Family tree roots

THE late, great Cassandra once resumed his column with: As I was saying, when rudely interrupted . He had just returned from the war. Though not for such length of time, what interrupted me was an ambulance carting me off to Newham Hospital. As the littl

THE late, great Cassandra once resumed his column with: "As I was saying, when rudely interrupted". He had just returned from the war. Though not for such length of time, what interrupted me was an ambulance carting me off to Newham Hospital. As the little girl in Itma used to say: "But I'm all right now."

As I was saying what? It was about Olympia. Not 2012 and the Olympic Park, etc., but the exhibition centre in Kensington: place of the Ideal Home, and where Georges Carpentier knocked out Ted Kid Lewis, and numerous other events. My observations were on a show of family history.

The television news gave a glimpse of it, rows of desk-top display screens on which heaps of data can be called up from the Internet. My, how this has changed! There is a family history society in every region and city, with their own magazines and national ones. For twenty-five years or more it has been the most popular hobby in Britain.

I began it before any of that: in 1956 when, my curiosity having been roused, I thought I'd just investigate a bit. Hadn't ever met anyone who'd traced a family tree, had only a sketchy idea how to do it. I assumed that there would be few branches apart from my own.

It was like reading a few pages of a detective novel, then compelled to keep turning over to find what happened next. In the years which followed, my wife and I made countless journeys to villages where previously-unknown kinsfolk were in ancient parish records (and in the graveyards too).

Blacksmiths, labourers on the land, domestic servants, gentry, paupers; lots never expected. In London, discovering in a church a statue of another Robert Barltrop - born 1522, four hundred years before me, and he wore a cloak and a ruff.

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On the other hand, I have a railwayman who was murdered by his workmate beside the line between Leyton and Stratford. There was the ferryman at Canvey Island, and Reuben B who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. But this isn't just me: anybody can and does have similar surprises.

Why has family history continued to grow in popularity? Part of it, no doubt, is the series of television programmes. (Turned into celebrity shows, unfortunately. Television now seems incapable of presenting any subject without focussing it on a soap-opera actor or pop singer).

The deeper reason, though, is the break-up of communities. Most of us wish to be identified with a particular place, region, industrial group, etc. - or a culture like Cockneydom. Those have come apart and their populations dispersed, maybe over two generations or more.

I'll add something else. The ancestors and lost kinsfolk have contributed to our own heredity. The worthy and the unworthy alike are represented in whatever we are today. A family tree is worth finding and passing on to our children for that reason alone.

Today it is far easier than ever before, with records galore brought together and made available on the Internet: sit in front of the screen and click. Pleased as I am to see this interest fed, there is something I can't help thinking.

Do they get the fun of searching as we did? We went to places we'd never have known otherwise, enjoyed village pubs, made friendships. The two of us have sat in a church vestry at night poring over centuries-old parchment registers, and exclaimed when we saw a margin-note by a vicar in 1666: just received news that a great fire had broken out in London.

You won't get those things on the Internet. All the same, if you are starting family history - best of luck!

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