When I was very young, I had a full complement of parents and grandparents plus a bonus great-grandmother. However, one by one they all died until, by the early 1980s, I was the oldest surviving member of my immediate family. As a working single parent in my twenties, I was kept busy trying to cope with the everyday challenges of life during a recession, such as keeping shoes on my children’s feet and a roof over our heads.
Although I’ve always been interested in social history and biographies in general, I didn’t give much thought to those people who gone before in my own family. They were just ‘missing persons’ with whom I no longer had any contact and all that remained were just vague silhouettes which faded a little more each year.
It wasn’t until many years later that I began to wonder who these people might have been and what their lives might have been like but, of course, there was no-one left to ask.
When I took my first tentative steps to researching my family, I knew almost nothing – not even all my grandparents’ first names – but using the magic of the internet was just the beginning; before long I was venturing out to archives, cemeteries and other obscure places. A very few of my predecessors are quite well documented, having been wealthy or successful in their time, but the vast majority left almost no trace of their existence apart from some names and dates in public records. Gradually I have been able to reveal some of their stories and personal attributes, both positive and negative, which resonate today.
The discovery of a newspaper mention, a signature or even – rarely – a likeness will give me a real high which can last for days, but I’ve also experienced a strange feeling of sadness and loss when I have learned of an untimely death through disease, childbirth, war, or in a workhouse, of someone with whom I was only beginning to become acquainted.
Nothing could ever have prepared me for some of the facts and events I would discover during my time travelling, but I believe I am now better able to appreciate how one small decision by one person can impact down through the years. Looking back can expose some of the twists and turns of life: those random chances of good fortune and bad luck that weave their way through each lifetime.
I have no doubt now that trying to understand our ancestors can help us make sense of the past, and trying to understand the past can help us make sense of our ancestors.
Not everyone in these pages is genetically related to me, but they all deserve to be remembered.