Branch out: brush up on family tree

MANY Britons have "surprisingly little" knowledge of their family history, with more than half having no idea where their grandparents were born, according to a survey by an ancestry website.

The poll, released today, of more than 2,500 adults also found that 43 per cent did not know their grandmothers' maiden names and 38 per cent had no idea what job their grandfathers had done.

Simon Harper, managing director of the website, said the survey had been commissioned to persuade people to use Christmas gatherings to learn about their family's past.

Mr Harper said: "We should all take the time to sit down, particularly with older members who tend to know more about the family history, and have a chat about the past, where our ancestors came from and what they did.

"Every family, whether blue-blood or blacksmith, has an interesting story to tell, and those who take the time to research and record their ancestors' lives and work invariably gain a greater appreciation of who they are today, which is a great legacy."

Mr Harper added that the festive season was the ideal time for relatives to catch up with each other as more than half (52 per cent) of the population would be spending time with three or more generations of their family.

The poll, carried out by YouGov, found that the average British family's knowledge of its history went back just 128 years, or around three generations, to 1878. Those in the south-east of England keep a better track, with an average of 137 years' knowledge while people from Wales know the least, with an average of just 108 years.

Women also tend to have more knowledge of their families than men, with half knowing where their grandparents were born compared with 42 per cent of men. But despite the apparent lack of knowledge of family history, 80 per cent of those surveyed said it was an important subject and 72 per cent claimed to be interested in genealogy.

Jennifer Dennis, 20, from Royal Circus, Edinburgh, has vivid memories of her grandparents on both sides of her family and has had many family stories passed down to her.

Ms Dennis, a first-year geography student at Leeds University, said: "When I was younger I visited my Scottish granny Joan Duff once a month at her farm at Buchlyvie in Stirlingshire. I also spent every summer with my American grandparents Peggy and Reid Dennis in San Francisco. My Scottish granny had a drawer full of old photographs and she would take them out and tell me who everyone was. She told me that my great-granny was a weaver and all about her two sisters Fay and Judy, now Lady Judy Steele.", like other family history sites, offers a range of facilities allowing customers to trace their ancestors through seven decades of UK census records.

It also offers help in charting changes in their lives as they married, shifted occupations, moved homes and expanded their families. More than 15 million birth, marriage, death, probate and burial names from parish registers in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland are logged for the years between 1538 and 1837.

But Professor Tom Devine, of the Sir William Fraser chair of Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, said he did not agree with the findings of the poll.

"There has been a craze over the last ten to 15 years for family history, which started with the Roots [book and TV series] phenomenon. I believe that people are in fact very interested in where they come from and know a great deal about it. It is typical of any modern European or Western society which has undergone massive change that we want to find out such things about ourselves."

Prof Devine said different techniques had been used by historians to keep a record of ordinary lives for future generations.

"Mass observation studies were used during the Second World War, where individual people of no significance kept diaries of the small but important things which happened to them - these are now a treasure trove for scholars."

Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, agreed that there was a strong interest in genealogy among ordinary people: "Programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? are very popular and give a guidance on how to go about it. However, we need to know where we come from."


Natalia Smith, 34, a voluntary worker from Leith, Edinburgh, said:

"My grandmother's maiden name was Merrylees but I don't know what my other granny's name was. All my grandparents were born in Edinburgh.

"I remember hearing about my grandfather working in a whisky bond and being an army piper before becoming a lift engineer. I also know my granny had four sisters - Jessie, Margaret, Tilda and Nelly.

"I might not know all the details, but I do have the funny stories. I have a 15-year-old daughter Kyle and I try to pass on family memories to her."


John O'Neill, 72, from Falkirk, a retired engineer, said he found more difficulty tracking the younger generation.

"My grandmothers' maiden names were McGowan and Docherty and just about all my relatives were born in Donegal and worked on farms.

"They ended up in Glasgow and worked in the yards or went to sea.

"I wrote a couple of letters to my nieces and asked them to do me a family tree with all the young ones. For me, the hard part is the younger ones because the babies are born with their parents not intending to marry, then they part."

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