Loretta Barnard

The skeletal king in my closet: The addiction of unearthing the secrets of my family

Armed with a computer and a shovel, I’ve decided to dig up what my family has kept from me. Royalty, apparently.

 

 

Okay, it’s true, I admit it. I’m descended from Charlemagne (742-814), king of the Franks, king of the Lombards, conqueror of nations, Holy Roman Emperor, political and cultural reformer and “father of Europe”. Yes indeedy, royal blood courses through my veins thanks to old great-great-etc-grandfather Charlemagne. Be amazed, be very amazed.

Oh wait, as it happens, there’s actually nothing to be amazed at.

It turns out that pretty much anyone with any European ancestry at all can claim Charlemagne as an ancestor. So either we’re all royal or we’re all commoners. By the time we get from the ninth century to the twenty-first, all that blue blood has been rendered just plain red. Still, it makes you wonder about your long-dead forebears.

My brother has been researching our ancestors for some years now and has become something of an encyclopaedia on the many and varied branches of our family tree. We have in our heritage a ten-times-great-aunt who in 1612 was tried at the Lancashire Assizes for being a witch; a seventeenth-century uncle tried for murder; a saint (no less!) with a memorial in Westminster cathedral; a three-times-great grandfather who helped introduce potato farming into South Australia; and a young uncle who was blown up at Ypres in 1917 aged only 25.

But despair not! Fascinating as I might find this, I’m well aware that there’s nothing so boring as listening to someone banging on about their family tree, but these examples do prove the point that there are many riveting tales to be found once you start digging around your own ancestral line.

Just look at the popularity of those television shows tracing the ancestry of celebrities. More often than not, you find yourself captivated by the forefathers of actors, artists and athletes. There’s just something about the search for peoples’ origins that has deep appeal, and more and more people are getting stuck into researching their family’s history.

But be warned. Once you do a bit of delving, it’s easy to become addicted. If you happen to be looking at a faded sepia photograph of your great-great-great-grandfather holding a dead wallaby you instinctively want to know whether he shot it and why, and where he lived, how many kids he had and so on. You might be holding in your hand a daguerreotype of an unprepossessing babe-in-arms who actually turns out to be your grandmother’s great-aunt’s second-cousin-once-removed who grew up to become a famous opera singer. One find leads to another, and unearthing just one morsel can often reveal more than expected. Genealogy buffs become family detectives and they talk of the joy of discovery and the sense of fulfilment it brings.


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Family histories are complicated things. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on. It can be further complicated if some of these have married more than once because it often means the acquisition of step-parents, half-siblings, step-siblings, step-cousins, half-cousins, step-in-laws, and so it goes. My step-brother’s children have eight grandparents, twice the usual allowance, so it’s easy to see how lines can become blurred.

Some families have items that are handed down each generation, like a family Bible, a piece of jewellery, a watch, a painting, or something humbler like a vase or a book. Usually, the receiver is given the history of the article and why it’s been treated so reverentially over the years. This is often enough to stimulate an interest in one’s ancestors, or at least the ones who owned the treasured item. But what about the other ancestors?

Back in the day, we had to remember to ask Nana who the people in the photos were, where and when they were born and died, who they married, what their children were called and why you were never allowed to mention Aunty Nora. Nothing beats a resident family expert, but these days it’s a whole lot easier to research your family tree thus saving Nana the trouble of having to remember everything. There are ancestry sites, digitised ships’ records, church records, registries of births, deaths and marriages. You can access information from the armed services, the electoral roll, colonial records, local and national newspapers, even the census. Libraries can usually assist you to begin your family tree, and genealogy societies are champing at the bit to help you to find out about all those long-gone relatives.

Once you do a bit of delving, it’s easy to become addicted… Genealogy buffs become family detectives. One find leads to another, and unearthing just one morsel can often reveal more than expected.

Like anything recorded in times long past, there’s a big margin for error, so the wise family researcher checks more than one reference. Old handwritten records are sometimes hard to read, the flourishing script occasionally ambiguous; or the ink may have smudged over the years obscuring a name or date. Then there’s human error to take into account – covering misspellings (Catherine or Kathryn for example?) and mis-recordings – not to mention wilful misinformation. During wartime, boys as young as 14 or 15 often claimed to be 18 or 21 so they could enlist in the armed forces. Then there are examples of children conceived before marriage – it’s not surprising to discover that occasionally their birth dates are put back. Sometimes their ages can be cross-checked against a birth or baptismal certificate, but more often than not the misreported figures become “truth”. And of course, there are those who never actually knew their birthdays so if their personal information was ever recorded it was based on guesswork.

The movement of people across the globe can also render some names and dates inaccurate; such inaccuracies can be easily perpetuated. Following wars and civil unrest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many migrants to Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere anglicised their first or last names. Alternatively border officials misspelled names; these were never corrected and generations later the “new” name has almost wiped out any trace of the original.

Another thing to bear in mind is that in many cultures, it’s traditional to recycle family names, so you might have a big bunch of Williams or Marias, making it tricky to figure out which generation you’re researching.

But once you unearth a few gems about your forebears, there’s a real sense of satisfaction to be had. Knowing where you came from can be enlightening or perhaps disheartening, but either way, there’s definitely something about continuity of our line that brings enormous  comfort, admiration and sometimes pride.

Oh, and if you happen to discover that you too are truly descended from Charlemagne, I’ll see you at the family reunion.

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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