Why I started Family History.

I am often asked how I got started in researching Family Histories. My immediate answers are not the ones people expect.

Let’s go back to 1987. My eldest son was born. My head was full of questions regarding what the future may hold for him, and then they turned to: what were his roots? I couldn’t let this thought go and over the next few weeks, it started to grow. I always had an interest in history, and my family were important to me. So, the step into actual research was very natural for me. I started asking lots of questions of my family, which is the best first step for anyone researching their tree. When I am asked to research someone’s tree I first ask: “What do you or any of your living family members know?”  Typically, the client will have a lot more information than they first realized.  Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins are the best place to start, then I can begin to check for evidence.

The search, for me, is everything. I still get a buzz when I can confirm a hunch. Or discover a new trail I need to go down. If that means learning a new piece of history, or about a new part of the country, all the better. Then there is the keeping on top of all the new finding aids, whether available online or not. So, it’s a continual learning experience. Some of you will know I am keen on quizzing, and it’s amazing how much I learn doing research eventually crops up in a quiz!

I have now been running Ichthus this time round for 8 months. It’s been a roller coaster. I have traced a missing grandparent to Australia, and united 2 families who didn’t know about each other. I’ve researched Romany families. I have researched Jewish roots. I have learnt a lot about name changes. I have followed a family through different parts of Oxford. I have traced three separate Davies families in Glamorgan & Breconshire. I have researched the British Army in Jamaica. I have also learned how to start researching in the Caribbean. I obtained the necessary paperwork for someone to claim an Irish passport. And I discovered that a proud Welshman had an English mother. Consternation in his family!  So, quite a selection that shows how varied our ancestors are! We are not a homogenous society; we have different sides and roots.

Romany Caravan

And we all have different stories; No two families are the same. And each new life creates yet another story. As time goes by, the stories become tangled. The truth becomes distorted. And that’s what I enjoy. Finding out what really happened. In my mother’s family, the story was that we were of Spanish origin. In my research I have not yet found any truth in this. However, I have had a DNA test, and it shows I do have some Spanish roots. I also have roots in most of the rest of Europe! So the search goes on, and I look forward to finding the kernel that started the family story!

spain flag

Would you like me to do the same for you? Who knows what you will find out!

The Irish Diaspora

How successive waves of emigrants from Ireland have affected the world, especially Birmingham

Wicklow mountains
Although the landscape is beautiful, economic and social pressures drove waves of people to leave Ireland

The story goes that if you scratch a Brit, you discover an Irishman. The reality is probably not too far from this. The movement of the Irish into Britain was certainly established by the time of the Roman Invasion, and the Romans even recruited the Irish into their Army where they served mainly in Germany. There was a steady movement throughout history, which started to expand exponentially when the potato famine struck Ireland. What had been a gentle trickle of people became a torrent.

As well as moving to Britain, Irish people moved all over the world. An excellent example of this is Hercules Mulligan. Born in Coleraine in County Londonderry in 1740, his family emigrated to North America in 1746. Opening a haberdashery and tailoring business, he served British officers and passed along information to the Revolutionary Army. He was recommended to Washington by Alexander Hamilton, and is currently a main character in the Broadway musical based on the latter man’s life.

Military-minded Irishmen serving other European countries was a common occurrence, particularly France. A notable result of this was Patrice de MacMahon, duc de Magenta. His ancestors moved from Limerick to settle in France during the reign of King William III because of their support for the deposed King James II. They applied for French citizenship in 1749 and in 1875 their descendant Patrice was elected President of France.

So the Irish in Britain are part of a much wider picture. The famine in Ireland in the 1840s boosted emigration to Britain. Birmingham, in common with other British conurbations, saw a large influx; by 1851 4% of Birmingham’s population was born in Ireland. As is usual with migrant communities they tended to congregate in the same areas, normally those with the cheapest housing. There was a large community around Greens Village, described as being decrepit houses with few drains. In the 1841 census there were about 350 residents listed, nearly one third of whom had been born in Ireland and a high proportion of them were unskilled labourers.

By 1851 the proportion born in Ireland was 51%, and if you add in the children born in England, the Irish community in this area grows to over 60%. Even in 1881 there is still a preponderance of households being headed by those born in Ireland, and the children being born in Birmingham. This area was eventually destroyed when John Bright street was cut right through the heart of it in the 1880s.

