Why the fashion for family history is replacing the need for the therapist’s couch
By Ruth A. Symes
There was a time - not that long ago - when family history was the preserve of a few old and fusty literary types with a great deal of time on their hands. There was a time indeed when you could visit a local record office and be reasonably assured of getting a seat. No more. Now, every library in the country, it seems, is heaving with a new breed of family history junkie – younger, more business-like - jostling for position over the few unwieldy microfiche readers, or fighting for a five-minute stint on one the myriad of online family history internet sites. Every archive from Land’s End to John O’Groats, it would appear, is brimming with would-be genealogists poring with born-again zeal over indexes of births, marriages and deaths, pencils at the ready (pens, be warned, are banned from these hallowed rooms), and murmuring with despair or joy at their findings.
It seems we can’t get enough of our forebears. In our search for that vital clue to where we originate, we leave no stone unturned. These days, archivists have hardly time to pause for breath between enquiries sent by e-mail, letter, telephone and in person. Old wills, court documents, newspapers and photographic records are all fair game for investigation. The first series of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are was the highest-rating programme on BBC2 in 2004 and prompted the move of the third series to BBC1. ITV’s You Don’t Know You’re Born looks to be just as popular. A flurry of books on genealogical topics have appeared, and newsagents now boast a whole shelf of family history magazines - each one offering new tricks and techniques. For a few pounds, you can learn how to analyse family photographs, dissect a whole range of documents from passports to temperance certificates, gain a working knowledge of quite complex changes in the law regarding divorce, adoption and land ownership, and read the slightly sensationalised journeys of discovery made by other readers.
There’s no doubt about it, something strange and familial is gripping the nation. And there must be reasons why it’s happening now, early in this new millennium. Family history is a potentially infinite project. So where does that burning, never-satisfied desire come from to investigate branches of the family ever more distant from our own, and to discover generations even further back in time? What madness is it that sends us traipsing round graveyards desperate to find the last resting place of people we never even met? Why have otherwise unexcitable and reserved Britons (remember Paxman?) started breaking into tears upon discovering some incident in their family’s past? The answers are complex and have more to do, I believe, with the times in which we are living than with the past.
Make no mistake about it, we twenty-first century family tree enthusiasts are not so much interested in our ancestors as in ourselves. Whichever way you look these days, people are assessing and reinventing themselves in one way or another. Dissatisfied with who we are, we seek to change, but before we can do so, we must first understand how we came to reach this point. In the new crazy world of self-improvement, doing family history research has become a viable alternative to seeing a therapist, going on a diet or having plastic surgery. It’s cheaper and less intrusive than most of these, but ultimately it’s about the same questions: Who am I? Why am I the way I am? Am I pre-programmed to be this way? How can I get back to being what I should be? How can I become what I really am? Viewed in this way, researching your bloodline is the ultimate detox, and better still, much of it can be undertaken with the aid of the internet from the comfort of your own home and without any real privation.
For most of us, going back just a few generations is enough. There’s a kind of thrill in finding out more about ancestors within living memory, those of whom we have photographs (perhaps we look like them?); those whose letters we’ve read (perhaps we sometimes feel like them?). The people who fire our imaginations are those about whom we have heard intriguing family anecdotes, and the ones about whom we have long had ‘hunches’ of one sort or another: these are the crucial people, because these are the ones who make us wonder about ourselves. The great-grandfather, for example, who came to England from Germany and set up a business in soap-making may be an inspiration to our own entrepreneurial ambition; his harried love life may explain our own unwillingness to settle down. For this reason, it is the Victorians and Edwardians to whom we primarily look back; seventeenth-century ancestors are too far in the past to be of any real relevance in our quest to examine our identity.
What really engross us are the tales of sorrow and joys that affected our ancestors, the experiences that may have left their mark in our long, collective family memories. Life events and their consequences are (at the moment at least) of far more interest than inherited genes – although these too play an ever-important part in genealogical research these days. What really excites us about family history is what our relatives made of their time here on earth, the key elements of their existence - where they lived, where they travelled, what they chose to do for a living, how many times they married and how many children they had – a straightforward list in some ways, but one with as many variations as there are people on the planet.
This fascination with the life choices of our ancestors emanates from something that has long been part of the British psyche - individual freedom. On the whole, our governments have kept out of our lives; the church too has kept a low profile – at least by comparison with how it influenced, and continues to influence, societies such as Italy and Ireland. Financial and geographical limitations aside, our forebears, like us, had some degree of liberty about what they did with their lives. It is their autonomy that thrills us, and the idea that what they got up to was intimately bound up with their personalities rather than merely with their social circumstances.
