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Family History

Peter Wills

I suppose most of us have some interest in knowing whence and from whom we came, and who we might be related to. To research the subject in depth may be, as my wife suggested, a sign of getting old - well, I have enough signs of that already for another one not to be an embarrassment. On the other hand it may just be being naff, and following a current fad, as interest is genealogy is exploding these days. Whatever the motive, one needs the time and the opportunity and the inclination to pursue the matter, and in my case it was not until later in life that the three came together. 


Retirement provided the time, and a combination of circumstances which led to some of that happy state of existence being spent in Devonshire – where my family comes from - provided the opportunity. A number of people provided the inclination, including my brother, a chap I met in a pub, cousins all over the world, a local amateur genealogist, and lots of other handsome and interesting people who I have come to know.


My studies started with a few names and dates from the family tree that my father's cousin had prepared  half a century ago, together with a few bits of half-remembered family gossip from way back. It was soon borne out on me that all the warnings I had received were right – this was going to be a task with no foreseeable end. 


Family History can be, like some of the books in the Old Testament, little more than lists of people begatting each other. One can construct a diagram to show who is related to who, and how. It is when one starts to look behind the bare facts that the fascination starts. For example, it is interesting to know that my great great grandparents were married in 1814, and their eldest son was born in 1815; it is much more interesting to discover that the two events were separated by only four months; and to learn eventually why this was then a pretty common occurrence is to put the family story in the context of the social fabric of the time. 


Early on I decided I wanted to know about things a bit more interesting than mere begatting - well, than other people begatting, perhaps. As a result I have made contact with relatives I never knew I had; met many dozens of people either in person or by correspondence; spent hours in libraries and reading rooms; trudged through mud in isolated farms, and shivered in windswept graveyards; encountered triumphs, and occasional disasters, and amassed a list of further matters to be investigated that will take another lifetime. 


Shortly I will be visiting the last surviving relative of my father's generation, and will be convulsed at his hilarious reminiscences of the R.A.F. during the War. His father was born 140 years ago, and became an M.P. – in 1905! Next month I will be at Founder's Day at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, as a guest of a pensioner who landed with my uncle at Dieppe in 1942. Filling in the time between events like these I will be transcribing the often unintelligible handwriting in the letters my great grandmother wrote in the 1880's and '90's , copied for me by a cousin in New Zealand, who was the first person to transverse the Colorado River – from bottom to top! These are among the people who I might have known about, but never got to know, without my interest in family history. 


There are enough books and magazines and journals which tell you how to begin family history research, and I am no expert on such things, but perhaps I can occasionally tell some stories which might help the budding researcher .