The Irish Diaspora has had a lasting influence on Birmingham. One of the most influential was John Frederick Feeney. He was born in Boyle, County Roscommon in 1807 and came to Birmingham in the 1830’s. He became owner of the Birmingham Journal in 1844 and launched the Birmingham Post in 1857. Both papers were radical in their political outlook. He was succeeded by his son John Feeney, who was born in Birmingham in 1839. In his will he provided a sum to the Birminghaam Museum and Art Gallery to fund a new gallery. He also set up a Charitable Trust that helps art charities and schemes that helps look after parks and open spaces. One of its successes was in the 1930’s and 1950’s when it helped prevent development on the Clent Hills, and helped in presenting them to the National Trust.

The story of the Irish diaspora is fascinating, and has obvious parallels with many modern groups. Immigration peaked again in the late 40’s and 50’s, and some of my own family arrived at that time. As had been the case in earlier waves of immigration, they weren’t entirely welcomed, but many found jobs in manufacturing and construction and together they helped make Britain what it is.

Do you think you have Irish roots? If you’d like to learn more about them, do get in touch and we can talk about what I could do to help! Knowing more about your past is a great gift – if you think you know someone else who might like to learn about their family then have a look at the gift vouchers I have available: they’re perfect for Christmas and birthdays!

Wicklow Mountains
Although the landscape was beautiful, economic and social pressures pushed people to leave Ireland

How Birmingham grew, and how it affected my family

Birmingham Canal at Brindley Place
The Birmingham Canal – the city couldn’t have grown without it

The history of Birmingham

My own ancestral research started by looking at my mother’s family in Birmingham. Everyone sees this now as a place of heavy industry and multiculturalism. But was it always like this? How has Birmingham grown?

By the end of the 13th Century there were many smithies in Birmingham, attracted by its position as a crossing point of the River Rea and on the road from the 2 powerful centres of Worcester and Lichfield. This small village just grew and grew, aided also by being in the centre of an area that produced both coal and iron, both huge and vital industries at the time.

This growth was only possible because of immigration, from “local” areas and from wider afield. Birmingham grew exponentially, aided in the main by those who came from elsewhere to make lives and fortunes in Birmingham. This can be illustrated very well by looking at the statue that stands outside what used to be the old Registry Office in Broad Street. It depicts 3 industrialists whose influence is still felt today. James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland and moved to Birmingham around 1774. He came to enter into a partnership with Matthew Boulton, who was born in Birmingham, with a family from down the road in Lichfield. The third of the trio, William Murdock, was born in Lugar, East Ayrshire. He moved to Birmingham in 1777 after walking from Scotland, a distance of about 250 miles! And he came because he wanted to work for Watt, who was known even at that distance as a great industrialist.

So we have two Scots and a first -generation Staffordshire man. These men continued to build on the manufacturing base that was already developing. But of course they weren’t the first or last people who’d pin their dreams on moving somewhere new: since the early days Birmingham has relied on immigrants.

I can see this in my own family. A number of years ago (I won’t say quite how long!) I looked at the 1881 census, which includes my Great Grandfather Joseph Billingham. Of course, a large number of the inhabitants were born in Birmingham, but you can also find people from almost every other county of England. Joseph’s own mother was from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire!. I even found a page full of Welshmen, and there were Irish and Scots aplenty. Oh, and 3 French-born souls!

Joseph Billingham Mark Kite
Joseph Billingham himself, with his wife Mary Kite

As that century ended, immigration from the Empire greatly increased. In the 1911 census in Birmingham there are a large number of people born in India, many with names originating on the subcontinent. There are also many from Italy, Spain and Germany, and all of them contributed to the great explosion of wealth which was happening at the time. Birmingham was a great source of the Arts & Crafts movement, with the Jewellery Quarter being a great part of that, and it couldn’t have happened without the influx of ideas from all those immigrants. Birmingham is what it is because it has always accepted people from all over.

So what does this mean for those researching family history? It means that what starts in Birmingham may very well not end there, and vice versa! I had my ancestral DNA tested a while ago, and whilst there was the expected preponderance of Irish and British genes, over a quarter of me is non-British. The rest covers most of Europe, and a tantalisingly small amount from the Indian sub continent. Whilst my research hasn’t found these ancestors yet, I am still looking for them. My mother’s ancestors I have found are from various parts of England. I look forward to taking them out of the country!

Vince