Well, during these strange times, I’ve been looking to find ways of wasting time productively, or filling the gap between a) proper work and b) my vegetative state between the fridge and the TV. You may have a similar challenge in your life – some people seem to have the energy to do interesting things in their gardens, or setting quizzes, or spending time with Joe Wicks; I’ve decided to spend a bit of time researching my family tree. This involves taking the contents of boxes of stuff that I’ve accumulated over the years, and plugging this in to the rather wonderful ancestry.co.uk site, which gives you not only a platform to land your ancestors onto, but also links to all the digitised census, birth marriage, death & criminal records from the past, and, if they let you, access to all the other family trees that might intersect with yours.
I’m aware that hearing about other people’s family trees can be desperately tedious – a bit like listening to, say, Matt Hancock spinning another yarn about government guidance. Things start off uninspiring, and go steadily downhill, until you start running calculations in your head around time off for good behaviour. This will happen at about the time you’re told about a second cousin who might well have had a grandparent on the Titanic, or, in Mr Hancock’s case, where he starts advising on your civic duty. But this blog isn’t really about a family tree as such, it’s about one person – not an exceptional person by the sort of standard you might set today, but someone with a telling story nonetheless.
Below is a picture of my grandmother, Dorothy Kerridge. She’s on the right – from the left of the picture are her brother Reuben and her elder sister Dora, then her mother, Mary.
Grandma was born in 1909, and this picture was taken around 1916. By this time, her other elder brother Sidney had been called up and was fighting in the Great War. He came back unscathed, and came out of the army at the end of the war, but millions of others didn’t. There’s a war memorial in the village where Grandma lived; it has 60 names on it, which at the time would have been about a loss for around every fourth household – she would have known most of the families as she grew up. One of the names is P Kerridge – this was Grandma’s cousin Percy, a sailor who lost his life in the Indian Ocean somewhere near Bombay – a long long way from Suffolk.
And just at the end of the war, the Spanish flu epidemic claimed 50 million lives – 500 million were infected, which was about a third of the world population. I’ve never seen memorial to Spanish Flu, but this would have dominated thinking in East Anglia several years after the war ended:
Having survived those early years, Grandma attended school in Wickham Market and in 1922, aged 13, was enrolled on the ‘Rural Teacher’ training course, she completed aged 19, at which point she was appointed as an assistant mistress.
She met my Grandpa at a fair in Suffolk when they were both 16. He had to move to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, but would visit her every month until they were married in 1933. By then they’d both seen the Great Depression and the tough times of the 1920’s – one of the reasons they were apart was because he was following his father around the country finding work as a journeyman butcher.
They had two children, my father and his brother, in the 1930’s, and life was beginning to settle down until the Second World War broke out, when, again, they found themselves travelling about after Grandpa was called up. They were never separated during the war, despite him being posted all over the country, often to the sort of location where a young family would be in danger.
Some sort of stability came after the war – Grandpa was back in the butcher business with his name above the shop, my father and his brother left home, and they became grandparents just about the time that his heart problems meant he had to give up work – they moved into a static caravan on a park near Bournemouth. I was their second grandchild, born just before the Cuban missile crisis, when the world held its breath and waited anxiously for the big bang.
My Grandma died in 2005, aged 96. Between my arrival and her passing away, she’d seen multiple recessions; world famine; the Cold War; cholera, flu and measles pandemics. She saw all three of her siblings and her husband pass away between 1987 and 1995.
I’m writing this down because I’m keen for some perspective at a time when so much talk seems to be of the end of all things. I’m not diluting today’s crisis in any sense, but the nature of all crises is that they do, eventually, come to an end. And also because, at this time, I can remember my Grandma very clearly indeed. Any one of those world events could have hardened and depressed her, and they didn’t. She lived a very, very happy life, never seemed to stop smiling, and took delight in simple pleasures. She would have got through the current challenges by waiting it out, and being sensible and caring for those around her. Being a very British person, she’d have raised her eyebrows a little at some of the pictures in the paper:
And being a very kind, generous person, she would never say anything rash like ‘they don’t know they’re born’. But you really wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d thought it.
Stay safe x