My View, Mel Hewitt - Learning from family history

St John's Hospice Community Fundraiser Mel Hewitt
St John's Hospice Community Fundraiser Mel Hewitt

Next month it will be 10 years since the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? was first broadcast.

There have been many memorable moments. The Jeremy Paxman episode was a high point for me, bringing to life a time of searing poverty challenged only by the indomitable spirit of the people who lived through it.

The strength of character that saw women with sometimes as many as a dozen children, living in one room in the tenements, fighting a daily battle against damp, dirt and deprivation, was both humbling and inspirational.

That Mr Paxman seemed so moved by the story of his ancestors is understandable, and it’s a common theme that runs through the series. A connection is made with the past, and people we’ve never met become real and their stories resonate. They are part of us, who we are and what makes us unique.

It is an experience that can be incredibly moving.

Many years ago my dad showed me our family Bible. Given to my great-great grandmother in 1866 this huge black leather-bound tome has an ornate bookplate inscribed with a dedication.

It was given to her son in December of that year as a token of remembrance for the loss of her husband in the Oaks Colliery disaster at Stairfoot, Barnsley, that same month, when 380 men and boys were killed in the worst mining disaster in England.

I can barely begin to imagine how this devastating explosion impacted on the lives of the small community who hurried to the pit top through mud and biting weather to hear and see the worst.

I think it’s a natural part of the human condition to try to empathise with and understand the tragedies and trials of our fellow man. When we hear of things – however many years ago they happened – that affected our ancestors we feel it all the more. We imagine ourselves in their place.

Our family tree is full of characters, and stories no doubt embroidered in the telling through the years.

The gamekeeper who went out with his shotgun looking for an escaped lion from a travelling circus in the 1890s... the stalwart of the Yorkshire Miners union who was known as ‘Honest John’... the grandfather injured down the pit who turned his hand to writing songs for the music hall and opened a piano shop.

There is, they say, nothing new under the sun and perhaps that is why we can see ourselves or our family members in these tales of long ago. They are part of us, of our legacy. Time listening to older family members reminisce is time well spent. There are many times I wish I had written things down, or asked more about their lives and stories from those who are no longer here.

Are our roots perhaps important as well because deep down we need to know where we came from in order to work out where we are going?

* Mel Hewitt, Community fundraiser, St John’s Hospice, Doncaster