I’ve been reading The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History and one of the articles raised the question of how long families that have emigrated keep in touch with those back in the country they came from.
Most of of our ancestral lines have immigrants from somewhere else, and it is quite interesting to look at how they maintained contact, and how and to what extent we have re-established contact, mainly because of an interest in family history. A recent post about a Canadian Growden family is a case in point — they seem to have little or no contact with any other branches of the family, and little or no memory of where they came from.
One of the clearest cases is Val’s maternal grandmother’s family. She was Martha Pearson, nee Ellwood, and both she and her husband William Walker Pearson. They came to South Africa from Whitehaven, Cumberland, England about a century ago, and were married in Pinetown, Natal, in 1913. They lived just down the road from Val when she was young, within walking distance, and when her grandfather died her grandmother came to live in a granny flat that they built on to their house in Escombe, where she lived with them for 12 years until she died in 1968.
So Val grew up with her grandmother’s stories of Whitehaven, and Martha (Mattie) Pearson kept in touch with her brothers and sisters who lived there, and some of them had also married into the Pearson family. During the Second World War some of Val’s mother’s cousins were soldiers, and visited when troopships called at Durban on the way to south-east Asia. Martha Pearson occasionally returned to Whitehaven to visit family, and we have some of her old passports. Val’s mother and aunt went with her as teenagers, and remembered some of their English cousins, though they did not stay in touch with them. Val and her sister visited England in 1971, and passed through Whitehaven, and had thought of visiting relatives there, but it was late and they thought they were old and would already be in bed, so they drove through.
When we got married in 1974, six years after Val’s grandmother had died, and became interested in family history, one of the starting points was some of Val’s relics from her grandmother — her birthday book, cuttings of newspaper marriage and death notices, and obituaries of her father Thomas Ellwood (1845-1914) and grandfather John Ellwood (1819-1892). We wrote to the Whitehaven News, asking if any members of the family still living in Whitehaven would get in touch. From that we discovered that Val’s great-uncle Ernie Pearson had died the previous week. But his daughter-in-law Nora Pearson wrote to us regularly for the next thirty years, keeping us in touch with news of the family, so the contact was maintained for another generation, and thirty years later, in 2005 we visited Nora, and her daughters who live in Edinburgh. Whether our children will keep in touch with their children after we die remains to be seen. We also visited another second cousin who lives in Wales.
But our letter to the Whitehaven News also brought contact with a forgotten generation of emigrants, about whom Val had heard no stories as a child. A Mrs Mary Ann Tumilty, nee Ellwood, had been visiting Whitehaven from the USA in the week that our letter was published, and when she got home she wrote to us, and sent extracts from the Ellwood family Bible, which she had, and it gave all the children of John Ellwood, Val’s great great grandfather, who was born in 1819. Mary Ann Tumilty’s parents had lived in Northumberland, and emigrated to the USA in 1923.
On this side of the family I’ve told in another post how my father visited England for a Scout jamboree, and met a cousin with the unusual name of Herrick Hayes, and that helped us to make contact with second cousins that we had not previously known about, though attempts to make contact with Herrick Hayes’s descendants have so far been unsuccessful.
In general it seems that, unless there is a conscious interest in family history, contact seems to be lost in the generation of the great grandchildren of immigrants, and family history research can lead to the re-establishing of contact.