Can family history ever get too personal?

An interesting question to ponder.

Would your ancestors have appreciated you finding out about their illegitimate children, their brushes with the law, their personal tragedy?

Virtually all family historians, whatever their level of interest, research because they enjoy finding out more about their ancestors, more about ‘where they come from’. But what happens when you uncover something other than ag labs haymaking in the sun or landed gentry sipping tea in their parlours? What happens when something doesn’t sit well with your modern morality or when you uncover an event which is a true shock to the system?

The truth is, despite the rose-tinted haze through which we can allow ourselves to see history, peoples’ lives were tough. Most were a lot tougher than they are today. Huge swathes of the country lived with overcrowding, disease, crime, addiction and malnutrition every day of their lives, working manual jobs where today’s health and safety regulations were unthinkable. The people we find on census records, in parish records, newspaper articles, obituaries and certificates were real – they didn’t lead perfectly happy lives in a happily-ever-after musical fantasy just so that we could find out about their idyllic lives centuries later.

It would be a rare family tree which didn’t involve illegitimacy somewhere along the line. While it wasn’t always hidden, many readers will be familiar with records where grandchildren are recorded as children and mothers recorded as siblings. It is not particularly unusual for a birth certificate to show  a blank for father and then a marriage certificate to state a grandfather’s name in place of a father’s. The question is regularly asked, did the individual even know that their father was really their grandfather and their sister their mother? If they did, would they have wanted you (and the rest of the world) to know?

While on many occasions these instances are beyond living memory, it is possible to find long lost relatives in the indexes and possible to make discoveries that could be upsetting to people still with us. There are plenty of individuals who would still find it distressing to discover that their parent or grandparent was born out of wedlock, and many of them would never have known if it weren’t for the modern popularity of genealogy and the growing availability of records.

When it comes to crime, I regularly read stories of researchers finding murderers and crooks in their trees. It is odd how the passage of years seems to change opinions about the desirability of a criminal in the family. After all, people didn’t commit real crimes ‘back then’ – they just got transported for stealing a hanky or a piece of rotten fruit to feed their family. Didn’t they?

I think the more disturbing aspect of past crimes is not finding the perpetrator but the victim. What if Old Bailey records ( allow you to read harrowing records of an ancestor of yours that was abused, injured or otherwise ill treated? A friend of mine experienced this very thing, finding a distant aunt as the victim of an atrocious attack – hardly a happy-go-lucky cockney.

Of course there are far more light-hearted family tales (at least with a few decades between crime and reminiscence). I’ve heard a tale relating to my own family about a man who was caught doing some dodgy dealing. He was caught and sentenced to six months and his family had to rush around buying as many local copies of the paper as possible to keep the news from his parents! As much as this may amuse his descendants now, at one time it was worth hushing up.

We are so lucky now that most families do not experience the loss of children or young mothers on a regular basis. Researching our history shows us that only a few decades ago, it was a very different story. I have an ancestor who by the age of 42 had had 17 children of whom ten were still living. Paper records and numbers on the screen give us a sterile record of what were intensely intimate events for that family, living in a yard that was demolished in slum clearance not long afterwards where people lived at very close quarters and lived hand to mouth.

Of course there are numerous possibilities of discovery for family historians, both good and bad. Times have changed and ideas of right and wrong have evolved. Your ancestor might have been a slave owner, a wife beater or a bigamist. Society has changed and what is now acceptable has changed with it – should we judge the past with modern eyes? That’s a much bigger question than be answered with this blog.

I am not trying to say that all researchers see the good in everything and try to skirt the bad, romanticising the past in a tea-time-costume-drama-happy-ever-after fashion. In fact it has been suggested that family history is good for your health precisely because it helps you understand how your ancestors triumphed over adversity – or at least survived – so that you could be here today.

What I would say is that researchers should have a respect for the past and for the records they use. They should understand that a few pieces of paper do not give a full picture of a person – although they might give you clues to their life and family. It is also essential that researchers keep in mind the effects research might have on those still living; not necessarily avoiding living individual research, but being aware of consequences, both good and bad, of any discoveries. Like anything, there are shades of grey here but there are certainly limits to what I would call responsible. For example, I would certainly question the reasoning for putting an up-to-the-minute family tree online – not least because of the data protection implications but because peoples’ private lives are just that, private.

This is the reason that in my own humble opinion, what a client doesn’t want to know is just as important as what they do want to know. Personally, beyond immediate family remembered by close relatives, I focus on the Victorian and earlier individuals on my tree. Whether secrets help or hinder is not the question here, but whether delving into somebody’s life story is any of our business!

If I think about my own life and the future, do I worry about my Great Great Great Grandchildren discovering my secrets? No, not at the moment, but perhaps I don’t have any secrets (yet!) which I would be uncomfortable with them knowing. Maybe my feelings will change as I go through life but my current thought is that if I research my ancestors, then the least I can expect is that my descendants will return the favour. A person is a product of good times and bad, great ideas and mistakes. It is the mixture of the positive and negative that makes genealogy so interesting and so emotive.

Whether family history ever gets too personal really is a difficult question. We can learn an enormous amount from the past – as individuals, as families and as a society – but in the end it will come down to the researcher as to what they feel comfortable finding out about right now. I love family and local history and I think that learning in such a personal way, through your own ancestors, is an incredibly powerful experience. I would recommend it to anyone as a worthwhile past time (no pun intended) because it provides insights into why you are the way you are, and why your family act the way they do. It provides a challenge, an enjoyable hobby and an excuse to travel, read and meet new people. It can also be heartbreaking, shocking and uncomfortable.

Family history will always be personal because the people we research were real, living and breathing members of our families. It does none of us any harm to keep that in mind.

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