Fourth Assignment for Medicine and the Arts (FutureLearn MOOC in association with the University of Cape Town)

Family Origins

My father and mother both have very region-specific surnames (the Yorkshire-Derbyshire border and West or North Yorkshire respectively). I haven’t researched much of my mother’s family as yet, although I know her mother also had an apparently local surname, in that relatives with the same, uncommon, surname lived in and around York when I was growing up. Looking at the 1891 Census map for that surname, I see that 5 out of 99 records for that surname were in Yorkshire, although the vast majority were in Somerset.

Returning to my father’s family, while we know that the male line can be traced back through multiple generations as living in South Yorkshire, his great grandmother’s family were originally from Norfolk, and moved to Sheffield through their connection to the Duke of Norfolk (as his servants rather than anything grander). The duke owned many properties in and around the city, and it was in one of these that his former coachman took up residence after marrying a former indoor servant.

My parents have visited the Norfolk village where my great, great grandparents came from, and brought back photographs of local landmarks that would have been present when my ancestors lived there. The surname they used was double-barrelled, with one very common element and one less common element, which could be Old English or Dutch in origin. In the 1891 Census, 43% of over 1,000 records for that surname were found in Norfolk, and 7% were in the much larger country of Yorkshire.

While websites such as the US-based 23andMe, and the UK’s DNA.Ancestry promise to trace ancestral origins through DNA testing, they are limited to very broad regional boundaries, encompassing multiple political borders. So, while they might be able to estimate whether my Norfolk ancestors were originally Dutch, like many Fenlanders (although the Dutch settlers historically tended to make their homes further from Norwich than the village I need to research), they would not be able to pinpoint whether my maternal grandmother’s family originated in Yorkshire, or had moved there from Somerset. Likewise, DNA testing cannot tell us why our ancestors migrated or what prompted them to settle in their new home.

All the facets of family history I find most interesting can be much better determined from paper records – census documents, parish records, personal letters and the like. So, no, I won’t be using DNA testing to find my ancestors, but one day I may request access to the Duke of Norfolk’s archives to see if any letters from his ancestor – or more likely, his ancestor’s men of business – can shed light on why my ancestors moved to Sheffield.

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