It is certainly true that there must now be many hundreds, possibly thousands, of websites devoted to this pastime – why is this?
Finding out about our roots has certainly been popularised by television documentaries, like the one asking us if we know ‘Who We Are’. Why, in the first place, do these programmes have such large audiences? Part of this is due to the media celebrity culture that has evolved during the last couple of decades, but not all of it. Viewers do like to see if people, they admire or who they relate to, come from similar backgrounds to those they suspect they came from themselves but there is more to it than that.
Enquiry into our own family story does seem to fill a deep need we all have. It is the feeling that we, as part of a larger family or tribe, have lives that are more relevant, more exciting and more worthwhile than they might actually be. Many adopted children, as they grow up, have a desire to find out who their birth parents are or were.
In the same way, those of us who know all about our mothers and fathers and our grandparents need to go further back into the past. It is as if finding out where our genes came from somehow extends our own lives backwards. For the many of us who enjoy reading and learning about general history, discovering about our own forebears puts a personal slant on the past.
Maybe those who went before us took part in the Chartist rebellion, fought at the battle of Trafalgar or for a period were forced to live in their local Union Workhouse. Hopefully we will be able to empathise with them, as almost without doubt their lives will have been harder than our own.
Although we are our ancestors’ product and they have shaped us, more possibly than the sum total of every outside influence that has moulded us from the moment of our birth, their lives were very different to ours. As L P Hartley wrote, ‘the past is a foreign country’, and, with every further generation our research has enabled us to travel back, they will have inhabited fainter and ever more bizarre worlds of which we can only gain the fleetest glimpse.
Yet perhaps some of their fears and hopes, their periods of sorrow and their moments of joy â€“ and their loves – were similar to ours. If we are only able to discover a little about them this should help us to celebrate their existence, give them our respect, and at the same time perhaps understand ourselves a little better.
Written by Michael Greening
(Author of ‘A Family Story’, about his own surname history. See – www.michaelgreening.com/)
Photos Courtesy of Robin Hutton Flickr.com