One of the questions I’m never asked (along with ‘how did you get so rich?’ and ‘is it true what everyone says about your willy?’) is why I’m on this peculiar domain name.
It all stems back a few years when my grandad died. Trying to think of something useful to do with the bit of money that we grandkids got, I decided to write my own family tree software and trace the family back as far as I could.
I’ve got the family traced all the way back to 1806 now and we’re a very, very adventurous bunch. In the intervening 200 years we’ve managed to migrate all the way from roughly Pickering to roughly Leeds – a distance of some 40 miles or so. Well done Carpenters! We’re clearly strucken with some kind of genetic wanderlust.
On the other side of things, I’ve built some software (at a fairly glacial pace) that lets me stick family members into a database and then goes away and works out half-siblings, cousins and grandparents etc based on what’s already in the database.
My days as a web developer were always numbered because I was pretty shit at it, but this is my own project so there’s nothing riding on it and I can stab about at random until things work. I’m also dabbling with writing a Google Maps mashup that’s created a rather natty map of where the various family members have lived and where you can visit their graves if you’re feeling a bit emo.
Of course, had I bothered looking into it there’s a metric tonne of existing websites and software that do all that baloney for you, but doing it yourself is always that tiny bit more satisfying.
Anyway, the experience has slowly developed into something of a semi-serious hobby now. I suppose anyone who gets into this stuff starts off with the secret motivation that they’re going to discover that they are allowed to call Warren Buffet “Uncle Warren” and get a slice of his will, but actually you get drawn to the teeny tiny mysteries and details of long-forgotten lives that flickered briefly and left nothing but a few official records behind.
Every new detail you can uncover is greeted with a small heart-racing moment as you find a census record or death certificate that throws a little more light into the corners.
I have discovered that my great great great half uncle once removed (or something) Edmund Carpenter died from epilepsy in Amotherby near Pickering in 1871 aged just 32. I’ve even got a copy of his death certificate. After that, his wife and children become untraceable through the censuses as their little family was scattered to the winds in the wake of his death.
For all we might gripe and groan about how terrible everything is these days, if I’d have died a handful of generations ago (and this was only my great grandad’s uncle) my wife would have been left destitute and the kids either handed over to other bits of the family or given into service.
I can’t help but wonder what become of John Henry Carpenter and his sisters Ann and Sarah after the death of their dad. Aged between 1 and 6, they probably found themselves living with total strangers. Did they even know of each other’s existence afterwards?
In a similar vein, as late as 1902 one of my ancestors could die at the age of 17 after being crushed by a train in a mine (no more than 10 miles from where I live today). 17 year olds today are entirely consumed by hair gel, wanking and violence against the person.
While we might wring our hands about their futures, it’s worth pausing every so often to reflect that just 3 or 4 generations ago they’d have been involved in dangerous manual labour and living in poverty that we can scarcely imagine now. There might be little more nobility to life in a call centre, but at least no-one’s died doing it (only because I can’t track down where they are).
I’m also intrigued by my great great uncle Ewart Carpenter, who utilised the old “don’t bother going to work – just send your wife out to beg instead” approach to personal sustenance. Apparently, his wife actually did jail time!
And speaking of jail time, my great uncle Ronnie did time in Chokey in RIO (of all places!) for fighting on shore leave from the merchant navy in WWII.
It’s also humbling to see that almost everyone in this country – no matter how obscure – has left a trace in the records. No life is too small to go unrecorded and that small symbol of civilisation is something I think that everyone should cherish.