Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Piecing family history together

I have become the de facto family historian due to a memory that goes back to when I was a toddler, the fact that I'm the eldest of the family and the only one to have clear memories of our grandparents, to having a long fascination with history and more recently human genetics, as well as an incurable love of 'kraaming'. What might you ask is 'kraaming'? It seems to be a particular and peculiar Deeks family word that refers to the activity of spending hours sorting through old family photographs. My Mum and Dad always kept boxes and old suitcases as storage places for family photographs. There were some albums put together but they were not nearly as fascinating as the jumbled heaps of old black and white, sepia toned and fading early colour prints that gave glimpses of people from the past. For my parents 50th wedding anniversary - how's that for staying power - I put together a book of my memories of the family. That led to putting together sequential photographs of various members of the family to more intensive research into the history of the Coleman and Deeks families initially but as I dug back into Westons and Windusts, Sells and Devantiers, Underwoods and Carrolls.

What made me really stop and think is when I investigated the careers/work of our forebears. Within two generations they went from being almost illiterate peasants who left school at 14 to enter into trades to the first university degrees. So my one grandfather was apprenticed to a saddler but his eldest son is a CA and his eldest grandaughter has a Masters degree. We take for granted the lifestyles that we live today but generations ago we would have lived in tiny cottages at the mercy of landlords for work and housing. My great aunts hardly ever left the tiny hamlet they grew up in. They still had an outdoor privy in the 1950s. The men travelled further, mostly as a result of war and conscription or volunteering into the army. My grandfather, the saddler, was one of them - he enlisted in the Norfolk Volunteers Regiment to fight in the Boer War and stayed in South Africa because he was offered the chance of land through the post war Milner Settlement Scheme. This was beyond anything he had dreamed of as a boy.

My paternal grandmother was of German Settler blood whose family endured three months aboard a ship to come to the Eastern Cape, just for the chance of owning 12 acres of land - what seemed a huge estate in Germany but in terms of the Eastern Cape's climate and vegetation, insufficient to keep a family alive. What adventurous genes have been passed down? Would they recognise any of us as family? What features and mannerisms have crossed generations to pop up unexpectedly in ourselves and our children? It's a fascinating puzzle that keeps me enthralled and seeking for those extra titbits of information that bring the past to life.


  1. The sad thing is that as all of my ancestors were illiterate peasants, there is no way of finding out anything about them. Nobody cared to document their lives, and they were unable to do so.
    (that's enough serious. Ed.)
    I could tell you about the features and mannerisms that come from your husbands maternal line - fortunately not all of us have all of these characteristics - but I won't do that here in case you haven't noticed.
    Our family history is further obfuscated by the oral tradition. Uncle Stan was an accomplished and inventive liar who disseminated so much false lore that he should be a Nobel Laureate. Every family should have one. He is one relation of whom I am truly proud.

  2. I've definitely got one in my family - my one brother has developed this complete alterative history for himself and the family that none us can remember happening. One feature of the maternal line is undoubtedly stubborness - as my son has inherited equal quantities from both his gran's there are times in our house when it is definitely a case of Greek meets Greek between him and his father.

    After taking a look at your blog and web pages I went home and said to Mike, "Do you think a sense of humour can be inherited?" He thinks it highly possible. Most people fail to understand his humour, especially when he uses his deadpan voice. Perhaps its a peculiarly British characteristic. I'm a great Georgette Heyer fan and have just read her biography by Jane Aitkin Hodge. One of the things she says/said is something along the lines of "One of the great pleasures in life is to find someone with whom you can laugh and who understands your jokes without explanation."