And there in the records we glimpse them, the miscellaneous bunch of people whom we like to believe have shaped us for better or for worse: the poor girl who gave birth to an illegitimate son and died soon afterwards, the migrant who moved 300 miles for work during the Industrial Revolution, the ancestors who left for Canada during the influenza pandemic of 1919. In this new and supposedly democratic age, having a skeleton in the closet is a factor worthy of respect rather than the source of shame it might have been only thirty or forty years ago. Even ancestors who were convicts come in for some sort of adulation. And, of course, we can make these stories mean whatever we wish: we may construe that the forefather who was shipped to Australia for killing a cow set the tone of misfortune that has dogged the family ever since. Alternatively, perhaps it was his disgrace that gave later generations the impetus to improve.
Important to all this is the fact that we are a nation of storytellers and gossips, a culture for whom words – and increasingly in the twenty-first century soundbites (headlines, song lyrics, advertising slogans) - matter. Fragments of information in letters, diaries and on certificates are tantalising introductions to stories we wish we knew more about. My great –great aunt, Margaret Daniels drowned at the age of twelve on the 8th March 1874 in the Leeds-Liverpool canal. I was ghoulishly thrilled by an odd detail on her death certificate that told me that she was ‘carrying an umbrella’ at the time of her death. When I looked in the local paper for a record of the event, the plot thickened. The death notice stated that she had walked down the canal bank ‘behind two men,’ though it drew no conclusions from this. Such titbits send the imagination into orbit. Was Margaret murdered? Was she raped? Why was the umbrella considered significant enough to be mentioned? From the records we obtain the opening moments of soap operas and police docu-dramas that we yearn to watch in their entirety. We scent the stories beyond the page and, when we can’t find out any more, we let our imaginations fill in the rest.
The stories are not innocent, of course. We are adept at making them tell us what we want to hear. There’s the matter of status for example. Though we claim to enjoy living in a meritocracy, we are still a solidly class-bound nation. We look to our family in the past to measure how far we have come. If we can prove that they moved from rags to riches, or even from the labouring to the middle class, then we are filled with unreasonable pride. We never grow tired of narratives that illustrate the triumph of the common people over the aristocracy, and where the transition has come about by sheer hard work - the labourer’s son who was apprenticed to a boot-maker and whose son in turn became a manager of Freeman, Hardy and Willis - we are doubly satisfied. Centuries of Protestantism, it seems, have made us particularly attuned to the merits of the work ethic.
It is true to say that since the Noughties, we have become terrible inverted snobs. It’s fast becoming something of a status symbol in family history circles, for instance, to prove that your great-grandfather was ‘an Ag Lab’ (Agricultural Labourer). But our attitude to class is full of ironies. Our ancestors need to have moved up through the rankings at least three generations ago to allow us to mention it at dinner parties. And family history research can, of course, sometimes unearth a less inspiring trajectory - a noble ancestor who gambled away the family fortune, for example, and relegated his offspring to the ranks of mere shopkeepers. Worse still, are those ancestors who went full circle ‘from clogs to clogs in three generations’ – as the saying goes.’ Whatever the tale, however, you can be sure of one thing. In the telling of it, we will be sure to turn it to our advantage.
Tied up with our snobbishness is our very British attraction to property and possessions: the props that remind us the stories are true. We are a home-owning nation, lovers of property and land, arrogant show-offs about postcodes and addresses. As such we are obsessively interested in where our ancestors dwelt and what became of their capital; and we love to know who inhabited our homes before we did. Moreover, we are a nation of collectors. We all have garages and attics full of old rubbish inherited from our forebears. Doing family history gives us a reason for hanging on to the clutter; after all it acts as a salutary reminder of where we came from or alternatively allows us to indulge a fantasy in the future restoration of our former glory. In an increasingly secular world (we are now almost more likely to visit a church to look at the parish registers than to worship) the possibility of an afterlife is less certain. Perhaps we somehow believe that our only access to our ancestors - our only chance of ever knowing them - lies in the objects they once owned and used. What better reason could there be for keeping hold of that old flat iron, those sequinned gloves and battered suitcases?
Creating a family tree also, of course, has something to do with our current profound uncertainty about our own national identity. Our worries about Brexit, our espousal of or resistance to globalisation and multiculturalism - these matters have set many of us quaking in our boots. We hark back to the days of the Empire, when we knew who we were (or at least we think we did). Many people retreat to their family history as a means of affirming their own sense of British identity, hoping and believing that they will find that their roots stretch back unbroken to the Domesday Book. A very large number are surprised. People in the past moved about much more than we have assumed. Over the centuries, Britain has welcomed, among others, the Irish, Huguenots from France, Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, Armenians from Turkey, and Asians from Uganda, not to mention those visitors from further back in time, Romans from all over the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxons from Lowland Germany, Vikings from Scandinavia and William the Conqueror’s stock from Normandy. In Yorkshire, recently, several white men were surprised to discover that they have a common African ancestor who may have been a slave in a gentleman’s household in the eighteenth century, or who may date back even further to the soldiers who built Hadrian’s Wall. If we search long enough most of us will find that we have a forebear from another part of the world – certainly we will have ancestors from other parts of the country.
