Secrets And Scandals: Why I'm Researching My Family Tree

27/08/2012 23:33 BST | Updated 27/10/2012 10:12 BST

I come from a very secretive family, at least on my dad's side. My paternal grandma passed away months before I was born meaning I never got to know her or develop a true sense of who she was, and although I grew up visiting my grandpa regularly, he was very quiet when it came to discussing family. I've heard snippets of information about his twin brothers and sister, and every so often I've caught whispers about my great grandparents. There seems to be a distinct lack of photographs, and a distinct lack of discussion. My dad isn't one for heading backwards into the past, and can't quite understand my fascination with tracing our roots. He hints at dark secrets and family feuds in the hope of putting me off, perhaps in fear of opening a tricky can of worms. But I've always been the nosey, inquisitive, talkative member of the Massey family, full of questions and interested in other peoples' lives. Plus, I'm a writer, and all writers are naturally curious. I enjoy painting a picture of characters, and in this case I'm enjoying putting together the puzzle of who my ancestors were and how they went about their lives.

My main motivation behind researching my family tree is wanting to understand how I got here. Who put me here and where do I come from? Beyond my parents and grandparents, who came before? For some reason I feel that by uncovering my roots I can somehow get a better sense of the part I play in a much bigger picture. Individually, I suppose I'm quite inconsequential in terms of the history of the world; I live in London, work in a school, am studying for a degree with the Open University and write voraciously in my spare time. I haven't achieved much yet, but I find it strangely reassuring to think that there must be generations of men and women linked to me through my ancestry, making me a part of something bigger. Which might seem a little self-involved, in terms of motives, but what can I say; writers can be a little self-centred at times!

People always seem surprised to hear my answer to the question 'where are you from?' I'm entirely English in terms of parentage and grandparents, and I always felt when I was younger that this made me quite boring. Other people have such exciting heritages; my fiancé is half Italian and half Jamaican which means he's always had holidays with family in Sardinia, and has relatives in Jamaica and America. The greatest heritage related holiday I can claim to have had is a weekend in Center Parcs, which never seem quite as exciting in comparison! I'm happy that our children will have links abroad and the chance to learn about other cultures. But since having started researching my family tree I've realised I'm something of an exception; my paternal past is firmly rooted in the heart of London, stretching back into the 1700s and possibly beyond. Rather than being boring, maybe that's actually kind of cool? The possibility of having ancestors involved in events such as the fight for women's suffrage and the English Civil War is so exciting, and I hope I'll be able to keep researching as far as back as documents will allow, through as many centuries as possible.

So far I've come across merchants, servants, religious dissenters and some instances of emigration (meaning I may have relatives abroad after all - woop!) I haven't yet uncovered any real secrets or scandals, but my dad seems confident that I will, eventually. I'm getting to grips with census records, occupation documents, birth, marriage and death certificates, and as each new discovery unfolds I can't help but feel overwhelmed with pride at who my ancestors were, mixed with a sense of comfort in acknowledging the long line of people stretching back behind me as I go about living my life in the twenty-first century.

Of course, there's also a persistent, niggling sense of fear; what if one of my ancestors committed a shocking crime? What if they were mean, horrible people? What if the characters I've created in my mind end up being dashed by unfortunate discoveries? Were they rich? Were they poor? Did they struggle or did they thrive? The one thing I've learnt fairly quickly is that the more you research, the longer your list of questions becomes. Although a potentially daunting prospect, it's also exciting and thrilling, and as someone in the early stages of ancestry tracing I can tell you that there's nothing more addictive than nosing into other peoples' pasts, especially when those people are your family.