Could it be true? I stared at the old census records in front of me. She hadn’t died young after all, but after splitting with her husband had spent her life working in other people’s houses, years later producing another daughter. So my father had once had a living grandmother and another aunt he never met. Even more sadly, his mother and aunt grew up believing their mother died when they were tiny. I unexpectedly burst into tears. What on earth happened? Of course, back then lives were hard, money was short, people lost touch and survived the best way they could…
I began searching for our long lost family…. Was my great grandfather, from humble roots, really a sergeant major in the first world war? Did we have family in Australia? What happened to all my maternal grandmother’s family? We had tried before with a phone book and birth certs, but the internet made it easier. Early on a lovely ‘new’ cousin found ME and helped me a lot – now a good friend.
Stories of sergeant majors, artists, South African mounted police, navy captains, and sadly, mothers dying young, divorces and adoptions abounded. Most had lost touch. What I learnt painted a picture of how our nation lived over the last 150 years.
My paternal ‘great great’ grandfather arrived here from Dublin with 12 brothers and one sister, still with an English surname (having all moved there from England). They all married, producing even more children, then emigrated to Australia. There were many characters (one who was buried under a false name!). War broke out and my great grandfather headed back to fight for his country.
Patriotism ran deep back then. And he did indeed rise to the rank of Sergeant Major. I found many relatives in Australia who sent a photo – I knew it was him straight away – our likeness is disarming – strange to see!
I trawled through censuses, birth, marriage and death certs, marriage banns, parish and church records, maps and list of residents of buildings and learnt that a coincidence will usually turn out to be truth. When you look at what people call austerity or poverty now it is unreal in comparison to terrible every day hardships people endured a hundred years ago. Another great grandmother, a young widow, lived in one room with her six children – and they all turned out OK, my own grandfather working at 13 to support them.
I tracked my family across two centuries and two world wars – and across continents. Military records gave poignant details like hair colour, skin type (‘ruddy’) and even the eye colour. I studied passenger lists on ships and even the list of British employees of a railway line in Rhodesia – revealing a second marriage and another child. Also, sadly, a shocking early death of another great grandfather…
I found records of ancestors at one point living in a workhouse – which shocked me – I hadn’t considered it. The family were huge and seemed to have populated half of Southwark! Workhouses were in ‘poor boroughs’ as they were known – people had such huge families and so little money that workhouses supplied a job and somewhere to live – men and women were separated – I don’t know why – maybe to stop them having more children or just easier – demeaning nevertheless – living their lives by a bell – from waking to bedtime. It was that or the street.
Difficulty and despair were common. Adoption was not a recognised procedure and a child given away could never officially have a ‘new’ family. Divorce was rare unless wealthy and so bigamy was more common, as was just ‘disappearing’ and reappearing in a new life! Women lost contact with children if they split from husbands or became destitute if they kept them, and those with what was probably postnatal depression were locked up. People who moved elsewhere or emigrated would often never see each other again. If anyone got pregnant they were straight up the aisle – very different now! Military records told sad tales too – boys of 16 sent to war and killed within a couple of months. Men in their 50s drafted into the navy and drowning at sea.
Other sides of my family were wealthier – I traced their travels around the world by ship – remarkable really when you think how long it took! You can often figure out whether they were married and had children from passenger lists.
But what struck me through tracing family is how stoic and hardy people were – working, supporting each other, weathering depressions, fighting in wars, making families, sticking together and trying to better themselves. Many died young (but I also found some that lived to 100!) And touchingly using family names generation after generation – the eldest taking mum and dad’s names and the rest named after beloved siblings and cousins. They maintained family love and tradition. We could learn a lot from them! – carrying on regardless of what they didn’t have, no matter what.
So, what of the artist, navy captains and South African mounted police? All traced. Did my dad see his grandmother or ‘new aunt’ before they died? Sadly no. But I found many cousins two, three or four times removed, all now friends on social media or more. And happily two of them recently visited from Australia, and one from Kent too, with more to come – one being my beloved mothers second cousin! – very poignant for me. Sad how previous generations were blown apart by poverty, hardship and war and lost each other… yet can now be traced by endearingly naming their children after beloved lost family…
One thing my family shared and still share is the love of this, their country. No matter where they have ended up in the world for survival have always remained affectionately and deeply bonded to Great Britain – the land of their ancestors.