BBC Television’s Who do you think you are? series seems filled with expressions of shock, horror and grief for the plight of forebears. Persons featured seem not to have expected the stories that are revealed, what had they imagined life to be like? Daily existence for the majority of people was a struggle, a fall too deep into poverty could mean the workhouse, an illness more than a cold could be fatal.
Every family tree will have its elements of tragedy. In times before digitisation of records and the capacity for using a computer to search for forebears, years spent as the rector of a small country parish meant having time to spend with with people who were searching through parish records. In rural Ireland, the stories seemed almost inevitably to include sad incidents, but there never seemed to be more than a nodding acceptance on the part of those searching, no exclamations of “Oh! my God,” no tears.
Former generations would probably have thought it odd that there were expressions of emotion at the simple reality of everyday life for people you had not known and could never know. Geraldine Luxton, my maternal grandmother came from our neighbouring village of Aller. Her great grandfather, Thomas Luxton had moved to Aller where he married Hannah Sawtell in 1827. They had seven children. Jemima had died at the age of one month in 1830. Daniel had died at the age of four years in 1843, his baby brother William had died at the same time at the age of four days, and they were buried on the same day. Four months after the death of her two youngest children Hannah herself had died at the age of thirty-four. In the next generation there were fourteen children, six of whom were to die between the ages of four and twenty-one. There would have been no need to have researched the family tree, no need to have gone through the pages of the parish registers, you would only have needed to have walked among the headstones in Aller churchyard to discover the tale of the family. Death was part of life.
Simply surviving became an achievement for many people, all the more so when wars added to the death toll. There can hardly have been a family in the country who lived through the two world wars and did not have at least one member who was either killed or wounded.
To research a family tree and to find no tragedy whatsoever would be remarkable. Perhaps the exclamations should be reserved for the stories of those who faced no sadness or grief, for those would be the tales that were unusual.