How do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from?

When people ask me why I do genealogy, my answer is invariably, how do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from? 

The future need not be a preoccupation for the past to be relevant to your current life.  For me, genealogy – family history – is not a dry, dusty or obscure hobby.  It informs the very life you lead today.

To one degree or another, we are the products of our family.  Whether we like it or not, our parents inform a very large part of who we are.  Our beliefs, our fears, our ambitions… all have been influenced in some part by them.  In turn, their beliefs, their fears and their ambitions were in some part influenced by their parents and so on.

My grandmother was in south London during World War II, when the Luftwaffe taught her to fear.  Fear the sound of sirens, fear the future, fear for her parents.  She and her sisters were sent to Wales while her parents stayed in London during the worst of the bombings.  They spent time in an orphanage and the girls never knew if they would see their parents again.  I heard this from my great-aunt, as my grandmother has never talked about the War.

My grandmother is not a woman who talks of consequential things.  She does not hug.  She doesn’t speak of emotions.  She is a friendly lady but keeps things ever so proper and light… when she’s not creating a new drama around herself.  I love her but, like all of us, she’s a complicated personality.  My great-aunt, her twin sister and polar opposite, said many years later that some of this was to do with their experiences as children.

My mother,  not knowing of my grandmother’s experiences, only knew that she had a mother who didn’t show love in a conventional way.  Growing up, she saw a capricious woman, who played favourites with her children, who kept secrets and stayed remote.

Myself, not knowing my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, could never understand why, when I knew my mother loved me, she would laugh when I came to her with a problem.

Today, I often find myself a self-deprecating personality who often makes jokes at my own expense to make others comfortable and who finds it very hard to tell people how I feel.

I agree it is a long bow to draw to say that my personality shortcomings can be laid at my grandmother’s feet due to her War experiences but I can see that we are all the product of our upbringing to a degree and, with hindsight and history, I can see that my grandmother probably still holds great fear, particularly of losing family and perhaps has kept people distant for partially that reason.  That my mother, with an undemonstrative and unemotional mother has in turn found it hard to process emotions herself and, to this day, is not the best person to speak with when you have an emotional crisis.  And I, in having at least one important person in my life laugh nervously at my various attempts to talk to her about my emotional crises as an adolescent have found it difficult to share them with others in my adulthood.

This is not a blame game, more a fascinating line of inquiry.  I am the way I am partially down to genes, partially down to environment and partially down to chance.  But, in pursuing my hobby, I’ve learnt how my grandparents grew up, and how their parents grew up and how their parents grew up and this context allows me to see them and their personalities in a whole new light.  My other grandmother is a ferociously strong woman, independent to the point of belligerence – did it have anything to do with the fact that her father left them when she was young?  That she had to practically raise her younger sisters because my great-grandmother had to work so hard to bring in enough money?

One of my great-grandfathers loved the army life so much that, even after surviving the Great War, he signed up for the Second World War – even going so far as to lie about his age and claiming to be 10 years younger, so as to be accepted for enlistment.  He was having a difficult marriage, which was probably more than half the reason for his going, but was his love of a structured life also in any way informed by the fact that he was an illegitimate child of an unknown man, whose mother married and had another family, sending him away to live with his grandmother?  That kind of uncertainty… was purpose and security something he found in army life?

This is rank speculation but something I find fascinating nonetheless.

In my research of family history, I’ve found ancestors who were wounded in the Crimean War, who went as missionaries at the turn of the 19th century to India to convert the Indians and who, in 18th century London, held up a carriage at gunpoint and were tried for highway robbery – and only escaped the noose because they were 16 at the time!

I’ve “met” ancestors who lost their father, husband and siblings all in one year, who plied the waters of the Thames as Watermen, families who worked meagre lives in tenements of 19th century Birmingham and then emigrate to a new life in Australia.  Mothers who saw all their children emigrate to Australia and America, fathers who saw sons follow in their footsteps and children who failed and succeeded.

What specifically brought this post on is a letter I read today.  Sometimes, in your search for your family, you are given a very rare and special opportunity to meet them for real.  Primary sources are usually in the form of birth certificates or marriage registers.  In the case of my convict ancestors, I can read their trials, which is very special.  But letters… they are gold.

I want to share a letter I read, written by my great-great-great-great grandmother, Rebecca Caroline.  She was born by the Thames in Deptford and her father was a Waterman.  She married a greengrocer, John Morris, and all of her children – bar one – emigrated overseas; most to Australia, but one to America.

