Geoff Doherty’s guest post at the end of May coincided very neatly with my recent research on a person totally unrelated to my family. Like Geoff, this is not the first time I have become quite wrapped up in someone else’s family history and, hopefully, learnt something new along the way.
I belong to a small genealogy group called Genie Hunters. We meet monthly and the group’s aim has been to provide a forum to share our successful, and less successful, research endeavours, as well as new things we’ve learned; we then have a specific discussion topic. We’ve taken a somewhat different approach to the discussion topic this year, by issuing a ‘challenge’ for all members to tackle. What has emerged, as well as our findings, are the varying methods we each use to approach the task, i.e. the process and steps involved, and what resources we use.
For our May meeting we were to look at the life of Eric Arthur Blair, born 1903, India, and his family. We were asked to explain the process and steps we used to find a family-history fact about Eric’s family and share this, together with our research method and details of websites used, with the group.
|Eric Arthur Blair/
Eric Arthur Blair is the famous writer better known under his pseudonym of George Orwell. The wealth of material available both online and in print is vast. Online public family trees abound – sadly many contain incorrect data copied unthinkingly from other family trees. Eric’s father’s family had come down the social scale from its earlier links with landed gentry; his mother had an English mother, a French father, and spent many of her early years in Burma. Eric’s family was perhaps typical of the upper-middle class in Victorian and early 20th century Britain, many of whose members spent long periods in various British colonies such as India and Burma and had well-established links there. It is highly likely that Orwell’s novel Burmese Days was inspired by time spent in Burma, both working for the Colonial Government and visiting family.
My research methodology always starts off fairly logically confirming basic facts, before I wander off into areas that interest me. I confirmed all the facts that I’d been given, as well as the things that I was sure I already knew – just to make sure. Using a mix of birth, marriage and death records I was able to draft a rough pedigree chart to provide a framework for finding a family-history fact. A problem emerged as I started to explore the lives of individual family members, there were too many family history facts. During my research I ventured into records in the UK, India, Burma, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), South Africa, and even Tasmania! I even tried to conduct research in France to find out more about Eric’s Limouzin ancestors. CyndisList was helpful there, as was the Family Search wiki. As long as I had a rough pedigree chart, I felt comfortable extending my research into many different areas without getting too lost.
|Which way from here?
I thought most people would adopt a similar approach and it was fascinating to learn that others did things differently, although the majority of us used the same basic websites.. As one member said in a later email – “some of us chased the rabbit for miles; down burrows and dark alleys and up different trees. I looked at the baptisms that I could find for the other children, to see if I could find a pattern in their sponsors.” The answer to this was 50/50 family and influential friends. A couple of other members thought it was a trick question in the first place which explains the above comment. It wasn’t until they connected Eric Arthur Blair with George Orwell that their research progressed. Another member, originally from New Zealand, found the death of a Blair in NZ and set out the evidence she had found to prove that he was related to Eric – he was Eric’s uncle. This group member also contacted Eric’s nephew in the UK to try and find the answer to a puzzling question and we were impressed with this strategy and the fact that she received a reply. Public family trees on Ancestry were also a useful starting point, a resource which I rarely make use of, although I did on this occasion. I found several biographies using Google Books and these proved helpful, although it was clear that many of the details in earlier books were taken as read by later biographers. Another valuable source were newspapers – UK, Australian and New Zealand, and India. The Families in British India Society (FIBIS) provides a good range of resources for researching ancestors who spent time in the sub-continent.
|Charles Blair with Henry Vane and Inigo Jones,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
An interesting family history fact that I located through a newspaper item was that Eric’s ancestor, Charles Blair, was included in a painting by the renowned English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This donation to the Museum by a wealthy American banker was only reported in a local newspaper in Surrey.
So, how do you do your research – step by step or in a random manner following rabbits down burrows hoping you’ll arrive in Wonderland? There’s merit in both approaches and their variations at different times, and I’d love to hear your stories.
Until next time. Pauline