For many of us, stories handed down through the family are the starting point for our own interest in family history. They certainly were for me. My grandmother’s stories about her strict Methodist upbringing sparked my own interest in her father’s life.
However, as Nicola and Margaret have pointed out recently in their posts, writing non-fiction requires us to verify our facts. So we need to check the veracity of the stories relatives and others may tell us.
I recently discovered this in the course of my own research.
My grandmother, Nellie, was one of twelve children. Of the twelve, only one did not survive infancy – a sister, Mary Agnes, who died in 1908.
Another family member told me that Mary Agnes had died after a reaction to a smallpox vaccination. Smallpox was still a menacing and deadly disease then and vaccination was compulsory. After Mary Agnes’ death, it was said that her father, Tom Robinson, the main protagonist in the book I’m writing, had gone to court to ensure that any subsequent children were exempted from the vaccination.
It’s a fascinating story which showed my great-grandfather in a kindly light, as a compassionate father who had stood up to the authorities to ensure that none of his other children suffered the same fate as Mary Agnes.
So I read up on smallpox vaccination and even considered going through the records of the Westmorland Quarter Sessions to see if I could find a record of a court appearance or an exemption. (Until the archivist told me that they were unindexed, and I decided that it could wait for another day).
A good decision as it turned out, as further research began to cast doubt on this story.
First, I found out from other sources that there had been an outbreak of whooping cough in the village at around the time Mary Agnes died, in the spring of 1908. Could she have fallen victim to it?
Second, I decided I really did need to see Mary Agnes’ death certificate, which would hopefully settle the matter. So I sent off for it and waited.
When it arrived in the post a few weeks later, I opened the envelope with trepidation.
There it was in black and white. Mary Agnes Robinson, aged 10 months, had indeed died of ‘Bronchitis & whooping cough’, which had lasted for 10 days. There was no mention of smallpox or reaction to a vaccination. There are other poignant details. The informant was ‘T Robinson, father, present at the death’, which had occurred at home. One can only imagine the agony of Tom and Ann Robinson as they cradled their dying child.
As well as being invaluable in pinning down facts, official certificates also reveal such moments of deep despair in the lives of our ancestors. More on this in my next post.