Who’s rattling in your family closet?
The Telegraph Newspaper (UK) Friday 14 September 2007
As a study warns of the shocks in store when we research our family trees, Telegraph genealogist Nick Barrett shares some secrets:
‘The past is a Pandora’s box; once opened, there’s no going back’
There is a restlessness in today’s society. Community ties are looser and families more widely spread – and yet we all yearn for a sense of belonging. For many of us, that longing is fulfilled by exploring our family history.
Genealogy has become increasingly popular as access to the Internet has made mapping our family trees easier. One in three Britons has conducted research into their ancestors online – but sometimes all that digging can unearth some dark secrets.
A study by the genealogy website http://www.ancestry.co.uk reported this week that one Briton in six has uncovered illegitimate children, convicted criminals or secret adoptions while delving into their family history. They have found that the past is a Pandora’s box; once it’s been opened, there’s no going back – so it is best to be prepared.
The actor John Hurt wasn’t prepared for the truth about his family’s origins. He has always taken great pride in his Irish aristocratic ancestry, believing that his great-grandmother was the illegitimate child of the Marquis of Sligo. Research by the BBC programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” screened last night, found that this was a myth and that his family hailed from Croydon.
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. He worked for the Foreign Office and was passing information to the Russians. The British authorities eventually caught on and he must have had a sense that they were closing in on him because, sadly, he committed suicide.
My uncle, who is now 80, vividly remembers having to look after his younger brother – my father – who was very ill at the time, while his parents rushed off to an unknown destination. He was never told why or where they were going, but the dates match the discovery of my great uncle’s death and, presumably, his funeral.
The website study indicates that illegitimacy is the most common discovery. Eighteen per cent of us will find babies born out of wedlock in our family trees. In many ways, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
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.
Many people find links to the Royal Family or to aristocrats through illegitimacy. Sometimes hints about a liaison have been passed down through the generations but are based only on circumstantial evidence.
If you have suspicions, my tip is to look closely at names – the middle name of a child may reflect the surname or Christian name of its real father. Birth dates can also give clues, while unusually valuable family heirlooms may shed light on who the father was.
There may even be a portrait in a grand house somewhere that looks remarkably like you. Usually, the story behind these findings is that a servant girl was impregnated by her royal or aristocratic master.
We saw an example of this on Who Do You Think You Are? featuring the author Sebastian Faulks. He discovered that his great-grandfather had been taken in by a family because he was born illegitimately to one of the household servants.
Family secrets safeguarded through generations are often linked to a sense of shame; all sorts of mysteries have their roots in social acceptance, or poverty.
Finding out about the hardships our ancestors faced can be an incredibly emotional experience.
Sometimes, people find that relatives were born or died in the workhouse. Death, burial or admission records will show you how long they spent there. Such discoveries can provide a fascinating insight into the often difficult social circumstances of the time – and there may be more sinister secrets to unveil.
Examples of criminal activity in a family can come as a huge shock to people who have embarked on a bit of gentle research.
Local newspaper archives often contain details of trials or court reports; death certificates may show that someone died in prison.
There may even be transportation papers if they were sent for penal servitude in Australia. Lists exist of those detained in the hulks before transportation. There might also be gruesome details of the trip, a surgeon’s log and records of their penal servitude.
The upside might be the discovery of an Antipodean branch to your family tree.
Unearthing new relatives is usually a wonderful thing. But if it’s a secret family you never knew about, it can be hard to come to terms with.
Bigamy makes for a particularly shocking discovery – and two per cent of us will find it in our family histories. Divorce laws didn’t come in until 1858, and when they did, the conditions were strict and biased against women. It was also incredibly expensive to divorce, so people desperate to escape unhappy marriages often just left and settled quietly into a new life somewhere else.
Tell-tale signs of this could be an unexplained movement within the family, or if people suddenly disappear from the records and appear in a later census as a bachelor.
The BBC research team found that the comedian Vic Reeves’s ancestor, a man called Walter Lee, married, had three children, then moved, claimed to be a bachelor and started a second family with a new wife.
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. You think about how they must have felt and wonder what you would do in those circumstances. It will give you an incredible connection with the past.
• Dr Nick Barrett runs the Stick Research Agency ( http://www.stick.org.uk/)
He is also a consultant on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’