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A Hobby That Can Become So Much More
My blog is a little late this week because I spent most of the holiday weekend deeply entrenched in the past. After my son’s treasure hunt birthday party on Saturday, I engaged in a different kind of treasure hunting for the remainder of my three-day weekend. I had stumbled upon the World War I service records of my grandfather and the father of an uncle-by-marriage. Both had served in the British Army. One came home, married my grandmother, had four children, and lived to be 85 years old. The other died on the fields of Festerburt in France, never seeing his only son, who was not quite four months old at the time. That son, who turns 95 next month in England, married the eldest daughter of the man (my grandfather) who made it home from the War.
You may be wondering how this qualifies as a technology blog post. Well, for starters, I dug up those first two treasures at ancestry.co.uk, a subscription-based genealogy website covering British (mostly English and Welsh) research interests. In this country, its American counterpart, ancestry.com, is very popular with genealogists of all ages. I’ve been researching my own genealogy – or family history – for about twenty years now. Being the child of two British-born parents, and being married to another Brit, I have never had to search far for my immigrant ancestor. For many other hobbyists, such individuals are much more elusive.
A hobby once enjoyed primarily by retired white folks is now enjoying much greater popularity with a much more diverse audience, primarily due to resources and communities available through the Internet. Another website I frequent is genesreunited.co.uk – again, a UK-based site due to my own family’s past. If you are ever interested in learning more about your own heritage, start by interviewing every living relative you can (Skype, Facebook, e-mail, and other technologies make this easier than it used to be), and then begin your online searching. You can find forms to start with, local family history libraries at Mormon churches*, and online communities and companies devoted to furthering one’s ancestral treasure hunt.
* Please note: the Mormon church – also known as LDS, short for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – will not attempt to proselytize or convert you. Mormons are required by their faith to research their ancestors, and their efforts have made available countless records and databases.
The hunt that began earlier this past weekend with some service records led me down another path, one that occupied the rest of my short vacation. My grandfather, William Henry Speake, listed as his parents Thomas George and Sarah Speake. Sarah Speake was not my great grandmother. My Granddad’s mother died when my grandfather was only about seven years old. His father remarried about a year later – to a Sarah Griffiths – and this second wife helped raise the children, including the youngest who was born as their mother died in childbirth. My father had told me about a second wife who had raised many of the children in the family, according to what his father had told him. Until about a year ago, I could never find anything to bear this story out. Seeing her name in print, given by my grandfather in his Army record, was the catalyst to trying to find out more about her. She had been married before, also widowed, and had seven children of her own (which explained three of the visitors living with my grandfather’s family in the 1911 Census: one of Sarah’s daughters along with a son-in-law and grandson, all described simply as visitors).
This story is of little interest to anyone outside our families, of course, but it gives a glimpse of the addiction that researching one’s genealogy can produce. I spent the rest of my weekend digging up records of names, dates, and places for a family that is not even related to me by blood. I marked places in Google Earth to gauge their proximity. I recorded details in my Reunion software. I e-mailed distant cousins in England to share my findings and to ask for further details. And I began a correspondence with a woman in Australia whose husband is descended from my Granddad’s stepmother and her first husband. All in a weekend. All because of the Internet and its resources.
And I made a connection to world-changing events of nearly one hundred years ago, my own personal version of world history as it applies to my little corner of the gene pool. My uncle (whose father was killed in 1915) grew up to serve in the British Army himself, in World War II in Northern Africa. His sister-in-law (my aunt) met and married a Yank stationed near their town in Northern England, prompting much of the family’s move “across the pond.” His young brothers-in-law (my uncle and father) moved to America, joined the United States Air Force, and served during and after the Korean War. All these events in our nations’ shared history come alive for me through the stories and memories of my father’s generation, all gone now but for two uncles. And these stories I will share with my son. A future birthday party of his may be a different kind of treasure hunt.
Description of photos, all owned by me:
1. Thomas George Speake, my great grandfather — from Rob Griffiths (not descended from Sarah Griffiths), my second cousin
2. Annie (Dowbiggin) and Bill Speake, around 1920, my father ‘s parents — from Rob Griffiths
3. Field Day 1948: Alan Rigby (age 10), Margaret (Hull) Rigby**, Stuart Speake (age 11) and Russ Rigby (age 7) in front of Reta (Speake) Rigby, Annie (Dowbiggin) Speake, Thomas “Todd” Hull, and “Auntie Mary”? — from Reta Rigby
4. Alan Rigby (my first cousin) and Stuart Speake (my father) in 2003
** It was Margaret (Hull) Rigby who lost her husband in 1915 when their son was only three and a half months old.