The Power of the Letter Or, The Zeal of the Recent Convert

16 November 2020

I am a recent convert to letter-writing. For years, I have been very willing to contact people I knew had an interest in genealogy, through Ancestry or GenesReunited or the other multifarious platforms designed for people who shared my interest. These contacts were often very useful. I have corresponded, in my time, with cousins everywhere from Australia to America, who often knew huge amounts about my more distant ancestors, and with whom I could put my head together, often productively, on trickier bits of research.

But what of my more recent ancestors? Fascinating as it is to talk to people with whom I share common ancestors from the 18th or early 19th centuries, what about talking to the descendants of ancestors in living memory, but whose own family are not involved in the world of online genealogy.

For instance, my great-great-grandmother, let’s call her Molly Conybear. She was born posthumously in Dover in 1895, to a Devonian railway-worker and his Berkshire-born wife, Annie Stallard. Annie remarried to a publican and coal miner named Albert Smith and transplanted the family from Kent to South Yorkshire, where Albert worked on the coalfield. Their children were farmed out as young as possible, and Molly found herself working on a farm in Maltby. There, she met my great-great-grandfather and married him aged only 16. Together, they had eleven children, and then Molly left.

For years, this was all my family knew. She was effectively never heard of again, only some vague rumours she had transplanted herself to Mansfield. Imagine my surprise when, as a naïve thirteen-year-old examining the birth indexes, I spotted three more daughters with the distinctive mother’s maiden name, born in Mansfield. In retrospect, it was definitely an error to mention these heretofore-unknown siblings to Molly’s last remaining daughter from the first marriage, a lady I only ever met once who was kind enough to provide me with a photograph of her father but, I suspect, was somewhat taken aback by the news. She passed away a couple of years later, and I never had the opportunity to speak to her again.

Molly took on a somewhat mythical aspect in my mind. I had never spoken to anyone who knew anything about her beyond her name – my great-great-aunt having been three or four when she left the family – and had never seen a photograph. She was an enigma to me. Moreover, none of her descendants – and you had best believe that I went straight to looking to them – were on the online genealogy sites. For years, then, Molly and her daughters existed in a kind of genealogical limbo, with me be excruciatingly aware of their position in my family tree and, very distinctly, not in my life. After all, all of Molly’s three daughters, as far as I could tell, were very much still alive. These people knew my great-great-grandmother, in fact, knew her better than anyone else in the world possibly could do, but I didn’t want to break into a world where I wasn’t wanted.

Eventually, at the urging of a colleague, I decided the best way forward was to write a letter. Eschewing the incredibly elderly great-great-aunts for fear of the news being unwelcome, I instead decided to try one of their children. I drew up a brief family tree, more notable perhaps for what it pointedly didn’t say than what it did, and a short letter explaining myself and saying, rather hopefully, that I would be glad to hear anything from them at all. This then preceded to sit on my desk for six weeks, whilst I worked up the courage to actually post the missive! To be quite honest, I was expecting to be ignored at worst and a short, ‘we’re not interested, thank you,’ brush off at best.

So, the telephone call I got the next week, saying my letter had been passed to the grandchild of Molly who knew her best and who was incredibly eager to speak to me was a surprise at best.

Well, you can guess how things went from there. Me and my newfound cousins are now in regular contact. I was able to share a lot of information about Molly’s origins and earlier family with them – they hadn’t even known her maiden surname. In return, they shared with me something equally precious – stories. Stories of Molly, of her life, of the grandmother they knew. They were even able to send me a small number of photographs of my great-great-grandmother. Nobody else alive could have sent me this.

Now I am drawing up great, ambitious lists of people to write to, in the hope that I will be able to keep fleshing out, and finding out, about my family. Okay, maybe most people won’t get back to me, or won’t know what I hope they do, or our contact will be sporadic at best. But I think nothing could sour me on letter-writing now, and I can only recommend that if you have mysteries in your tree, little, big, or middling, I wouldn’t over-estimate the power a letter to a non-genealogist can have.

– James Green

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