WHY DELVE INTO FAMILY HISTORY?

Robin Sen shares some experience from his researches:

I have just tracked down a second cousin once removed who is a chef in Vancouver, Canada. I have sent him some details of a shared ancestry going back to the banks of the Ganges over three hundred years ago.

For almost fifty years I have been the self-appointed historian of my extended family and that of my wife. This has taught me some important lessons.

First and foremost, the family historian needs to recognize that not all relatives share the enthusiasm for climbing back up the family tree. In my experience in any generation, there are usually at best only one or two who are interested. Most people are too engaged with their current lives to be bothered with their ancestry. Make the most of the reactions of those of your few relatives who show genuine interest as distinct from scarcely concealed indifference.

Best way to stimulate interest is to come up with some anecdotes about forbears who have done something different, especially if bizarre or disreputable.

Be prepared to find that people with no connection to your family are very unlikely to share your enthusiasm for recounting the details of great uncle Boris’s marriage to great aunt Lobadelia, unless she subsequently murdered him. As a practitioner of the art of genealogy I am always fascinated to discuss methodology or sources and will do so till the cows come home. However, I am propelled into acute boredom by other people’s ancestors (unless they were complete weirdos). I have lost count of the pairs of eyes I have forced to glaze over as a result of my rabbiting on about my family until I learned the error of my ways.

Timing is important. Family history can hurt the living. Some years back an elderly aunt in a NSW country town was mortified to see the local rag print a story of her family’s convict ancestry. She was convinced she would be blackballed by the ladies with whom she played mahjong each week. To the same town came an enthusiastic “distant relative” from Tasmania who was researching the family connection. A putative relative brusquely sent him away with no help whatever as he feared the visitor was after sharing in the elderly aunt’s will. Had the Tasmanian turned up some years later, he may have got a different welcome.

Beware elderly relatives spruiking family myths that they are descended from noble or even royal blood. I had an aunt who was convinced we were related to/descended from a famous peer of the realm who shared the family name (a very common one). Quite apart from the absence of one shred of evidence of a connection, there was the added problem that this man had invented concentration camps in the Boer War, leading to the deaths of thousands of women and children – not someone for one to be proud to share kinship.

Sometimes family tree research can be turned to personal advantage and I recommend this tip, based on personal experience, to anyone when it is possible to travel once more to the UK. It is based on the widespread belief among the Poms that they have a distant relative who made a fortune in Australia. This can be done anywhere in the UK, but probably best to avoid the canny Scots. Say it is close to teatime and you are in a picturesque village called Midsommer. Look up the phone directory and search for people who share your surname. Ring them up and tell them you are from Australia (stretch the Ocker) and doing family tree research and think you may be related. This will whet their interest/greed and they will invite you to tea. With a bit of luck this will be accompanied at best by scones and jam and at the least by caramel wafer biscuits.

Well, what of family history? After nearly half a century, why am I still at it? Partly it is because, through the internet, there is so much more material available and now easily accessible. In the early days there were hours of intense monotony, going through parish records, censuses and microfilm, with the rare moment of excitement when you found something relevant. Now that is virtually done for you, through various websites. In the past much family research did not get far past names, dates of birth, marriage and death, leaving no real sense of the ancestor as a person.

Now there are so many sources available to fill in the picture. Just as important is the ability to build up a historic context around the life of the ancestor through Dr Wikipedia et al. That way I was able to discover that my granny’s brother was not the only one to desert from HMS Lord Nelson in Sydney in the 1890s. There were 169 others.

ROBIN SEN

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