Living in the Past
Don’t ask me why, but as I’ve got older, I’ve become more drawn towards tracing my family history. I’ve always been interested in where I came from, but recently it’s become a minor obsession.
It’s curious that, as many people get older, they become more interested in their family history. Maybe it’s because they have more time and money to spend on the research, maybe people become more curious about their origins, or maybe people just want to leave a record behind. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a combination of all these that has fuelled my search into my family’s past.
After a few false starts, I finally began to make a serious attempt to research my family history at the start of the year. The catalyst was a conversation with my sister early in 2016: we agreed that we needed to leave a record of our family behind. We were both surprised at how quickly living memory fades, meaning that something more permanent was needed.
To start the project I read as many books as I could find on family history. There’s lots of material out there, in print and online, and it took a while to figure out the best way to do the research. Many people launch straight into internet research, paying lots of money for a membership to one of the many genealogy site available. This isn’t necessarily the best way to go about things, and a more considered approach can produce better, and cheaper, results.
Thinking carefully about it there seem to be four stages to tracing family history.
1 Methodically tracing sources of information from different sources and recording them. This is probably the driest and least interesting part of the work as far as I’m concerned, but it’s probably the most important. I’ve had at least three unsuccessful attempts at tracing my family history, and they’ve all failed because I wanted to get onto the more interesting bits.
2 Interpreting the information to try and get a coherent picture of the family history. This is where it gets interesting. I’ve been surprised by how little trace people left behind them before the digital age, so it’s not unusual to have gaps in your knowledge that can’t be filled. Often the best you can do is make an educated guess to fill the gaps, and it can be fun doing this.
3 Putting family history into a wider context. This is where family history turns into local history, and I find it fascinating trying to relate the past lives of my family to the times they live in.
4 Using all the research to write something creative and interesting. There are lots of different options, including traditional family histories, biography, or fiction. I’m not sure what I want to create yet, but I want it to be more than just an annotated family tree.
At them moment I’m still at stage one, doggedly recording what information we already know and searching out additional facts. It’s really difficult because I want to jump ahead, complete the family tree and get writing. But for once I’m trying to be self disciplined, and being mostly successful.
Even at this stage, I’ve unearthed some interesting glimpses of family rifts, sad casualties of war, and ordinary people living extraordinary lives. There don’t appear to be any millionaires or nobility lurking in the background, but I’m happy with the mill workers, engineers and coal miners I’ve found so far.
Finding out about my family history is proving to be really satisfying. It’s not a quick process, but well worth the effort.