History Beyond the Reading List: Family History

My aim with this column is to introduce readers to the various different ways in which people who aren’t history students can engage with history on a popular level. Whilst there is naturally a great degree of academic snobbery at Oxford, with the lines between academic and popular history being consistently and definitively drawn, some tutors see the value in facilitating a deep interest and curiosity among their students by recommending that they engage in popular ways. One particular tutor at Exeter massively encouraged the next form which I will discuss as a means to help me become even more engaged and intrigued by early thesis work; that is family history. The popularity of sites such as Ancestry have exploded in recent years, giving users the ability to trace their family trees, discover interesting facts about their relatives, and even find out detailed information about their genealogy. In 2019, Ancestry alone reported that it had 3 million users on its network, while it had also served 15 million people through its AncestryDNA scheme, with an estimated 100 million family trees having been made since it was founded in 1996.

Without bursting the bubble too much, the value which these sites have is somewhat limited and you are very unlikely if you come from a family like mine to discover detailed information about the life story of your Victorian ancestors. For the most part, these sites are limited to census and military information, with their only service being to streamline the process by which you can discover this information. Through the Ancestry account I set up over the summer, I found out about a number of men on my mum’s side of the family who served in both World Wars, predominantly in the Royal Navy as most generations of my family were born and raised in Portsmouth.

I found out particularly about my great, great grandfather George Herbert Shepherd who, having served a distinguished career in the Royal Navy for many years before the First World War, returned to the Navy after a 5 year period of garrison duty at the age of 46. His son, Herbert John David Shepherd went against the expectations and traditions of the family to serve instead in the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Western Front, and was killed in action on the 13th June 1918, just a few months before the end of the war. George’s other son, George Victor Shepherd, being just too young to serve in the Great War found himself serving in the Royal Navy at the start of the Second World War and was sunk on the HMS Hood in the Atlantic Ocean in 1941, and his picture is on this page.

These stories are just the few I was able to discover of the family on my mum’s side, but they give me a tangible connection to two of the most important events of the 20th century. And on top of that I was able to discover that I am 17% Danish/Swedish and 12% Irish, although this is sadly not enough for a passport for any of these countries.