About a decade ago spurred on by the BBC genealogy programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ I was curious to find out who the hell I am.
Without sounding melodramatic, oh sod it, who am I kidding, I AM melodramatic and what’s language for if not to add a little sparkle to life. Who was it said that “you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter”? That seems like a damn good motto to me. Ahem, I embarked on a journey of self discovery in an earnest attempt to truly understand who I am (thats a load of bollocks of course but it gives the piece a sense of the drama, peril and suspense).
So, to begin. I didn’t have much of an idea about any of my family beyond the immediate two generations I’d grown up with. I certainly didn’t have a clue about my Father’s side of the genetic pool, as he and his eclectic bunch of petty criminals and grubby family sheep were a bit of mystery to me, at least beyond the horror stories told to me by the ever vindictive and psychotic maternal Grandmother (no really I am over it, honest, no lasting psychological issues AT ALL, twitch blink twitch).
I began by signing up to Ancestry.com, FindmyPast.com and some other Genealogy websites. I was armed with my mother’s maiden name, my maternal Grandmother’s maiden name, my paternal Grandmother’s maiden name and a few anecdotal tales of who shagged whom and who may or may not have been a result of these unions. I am an only child so I had no siblings to join in with the cause; apparently one was enough for both my Mum and Dad. Mum and Dad weren’t compatible, for many reasons, but I think the biggest reason as I discovered in later life was that Dad was quite decidedly and spectacularly gay. Even if he’d not been a dithering sod with an overbearing mother I reckon their marriage would have come unstuck sooner or later. Anyway…….
What have I uncovered? Well, apart from solving the mystery of who my maternal Grandmother’s biological father was and generations of abject poverty, a fight for survival in Stockton on Tees and York’s slums, it has all been very pedestrian. For many generations my ancestors were born, fucked, married (more often than not they didn’t bother with anything so ‘respectable’ as marriage so by having my son when unmarried I was ecstatic to know I was continuing a well trodden family tradition), worked in low paid unskilled employment, went to prison and/or reform school and ultimately died in the workhouse.
My maternal Grandfather’s family are descended from the very first Quakers; non-conformists with a tradition of pacifism and social reform. Yeh, I can be happy with that. Whilst I’m not a God botherer in any shape or form I can accept their key philosophies – don’t be a shit to people and be the voice for the voiceless. So far not a bad set of genes to carry.
The Grandmother was brought up thinking her Grandmother was her biological Mum, and that her Mum was her sister, which is all very soap opera. A lovely woman (blood relative, some sort of cousin) contacted me with an album of photographs of Grandmother’s side of the family and she informed me that the man Grandmother thought was her Step-Father, was actually her real Father. It was a well-known fact within her side of the family but was only spoken about in hushed tones in dark corners. What happened was that a married man named Samuel Henderson was having an affair with GM’s Mum whilst she was his housekeeper. She got pregnant several times as was the way of things. Grandmother was born and kept in the family because her Uncles refused to give her away. However two more children were born out of this liaison a few years later. One who died at birth and the other adopted. GM’s Mum eventually married the man whom she’d been having an affair with following his wife’s death. I have no idea how she died but given the amount of pregnancies and live births that poor woman had I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t just plain knackered! GM’s Mum went on to have a long and happy marriage with this man and had many children with him. When Grandmother discovered the truth of who her Mum actually was, she never liked the man who she thought to be her Stepfather and Grandmother went to her grave a bitter and twisted woman who resented love in any form. Sadly, this isn’t an unusual family story, it’s pathetically typical of a fucked up society where morals were twisted in favour of saving family reputations.
My Father’s family? Well, where can I start? My paternal Grandfather was a violent old drunk, wife beater and work-shy bastard. He was the Great Grandson of an Irish immigrant who I can only assume was starved out of Ireland during the Irish Genocide of the 19th Century. My GF married my Nana Violet (yet another nasty little woman who wore resentment and bitterness like a wool spun floor length cloak). Somehow this marriage resulted in four live births and one set of stillborn twins. Both Grandparents are now dead as are most of their children, my Dad included.
