Discoveries wanting to be found

So, here is the notoriously difficult second blog.

I thought I’d write about those times when I felt a chill up my neck whilst doing genealogy.

I’ve often wondered about why I started this hobby that, in all honesty, became an obsession. Why I stuck at it, particularly at a time when, before the advent of computers, I could achieve very little in a lot of time. The census wasn’t indexed by name, and I would have to have bought a certificate closest to the first year of the decade and hope that a search on that address in the census would be fruitful. The questions that each discovery would generate could occupy my mind throughout my whole conscious day and beyond, and I couldn’t rest until I’d discovered an answer. Sometimes that took years, and sometimes I felt like my hand was led by some spectral force guiding me to an answer when I didn’t expect it. In this digital age the discoveries continue to come, and even though I have exhausted most of my own genealogy, certainly the last six generations or so anyway, I am now getting as much satisfaction from discovering other people’s.

So, is this my doing or was I chosen to do it? Is there something external that drove me and kept pressing the accelerator so that past happenings could be aired, truths could be found and perhaps judged again, and the people allowed to not suffer that final death of being forgotten?

Most genealogists unearth a metaphorical skeleton or two, or rediscover heroes or pioneers, lovers and losers. How many of these discoveries were realised through pure chance as if your hand was held and gently guided to the correct records. Now I’m not religious, and whilst I would like to think that I’d meet all these people I have nosed into once I fall from my mortal coil, I know that the prospect is unlikely. However, I do feel a presence, and perhaps that is just in my heart, where our late loved ones dwell and I have also felt that gentle guidance to my hand or a sudden thought that yields an immediate result.

As a child I knew nothing of my father’s family; there was only him, and he didn’t seem to know a great deal himself, or certainly never spoke much of it. I’d never met his parents who had both died long before my emergence to the world. I was told his father had been killed in the Second World War and I knew his mother had died in her fifties. We had his father’s birth certificate and I knew he had been born in 1893, and it was that which made me wonder about him, and his death. He was too old to have been a soldier, sailor or pilot, and maybe he had died in the bombings of London. It was something I felt strongly that I needed to know.

Walking through the doors of St Catherine’s house, the forerunner of the Family Records Centre, I was immediately over-awed by the panoply of volumes of books. Huge books, each alphabetically and chronologically arranged in quarter years. The atmosphere in the searching rooms was quite tense, and the adeptness of some of the searchers rather impressive. Even then I could recognise whose hearts were in it and whose wallets were in it. I found it hard to take in the amount of information available. Millions of entries in thousands of books recording marriages, each holding its own untold, unique love story, and each death entry a personal and real tragedy.

I searched throughout the 1940s for the death of my Grandfather Victor without success. It had taken me several hours and after a three-hour coach journey and my first single navigation of the tube system, was quite tiring. I was certain I hadn’t missed him, but at the same time couldn’t help wondering if I had. We had always been told he was killed in the war in this country, his death must be recorded. I needed to know. But there was no time to look again.

I returned a year later, and repeated the vain search. I slogged through the 1940s, all the war records, and even into the 1950s (maybe it was a lingering injury he’d died of). Nothing. Dejected and bleary eyed I left the building out into the traffic and mayhem of Aldwych, and tried to remember which way I needed to walk for the tube. I was then suddenly seized by the notion that I couldn’t go home empty handed again. I’d come all this way again and achieved nothing. As if carried, I returned inside and walked up and down the death section with my mind in neutral. Nonchalantly I placed my hand on a random book and then moved it to two books to the right without reading the reference, year or letter on the spine, but regardless pulled out the book and looked through. To both my astonishment and my subconscious expectation, I immediately found the death entry for Victor. 1964. I would never have looked there as my parents’ marriage certificate of 1962 said he was deceased. It was undeniably the right person though and the subsequent receipt of the death certificate and a host of further enquiries, revealed the ‘Skeleton in the cupboard’ that Victor, although being my grandmother’s husband was not actually my grandfather. Victor and my grandmother had separated several years before my father was born. Several records I have found corroborate that. Not least when thirty years later I was sat at my computer, looking at the great online Newspaper archives ( when I was almost shouted at inside my head to look for any articles that Victor appears in. I found him reporting a theft of a tent and that was about it. Then I thought I would just search on his two initials and surname, and bingo, there was an article of a domestic dispute and separation application between him and my grandmother; sixteen years before my father was born. Victor isn’t my grandfather but he features in my story, and I feel he helped me come to the truth. The additional side to this is that I am confident I have discovered who my biological grandfather was, and perhaps I’ll write about that journey in another blog.

Lt Lionel Clegg was a Great Uncle of mine and was killed on 22nd August 1918 whilst serving in France in the Tank Corps. In the 1990s I had absolutely no photographs of him, and I was lucky enough to find a couple of my father’s cousins who did have a couple of photographs. Armed with those images I visited the archives of The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset. There I waded through their collection of everything 7th Battalion Tank Corps. There were many photographs, and to my delight I found another one of Clegg. He had even signed it, so I know he’d actually held that photograph (such things please genealogists). Whilst I was there, the archivist handed me a book informing me that it was a contemporary work and provided a marvellous insight into conditions waging war in those first tanks. I gratefully took it. It was a first edition published in 1919 ‘The Tank in Action’ by DG Browne. I placed the book open onto the desk I was at, and the pages fell open. I immediately saw the words ‘poor Clegg’. Leafing back a few pages and reading quickly, my heart racing, I read an eye witness account of the death of my Great Uncle. How many family historians get to do that? There had been a family story that Lionel was killed by a ‘stray bullet’ and I was able to inform anyone still interested in the truth, that he had been a victim of the everyday shelling and unlucky enough for one to land at his feet as he camouflaged his tank. I often think about the way that book presented those words to me and how without that, I would probably never have found a first-hand account and discovered the truth.

Finally, in this tale of stories wanting to be discovered is one of my favourites. One of my good friends was turning fifty, a tragedy I suffered several months later, but for his birthday I decided that I would do his family history. My obsession is not really something I have shared much with my friends, and of course there can be nothing more boring than someone telling you about their own family history, and I thought that the best way to make it a topic for discussion was to do his. The trouble with this was that sadly his father had died when he was very young, and he was brought up by his mother and step-father whom he of course considered his dad. This poses a slight dilemma of inclusion to a family historian, and I decided that I would do my friend’s story, and his step-father’s and package it as an account of nature and nurture. I did my friends maternal and paternal lines, and found one or two newspaper articles, and a pub landlord or two (which made my friend happy). Content with having gone back four generations, and finding a story to tell, I set about his step-father’s. The way back was problem free and the delight of an indexed census was as usual my historical sat nav. I started to see some familiar names, and then all of a sudden, an identical name. Some rapid re-checking occurred, before I was able to be sure that my friend’s father and step-father shared the same greatx4 grandfather. They did. My friend therefore knows now that he is blood related to his step-father and step-brother. A wonderful discovery.

In looking at our histories we don’t really change anything. What has happened has happened. Some stories, though, scream out for discovery, and can enrich our present; they can offer that reminder to enjoy the time we have, and value our comfort and those with whom we are lucky enough to share our time with. How those stories are discovered however, never ceases to amaze me.

That, is the joy of genealogy.


11th December 2016

One thought on “Discoveries wanting to be found”

  1. I really loved reading this Neil, and you have such a beautiful way with words. It made me want to hear more. You have such a gift with your writing, but also with your passion for genealogy. You’ve made me want to discover my own family history now. Thank you for sharing your amazing gift.

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