"I feel about as local as a fish in a tree" - John Sebastian
for Alec Innes (Peter) Pottinger
In May 2002, the talented journalist Kathryn Hughes contributed an article called “Ancestor Worship” to the magazine Prospect. In it, she describes overcoming an aversion to family history whilst researching her biography of Mrs. Beeton, the nineteenth century cookery writer who was not a Mrs. Bridges figure, as in Upstairs Downstairs, but a young hostess and journalist, and who actually died at the age of 28 in 1865. Steeling herself for some research in the Family Records Centre, she was surprised to find that its visitors - who, she noted correctly, “look like early risers [but] are thrifty and always travel off-peak” - were not in search of past grandeur, but looking for a sort of surrogate reality to compensate them for their relatively affluent, dully identical lives.
As Kathryn Hughes points out, there are also huge numbers of people now logging on to the internet - “indeed, genealogical sites now get more daily hits than those offering pornography.” Genealogy, or family history (the preferred phrase - genealogy seems somehow to be associated with heraldry) is big business, and thriving as never before. In August 2002, The Independent described the next project. By typing in your ten DNA numbers on an internet site - having first procured them for the price of one hundred or so birth certificates - you will soon stand a chance of actually proving your connection with someone who shares your name. Or otherwise, since it is generally understood that the extent of adoptions in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has been underestimated.
Interestingly, just as the genealogical motor has started to shift up through the gears, other forces are effectively planning to put the process into reverse. The proliferation of information available on the web - for example, the access to the electoral roll for a trifling fee - has led many commentators to become anxious about civil liberties. And the web itself may also help put some obstacles in the way of future researchers. A court case in 2001 established the right of an individual to refuse to give details of name and address to the electoral registration department, unless it could be guaranteed that it would not be sold. This means that there will be two databases - the visible one, and the invisible one. This is much the same as is the case with telephone directories. Ten years ago, these were useful to a family researcher. Now, with so many people ex-directory, so many people using different networks, and so many people abandoning landlines for mobiles, they are hardly worth consulting. Directory Enquiries used to confirm a postal address. Not any more.
The potential for online registration of births and deaths - who knows, perhaps marriages as well - may also mean the potential for the collection of less data. It is currently proposed, for instance, that the occupations of parents be no longer recorded. It is also proposed to do away with the census in its current form, since central government has access to so much of the data anyway (ID cards, however stiffly resisted, will surely be with us soon), and because the fall-out from the poll tax protests in the 1980s is still being felt. Many people have gone “missing”, and stayed that way. The potential to search through wills has also been limited. I would probably have abandoned research if I had not been able to take a punt on looking up and reading - for a very small fee (50p in 1993!) - a number of wills. Now wills may not be read and returned. They may only be purchased, and at twenty times the price. Freedom of information and data protection are not incompatible. But where there is tension between them, it is probably family researchers who will suffer.
As one of the raggle-taggle punters described by Kathryn Hughes - I am even related by marriage to Mrs. Beeton! - I recognised her descriptions of the absurd and delighted excitement which family researchers express when they find their way through a thicket. As A Fish In A Tree explains, I started out early, and by accident, on the family trail. I was only forty at the time, much younger than most of those around me. The internet was in its infancy, and none of my initial research involved sailing down the cyberseas.
But there is another difference. Almost all the family researchers I have met are diligently working their way backwards towards oblivion, and hoping that oblivion envelops them as far before 1800 as possible. My grandfather had been this way, fifty years earlier, employing proxy researchers to try to tie him securely to the past. He had a peculiar reason, as you'll see. What is more, he had run into a very dead end. What I inherited was the record of the fruitless search he had undertaken. But what I soon decided to do with the search was to reverse it.
This wasn't planned. To start with, almost nothing I did was planned. But what drew me into the world of the cheapskate excursionists observed by Kathryn Hughes was the possibility of meeting new people, of making new friends, and of understanding what does or does not make up a family. I decided to trace descendants, not ancestors. My oblivion lay in the future - it could last as long as I could. On the way forward from 1811, I began to accumulate photographs and letters and diaries and records, and them, when the internet arrived, a rush of information about all kinds of lives I could never have imagined. What this enabled me to do was to place myself, a post-war baby, in the context of the century and a half which had preceded my arrival. What interested me most was the extent to which other lives had run in parallel.
A Fish In A Tree isn't a search for roots, or about ancestor worship, although I have nothing against either of them. I understand their temptation - besides, I did have to go back a little in order to come forward. Every time I looked back, the past seemed a great deal closer, in any case. Five hundred years seemed an insignificant period of time. History was alive and well, and jogging along beside me. It was very much as Kellow Chesney wrote in his book The Victorian Underworld (1970): “It is astonishing how unremote these people seem... We are separated by a profound gulf, so narrow we seem to be able to touch hands.”
The research also seemed to start making some sense of my childhood, to trigger off memories of my own earlier years. It brought them into a sharper focus. I began to get some sense of how I had come to be born where I had been, and what kind of world I had grown up in. My grandfather had constructed quite a mythology about his family; in some ways, I was part of that mythology. At the same time, the beaches and fields and streets and school corridors which I'd inhabited also flew in the face of that mythology. And so what I wrote seemed to need to play the present against the recent past. It became a sort of social and cultural history, which came out of my persistent interest in family.
Family. That was the word which kept resonating, and the concept which kept changing most frequently during the research. I thought I knew where I belonged, and found that my perspective was very limited. The more cousins I met - since this was a search which involved the living, rather than the long-dead - the more I re-positioned myself. People I had never heard of, never imagined, and would never have met, now became central to the way I thought about myself. And in that way, my family history is at least partly egotistical. It wasn't just a search for a tree to climb. It was about the climber himself. I looked for the fish in the tree, and found that the fish was me.
But on the way, I had great entertainment. Even the misprints of the many clerks on whom foragers like me depend can be instructive as well as frustrating. Hunting through the 1901 census, I was surprised to find that Emilie Maud Kitts, of whom more later, and her adoptive family, were AWOL. I used a wild-card to search the computerised records - adding an asterisk to the letters “Ki”. There she was. She was listed as Kith.