Family History: Making Skeletons Dance

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. George Bernard Shaw

Stories are central to the experience of family; shared stories can reinforce familial bonds, and stories proliferate when those bonds break.

On my father’s side the story of the two great-uncles who died in WWII has resonated from childhood, when I first became aware that the names on the village War Memorial were connected to me.

Other ephemera, such as the telegrams announcing their deaths, the photograph of Ted’s grave in Egypt, the letter of condolence written to my grand-grandmother by the Lady of the Manor on the loss of her second son, have kept the story alive for me. A few days ago I found the record of the grant of probate for Bill’s effects, and was heartbroken all over again for the great-grandparents I never got to meet.

My mother’s family offers its own stories of WWII: my grandmother’s pragmatic childhood career as a rabbit breeder (for their meat and fur), and her stories of digging neighbours out of the rubble during the London Blitz; my grandfather’s doomed romance with the girl he met and loved while serving in Germany.

As I’ve grown older and more adept at researching family history, the half-told stories are the ones which have grabbed my interest. There was a slightly awkward conversation about why my grandfather’s brother was born in Somerset when the family had lived in Essex for generations; a great-great-grandfather who we suspect was a bigamist; and most of all the mystery surrounding one great-grandmother, whose mother, it was rumoured, had run off with her husband’s brother.

This last mystery has niggled at me for as long as I’ve been researching my family. I knew my great-grandmother’s date of birth, and her sisters’ names; I waited eagerly for the 1911 census results to be released and… nothing. For a time easier avenues of exploration among other branches of the family kept me busy, but this May I bit the bullet and ordered her birth certificate. It arrived with no father listed on it. The plot thickened.

I did at least have her mother’s name and maiden name, and my search finally yielded some results. Margaret had been married to Herbert, who had died 11 months before my great-grandmother was born. Confirmation, then, that she was illegitimate. By 1911 Margaret and her children were living with Herbert’s brother James, and there was a new child listed.

The 1911 census is interesting because it was the first time that census records were for individual properties, and filled out by the head of the household. In this case the errors and omissions make for interesting reading. James had started to write ‘niece’ next to my great-grandmother’s name then crossed it out; no relationship is given between James and the youngest children; family rumour suggests that he should have written ‘daughter’ and ‘son’.

It seems hard to reconcile my very proper great-grandmother, and the knowledge that one of her sisters was kicked out for getting pregnant, with the blatant living situation of Margaret and James. I found it odd that they remained unmarried 6 years after Herbert’s death. Then Thomas Hardy came to my rescue – I remembered reading Tess of the D’Urbevilles, and learning that it would have been illegal for Angel to marry Liza-Lu after Tess’ death as she had suggested. Sure enough, the snappily titled Disceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act wasn’t passed until 1921. A further search on found that James and Margaret had eventually married in 1923, in a neighbouring parish (presumably to prevent gossip after cohabiting for nearly 20 years).

I don’t know how much of this my great-grandmother knew – she was raised in an era when people were much more reserved about such irregularities, but her older sisters must surely have had some idea that their family was unconventional. I do know that my grandmother was given to half-truths for the sake of keeping up appearances, and assume this was something she learnt from her mother. In fact, it has trickled down to me, in that I’m conscious of how they would disapprove of me sharing this information publicly, and have been deliberately vague about the relatives in question.

There is still work to be done on this new branch that I’ve opened up. Margaret’s family is large and they keep reshaping the nuclear family units across census results; they all also seem to have intermarried with the same three families, which only adds to the confusion. Nonetheless I hope to wrest new family stories from the patchwork of available records.

If I may offer a final thought on family history research, it’s this – learn your family’s stories before it’s too late. I’m lucky to have spent a lot of time with my grandparents while growing up, and to have had an innate curiosity about my family. I’m also aware that without those stories, I would have struggled to trace my ancestors.