Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Family histories

Society of Genealogists
building in London
photo: Fergusfish
Some years ago, there was a history exhibition in London and the most popular exhibits were about genealogy and family history. Despite its popularity, family histories are perhaps the most unreliable of all. Anyone who watches the Antiques Roadshow will have seen someone claim that that their antique had once been owned by someone famous, and then the expert has to tell them that it was made decades after the death of that person.

My own family history seems no more reliable -- my paternal grandfather, evidently, ran away from home at the age of ten. According to my father, he worked on various farms until he was old enough to join the army, and during WW1 had been part of a detachment training troops in Russia. I remember seeing some army countermarked Russian stamps he had brought back with him.

That my grandfather was an "old soldier" seemed obvious enough to me when I was very young -- his gruff manner, general lack of words and his thin moustache supported the story and once I saw him returning from taking the dog out with a snake bite above his foot -- like a scene out of an old western, he cut open the wound with a hunting knife and sucked out the poison which he spat in an enamel bowl provided my my grandmother, cursing the snake (adder) all the time.

The stories about my great grandfather were not as believable -- at least in some of the details. My grandfather said that he ran away from home as his father was a drunk -- well, I could believe that part. It is a common enough story, after all. He also said that his father was a ventriloquist in the music halls of London and that he was fed up with holding up his father on the stage while the latter held the dummy. I got rather more skeptical about that, but generally believed that my great grandfather must have been the black sheep of the family.

Other stories about my great grandfather seemed even less likely: he was an inventor and had invented the mechanical pencil (selling the design to Parker) and had also invented the pigment Hooker's green. There was also some other important invention, but the family had forgotten what it was. I came to the conclusion that the stories about my great grandfather was probably a composite and that other, completely wrong, details had been added along the way. If it was an ancestor of mine who had invented Hooker's green then it seemed more likely to be the botanical illustrator, William Hooker (1779 – 1832) who was noted for using very pure, brilliant colours. Hooker's green was an organic pigment that replaced the mixture of Prussian blue and gamboge which was rather dull in comparison. Nowadays, it seems to be all an artificial, chemical pigment.

The strangest family story is a relatively recent one -- my aunt (now dead) had imagined that she was seeing my father interviewed on British television. After a few moments, the name appeared on the screen and she realized that it was not my father, but Sir Stanley Hooker, the well-known British aviation engineer. The strange part was that not only did he look a bit like my father (I could believe him as an uncle), but he had the same voice and mannerisms as well as the same last name. The problem was that, if he was indeed a relative, it could not possibly be that close.

A couple of months ago, I saw that one of the genealogy web sites was offering a month's free subscription and I decided to give it a try. I had no ideas about tracking my entire family tree, I was mainly interested in my great grandfathers on both sides of my family as I knew next to nothing about either. I did quite well with my mother's paternal grandfather, he had been a bookbinder and one of his sons had followed in his trade. There was family legend that one relative had been a bookbinder and had been given a bible to bind in snakeskin for Queen Victoria, and that she had presented his family with a gift of gold watches as thanks for the job. I could not verify any of this but did discover that the Queen did have a fascination with snakes. My grandfather was also certainly good with his hands -- he was an expert cabinet maker and a painter who once exhibited at the Royal Academy. Although he died when I was very young, I still remember some of his paintings -- rather academic and "Victorian", portraits seemed to be his specialty, although I heard that he had also produced landscapes that were reproduced to decorate British Railway carriages -- professionally, he was a signalman and had allegedly been rewarded for putting out a fire caused by an incendiary bomb during WW II that was threatening a museum -- managing to operate a two man pump all by himself.

To cut a long story short, I was able to track my family back to the 1840's but no earlier. The big surprise, though, was that my paternal grandfather was not the black sheep of the family -- instead, it seems that honour was claimed by my grandfather -- though I still cannot understand why he ran away from home. My great grandfather was  Edward Hooker who was born in Surrey in 1846 and was living in Tottenham, London in 1891. He had a very Victorian profession as a glass painter. He had a fairly large family and I saw their house on Google Earth -- something that an alcoholic ventriloquist would have been very unlikely to have owned! I also found it rather interesting that both sides of my family had been living on north London, virtually within walking distance of where I grew up since the 1840's.

I'm not sure whether I will pursue my family history any further -- a friend who has never been that wealthy tracked his family back hundreds of years. Apparently, none of his ancestors had much money either -- the family tree being made easier to track because his ancestors often had their graves paid for by the local church and such transactions were all recorded.

My favorite genealogy story is fiction but I think it demonstrates a typical let-down experienced by those who would check into their family history: in Robertson Davies' "Deptford trilogy" a wealthy businessmen learns that he has the same surname as a town in England. Thinking he must come from an illustrious family, he hires a genealogist to construct his family tree. It turns out that a female ancestor was of rather loose morals. When she gave birth to a son, the baby was given the surname of the town in which the mother lived as it was reasoned that the father could have been just about any man in the town!


  1. hi john,nice post,you are a real tottenham boy.tottenham was a very affluent area with some nice big houses in early victorian times.most of tottenham manor belongnd to robert the bruce,this is why we have bruce grove just off the high road and bruce castle museum ,though bruce himself never lived in tottenham.his lands in england were forfeited to the english crown when he won the scottish crown in 1306.wikipedia says tottenham has only been settled for 1000 years but the local museum is full of roman finds from tottenham and the curator there believes it was settled by some romans as early as 200 ad. ermine st ,one of the major roman roads going north from london runs along where tottenham high road is now.its a shame the area has gone downhill over last 30 yrs,the last two major riots in uk both started in tottenham.when i started reading your post i thought you were going to say you were related to royallty.i dont know if you watched the documentary about richard the 3rd where they had found his body under a car park .they traced a living relative of his,a lowly carpenter in london.if we go back far enough we are probably all related to someone famous or infamous.all the best.

  2. Hi Kyri, and of course, my father made being a Spurs supporter a family law! I'll probably stop the ancestor search while I'm ahead -- and it's nice to still have a few mysteries.