Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/September 1878/Genealogy
THERE can be no doubt that, as each person now living has had a father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, and so on, every one really comes of as old a family as every one else. Moreover, every living eldest son is the heir male of either the senior or a junior branch, not only of the family of the man who first bore his name, but of progenitors hidden still deeper in the mists of antiquity. We so often hear of families either dying out altogether or ending in females, that we come to think that such a fate is the eventual end of all families; but this is far from being the case. Every man living could, if he only knew where to find the data, count up from son to father, from father to grandfather, from generation to generation, until he came to Adam himself. And this is the great difference between good families and families of all other kinds: the members of a good family can tell who their forefathers were, where they lived, and whom they married; while those who belong to no families in particular are classed in a body as those who don't know their own grandfathers, or who perhaps never had any to know. The goodness of a family depends much more on the number of its known generations than on any other condition. Given two families in which the numbers of recorded generations are equal, doubtless the family whose members have been the more illustrious would be reckoned the better of the two; but a family of only two or three generations, however illustrious their members might have been, would certainly not constitute what is known as a good family. As in the case of many popular ideas, there is some little substratum of reason in this belief. If to be educated and cultivated is an object of ambition, and if there is anything in the doctrine of heredity, it may be supposed that the members of a family who have been of importance enough to leave their names scattered on the bank of the river of time have had a better chance of being polished, and of handing down their good qualities to their posterity, than those who were swept away by the tide without leaving any mark.
It is not much to be wondered at that there is such a general mistiness as to the ancestors of any particular person. I wonder how many readers of this page can tell straight off the Christian names of their two grandmothers — very few, I suspect — and yet these are facts very close at home in any one's genealogy. I am sure no one who has not especially looked up the point could tell the Christian names of his great-grandmothers, though they also stand at the threshold of a pedigree. Unless recorded in the family Bible or otherwise committed to writing, such names soon fade from the memory. People are anxious enough that they themselves shall not be forgotten. Such a feeling is the root of all ambition; and there is a difference in degree only, not in kind, between writing one's name on the page of the history of one's country and carving one's initials on a wooden bench, or scribbling them with pencil on the walls of some famous and frequented house. But people are not so desirous to perpetuate their father's memory, or to hand down to future ages their grandfather's name, and they take no steps to that end; and the consequence is that of the mass of the people below the class immortalized in such books as Burke's "Landed Gentry," but few know whence they come, or anything at all about their antecedents. And yet among all ranks of people, from the highest to the lowest, there is some curiosity upon the subject, which, though usually languid, is always ready, should circumstances so direct, to burst into a flame.
It is a pity, however, that this flame should be fed with improper fuel to the extent that it is. When a new man rises up above the mean to such a degree that he thinks it necessary to inquire into his ancestry, his first conclusion is that he must necessarily be related to the best-known family of the name he happens to bear. Should that name be Howard, he considers himself related to the house of Norfolk; should his patronymic be Percy, he deems himself sprung from the same ancestry as the Duke of Northumberland; and if his name be Herbert, he claims affinity with the ennobled family of that name. While his ardor is fresh upon him, in his ignorance he probably applies to some professed pedigree-monger, who at once furnishes him with the missing links between himself and the great family he considers himself to belong to, and affixes to the sophisticated article the trademark, the coat-of-arms and crest, which belongs to the real thing; thereby confirming the parvenu in his ideas, and satisfying him that his views are correct. Of course it may be that the Howard in question is really sprung from the same ancestry as the Duke of Norfolk; and, indeed, the longer back a family can be traced to have existed, the more likely it is that some of its collateral branches will have sunk down to a lower level of society and have lost all knowledge of their origin. In fact, in the neighborhood of the seat of an old family are usually to be found persons bearing the same name, in all ranks of life, from the yeoman to the laborer. Perhaps they are not all related, for before surnames became fixed in the lower ranks of life the name of a leading family might have been assumed by persons whose connection with it was not that of blood, but of servitude or tenancy, or of some similar nature. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a practice existed of alienating coats-of-arms from one person to another by deed, and grants by barons to their tenants of their own bearings more or less modified were not uncommon. If this occurred with matters so important as coats-of-arms were in those times, we may be sure that the same thing went on with regard to surnames; and in the rush to secure a name which must have taken place in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and which worked from above downward, the name of a neighboring family which was already provided with that desirable appendage must frequently, either with or without permission, have been assumed or obtained; sometimes, perhaps, without any connection at all with the original owners, but merely because such a name was already in existence.
The earliest documents in which names occur in any plenty, and from which we can judge of their distribution, are parish registers. In these we find that in each parish there is usually a marked preponderance of one name, which is probably peculiar to the parish, or to a group of parishes, of which the one in question forms a component part. We find names localized in groups, each group having a centre of density, thinning off, so to speak, toward the edges, and overlapping the groups of other names. In those times locomotion was difficult, and country-people were content to remain where they were born, and intermarry with their near neighbors; but nowadays people are more gad-about, and we should expect to find that such centres of names were broken up. Let us look at a book which deals with names on a large scale—I mean the new "Doomsday-Book." This is not a very good source for information on the subject, for the area, the county, is too large, and the standard of admission for a name, the ownership of land, too high for our purpose; but it is easily consulted, and can give us some idea of the localization of names. It will be seen that many names are nearly confined to, or greatly preponderate in, certain counties. For instance, Goddard is a south-country name, numerous in Hampshire and Wiltshire, occurring but seldom in the midland counties, and not met with in the north, not one person of that name appearing in the list of landowners for Yorkshire. Charlton occurs plentifully in Northumberland, and seldom in the southern half of England. Booth, Ibbotson, and several other names, have their headquarters in the West Riding of Yorkshire, while even such common names as Taylor, Robinson, and such like, occur much more frequently in some counties than in others. Five Shakespears hold land in Warwickshire, and one in the adjoining county of Worcester, but in no other county does the name appear. If names occur thus in groups in modern times, we can easily understand that they were still more localized three or four hundred years ago; and if they are thus localized in a return of landowners, we should find the localization still more apparent if we were to take into account the whole population of the various neighborhoods.
Of the importance of keeping a record of the genealogy of a family it is needless to speak. It is to appeal to a very low standard of usefulness to point to the numbers of advertisements for next of kin, and notices of unclaimed money. Since the establishment of a national system of registration of births, marriages, and deaths, there is not so much chance of the relationships of families being lost as there was in the days of the more careless registration which preceded its institution. But this only dates from 1837; and, moreover, the all-embracing nature of the system causes so many names to be brought together, that an extended search among them is a long and tiring process. It is a useful auxiliary to private registration, but cannot wholly supersede it. The date and place of either of the three occurrences in the life of a person with which genealogy especially concerns itself being known, it is easy to get an official record of the fact from the registrar-general; but to start with only a name, and to have to look through index after index to find the date of the birth or death of the particular person in question, is a very different matter.
And no one should say that he is too humble in station to make care about such things necessary. Fortune's wheel has many surprising turns, and sometimes carries those round with it who least expect to be raised from their station underneath it. To those higher in rank also the due recording of such things is equally important, for many facts concerning their families can be jotted down which must be interesting and may be useful to those who come after them, and which their posterity can learn in no other manner. In fact, it seems to me that the higher the state of culture of society becomes, the more care will be demanded in matters which so closely concern the family and the race; the more society will ask what it is and whence it springs, and in an increased degree will it be true that "the glory of children are their fathers."—Gentleman's Magazine.