Published in October 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I first got to know my father-in-law over 30 years ago he was deeply engaged in researching his family history. I regarded the project with priggish disdain, as a useless activity and a withdrawal from the world. My own father, who had come to this country from Vienna after the first world war, was the opposite of my father-in-law. He recalled his parents with affection, but never mentioned any previous forebears. This seemed to me altogether healthier.
Yet now that I am about the age my father-in-law was then, I find myself as intrigued by my family’s origins as he was by his. I realise that trying to unravel them, far from cutting one off from the world, helps to establish one’s context within it. My impression is that many others, as they move deeper into middle age, feel the same. While there is still time they want to find out what evolutionary line they fit into.
Sometimes the impulse is snobbish: a desire to establish a link with some famous figure bearing the same name. The Garter King of Arms and his colleagues have done good business responding to this impulse, and many coats of arms have been revived or claimed as a result. But more often individuals simply want to discover from whom and where they stem and whether it tells them something about themselves. If a heroic or romantic story is uncovered that is a bonus.
Surprises are likely to surface. My father-in-law, whose surname was Dobson, had supposed his family to be as English as could be. However, he found he had relations in France. Some of his 18th-century ancestors had been catholics. To escape the penal laws, one more enterprising than the rest had emigrated, not as one might expect to America, but to France. He was an expert in a then new technology connected with the manufacture of iron, which he was able to turn to profitable use in meeting Napoleon’s demand for armaments. Having moved up in the world he foolishly returned to England to visit his…