The first question I’m asked when I tell people I’m researching my family history is, “have you found out anything interesting?”. Of course, what they mean is have I discovered any skeletons in the cupboard? Any famous or infamous people? Any bigamists or murderers? My response is this: what could be more interesting than to resurrect one’s ancestors and to breathe new life into long-forgotten names. Even without the trappings of fame, fortune or notoriety, family history holds more than enough interest.
The second question is “why ‘red herrings & white lies’?” The answer is simple. I have come to realise that all families have secrets, and all families tell lies. These can be innocent enough and involve little more than the embellishment of a tale: such tales are the red herrings and white lies that sent me down dead ends when I began my research. Sometimes the falsehoods are less innocent and are designed to conceal. Illegitimacy. Lunacy. Poverty. The secrets that go unspoken, the lies that are not always white.
I began my research in 1988 with a strong sense of my maternal heritage, a result of the close-knit family of Lillian (née Monger), my grandmother. With a natural curiosity, a disposition for problem solving, and a love of the past, researching my own history seemed the natural thing to do.
Things moved slowly at first. In those days, family history research meant days in London: St Catherine’s House, the Guildhall Library, the General Records Office: hours sitting in front of microfilm readers scrolling through reels of microfilm, or sheets of microfiche. I do not resent those hours; researching in this way taught me many valuable lessons, the most important one being never to accept something as fact until I have verified it myself. These disciplines have by-passed many of today’s internet generation of family historians for whom it seems all too easy: type in a name and press a button. The result? A ready-made history — and countless numbers of people with family trees full of errors and ancestors who are unrelated to them. But family history is not only names and dates; that is not history, merely statistics. In writing this account, I have endeavoured to paint a picture of people’s lives: not only when and where, but how, they lived, what motivated them to act as they did, and how they might have felt. This is based on careful research: census returns, registration certificates, old maps, wills, trade directories, location visits, background reading, personal accounts. Ultimately though, I’ve had to make assumptions about people; if I haven’t always got it right, then I ask their pardon.
Despite so much diligent research, there will always be gaps. This makes it difficult to decide at which point to commit one’s history to print: one starts with the knowledge that one will never know the beginning or the end, and can only hope to discover part of the middle. Nevertheless, the time has come to put pen to paper. So here it is. My family history. My legacy to you, for I assume that if you are reading these pages, then my history is also yours, at least in part. I hope you will enjoy discovering our common heritage, and that one day your children will become chapters of their own.