Secrets of family history uncovered

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

POET Ralph Emerson once said: “Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”

It’s an interesting idea – that we can blame vices on predecessors, spot facial characteristics in forefathers; that we are an amalgamation of centuries of personality traits. Most of us know our grandparents, were perhaps lucky enough to know great-grandparents, and generally the buck stops there.

But thanks to the internet and a vast number of genealogy websites, tracing your family tree has not only become a popular pastime, it has become easier too.

So is it a rose-tinted adventure or a terrifying ride into a world of deep dark secrets?

Well, if you are a fan of hit TV series Who Do You Think You Are? you will be aware that often the murky past is long-forgotten for a reason.

Many a celebrity has appeared on the show to open a Pandora’s Box of unlawful marriages between relatives, unwanted children or criminal backgrounds.

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Actor Martin Sheen was told his uncle was a leading member of the IRA. Singer Annie Lennox uncovered an extraordinarily dark tale of tangled family relationships blighted by illegitimacy and poverty. And let’s not forget the episode when Bruce Forsyth learned that one of his ancestors was a serial bigamist, even going as far as to feign his own death.

For the last five years my mother has been trying to find out more about her family on her father’s side.

He was only a seven-year-old child when his own dad died and, apart from a sister, he knew nothing of any other relatives.

My mother spent a long time plotting a graph of her parents and siblings, methodically charting their dates of birth, details of their marriages and names of their children.

She joined online forums where people with the same hobby swap information and went through piles of old letters, photographs and heirlooms looking for clues.

Using known details – names, dates, places of birth and occupations – she painstakingly searched through birth, marriage and death records, census transcripts, parish records, trade directories, land-owner and military records, electoral rolls and wills.

She even took my dad on trips to various graveyards in all corners of the UK, taking pictures of tombstones and trying to map out a picture of her past.

It was like a giant puzzle that she was trying to put together, and yet there was always a piece missing when it came to her own grandfather.

His name was on her father’s birth certificate of course, but there was no trace of his marriage to her grandmother and no mention of him in documents pre-dating his son’s arrival.

In the end she posted a plea for help on an ancestry website, and just a few months ago she received an email from a woman also researching her family tree which suggested the man she was searching for did not go by his birth name, John, but actually used his middle name, Harry.

At first she dismissed the idea but curiosity got the better of her and a lot more digging unearthed the scandalous secret dear Harry had kept from the general census as well as his own children. He appears to have had a family – a wife and son – which he unceremoniously abandoned before starting a new life with another woman (my great grandmother) without ever divorcing.

It’s a story we hear hundreds of times in 21st century broken Britain but this would be quite the scandal 100 years ago.

And I can’t imagine what old Harry would make of the fact that the discovery of his shady secret has helped my mother locate two long-lost cousins: daughters of the brother my grandfather never knew he had.

I have yet to meet these cousins but my mum and her siblings have all been in contact and, as overjoyed as they are to have found the link, they are also dismayed that they did not know these relatives when they were growing up.

This is something I can sympathise with, because I simply cannot imagine not knowing my own 13 cousins.

I have four on my father’s side and an impressive nine on my mother’s side, of whom I am the eldest.

To say we are close is an understatement. I think of them as extra brothers and sisters.

There is always a big family get-together in my house over the Christmas holiday, all of us under the one roof, playing games and shouting to be heard.

This year just three from my mother’s side of the family were missing from the gathering and as usual it was raucous and a huge amount of fun.

During the festivities, my mother showed us some pictures she had found of our great-grandfather, filling us in on the story.

There were a few gasps, some astonishment and surprise, but generally just an interest in our roots.

Harry might have done his best to keep his family in the dark, but the truth is, if he had not had a child out of wedlock, his blood line would have died out.

And I hope he would be pleased to discover that even though our family tree was not planted in full sunshine, his shady secrets did not prevent it branching out beautifully.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.