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In Search of a Family’s History

John Simkin

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One of our members, Jim McCracken, has just published a new book, In Search of a Family’s History

Almost half a century after the death of his parents, both born in the 19th century, their last surviving son began a 330 year long journey towards retracing the paths of his family’s history. His searches took him back to 1675; to before the birth of the Industrial Revolution and to more than a century before we lost the American colonies. It was to prove a fascinating world-wide search undertaken solely from the keyboard by a novice genealogist with the assistance of professional guides recruited en route. As the history of his ancestors unfolds, we are given a snapshot of the important events of the day, events which would prove subsequently to be of immense historical significance.

Along the way the author has reminisced on his Scottish public-school and middle-class family upbringing. Nevertheless; there was no family car, no central heating, no refrigerator, microwave or freezer. Television was for the distant future. Then came the Second World War and with it, rationing. After National Service, medical graduation, marriage and parenthood his children are left to embark on their family’s journey.

As the author travelled through Scotland and ‘sailed’ to Australia and Burma in search of the paternal branch of his family he learned that following the Highland Clearances his paternal ancestors bought land and property in the South West of Scotland. Some became Weavers at a time when the Industrial Revolution, preempted by the Flying Shuttle, was in its early infancy. Over the next two hundred years or more, their descendants were intimately involved in the woollen industry until its demise in the 1960s. At the eleventh hour the patriarch of his family was identified as being none other than the author’s namesake James McCRACKEN, born circa 1675. He became a Church Officer and Belman / Town Crier (!) in the Burgh of Stranraer in Scotland.

Towards unravelling the tragic mysteries of the maternal family’s history, the author again journeyed back to the 17th century. This time; his ‘travels’ took him through Ireland, Germany, England and India before he found himself unexpectedly back in Scotland to where he himself had been brought up. Both journeys found him not only fishing amongst shoals of red herring but wandering, all too frequently lost in a veritable maze of blind alleys and cul-de-sacs, before successfully reaching his ultimate aim; journey’s end.

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When I was a student in London in the 1960s I did a lot of research into my family’s history, tracking down birth and marriage certificates and visiting the Public Records Office several times. I could not get back very far on my father’s side. The problem is that our family has a very common surname, Davies, and tended to recycle first names such as David, John and Thomas. When you are confronted with records of half a dozen John Davies’s you can never be sure that you have the right one. A shortage of first and second names is typical of Welsh families and explains why the Welsh resort frequently to nicknames based on their town of origin, profession or a physical characteristic. My grandfather, Samuel, was often referred to as “Sam Pont”, because he came from Pontyberem.

A few months ago, I posted a message in this forum mentioning the close association of my grandfather with Arthur Horner, the left-wing miners’ leader, during the General Strike. The message was picked up in a Google search by a second cousin of mine, John, whom I had never met. We exchanged several emails and telephone calls. It was clear that John shared my interest in our family history – so we pooled our resources. This enabled John and I to add a few more bits to the jigsaw. John has now managed to trace an ancestor born in a rural Welsh community in the 1790s. That’s as far back as we have got so far.

Interestingly, although the Web has proved a useful resource, the most useful resource we have is my 95-year-old aunt, whose memory is still intact and can recall names and places of birth with remarkable clarity. She has also copied substantial handwritten records from two large (Welsh) family bibles for me. In the course of my research in my student days I discovered (from my aunt) that Sybil Burton (née Williams, the first wife of Richard Burton) and I have a common aunt (who married my father’s brother).

As for using the Web, a Mormon colleague of mine (who also has a common Welsh surname) at Brigham Young University gave me several tips and pointed me towards BYU’s library resources: http://www.lib.byu.edu There is also Genes Reunited (http:/www.genesreunited.com), a site closely associated with Friends Reunited – through which my wife Sally managed to trace a long-lost friend with whom she lost contact 30 years ago. The friend turned up on a farm in Australia and is now in regular contact with us.

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