Storytelling through the Sources: Client Stories

I apologise for the short hiatus on the blog. It has certainly been a busy time at AnceStory NI, and I’d like to give you an example of what exactly I have been up to.

Today, I want to share the story of a client’s ancestor, Michael Fitzgerald. The wealth of documents that exist in regards to this one man will give you an inkling of just how much could be learned about an entire family. I also want to share this particular example as it’s the kind of raw and human story that most of us are going to find when we take on family history research.

The beauty of the fact that we can access this kind of story is that it transforms Michael from a name that fills a branch on our family tree to a real, live, breathing human being. Through the sources we learn that Michael experienced love, heartbreak, fatherhood, war, and plain old every day working life. In that way, it becomes abundantly clear, that even though he was born almost 100 years prior to us, he was just like us – a complicated human being with flaws, with moments of strength and triumph as well as moments of defeat. I don’t know about you, but when posterity looks back at me, I hope they can see me as just that, rather than a name and a date on the family tree.

So, what sources did I use and how did they help to tell Michael’s story? My first step was to look at Michael’s birth and christening records. Even though the majority of sources created later in Michael’s life claim he was born in 1886, these documents demonstrate that he was born on 25 September 1885. It also tells us his parent’s names, John Patrick and Sarah Fitzgerald, and where he was born, on Reed Street in South Shields His father John hailed from County Cork, Ireland and his mother Sarah from Lancashire, England.

 Screenshot of a Google Earth image of the location at which Michael was born

Screenshot of a Google Earth image of the location at which Michael was born

Census records are another incredibly useful and information packed source we can use. From the 1891 census we learn that when Michael was 5 years old, the family lived on Wapole Street in South Shields. He had a 7 year old brother, Daniel, and a 2 year old sister Jane Ann. His father worked and supported the family as a riveter.

Looking at the 1901 census and observing the changes provides a great deal more about the Fitzgerald family. Sarah is now listed as a widow and a Charwoman. Michael, 15, is now the oldest male living in the house. Michael is now working as a rivet heater in a shipyard, a similar profession to that of his father. Jane Ann is now twelve and another brother John W. has been born. Additionally, the family has taken on an Irish border called George Gibson. George also works at the shipyard as a ship plate riveter. The family is now living on George Street in Hartlepool – a street that still exists today in the form of warehouse buildings.

We can see from this census that Daniel, Michael’s brother, is not accounted for. This leads us to from the census records to the death records, which demonstrate that he passed away shortly after the 1891 census at only 8 years old. The family has experienced a great deal of loss in 10 short years

Military service records can also prove an excellent source. Michael’s Militia Attestation document demonstrates that he originally joined the Durham Light Infantry in 1904. At the time he was 18 years old and living at 21 York Street in West Hartlepool. He listed himself as a labourer. We can see from Michael’s service records that by 1914 he had served in the Northumberland Fusiliers during WWI in the 11th(service) Battalion. Throughout the war, Michael’s battalion served in France, Italy, India, Egypt, and Greece. After serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers, Navy Seamen Records suggest that Michael joined the navy after or at the end of WWI.

According to his marriage records, Michael was married to Mary E. Callahan on 26 September 1910. The 1911 census records show Michael living at 4 Slake Terrace, Hartlepool with his wife. Michael was working as a boiler shop labourer. Michael and Mary’s daughter Nora appears to have been born shortly before the census was taken.

In 1920, Michael’s wife Mary went to America as is demonstrated by the 1920 Passenger List of the Haverford which left from Liverpool to Philadelphia. Mary was listed as a 33 year old domestic who was travelling without her husband.  Her trip to the United States was reported in the Northern Daily Mail on 14 November 1921 in an article titled “Wife Who Went To America” when Mary applied for a separation order:

“She went to America at the back end of last year, her husband intending to follow, but the climate did not agree with her. “I heard you could not get drink in America,"  she said, “Or I would not have gone; I wanted to get my husband away from the drink.” She returned to America in September, and her husband had not given her any money since. – Under cross-examination by Mr. H. Bailey, who appeared for respondent, applicant admitted that when her husband was in the Navy she had lived with another man at Barry Dock. The magistrates dismissed the case.”

 1920  Haverford  passenger list (The National Archives, London, England)

1920 Haverford passenger list (The National Archives, London, England)

 For many, this particular story might look like a skeleton in the closet. I don’t think it needs to be looked at in such a negative light. It demonstrates just how human our ancestors were. They were layered individuals who led complicated lives, just like we are.

According to Durham Records Online, Michael Fitzgerald passed away on 4 June 1935 at Howbeck House in Hartlepool. His last known address was on Back Albert Street and he was buried in Stranton Grange Cemetery in Hartlepool.

Michael’s story is incredibly rich in details. Indeed, much more exists that I haven’t shared.  Many of the details I have included may appear to be immaterial to you – the name of the streets that he lived on, the name of the hospital he died in - however, these are exactly the type of details that allow us to feel connected to him. With this knowledge, we can walk down the streets that he lived on and imagine how much has changed or stayed the same since his time. We can visit the location where he spent his last days and where he likely considered his life story himself. Those details that we collect, no matter how unimportant they may appear, are our closest connection to Michael.

A recent piece in The Atlantic on narrative storytelling explained:

“In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life… A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they will become, and for what happens next.” 

The author continues on to say, “ Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”

And isn’t that exactly what doing with family history – making sense of the world around us?