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Guyon: Geneology Research

When I was a teenager, I interviewed my elderly great aunties in England about their lives as parlor maids, tweenies and cooks for wealthy London families and their experiences as suffragettes. Some of their stories were hilarious, with slapstick moments, plans gone wonky and generally cheeky mischief – a very wry sense of humor seems to be in our genetic coding. In my twenties, I once spent three days of what was supposed to be a Park City ski trip on the British floor of the Family History Archives, scrutinizing photos of inky birth, death, marriage, parish and census records captured on microfilm and microfiche.

When online research arrived, I was able to go back as far as the 1600s.

But history hasn’t been kind to the poor, both in quality of life, and also quality of records. The poorer the family, the less likely anyone bothered to document their existence.

So I’ve had to rely on some lesser known resources, like the British Newspaper Archives, where I found several accounts of events involving three generations in a single branch of my family.

In the first, I discovered that my great grandmother Rosalie was considered something of a miser. She’d been renting one room to a woman and her seven young children in a row house she owned, and was duly ordered to “to abate the nuisance within 28 days.”

In another, I learned that her step-father Frederick Sr. was accused of savagely assaulting a man with fists and boots in an alley. Fred declared that one of his other daughters had been “ill-treated” since marrying the alleged victim a year prior. A witness described the attack as “a bit of a set-to” and the judge ordered the defendant to pay a fine of two pounds.

To me, though, the saddest story was about Rosalie’s biological father, Isaac. At the age of 18, he perished at sea on the H.M.S. Eurydice, in what remains the worst peacetime disaster in British Naval history. It capsized and sank in a squall off the Isle of Wight in March 1878, while a four-year old Winston Churchill watched with his family from nearby clifftops. And I suspect that poor Isaac was unaware that he was about to be a father since Rosalie was born exactly nine months after the Eurydice set sail for Bermuda.

So, ancestry research can reveal not only happy revelations and fascinating family details, but also some mighty moving tales of hardship. It’s all compelling and meaningful, but you do have to brace yourself.