organise your speech

Good evening fellow Toastmasters and guests. Who do you think you are? What makes you who you are? Or indeed… […]

Good evening fellow Toastmasters and guests.

Who do you think you are?

What makes you who you are?

Or indeed… who makes you who you are?

These are hardly questions I had been dwelling on to be honest. Then, a few months ago I received a marketing e-mail from a genealogy website. It piqued my interest a little, as I knew very little at all of my family’s history. But, was it really as ridiculously easy as this email suggested. Just by using the internet, with very little effort and hardly any costs could I shine a light hundreds of years into my past? I thought I’d give it a try.

So what do you need?

Well, first you need access to the records, and this is where the internet and specifically the genealogy tool makes its mark. Up until recently the only way to have got hold of them would have been to travel to the county or town or parish of the birth or marriage or death of the ancestor you were trying to research – incredibly laborious even before getting down to rifling through reams of old ledgers.

Second, you need some basic information to kick you off – actually the barest of information on my grandparents was enough; third a bit of luck that nothing significant is missing from the records; fourth some motivation – I was just generally  inquisitive; and fifth some time to plug in some searches and put 2 and 2 together to qualify the database’s results.

I really just wanted an overview, and I suppose to see if it really was possible to trace your family history from your desktop.

The amazing thing about how the internet has benefited researchers is that the primary records have been both transcribed and the originals scanned online. There are even networks of genealogy obsessives who go round the yards of England’s ancient churches, altruistically transcribing and putting online photographs of grave stones.

So there’s this huge avalanche of information pouring into the public domain. I found I had, even with minimal starting information, in essence the first few pieces of one corner of an infinitely large jigsaw puzzle.

So how to set about this puzzle? One of my first ports of call was the 1911 census. This is the most recently publicly available census. Here’s an example page showing my paternal great grandfather’s household. Notice the blanked-out column on the right, labeled ‘infirmities’ – this is where householders were invited to record if they were feeble-minded, an imbecile or a lunatic.

Anyway, this starts a trail of clues to follow in decade-long jumps back in time to the first generally available records of 1841.

And here’s a quick shot of an 1841 census – I can read Chinese easier than this cursive script. This shows my great great great great grandfather who was 20 years old and working as an agricultural labourer in Shropshire in 1841.

So I dug around a bit for a few weeks on and off and despite getting stuck here and there, I eventually assembled a full complement of 16 great great grandparents.

And I think this is quite amazing. In almost no time, and with few clues, being able to get a comprehensive snapshot of my forebears through the early 19th century.

And here’s a snapshot of some of the information revealed – it’s mundane stuff, but made interesting by its personal connection; eg you can see here some names that are almost unheard of today. And you won’t find my shoemakers in England in 2011, given globalization and China’s city of Wenzhou.

Now, intuitively you might think the further you go back in time the harder it is to research. But thanks to the integrated genealogy tools you hit what you might call a sweet spot that suddenly accelerates the rate at which your tree grows branches.

Thanks to the volume of people doing similar research your tree inevitably overlaps with others forebears. Suddenly a window is thrown open back to the 17th century and beyond.

I decided to see how far I could take one line back and chose my paternal grandmother, whose unmarried name was Overton.

And I uncovered this gentleman. This is Major General Robert Overton, my great great great great… etc x10 grandfather. He was born in North Yorkshire in 1609

As it turns out he was a militant republican in the Civil War. In fact he played a significant part at a critical juncture in England’s history that saw establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy and the power of Parliament. There are a few highlights here. He fought in the biggest battle of the Civil War; commanded the English Army in Scotland and became Governor of several cities, including Edinburgh.

Being an inveterate republican and stubbornly resisting the monarchy’s restoration he inevitably ended up in the Tower of London. Well there was a happy ending, he was eventually pardoned by Charles II and released.

So I’ve tried to give an insight into: (1) how simple it was using technology to unlock my past; and (2) that even a cursory examination has started to reveal some fascinating history.

And – genetically at least – here’s who I am.

Mr Toastmaster…

 16 August, 2011

cc manual no.2: organize your speech

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Living in Hong Kong... a Brit... via Singapore