A Forest of Family Trees
Taken from the LostCousins newsletter
A volunteer is helping patients at Scarborough’s hospice to plot their place in history and leave a priceless legacy for their families.
Derek Hardwick has devoted thousands of hours to creating intricate hand-written family trees for patients with life-limiting illnesses. The longest was a whopping 13ft long and the furthest back he has ever gone was more than 1,000 years to the time of Alfred the Great. Among his most poignant successes was helping a woman whose own life was coming to an end to trace the history of her mother who had died two weeks after she was born. For others, there has been the surprise of discovering that they had relatives who were deported to Australia for crimes which in more modern times would hardly warrant a fine. Derek is currently on his 76th family tree. The only one he has ever started and not completed is his own.
“I just don’t have time to work on mine,” he said. “I’m rushed off my feet but it’s so rewarding. A lot of our patients have told me that it’s something to pass on to their families.” Derek faced his own personal tragedy before becoming a volunteer for the hospice. His son was just 11 when he died after battling cancer. The tragedy ultimately led to Derek’s early retirement from his post as a geography teacher at Graham School where he had taught for 34 years.
He planned to devote some of his retirement to following his interest in tracing his own family history. His wife, Jane, a staff nurse at Saint Catherine’s, had other ideas. “She told me she would let the hospice know I had an interest in family trees,” he said. “I haven’t stopped since. It takes my mind off my own problems.”
Derek now spends every Friday in the Scarborough Day Hospice where he has helped 76 patients trace their family tree. His detailed charts are all hand-written and include photographs he finds on the internet of people, homes and places that shaped a patient’s history.
Every story, he says, throws up interesting facts and fascinating surprises. He traced one ancestor who was sentenced to hang for being the lookout at a mugging – but then was transported to Tasmania instead. And one of his most touching successes was helping an elderly lady whose mother had died when she was just two weeks old. The patient didn’t even know her mother’s name but Derek’s persistent detective work meant he was able to find her and the patient was able to die finally knowing her roots at last.