I don’t know if it’s something one does when one gets to a certain age but I signed up to a website which allows you to search public records to find your family history. For a free, two-week trial period I can search millions of records, including census records, birth, marriage and death certificates, immigration documentation and much much more. I can piece together my family’s history and, through research and investigation, watch my family tree grow before my very eyes.
Or something like that.
As I was growing up I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the whos and wheres in our family history. The reason? Self-preservation. There were a lot of secrets in our family and some people went to a great deal of effort to cover them up. Daft really as I didn’t want to know them yet found them out anyhow.
But people have died and the lies I’ve been told by some still haunt me like ghosts while the truth has died with them.
I know that sounds a bit profound for just before 9am on a Thursday morning but it’s true. I have a small family and I don’t, or didn’t, know some of them very well.
I didn’t know my dad until later in life and even then it was on his terms. He had two names, one birth name, and another he used later in life from his foster parents. I don’t know the names of his parents. Apparently his father died when my father was very young. An accident involving a shotgun. Now I know where I get my clumsy streak from.
My mum I knew, to an extent, because a lot of the lies came from her. I guess she had her reasons. Her parents were my grandparents and I know more about them than my father and paternal grandparents as they were around when I grew up. I know important stuff about them like their names and birthdates. THIS should be easy thought I, as I signed up to ‘the UK’s largest family history site.’
My gran was called Mary Kelly. Problem. Do you KNOW how many Mary Kellys there were in Ireland in 1910?
I figured I might narrow the search criteria by putting in her father’s name: John. Again. QUITE A FEW OF THOSE IN IRELAND.
My gran’s mum’s maiden name was Power. For those who don’t know, Power is also one of the most common names in Ireland.
FM Actual Life. Sideways. This is gonna be like trying to find a very small Irish woman in a haystack. A haystack made up of a lot of very small Irish women.
My grandfather’s birth certificate is similarly difficult to find. Through research, it transpires that the surname I’ve been given, the one on his army papers, the one my gran took when she married him, the one my children have as middle names is, in fact, a fabrication. History, and the people before him, spelt it differently. It didn’t have an ‘e’ in it. I think. I’ve found some census records which show the name, in the area he was supposed to have come from, but the actual handwritten record doesn’t contain an ‘e’, while the database I’ve searched does.
This is common, apparently. Misrecording happened a lot. So it could be that my name and that of my mum and aunt has been spelt wrong all these years! It could be. I’ve seen this happen on that genealogy programme, Who Do You Think You Are? I can believe that!
What I find hard to believe however, is that my grandfather was called Mabel, as she was the only person I found who shared his date and place of birth.
In addition to this, my grandfather’s army records have him at discharge to the reserves as 6 ft 8 inches tall, which is very strange as he was only 5ft 8 inches tall when he enlisted. Maybe he found a box and carried it around with him.
He was only 5 ft 8. I knew him. He felt bigger when I knew him as I was so small, but it is an unalterable fact that he was only 5ft 8, and so simple mistakes like those above, a incorrect transcription of a name on a census or a misreporting of a height on a document make it very hard to reconcile the records with the actual people.
But, the thing, is I did know a lot about these people. The stuff the records don’t tell you.
These people had a profound and unalterable effect on me and the way I am. The fact that I can’t find a birth certificate for either of them is strange, but no matter. I’ve sat with them, held their big hand with my small hand as we crossed the road, played games with them, eaten cake with them, rode buses with them, walked around the mean streets of south London with them, talked to them, and learned from them; learned so so much about life and the people in it. I’ve watched them get older, watched them get sicker, I’ve sat with them, I’ve held their tiny hand in my bigger hand and told them it’ll be okay. I’ve gone to the hospital with them, got a cup of tea from the nurse for them, sat by their bedside, and kissed them as they lay cold, as I said goodbye for the final time.
I’m sure if I dig hard enough I can find the records I want. Maybe I’ll find birth certificates which will prove they didn’t spring fully formed from the loins of Zeus. Maybe I’ll find out my grandfather, Mabel, had three brothers, Mavis, Emily and Agatha, and my 4ft 11in grandmother was actually 6ft 11in?
I’ll keep digging. Perhaps I’ll find that we’re related to someone famous. Perhaps I’ll find I’m related to you?
Thanks for reading.
Have you tried to find out your family history? Do you already know yours and you’re related to Boris Johnson or the Queen? Let us know your stories or let us know what you think via our comments section. We love a good comment.