Although family history is based on provable facts it does not mean you should ignore individual memories or family stories which have been handed down orally over generations. A senior member of a family, a grandparent born in the 1930s or 40s could give you a direct link to someone alive during the reign of Queen Victoria.
My father, now long dead, was born in 1915 and his parents were both born in the 19th century, one the son of a Welsh minister who had started life as a weaver in Machynlleth, the other the daughter of a businessman whose father had been a box maker in the mid-19th century who built a business bottling mineral water and other drinks in Worcester.
I had long talks with my mother over the years uncovering our family history
My mother was born in 1920 in Liverpool from a family, named Lloyd, which had originated in North Wales. On her mother’s side the family had strong ties to Scotland, her grandfather, surnamed Craig, was born in Ayrshire in the mid-19th century.
Both had many tales to tell, some which had come straight from the horse’s mouth while others had originated further back in the 19th century, or even the 18th century.
Talking to these older family members can provide a grand store of family stories which might appear to have grown over the decades but can provide solid clues of where to look and, surprisingly, some of these old stories have a solid foundation of proof.
An example of this was a story my mother had been told about an ancestor who had been born in a Cornish fishing village and join the Royal Navy only to have been invalided out after an accident on board ship.
I later traced the Climo name from Liverpool back to Devon and then back to Polruan in Cornwall. This is where Thomas Climo was born and raised until he joined the Navy. On one of his voyages the vessel he was on was wrecked on a small reef near Bermuda.
Later censuses listed him as a Greenwich pensioner, although he was now sailing in merchant vessels. The pension, paid as an out pensioner (which meant he did not reside at the Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital but had been injured enough to make him no longer fit for service in the Royal Navy) thus confirmed the main facts of the story and gave me enough clues to fill out his life.
My father told me the family story about his grandfather’s family and the ghost of a soldier who allegedly came back to see his old mother as she lay dying. Years later I found an old notebook written by my great grandfather, the Welsh minister, in which he gave details of an event at which he had been present as a child. According to him the family had been seated around the kitchen fire while his grandmother was in the bedroom above, understood to be at death’s door.
He wrote that they all heard the sound of a soldier’s boots on the cobbles outside and that the sound came through the door, across the stone-flagged kitchen floor and up to the bedroom above.
When they finally recovered from the shock the old woman’s son went upstairs and found his mother to be dead in her bed but with a peaceful smile on her face.
The moral behind this is that you should never dismiss stories from elderly relatives because there might be a sliver of truth even in the most unbelievable family tale.
When you do interview an elderly family member you should let the memories come out naturally. Don’t begin with: “Is it true that great grandfather Thomas was hanged for murder?” Instead start with: “Was your grandfather alive when you were born and did you ever meet him.”
As your relative picks at his or her memories old stories will come to the surface. Elderly people can often have a great recall of facts from their early years even if they have forgotten what they had for teas two days earlier.
If your relative does agree to an interview then you should plan carefully.
Make a list of questions which might nudge the interviewee towards certain family members. As I said let them set the pace. This doesn’t mean you can’t nudge them in the right direction.
For instance they might not have known that her grandfather’s name was Thomas, they might have known him as Pops or Grandpa, or Taid, but you could ask if other family members had called him by a certain name.
Your interviewee might then recall that great-aunt Norah had called her brother by a strange nickname when she was teasing him but called him Thomas when she was being serious.
You need to lead in to the stories you are looking for and should start with the3 basics to set your relative at ease.
Here is a list of possible questions:
1. “When were you born?” You could then ask “where” if the first answer is fairly positive.
2. “What was your father called and did he have a nickname?”
3. “What was your mother’s name and do you know her surname before she was married? Do you know where your parents were married?”
4. “What work did your father do? Did you ever visit him at work?”
5. “Did your mother go out to work and did she ever take you with her?”
6. “Did either of your parents serve in the armed forces, Army, Navy or Air Force, and if so did they have any medals?”
7. “Do you have any old pictures of your family, your parents or grandparents for instance?”
8. “Did your parents ever talk about their childhood. Did they have any brothers or sisters?”
9. “Did you have any brothers or sisters?”
10. “When did your parents die and where are they buried?”
11. “Did they leave a will, if so do you have it, or do you have any other old documents from the family?”
12. “Where was your family home when you were a child?”
13. “Which school did you go to and did the family go toi church, if so, which one?”
14. “Do you remember any relatives visiting when you were a child, or did you visit older relatives when you were young? If so where?”
15. “Do you remember any big family get-togethers, weddings, Christmases or when an elderly relative died?”
You don’t have to stick rigidly to these questions, you might think of others or decide to follow a particular track after an interesting answer.
The important thing to remember is to be gentle with your elderly relative and if a particular question seems to touch a nerve don’t push it. Go in another direction and see if later they are prepared to talk about it.
Don’t make the interview too formal. It might be possible to video it, although older people might not be happy about a camera. Even a tape recorder might be offputting. A pen and paper might be the best answer for making notes. Don’t try to write it all down verbatim, just occasional notes as an aide memoir.