Recent events in my life have made me think about the personal ups and downs of my ancestors. Two very dear friends have lost parents, a cousin got married, and someone close to me finally brought their adopted children home to stay forever. Similar moments of immense joy and deep sadness, were undoubtedly experienced by those who came before us.
We might feel rather disconnected from our family who lived hundreds of years ago. They lived in a world unrecognisable to us in terms of transport and technology, but fundamentally we are the same – humans experiencing the same stages in life, facing the same emotions. It’s very easy to build a family tree with names, places and dates – even occupations and hobbies – but unless you are fortunate enough to obtain private diaries or letters, it’s difficult to truly know the personal feelings and thoughts of an individual. However, if we just pause for a moment and consider what we discover in documents, we might be able to empathise and acknowledge how they might have responded emotionally to such experiences that shaped their lives.
Many of my ancestors were poor and illiterate, hence no secret memoirs were kept and handed down; nor have I found any obituaries in local newspapers. This has often left me wondering about their experiences. If I had a time machine, there are innumerable questions I’d ask them.
How did Rebecca Monksfield snr. feel after surviving the birth of her triplets in 1824? She and the babies survived, but how did that impact the family? Now a household of 9 – was she concerned about how she would feed them all?
How did East Londoner James Perry cope with the new culture (and weather!) of South Africa, during his missionary work with the Congregational church?
Was Jean Rondeau frightened, arriving in England in the late 1600s barely speaking a word of English? Did he know any other Hugeunots in London?
William Hogarth, Four Times of the Day, Noon
Did Amelia Mary Ann Tage miss her home in Germany when her father brought the family to London in the mid-1800s? Did she make friends easily?
How did Jane Elizabeth Gowlland manage the distress of losing both her husband and son to suicide? Did they suffer with depression? How did that affect the rest of the family?
We could never truly understand exactly how our ancestors felt, because we will always, no matter how hard we try, distort our empathy with a 21st century perspective. However, I implore you to stop for a minute the next time you look at a document referencing your ancestor, and consider what might have been going on in their life at that time. Do you think they were joyful, angry, excited, sad, scared, ashamed, anxious, relieved, or perhaps a mixture of emotions? Take that moment to connect with the name in your tree, and remember them as a person.