>One phenomenon that intrigues me both professionally as an historian and personally as a genealogist is what families remember and what they forget. My immediate forebears are pretty good on the memory front. When I first became interested in the family history as a teenager, my grandparents could fill in most of the details about their grandparents and add clues about lines further back. There were some surprises. For example, my grandfather did not know the names of his father’s parents, nor even when his own father was born, and had no idea that he had (and still has) Sherlock cousins living in Wisconsin, USA.
My father remembered tales about the family’s illustrious Hungerford connections, and a myth that we were direct descendants of the Duke of Wellington. That particular myth was well documented in correspondence and charts dating back to the early twentieth century, and was corroborated by enough descendants to suggest it had its origins in the mid-nineteenth century. The ‘base-born’ ancestor in question, Tom White Melville Winder is easy to trace in Australia, though we know nothing of him prior to his arrival in Sydney in 1816, and his very names were passed down through the family ensuring a living memorial.
But no-one remembered anything about his wife, except the somewhat difficult fact that Winder married Ellen Johnson in 1848, some 30 years after their first child was born. This woman was our earliest known Australian-born ancestor, child of one John Lyster and Margaret Mooney, who were transported to Australia in the 1790s, and she died in 1887 in her late eighties. Why wasn’t she remembered?
Likewise, my great-uncle Melville Cooper Newth knew that, just as his first name pointed to great-great-grandfather Winder, his second name referred to his mother’s Gloucestershire ancestors, the Coopers of Wotton-under-Edge, a well-to-do eighteenth-century family. Yet, just as with Ellen Johnson, he and his family knew nothing of his mother’s grandfather, Richard Goodwin, not even his name. Richard only appears fleetingly in the historical record, as groom of Emily Fitzgerald at Windsor in 1854, and as father of James and of Gerald in 1855 and 1858. His son’s 1858 birth certificate claims he was aged 25 and born in Sydney, but no record survives. He remains my one Australian-born ancestor I cannot trace. 1833 was not that long ago, really, so why doesn’t anyone know anything? Why were these people so comprehensively forgotten?
Part of the answer surely lies in social values based on achievements of wealth and status, or even of unremarkable middle-class prosperity; Gerald Goodwin’s grandchildren remember him because he was a successful chemist and recognised community figure, while his wife Emily was a bit posh. Winder was a highly successful merchant who bought up big estates in the Hunter Valley and mixed with the cream of colonial society. Figures like Ellen Johnson and Richard Goodwin, despite, or perhaps because of belonging by birth to the early British colony, were nobodies with nothing special to recommend them to posterity.
In this way, genealogical research stands at odds with ‘family history’ in the sense of collective memory. The unremembered are recovered, but shorn of the webs of significance that would give them a place in a coherent family narrative. Instead the genealogist must imagine and interpret, perhaps look further afield beyond the narrow walls of ‘family’ to the wider historical context to gain a glimpse of who these people were and why, beyond mere biological association, they might matter.