Who do you think you are?

I wonder if it is still the case that family history / genealogy is second only to porn in the internet search stakes. Probably not, how could it compete with the iPhone 5, Justin Bieber or whoever the latest “it” girl is, – though this was said to be true when I wrote my dissertation on Information services for Genealogy / Family History back in 2000. Just the wrong time really. Before the real proliferation of FH sites online, so much of my research was about Local History Libraries etc. But still – it allowed me to travel around the country visiting friends while I checked out their local libraries, and also gave my own research a good kick start.  I’ve been looking into it on and off for maybe 15 years now, much assisted by the web. Most of my findings are “unverified” – in that I haven’t yet got around to purchasing the copies of certificates etc which will confirm the assumptions I have made, but I’m reasonably confident in most of it.

I am a big fan of the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?” in both its UK and American varieties. I find it fascinating to watch the stories unfold about how people came to be who they are today. I find that’s the difference between people who have an interest in family history and those who don’t. Those who do can really see and feel the connection with their ancestors – can see the complete unlikeliness of their existence. If any one of this elaborate tree of people had not lived to adulthood, or had been killed a year earlier, or had chosen to marry / mate with someone else – you would not be who you are. Somehow, however infinitessimally, you would be different. “You” as a consciousness, might not exist at all.  If you don’t see the link between yourself and those who came before your remembering, then you are unlikely to see it as more than books and bones. Although, once you catch the bug you become interested in pretty much anyone’s history. After all, when you do go back before the people you remember, all of these people are strangers to you, whether your own great, great, great grandfather (GGGGF) or someone else’s.

That being said, I used to prefer WDYTYA when they routinely went a bit further back. Last night I watched Hugh Dennis on iPlayer – and it was very interesting but essentially was just about his grandfathers. That’s chapter one. An interesting chapter, and yes, I kind of wish I knew more about my grandparents’ early years – but I’m even more curious about those who went before, and lived in a world which was completely different to mine. I also find the history of migration fascinating – be it international or just internal. If my research is correct, both my paternal and maternal lines have been in England since William the Conqueror, which is quite interesting – as at least on my Dad’s side we’d kind of assumed ourselves Irish immigrants from some time in the past 200 years. Some of the other lines in the family are certainly Irish, but not those which lead to my father’s name, and my mother’s birth name.  Funny what that information does to your sense of self – I think there have been a couple of people on WDYTYA who have discovered that their heritage is not what they thought it was. John Hurt in particular springs to mind.  I don’t feel I’ve lost anything in discovering that some of my ancestors were, if anything, originally French. In fact I have gained massively, a part in one of the key periods of our Nation’s history which I wish I could find out more about. But then I am a woman – and apparently women are in general more likely to be interested in family history in a holistic sense. After all, traditionally we would give up our name on marriage – so we can see that we are just as related to our mothers’ mother’s mother as to our father’s father’s father – even though we don’t share the same name.  There’s still a link to Ireland through my father’s mother,  – and maybe more. One-name-studies can be, I have heard it said, quite a masculine affair.

Not to say they’re not useful. I have the good fortune of being connected to the Langton family – and therefore can benefit hugely from the massive amount of research that has been done on that family. Though sadly, being female, can’t contribute to the DNA study.

So. Who do I think I am?  It’s a muddy picture – with mill girls, miners, whitesmiths, clay pipe makers, paper bag makers, and potentially a Rear Admiral and an Archbishop. The rise and fall of my families’ fortunes are incredible – having servants in one generation, being them, or dying in poverty a few later. It goes to show the impermenance of our existances. Perhaps these days the benefits of one person’s success could stay around longer. Education, healthcare, contraception, the emancipation of women – all of these come together to make life a much easier and less perilous place. Unless you are blue blood through and through chances are you will find examples of extreme hardship in your history. It’s hard not to realise how lucky we are to live today, despite all the problems we face.  It’s also one of the reasons I am a strong supporter of the NHS, the welfare state, worker’s rights, the minimum wage – I’ve seen what it was like before we had them. Sadly, employers did not often have the best interests of their workers at heart, and people suffered massively while those at the top of the tree lived in luxury. One look at the banking scandals tells us it goes on today to  a lesser extent – but at least there is a safety net at the moment. I think some people are too far removed to remember what life was like before. They assume we could never go back to a time when children died on the street of disease and starvation. But if it still happens in other countries, why are we so sure it can’t here if we are not prepared to fight for the very system which is meant to prevent it.

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