It’s family history Jim, but not as we know it

This is a post by Simon Fowler, Author, Tutor and Professional Genealogist.  We thought this was an interesting follow-up to the general discussions about only doing genealogy online.  Family reunions may perpetuate those old family myths, but they are fun!

I recently moderated a family history reunion for a client. They wanted me to provide genealogical expertise and a guiding hand. But in fact I was hardly needed. The group was more interested in sharing details of second and third cousins and not listening to me. There was a real buzz about the afternoon.

But it was not family history as taught on Pharos courses. Tangential links were made without real evidence: someone claimed descent from the English poet Edmund Spenser. I haven’t checked but it seems unlikely. Family trees had been scribbled on envelopes. And notes came in a variety of forms – some were in impressive looking photograph albums with photos, documents and even a tram ticket.

The group had only the shakiest grasp of British history, based on hazily remembered history lessons from fifty years ago, television programmes and potboiler histories. There was even a debate about the relationship between the French and English lands owned by the Normans, although why I could not fathom, as nobody had traced their ancestors with any certainty much back before the 1850s.

Of course I should have intervened and insisted on proper evidence, effective record keeping and all the other things we teach and learn on Pharos courses. But I didn’t have the heart. They were having so much fun. And it would probably have been counter-productive.

This is genealogy as experienced by many people with all the joy of discovery and communication without any of the rigour. Like the Who Do You Think You Are? TV programme, but without the celebrities.

But does it really matter? Of course ultimately it does, but I think this is an ideal way into the hobby. With luck rigor will follow, as participants realise that it helps both their research and to learn about the generally unromantic lives that their ancestors really lived. And I had a blast learning how most people get started on their family history.

Simon Fowler is the author of many genealogy and family history books, and teaches the Pharos Tutors military courses.  He was previously the editor of The National Archives Ancestors magazine.  There is a full list of his books on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Fowler_%28author%29

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One Response to It’s family history Jim, but not as we know it

  1. jaygen2014j says:

    This is so true – many people I suspect are attracted to genealogy through family anecdotes. My maternal grandmother was full of family stories that I just had to explore to discover whether they were true or not. My mother passed down to her children such tantalising and intriguing tidbits as “grandad was an Orangeman from Ireland”, “We’re related to the Pilkington family (of Pilkington’s Glass)”, “one of the family died preaching in the pulpit in America at the age of 92”. Her maternal great-grandmother also had a newspaper cutting regarding one of the family which had the headline “English Beauty Shoots her Lover and Then Herself”…. I could go on and on! Finally, my aunt read what I now suspect was an heir hunter’s notice in the newspaper looking for descendants of my mother’s paternal grandparents – sadly, she threw it in the bin!. The address to reply to was, she thought, somewhere in Canada but I suspect (after much research), it was more likely to be in America.

    I’ve also discovered many ‘cousins’, some of whom believe we’re related to a famous PM. Through research (checking parish death and burial registers), I’ve satisfied myself that this is very unlikely, but like you, I didn’t have the heart to say anything. After all, why spoil a good story with the facts? 😉

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