Sunday, 28 October 2012

Do You Know Your Family History?

Some years ago I found myself drawn to discovering my families past. I knew certain facts of course but when I thought about it I realised that there were many gaps. As for a family tree, I didn't have one. Thus I began with Ancestry.co.uk, compiling the tree and attempting to gather all the relevant data -births, marriages and deaths. It wasn't a problem as far as my parents and grandparents went but for those more distant relations it was a challenge.

Here enters the enlightening world of the census. It simply is fascinating. At present you can only search from 1841 -1911 but for me this has proven eventful. The census has been invaluable in providing me with many facts such as household members, addresses and occupations of the head of the household. I found my great grandparents, my great - great grandparents and so on. I discovered that my great-great grandmother was a maid in service in the late 1800's. Perhaps this explains my love of period drama's such as the fabulous "Downton Abbey" -it must be in my blood! (I always dreamed of being the lady of the big house but deep down knew I would have been the maid!)

I came across something interesting more closer to home whilst researching. My grandfather was the 2nd born son in his family. His brother Tom, the eldest, has upon his birth certificate a different surname. Instantly I was drawn like a moth to the flame, conjuring up all sorts of circumstances. Was my grandfather adopted? Was he illegitimate or was his brother? Thankfully with the help of the Regional Records Office, the problem was ironed out. It was noted that the same father recorded both births and no doubt had made a mistake with the first, giving the maiden name of his wife rather than her married name. And yes, for another moment I considered a birth outside of wedlock -scandalous indeed! However, I checked the marriage certificate which confirmed that it took place well before the birth. Phew! No real skeletons in our closets -so far.

But for a short time I was convinced that there was a hidden family secret. I guess this sounds completely ridiculous but if you have ever looked into your families past I'm sure you will admit to it being very complex indeed. It's so easy to stray into uncharted territory and become muddled, especially when your ancestors are mere strangers.

Thanks to the National Archives it is now possible to conduct a lot of research online. Just recently they have made information about the Home Guard available online. This brings me to my maternal grandfather. He had a specialist occupation as a metallurgist and so during the Second World War he was classed as being in a reserved occupation and was not called up. His employer -Wolsingham Steel Works in County Durham - made a major contribution to the war effort during both World Wars, assisting in the production of munitions. That was where his association with the war ended, or so I thought.

Once I heard that the Home Guard records were online, I began to wonder. I typed in his name and low and behold there it was. My grandfather's record, his date of birth and home county. It was definitely him! He was a member of the Home Guard from the very start of war in 1939 up until the end in 1945. So, if he were alive today I'm sure he would have had some fascinating tales to tell. And that's the sad part because he passed away in 2002 having never spoken about it at all, not even to his daughter. We had no idea and the strange thing is he sometimes mentioned my gran's service because she had joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. (WAAF) Why he never mentioned it will remain a mystery. Perhaps he felt it was better to forget or perhaps he always regretted not joining the services and seeing direct action.

There are so many untold stories out there today. Men and women from the Second World War and other periods who undoubtedly will have some spectacular tales for their families and friends. Please go and ask them about their lives. We are all essential to history and society and we all make a contribution in life whilst here. Wouldn't it be marvelous to have more written accounts? It's not only interesting but essential to learning for the younger generations.

You may recall Nella Last (1889-1968) - a housewife from Barrow in Cumbria, UK during WW2. When the Mass Observation Project began, she volunteered to keep a diary. She kept an amazing recollection of her life during those years and it was portrayed in a drama by the BBC with Victoria Wood playing her character. I loved it and there is also a book available. Her accounts of life are poignant, happy and sad but most of all her diary entries keep her memory alive. She literally breathed her life into those pages as she wrote from the heart. And yet it was such a simple act. So much beauty derived from such simplicity. So you see, we need to ask and we need to probe. We need to show an interest in our older generation and help to create and preserve history for future generations.