The low sun slants through the windows of East Lulworth church in Dorset. Outside, sheep graze. Yet I’m oblivious to sun and sheep: all I can think about is a baby called Amos.
The hold this infant has on me is odd, given that half an hour earlier I’d never heard of him. Even now, all I know is written on a piece of paper that has just been pressed into my hand. It is a photocopy of the parish record and halfway down, in copperplate handwriting, it says that Amos Kellaway was baptised here on Christmas day 1831. His mother is listed as Elizabeth Kellaway, spinster. There is no mention of a father.
I look at the entry and feel wonder tinged with sadness. But I’m also taken aback to find myself feeling this way about my illegitimate great-great grandfather. This wasn’t the point of the expedition at all.
Six months earlier, I’d been invited on a tour of my roots arranged by Ancestral Footsteps, a travel company that organises tailor-made holidays for those who are too rich, or too lazy, to investigate their own family history. Set up in 2008, it works globally and its clients pay an average of £25,000 – the fee includes up to six months of research as well as a luxury tour of their roots. I had accepted the invitation gladly, not because I had any particular interest in my forebears, but because I wanted to understand the bizarre modern craze of ancestor worship.
Ancestors are huge. Ancestry.com, the biggest database of the dead, has nearly 1.7m paying subscribers across websites in nine countries, and a database of 7bn digitised historical records. The craze is biggest in the English-speaking world but it is growing in popularity everywhere. People in Germany, India and China have started stalking their ancestors too.
Genealogy tourism, combining holidays with ancestor hunts, is on the rise. A study last year by the University of Illinois argued that the trend was the fastest-growing sector of the travel market, and a response to our consumer-driven lifestyle – a search for connection and authenticity in an inauthentic world. Maybe. But I think there’s a more obvious and less high-minded cause at work, too: the runaway success of the BBC reality TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Originally aired in 2004, the eighth series of the show was shown this autumn. The format, which has been copied in 12 countries including the US, involves a famous person finding his or her roots and then breaking down on finding that a distant relation was a deserter, a villain, a hero or a murderer.
I’ve always found the show slightly vulgar, even though I can see it’s good celebrity TV, and has a nice bit of social history thrown in. It was bad enough to have chat show host Richard Madeley wringing his hands with guilt because an ancestor killed some native Americans in 1675. But to have Jeremy Paxman, who stands for rationality and rigour, in tears about his poor relations in Suffolk was really too much.
Even the name of the programme is a sham. Who we actually are is a matter of our own personality, luck, circumstances, education, and that of our parents. It isn’t to do with a story dredged up by a clever TV producer that happened to one wing of the family a long time ago.
Ancestor scepticism is in my blood. When I told my dad I was going on a genealogical holiday, he groaned, as I knew he would. When I asked my sister if she’d like to spend two days in a chauffeur-driven car with our own personal researcher tracing Kellaways, she answered with an emphatic “No”. I wasn’t surprised: we were brought up to dismiss people who were obsessed with family trees. For a start, it’s boring. Any sentence that begins with “my great-great uncle” is never going to go anywhere interesting. But we also saw it as pathetic. People should try to make something of themselves, rather than piggy back on the fact that a distant and long dead relative was a prince or a prisoner.
When I put these thoughts to Sue Hills, the founder of Ancestral Footsteps and a former producer on Who Do You Think You Are?, she merely smiled and said that people loved finding connections in their lives. Then I told her everything I knew about the Kellaways, which didn’t take long. My father was born in Australia, son of a doctor who died before I was born. I knew two things about him: he discovered a treatment for snakebite and he died of lung cancer. Dad’s grandfather, who my dad never met, was a clergyman. I didn’t know anything else about him at all.
I asked my father why and when his family had moved to Australia and he had no idea. Instead, he quoted something his father used to say to him: “It’s more important to be an ancestor than to have them.”
With such scant information, Hills went away to research my family. And I went away to research other people researching theirs.
In the crowded upstairs room at the National Archives at Kew in south-west London, every desk is occupied by a person of retirement age staring at a screen in a sort of rapture. They are poring over microfiches containing names of dead people, with a focus more intense than any I’ve ever seen in any other library, or anywhere else at all.
