Exploring your family history is one of the most fascinating, worthwhile experiences you can do. The number of people that contribute to making us who we are is in the millions, and every one of them made decisions that brought you where you are today.
“Everyone has an exciting family tree as humans are extraordinary” says Dan Snow “If you go back far enough we’re all related to seriously famous and interesting people… I sometimes think when you love history, you’re not that focused on your family history, because you find it as interesting to study Mary Wollstonecraft or Sir Frances Drake as someone you happen to be related to. But as I get older, like everybody, I’m more and more fascinated now”.
Family history website Findmypast has been digitising and indexing billions of records and documents from archives and libraries worldwide so anyone can uncover their own family stories – in a way that our ancestors could only have dreamed of.
Dan Snow was joined by Findmypast’s Myko Clelland, who used census records and online archives to uncover more about some of Dan’s ancestors.
How would Dan Snow describe his own heritage?
“I’ve got a mum born in Wales, to Welsh and Scottish parents, although her Welsh mother was born in Bangalore, India. I’ve got a Dad born in Dublin, to Anglo-Irish parents. I know some of my ancestors were grand, they were members of the aristocracy so we’ve got good family trees for them – then others were just working-class fishermen, particularly in the Mull of Kintyre, or farmers in Pembrokeshire, so I’d say a really wonderful mix”.
Myko says Dan’s family tree is a perfect illustration of why family history is so captivating due to having some noble blood (as many of us do, even if we’re not aware of it), a lot of ancestors that made headlines, working class ancestors, heroes and black sheep – so does everyone.
You can hear their full discussion on Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, but here’s an overview of examples that Myko uncovered:
Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow (Dan’s Great Grandfather)
Dan knows his Great Grandfather was a Commanding Officer on the first day of The Somme, and a General. He had also been a young officer in the Zulu war. Dan thinks he was kicked out from the Western Front for being too old after the Battle of Cambrai.
Myko confirmed Sir Thomas commanded the 4th Infantry Division from 1911-1914, then the 7th Corps for the rest of his wartime service, being at some pivotal military moments of the First Word War. “To be in a position of command during the Battle of the Somme must have been an incredibly difficult thing to be a part of”.
Despite British First World War officers often being depicted as uncaring, through genealogy we see that Sir Thomas wasn’t removed from his troops and actually made steps to improve their lives. His division was the first to introduce divisional baths, the first to start a band and the first to make its own performance troop, ‘The Follies’. He wasn’t miles away behind a desk, he was there.
Myko uncovered a World War One medical record from Findmypast’s military collection, unknown to Dan, revealing his Great Grandfather was at the Battle of the Marne in 1914 – one of the last generals in Britain who commanded from horseback.
It was here that military records show he fractured his pelvis when his horse fell and rolled onto him – something he needed treatment for throughout the war, and he spent the rest of his life partially disabled. This ties-in with a family photograph of Dan’s, showing Sir Thomas in a wheelchair with Dan’s grandfather on his lap.
How does Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow’s marriage link Dan to Queen Victoria?
Sir Thomas’ family appear in newspapers from the era – the dawn of the age of celebrity, when people wanted to hear more about the generals and their families. Dan’s Great Grandmother is featured in an article from The Sketch:
The marriage record shows details of those marrying, family names, occupations and signatures, including that of a witness to the marriage – Talbot Coke, Dan’s Great Great Grandfather.
Other records elaborate on government documents. In partnership with the British Library, Findmypast are building a collection of tens of millions of pages of newspapers from the 1700s to the modern day. Here we can see The St James Gazette’s report on the wedding:
Another newspaper record reported the gift list and the more famous attendants, including the Duke and Duchess of Connaught – Queen Victoria’s last surviving son.
Dan – “So I know my Great Grandfather met the son of Queen Victoria, so that’s me in 4 jumps back to Queen Victoria!”
David Lloyd George (Dan’s maternal Great Great Grandfather)
Dan is related to David Lloyd George, the first Prime Minister from a working class background in British history and the only Welsh speaker to become Prime Minister. A controversial political figure, Myko wanted to use genealogy to focus on David’s upbringing.
Census records are taken every decade, providing a snap-shot of what your ancestors were doing. Using the 1881 census, Myko revealed that aged 18, David was living with his uncle, his widowed mother, his two siblings, and taking his first steps as a solicitor’s clerk.
Myko found David’s diary from that year on 12 November 1881 (9 years prior to becoming an MP):
“That is just brilliant” says Dan, “it’s particularly odd for me because that’s exactly the kind of insane thing I would have written when I was that age!”
