Sooner or later, family historians inevitably discover that some ancestors were not squeaky-clean. There's nothing unusual in a few skeletons tumbling out of the dark recesses of the ancestral cupboard: what is important is how we cope with them. This depends on our own perception of the past.

Generations of ag labs (agricultural labourers) who remained within a limited radius of their place of origin, worked hard, produced children and then died as quietly as they had lived, may be considered admirable people, the salt of the earth – but they're far from riveting material for a family narrative.

Criminal Ancestors

Haymaking

What if a pitchfork-wielding ag lab ancestor, in the middle of a busy day's haymaking suddenly launched a furious attack on one of his fellow labourers, with fatal consequences? This immediately raises the level of our interest in the attacker: he has become a criminal ancestor and, depending on the point of view, is either a blot on the family escutcheon or a worthy skeleton offering a variety of avenues for further research: why did he do it, what was his punishment?

Reading through the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court) leaves a strong impression that to be transported 'beyond the seas' for stealing a side of bacon was evidence not of criminal tendencies but of poverty and starvation. If descendants are shocked by such discoveries, family history research is not for them. Criminal ancestors can be seen as colourful threads in the family tapestry. Australian descendants are now proud to find a convict ancestor who 'came out with the First Fleet': what was previously a social stigma has become an exercise in one-upmanship.

Sensitive Topics

However, some skeletons are more welcome than others. Illegitimacy remains a sensitive topic, despite the fact that instances occur in many, perhaps most, families. Even where an example of illegitimacy doesn't show on the family tree, this could indicate successful concealment of the facts at the time. Illegitimacy isn't a crime, it's a lack of documentation. It does not change the crucial matter of descent, which is forever recorded in our genes.

The spectre of insanity is frequently left hidden in the closet. Yet there are as many definitions of the word insanity as there are ancestors believed to have had some form of the condition. Prior to the early 20th century (when strides were made in the identification and diagnosis of mental illness) so-called lunatics were often suffering from ailments which were largely misunderstood and incorrectly treated, including those with a physiological rather than a psychological source.

Workhouse Ancestors

Men in the workhouse

It's saddening to find that an ancestor died, was born or spent some time in the confines of the workhouse. In the days before British state welfare systems were in place, the workhouse was generally the only option for a man who through age and infirmity could no longer earn his daily bread. Families were large and living spaces small; it was difficult for married children to care for elderly parents who brought in no additional income. Young single women, pregnant and with nowhere else to go, might give birth to one or more children in the workhouse, not an ideal start in life for the offspring who would rarely rise above their status as outcasts. Within the workhouse walls, husbands were separated from wives, and siblings from each other.

Workhouse, or 'Board of Guardian' records, long hidden from public view, are in the process of being placed online, and will provide access to the grim world endured by vast numbers of people. Whether we live in Britain or the US, Australia, South Africa or any of the previous colonial outposts of the British Empire, it's more than likely we'll find workhouse ancestors somewhere on the family tree. Further details concerning the release of these records can be seen at http://www.ancestry.co.uk/

Digging Deeper

Research always brings knowledge and understanding of events and the era in which they took place. As we dig deeper to find the real human beings behind the names and dates of our 'great and good' ancestors, let's celebrate our skeletons too: they're an essential part of the family historian's quest for the truth.