You Never Know Who You Might Turn Out to Be

WHO do you think you are? asks the popular television show, but you don’t have to be a celebrity to unearth a fascinating family story of your own. Ten or so years spent investigating my family’s past have thrown up a few surprises about our origins. Like the fact that my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Hargreaves, was born in Dublin. And while this doesn’t mean I’ll be celebrating next St Patrick’s Day, it is remarkable how much this kind of information changes the way you view yourself. As it turns out my once decidedly Derbyshire DNA has pieces from all over Britain. I still feel like a Derby girl, but I can no longer deny associations with other counties and even countries.  I’ve also learned how foolish the idea of social “class” is. On the face of it, my family is of sturdy “working-class” stock. We have blacksmiths, agricultural labourers and elastic weavers to prove it. But there’s also the occasional rich and aristocratic family member like Sir Richard Whieldon Barnett of Hales Hall, who is my fourth cousin. All very exciting; he was a competitor at the 1908 Olympics, a chess champion, an MP, but somehow just not as much fun as my great-great-great-great grandparents, Richard and Mary Wilkes, who worked as village rat catchers well into their dotage. And I can’t help thinking, if I were living in a vermin-afflicted cottage, who would I rather have as my neighbour?
Then there’s the possibility of inheritance. Not in the financial sense – I doubt rat catchers were ever high earners. – but perhaps I had inherited some hitherto unexplored talent from the several artists I had discovered. Sadly, I can’t even draw a convincing banana and probably have more in common with the long line of publicans on my paternal grandmother’s line. I did find one living relative who carries the art gene – my distant American cousin, Judy, who is a talented painter. And there’s another joy of family research - encountering new relatives. Through Judy I have the pleasure of hearing about everyday life in the charming village of Ballston Spa in New York State.
Other relatives have their own experiences to share too. There’s third cousin Naomi, who runs a falconry centre in the Cotswolds; fifth cousin Julia, who lives in Australia; and seventh cousin Ulrich from Denmark. We have fun trading family news and Christmas cards – and the latest discoveries. Like our connections to Thomas Whieldon, the world-famous potter, and my first cousin (admittedly eight-times-removed); or George Rowley, the well-known china painter for Royal Crown Derby, and my great-grandfather’s half-brother.
Thanks to the dedicated research of these new-found relatives, I have sometimes been able to go back several hundred years in an afternoon. My earliest ancestors to date are William and Joan Whieldon of Ipstones in Staffordshire, who were probably born in 1582, the year William Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway.
I’ve learned about places I’d never heard of before, like Chilvers Coton near Nuneaton, where my ancestors attended the same church as novelist George Elliot. I’ve researched life in the Lincolnshire fens when the early Rippons would have travelled from village to village by boat; studied the smart houses of Wimbledon where my great grandmother worked as a housekeeper; and investigated life at Welbeck Abbey where my great-great uncle Alfred was in charge of the Duke of Portland’s stables.
There have been countless mysteries, illegitimate births, untraceable marriages, lines that disappear into thin air, rumours and speculation, elopements and uncovered secrets aplenty. And there have been tragedies, too. Great-great uncle Willie Rippon returned from the First World War with shellshock and was haunted by the horrors of his experiences for the rest of his life, while Frederic Rowley fell victim to typhoid fever at his home. And my great-great grandmother Eliza Hough died, aged 30, having just given birth to her sixth child. There have been the horror stories, too, like that of my great-great grandfather working down a Durham lead mine as a 14-year-old. And the sad story of my great-great uncle Alexander Craig, who was born in Bruges in the late 19th century because his father was a commercial traveller, but who returned to Belgium with the Sherwood Foresters in 1915, only to be killed just a few miles from his birthplace.
Researching my family tree has not only introduced me to a host of fascinating ancestors, but I’ve discovered a whole new me. So now who do I think I am? Not just a Rippon, but a Whieldon, an Entwistle, a Poynton. An English girl, a Scots lass, an Irish woman? If you haven’t already delved into your own family’s history, it’s time you got started – you’ll probably be amazed at who you turn out to be.