30 September 2007

Shocks galore: What's in your family closet?

Dr. Nick Barratt of the Telegraph (UK) and "Who Do You Think You Are" television fame, has a skeleton story, shares some secrets and warns of shocks that might be in your closet once you begin digging around.

As a historian, I am used to helping other people find out about their ancestors, but in the course of my research, I stumbled upon a secret that had been kept in my own family for 75 years. My paternal great uncle had disappeared mysteriously in 1932 and none of my living relatives knew what had happened to him.

One day, I was looking through the National Archives with one of my relations and we spotted my great uncle's name. We did some digging and discovered something that none of us could possibly have imagined: he had been a Soviet spy.

Barratt covers illegitimacy, economic secrets, adoptions, convict transports, divorce, remarriage and more. He also offers such tips as

In the mid- to late-Victorian period there was a huge stigma attached to illegitimate children so people went to great lengths to keep such births secret. There was a lot of unofficial adoption within families, where the baby's grandparents would raise a child as their own.

One of the signs to look out for is an unusual age gap in census records; for example, three teenage children registered and then a newborn baby. Birth certificates are also full of clues; a child is likely to have been illegitimate if there is no father recorded or if the baby was baptised with the mother's surname.

And despite the skeletons you might unearth, there is an upbeat note:

We all have an idea of who we are that is derived from our own lives and from what we know of our ancestors; uncovering new facts about our personal heritage can challenge that sense of identity.

So when you begin your research do bear in mind that you might happen upon uncomfortable truths. Be prepared to deal with the consequences of what you learn, but don't let it put you off. Such secrets will make you feel closer to your ancestors than you might if the family tree was more straightforward.

There is much more here.

1 comment:

  1. Schelly,

    Thankfully we are living in times where the so-called scandals of the past are simply genealogy-fodder to insure our family trees are accurate.

    Unfortunately, there are still those today who find the truth uncomfortable. A couple of months ago, at the request of some cousins, I sent them a huge packet of photographs, and a family tree of their grandfather. Their ancestor was legitimate, however his mother had died at his birth, and his father left him to his grandparents, who raised them as his own.

    Knowing the truth, I sent them a narrative, and the documents to prove everything. Now they refuse to answer any telephone calls. Very sad, as I was hoping to connect that branch of the family back in.