Growing family trees

Why are so many people living their lives through their ancestors?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

In the past, it was only blue-bloods or the odd retired person who bothered to trace their ancestors. Now the public launch of a new UK genealogical website shows that family history has become big business.

The site,, has already attracted 14million requests for images (1). Other family history sites mirror its success. The site of the 1901 census crashed when it was launched three years ago, so heavy was the demand. Back in 1999 more than 160million messages a month flowed through Roots Web, a US trading post for genealogical information (2). Family history joins pornography as one of the most popular uses of the internet.

Colin Miller, head of operations at, told me that there has been a ‘real boom recently…even over the past couple of years’. ‘Now there are six monthly family tree magazines’, he said, where before there was only one. And a broader range of people are interested – the craze includes those in their 40s, 30s and even 20s. ‘Increasingly we get more and more younger people in’, said Audrey Collins from the Family Records Centre.

Some of this growth is down to the internet, which makes family history a much easier job. Instead of leafing around in drafty archives, research can be done from the comfort of your home computer. The timeless element of curiosity also plays a role. Most people enjoy hearing stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents, and would like to find out more.

Genealogists are akin to detectives piecing together evidence to construct a picture. The chase itself can become gripping. One evening at the Family Records Centre, I saw people pouring over the huge tomes of births, deaths and marriages. ‘Once you start, you get addicted’, said 46-year-old Gillian Bond, who over the past few years has managed to trace her family back to the early 1700s. Thirty-six-year-old David Hannon was trying to find out about one of his ancestors. The man had been in the workhouse while his wife was living on her own with six kids, but so far there was no clue as to when and where he had died.

But there is something more worrying behind the boom in family history. Behind people’s search for their ancestors is a deeply conservative impulse – an attempt to find their identity in the past, rather than in the lives that they build for themselves.

Interest in genealogy first began to grow in the 1970s. The American Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots, in which he claimed to have traced the story of his family through six generations that included slaves, freedmen, farmers and lawyers -the book then became a global TV hit. The first how-to book about Jewish genealogy, Finding our Fathers, was published in 1977 (3). It was also about this time that UK genealogical societies were set up. ‘A lot of family history societies are now celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversaries’, Audrey Collins told me.

Why the 1970s? It was then that the confidence of the postwar boom began to fade. While individuals in the 1950s had sought to cut themselves off from the past (a character in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain even disowns his black family in order to make a better life for himself), in the 1970s there was an interest in returning to ethnic roots. At a time of anxiety about the future, people began to look backwards to tradition and ethnicity.

The second wave of genealogy in the late 1990s and early 2000s seems to be a much more personal phenomenon. It is less about ethnicity and communal identity than an individual search for ‘what makes me’. This is a time of social fragmentation, when communal and family bonds have eroded and many of the old political and moral certainties are called into question. ‘A lot of people are trying to get a sense of identity, of where they come from’, said Colin Miller.

This gives family history a new attraction. Anybody can carry out their own search for their ancestors, and they can read their own meanings into what they find. After all, ancestors don’t answer back. Genealogy can be a personal project – and it is this that explains the attraction of family history to a much broader cross-section of society.

Forty-two-year-old David told me that it was some kind of ‘midlife crisis’ that sent him to the archives. ‘I was trying to find a sense of place. Where do I belong? What am I about?’ A few said that the stories they discovered helped them to understand themselves. ‘All these people – you’re a combination of all that’, said one 39-year-old man. Lynda, 27, said that genealogy helps you to ‘find out more about yourself’. She got her outspoken character from her grandfather, she says – and was clearly proud of his act of wartime bravery.

Stories and skeletons from the past are seen as adding to individuals’ personalities. ‘If you find out that your family tree has 16 surnames, perhaps you are lot more interesting than you thought you were’, said Colin Miller. ‘Everyone has a story to tell’, the consultant historian Nick Barrett told. One man at the Family Records Centre said that he wanted ‘something outstanding’, such as ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’, rather than ‘ordinary stories’.

There is something unhealthy about pursuing family history as an existential quest. Looking for your identity in the lives of your ancestors means viewing life as something that has already been made for you. Identity becomes determined by the accident of birth, rather than by the conscious choices that individuals make in their own lives. This means looking to the past, when we should be seizing the opportunities and possibilities of the present.

Some individuals seem to be trying to solve problems in their own lives through family history. ‘This is a lost generation crying out for roots’, said Nick Barrett. ‘People are trying to touch base.’ This may be so, but delving through the archives is no way of trying to touch base. This merely displaces the problem, and discourages individuals from building fruitful productive lives. One San Francisco educator traced 2800 years of his family history, and now takes Chinese-American students back to their ancestral villages each summer (4). Don’t Chinese-American students have better things to do with their summers? Making friends and developing interests would surely be more rewarding than locating the village of that great, great, great grandmother.

A little bit of family history could be a good thing. Telling stories about relatives can give us a sense of how times have changed – and can bring together different members of the family. For some, family history is just a bit of challenging detective work, a hobby for their spare time.

When it becomes more than this, however, it would be better to leave our ancestors to their secrets – and get on with building lives to inspire our descendants.

(1) Now it’s Ancestors Reunited, Observer, 4 January 2004

(2) ‘Roots mania’, Time, 19 April 1999

(3) Valuing Family Descendants reach back into past once thought dead, Jewish News, December 17, 1999/8

(4) ‘Roots mania’, Time, 19 April 1999

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Topics Politics


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