The Irish side of the family was gutter poor. They were laborers in Stockton-on- Tees ironworks. From census returns it seems they moved from hovel to hovel and two of the children were sent to Catholic Reform School after being convicted of scrap metal theft. I cannot even begin to imagine that level of deprivation. My Great Great Grandmother was born Christiana Cook, she hooked up with the illiterate Irishman James Tague and had several children with him. I have the deepest admiration for this woman. She saw all of her children survive to adulthood. From newspaper records I found she was subject to two abusive husbands/partners, was beaten to the point of death by one of her alcoholic sons and she herself was convicted of metal theft; but what she did do was keep all of her family out of the workhouse. She did what she needed to do in order to survive. Sadly Christiana Cook/Tague/Maroney died in the Workhouse from TB shortly after her 50th birthday. I didn’t know this woman, and I should imagine she was a fearsome, hard drinking, tough talking, aggressive lioness of a woman but I wish I could say thank you to her for surviving. Without her tenacious, bloody-minded will to endure I would not be here.
Nana Violet’s family was unremarkable at first glance and surprisingly respectable. Her Father and paternal Grandfather had been builders and publicans. So why when it seemed there was a certain amount of inheritance attached to these men did Nana Violet end up a piss poor bitter woman alienated from most of her family by the end of her life? Well! She went and did that thing, she only bloody well went and had a baby without being married and to compound the family shame? This good protestant girl went on to marry a piss-head unskilled hardly ever employed Catholic and even worse, the descendant of an Irish immigrant. I mean, for fuck’s sake, she might as well have shagged a horse in the middle of Stockton High Street; the shame would probably have been more bearable for the family.
Further up the tree of my Nana Violet, through a paternal Grandmother, I hit on an interesting ancestor, who led me back 32 generations. After more double-checking than I care to think about, it transpires that I’m a direct descendant of a 10th Century Anglo-Danish Viking Warrior named Ultz FitzOsmond. I have no idea what sort of person he was but I’m sure I will discover he was a big old murdering twat who ate live puppies for breakfast. Nothing would surprise me anymore.
Incidentally, more often than not family history research hits many cul-de-sacs. I spend a lot of time pouring over archives, microfiche, old newspapers, online directories and ordering certificates on the off chance a hunch is right and I am indeed sniffing along the correct branch of the family tree. I’ve even had John drive me to Stockton-On-Tees just to trace old maps and archives on the off chance it might turn up a missing link (no comments please).
I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. Maybe some clue as to why, who, what and how I am. I suppose what a lot of us genealogy types are looking for is some long lost hidden treasure or landed gentry title, which has lain in a dusty vault somewhere waiting to be discovered. Although if I did find some great big mansion with my name on it, I think as act of rebellion I’d give it to a homeless charity to turn into a hostel, not only because that’s a nice thing to do, but also it’d really piss off the neighbours. That’s always been a dream of mine, to win the lottery, buy a shit load of houses near the NIMBYs (Not in my back yard type arseholes) in this village and convert them into some sort of assisted living accommodation for people who really need it. Several years ago some of the ‘We Go to Church Every Week You Know’ bastards got all up in arms because there was the off-chance some social housing may be built near their houses and they started a protest group. I threw my opinion into the mix and said I thought they should convert the local pub into a hostel; there wasn’t (and still isn’t) ANY emergency accommodation locally. Naturally their Christianity didn’t extend beyond the church walls. The pub is a still a pub and no social or affordable housing was built.
Right, so back to my family. What have I learned?
I’ve learned that somewhat like Fred the dog we are both a mongrel mix of many sets of genes and influences but we are both survivors. I have the ginger haired temperament of a viking warrior, I can drink whisky with the best of them and I genuinely do enjoy a pint of stout, I’ve a strong sense of social justice and a dramatic campness that any drag queen would be proud of. Fred is a laid back West Indian who lets little bother him and loves life passionately. We are both the product of our ancestors but it has little bearing on who we are now. I am who I am because of where I am, the people I’ve met during my lifetime (so far) in the same way Fred is the product of love, a full belly and warm bed. What more is there to know, and ultimately, who cares?
But… I can still dream of the unclaimed estate.
And I will continue researching.