“…He’s got a sense of history, he talks about Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, he knows from an early age that he wants to go there and dominate parliament – incredible arrogance of youth! And he contemplated the monuments of departed genius at Westminster Abbey, which I spent some of my time doing, so that’s pretty weird – he’s my Great Great Grandfather and there’s definitely some powerful parallels”.
Myko uncovered David’s progress by the 1911 census, showing him now as Chancellor of the Exchequer, having a private secretary, and servants he’d brought from Wales.
Censuses are held back for 100 years to protect privacy. The 1921 census is almost due for release, and will only be available online at Findmypast. Myko explains how “you’ll see for the first time the list of the number of children born to each married couple, together with the number of children still living – something quite poignant in an era of high infant mortality”.
John Hadley D’Oyly (Dan’s paternal 3 x Great Grandfather)
Dan doesn’t know much about this relative, apart from that he went to India to make money and later built a house in southern England.
Lots of records were sent back regularly by ship from India to the India Office in London – Findmypast have exclusive online copies of these. Myko discovered how John had previously gone into business with members of his wife’s family but ended up losing a great deal of money, so had gone back to India to re-build his fortune. John Hadley D’Oyly’s handwritten will shows how by this stage he had now made a fair amount of the money back.
Myko uncovered the probate document, containing outstanding bills for books John had ordered to be bound, and two outstanding bills for quite expensive shoes.
“A taste for nice shoes is not something I’ve inherited, but that’s very good to see!” says Dan.
Indian newspaper, The Madras Courier of 1818, published a death notice that adds detail…
“That’s amazing” says Dan, I didn’t know he was an MP as well”.
Sir Symonds D’ewes, (Dan’s 10 x Great Grandfather)
Has Dan inherited his love of history? “Not genetically I guess, but I think, yes, it’s in our family. It’s a tradition that we all love telling stories about the past – my aunt, my Grandma, everybody – so yes, possibly…”
Myko was able to uncover possibly the first historian in Dan’s family, back in the Tudor era – Sir Symonds D’ewes – born in 1602, and later MP for Sudbury in Suffolk.
Myko reports Symonds kept three diaries, and for many years his writing was seen as one of the leading contemporary accounts of 1600s life – mentioned in the same breath as Samuel Pepys. He kept one in English (on his work in parliament), one in Latin (on activities outside of work, his hobbies and opinions), and then a third in a cypher he invented as a schoolboy, full of his innermost thoughts.
Whilst occasionally egotistical, Sir Symonds was loyal to his friends. “He wasn’t entirely dismissive of Catholics at a point when it was very dangerous to be a Catholic …in that journal we also get one of the only surviving accounts of Stuart courtship”, says Myko. After failing to woo Gemima Waldegrave, he met Dan’s 10th Great Grandmother, writing to her father:
Upon Symonds’ knighthood, he was described as an antiquarian and collector of manuscripts. Some of the works he transcribed no longer survive, making his writings the only source of some of these historical documents that exist now, particularly his greatest work – a diary of parliament in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Symonds seems to have been perched on the corner of every big event of the period, from warning the Duke of Buckingham George Villier to wear chainmail prior to his assassination in 1628, to being dismissed in Pride’s purge of 1648 during the English Civil Wars (despite claiming to support Parliament) – the only military coup in British history.
Myko also found records showing Symonds’ granddaughter (Dan’s 8 x Great Grandmother) married the Grandson of George Coke (the Bishop of Hereford at the time of this unrest) – one of 12 Bishops who petitioned to dissolve parliament entirely, firmly on the Royalist side. “So George being another of your 10th Great Grandparents, even though at the time a declared enemy of another of your 10th Great Grandparents, shows how two stories weave together and make something new”.
Although Symonds wasn’t massively successful as a historian in his lifetime, he actually made a far greater contribution to history than he ever could have dreamed of. 50 years after he died, in 1704, Robert Harley purchased his entire collection of books and manuscripts and founded a library. His Harleian Collection became one of the principal founding collections of The British Library.
Everyone has a story
Findmypast enables us to look into that world of ancestors, says Myko. “All their decisions shape that most exciting and inspiring history you’ll ever pick up, which is your own family history”.
“You can’t believe that your own ancestors are also going to appear in newspapers and magazines and things that will leave behind a footprint like this, it’s wonderful” says Dan.
Discover more about your own family’s history at Findmypast. By using censuses and working backwards, you too can uncover some great family stories.