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.”
Anne (U.K.)’s previous posts: