A large group of us is sitting around a big table at Marsh Barn, on the outskirts of West Bay towards Burton Bradstock.
I’ve been here before, to learn about family history with local expert Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard. I’ve done a couple of sessions but haven’t really had the time to get stuck into it yet. Never mind about procrastination, as anyone who has ever looked into their family’s history will tell you, it’s research that can be the thief of time.
But, oh the rewards. Not in monetary terms, of course, but in the satisfaction of fleshing out the family bones – although there is always the possibility of a skeleton or two in the cupboard.
I’m here today to find out more about DNA and how modern science can help in the quest to delve deeper into the shelves of family history.
A DNA test can show to whom you are related – providing they have also had a test done – and also give you a clue about your own ethnicity.
Author and lecturer Debbie Kennett, in an interview for the society’s magazine, The Greenwood Tree, firmly believes in the benefits of DNA testing to the family historian.
“I think you should make use of all available records. DNA is a resource in the same way as parish records, census returns, public archives etc.
“You would not ignore any single one of those when doing your research and DNA should be seen in exactly the same way.”
The biggest company by far offering DNA tests is Ancestry, with some 14 million kits sold.
“But you do need a subscription to access the full family trees of your matches, which is a drawback. They offer the best tools for the beginner and you’ll get more UK matches here than anywhere else,” Debbie says.
There are three different types of DNA test available: autosomal, which measures DNA from both paternal and maternal lines, yDNA which tests the paternal line only and mtDNA which shows only the maternal line.
Kate Boyle, who is giving today’s talk, took a DNA test with Ancestry, as it has the largest database. She thought that maybe DNA results would find a link to a distant brick wall or throw something up unexpected.
She found evidence pointing to South Africa and a possible family indiscretion, which she is looking at ways to find out more.
She is glad she has had her DNA tested as it has confirmed much of what she already knew of her family tree. But she urges caution to anyone considering taking a test: accept the possibility you could be in for a shock. Hidden issues such as adoption or illegitimacy could be uncovered and could potentially cause family upset.
Another issue to consider is privacy. Debbie Kennett, in her interview with The Greenwood Tree, believes such concerns are overrated. She says raw DNA data is not particularly revealing and is stored separately from contact details. Your DNA can be used only for the purposes you specify and you have to opt-in to share your data with third parties.
My husband, mother and I have all recently had our DNA tested through Ancestry.
You have to dribble your saliva into a small tube, mix it with some magic solution, seal it and then send it off to a laboratory in Ireland where it is tested.
My husband’s results came back quite quickly to reveal he was a quarter Scottish or Irish, which was something of a surprise for him. Apparently, there is also a tiny bit of Norwegian in him (Viking perhaps?). When he has the time, he is going to investigate more to see if he can find where that ethnicity might have come from.
The DNA test showed my mother’s heritage to be predominantly English, with a small amount of unknown Swedish thrown in for good measure. Online, she’s now been able to see people to whom she knows she is related, along with at least one other she did not know existed.
And my results?
I have long suspected that my paternal Grigg grandmother had some kind of exotic blood. My brother-in-law insists that the surname Grigg is a corruption of ‘Greek’, which fills me with great excitement as I always feel very at home in Greece. I had a fanciful thought that the Griggs could be Romanies, with their brown eyes and sallow skin, but my mother’s research into that side of the family places them firmly in a small village in south Somerset in the late 1600s, either farming or running pubs.
But my results haven’t been returned, as I had to do the test again. I think there was probably too much bubble in my spit, which is a bit disappointing as I was hoping to sit down with my mother and compare results.
Still, when the DNA results finally come back, maybe I will know for sure. Or maybe not.
For more information about the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society,
Why research your family history?
‘As you get older you suddenly want to find out more about your roots and now it’s so much easier,’ says Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard, who runs family history courses locally.
‘Attitudes to family history have changed so much over the years. When I started in the 1980s, family historians were seen very much as trainspotters, just collecting names. But now they have been become accepted in the outside world, especially the academic world, as they are now looking at the bigger picture.
‘When you research your own history, you become the expert on your family. And it opens people’s horizons to look at the social history. Who were these people and what were they doing?’
A conversation with fellow students yielded the following comments:
‘It’s definitely a drug though. You get hooked. You can spend hours and hours on it.’
‘It’s about chasing family stories to identify those that are true.’
‘Look at the demographic here today, it’s slightly on the older side. We all wish we’d done it earlier and asked the older members of the family more.’
Says family historian Kate Boyle: ‘I remember my mum saying I had no sense of family when I was younger and not interested in my older relatives. And now look at me!’
It’s all in the genes
Paul Radford, editor of The Greenwood Tree, explains the basic science behind DNA, in the latest issue of the quarterly magazine of the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society: “Your body is made up of cells, each containing 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46. The chromosomes contain the specific information that makes your body unique, from the colour of your eyes to the shape of your nose and everything else.
“In 22 each of the 23 pairs there will be one chromosome inherited from your father and one from your mother. In 23 of those, they will look the same but the 23rd pair determines your sex.
“You inherit a Y chromosome automatically from your mother but from your father, it could be a Y or an X. If it’s a Y, you will be male, if X, you will be female.”