Thursday, 25 June 2009

Who Do You Think You Are?

I've mentioned before that I've been researching some family history, if that's not too grand a word for "looking stuff up on the internet". It's astonishing how this once tedious pursuit has been transformed by the web. Not so long ago, this would have been a retirement project, requiring fruitless trips to distant graveyards and long afternoons pulling indexes from shelves in record offices. But now, for Britons at any rate, tracing a family tree back into the mid-nineteenth century is usually a matter of a few evenings in front of a keyboard, given a reasonably sure knowledge of the name, age and birthplace of one's parents and grandparents. Oh, and a credit card.

Even more astonishing is that it's become a mass pursuit, encouraged by popular TV programmes like "Who Do You Think You Are?" Genealogy used to be about questions of aristocratic succession -- like, "How good is my claim to the throne?" -- but now it is increasingly about "ordinary" people discovering that we, too, have ancestors that go all the way back to Adam and Eve. Or, more accurately, to that single tribe of wanderers who squeezed out of the north-east corner of Africa 85,000 years ago and then went on to populate the rest of the globe.

Unfortunately, the documentary trail does not go back quite that far. For most of us, it starts to get thin around 1800, and pretty much vanishes for everyone in the 16th century. But, personally, I have never regarded "getting as far back as possible" as one of the main aims of my researches, and a fat stack of birth, marriage and death certificates tells a pretty thin dynastic tale.

For me, there are two primary areas of interest. First, there is the technical challenge of overcoming obstacles in the paperchase; to triangulate a missing forbear until they shuffle out shame-facedly from behind a census return form can be satisfying, occasionally exciting. But, second, where it gets really interesting is filling in the social and historical detail. There may be no biographies written of any of your great-grandparents or of mine, but there is plenty of research into and resources for local history, some of it very local indeed, and much of it online. For example, I can look at Charles Booth's poverty map of London, and read his handwritten notes on the state of the kids playing in the very street my grandfather grew up in.

Where these two interests come together, however, the chase can get obsessive. Also, the light shone into dark, forgotten corners can cast strange shadows. I had long known for example, that my other grandfather was illegitimate, and born in Liverpool. But he was a particularly tight-lipped specimen of that taciturn WW1 generation, and that was about all I knew. After months of false leads, I finally turned up a birth certificate, then some census returns, and his story began to emerge. Born illegitimate in a Liverpool workhouse infirmary in 1896 to a woman who claimed to be a widow, he was abandoned, along with his three-year old brother, into the care of the Poor Law Union, and placed into one of the "cottage homes" for destitute children in Fazakerley, Liverpool.

So, not a great start in life for Grandad. Though I have to say he turned out fine, a quiet if slightly taut family man, who liked nothing better than digging the garden. My mother adored her father. His brother turned out fine, too, a career soldier for 30 odd years, an NCO in the 7th Dragoon Guards, a top-drawer regiment. But the obsessive, dark part began when I tried to track down their mother.

Now, on one level, I knew what to expect. Children were not born and abandoned in workhouses in Liverpool in 1896 by "respectable" women. Elizabeth was almost certainly a prostitute or a drunk or perhaps (in the contemporary idiom) "feeble minded", possibly all three. What emerged quite quickly, though, was that she had effectively made herself invisible to the online paperchase. A few deliberate, drunken or confused untruths (her name, her age, her marital status, her address, the names of friends and relatives) -- recorded in ledgers in careful Victorian ink and transcribed (rather less carefully) into databases 100 years later -- is all it took.

It didn't help that she had a name -- or claimed to have a name -- that turned out to be surprisingly common in late 19th century Liverpool. The censuses and birth/marriage/death databases turned them up everwhere: wives of dockers with football-team-sized families in two-room terraces, seamstresses and dressmakers (occupations traditionally claimed by prostitutes) in crowded slum lodging houses, servants stashed in the attics of the mansions of prosperous merchants, spinster schoolteachers, and even a few nuns, but no-one who matched my elusive great-grandmother on every point, or not enough to follow up thoroughly. At times, it felt like I was being given the Ghost of Christmas Past's tour of Victorian Liverpool, and that what I was seeing was, in some strange way, existentially important.

Madly, I think I began to believe that "finding" her-- that is, conclusively identifying her in the papertrail, if only to establish when and where and in what condition she was born and died -- would in some way redeem the act of abandoning her children. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I presumed that she would really have wanted to be "found". In the end, I realised that to do this some proper research into the Fazakerley Cottage Homes files (held in the Liverpool Record Office) was needed, and employed a proper researcher.

The story that emerged -- pieced together from evidence, hints and informed guesswork -- was unedifying, as you might expect. Following up the new leads, I found myself opening doors onto dark, disturbingly Dickensian scenarios. If "my" Elizabeth wasn't in the room, I would quickly shut the door again. You don't have to believe in ghosts to acknowledge the possibility of being haunted, not least by the wretchedness that can exist in the world.

Indeed, once you step back and contemplate the true horror of life for a "fallen woman" in the Victorian underclass, those despised Victorian Values -- the values that compelled the wealthy Liverpudlian Charles Booth to devote his life to improving the lot of the poor -- start to seem like the only force for good in a world that had taken a serious turn to the Dark Side. And it's also a lot easier to understand the motivation of a woman wilfully covering her tracks, erasing herself from the record, and in the end writing herself out of the script of her children's lives. Easier to understand, but still terribly, terribly sad.

Mater dolorosa, ora pro nobis...


Bronislaus said...

Nicely written piece, though, at the end...mayhaps letting ones ancestors all be princes and princeses has it's own virtues.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Bronislaus -- actually, I accidentally published this one before it was quite finished, but couldn't figure out how to un-publish it with deleting it, so have let it stand! I'll follow it up later with the rest of what I intended to write.

Bronislaus Janulis said...

I use Blogger; you should be able to edit posts from the dashboard.