It was in mid-1985 that I first became interested in genealogy. My mother had recently died and I realised then how little I knew of my ancestry.
My father was of no help in getting me started on my research; he said that he knew no more than I did. He left home when he was 16 and it is quite probable that his parents never told him some of the less-than-flattering facts about some of their numerous siblings, facts than I subsequently encountered. His parents were a very Victorian couple. For many people of that era, illegitimacy, unmarried cohabitation, and divorce were scandalous and best not spoken of.
Both my parents were only-children, so I had no uncles or aunts to turn to for their possible input. I had to start from scratch.
In 1985, family research was both time-consuming and relatively expensive, compared to recent years. There were no computers, no databases, no software and no internet. Research was carried out on the original documents and charts of ancestry were drawn by hand. One wall of my study was eventually covered with a huge chart holding 2+4+8+16+32=62 ancestors for each of my parents.
As the records for Ulster were held in Belfast and I was living south-west of London, I started my research with my father’s ancestry.
He was born in Norfolk, as were both of his parents. The records for English births, marriages, deaths and census returns, dating back to 1837, were held in London, and over many months and numerous visits, the chart on my study wall began to fill up. And as far back as 1837 I found that all my father’s parent’s ancestors were also born in Norfolk.
To go back before 1837, one had to visit the relevant county record archives, which in my case meant a long drive to Norwich and an overnight stay. Once having obtained a reader’s permit, one could submit a request to have access to the original documents of a given parish and 20-30 minutes later, they would arrive from the archives and research could begin.
Initially I concentrated on the Blackwood line and after a couple of visits I found that four generations of my father’s ancestors had lived in the two adjoining parishes of Hethel and Wreningham. The oldest event that I found was the marriage of my great (x4) grandfather, Robert Blackwood, in Hethel in 1756.
To this day, I have not been able to locate his birth. Every line on an ancestral chart eventually ends in a brick wall, and breaking one down inevitably leads to two more.
Hethel was a small parish with no village as such, just an ancient 11th century church, and a handful of farms. In 1841 there were 211 inhabitants, but by 1901 the population had dropped to 153. In 1841 there were 15 Blackwoods living there, but by 1881 there was only one, my great great grandmother. She died in 1889.
An airfield was built there during WW2, after which it was closed. Today it houses Lotus Cars. Hethel is also known for having an ancient thorn tree, reputed to be more than 800 years old, the oldest on record.
Hethel is about 10 km south-west of Norwich and it was on a beautiful summer day in 1986 that I first went there. It is not on a main road, and is only accessible down narrow country lanes. When the trees and hedgerows are in full leaf, it is easy to miss the turning.
I parked beside the church gate and went in. The graveyard was largely uncared for, the grass was long, and there were several large clumps of nettles. I had a very strange feeling that I had been in that graveyard before, but of course that was impossible. It was probably just the nervous anticipation of finding evidence of my ancestors.
I did not start looking at the nearby gravestones, but went straight into a clump of nettles away to the left of the entrance, and with my foot trod them aside, to fully reveal two adjacent gravestones. They were the graves of my great great grandparents, Robert Blackwood (1809-1867) and Susanna Ringwood (1811-1889).
Of course, most people would say that it was just a coincidence that I went straight to those graves, but I am not so sure. I clearly remember feeling as if I was being led directly to them.
I have been back to Hethel twice since then, the last time in an overnight snowfall, just before Christmas. There was a strong easterly wind blowing and it was bitterly cold.
There were no leaves on the trees and of course no nettles. The graves of my great great grandparents were clearly visible, leaning to one another, as if she had moved closer to him for warmth, sleeping on his shoulder.
The inscriptions on the gravestones are now very eroded and difficult to read. One day in the not distant future they will be completely illegible.
Neither of my great great grandparents could write; they signed their name in the parish registers with a mark, an ‘X´. They were undoubtedly poor – he was an agricultural labourer, and he died at the age of 59, whereas she lived for another 22 years.
It was possibly their son, my great grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), who had the gravestones erected. He was the first of the Blackwoods to be able to write and he worked as a miller, with his own mill in Harleston, 18 km south on the Essex border.
I once came across a beautiful expression in a book I was reading:
Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerde (We exist as long as someone remembers us)
If I ever succeed in publishing, in some form, my series of articles, perhaps one of my descendants will one day read this, and be motivated to visit the churchyard in Hethel, as I first did, now more than 30 years ago.
And in so doing, our family links with the past will be refreshed, and some of those who came before us will be remembered.