Genealogy – why do it?

There must be as many combinations of reasons for doing genealogy as there are genealogists.  Here are mine.

Honouring my ancestors
I was always interested in history at school, but after discovering genealogy it struck me that what I learned back then was all about rich, important men, the decisions they made and only in the broadest terms the impact of those decisions on ordinary people.  I remember learning about famine in Ireland, for example; about the ‘Ten Hour Bill’; and about the gradual expansion of the electorate.  It never occurred to me that the Irish great grandmother I vaguely knew of might have had a connection to the famine – yet now I see the arrival of her parents in England did indeed coincide with those terrible events.  I’ve found records of various ancestors – male, of course – who voted in the early 18th century, and others who didn’t achieve that right until 1868.  And as for the ‘Ten-Hour Bill’, properly known as the Factories Act of 1847 – I see my ancestors leaving behind their cottage industry lifestyles and gradually homing in on Leeds as the Industrial Revolution kicks in.  I can only imagine their lives in those huge, noisy factories.  What I do see, however, is that prior to the Industrial Revolution, all my ancestors had respectable occupations – silk weaver, tailor, woollen weaver, yeoman, shopkeeper…  Each played an important part in their communities.  Many had undertaken apprenticeships and become masters of their crafts.  Their lives were self-determined.  And yet by the end of the Industrial Revolution most of them were described on records simply as ‘labourers’.  They had become anonymous cogs in a huge wheel driven by someone else.

History reflected in the people of one family
If I could sit down and have a cup of tea with my ancestors, the stories most would tell might seem small and mundane (although believe me, others have stories that would make your hair curl!)  But take a step back and the story they tell collectively is the history of the woollen industry in Leeds, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Guild society in York, migration, military life, life and loss in wartime, the rise and decline of Nonconformity and so much more.  So much history just in the stories of one family – mine.  And no doubt many more in yours too.

Freeing my inner detective!
Researching a family tree is not just a matter of names, dates and places.  These are, of course, of vital importance – if you don’t get this right everything else will be wrong.  But I want more than this.  I want to know what their lives were like.  What happened locally that impacted upon my ancestors?  What were the conditions they lived in?  Even though most of their houses will no longer exist I enjoy walking the streets looking for old landmarks that they would have recognised, and looking at old photos of the area.  Speak to any genealogist and they will tell you of the pleasure in finally finding that long-sought-for missing piece of the jigsaw.

Whenever I delve into original records from my home town I come across surnames of people I used to know – children I was at school with, family friends, local businesses.  These are local surnames, not widely found elsewhere, and it’s strange to think that my ancestors and the ancestors of my contemporaries would have known each other three hundred years ago!  Some of those long-ago people whose surnames I recognise from school are in fact my ancestors, suggesting that some of my old friends were distant cousins.

Coincidences abound in family history.  I see from various records that my paternal great grandparents (dad’s dad’s parents) and my maternal great grandparents (mum’s mum’s parents) were all living in the same street, almost opposite each other, circa 1891-93.  They then went their separate ways, and it would be another sixty years before the families were united through the marriage of my parents.  I often wonder if they got on?!  What would they say if they knew their grandchildren would eventually marry?

Here’s a surprising figure: we each have 4096 10x great grandparents, and the number of direct ancestors we have between now and then totals 8190.  The further back we go the more people will share the same ancestors.  In other words – go far enough back and we are all one big family.  A sobering thought in these times of rising nationalism and ‘us’ against ‘them’.

Leaving something for my descendants
All of these people, and all of their experiences and decisions affected not only their own lives and the lives of their children, but ultimately resulted in me, my children and my descendants not yet born.  In choosing to honour the former I want to leave something for the latter.  I want to tell them the stories that lead from the past to them.


So these are my reasons for researching my family tree.  Have you thought about why you want to do it, and what you’d like to achieve?

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