I had a nice quietish Christmas and took some days completely off for the first time in, oh, a long time. I decided to do some family history research, which I haven't spent any proper time on for at least a couple of years or more, and I found some good stuff and cracked a research mystery that has been something of a brick wall for twelve years.
When I mention I enjoy researching my family history a common reaction is surprise that someone so young (ahem) should be interested in a hobby that is generally regarded as the preserve of the retired. I love history, and I love doing research, but the catalyst in this case was a postcard album that my mum inherited from her mother when she died. It had belonged to my great-grandmother, and looking through it mum and I agreed that it might be fun to research some of the people the cards were written to, many of them long-forgotten and now unknown family members. Sadly, my mum died not long after, and the postcard album ended up with me permanently.
A few years later I decided to begin researching my family history and started gathering information from various relatives. At that time a lot of research still had be done by going to the Family Records Centre in Islington (for birth, marriage and death records and census returns) and the National Archives at Kew (most commonly for military service papers). I spent a lot of time with index cards, microfiche readers and gazettes, searching through lists and taking notes. Things are so much easier now! All those indexes and, indeed, many of the original records, are available and searchable online - what a difference. It's great that it's easier, and you can do so much more with database searches, but I must admit the sense of discovery is somewhat lessened when you're not 'out in the field', and you miss sights such as the American lady I saw at the FRC once, who had come to England especially to search the 19th century census returns, and sat at the microfilm reader in full Victorian dress to get into the part.
Discovering and learning about my family history has been a revelation. There are some who just can't understand the fascination, but I find it odd that many people just about know who their grandparents were but nothing beyond that. Knowing the story of how I came to be here, both genetically and geographically, having a 'history-map' of the people and movements that combined to put me, my brother and my parents on the earth, and knowing not just the depth of my background, but the width as well (6th cousins!). It's a big picture that I'm glad to be aware of and I've been able to find the truth behind some well-worn family stories as well as learning a lot about life in the past in general
In my family I've discovered tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, nurses, firemen, artists, Gypsies, actresses, musicians, thieves, murderers, paupers, servants to publicans and peers, teachers, footballers, chimney sweeps, farmers, labourers, coal miners, clerks, shopkeepers, makers of cities, roads, ships, shoes, hats and fancy boxes, drivers of trains, trams, taxis and horse-drawn carts, preachers, vicars and, I'm sorry to say, one less than admirable Catholic Priest (very distantly related, I stress!).
One resource that has opened up relatively recently are newspaper archives. With this you can delve into the actual detail of life, beyond names, dates and occupations. Unfortunately, it's usually the bad news that gets reported - deaths and criminal activity especially, but they do, it has to be said, make for some of the most fascinating stories.
This Christmas I learned what had happened to a gggg-uncle, Robert Ewing, who had previously disappeared from the records as a 10-year old flax winder in Dysart. It turns out he went on to become the captain of his own ship and ended up being thrown into a stormy ocean and drowning off the coast of Syria when he was 32. Another one to add the the tragic Ewing family deaths.
The wife of another gggg-uncle, Henry Higson, I knew had died at age 37, but I had no idea how until a fairly lurid newspaper article revealed that she cut her own throat in front of her children at breakfast one morning - very shocking stuff. The fact that her brother was in an insane asylum was enough, it seems, to explain her tragic actions at the inquest. Knowing this sad story has made me want to now find out what became of the three daughters who witnessed it and were 12, 10 and 4 years old at the time.
The most 'sensational' story was the 1903 murder of a policeman committed by three Gypsy brothers who each received fifteen years in prison. One of them came out to fight in World War One and was killed at the Somme.
My most exciting find is far less sensational and more personal - and would no doubt bore you to death if I explained it in any detail! Since 2000, when I started, I've been trying to break through a wall to discover who the parents were of my ggg-grandmother, Eliza Sherriff. I have finally found the answer. It's been a long and torturous route to make the discovery - but that's what makes it so rewarding; finding the clues, one here one year, one there another year, until a door is finally unlocked and a whole pile of new questions and puzzles is revealed. It's hugely enjoyable.