Sarah von Allmen
52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 1
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Week 1 - Foundations.
52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is a genealogy challenge which has been running for a few years now and which I decided – belatedly – to join this year. The idea is to use a weekly prompt to write about an ancestor, relative or other aspect of your research and to share it in some form. Now, the more attentive may have noticed that it’s the end of the third week in January and I’m only on week 1, so I have a little catching up to do if I want to be in synch with everyone else!
The prompt for week 1 was “Foundations”, which could be interpreted in any way I wanted. I don’t have a family line with an obvious “founding father”, and although one or two relatives worked at times as builders or navvies this aspect didn’t inspire me particularly. After reflection I decided to look at the theme from another angle and write about the original foundations of my research: the information I knew when I set out and how I was able to build on it.
On Mum’s side of the family, I benefited immediately from information passed on to me by her older brother, who spent a considerable amount of time researching the family in the 1970s and 1980s. He had talked to older relatives and distant cousins I never knew, visited multiple record offices in the places where the family had lived, and as I checked out his information with the databases now available online, I found (to my total lack of surprise) that I could easily confirm virtually all his research. The only significant exception was one ancestor with the relatively uncommon surname Sorton whose baptismal record my uncle was unable to locate, and who he tentatively suggested might belong to the only family of the same name in the immediate area. However, since the time of my uncle’s research the water-damaged portion of the 1851 census for Manchester (where our ancestor was living at the time) had been digitally restored, and this gave a place of birth slightly further afield which led to a corresponding parish record and a different Sorton family. (As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that DNA testing gave me a distant cousin match to a descendant of the “wrong” family, so I need to try and work out how they fit in!)
Dad’s side of the family, on the other hand, was virgin territory. When I started my research, Dad spent a weekend with his older sister and came back with a large sheet of paper covered in a rough 3-generation tree of their mother’s family and various jotted notes. However, although they were able to tell me about their maternal aunts, uncles and cousins, they knew little about their Irish grandparents (both of whom died before my father was born) apart from their respective towns of birth and the fact that their grandfather had served in the army and supposedly fought at Sebastopol.
If their knowledge of their mother’s origins was thin, that of their father’s was almost inexistant. All they knew about their paternal grandmother was that she claimed loftily to her Manchester relatives that “her people came from Bath”, but they had never known her husband and couldn’t remember their father or his sister ever even mentioning him.
The jottings on the paper included gems such as:
“My father acknowledged two cousins: Alice (who was very pretty) and Florence (who was very odd).”
“No one seemed to know who Alice’s parents were, including Alice herself.”
Not the most promising start, and to cap it all I discovered that there was no birth registration in my grandfather’s name anywhere near his known date and place of birth!
So, to sum up, at this point on Mum’s side of the family I had not just solid foundations but an edifice well under construction, while on Dad’s side I had the genealogical equivalent of a few half-hearted trenches awaiting cut-price bricks and dodgy cement knocked up on the cheap by a bunch of cowboy builders. It would be some time before I was able to solve the mysteries posed by two consecutive generations of pseudonyms and less-than-accurate declarations on official documents, but I eventually reached a point where I could start building on reliable foundations on his side too.