Back to his roots
New Yorker James Birkbeck IV had always known his great-great-great-great grandfather had set up a college, and he had often wondered what it was like. In March this year, when he and his fiancée, Chrissy, were in London, James thought it would be the perfect time to find out.
James, like his ancestor, cuts an impressive figure, though the lives of the two men are considerably different – James works as a tattoo artist in Virginia Beach, whereas College founder George Birkbeck was a Yorkshire physician. James comments: 'As a child, I was always told I was from this prestigious family in England, but my father and grandfather were both janitors, so it seemed incredible. My family have always rooted for the underdog and this seems to fit with my ancestor’s aim when he set up Birkbeck.'
When James came face to face with a portrait of his relative in Birkbeck’s Council room, it was an eerie experience; the lace ruff of the early nineteenth century may have been replaced with a twenty-first-century tattoo, but the family resemblance is undeniable. 'This is the first image I have ever seen of George. I have never liked my nose. Now I see where it came from,' he jested.
An everyman subject
James is certainly not alone in his desire to discover more about his origins. Birkbeck runs two short courses in Genealogy Research Skills (beginner and intermediate). Mari Alderman, sessional lecturer, has seen a steady increase in the subject’s popularity. 'Some see genealogy as a way to find out about themselves,' says Maria.
'They want to know how their ancestors have influenced where they are today. Others are interested in the social history.' She continues: 'The subject really became popular at the end of the nineteenth century; Victorians hoped to find a coat of arms in their history. These days it is much more of an everyman subject.'
So where would someone like James start? Maria says: 'James is obviously in the privileged position of having a famous ancestor with an unusual name who will be recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Natural Biography, which lists addresses and family relations.'
On Birkbeck’s genealogy courses, students learn research techniques, using civil registration and census documents, wills and parish registers. Maria says:
'Each week we take a topic on a particular source, for example the internet or civil registration documents. We also look at how to read old handwriting and we can use documents from the London Metropolitan Archives. Family history has been described as completing a jigsaw, with no picture and some of the pieces missing.'
Issued: summer 2007