I've discovered some new resources for researching my own family history online in the last few days; The National Library of Wales has generously put millions of Welsh Newspapers Online and searchable - (free) while London Lives also have a number of databases covering the 18th century in London - also free to search. Since I discovered - a few years ago - that my Somerset based grandfather had, in fact, been born in Sheffield, I have struggled to find out exactly where and recently acquired the address of his birth, from which a photograph was found on the immensely comprehensive Picture Sheffield site.
Interior of St Andrew Holborn - London place of my 3x Great-grandfather's wedding in 1777
It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent two days like a woman possessed - hopping from one link to another to another, copying, downloading, extracting information - filling in gaps, adding pieces to the jigsaw, imagining who these people were, how they lived, hope they coped, what gave them joy - what devastated them.
Rustlings Place, Ecclesall Bierlow, Sheffield - birthplace of my maternal Grandfather, George Silcox
But apart from the individual details about how my own small life is connected by a web to so many others, it also makes me regularly think about why I find the topic so fascinating - and why society has become so increasingly absorbed with the concept of 'Who We Think We Are' in the last couple of decades. The internet undoubtedly has a lot to answer for - researches which would have taken days, weeks, even years, and entailed the expenditure of many pound and travels of many miles can now be done at the click of a key. Moreover, the links between people - the matching up of dates and descriptions - can also be done almost instantly, with cross referencing and thus validation of otherwise tentative links, giving us the confidence to go forward.
But I think there are also other issues at play; as families and communities become fragmented, stories get lost or forgotten - and our stories tell us who we are. I believe that we all have a deep need to 'know our place' - we need to know where we fit in to the stories - the stories that stretch back before our own tiny lives (our lives get to feel quite tiny and insignificant as we grow older and experience setbacks as well as accomplishments, don't they?) and will stretch forward, into the future, carrying our own contributions to the as-yet-unwritten story that will stretch forward after we are gone.
When working as a bereavement counsellor, I sometimes hear people saying things like 'I feel as if part of me has died/been buried with (the deceased loved one)' - it may seem like a metaphorical description of how bereavement feels, but clients are often very comforted and uplifted when I affirm to them that - in one way - that is exactly what has happened; part of my client's story that was shared with the loved one has indeed died - but I also remind them that part of the loved one has also remained with them - memories of words and actions which influenced them, built them, moulded them - the parts that cannot die while they are still kept alive - by remembering and acting upon them - building their lessons into our own lives.
It's yet another reason for writing things down, my friends; write down your stories…save, contemplate, discuss and act upon those images, artefacts, words… it's one way that we can all grasp a fragment of immortality: by remembering - and learning from the richness of our shared, collective stories.