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Guest Post: The Lost

By: Anne (U.K.) - February 27, 2012

As those who have read any of my earlier Keepa posts will by now have realised, my paternal grandparents faced many difficulties as they struggled to raise a family in the area of Bermondsey stretching between London and Tower Bridges during the harsh post-war 1920s. However, by the time I was born they were in their seventh decade, retired, and lived (what seems today) the quietly content life we all long for. At the start of the 1930s, as part of a slum clearance scheme, they had been moved from the room in which they all lived, into a house with a garden in a London suburb. My small flat today is filled with more ‘stuff’ than they accumulated in that house during 60 years of occupation; when my grandfather died in 1989, he had never owned a fridge, phone, washing machine, car, carpet in the bedrooms (just linoleum), nor enjoyed central heating (open fires downstairs and small electric bar heaters upstairs), yet they were content in the way that probably only a generation which has faced – and survived – two world wars, a pandemic and the Great Depression could be.

Life was a routine; launderette on Mondays, library on Tuesdays, hairdresser on Fridays, visits from my father, little brother and myself on Sunday mornings. For we children, the payback for the fun of a ride on a bus and then the Underground was to sit in the corner on a sofa for 2 hours with a glass of lemonade (“only one glass, there’s no toilets on buses and the Tube!”) and a couple of biscuits, not speaking until spoken to, because to interrupt an adult would be bad manners. My brother moaned and groaned and wriggled; I soon realised that by sitting and listening, much could be learned about my family, and enjoyed the stories and reminiscences they shared, whilst trying not to react to them – because eavesdropping was worse than interrupting an adult!

One Sunday morning in July 1969, aged 8, a ‘treat’ had been purchased for me from that week’s pension pennies and was placed on my allotted seat awaiting my arrival – a child’s magazine called ‘The Princes of Wales’. It was a commemorative edition of a weekly general knowledge magazine for children, sold on the back of the impending Investiture of Prince Charles to that rank. Every schoolchild in the country had been given permission to watch this Investiture on their school’s television (one television per school in those days, and black and white, no colour!) so we had been preparing for the event which we understood vaguely was a significant step towards Prince Charles becoming King. The magazine, sitting on the sofa, seemed to be a history of all the previous Princes of Wales – one story per page, illustrated with a fairly dramatic picture of a key event. Flipping through the booklet, my eyes were drawn to a chart on the inside front cover, depicting “The Family Tree of the House of Windsor.” On a background of mock parchment, written in italics, was what appeared to be a chart showing how Prince Charles and his siblings could trace their family all the way back to William the Conqueror in 1066. Every schoolchild knew about William the Conqueror, how he had sailed across the English Channel, shot King Harold in the eye at Hastings and rampaged across our country killing locals as he went, before claiming the land as his own and building castles all over the place. (The teaching of history has changed a lot since those days!)

Looking at this “family tree,” a thought struck me. If Prince Charles had a family tree, then our family must have one too. Where was it? Maybe I could take it into school to show to my teacher and classmates. Nan had a collection of old newspapers she had saved over the years, each depicting a significant event in history : “The King Is Dead,” “Abdication,” “War Declared,” “D-Day,” “Everest Conquered,” “Man Walks On the Moon.” She also possessed the only photo album known to exist in the family, a viewing of which was a reward for good behaviour. I realise now it was the work of a woman who had sent her sweetheart to war once, and then her husband and all her children some 20 years later. She would work her way through the album, precious photo by photo, telling me stories of the people in the picture. If anyone knew where our family tree was, Nan would.

Waiting for a break in conversation stretched my patience to the limit. Finally it came.

“Dad, look at this,” I said, taking the magazine to the table at which he and Nan were sitting. “Look, it’s Prince Charles’ family tree. His family goes back to 1066!”

Dad looked disappointingly unimpressed by this. “Well, so does yours,” was his phlegmatic reply. Hardly the excitement I was looking for.

“So, where’s our one of these, then?” I asked, incoherent with anticipation and excitement.

The three adults in the room laughed. I could almost feel my grandad’s eyes rolling around in his head at my naivety.

“We haven’t got ‘one of these,’” explained Dad. “Only rich people have these. Nan’s mum and dad could hardly read or write, let alone write these things down. Unless Nan and Grandad can remember them, we don’t know what our family’s names or their dates of birth were. We don’t know where they came from, any information has been lost. Doubtless their names are recorded in church books somewhere but we don’t know where and we will never know. So yes, our family goes back to 1066 too, but because our family was poor we don’t have a family tree like this one. No-one knows who they were, or where or when they lived.”

“I’ll find them.”

The words were scarcely out of my mouth before the room erupted in apparent mass hilarity. “Love a duck, listen to the gel, eh? ‘I’ll find them!’ Oh dear,” cried Nan, holding her sides as if I had said the funniest thing on earth. “Hark at ’er!”

Sometimes I wonder if the phrase “red rag to a bull” was invented specifically for me. I remember that moment as vividly as if it were yesterday. Undaunted, at the next Sunday visit the budding genealogist turned up at the grandparents’ house with a notebook and pencil. Much time that week had been invested decorating the notebook in (an eight year old’s version of) heraldic squiggles, and it was grandly – if a tad hopefully – entitled “My Family Tree.” My first investigative question was: “Nan, have you got a real name, not Nan?” at which point she introduced me to the concept of a maiden surname. The hunt was up and running.

