's eyes glazing over at the mere mention of 'guess what I found out last week?' despite my reminders that strangers have paid good money to come to my lectures on 'Tracing Your Family' and despite having retired from all that I still get 'phone calls asking if I will just do one more lecture... But one's own family is different after all - the subject of this blog!

Like most people starting out on tracing my family I had all the usual stories of famous ancestors to check up on. I even went to Highgate Cemetery to visit the grave of one putative ancestor. 'Family history' had it that he was buried next to Karl
Marx - well he wasn't which was disappointing to a left wing activist from a left wing background but not so surprising when it turned out that the individual was actually completely unrelated despite sharing the same unusual surname. And so it went with all the dashing, romantic ancestors - none 'belonged' to me. Other Half asked if I was disappointed - but how could I be when I had found all these 'real' ancestors who had lived and breathed and led ordinary yet extra-ordinary lives?

Because real 'Family History' involves social history - placing individuals and families against the backdrop of their environment and the times in which they lived. I have sat in County Record Offices and read the newspapers of the small towns in the times when my ancestors lived in them. And of course one's eye gets drawn to various stories: transportations for stealing small amounts; obituaries; troop movements for wars; grand balls etc. In London I have sat and worked out who lived where and in what sort of circumstances. I have wondered how some [Welsh and English] ancestors lived so long having started work at the age of ten in factories and mines. I have found very rich ancestors [whose money had sadly disappeared by the time my generation had arrived!] and some who obviously lived on the bread line. One worked in a jail and another was imprisoned in a debtors' jail. One was transported for breaking agricultural machinery. One eloped and left his wife in penury. One married the same woman twice! Many died too young - one lived until one hundred and five yet was described as having died of 'old age' and as a 'pauper'.

Just to try and understand some of them I have read books about laundresses in Victorian London; workhouses; Victorian jails; Mushroom and potato farmers; Coal and mineral workers; Quakers and dissenters in the 17th and 18th century and digressed on all sorts of subjects. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself!!

But all these ancestors are precious - we all have similar in our backgrounds whether we know about them or not. They have all made us what we are today. And when we move around some of the older parts of our countryside - whether 'old and quaint' or 'old and decrepit' we should remember that part of us lived there and helped shape us.


  1. I have been tracking down ancestors myself for 27 years! And I do have a relative buried at Highgate Cemetary.

    Sir Spenser St.John (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenser_St._John) is my great great uncle.

  2. How interesting Julian! My putative ancestor was actually the architect of Highgate cemetery, James Bunstone Bunning. My ancestors were Bunnings and it is possible that further back there was a common ancestor but the family myth that JBB was my G.Grandfather's brother I discovered was completely unfounded despite all living within the same small geographic area. Oh for a time machine to go back and ask some questions!

  3. Esther - wife of JBB was my 3x Great Aunt, she was also a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli and George (Elias) Basevi the Architect
    Esther's Family - at least maternally, were originally Italian Sephardic Jews

    I am happy about that...!

    Brent in Perth, Western Australia

  4. Oh Brent,how interesting! I am still not convinced that somewhere way back JBB and my maternal line Bunnings do not share a common ancestor. But my 'paper trail' on my family runs out too soon to link them, but one day perhaps I will find another piece of paper - somewhere! Thank you for getting in touch.