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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - OFF THE RECORD -

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

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