I interrupt the woman nearest me and ask in a whisper what she’s up to. “I’ve found a naughty boy,” she says, eyes popping. She tells me she’s just discovered that her great-grandfather’s brother had been convicted for stealing a £5 cart horse from the local parish schoolmaster. Her voice gets louder as she recounts this disgraceful tale, until a member of staff comes up and tells me to ask questions elsewhere.
Downstairs in the canteen, an elderly woman with a despondent air eats a tuna sandwich. She tells me she has spent three days a week for the past 17 years tracing her family but has failed to turn up anything interesting. “I haven’t got any exciting ancestors. They are all farm labourers and carpenters. I sometimes wonder why I keep doing it.”
So why does she?
“It’s an addiction. I can’t stop. You open one bit, and that opens something else. It is never finished.”
At another table, a retired married couple are looking at a folder they are assembling for their grandson (whom I fear won’t care one way or another). They also admit to being addicted and spend every morning at home on the internet and the evenings at family history groups at the local library. Today they have come to Kew to look at an ancestor’s naval records. “They give a description of him. We know how tall he was! It’s like having a hit of caffeine,” she says.
“Or something stronger,” her husband corrects her.
After visiting Kew, I realise I’ve got it all wrong. Ancestor stalking isn’t about making yourself seem grander or more exotic. The fun isn’t in the facts (which are boring), it’s in the hunting. Which I think may spoil my tour, as all the hunting has been done for me.
A few months later I get an email from Ancestral Footprints saying that the research into my family is complete, that great mysteries and excitement await. I’m told to go to Wareham in Dorset; I arrive late and tired at the ancient Priory Hotel, order a plate of cheese in the bar and go to bed. In the morning I meet my “personal researcher”, Jo Foster. She is a Cambridge history graduate who works part-time on the TV programme but has spent much of the past few months becoming a Kellaway expert. (It’s slightly odd that she knows much more about my family than I do, or it would be odd if I thought of them as my family, which I don’t.)
With a flourish, she hands over my great-grandfather’s death certificate but I don’t find it especially exciting as I can’t read the curly writing. So Foster explains that it says Alfred Charles Kellaway, clergyman, died at 73 in Australia, the son of Amos and Jane. He was born in Dorset and had lived in Australia for 66 years.
I feel vaguely let down to have discovered so easily when the family went to Australia. Foster tells me not to worry. There are good secrets coming. Indeed, the Kellaways are apparently more interesting than many of the celebrities whose family histories proved too dull to broadcast. Already, such flattery is working: I’m slightly more inclined to claim my dead relatives, after all.
Foster then shows me the marriage certificate of my great-great grandfather, Amos, who married Jane Smith in Pimlico, London, in 1856. Under profession, there is another word I can’t read. Foster reads it for me: cheesemonger. The plate of cheese I ate the night before swims unbidden into my mind. I push it firmly away.
Outside the hotel, our sleek chauffeur-driven car waits. As we glide through Thomas Hardy country, Foster hands me her laptop and asks me to Google the 1861 census. She tells me to type in my great-grandfather’s name, and there I “find” him. That year, Alfred Charles Kellaway is four years old, living in Swanage, Dorset, in a house with a family of fishermen. Against his name it says “boarder”. There are no other Kellaways in the house. Where are Amos and Jane?
Further census searching quickly finds Jane Kellaway. She is listed as a cook at the rectory in the same town. I feel relief that she is alive and glad she’s near her son. Of Amos, there is no trace at all.
We have just arrived at Swanage, a sweet seaside town, and the car pulls up outside the stone rectory. There are no cooks inside, separated from husbands and sons. Instead, a man in a Barbour jacket cuts his grass.
Foster tells me we are going further back in history to find out more about Amos, and thus we have come to East Lulworth church.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Dorset looks timeless and ravishing in the sun. Maybe it’s the detail of Amos Kellaway’s Christmas day baptism, or the illegitimate thing but, as I touch the cold, stone font I find I am, if not quite ready to cry, thoroughly bitten and smitten.
