Discovering the Road Not Taken

Anyone who knows me will understand why I might be interested in family history. Yet those who knew the person I used to be will be aware that, previously, I took no interest in it at all. Now, in that, I was probably like any other young person although mine was a particular lack of interest; something based on the idea that what you don’t have you can pretend doesn’t exist. It was, very obviously, a defence mechanism. Well, that all changed when I was in my early 60’s when I embarked on a voyage of discovery.

              It started with my mum’s family, where all I knew was that she had died when I was a child and that she had a brother named Bob, a sister named Doll and that we lived in Edale Road near Surrey Docks. I knew that because I’d met Bob and Doll when I was in my late 20’s before I reverted to type. This time, though, I really did want to find out where I came from. Now, in the short time that I’d talked to Aunt Doll, she’d given be a photo of my mum (the first one I’d ever seen), a photo of her wedding, a card from her funeral and my birth certificate. This latter particularly important as it was something that she’s actually touched. Armed with these, I went to the Family Records Office in Clerkenwell.

              Now, in those days, most of the information was held on paper and stored in hard bound books; rows and rows of them in alphabetical and date order. They were, in fact, indexes that allowed you to identify the person that you were looking for before ordering the relevant certificate. Fortunately, the staff were extremely helpful and knowledgeable; something that made the task a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. Knowing may parents’ names allowed me to order their marriage and birth certificates and the journey began. Unfortunately, you then had to wait for the certificate so that you could, for example, identify your parents’ parents before returning to the records office to repeat the procedure. It was a lengthy but thorough process which, with the addition of domestic census records and the Mormon Church, allowed me to piece the jigsaw together. Why the Church of Latter Day Saints? Well, I was told that they wish to baptise everyone who ever lived and have, therefore, amassed these records.

              With this information in hand, I set up Genius Family Tree and “built” my own tree. In the case of the “Daligans”, this was made easier by the fact that the family were all coopers by trade, from Cashel in Tipperary, who emigrated to England in the 1850’s. This led me to the Tipperary Family History Research Centre and the Bermondsey Local Studies Centre. Both were very helpful and, wonder of wonders, in the latter, after two hours of looking through filing cabinets, I came across a photocopy of a pencil sketch of George Row, Bermondsey in 1876. Even more wondrous, it was made at the time that my great grandfather and his family lived at number 42; a house that can be identified in the drawing. Interestingly, it was next to the pub.

In the meantime, I later discovered, my wife’s Uncle Ray was doing something similar for her family. So, we had the makings of two family trees. Now, with this completed, I let the matter lie for a few years until I felt the need to journey just a little further when, horrors of horrors, I discovered that Genius Family Tree had been shut down and I could no longer get access to my records. A quick ring around the family identified my cousin Deb, on my mum’s side, who had been passed the information and, as she’d never updated her laptop, it was still available. Then the pandemic started and, once again, I stopped.

Until, that is, this week, when I decided to set up the family tree afresh on Ancestry and I have greatly exceeded my expectations. Technology had taken over from paper and Ancestry helps you to find people from its database by asking whether a particular person is related to you.  As a result, the family history, now including details of my wife’s family is much larger than it was previously. We now go back to the early 19th century? The road not taken has been taken (virtually) and I am delighted.

Lastly, a few fascinating insights. One is that my grandfather on my mum’s side was born in Pratt Street, Camden, also opposite a pub and just a few minutes from another one that Gaynor and I frequented for five years, ten minutes from where we live. The second is that another of my mum’s family was, reputedly, interviewed by the police during their enquiries into Jack the Ripper and, finally, living in 42 George Row with the rest of her family was one Eleanor Dalligan. The passenger list of “The Cymric” shows that Eleanor emigrated to America, arriving on September 26 1898. Her great niece, also Eleanor (Ellie), my youngest daughter, is about to have her own daughter next month. The road is now being taken by the next generation, which is as it should be.  

For those who may be interested, my own journey can be followed in

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