When I visited the National Archives at Kew last week the place was full of them, scurrying about with their plastic wallets in hand, a look of eager concentration on their faces. It was impossible to escape their busy presence as they whispered noisily to relatives or whooped over the discovery of some new piece of information.
These were the followers of one of Britain’s fastest-growing craze, the mania for researching family history. Studying bloodlines and tracing ancestral roots was once the preserve of the aristocracy. Today, as I saw at the National Archives, it has become a favourite activity of the British public. We are becoming a nation of obsessive genealogists. According to a recent study by the polling organisation YouGov, 28 per cent of British people have tried at some stage to trace their family tree, and 10 per cent of the population are currently doing so. It is said that genealogy websites are the most commonly visited on the internet after pornography. The website Genes Reunited, which claims to be ‘the UK’s number one family tree and genealogy site’, boasts that it has no fewer than eight million members. Another major web company, Find My Past, says that it has a registered usership of 1.32 million people and a mailing list of almost 600,000.
Ten years ago, there was just one mainstream genealogy magazine. Now there are seven. Another indicator of this fixation with family history is the phenomenal success of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, whose weekly episodes feature different celebrities tracing their roots. So popular is the TV programme that it has even led to a major spin-off public event at Olympia in London this weekend. ‘Enjoy a peek behind the scenes of the much-loved TV show at our LIVE theatre,’ trumpets the advance publicity for this weekend of non-stop genealogical fun. ‘Hear celebrities including Nicky Campbell, Alistair McGowan and Natasha Kaplinsky discuss what it was like to discover the truth about their ancestors.’
Thousands are expected to converge on Olympia, but I will not be one of them. For me, family history has all the appeal of a speech by Hazel Blears on urban regeneration. I am one of the 30 per cent of the population discovered in the YouGov poll who have ‘no interest at all’ in genealogical research. When someone starts to babble about a great-great-great-uncle who is an Albanian prince or a Spanish pirate or a Galway crofter my inclination is to respond, ‘So what? How has that really got anything do with you?’
As I sat at my desk in the public reading room of the National Archives last week, I had a grandstand view of this army of family researchers, ferreting through card indexes and online catalogues and heavily bound ledgers and Victorian street directories and ancient Navy Lists… I thought to myself that there was an air of desperation about all their feverish activity, as if the discovery of a rakish uncle or a wealthy earl in their past might, by some process of genealogical transference, bring some colour to their mundane lives.
But the belief that there is something intrinsically interesting about a family’s origins is badly mistaken. Most people’s ancestry is as dull as their holiday snaps. As any reader of historical biography knows, by far the most boring passages in any such book are the early sections covering the subject’s forebears. But that does not deter the obsessives who think that their findings are ‘fascinating’. So Mary Vernon from Coventry tells the Daily Mail, ‘I have been researching my family tree for seven years now and on my grandmother’s (maternal) side can trace mine back to the time that Henry VII was on the throne. Other branches have gone back to the 1600s and 1700s and I am still searching! I have 3,435 members in it so far…. My Nan’s family, although mostly pretty well off — they were farmers and watchmakers — had a member listed as a pauper.’ Reading this self-indulgent drivel, again I want to scream ‘So what?’
There often seems to be a strange duality about much family history, a mixture of snobbery and prolier-than-thou. So many researchers appear impatient to find that they are descended from blue blood, criminal rogues and poor immigrant stock. This contradictory impulse was perfectly captured in the Who Do You Think You Are? episode with the actor John Hurt, who cherished the idea that he was of Irish descent and may even have been related to an illegitimate daughter of the Marquis of Sligo. When Hurt made his first visit to Ireland, he said that it ‘felt like coming home’. Hilariously, as the programme unfolded, it turned out that his belief in his racy link to Ireland was completely unfounded. It was nothing more than a family myth. Hurt was crestfallen at the outcome of the research. ‘I am not who I thought I was and that upsets me. I am not going to dance for joy because one of the bankers in my life has gone,’ he told the camera.
Hurt’s sense of regret goes to the heart of the problem with family history. As the name of the BBC show suggests, genealogy seeks to define us, not by our own achievements or character, but by our origins. As the American chat-show host Oprah Winfrey, who is fixated with studying her African lineage, puts it, ‘Knowing your family history is knowing your worth.’ I cannot think of a more depressing, snobbish statement, as if our ability to control our destiny and contribute to the world is bound entirely with our roots.
Yet it is this focus on identity which is driving the genealogy boom. Of course, the internet has helped by speeding up the process and making research much more simple, particularly now that so many historic documents, like the census and electoral registers are online. As Elaine Collins of the company Find My Past says, ‘The desire to situate yourself is a universal one and the internet has made research accessible in a way that just was not possible before. Now anyone with a computer can start to build the bones of their family history.’ But modern technology is only feeding a deeper social force. The reason our society is so obsessed with genealogy is because identity politics is the only way of providing us with an anchor in an increasingly fragmented world. As a result of mass immigration, the wilful destruction of our nationhood and the collapse of the traditional family, people are looking for something that will provide them with a sense of belonging.
The political elite might despise our national history, regarding it as little more than a tale of imperialist shame, but they can only be delighted at the explosion in family history. Not only do the rising numbers mean that institutions and libraries exceed their Whitehall-imposed targets for visitor access, but more importantly, fashionable genealogy, with its emphasis on illegitimate or foreign ancestors, promotes two of the key politically correct themes of our times: first that Britain is essentially a land of immigrants so recent changes to our demography should be of no real concern; and second that families come in all shapes and sizes, so the breakdown in married life is an irrelevance. It is no coincidence that the BBC, the chief propagandist for the political values of our age, should be such an enthusiastic promoter of genealogy.
The tragedy is that the family history boom has not led to a greater understanding of our nation’s past. While we beaver away on the net or in the archives, we have never been more ignorant about our island story. Genealogy is no substitute for a true sense of identity.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 3, 2008