At the time of her writing, only two of her daughters have left – she does not yet know that within the space of a few years, she will have seen them all go (save for one daughter) and will spend the rest of her days worrying for them, pleading for letters from them and trying to be part of their lives through the tyranny of distance, in a world where Australia is not a 25-hour flight away but months by boat.  Such are the limitations, she has to tell her daughter Sally, who is in Australia with her sister Betsy, about their father’s death by letter…

October 22, 1850

My dear Children,

I received your welcome letter Sept 28th and it has much added to my grief to find you was there without a friend or any one to assist you or a home for you to go to and a thousand times I wish that you had not left us.

I am extremely sorry to inform you your dear Father from the accident he met with in the Minories never held himself up again, his side under arm was much hurt and formed at last into a Black Cancer from which he never recovered.  I buried him at St. Georges Southwark.  He was eight months ill and kept his bed six weeks and I am happy to tell you the Almighty wrought in him a blessed change.  He never ceased praying for six weeks night or day while he was awake his prayers were nearly always about his Girls and that he should never hear from them again while he was alive nor he never did for he died on the 14th November 1849 and I received your first letter the 26th December 1849.  

My dear Children I am happy to find that you have seen the roughest of your days and I am happy to hear that you have now a home of your own.  My dear Children I am now left with nine to provide for and a very hard struggle I find it as I have been very ill myself suffering from a wounded leg and am under the care of a third physician.

But thank God I am much better but you would have been a great assistance to me as the books is half my trouble as the business has increased and would be more so if it was better attended to.  I still keep the six cows and still carry on the shooting business as George your brother is the strapper, John Morris have left home before his Father’s death, his treatment was worse and worse.  My dear Children – you seem to wish us to come out, how could I come out with all my children as I am getting a crust here for them and a hard one it is almost more than I am able to bear.

My dear Children I live in hope to assist you if I have good shooting orders this season as it does not lay in my power or as you must know you and Besty leaving home and your dear Father’s death in one twelve month.  When your father went up stairs I had only £2.10.0 in the world and out of it I paid the physicians one pound, so I leave you to guess what position I was in.  My dear Children I should like to have you over if I thought I could get you a living as I could look up to Henry [Sally’s husband] as a father and instructor to the children.  I shall put William and James to a trade if it lays in my power next summer as Betsy says that no one is any use much at your Colony without a trade.

Do write as soon as possible my dear dear Sally, I am glad that you have got out of your trouble as it caused me great grief when I heard you had no one but strangers about you.

But that Great friend above us the Almighty which I hope my dear Children you will both look up to as I have found him a husband to the widow, and a Father to the Fatherless I shall remember 1849 while ever I live first you and your sister were torn from me and your poor Father died and your Aunt Olett’s youngest boy with Cholera, poor Old Gray Chapman and Mr Chapman.  Mrs Frederick Phillips of Consumption, her two children are very well.  She was ill 12 months.  Robert Leakey’s wife’s confined and got a nice girl.  Polly Smith is still staying with Capt Jones at Peckham.  Mrs Sterry and Mrs Greenwood are sorry to hear of your troubles and think you ought to have gone on to Port Phillip with Mr Whitby.  My dear Children I wish I could once see you in England again as I think you might do better.  I conclude my dear Sally and Henry with the sincerest love that a mother can bestow and I hope you will have health wealth and prosperity so no more at present, from your Loving and affectionate Mother, R Morris.

My ancestor was Sally and Betsy’s brother, George, mentioned in the letter.  He later emigrates to Australia, followed by a sister Carrie who comes to Australia on her own at the age of 17 as an indentured servant to a family in Tasmania (the only way she could afford the trip to Australia – she is later freed).  They are followed by another brother, James, and then another brother William.  Finally, their younger brother Andrew comes to Australia – again, on his own – and spends his months searching for news of his family by posting wanted notices in the local Melbourne papers.  He makes contact with Sally but has no news of his brothers.  At the age of 17 and working at a slaughterhouse in Victoria, he accidentally shoots his leg and dies of infection, alone – stranger in a strange land.  His mother would a year later write him, still unaware that he had died.  Rebecca herself remarries and gives up the grocery and shooting business (they provided pigeons to hobby shooters in London) that her first husband established.  Her children do mostly well and George eventually grew up to own significant land and interests in northern Queensland.

For me, the letter offers a fascinating insight into a family far removed from my present and yet connected to me nonetheless.  Even more so now that I have experienced emigration first hand.  I used to work on Minories and, until today, had no clue that one of my ancestors suffered an accident there that would ultimately lead to his demise.

Her concerns are so real and so modern – she worries for her children and how she’ll pay for the bills.  She works to provide for her family, works to set up her boys in trade so they’ll be of use in Australia and have a better life, even if it means she’ll never see them again.  As a student of history, her letter reminds me again that life has not significantly changed in the millennia we humans have walked this earth.  Only the details.

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