Friday, 16 January 2009


An unusually productive day at work using some downtime to research my family history online:

As a child my family circle was small and ageing, even more so nowadays, so maybe there is some psychological need I’m fulfilling. But primarily there is simply a buzz from discovering , and also a very personalised sense of social history. I haven’t got beyond the census returns from 1841 to 1911 yet, but even from this, and with a bit of a deduction, some limited family memories, and a bit of knowledge of the period, a fair picture can be built from the ten-year snap shots.

My main fear was that I might discover some toffs or Tories lurking in the family tree. I found neither (I think) - all four grandparents’ sides of the family seemed to be fairly representative of the varying fortunes of the ‘respectable’ Victorian working class.

One line of them, from the 1800’s through to the 1960’s made their living from the River Thames as watermen, lightermen and boat-builders. For most of the nineteenth century they are living in the same house, and the eldest son has the same first name from generation to generation – in fact the same name that I have. Another line, from the other end of the country are seafarers for several generations. Both sets of families are large with a continuous history and I can picture them as solid and reasonably affluent artisan dynasties.

On the other hand, the other two sets of families reveal the fragility of a family’s fortune. One line shows an elderly widowed mother working as a seamstress with three young children, two of which disappear from the record at a worryingly young age and the third joins the army. He retires and gets a position as the town’s resident fireman, starting a tradition that then runs in my family for three generations. Another line of the family loses the father at a very young age and the siblings are dispersed, living with grandparents and then becoming adopted. Their fortunes seem to vary with one sibling being listed as ‘labourer’ and the other in the relatively new and upwardly mobile occupation of ‘newspaper reporter’. Another noticeable trend is quite how patriarchal the Victorian family was. Daughters quickly get lost in the record – either because they get married or because they move away and live-in as domestic servants.

I’m not too sure where, if anywhere, any of this is going to end up but I have to admit to becoming hooked and fairly blown away by the thought that I can now trace back my oldest relative, my Great, Great, Great Grandfather who was born in 1787.

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