Family tree research – doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? In fact it sounds depressingly like something old people with time on their hands do. Which is true of me, perhaps, though I like to think of myself as older …
Anyway, I embarked on some of this a few weeks ago. I’d put it it off for about 40 years as I thought I’d better things to. Maybe I was wrong.
My initial motivation was curiosity about the obvious black sheep character in my family – one of my grandfathers – who allegedly was “a useless drunk” (my father’s words) and had been thrown out of his own family home in Glasgow by his own sons when they became old enough. I soon learned that he died of TB in a hospital in 1939 – not living with his family and presumably alone. A dramatic and tragic tale made more intriguing by the rumour that he’d also been wounded at Gallipolli – did this explain his later decline, I wondered? Would the story of his eviction and rejection help explain my own dad’s distant and difficult relationship with me?
Well, one of the things I quickly realised in my research was that you don’t find the answers to questions like that – though you can, perhaps, get some facts assembled that allow you to make better guesses. But what you do learn is that there are all sorts of questions that you’d never even thought of asking.
Take my Granny, for instance. Writing this, I automatically typed her name with a capital letter because as a child I was taught to think of her as a fearsome, upright, revered and long-suffering Scots woman who you did not cross. My Mum was certainly intimidated by her, but maybe that’s what most women feel about their mother’s-in-law?
However, I slowly uncovered an unexpected Granny tale: I’d started out with a vision of a heroic picture of a woman who dealt determinedly with the failings of her husband and then laboured stoically with the burden of bringing up 6 children alone. But the truth is messier than that – isn’t it always?
Family mythology always placed my father as the eldest of her children, followed by his first sister (who in later years became the embodiment of primness and correctness). Bombshell No 1 was my discovery that the sister was born before my dad – and just a few months before Granny’s marriage – a shotgun wedding, no less.
So, next question – how come Granny – a young woman (18 at the time) – ended up pregnant by this possibly unsavory character and, come to think of it, how come none of her own brothers and sisters (all older than her) came to the rescue when she was dealing with 6 children unaided?
Time to look a generation further back in more detail, I decided. I started to delve deeper – and also to spend money on subscribing to pay-per-view records. There was even an element of gambling thrill to this – every time you pay some of the credits you’ve bought, you have to hope or guess that that the record you’re about to see is about someone you’re looking for and not some other person with the same name. You win some, you lose some.
Gripped by mild gambling fever (it’s nice when you do win), I scrutinised my great-grand-parents records and soon realised that Granny’s parents were not the simple straightforward pairing I’d first thought. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century he had emigrated from Ireland to Scotland and, much more unexpectedly, he’d already married twice when he finally married Granny’s mum. So that made all Granny’s brothers and sisters probably just half-siblings.
Granny’s mum was no less intriguing. She too had married previously – to a bizarrely-named sailor and probably had a child by him.
So Granny’s marital role models were pretty ropey. That might be part of an explanation – so much for the stability and respectability of old-time family life.
But to the next question that arose: after Granny’s parents died (both gone by the time she was 12), where did she disappear to? Her 2 older (half?) brothers had by then married and started families of their own but the remaining 3 were living together as orphans – but without her, strangely. Was she farmed out to another relative? Shipped back to Ireland temporarily? Sent to live with other people by her rejecting half-siblings? A homeless waif and stray in the tenements of Glasgow? I simply don’t know (well, not yet, anyway – another thing I’ve learned is that family history research is never finished!)
So, the time Granny next surfaces in the record books, she’s got pregnant and married. Did she stay with her husband long? How and when did the marriage collapse? Again, records don’t really tell you that – but he was at least getting back into her bed 16 years after the marriage ’cause that’s when the last of her children were born.
So what have I learned? That the skeletons you find aren’t necessarily the ones you were looking for. That the past is something we change and shape using our own perspectives and value judgements. That the more answers you seek, the more questions you raise.
And, surprisingly, that researching your family tree can actually be compulsively interesting. Must stop writing know as I want to take a look at my great-great grandfather’s siblings …