The next stop is Dorchester record office, where three pieces of paper await us. The first is a removal order. Dated 1829, two years before Amos was born, it orders the eviction of Charles Kellaway (shepherd) and 10 children (of which Amos’s mother was one) on the grounds that they had no right to poor relief there. The parish was sending them to nearby East Lulworth instead.
The second document is a bill, headed “Re: Kellaway – a pauper” and lists the legal expenses of the case – amounting to £24, 15 shillings and 8 pence altogether, showing that solicitors fleeced their clients then, as they do now. The third piece of paper showed that East Lulworth was so desperate not to be saddled with the poor Kellaways that it appealed against the decision but lost. At least I didn’t weep seeing these documents. I laughed.
We drive to nearby Cerne Abbas where the naked chalk giant looks down on the bucolic scene from which the Kellaways were cast out. I’m trying to resist the modern urge to apply psychobabble to Amos’s disappearance. Being born into such a marginal existence, who can forgive him for later abandoning his wife and child?
But what actually happened was rather different. An earlier census record found by Foster lists “sea” as the calling of Amos Kellaway. Further research finds him in ships’ records, and reveals him to have been 5ft 6in with hazel eyes. I read this greedily, now understanding the pleasure of the woman at Kew when she found out the height of her ancestor.
Foster asks me to type “HMS Iris” and “Amos Kellaway” into Google. And there the mystery is solved. My great-great-grandfather deserted ship in Sydney in 1857 to go in search of gold. He didn’t find any. But he found New World riches of another sort. After six years in Australia, he had made enough money as a farmer for Jane the cook and their six-year-old son Alfred to sail out to join him.
Their story ends happily ever after. The boy gets an education and becomes a clergyman. His son, my grandfather, becomes a doctor, finds a treatment for snakebite – and loses all interest in his roots.
My story ends happily, too. I tell my father and my sister about the pauper Kellaways in beautiful Thomas Hardy country. They swallow the story hungrily, along with a big side order of humble pie.
And so who do I think I am? The truth is that I’m not who I thought I was six months ago. I still maintain that who I am does not include impoverished shepherds or illegitimate deserting sailors and failed gold diggers. Time has washed them away. But it does include something less expected. Who I am now is a born-again ancestor bore.
Ancestral Footsteps: www.ancestralfootsteps.com
Lucy Kellaway is the FT’s management columnist
GET YOUR ROOTS DONE
How to go in search of your ancestors
You don’t have to spend thousands to research your family tree. Here, Sarah Williams, editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, explains how you can start tracing your family tree for just a few pounds. Many people can, with a few hours of research, trace ancestors back to the mid-1800s.
Talk to your family This is the most important first step. Include people from your own generation, cousins and siblings, not just parents, grandparents and elderly aunts. You may find that someone else in another branch of the family has already done some of the research for you. Ask to make copies of useful birth, marriage and death certificates.
Keep track of your research You can download Family Tree Builder free from MyHeritage.com or build up your tree online using a subscription site such as Genes Reunited or findmypast.co.uk. Ancestry.co.uk has just released a new version of its free app that lets you build your tree from your iPhone or iPad, and buy individual records from 69p.
Search the census If you are searching for someone born before 1911, you should be able to find them on the 1911 census. If you are lucky, you will be able to follow a family back through all the censuses to 1841. Access the census from a library, or, at home, try a free trial from Ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk or Genes Reunited.
Order certificates At some point you will need to order a certificate to verify that you are researching the right person and to take you back another generation. Birth, marriage and death certificates are ordered through the General Record Office (GRO) website (www.gro.gov.uk) and cost £9.25 each. To track down which certificate you need to order, try FreeBMD.org.uk. This website, while neither attractive nor comprehensive, is free. You can also access the GRO indices on the genealogy subscription websites. A birth certificate will name parents and from there you can search for their marriage certificate using the same method. This can get your research back to 1837, when civil registration began.
The family history exhibition, Who Do You Think You Are? Live, takes place at Olympia, from February 24-26 2012. www.whodoyouthinkyouarelive.com