Family Tree Folk Free Family History Course: Beginners Course

Starting out in genealogy by Dr Kathryn Senior

3 Family Memories

A journey into the genealogy and history of any family often begins with its living members. Grandparents, parents, great aunts and uncles and other older relations can be enormously helpful and interested in your research.

They may remember meeting their grandparents, they may know dates of births, marriages and deaths, where the family lived and what they did. They may hint at family scandals and tragedies and, in many cases, they have a selection of family records stashed away in the attic or in the back of a drawer.

It is a great shame that this wealth of information is often binned is sold for a few pounds to an ephemera collector when an elderly person dies or moves into care.

In the class in this free online family history course called "Ask the family", we stressed how important it is to find out what close family members know about your family history before starting to order certificates, or launch into searching census records without really knowing what you are looking for.

In this class, we start looking at how the wider family, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, can all provide very valuable information, and the forms that this information can take.

Incredible though it may seem, some people are not interested in their own family history or in that of anyone else. They cannot understand the fascination for us normal folk in pinning down who our 9th great grandparents were, where they lived and what colour underwear they preferred(!). There is a great deal of controversy about the privacy issue involved in family history research – census data and other types of records are closed for a 100 years as a type of privacy protection, and if a researcher puts together a website with family trees or gedcom files, he or she must take great care to ‘clean’ the files so that they do not disclose information about living people.

All of this can make it quite difficult to get started in family history just by using official records. Most people know the names of their parents, and their birthdates, and maybe their grandparents, but in a family with short generation times, a young researcher will still struggle to get anywhere near 1911. If he or she is lucky enough to have living grandparents, or great aunts, or other elderly relatives, their memories, however insignificant they seem to think they are, will be of use in outlining the ancestral line for last 100 years or so. If, like my brother and I, they have a relative with an exceptional memory, they will get a stepping stone to the nearest census and much more: the ‘flesh on the bones’ that distinguishes family history from genealogy.

Memories and my own family history

When my brother and I started our family history over 10 years ago now, my mother proved to be a real goldmine of information. She remembered her grandmother, Lucy Strangward, very clearly as she was already 11 by the time her grandmother died.

We instantly got the names and birth years of Lucy’s 10 children, which ones died young, which one ran off when he got a girl into trouble and was never heard of again, the marriage partners of the others, and, in most cases, their children and grandchildren.

Not only did my mother remember lots of family detail that must have been fairly common knowledge in her childhood, she seems to have remembered the vast majority of family stories and information told to her by her mother. And quite a lot of the content of conversations overheard between my grandmother and her older sister!

She knew that she was vaguely related to other Wilcock families in Pontefract, although she didn’t know the relationship. Not surprisingly, as the link was five generations back, but this was an incredibly good lead.

She had heard about a couple of suicides, one of the wife of a Wilcock great great uncle, which led us to a newspaper report in 1888, telling the full tragic story. A young woman, recently married and pregnant had drowned herself in the brickpond near her home one cold December night.

Apparently, as was the convention of the time, she knew nothing of the facts of life. The activities of the wedding night and afterwards had been rather a shock, but her expanding waistline and the movements of the child inside her had been terrifying. Not able to work out how the baby would find its way out, and without any reassurances, she fretted herself into mental decline.

Shortly before her baby was due she ran out of the house at midnight while her husband slept and threw herself into the cold and murky brick pond, killing herself and her unborn child.

I can’t say that we were exactly happy to find the story; it was a terrible thing to happen and it still has its impact over a century later, but this sort of detail about individuals is rare. We were pleased to fit together the facts as reported in the newspaper with my mother’s own recollections of her grandmother’s memories.

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