Tracing the Past


My grandparents on their wedding day

The greatest man I have ever known was my grandfather, Alfred. A northern Englishman to the core, he wore a flat cap and grey cardigans and regularly asked me if I was ‘courting’ anyone (which seems a bit silly now as I was 10 years old at the time). He was a warm, funny and a quintessential gentleman. I remember that he always had a little white paper bag with a selection of chocolates that he would give to us whenever we saw him. He made up his own lyrics to different songs, my favourite being ‘Me Grandfathers Clock’, and had sayings like “Eeh, put skin on yer back like velvet” every time he ate custard. My sisters and I adored him and would look forward to his visits. He had a hard life, he and my grandmother were poor, but my mother’s memories of her own childhood were filled with happiness, kindness and love, and she never wanted for anything. He put his family first, working manual labour jobs and even becoming a a coal miner at one point, but he never talked about himself.

Unfortunately, he died when I was 16 years old. He developed senile dementia and I witnessed him deteriorate from a healthy, intelligent and witty human being to the point where he didn’t know where he was or who we were, in an awful hospital that has since been closed down. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take the time to get to know him properly.

A few years ago I had a little bit of time during a holiday, and so I decided to trace my family history. Growing up I had just my parents and two younger sisters – my mum didn’t keep in touch with any of her distant relatives and was an only child, and my father’s family disowned him when he married my mum and so it was just the five of us. I had virtually no information to start my research aside from a single photo album. I spoke to my mother and asked her for any details, but my grandfather had always remained reasonably private about his early life and so she could only give me vague memories of things that he had shared during her childhood.

It turned out to be a fascinating experience. My grandfather, born in 1919, was living with Frank and Margaret, and took their surname until the age of 14. When he left school he was given his birth certificate so he could find a job. He discovered that his mother’s name was actually Emily, and so he adopted her last name from that point on. My mum told me that he knew a woman called ‘Big Emily’, who he assumed was his mother, but he never knew for sure.

I signed up to and obtained a copy of his birth certificate, and written on there was ‘Emily…’, but had no father registered. By sheer luck I found Emily – one of her other children, my grandfather’s half-brother, was researching his family history and had posted a picture of her (looking like my grandfather in a wig) and this led to quite a fascinating set of discoveries.

Emily was living with her Auntie Margeret and Uncle Frank in 1911, and according to the census she was working as a belt maker in a factory. Her mother, Mary (Margeret’s sister) had committed suicide in 1905 by swallowing nitric acid after losing a child at the age of just a few months and her father, Frederick died in 1898 from TB. My grandfather was born out of wedlock in 1919, and he continued to live with Frank and Margaret, which makes me think that Frank was the father. I remember my grandfather once told me that Frank was an abusive man, recounting a memory of a clock being thrown into a fire, and my mum added to this that he died of diseases brought on by alcoholism in the early 1940’s. Margaret never liked my grandfather and was quite openly hostile towards him, but he never understood why. It makes sense that her dislike of him could have been caused by her husband’s infidelity with her niece.

Emily went on to marry a man named Charles in 1927, eight years after my grandfather was born, and NEVER told anyone in her family that she had another son. It was only when I contacted them that they were aware of his existence and after I explained to them my findings and emailed them my pictures of him they accepted it without question. I then discovered that Emily lived in the next town to my grandfather and she died in 1989, only eight years before him. She is even buried just a few plots away in the same cemetery. How heartbreaking – they could have passed each other in the street on a number of occasions and wouldn’t have known.

Yet despite the obvious sense of abandonment he must have felt, he was a hard-working, kind and generous man, and I was very lucky to have him in my life, even if it was just for a short time. It’s amazing how resilient some can be in the face of adversity.

I learned a lot during the process, particularly in the fact that I have a strong working class northern English bloodline that is extremely evident in mine and my sisters characters even to this day. What I found most fulfilling about the experience was being able to share my findings with my mother. She was astounded at the photograph of Emily, who was her grandmother that she had never met, and I was delighted to reveal a family history that she would never have known about. We’ve agreed that we are going to visit the graves of our ancestors to pay our respects.

Now I have a little bit of history that I can tell my own children…

What about you guys? Do you have interesting stories in your family history?

