Critics of family history enthusiasts sometimes claim that such people are self-centred, focusing obsessively on their roots in the hope of turning up someone famous. That overlooks what, for me, are some of the outstanding attractions of the hobby. Sure, I love it when the research turns up a colourful rogue like James Taverner, who pocketed some of the proceeds from his toll gate, or a knight like Sir William de Keynes, who captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. But I get the same pleasure from making similar discoveries in other people’s family trees. In fact, I’ve probably had more fun investigating my husband Jack’s ancestry than he has in reading the results.
It’s the detective process that fires the imagination: starting with the readily available information, guessing which bits would be worth following up in more detail, puzzling over how to unblock a seeming brick wall, and then the triumph when you make the break-through.
When I first started, I loved going to the Record Office and handling the original documents. On one occasion I was reading my ancestor’s churchwarden’s accounts from the 18th century when I noticed that the table was becoming covered with a fine powder. I panicked that the ancient document was disintegrating in my hand. Then I realised that this was the sand he had used to blot the ink.
Nowadays, it is increasingly rare to be given the originals. So much has been microfiched or digitized. But that brings its own enormous bonus. Huge amounts of wonderful stuff is now available on the internet. And the search facilities mean that you discover sources you would never think of if you went to the Record Office.
My husband had watched me discovering an enormous amount about my medieval lords of the manor and their pedigrees, all derived from a single “gateway ancestor” who married into the landed classes. He said he had no one like that on his own tree. I told him that he probably had; we just hadn’t gone far enough back to find them. So I set out to investigate William Buck, an attorney and gentleman who died in 1786. I thought he might be descended from such manorial stock.
The truth proved to be the opposite. Thanks to the good people of Calverley in Yorkshire, all the parish registers were online, as well as other records. There was also an archive of property deeds in the West Yorkshire Record Office. I was able to trace the Bucks back, not to a lord of the manor, but to a tenant miller in the time of Elizabeth I who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Using the income from a triple corn and fulling mill, he had bought parcels of land in the woods around and a small share in the mill, until by the end of his life he owned the mill outright and was a considerable landowner as well.
The mill continued with the Bucks from Tudor times until 1744, when William Buck, the attorney’s father, relinquished ownership in payment of a debt. The mill continued to flourish and expand until it fell into disuse and was demolished in 1923. But the ruins still lie in the woods beside the River Aire.
On a visit in January to our son and his family in Leeds, we made an expedition to find it.
It was fun to come upon Buck Mill Lane, now paved with stones from the demolished mill. A steep walk down took us to the flat land beside the river. Once there were stepping stones and a ford. Now there is a metal footbridge. The river was in spate after rain. We could barely make out the mill weir, let alone the stones underwater.
But we searched the ground between the trees, risking crumbling walls and holes in the ground. We were rewarded with surviving arches through which the mill leat or goit flowed and a vertical slot in which the water wheel would have stood upright against the wall of the mill. At last we were able to picture the setting for life of all those generations of Bucks.
It was experiences such as these which have led me to write the Suzie Fewings mystery series, about a woman researching her family history, and especially the latest, Beneath the Soil
, which comes out in February.
Suzie and her family come across the ruins of a farm labourer’s cottage in the woods, where her ancestors lived in the 19th century. Needless to say, that is not all that is going on in those woods, and some of the Fewings’ discoveries are distinctly alarming.
I began family history as a hobby, a change from my day job of writing novels. I should have known better. Instead, it has opened up a whole new range of stories, some real, some imagined, which are crying out to be written.
Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.