Finding out about ancestors can be an experience in itself.
I remember as a child being taken by my father to visit some distant great aunts in Oldham, Lancashire. Cold rain teemed down from a black sky as we arrived at their tiny Victorian terraced house. The yellowing net curtains twitched, then we were ushered inside with kindness and sat down in their tiny sitting room. They were elderly spinster sisters, retired from working at the local cotton mill. One fetched a tray of tea and biscuits, then returned, shaking violently as she bent to place it on the low table in front of us. Her sister kept reprimanding her for 'fussing about'. The room was drab, with yellowing floral wallpaper, the odd vase, and a few photographs in frames above a fireplace. A caged budgie made a few staccato tweets and pecked angrily at its mirror.
Not having offspring or close living relatives of their own, they eyed me up suspiciously. Was I to be their legacy? Was I to carry what remained of their genes (well, some of them) on for the benefit of future generations? They would say things like 'Do you think he's got Ida's ears?' or "That's Henry's chin – and he weren't a good-un'."
There was one topic of conversation, and that was the past. My father was able to follow it, but I sat, bored, and tapped my heels against the chair as they bandied the names of dead relatives. I got the impression this was more of a ritual act than any kind of meaningful communication. Finally, one of the aunts disappeared, then returned with a small box containing several hundred sepia photographs. They passed each in front of my eyes and chanted the names of the subjects: "Now this is Edith and Alice at Auntie Glad's wedding", "This is Len and his wife Ivy". Sad faces of stiff-looking people gazed blankly from their Dickensian scenes. Children in rags huddled on doorsteps like birds on a branch. Middle aged men with prodigious facial hair peered from beneath tall hats.
Yet what sparked my eventual interest was the stories of their deaths. Each seemed to have suffered an appropriately Northern Industrial end. "This is Winifred. She choked on't Eccles cake." Or "This is poor Horace. He fell in t' printing press, poor man". My eyes widened as I imagined the scene. "Hold t' front page!" the foreman would have shouted, and as the whirring din came to a halt, "Oh dear. Does anyone have t' wire brush?"