How has lockdown been for you?
My last blog post was a diary of my family’s aborted trip to Morocco. It didn’t make sense to write a traveller’s guide (as I did with Madeira and Wales) because our trip was, within the first few days, rather more of an adventure than we had bargained for.
Experiencing a new country and a new continent is always a heady mix of exploration, learning, excitement and overwhelm but throw a pandemic novel coronavirus into the mix and it is a recipe for a somewhat more nerve-wracking experience.
Since then, our lives have been a little more sedate. So, I’ve had a lot of time to become absorbed in my latest obsession: family history research.
I love the element of detective work involved. It ticks all my boxes as a perfect lockdown activity. I’ve tried daily yoga, exercise videos and language learning but they haven’t given me as much pleasure, nor been as satisfying as finding out all about my extended family.
It’s far more than names, births and deaths; it’s where they lived, who they lived with, how they supported themselves financially, where they travelled to and piecing together snippets of information to try to build a greater understanding of their lives, loves, motivations and experiences.
Researching family history is enjoyable, interesting, taxing and occasionally thrilling. It has given me a greater sense of myself, my place in the world and in history. I have created emotional connections through the (virtual) exploration of new locations in my own and other countries. And I have reached out to other living relatives, second and third cousins I previously didn’t know existed, establishing new connections and exchanging information, research and photographs. In my mind, I have travelled far through time and space.
By reading between the lines, it is possible to recognise the particular circumstances individuals faced. Go back just a few generations and there is so much death. Not from a pandemic of a single cause, as we have today, but many different causes. It’s truly a wonder that we are all here at all. People in the 19th century and before were sitting ducks for all manner of incurable ailments from the moment they were born. New life starts with one document, only to disappear from the record just a year or two later. And it’s truly surprising how many people died under the age of 50.
Take the life of my great-great-grandmother, Esther Martha Butler, through the snapshot of the 1911 Census. She was a 49-year-old widow living in Chiswick, London, with her five children, having lost her husband, José, at the age of just 33. One of her children, my great-grandaunt, Stella, is herself a widow at the tender age of 25 and with her own young son, Lionel. Esther also lives with her mother, Eleanor Hammill Diplock, age 79, and another widow. This is less surprising, however she lost her husband, Thomas Bramah Diplock, when she was just 56. So, in one household we find three widows living with a combination of all of their children and no regular income. And this is in a relatively wealthy family. Poorer families faired much worse.
And then there are the treasures. Those discoveries that are worth marvelling at. I have found many of these and am sure there will be more. Tracing the Bramah branch of my family back to the 18th century I was amazed to find out that, in moving to Sheffield, I have returned to one of my ancestral homes.
I’ve always thought of the Bramahs as a London-based family, but they were actually descendants of the Brammas of Stainborough, a village to the north of Sheffield. My sixth great-grandfather, Joseph Bramma, was a cutler (a traditional Sheffield occupation) and a tenant farmer. A number of his sons moved to London during the Industrial Revolution and changed the family name from the Yorkshire-sounding Bramma, to Bramah. One of them, also called Joseph Bramah, is credited with inventing the flushing toilet, the beer pump, the hydraulic press and an unpickable lock. His company survives today, now named Bramah UK. His high quality flushing toilets were so popular with the upper classes in the 1880s, the phrase “it’s the real Bramah” was coined.
Joseph’s nephew, my fourth great-grandmother’s brother, John Joseph Bramah, an ironworker and engineer, expanded the family business at Pimlico, London, and worked with ‘Father of the Railways’ George Stephenson and his son Robert before partnering with civil engineer Sir Charles Fox and opening the London Works in Smethwick, Birmingham. John Joseph and his wife, Martha, brought up his nephew, my third-great grandfather, Thomas Bramah Diplock, after his parents died when he was just a year old.
Thomas became a surgeon and was elected Coroner of Middlesex. He presided over the inquest of a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. His daughter, Esther, my great-great grandmother, married the son of the British vice-consul to Morocco, José Butler, a Moroccan-born Spaniard. He was a merchant importing produce from Casablanca and the Canary Islands to London. He was descended from a branch of the Irish Butler family which fled Ireland following the Catholic persecution of the 17th Century and made their home in Cadiz.
Esther’s brother, Arthur Bramah Diplock, emigrated to Canada and was instrumental in the settling of Vancouver’s North Shore. Many of the Bramah Diplock descendants also moved to Canada and, through my research, I discovered that the family is now very much Canadian and I am in a minority. Of the 37 descendants of Thomas Bramah Diplock from my generation, only five (including myself) still live in England, two are Australian and 30 are Canadian.
I have unearthed most of this information through my research. And these are just the ancestors through my maternal grandfather. I am very aware that this branch of my family are exceptional. It is wonderful to discover members of your family through their detailed Wikipedia entries (through one I discovered there is a glacier in Antarctica named after my great-great-granduncle, another inventor Bramah Joseph Diplock).
However, I am not only interested in discovering these ‘treasures’. It’s just that they are easier to spot. I would be just as thrilled and impressed if more accessible information about the daily lives of any of my ancestors were available. To discover I had a third great-grandaunt who loved cats and grew roses and baked gooseberry pies or that my great-grandfather went on his first trip to the seaside age eight, would be just as exciting to my mind. From reaching out to extended relatives, I found out that a few of my ancestors wrote memoirs and they have been truly incredible to read, with all the detail and colour and feeling no official document can convey. There is nothing that makes history come to life more than reading about your blood relative living through it.
Tracing the entirety of my family back a few generations, I have discovered the possible reason why I’ve never felt terribly rooted in my home or the country I was born in. Of my 16 great-great grandparents, who lived through the second half of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, only half were British and residing in England. The other half were a mix of Irish, French, American and Spanish. Many of my eight great-grandparents and their siblings living through the first and second world wars, were expats. They were Irish in England, French in the US and English in Morocco and Canada. I feel strongly that somewhere in my subconscious, I have always known this and it has contributed to my desire to explore beyond my own shores.
Post-pandemic/post-vaccination/post-lockdown travel plans now include a trip to County Wicklow and Kilkenny in Ireland, various parts of Northern France, Cadiz in Spain, Tetuan, Safi and Casablanca in Morocco, Vancouver in Canada and Columbus, Ohio, along with numerous parts of Britain that, until recently, I had no idea I had any connection to.
Family history research is so much more than deciphering fancy handwriting on centuries old manuscripts (as interesting as this can be) or simply adding new members to your family tree, it is an exploration of self, a trip into the unknown, a tour of the places and experiences that made our family members who they were, and the hundreds and thousands of little choices that led to us coming into being at all. And I would highly recommend it!
I would love to hear your family history stories. Have you traced your ancestors and made a family tree? Do you have any famous family members or were you surprised about where your family came from? Want to know how to get started? Drop me a comment below!