Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Black Sheep in the Family ?

(With thanks to Chris Paton's blog Edinburgh born WDYTYA man's Nazi grandfather and The Herald, Scotland.)

Reported in the Herald, Martin Davidson, the BBC’s commissioning editor for history, which includes a favourite genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?, discovered that his German grandfather, Bruno Langbehn, had been one of the first members of the Nazi party, a high-ranking SS officer, and colleague of the architects of the Holocaust.

That's a good pretext for asking genealogists whether we're scared to research our family history deeply in case we unearth something we don't like, whether it's ancestors who did something bad, held ideas that we find repugnant, failed
in business, deserted the family.

Should we be scared ?

Generally, we can't be held responsible for what our ancestors thought or did, but perhaps we are responsible for what our children do.
If genealogy or family history consisted only of creating family tree charts and getting back as many generations as possible, I doubt there would be much of a following; and I think it's finding out more about our ancestors and the times in which they lived that makes family history so interesting.

That's why Borders Family History Society has always been keen on researching social history as well as transcribing monumental inscriptions and publishing.
Past publications have included foreign births, marriages, deaths reported in local newspapers, Days of Our Youth - Memories of Melrose, Dunse Barony Records (transcription of Court Records), Full of Egotism, the Diary of Rev John Hastie, Edrom, Jedburgh Parish Poor Law Records (1852-1874), Jedburgh Parish Poor Law Records (1875-1893), Kelso Poor Law and Ragged School Records, Melrose War Memorial, The Kirk Yetholm Gypsies.

We're working on other publications, Criminal Records, Lunatic Records, Melrose Parish Poor Law Records, Police Records too.

However many of these show our ancestors in a very poor light.

Recently, I helped a friend research a lady on her family tree who had been committed to a lunatic asylum for striking pictures in her house with a walking stick, however, she wonders whether that lady's descendants fear people knowing that their ancestor had mental health problems.

Another record was about a man who had suicidal tendencies, deeply depressed because he was ashamed of deeds done when he was younger. I shied away from mentioning the nature of his deeds and identifying him other than by his forename in my article for the Border Telegraph because it is a family newspaper - I would not want his descendants, some of whom might be school children, bullied, ostracised, traumatised because of what their ancestor did.

However, was that the correct decision ?

Is it worse to have an ancestor that was transported to Australia for stealing a purse, than to have one that was jailed for poaching or assault ?

Lastly, there are also a lot of websites that list people with criminal or lunatic pasts, for example, Black Sheep Ancestors and London Lives 1690-1820. Should such sites be allowed ?

I would be interested in your comments.

If you have any comments, please let me know by clicking the 'comments' link below.


Niall Scott said...

Certainly sites such as those mentioned should be allowed, any site that enables us to unravel our past should be welcomed, even if we aren't exactly happy with the results.
Should we associate ourselves with criminal and lunatic ancestors? That's more difficult and is very much a personal decision. I would agree with you that if you are writing publically about something which might cause offence you should tone it down, especially if the subject lived fairly recently.
As to whether the fear of what you might find should put you off researching then NO, it shouldn't. You are an individual who has been shaped by your experiences and those around you. If while researching you find out that an ancestor was Jack the Ripper, how has that affected your personality, it may in the future but how could it affect what you are if you didn't know about it?
I readily admit to having ancestors who committed suicide, were alcoholics and died in asylums, so what I've also got leading temperance people, prominent hotel keepers, baillies, doctors, a missionary and a moderator of the CofS somewhere in my tree. I'm none of those things so why should it bother me.
I'm not responsible for my ancestors but I do feel I have a responsibilty to future generations therefore :-
WHY is the key word? Trying to understand why our ancestors were like they were is much more interesting and important.

Peter Munro said...

Thanks for your comment. You make some very good points, particularly in referring to ancestors' behaviour and occupations, "I'm none of those things so why should it bother me."

However, we're only human. It certainly bothers me that one of my ancestors was a slaver, in that he was the captain of a ship that transported people to the Caribbean to be slaves. No doubt, in the ethos of the time, many people saw him as a successful businessman and a professional sea-officer. I'm still hoping the ship's log books may turn up in an archive somewhere.

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