How I put some new foliage on a missing family tree

Beyond my grandparents I don't know much about my mother's side of the family. I know even less about my father's. He died 15 years ago and his family were never what you'd call close.

A woman who claimed to be my aunt turned up at his funeral. I'm sure she was genuine, but I swear I had never seen her before or since.

The only things I know are based on rumour and conjecture. Apparently, my father's father fell off the roof of St Mary's Church, near Leeds city centre. He'd apparently gone up there to repair some slates. Unfortunately, the act of altruism came after an afternoon down the local club and ended somewhat prematurely.

Still, his wife, my grandma Nora wasn't one to hang around. The story goes that within a matter of months she had married her dead husband's brother, the man who I knew briefly as Grandad Terry. A case, perhaps of keeping it in the family.

My mother's side is a little clearer. My grandfather, Edward Burke, was the baker at Seacroft Hospital. He died when I was a baby, but the photograph of him beside a sponge reconstruction of the hospital's clock tower, baked for some anniversary or other, was often brought out during my childhood. After serving in the Army during the Second World War, my uncle Eddie followed in his footsteps and so grandad's story continued through the generations. My gran had a spell working at Burton's factory in Leeds and without prompting would often tell of how she had single-handedly raised her own brothers and sisters against the backdrop of industrial hardship and poverty. Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen had nothing on my gran.

I was a good listener and of course she knew that having never met my great-grandparents I wasn't in the position to refute any of her tales. The truth is there's something quite liberating about having little foliage on the family tree. Like Jeremy Clarkson, who when he agreed to take part in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? was convinced he came from a line of colourful characters, I like to think that somewhere along my ancestral line, there is a hidden pot of family gold, a great inventor whose ideas changed the world or even just a murderous rogue who committed crimes in my name.

Sadly, with a lineage littered with Burkes, Houlihans and Burns, I've long suspected the truth may lie less in royal palaces and more in the humble abodes of working-class Ireland, where the population scraped a living as labourers and factory workers, before the potato famine forced a quick hop across the Irish Sea.

So when I receive a call from a genealogy company asking whether I would like my family tree traced, I hesitated for a moment. Finally, I might get confirmation of lineage littered with genius pioneers, but what if the census records pull the rug from the daydreams. How will it fell to know that actually I'm ordinary?

To the experts at the website findmypast.co.uk, who are braced for their busiest time of year – the festive period tends to get people thinking about their families – it's a familiar dilemma.

"Grannies sinking sherries, dads taking an afternoon nap and siblings squabbling is a typical Christmas Day for most, but when everyone is gathered together it does tend to make people wonder whether their family has always been like that," says Debra Chatfield, of the online tracing site. "People are desperate to uncover their own rags to riches story or find they are related to some famous name, but actually none of that really matters.

"Everyone's family tells a unique story and even the most seemingly ordinary lives can make fascinating reading."

Boxing Day marked the beginning of the first Start Your Family Tree Week, encouraging people to delve a little more into their own histories. The campaign is being run by findmypast.co.uk, along with GenesReunited.co.uk and the Society of Genealogists and hopes to capitalise on an area which has already become big business.

"Over the past decade the popularity of family history has grown dramatically," adds Debra. "Twelve years ago, just 11 per cent of Britons had looked into their family history, but today 42 per cent of the population have started researching their ancestors.

"Research shows that on average people are aware of 16 members of their extended family. The internet has made it so much easier to trace your family tree, but there are still huge gaps in our knowledge and there are many whose tree stops at their own grandparents.

"Every family has intrigues, well-kept secrets, quirks of fate and heart-warming tales, it's often just a case of knowing where to start digging."

With someone else doing my dirty work, trawling through online census records and trying to find the many missing pieces of my ancestral jigsaw, all I have to do is sit and wait. Two weeks after sending over the little information that I had, the results start to filter through. They've struggled to shed much light on my father's side of the family, but suggest that with a little bit of work on my part it shouldn't be too difficult to make some headway. However, my mother's family is much more of an open book. It turns out they did come from Ireland. Cork to be more precise. James and Mary Coleman – my great, great, great, great grandparents – got out in the late 1830s.

It was a few years before the potato famine of 1845 left one million dead and forced a similar number to emigrate, but the situation in the country was already dire. Many were living below the breadline and the young married couple were no doubt glad to see the back of the deprivation of County Cork.

They moved into the very Yorkshire-sounding Wrigglesworth Street in Leeds where James secured work as a handloom weaver. It was a respectable trade, but with machines taking over for men, in the mid 19th-century the wages for weavers were low and there were often days or weeks between jobs. Still, the Colemans were nothing if not hard-working and later their daughter, also called Mary, got a job as a silk spinner before marrying the blacksmith Joseph Burke and becoming a mill hand.

They lived the same lives as thousands of other factory workers, but the turn of the 20th century was marked by a series of unfortunate events. In 1909, records show my great-great grandfather Edward Burke died at the age of 42. I call my mother. It turns out he had an accident at the foundry where he was an iron moulder. My mum's not entirely sure whether he actually fell into the vat, but his death involved molten metal and a lot of it.

Talk of her great-grandfather also jogs another memory. Some years later, his widow Catherine, who had been forced to get a job as a charwoman to support the family now living in two rooms in Bombay Street, slipped on a piece of ornamental glass, the kind which used to cover cellar openings. Catherine, who had given birth to three children only two of whom had survived, died shortly afterwards of a brain haemorrhage. I've had a look on an A to Z, but Wrigglesworth Street and Bombay Street no longer exist. Presumably they were among the slums razed to the ground as Leeds cleaned up its act in the mid 20th-century.

It's sad really, but it's not the first time my family's homes have been reduced to rubble. Bridle Path in the grounds of Seacroft Hospital where my mother grew up was demolished a few years ago. The last time we saw my grandparents bungalow on the nearby Halton Moor estate, the once desirable development had become ridden with crime and drug addiction and the properties had become a playground for vandals.

Given what I now know about my the rest of my ancestors, it's probably par for the course. Irish, working class, and prone to accidents, it may not be much, but they're all mine.

MEET THE RELATIVES...

According to research when people begin tracing their family tree the Top 10 wish list of discoveries is....

1 A black sheep

2 A pioneering scientist or engineer

3 A rags to riches story

4 A working-class hero

5 A famous actor or singer

6 Connections to royalty or aristocracy

7 An adventurer who sailed the high seas

8 An acclaimed artist or writer

9 A famous sportsman or woman

10 A notorious criminal

For more details about Start Your Family Tree week visit the website www.findmypast.co.uk

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