Impossible to choose
Alan Crosby shares his views on family and local history If push came to shove, could you single out a favourite ancestor? Alan thinks that’s an unanswerable question
Rofecently, I was asked Who is the ancestor f whomh you are most proud?”d?” WhWhat a challenge! For me, it’s an unanswerable question, though here in the magazine we have the monthly Family Hero feature in which readers reveal an illustrious, notorious or intriguing forebear, and there’s a most extraordinary diversity of tales to be told.
A large proportion of my ancestors, both in the direct lines and the collateral ones, were (as is the case with everybody else) ordinary everyday people, with nothing distinctive to be found. They were born, baptised, married, had children, died and were buried. A sequence of dates, a name, a place or two… that’s all there is to tell. Nearly all of us have this in common, since the vast majority (even the royal family) have ‘ag labs’ and dairymaids, domestic servants and factory workers in our ancestry.
Pride in our ancestors is a rather odd notion anyway. I’ve mentioned before that I once researched the family history of a lady in Australia, and tracked her line back to a village in deepest Suffolk, only to discover that her ancestor had 11 illegitimate children. The response was emphatic: “What a girl! I’m proud of her!”
Researching the forebears of a man from Tasmania, I was asked to find as many convicts as possible: “My wife has eight convict ancestors and I’ve only got four, so I want to
get even with her!” No shame thhere – quite the opposite.i SSo we can bbe proudd off having forebears who aren’t paragons of virtue. In fact, paragons of virtue can be very dull.
I confess to having a great, if slightly quirky, pride in my 4x great grandfather Francis Bagshaw, a Derbyshire squire who ran up a wine merchant’s bill of almost £1,000 in the 1820s. He was a notorious reprobate, who had a long-term mistress and went bankrupt (all the fault of that wine, you see). His land passed to his son-in-law, who bailed him out. Highly irregular and morally dodgy, but I’d love to have met him, not least because the history column in the local newspaper reported a few years ago that during a bull-baiting at Bradwell in around 1820, “one local character, old Frank Bagshaw of Hazlebadge, insisted on acting as the tether and had himself tied to the bull’s tail. As soon as the dogs were brought on the scene the bull took flight and charged along Bradwell Brook, dragging a battered and soaked Bagshaw behind him”. A great man – albeit a drunken buffoon!
Another forebear to be especially proud of – in the sense that she was a wonderful character – was my great aunt, an amazing woman. Sadly, I never knew her. She was a courtesan in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution, and had a truly sensational and exotic life. And her sister, another of my great aunts, was a nurse in Wyoming and Colorado in the years around 1914 – not especially illustrious, but definitely possessed of the pioneering spirit, on the frontier in a man’s world.
Then there are the ones I only know from fragments and glimpses, such as the Norfolk ancestor who generously left his daughter £50 in the 1660s, but added a qualification in the will, that “if she shall marry Matthew Williment she shall have nothing”. I like his direct style, even if in reality he was probably a humourless autocrat of the worst sort.
But why not also be proud of the destitute and impoverished forebears who struggled and fought to stay alive during the Irish Famine, the Industrial Revolution and the endless agricultural depressions of the 18th and 19th centuries? And what of the women who were worn out with nine children, or the youngsters who toiled in the cotton mills of Manchester, or the farm labourers of Hertfordshire? They all deserve to be spoken of with pride, for their sheer fortitude and endurance.
As I said at the time, I can’t ever answer that first question. Perhaps ultimately, I’m proud of all my ancestors! That’s why I find every single one of them so fascinating.
My 4x great grandfather Francis Bagshaw was a notorious reprobate who had a mistress and went bankrupt
ALAN CROSBY lives in Lancashire and is editor of The
Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancaster and Liverpool universities