Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part one)

During the last week I’ve been looking into a sometimes neglected branch of my family tree – the living elements! This has meant following my own advice and asking relatives what they know about their cousins, nieces and nephews. 

Specifically, I’ve been trying to collect information about my second cousins, most of whom I have met, if only briefly at baptisms, marriages and funerals. Coming from a fairly average 2.4 children family myself, it has been a few generations since more than three children was the norm. I’ve always known how many ‘ordinary’ cousins I have: two. Both of them are relatively local and of a similar age to myself – no problem there, then. 

My second cousins (the children of my parents’ cousins) are much more difficult to quantify because they span a much greater time and space continuum. They range in age from infants to at least middle-aged folk, and occupy at least three continents. Some have emigrated themselves, others were born in other countries as second or third generations of the family in that area. 

During my efforts to expand my recent tree sideways, I have come across recurring themes which will be familiar to many. Over the next two entries I take a look at some of the reasons why both current, and previous, generations might be difficult to trace and provide some teasers from my own family tree along with some hints as to where to overcome these challenges. There are overlaps between the themes as you will see. Tonight’s installment will be followed by another tomorrow. 

And so I begin by looking at family feuds… 

If your family doesn’t have any rifts, unfortunately, you are probably in the minority. Today, as in times past, there are a million reasons why family members can become estranged from one another. Perhaps you will find a reason for this – a significant family event, a business disagreement, arguments over inheritance, an ‘unsuitable’ marriage or an illegitimate birth. However, it is possible that the rift formed over something trivial that escalated until no one could remember the original disagreement. Both sides may have been too pigheaded to approach the other and renew family ties! In this case, you may never find out the true reason for the division. You may have family stories, letters, wills or newspaper articles which can help you piece together why a rift exists. Alternatively, you might just have imagined two brothers falling out over one too many quarts of beer! 

As a family, you might say we are known for our stubbornness. Looking at a family tree for one particular branch I would guess that this is not just a recent trait as there are reasons to suspect splits in the family over several generations! For example, I have as yet been unable to tell why the eldest son of a country gent ended up driving a cab in London while his two younger brothers went on to have lands of their own which passed on down the generations to their own sons. I have several ideas, any of which could be close to the mark or wildly incorrect at this point: 

  • I know this man was given land in his 20s – did he have one chance and blow it? Perhaps his father wouldn’t or couldn’t finance him a second time? (His father is remembered as ‘convivial’ and ‘generous’ – does this mean he used all the money up?!)
  • This gentleman moved to the city after his second marriage. Was there a local scandal? Did his family not approve? Was it too painful to stay where he had memories of his first wife?
  • Was he simply an adventurer, looking for excitement in the big smoke that couldn’t be found in East Bilney? (a small village near Dereham in central Norfolk)
  • Could he have been a gambler who fell on hard times, shunned by his father and brothers?
  • Perhaps having followed the promise of wealth in the city he could not face returning to his family when it did not come to fruition?
  • Was he really no worse off than his brothers, who, for all their lands, were actually in debt themselves but managed to avoid going to work for somebody else? 

Wills can be very telling in these situations, and I hope to one day update you on this case having sourced the necessary documentation – as a distant uncle I have not yet got all the wills I would like to see in this regard. There may also be family letters in the possession of relatives, or descendants of this gentleman who I may one day hear from. The internet, while providing an enormous amount of unreliable material, also has its uses!

A will for another ancestor however proved (no pun intended) useful because I learned that this man had not left anything to his son at all. Rather, he left his estate to his third wife and her children (a question mark remains as to whether these children were actually his biological offspring). This information, together with family tales and divorce papers, helped explain why there was so little knowledge of that side of the family, and why some people were simply not spoken of – in effect, the silence had erased them from history for a few decades. 

Today, while I can piece together a picture of the will writer’s character from what I have discovered on paper, perhaps he has been cast in a negative light due to the documentation I’ve managed to access. It is easy to jump to conclusions as the following tale will illustrate:


  • This individual had three wives and his first died from alcoholism. 
  • He then had a baby with his housekeeper, whom he later married. 
  • This wife divorced him in 1919 because he had allegedly started living with another woman in 1913 – the couple had originally separated because he was ‘cruel’. In his defence, he said that he had not intended to throw a plate at his second wife, it was just that his eyesight was bad. 
  • He eventually married the woman he was cohabiting with at the time of his divorce, leaving her and her children his estate.

Should this evidence, taken with his frequent name-changing, convince me that he was bad through and through, or am I adding two and two and making too many?  

A word of warning: emotionally, investigating old family feuds may prove easier than looking at current ones. Only you can decide whether it’s worth investigating why current parts of the family don’t communicate and there are lots of things that you may decide would be better left well alone – it may not be sensible to stir up old tensions and the risk of upsetting people may easily be greater than choosing to investigate interests elsewhere. 

Feuds and ensuing family rifts are but one of the complicating factors in tracing both living and deceased relatives – tomorrow I will continue this blog with a look at relocation, death of key family members and ‘black sheep’ in the family.

As ever, I am keen to hear your stories, particularly if there is a local or family connection. My research so far suggests I have at least 15 times more second cousins than I do firsts, and beyond that, the numbers really begin to add up – I am bound to have some distant cousins reading this at some point, and indeed some have already made contact having found previous blog entries. 

Until tomorrow…!


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