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Hunting down the dead
IN 2001 the British National Archives went online with the 1901 UK census records which consisted of 175 million entries. Within five days the site received over 150million hits – equivalent to more than two hits for every man, woman and child resident in the UK. The site was only designed to handle around 1.2 million hits per day, but with a demand 24 times higher, the site soon collapsed after being flooded with inquiries from all over world as people tried to trace their relatives from 100 years ago.
Nine years later and the site remains a common first step for people researching their past. An estimated 10 per cent of all internet users visit a family history website every three weeks, and with 25,000 amateur UK-based genealogists currently working on ‘virtually’ digging up their relatives, heritage hunting has even superseded gardening as the UK’s most popular hobby.
I spoke to Stuart Reid, director of the Edinburgh-based company Scottish Roots and asked why, with most of us having more than enough weird relatives still alive and kicking, we are so keen to go online and dig more up?
“There are many reasons but key is ‘because we can’,” he says. “The internet now offers sites specifically geared to family research, with the result people no longer need to trail all over the country trying to find records offices, visit churches to get parish records or nose round graveyards looking for tombstones.
“Then there’s the sheer thrill of the chase, the working on a complicated jigsaw puzzle using one’s detective powers, and it’s ultimately very rewarding if you go about it in the correct way.”
There may be a specific trigger that causes people to contact Reid, such as grandparents who’ve just had their first grandchild or children who want to commemorate their parents’ golden wedding anniversary with a gift of a family tree.
“I nearly always find that people who want to know about their ancestors are not going into the search as an exercise in narcissism,” Reid says. “It’s more a need to examine history in a personal related way.”
In other words there is a genuine desire to understand the social history of the time, and in this way history is democratised. “It’s not all about kings, queens, politicians or popes. It’s also about servants, soldiers, farmers and miners, all people like our ancestors.”
Reid describes himself as purist when it comes to starting out on a search and recommends following what he describes as the paper trail with birth, marriage, death certificates, and family bibles if they exist. Talking to relatives is also useful, but their tales should be treated with some caution as they may well be clouded by embellishment over the years. Old family photographs will usually have a date and place written on the back and this can also be a useful starting point.
Inevitably, many who start out on the quest to trace their roots secretly hope they will chance upon some noble or famous ancestry.
“We can usually trace back to about the year 1790 with the year 1930 as the start point, but before that authenticated records are very thin on the ground,” Reid says. “We are experts at this job with 25 years of understanding the many paper trails you have to follow, and even we will find it a challenge going further back to obtain any solid facts to support such claims.”
Reid has had people come up to him at a party claiming direct blood ties with everyone from Robert the Bruce to Charlie Chaplin from Chairman Mao to Genghis Kahn. “Sadly, the vast majority of them will usually have had this information passed on down to them verbally with little or no factual evidence to prove their line is genuinely connected.”
I then asked Stuart if he would try and solve a family mystery of my own, one that my siblings and I had tried, but failed, to get to the bottom of.
Armed only with my late mother’s birth details, I challenged Stuart to try and find why my mother had been so mysteriously reluctant to discuss anything about her childhood and her parents.
The mystery was soon explained. Within 24 hours he had sent an email with full details of her birth certificate, plus a correction that was made to her original birth certificate four years after her birth at the instigation of her mother. The register was corrected ‘in action to the paternity’ of my mother stating she was the illegitimate child of James Mitchell Whitson, a resident of Edinburgh and giving his home address and occupation. I was now staring at the name of the man who would have been my grandfather and with that a whole other branch of family members might be out there, as yet unknown to me.
And armed with that knowledge I set out on just that sort of social historical quest that Reid mentioned. Illegitimacy in 19th century Britain was a classless phenomenon. Illegitimate children were born to people from all walks of life, but such was the disgrace for those women who bore an illegitimate child that some even resorted to infanticide. On checking the records of the Assize court online, I found that over half the murder victims listed were new born babies. At least my grandmother had the courage to keep my mother, even going after the father to force him into taking some financial responsibility so the child could attend school.
The emotional power of information uncovered like this is very strong. I am just so very sad that my mother couldn’t tell us of her misery growing up as a bastard child albeit by a loving woman, supposedly her aunt. I now have to wonder if that aunt was in fact her mother, as this ‘passing’ off was seemingly quite a common occurrence. I also want to know now what my maternal grandfather was like as a man, and if his family ever knew he had an illegitimate daughter with a family of her own.
Now I understand why there is such an obsession about knowing the past, whether it fulfils a strong need for a sense of identity or simply fascinates as you discover hardworking ancestors whose lives were all too often marked by poverty, shame and personal tragedy.
Some recommended sites
www.ancestry.co.uk has all England and Wales censuses 1841-1901 and birth, marriage and death records since 1837.They offer a two weeks free trial period then you have to pay a subscription.
www.familysearch.org The Mormon Church web site which has a data base of 35 million names and includes the full 1881 UK census.
www.1837online.com contains every birth, marriage and death in England and Wales since 1837.
If your ancestors worked for the British government then records are likely to be held at the National Archives at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk and www.familyrecords.gov.uk
If you’re looking for Scottish roots, there are professional genealogists who will search for relatives on your behalf and for this will charge a very reasonable fee.
Tel: 0044 131 477 8214, web: www.scottishroots.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you had a family member who fell foul of the law then start with the records of the Old Bailey court, proceedings were published from around the 17th century www.oldbaileyonline.org
There’s also the Black Sheep index www.lightage.demon.co.uk and black sheep ancestors www.blacksheepancestors.com/ukblacksheep.shtml
British pensioner Roy Blackmore claimed in 2008 a world record after he researched his family tree and recorded an estimated 10,000 relatives and ancestors. This mammoth task had taken the 78-year-old 28 years of tireless detective work and cost him a total of 20,000 pounds. Roy started his relative search before the arrival of the internet, which meant he had to travel all over Britain in order to study and copy parish/cemetery records and census registers. He claims his family tree stretches back to the Cerdick family in AD 500 and he is linked through 37 generations to William the Conqueror in the 11th century and 45 generations to Alfred the Great in AD 880.
We all have about one million ancestors each so the potential for tracing different lines of your ancestors is almost limitless.
The English 14th century King Edward 3rd had 11 children and among his documented descendents are six US presidents, Jane Austen, Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn.