When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”; treading carefully around the relatives

One of the unintended consequences of becoming the family historian – as opposed to just collecting and handing down the family stories – is that realities exposed by searching the records don’t always match up with the sometimes cherished stories. While this is really exciting for me, I think it’s proving a bit stressful for my parents who have lived most of their lives with the family folklore.

I started thinking about this a while ago when I was researching my Cruden great grandparents – my mum’s grandparents. I’d discovered that my great granddad, Alexander Cruden, was one of seven kids so I set about finding out what happened to them all. My mum knew about a couple of his sisters and his younger brother who died about the Arctic Convoys in World War II, and told me that one of the sisters had died young “of a broken heart, because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she wanted to.”

What I discovered wasn’t quite as romantic. Mary (May) Balsillie Cruden, my great, great aunt; died of eclampsia in the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital in February 1921. She was nineteen, worked as a children’s nurse – and was unmarried. Frustratingly, I don’t know for sure if the baby died as well, but I have to assume so because I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate.

My family tree is full of marriages that precede births by only a few weeks, and I’d like to think that the father of her child was ready to “do the right thing”. But, mindful that family stories usually contain at least some truth, I can’t help wondering if the “broken heart” story would have taken hold if May Cruden had left behind a lover or fiancée mourning her death and that of their unborn child.

I don’t have a picture of May Cruden, but have always liked this photo of May’s mother Isabella (nee Wallace) and niece (my grandmother).

A lament to the invisibility of my working-class ancestors.

My husband’s aunt visited today with three CDs of family photos she has scanned and catalogued. We spent much of the afternoon looking at them, and while I’m delighted to now have such a rich photographic record to hand on to my son, it makes me kind of sad to think about the tiny collection of creased and faded photographs I have of my own family. And worse, these photos are all that I have. If there were ever diaries or family bibles, they have either disappeared or are in the possession of distant cousins I probably don’t even know exist. And while I know that grandfathers, great grandfathers and great uncles all served in the military during various wars, their uniforms, pension books and service medals have similarly disappeared.

I’m thinking of this particularly after reading Lynnie57’s lovely post (http://lynnie57.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/the-working-class/) about her working class ancestors. Like Lynn, my family largely consists of generations of Scottish mill and pottery workers, farm labourers and laundresses. For as far back as I’ve looked (only seven generations so far – and that only for one bit of the family); whole branches of the family lived and died within a few miles of each other in the towns and villages of Fife and Angus (they were literally marrying the girl next door)!

I‘m extraordinarily proud of this solid working class heritage, but the downside of being descended from “ordinary folks” is that they left behind only the faintest traces of themselves. They were born, baptised, married and died; and all I will know of many of them is contained in those few statutory and parish records, and in census returns.

Of course, they were working people, so it’s likely that during their lifetimes, their names and other details would have been recorded in the ledgers and other records of the mills, potteries, factories and landed estates where they worked. And maybe with some luck and enough digging I will be able to identify particular workplaces, and maybe those workplaces will have archives, and maybe one day I will see written in black and white, against the name of my forebears, the tiny sum they were paid for their long hours of back-breaking labour. And I know that then I will weep and give thanks for the privileged life I have led.

And of course there are exceptions; I found a “service record” for my great grandfather who enlisted in the Black Watch and was chucked out after 15 days when they discovered he was under-age. A great grandmother was a teacher before her marriage and I’m hopeful that the Fife county archive will have records of her employment. Less happily, the 1891 census informed me that another great, great grandfather was a patient in the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum; ten years later the next census told me he had moved to the poorhouse. While the granddaughter in me feels the awfulness of this man’s fate, the researcher can’t help but be excited; contact with official agencies (even, sadly, hospitals and poorhouses) offers the possibility of more records and a chance to know more. The trace they left behind is stronger and more enduring.

Great grandmother, Annie Nicholson.

My great grandmother, Annie Nicholson was a teacher before her marriage. I’ve always loved this photo, and can imagine her in front of a classroom.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for the Limbless, Musselburgh, Scotland.

Ten years after my great grandfather, Alexander Cruden had to leave the Black Watch becuse he was underage, he enlisted again and served as a Gordon Highlander in France during WWI. He was wounded, losing a leg and spent much time subsequently at the Edenhall Hospital in Musselburgh.

I am glad for my husband and son. Thanks to their aunt’s wonderful efforts, they can look into the faces of the past and see themselves. And meantime, I will continue to search, record and connect and hope that in time I will also find more of myself and “the other side” of my son’s heritage.