You can also find me on Twitter and Tumblr @suzie81blog, and don’t forget to check out my Facebook page

24 thoughts on “Tracing the Past

  1. That’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in a while. One of my elder sisters, when she was doing some family history work, discovered that the two grandmothers I was named after were named after their grandmothers/mothers as far back as she could find before the internet became big. I remember thinking as a little twelve year old that it was fascinating that such a thing happened on both sides of my parents families without them knowing when they named me.

    • That’s so interesting! It’s so strange when family coincidences happen like that! Before I started the research I made the decision to call my first female child Emily, and then discovered that was the name of my great-grandmother…

  2. Fascinating! What an interesting journey you’re on. My husband has spent years researching and documenting info on his large family, but we don’t know much about mine before they hit Ellis Island.

      • My mother’s parents from Ireland and Fassalto, Italy. My father’s maternal relatives from Ireland and Spain via Mexico. Paternal relatives from England. When you are a nation of immigrants the genealogy can get complicated. And so can the dental work. Did you know that many orthodontic problems are caused by genetically large teeth in genetically small jaws?

  3. Great story. I’ve always been interested in doing this too but i always think it would be too difficult and never get started. My grandfather died of senile dementia when I was 16 too…

  4. Oh my 😀 That was so fascinating! you, tracing your family and really discovering it, what an adventure 🙂 I’m glad you get to meet them 🙂

  5. Wow! What an interesting story. I have an aunt who did a book on our entire family history on my father’s side. I’ll have to find that and hope it’s half as interesting as your story. My father’s side is British and Scottish.

  6. Truly enjoyed reading this intriguing story. Interesting about our roots, yes? I noticed scrolling and reading through the stories for this writing challenge, Digging for Roots, others are recounting about grandparents, and as I did so as well. Well, written and expressed Tracing the Past, Suzie.

  7. I love genealogy! I’ve done it for my own family, my husband’s and a friend’s. Everyone is so different and yet there are common threads the same. Many of my ancestors were hard workers – farmers mostly – but my grandfather hopped around a bit. He even worked for a munitions plant here in PA that turned out to be a facility that housed nuclear waste at one point. I often wonder now if the illnesses he had and the leg wound that refused to heal may have been a product of that environment. Then he went on to learn television repair – when it was just starting to become popular – and eventually owned his own business. I like to think I get my entrepreneurial skills from him. Good for you in learning more. I think it helps to provide a sense of self and a sense of pride (in most cases) about what our ancestors lived through and overcame. Great post.

  8. Such a beautiful story! I come from a culture where we practically know everyone so I guess my own story will be boring but my husband lost touch with his family after leaving his country when he was ten. He’s back 30 something years later and I’ve been thinking of finding his extended family. Your story has given me a bit of nudge. Thank you for sharing, sounds like a story from an old book!

  9. What a lot of discoveries, you made, well done hon! People say families are so complicated nowadays but I think it was even more so back then with such narrow minded social rules. Your Grandad sounds like a lovely warm spirited down-to-earth Northerner :0)
    My known family only goes back as far as my mums Mum and my Dads dad. I look a lot like my Gran but nothing like my parents. I wonder if she was mixed race and that’s where I get my looks and hair from. She died when my Dad was only 4 and was never spoken about unfortunately. I wonder what I might find out ;0)

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  11. Yes, I have a rich heritage as well, and am thankful for all the years of research (over 30 now) I used to learn all I could about my paternal grandfather’s German Russian ancestry, but still working at times on my mother’s side from Germany. Sometimes with the ‘digging’ into our roots and ancestry we find surprises, or things that were sad or hidden that later surface. But, our efforts in digging up past history can teach us we can have an appreciation for the things we know now by what we learned of their past. It can even help us be a part of change in ways to make things better for those who share our lives today. Thanks for sharing yours.

  12. This was such a beautiful and yet sad post. You started out so joyful, I was smiling then the part about your grandfather was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how he felt about his life (especially what he went through), but he was strong enough to shower you and your sister with so much love. They joy you must have felt meeting his family. You did a great job with your research. Excellent and well told. Thank you for sharing.

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