The BBC programme “Who Do You Think You Are”, in which a number of famous celebrities trace their family tree, has been a largely engaging endeavor, and is indicative of the popularity genealogy is experiencing at the moment. It is also, I feel, indicative about what is interesting, and what is ultimately frustrating, about the whole business of tracing your ancestors.
The first programme, featuring Bill Oddie, showed this perfectly. It included a very touching moment when Bill found out that he had an older sister who he had never been told about, who had died aged 5 days, a year before Bill himself was born. The revelation of this, and the stories of his parents and grandparents lives, and of how they actually lived, was fascinating. But the rest of the programme followed Bill as he went back to a remote village in the middle of nowhere, the place the Oddies originated from many many generations ago, and met an absurdly distant relative. He also met someone else called Oddie from Rochdale, who he was connected to by some convoluted family link. Bill looked unimpressed, and so did I. Who cares really; there was a greater link between Bill and people long in their grave than with these two people still walking the earth. In reality, they could be as related to him as I am.
My own experience of genealogy is a bit similar. I found acting the time detective to be very exiting at first. One evening, when my wife and I were chatting with my wife’s cousin and husband, the husband mentioned going on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website where he had found out about some distant relative who had died in the First World War. My interest was fired, so I logged on, and typing in my surname I saw someone who had died in 1915 during the First World War and was from the Manchester Regiment. His name was Frederick, and clicking on his details I found that he had lived in the Bradford and Beswick area of Manchester; not far at all from where my father grew up. Could he, I wondered, be a relative?
Unusually for the CWGC website, the entry on Frederick also included the name of his mother, Esther. Popping over to the 1901 Census at the National Archives I typed in her name and found the details of where they lived (the street is still there, but with no houses on it, just opposite the City of Manchester Stadium where I go for my fortnightly test of faith). I also found all the details of who was living in their house on the day when the census was conducted, including where Esther and her husband Edmund had been born; Wellington in Shropshire. This was the part of the country where I had been led to believe my family had originated. Surely then, Esther and Edmund were my great-grandparents, Frederick a great uncle? A further check of the 1901 census showed no other people with my surname listed in the Manchester area, but loads in Wellington. Was this my ancestral home?
This is where it got a bit weird. I asked my dad about his grandparents, but he basically knew nothing other than that his grandfather had died when his father was aged 2, long before my father was born. I asked him about his aunts and uncles, but again he was vague. His father was born in 1912, so obviously was not mentioned in the 1901 census, but I wondered if my dad knew whether his father had an older brother, Frederick? No, my dad said, he knew for a fact that his father had sisters, but no brother.
It looked like I had jumped to a bit of a conclusion, and now found myself at a dead end. But then when I looked further at the dates, I thought again. If my grandfather was born in 1912, would he have any memory of a brother who had left for the war in 1914? Would he even be conscious of the fact that he had been killed one year later? And if my great-grandfather was Edmund, and had died when my grandfather was 2, in 1914, is it not very believable that the grieving Esther, losing her husband and elder son in the space of a year, would never mention to a 3 year old boy, my grandfather, that he’d had had an older brother? This would also explain why Esther’s name, but not Edmund’s, was mentioned on the CWGC website. If I was right, it seemed that I had perhaps discovered a great uncle who had been forgotten by history.
I found all this fascinating, and briefly threw myself into genealogy; but the only other information I found, from looking at the Ancestry.co.uk website, were the details regarding Esther and Edmund’s wedding, back down in Shropshire. From this I found Esther’s maiden name, and although initially interesting, it resulted in my growing lack of commitment. When looking back at your family history, I found that initially there is an obvious, but misplaced, interest based on you own surname. If you see someone with your surname mentioned in the local paper or in a history book it is natural to wonder if they are related to you; but do you necessarily think the same way if the name in the paper is your mother’s maiden name? Yet your mother’s maiden name is more than just a security question for the internet bank; it is as much a part of you as is your father’s surname. When you go back a further generation, to your grandparents, you have to take into account two more maiden names, and when you go back again, and find out your great-grandmother’s maiden name, as I did, then you have yet another four surnames to bear in mind which may equally relate to you. This is not to mention that working forward again from your great-grandparents, any female relative may marry into another surname again, and so it goes on. All of a sudden I started to think that I basically could be related to anyone and everyone, that almost any surname anywhere may find a place in my family tree, and could I really be bothered to look any further? And even if I did find an obscure relative who is still alive and meet up with them, there would clearly be nothing to stop that person from being a total cock.
So I lost interest. I have never confirmed whether or not Frederick was my great uncle, dead and forgotten on the fields of France nearly ninety years ago. This does still interest me, and one day I will get around to finding out. I may even go to Wellington, to see if there is anyone who resembles me, with my trademark sticky out ears and treble chin; but as I don’t even look anything like my Brother, I doubt there is much point. In the end, while genealogy is interesting to some degree, I think it is only worth going so far; then it just start getting silly.