David Randall is senior news writer at the Independent on Sunday, author of five books, and partner in Black Toad Books. He is also a passionate family historian and Ancestry.co.uk member.
One of life’s small pleasures is discovering that a thing designed for one purpose is rather good at something completely different. As a boy, for instance, I found a bicycle pump was not only excellent at inflating tyres, but even better at propelling unripe hawthorn berries at the bare legs of summer cyclists. And so it was, with similar pleasure, I found that Ancestry could be used for things other than which its designers intended.
Its primary purpose we all know about; and, for me, this means adding to my family’s unspeakably ordinary and uncriminal forebears. Good reliable genealogical information is the sort of thing I expected when I joined Ancestry, although I could have done with its databases turning up the odd ne’er-do-well amid my cordwainers, weavers, and carters. What I had not anticipated is the extent to which the service has proved invaluable in my life as a national newspaper journalist, author, and, now, e-book publisher.
I work for the Independent on Sunday, a Fleet Street paper that pursues our curiosities by legal means, and it had not occurred to me that Ancestry might be part of our research armoury until we were investigating one of those con-men who claim a high birth in order to perpetrate various low frauds. A colleague was struggling to make headway with the alleged exotic bloodline of this character until I logged onto Ancestry and we soon had chapter and humble verse on the chap’s less than aristocratic origins.
It has been useful for interviews, too. Before meeting Michael Parkinson I was able to establish for myself that his ancestors were indeed as unexciting as the team from ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ maintained. (They said his family history was so uneventful that they declined to make him a subject of the programme – a shame, since it might have acted as an antidote to all those celebrities with colourful backgrounds which give so many people the impression that everyone’s antecedents are bursting with highwaymen, earls, or pox-ridden whores.)
But it is with book research that Ancestry has proved such an unexpected boon. Having had five books published, one of which has been translated into 19 languages, I decided last year to venture into publishing, something which e-books allowed me and my business partner to do without risking home, savings, or (so far) sanity.
Of the several projects we have on the go, the one with which Ancestry has been invaluable is a biography of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died from injuries received under the hooves of the king’s horse Anmer at the 1913 Derby. It is being researched and written by Lucy Fisher, a descendant of Miss Davison’s, and there are a lot of things we have found out about Emily’s life and family of which her modern relatives were unaware.
The popular image of Emily is that she was some flighty young fool. But a reading of serious works on the suffrage movement shows her to have been a 40 year-old university graduate, and a seasoned maker of unlawful gestures, hence also her lengthy record of convictions, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and being force-fed. Yet with the aid of Ancestry we have been able to add so much more, discovering, among other things, that her connections were odd whichever way you looked. Her grandfather was a gunsmith, her father both made and lost a fortune, he was widowed, got his housekeeper pregnant, married her, and this strange couple duly produced Emily, among others.
She grew up to become a governess, history books tell us, leaving it, tantalizingly, at that. But a census search shows that the family whose children Emily tutored was an equally strange tribe, and the older brother of her little charges went on to become Britain’s first aerial winner of a Victoria Cross. That is by no means all. Helpful notes in the ‘Comments’ sections of family trees have led us to explore how it is that, while some of Emily’s half-brothers and sisters prospered, one lost much money in tramways, and another ended up in Canada where he married a woman 33 years his junior called Minnie. And, thanks to my friends at Ancestry taking me on a tour of the London Metropolitan Archives, I know how rich these can be, and Lucy is now burrowing deep into Emily’s papers, which are lodged there. Altogether, there’s some very rum material coming to light – and we’ll be grateful to hear of any other Davison connections to include in the book. It’ll be published in early 2013.
I’ve also used Ancestry to eliminate some possible books. A tempting project was to trace what happened in later life to the girl at the centre of one of the great Victorian scandals: Eliza Armstrong, the 13-year-old girl ‘bought’ by crusading journalist W. T. Stead to expose the scale of London’s child prostitution. But she has so far eluded us. Maybe she did the sensible thing, and quietly – and unofficially – changed her name.
My joining Ancestry came too late to aid research for our first book, which tells the story of the first modern Olympics and the men who competed there. Yet we are now tracking down some of the characters in it, and will use what we find to write the daily ‘real-time’ tweets we are doing about those 1896 Games and the build-up to them (@Olympics1896, if you’re interested).
And neither should alternative uses for Ancestry stop there. Why not also crowd-source social history research? Here we all are with millions of pieces of historical data (age at marriage, age gap between spouses etc), which could, once number crunched, challenge some orthodoxies. Ancestry, it seems to me, is not a service, but an exercise in mass-participation historical research. Its uses may only just be starting to emerge.
David Randall is senior news writer at the Independent on Sunday, author of five books, and partner in Black Toad Books. His ‘1896: The First Modern Olympics’ is published by Black Toad. Full details at www.1896Olympics.com