Of course, much of the information that we are now unearthing has been lying around in record offices ever since – well, ever since it became a record. The difference now is its accessibility. Technology means that with just a few clicks of a button, and for relatively little expense, you can search online all the censuses from 1841 right through to 1901, link up with distant relatives overseas on customised message boards, and find new electronic means of squeezing your increasingly unwieldy family tree diagram onto old-fashioned sheets of paper. This is the age of information and since family tree research is about anything and everything in the past, it is the ideal excuse for spending large amounts of time on the web. So, we scroll for hours through documents that might leave any other self-respecting internet user cold : obsolete maps, A-Zs of old occupations, telephone directories for defunct London boroughs, and lists of the symptoms and causes of diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera.
Why do we do it? Researchers, of course, will rarely admit their self-interest; their desire to understand and re-orientate themselves. Rather they talk about the buzz and the adrenaline of family history. We live in a world of short-fire pleasures and everyone’s family tree is full of small surprises. What draws us on – what really engages us – is the unpredictability, the eccentricity and the crises of lives in the past. For the junkies, genealogy provides several different sorts of fix: discovering living relatives whom you previously knew nothing about; the odd tangential connections with fame (remember Barbara Windsor’s glee at finding out that she was very distantly related to the artist John Constable); and the indefinable thrill that arises from learning weird details such as the fact that your migrant ancestor had a crooked ‘jaw – left side,’ something I discovered from the ‘physical characteristics’ column of an old shipping list.
There is also the joy of disproving family rumours and turning some traditional family myths on their heads forever. Great-grandfather, you may discover, did not in fact leave his wife and children to pan for gold in the American West. He actually went to take up a sensible job in a mining town in the Cascade Mountains so that he could send money back to the said family. This version of events may not go down too well with members of the family who have a vested interest in great-grandfather having been a wastrel. There’s a frisson of excitement too at how different and how appalling everything was back then: the Victorian women who seem to have spent most of their lives bearing children; the old and infirm who were thrown into the workhouse. We revel in the good fortune of our lot before inevitably recognising the elements of similarity between then and now: the huge numbers of teenage pregnancies, for instance, the high levels of illiteracy and the bankruptcies that came alongside economic boom. We start by thinking that the past is another country and end by realising that it is – at least sometimes – no more than a mirror.
The cynical among us, may suggest that the current upsurge in family history has less to do with the British appetite for self-examination than with the commercial interests of certain organisations, websites and publishers. Indeed the industry is taking off in all sorts of directions. Across the country, local and regional family history societies flourish, and family history fairs promote all manner of genealogical tools and historical memorabilia. Family reunions - known for their preponderance of guests with the same surname - are seen as good a reason as any for throwing a party. Genealogy tourism – holidaying in the towns from which your ancestors emanated with a view to soaking up the atmosphere and visiting the local record office - is becoming bigger business. Then there is the large number of genealogical websites, which – after giving a taste of what they have to offer for free – charge you to look at full records or original entries, or take a yearly subscription. And like all new industries, family history has its own set of groupies: people who will research your surname, photograph restoration experts, those who will value your heirloom, and those who will sell you acid-free boxes in which to store your family Bible. There are even ‘Obituary Look Up’ volunteers who will look for the death notices of your ancestors on micro-fiched copies of old newspapers in their local libraries without a fee.
But, I believe, that the family history industry is doing no more than rise to a challenge that comes from within the popular mindset - right here, right now. What this is all about is - like those other methods of re-invention such as lifestyle coaching or hypnosis - is finding a way of making sense of our muddled lives and getting back to the essence of things, so that we can work out where we go from here. What really happened to our ancestors is irrelevant. It’s the stories we construct from our fragments of evidence, and the uses to which we put them that count. Psychologists and psychoanalysts work on much the same principle: but perhaps we are somewhat less willing to bear our souls in public than we were even ten years ago. With family history research, we are in charge, we can unravel the threads we want to unravel, and leave them hanging if we don’t like what we find. At the end of the day, it is far easier – and we have far more control – if we examine our pasts as they are refracted through the lives of our ancestors than it is to unburden ourselves on the therapist’s couch.
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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English