Back in 2014, Gregory Rodriguez wrote an article on “How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn”. In it he traced the current obsession – or fascination, if obsession is a little too creepy – with tracing our family history to Alex Haley’s best-selling book Roots.
As Rodriguez pointed out, some of us were always – okay, I’m going to say it – obsessed with our family tree. Particularly those who had something to gain by it. Like inheriting the family pile in Ireland, or getting into one of the more snobbish Ivy League schools. Or proving you had the credentials to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution. These were the people who liked to brag about descending from “very old” families.
Well, here’s the thing: all families are old. It’s just that some of them, like the Astors and the Windsors, are better documented. And of course some have more money.
Family research got a huge helping hand from the Church of Latter Day Saints who encourage their members to research their ancestors as a requirement for getting into Heaven. Mormons, working with government archives, churches and libraries, have collected information on more than 3 billion deceased people. All of this is available, for free, through FamilySearch.org.
My own dip into the genealogy pool began about 20 years ago when I decided I wanted to write about my grandfather, Edward Morgan Taylor. He was a British Home Child but, like most of them, he never talked much about his experiences. But there were some tidbits: my father told me his father had been given up to a Catholic orphanage when he was seven, and I learned from an aunt that his father, my great-grandfather, had deserted the family and absconded – it’s really the only word for it – to South Africa. I knew his mother, Annie Elizabeth Taylor, had gone into the workhouse and later became a nurse. And I knew his older sister, Edith, was “a drinker”.
Not much to go on. And my grandfather died long before I began to be interested in family history. Thanks to FamilySearch and subscription websites like Ancestry.com I’ve learned a lot more about my grandfather. And I’ve learned things about his parents that he probably didn’t know. William Huxtable Taylor, my great-grandfather, did indeed leave for South Africa in 1879, when my grandfather was six months old. His wife, Annie Elizabeth, was left destitute; she applied for assistance from the parish and, being denied outdoor relief, was forced to take herself and her children into the Paddington workhouse. When her son, Edward, was seven, she placed him in a Catholic boys home and went to work as a nurse. The girls, Vic and Edith, lived with their grandmother until they were old enough to go out and work. They emigrated to the United States and worked as domestics and while Vic appears to have lived a long and respectable life, Edith didn’t fare so well.
What Edward and his sisters never knew was that their father re-married shortly after arriving in South Africa and created a whole new family – eight more children, in fact. I’ve never been able to find out if he bothered to divorce my great-grandmother back in England, but in the 19th century, with no internet or telephone, it was probably easier to get away with bigamy than it would be today.
William continued his trade as a compositor (printer) in South Africa, and lived to the ripe old age of 77, outliving his second wife by 12 years. My grandfather, who died in 1972, never knew any of this. He would have liked to know; he placed a personal ad in the News of the World back in the ’30s but heard nothing.
Digging through old records is fascinating. You need the patience and perseverance of a detective and sometimes you just need to trust your intuition. When writing Harrow Road I had such a strong feeling that one of the characters, William and Annie’s oldest son, died on Guy Fawkes Day – November 5th. Nobody told me that – my grandfather never even mentioned his older brother. Anyway, I wrote the story that way and a few years later I came across the little guy’s death certificate: he died on November 5th, 1879.
Serendipity plays a big part in this kind of research. You can struggle for months – even years – with a certain family member, or a whole family line. And then – eureka! – you come across a document or a thread in a message board that gives you what you’ve been looking for.
Or, if you’re a novelist, you make it up and hope what you’ve created is faithful to the truth of the story, if not the facts. Which is what I did with Harrow Road. And what I’ll continue to do with the next book in the series, based on the life of his daughters, Vic and Edith. If you’re interested in reading their story, I’ll be posting it chapter by chapter each week. Let me know what you think, so far. I welcome feedback — honest!