Have you ever wondered about your family history? I’m an avid watcher of DNA programmes and have recently been bingewatching past episodes of DNA Family Secrets, Long Lost Family and Who do you think you are? As such, it’s become a fascinating topic for me and so I opened up a tree on Ancestry, putting myself at the bottom of it, just to see how far I could get. As it turned out, I got as far back as 1500 without too much effort and without spending any money, which utterly floored me if I’m honest.
That was almost the easy part, now the real work of getting to know people really starts. Identifying the key players in my history, without whom I wouldn’t exist. Learning more about them as people and looking for similarities to my own life and my values.
Background to my Family History
Despite being born in the Midlands, I’ve never really felt fully connected to the place as all of my family hail from the North East of England. I never had that thing that my friends at school always used to have where I hung out with my cousins at weekends or passed distant relatives in the street with a simple nod of the head because it was so normal to bump into someone you were related to. I always felt, if I was ever able to recognise a cousin once removed or a great aunt in the street, that I would feel like I wanted to embrace them and take them for a coffee, quiz them on everything about their lives, but maybe that’s just me.
I can honestly say that discovering all of these people actually do exist has suddenly built so many connections for me and opened up a whole new world!
Heros and Villains
As you can imagine, like in any good story, there are heros and villains. There is also a good smattering of tragedy and sadness but nestled amongst all of that is the overriding feeling of pride and gratitude that they did what they did.
I don’t know if you’re anything like me but I always look back on anything over 100 years ago and think, “blimey they had it tough didn’t they?” it’s easy to see a world without a healthcare system and decent antibiotics, where large families wasn’t just the norm it was a necessity and short life spans commonplace as ‘tough’, but I’m also trying to think, was it though? Were there also plenty of good times? I’d like to think so….
Take this lady for example. She is my great, great, great grandmother and a fascinating matriarchal figure about whom I am desperate to discover more.
In a nutshell, she was born in 1831 in Lincolnshire, got married in 1854 at the age of 23 and then between 1856 and 1875 gave birth 11 times! But the best of that is, 10 of those children managed to survive the usual horrors associated with growing up in the 19th century and make it to adulthood. She was also a school mistress, according to her marriage certificate, though whether she managed to juggle a career like that with a family that size remains untold, although later census documents list her occupation as dressmaker so maybe she switched to working from home when the children were growing up.
Tragically, in 1878, when her youngest child was 3, her husband, Joseph died at the age of just 46 following an accident at work caused leg injuries he just couldn’t recover from. Without compensation and pensions being non-existent, the fact that she managed to carry on alone to raise a family of that size in itself blows me away, but not only did she do that, but she did it for a further 23 years, seeing all of her 10 remaining offspring safely into adulthood before dying at the age of 70, still a widow.
She’s definitely my new hero; her tenacity and strength must have been incredible and I feel really humbled by her and grateful to her.
How to Find out More
My journey is still a work in progress and I’m enjoying discovering more, though I do struggle to find the time with so many other plates to juggle at the moment. The trouble with it is, once you learn about one person, a whole lot of other new branches open up and it’s a bit addictive actually.
If you’re interested in exploring your family history, Ancestry.co.uk is a good place to start and you can find a fair bit without paying the joining fee, though you can’t access records.
Start with yourself. Write down your name, date of birth, and parents' names. You can also include other information, such as your spouse's name, children's names, and where you live.
Talk to your relatives. Ask them about your family history. They may have old photos, documents, or stories that can help you learn more about your ancestors.
Use Ancestry's search tools. Ancestry has a variety of search tools to help you find records about your ancestors. You can search by name, date, location, and other criteria.
Follow your leads. Once you find a record about an ancestor, follow the trail. See if you can find other records about that person, such as their marriage certificate, death certificate, or military records.
Be patient. Exploring your family tree can be a lot of fun, but it can also be time-consuming. I'm trying to allocate just a small amount of time each day or a couple of evenings a week so I don't get carried away.
I hope this blog post has inspired you to explore your history. It can be a fascinating and rewarding journey. Certainly some of the characters I have discovered have really inspired me.