On the Ancestry website, my great grandfather appeared in a family tree. According to the family tree that the person had assembled, he had lived in New Zealand, which was a fact that did not fit in with what I had learned of him.
Was there something I did not know? Perhaps there were generations of family members about whom I knew nothing. I clicked to open the family tree to see how he fitted into their generations of members. The tree noted his army service, about which I knew, but according to the information, he had enlisted not when he was in Aller in Somerset, when, according to military records, he was eighteen years and eight months old, but instead, in New Zealand, when he was just seven years of age.
Someone seems to have taken his name to fill in a gap in their family tree. A brief moment’s thought should have told the person who decided to insert the name of my great grandfather that no-one joined the British army at the age of seven – even in Victorian times! A cross-check would have shown them that three years after they suggested he had joined the army, he was living with his family in a small West Country village, attending the village school, as the law required him to do until he reached the age of thirteen.
It is tempting sometimes to add members to a family tree on a speculative basis. My mother wanted to know the name of an aunt in Swanage, Dorset with whom my grandmother lived in the First World War. Known in memory as “Great Aunt Old,” there was never clarity about the lady’s connection with our family.
“What was her proper name, Mum?”
“I don’t know, we always knew her as Great Aunt Old.”
A search revealed a lady with the surname of Old who had been born in Swanage and was living in Dorchester in 1911. The towns are not far apart. Would it have been legitimate to have imagined that the lady moved back to her hometown when the war began?
During years of parish ministry, there were often occasions when people sought the stories of their ancestors with very little information.
Many Irish people who emigrated had limited literacy; many had their names misspelt by immigration officials; many came from families of limited means who would mark graves with a single piece of rough stone.
It was sometimes almost impossible to establish definitive connections between visitors and their forebears, yet there was always a desire to give people a sense of place, a sense of rootedness. People wanted to believe the stories they had received, who I was I to dispel their ideas? Sometimes I would say, “it could have been.”
Perhaps, further research revealed that “it could not have been,” but in the meantime they borrowed someone for their family tree.