Share Your World: Curious about my ancestors

Cee’s share your world prompts for this week:
  1. What do you consider is the most perfect food for you? (It can be your favourite food to something extremely healthy.)
  2. Are you focused on today or tomorrow?
  3. If you could interview one of your great-great-great grandparents, who would it be (if you know their name) and what would you ask?
  4. What inspired you or what did you appreciate this past week?

I started this post like I do every time. I copy in the prompts. I start writing my thoughts under each one.

I hesitated when I read the third one. To be honest, I was not sure it was something I was interested in answering. How on earth would I know the names of people who were alive over 100 years ago? We are not the kind of family that have passed down family stories from generation to generation, so these are not things that I know.

Both my parents have passed and when they moved to Africa after the 2nd World War, they broke ties with their large families back in the UK. Neither of them ever went back there except for one or two short visits. My mom took me to meet my two grandmothers once in the late 70s (both my two grandfathers died one and two months after I was born, so I never met them). That has been the sum total of my contact with the broader UK family.

An imp tapped me on the shoulder…

But suddenly the moment of hesitation passed and something took hold of me which I have to share, which was “curiosity“. I followed that curiosity (I’ll come back to this later). So I’ve decided to just answer the 3rd prompt which connects to the 4th, sorry Cee!

I do qualitative academic research, so my first thought was: If I want to ask a question, I need to know when were my great-great-great grandparents (I’ll refer to them as g-g-g’s from now on) were alive.

An uninspired Google search gave me a rough idea of the span of a generation (25 years) and I started to work backwards from my date of birth. I soon gave up. It didn’t feel accurate enough though. I crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it in the bin.

Then a little imp tapped me on the shoulder, forcing me to think beyond Google for a change. I had a brainwave. About 7 years ago, my wonderful mother-in-law took it upon herself to do my family genealogies (on both my mother’s and father’s side). Out of all my siblings, I am the one who has all kept hold of all her work. Knowing exactly where it was, I dashed to the bookcase and grabbed the file.

As if I was seeing it for the first time, I was amazed to see that she had managed to go back about 23 generations to the 1330’s in some cases. How absolutely incredible is that? I realised with shame that I have never really had a reason to engage in any meaningful fashion with this incredible amount of work! But here was a reason.

I immediately set to work to draw rough family trees to get to the information about my g-g-g’s, on both my mom’s and dad’s side. Thanks to the staggering details in the files, I was able to do this in about half an hour: dates of birth and names for 14 of my 16 g-g-g’s. I stopped at this point, not having space to continue to the great-great-great grandparents. So this story is about my great-greats only.

rough family tree_pe-001

Most of them were born between 1827 and 1842 in the UK far away from London. I added 20 years to these dates, to account for them being in their early twenties. Now I had a Google search that might be more fruitful to find out what was going on in the UK during that time: “history of the UK from the 1840s to the 1860s” (don’t you just love the power of the internet sometimes?). Here are some of the world events, not in any order:

  • Charterists were active in Britain
  • Transportation to Australia
  • Cholera
  • Rebellions in Italy, Germany and Austria
  • France becomes a republic
  • Canada is awarded independence from Britain
  • Queen Victoria is monarch of UK, marking a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change
  • Her beloved Albert dies in 1861
  • The Crimean War
  • The American Civil War
  • Darwin’s “Origin of Species” published
  • First electric telegraph installed and later, a US to Britain undersea telegraph established (who would’ve thought this happened so long ago?)
  • And so much more!

I also had a look at some of the clothing that people wore and that sent me down a whole different track as you’ll see!

Finally, some questions

The g-g-g’s seemed more like real people now, with a context but no personal stories (that will have to wait). So finally I could think about some questions that I may have asked them.

To the females (Caroline, Sarah, Emma, Ann, Elizabeth, Mary Ann, Esther…)
  • How did you cope with wearing petticoats and corsets and laundering said piles of petticoats?
  • Did you ever leave your house without a bonnet/hat on your head?
  • How did you cope with menstruation?
  • What was your experience of living under Queen Victoria?
To the males (Robert x 3, William x 2, Thomas, John …)
  • What was your experience of living under Queen Victoria?
  • What did you do to earn a living?
  • Were you involved in any of the many areas of conflict or wars?
  • Did you know anyone who was transported to Australia for a crime? What was the crime?

So what are my thoughts about this prompt now?

It has made me realise that we all come from somewhere – we have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and so on… Yet, I’m guilty of not thinking about this too often, ok ever! I grew up not knowing my grandparents, my numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom still live in the UK. I had no connection to any family beyond my mom and two of her sisters that immigrated to Africa. It’s hardly surprising that I never feel connected to anyone beyond that small group who were brave enough to leave the UK. But this prompt has made me want to know more about where I come from.

I also think that in this modern, Western world, we are insular. Our way of life seems to take us in that direction. We work hard, play hard, accumulate as much as we can, yet we seem to have forgotten to connect to the people in our present and our pasts. It is as if we have simply arrived here, bubble wrapped in a delivery carton. Yet, we are part of all the history that has gone before, both good and bad.

I’ve recently been watching the ITV TV series “Victoria“. I think I may watch it with different eyes now, knowing that the everyday characters portrayed in it (not the royals or aristocracy obviously) lived in the times of my g-g-g’s. Seeing the names written in the genealogies and some notes made about some of them, started me thinking about what life was like for our ancestors. How did they marry – for love or duty? Many came from large families (my mother was one of eleven). Did they struggle to make ends meet? Did they ever go hungry? What were their living arrangements like? So many questions!

What inspired you or what did you appreciate this past week?

As you may have guessed, the prompt about interviewing my g-g-g’s inspired me beyond comprehension. But there’s more. It’s connected in a way. Yesterday I started reading Phillip Lopate’s “To show and tell” about writing literary nonfiction. He believes that curiosity is a key trait for creating nonfiction and that following a strand of curiosity can lead to an interesting interface between history and the modern world.

In her book “Big Magic…” Liz Gilbert echoes his thoughts, urging us to follow our curiosities as an everyday way to find things that are interesting, things that may spark our creativity.

The trick is to just follow your small moments of curiosity. It doesn’t take a massive effort. Just turn your head an inch. Pause for a instant. Respond to what has caught your attention. Look into it a bit. Is there something there for you? A piece of information? [Liz Gilbert]

In a small way, this is what happened to me today. I wasn’t curious at first, but my instincts to research interview questions kicked in, I responded to what had caught my attention and my curiosity took over. I ended up learning something about my ancestors and connecting them to history at the same time. If that’s not straight up first-class inspiration for the week, then I give up.

PS: this is not the first time I have been inspired by the idea of “curiosity”.  Read more…

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