The fact that I became involved in tracing my own family tree is a testament to sheer optimism. I was born a Smith! Not only that, but both of my parents were only children, my Smith grandparents had died before I was old enough to ask the ‘right’ questions, and my maternal grandmother (who added to my difficulties by being a Brown) became strangely tight-lipped at the mention of her own ancestry. Hardly an auspicious beginning…
It was my maternal grandfather who indirectly started me on my voyage of discovery – or, to be more accurate, it was his older brother Artie, a great-uncle whom I never met because he had been killed in 1917, aged only 19, one of the tragic statistics of World War I. (My Smith grandfather, shown below, fortunately survived!)
Having no aunts, uncles, or cousins, I was naturally interested to hear stories of family members further back, and I was touched by the profound grief my grandpa still felt sixty, seventy, and more years after the loss of his brother and best friend. I wondered how the family had tried to deal with such a loss, and how it had shaped their future. Then I wondered what had gone before, and who they really were, these shadowy people who shared my genes. Odd surnames had been carried down and bestowed on me and my siblings, and like all families we had our legends and mysteries, handed down like Chinese whispers and undoubtedly growing in the telling. Had my Scottish great-great-grandfather really been killed hurtling down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in a pony and trap? Had one of our Dobney ancestors really been a little drummer boy, killed in some foreign field and leaving only the red plume from his regimental hat as a souvenir of his existence?
During my four years at Edinburgh University I made a start on my Scottish ancestry – with limited success, unfortunately, but by then I was hooked. My vacations were spent traipsing the length and breadth of the country in search of the Browns of Yorkshire, the Naylors of Bilston, the Waldrons of Clent and the Smiths of Hillmorton… and I did it all without the internet! I still have wonderful memories of the hours I spent in beautiful old churches, poring over the original registers which are rarely available for public viewing these days. Less wonderful are my recollections of the hours spent trawling through microfiche records in farflung archive offices, working through one parish after another, sometimes spending days without finding anything remotely relevant or useful.
Since then there have been long periods when work and domestic commitments have forced me to lay aside the various files and boxes I have accumulated, sometimes for months or years at a time. One of the great things about genealogy, though, is that you can put it down and pick it up again, carrying on where you left off and adding to what you’ve already discovered. Like archaeology and other areas of historical research, it may even be an advantage to leave it alone for a while; by the time you come back to it, the resources and techniques available may have improved considerably.