When we start to research our family’s history, we’re told not to believe everything we’re told by family members and not to add any names or dates to our family tree until they are verified by documentary evidence. Thorough and methodical research is, of course, essential to make sure that we’re following the correct line, BUT, family history isn’t just about names and dates – it’s about the people who have helped to shape our lives.
Quite often (and certainly in the case of my family!), it’s the family stories that have been handed down that bring our ancestors to life, adding depth and colour that we won’t find in official documents. It’s likely that the stories have been distorted or embellished over time, but they’re usually based on at least a grain of truth, and, could even provide the key to help unlock a family mystery.
Long before the advent of the internet and name indexes, I couldn’t find my maternal grandmother (born in 1881) on the 1891 census. According to records, she’d always lived in Manchester, but my mother recalled that she’d told her about the Nottingham Goose Fair in great detail – and that’s where the family was living on census night!
It took some detective work to unravel the story behind their move and this, in turn, lead to the discovery of another branch of the family. It transpired that my great grandfather had become involved in local politics and decided it was prudent to move away for a while, and by 1901, they were back in Manchester, just a couple of streets from where they had previously lived.
I’d always thought that my grandparents were quiet and unassuming as that’s how I remember them in later life, but some of the stories I was told about them made me change my opinion.
My great grandparents had a shop on a busy road, close to the local police station and my gran and her siblings taught their pet parrot to mimic the police whistle. After numerous false call outs, the parrot was banished to the back room!
Family stories are a good way of getting the younger generation interested in their ancestors and heritage, and if the stories can be accompanied by photos or artefacts, so much the better! There’s some kind of story behind every family photo, whether it was taken to commemorate a special event, or simply to capture a moment in time. What’s the point of keeping a pressed flower or a piece of ribbon if you don’t know its significance? It all makes sense when the story unfolds that the flower was sent to your ancestor by her fiancé from the First World War battlefields and that the ribbon came from her wedding dress. Write these stories down and keep them with the items or photos.
Of course, there are times when the family story can be completely quashed. I met an American who had been told that he had aristocratic blood because “Court, Manor of Aston” appeared on a birth certificate. Fortunately, he wasn’t too disappointed when I explained that the “court” comprised of several back-to-back houses in a very urban setting.
So next time you’re told a family story, check it out before dismissing it. It may not help to take your research further back, but it could help you to get an insight into your ancestors’ lives and times.