Sunday, 4 May 2008

Genealogy

Trawling around Ancestry.com tonight, I caught myself wondering why this hobby has such a fascination for me. Not only have I traced numerous of my own (and my husband's) family lines, I have also, over the years, "collected" incidences of my maiden (and relatively uncommon) name.
It's not really, for me, about finding some meaning in my own ancestry. At least, I don't think it is. Given my family history, I'm not really too interested in the members of my mother's line (who all seem to have been quite happy to forget all about her when her own parents disowned her after her marriage to my father and rapid pregnancy with me).

My Grandma's line - well, I can see how there could be some emotional wish to link in with that, given that Grandma was such a strong, positive influence for me. But with the surname Smith and frequent geographical movement (from Gloucestershire via London to Kent in two generations) it doesn't hold out great promise, if truth be faced.
Tracing back the line of my own maiden name (I won't post it here - it's far too identifiable!) has been interesting as an exercise, but really hasn't revealed much of note. They all seem to have been that stalwart of Victorian employment, Agricultural Labourers; have never moved very far (which has the benefit of making the easy to trace), had huge families and recurrent naming patterns. All sadly predictable. As they were Ag Labs it is harder to find and trace details to make the individuals real, although finding the Army Attestation Papers for two Great great uncles (complete with physical descriptions, details of services and wounds incurred in the Boer Campaign, and their signatures) was strangely emotional. My grandpa's generation yielded some social history from the school log books. This ranged from the salutory example of his eldest sister winning scholarships and academic prizes through to revealing details of various of the younger siblings (there were 11 surviving of a total of 13) being repeatedly "sent home" due to infestations of ringworm and head lice.


However, much of the appeal for me is in the detective work. I early on decided that the easiest way to trace my own maiden line was simply (ha!) to collect all instances of it. This led to what is known in genealogy circles as a "One Name Study". I now have a database of about 7000 names, dating from 1300 to 1920, all sharing the same surname or variants (oh, the variants - I must be up to a hundred or so by now!) of it. I know I have not found all of the English individuals yet, obviously, but I am aided by the very limited amount of travel undertaken by this family. Are they all related? Possibly; there is a very strong geographical link to a specific area of Kent, where there are 5 places within 10 miles or so which bear the same name. Will I ever find the link? Almost certainly not! But it is an enjoyable jigsaw puzzle.
The first step is putting together the family lines (made possible through the census entries and earlier the parish registers). Then come the leaps in understanding of realising that THIS Theophilus must surely be the same individual as THIS Theophilus, and that surely between two sisters of one generation names Jemima and Kezia and the matching sisters of a previous generation, who all come from the same town, there must surely be a link - and where is that link?
It's all a cerebral, fascinating exercise. it takes me on trips to different parts of the country to look at parish registers and other records. It enables me to make contact with others, exchanging information with them and sometimes finding strange coincidences. And, of course, there are the occasional bizarre, spectacular distant relatives - such as the mother who murdered two of her daughters (aged 4 and 2) by drowning them in the bath, before setting fire to the house. Or the equally sad occurrence of the man who is described in the parish register as having, "Miserably cutt his one throt & is buried in the waste ground". There's a boy who fell down a well at the age of 6 (and survived). There's a man fined (several times) for insulting the mayor of his town. I don't make claim to each of these historical figures!
Then there are the individuals, lives only hinted at in the census records and parish registers. There's a sweetmaker, a hairdresser (male), plasterer, "clicker" (what did he do?) and a bell hanger. Individuals emigrated to Jersey, Australia, USA, Canada, Hong Kong and Bermuda. As for the names - there are rich pickings to be had. Choose from Demetrius (brother of the aforementioned Theophilus), Ebeneezer (from the same town as the above mentioned brothers) Percival, Ephraim, Fabianus, Gustavus, Hezekiah, Jabez, Marsh, Obadiah, Osmer, Seamer, Ticknor and Vowe. Among the ladies I find Elvina, Exechia, Hephzibah, Jubilee, Kezia, Philadelphia, Theodosia and Laetitia and Serena (twins).
I suppose I am left with the knowledge that, as "pointless" hobbies go (for there is no real benefit in terms of contributing to a better world) this is at least an interesting one. Interesting to me, at any rate. It highlights similarities and differences, hints at other lives and other stories, and gives me plenty to ponder on and puzzle over.

4 comments:

marcella said...

It's a "pointless" hobby that is giving my husband much pleasure too - although we can't claim any interesting names at all really. One Levi but the rest are all Elizabeths and Annes and oh so very many James'

mandy lifeboats appeal said...

Hi C

I have sometimes thought about looking into my ancestry. Then I have thought, as you wrote, that relationships in/with more recent members of the line has disintegrated (through trauma and loss and people getting on with their lives after that) so what point would it serve me?

My family has some serious skeletons. I know that my great great grandfather owned a dairy and ran off with a bit of fluff and left my great great nan desitute. Oh those Victorians!

I also know (or have been informed) that somewhere along the line I am related to the Worthington that started up the brewery.

Apart from that is all grey history. I actually prefer the mystery. I have enough duff reality to be dealing with.

But I think it is an interesting hobby. I watch some of the programmes where celebs find out about their lineage. Fascinating stuff.

And from what you have written you have found out loads and it has bought something to your life. Something more positive than negative, I hope.

sally said...

My maiden name is Bacon.... an interesting one..sadly I found boxes of papers and photos in the attic after my parents had died...I have them all and am working through them..but there is no-one left to ask....

Disillusioned said...

Marcella - one of the very interesting (read scary!) things I realised from early delvings into my family history was the high preponderance of twins, seemingly in most branches of the family. Narrow escape possibly...
Mandy - the skeletons would be interesting, I think.... None so far in my direct lines though - except for the 14 year old who had an illegitimate child (my gt grandmother).
Sally - even without people to ask, it is often possible to work things out from photos, given the family information. for example, my mum passed on to me an old family photo - we worked out who it was and named all the (15!) children of her gt grandparents on it.