Autumn 2017 edition - page 10-11

Family history, or genealogy, is a topic that
captivates millions of people across the globe, a
topic present enough in popular culture that the
BBC created an acclaimed series based just on trac-
ing family trees, and most importantly a vital con-
nection between people today and the years gone
by.
But it would be impossible to guess all of that
just by looking at a standard family tree, one of the
sparse variety made up of mere names, and then
birth, baptism, marriage and death dates if we’re
lucky. Even a practising historian would be hard-
pressed to glean much in the way of real detail from
a name and some dates.
As I write this I am gazing at an extraordi-
nary document, a genealogy of one branch of my
family that goes back to 1793 with the death of my
great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather
John Southeard. While I can immediately appreci-
ate the effort that has gone into it, I find it difficult
to connect to these names any more than any other
random ones from history books. This lack of in-
formation is often as far as any ordinary family can
go in terms of collating a solid and properly cited
document for use as a record of their family; any-
one not royal by blood or related to landed gentry
with rigorously documented pedigree cannot hope
to find much more than snatches of information
gathered from parish records, birth, marriage, and
death certificates, and censuses of the time.
Be that as it may, it is in the research, the
detective work that goes into compiling this docu-
mentation of one’s family, that most of the joy of
genealogy is found. Digging through records from
years gone by, attempting to piece together he-
redity, becomes almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Not
from all the fun stems from looking at the picture
once it’s finished; it comes from the act of putting
it together. To go back to the family tree of mine
that I mentioned earlier: while I may not have im-
mediately made a meaningful connection with the
names on the page, for my great-aunt Margaret
who compiled the document, the struggle to find
all the information really changed her view of the
family from a group of people here together at this
point in time to a chain stretching back through
the centuries. This is the reason that the appeal
of genealogy doesn’t immediately jump out upon
reading a pre-compiled record: one has to look past
the family tree to the hours spent trawling through
documents from dark corners of record offices and
libraries, or websites such as ancestry.com - which
currently has more than 2.4 million paying subscrib-
ers – and then to the satisfaction experienced when
a breakthrough is made and a new piece of infor-
mation is found.
But the journey does not even have to be
personal to bring this distinct emotion. The widely
viewed BBC programme ‘Who DoYouThinkYou
Are’ takes celebrities on a journey to learn more
about their own personal histories, tracing family
back generations, taking them all over the globe
and encountering interesting stories along the
way. Its popularity proves that the enjoyment of
the activity of learning about one’s origins is not
limited to those whose ancestry is being investi-
gated. Genealogy is compelling whether it is ours or
not; discovering stories relating to ordinary people
from history is surprisingly riveting because it is not
something that we as a society are used to. Go-
ing back through the ages, the people and events
that were recorded were the most significant, the
most amazing – in legends and the like – and those
considered the most interesting. So when we hear
stories featuring average people, those not sig-
nificant to the course of history, it is a refreshing
change from the politics and histories of those in
power that so often feature in modern history cur-
ricula. The unremarkable nature of such tales is the
very thing that makes them so remarkable.
However, that is not the only reason that the
subject of genealogy itself is so intriguing: it is also
crucial to find out about the past from the point of
view of ordinary people. Too often our historical
sources are limited to those created to chronicle the
lives of the people in the upper echelons of society.
Genealogy is the starting-point for a vital alterna-
tive. Situations can often be discovered that com-
pletely break from the apparent norms of the time
they occurred in. For example, in Graham Norton’s
episode of ‘Who DoYouThinkYou Are’, he traces
his family back to his great-grandmother, who got
married when she was already eight months preg-
nant and was, in fact, illegitimate herself. This all
took place in 1895 towards the end of QueenVicto-
ria’s reign, making the events completely conflict-
ing with the prudish and conservative reputation
theVictorian era is remembered for.
This case almost seems anomalous yet it
demonstrates that we should never make assump-
tions about history based on stereotypes. Instead,
we need to go in search of cases like this to make a
better-informed judgement of our own about the
time. By scouring records in order to begin to put
together histories of ordinary families, we can start
to learn tremendous amounts about the mode of
living in eras gone by, thus giving us the chance to
experience an alternative view on history.
Luca Ferraro 10D
Genealogy
the personal side of history
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