Over forty years on, I’m still going, not so much running now as staggering slightly. Genealogy is no longer a bizarre hobby for oddballs and weirdos, but, rebranded as “family history” and in the light of the success of the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” a perfectly acceptable pastime. No longer is it necessary to trek to dusty record repositories to lift books the weight of a couple of small children, as technological advances mean much is available online. I’m not back to 1066 – the closest is one line back to 1450 – so in one sense Dad was right, although hopefully there’s still time. He was wrong, however, to say that our kindred dead could never be found. As my grandson sits in the bath and I hang over it, ostensibly bathing him, we re-enact “Grandpa Old Tom Cooper’s lifeboat adventures” with his toy boats, and my heart fills with hope that one day the rising generation will feel a desire to pick up the torch, carry on the work which has been started, and identify more of those dismissed previously as “the Lost.”

–oOo–

Anne (U.K.)’s previous posts:

“As Arranged”
Cousin Maggie, part 1, part 2
Mothering Sunday
The Pine Cone Story
Pine Cone 2: The Sequel



18 Comments »

  1. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing this, Anne.

    One minor note (and I suppose that my interest in all things historical may have begun when I saw shelf after shelf of history books in my dad’s library)–if your memory of your grandmother’s newspaper headlines is from that July 1969 visit, it must have been from sometime after the 21st of that month–or else the “Man Walks on Moon” was from the British equivalent of the National Enquirer, right next to the story about the Queen’s secret love child in Bombay.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 27, 2012 @ 8:13 am

  2. Thanks for sharing such meaningful and personal experiences. I felt like I was with you in the room when you announced, “I’ll find them,” only I wasn’t laughing. I believed you.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 27, 2012 @ 9:04 am

  3. Anne, this is lovely. I remember just a few years ago when my children and I search Norwegian church record *online* from our home in Taipei to prepare names for my children to take to the temple for baptisms. As they found the connections we were seeking, we all danced around the room for joy.

    You’ve captured here a wonderful excitement. Thanks for that!

    Comment by Paul — February 27, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  4. Big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes! Fantastic to read about your experience, as ever.

    Comment by Alison — February 27, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  5. You’re a wonderful storyteller, Anne! Speaking of which, can I put in an order for the story of Grandpa Old Tom Cooper’s lifeboat adventures?

    Comment by Researcher — February 27, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  6. If only I had been that interested as an 8 year old. Good for you that you got that early start. It took me another 45 years before I connected in my mind the Galveston hurricane of 1900 with my grandfather’s missionary journal, and I got interested in finding out about my ancestors. I also hope my kids or grandchildren will get the bug, but not much luck yet.

    Comment by kevinf — February 27, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  7. I’ve enjoyed immensely each of Anne(U.K.)’s previous posts, and was not disappointed with this one. I’ll second the nomination for Old Tom Cooper’s adventures.

    I anticipate that “The Lost” are eagerly cheering your discoveries as well.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 27, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  8. Many thanks, as always everyone, for your kind comments. I remain gobsmacked every time that anyone finds these tales worth reading.

    And as for the tale of Old Tom Cooper…I started the story of how I discovered him just after I finished this post, so it’s almost there. It’ll be in Ardis’ Inbox as soon as favourable conditions prevail to get it finished!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — February 27, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

  9. I loved this. You are such an excellent story-teller. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by David Y. — February 27, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  10. Anne, this is priceless. I’m looking forward to reading the tale of Old Tom Cooper, too.

    I got my interest in “genealogy” when I was about your age, sitting on the living room floor with my Aunt Dorothy, who lived next door to me. Surrounding us were family group records of our ancestors. Lovingly, she taught me about each family and person, where they lived, how we were related, and told story after story. I still remember the times she came running from her house to ours with a letter containing some new information from England. As I got older, she took me to Salt Lake City to the early Genealogy Building to help her with research. Still later, my sister and I typed records and stories and pasted pictures and documents into long family memory books. Buy the time she began losing her sight to macular degeneration, she bought a computer and put it in her parlor with a filing cabinet so that my sister and I could continue adding to her early research.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — February 27, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

  11. Wonderful story! Thank you!

    If you can only get connected to one of those Welsh royal lines, you can get back to Joseph of Arimathea who was some sort of cousin to John the Baptist, who was, of course, cousin to You-Know-Who! (But Ardis is going to kill me for bringing up mythological genealogies!)

    Comment by Grant — February 28, 2012 @ 8:26 am

  12. You are dead to me, Grant!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2012 @ 8:28 am

  13. If Grant is “dead to you,” can I seal him via proxy to about a dozen female relatives that I think I found, and submitted via New Family Search Wiki Thingy?

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  14. As long as their work has already been done seven times before, be my guest, kevinf.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  15. Before we hijack anything further including my eternal soul (which my one wife is NOT going to appreciate at all) let me get back on track with Anne’s wonderful piece.

    This is beautifully expressed and helps me understand Anne better with so much more human connection as Anne’s research has connected her to a real human family and important heritage. And then there are those sacred ordinances as Anne sets out in another post: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2010/06/09/guest-post-as-arranged/
    That’s what I find so amazing is that these stories help us become Saviors on Mount Zion presenting our family names to the Lord for the greatest ennobling of all.

    Comment by Grant — February 28, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  16. I contrast what I feel while reading a post such as this, with what I feel reading about the recent controversial “trophy” proxy baptisms. It’s clear to me that there’s something so much sweeter in seeking out and doing temple work for our own “kindred dead”. Just my two cents.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 28, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  17. That may be the best two cents of all, TOClark. And Grant, you live again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  18. Grant,

    Okay, Wiki New Family Searchy Thingy, delete, delete, delete. You’re cool again now.

    Anne, I have very much appreciated your postings here about genealogy, and the sense of miraculous that so often attends them. It’s an inspiration to us all.

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

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