Ethics of uncovering family secrets

My Great grandmother with grandmother Mary on her knee

My Great grandmother with grandmother Mary on her knee

Rooting through a box of photographs recently I came across a photograph given to me by my birth mother, Margaret, over a decade ago which shows my great-grandmother, with four of her children, including my grandmother as an infant on her knee. I kept it out and today when Margaret came to visit I asked her to tell me what she knew about the family. It may seem strange that, although I have researched the family history of my adoptive parents on and off for nearly a decade and during my work, my studies and now as a professional genealogist have researched many other families, I have not up till now seriously considered researching my own maternal bloodline. Part of the reason is that I had wanted to uncover the stories behind the family that I had grown up with and to figure out who all those elderly aunts and uncles were and how they all fitted together. But the other reason is despite having traced and regularly seen my birth mother for about 25 years I am still somewhat of a guilty secret. I have met my half-siblings and Margaret’s husband died some years ago but other relations don’t know about me. So even though I know the names  of my maternal ancestors in the photo – I cannot name them because to do so would publicly tie me in to a family that I am not supposed to belong to.

When we go digging into the past we often, inadvertently, unearth family secrets that our ancestors had thought long-buried. I can’t help wondering sometimes just how ethical this is whilst at the same time taking great glee sometimes at pricking the bubble of Victorian respectability or Edwardian moral probity.  Only this week I helped someone through a particular brick wall and in doing so revealed his grandparents to have not been the pillars of “morality” that he had thought. He had found his grandparents on the 1911 census but had been unable to find either a marriage or any trace of either of them prior to this. I made a few helpful suggestions including searching on variations of surnames or searching through overseas or army marriage indexes. And then I saw his grandfather’s name – a virtually unique combination of first names coupled with an uncommon surname. I suggested he search on first names alone – something he hadn’t known he could do. This had immediate results – he found GRO birth index, GRO marriage index and a London parish marriage register entry together with 1881, 1891 and 1901 entries all for one man who appeared to be his grandfather except for the surname which was completely different. The reason soon started to emerge. His grandfather, born in Gloucestershire, had  by 1901 moved to London, married and had two children. In 1911 his wife was shown, still very much alive, as head of household with her two children and her mother living with her. It was perhaps just as well that my enquirer hadn’t been able to trace a marriage for his grandparents as it would have shown his grandfather to have been a bigamist! Instead it seems that he left his wife and children and moved to Birmingham under an assumed surname with his new “wife” and started a second family.  A century later his unique combination of first names have revealed at least part of the truth and left my enquirer with even more unanswered questions than he’d started with – and a totally different view of his grandparents.

I’ve also taken somewhat guilty pleasure in reading the divorce papers of a somewhat distant relative of my adoptive mother. Here were the details of the verbal abuse she hurled at him alongside the pots and pans that she allegedly also threw. It certainly adds colour to the litany of birth, marriage and death dates but is it ethical to unearth all these salacious details of our ancestors’ past? At the same time as I am colluding with my birth mother and other birth relations to keep my own existence a secret, so as not to reveal her shame (a shame I do not share!), should I be taking so much pleasure in helping to break down the edifice of respectability that other families have worked so hard to construct?

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