How to Set About Finding Relatives
I couldnt tell you when I decided finding living relatives in the areas where my ancestors came from sprang to mind. My thinking was purely selfish. I thought I would be able to get so much more information from people living there and my efforts to extend my family history a few more years into the past. Instead I developed lasting friendships which has endured for over thirty years.
I knew my paternal grandfather had come from Maidstone in Kent. My first visit to Kent – when I was still a newcomer to the genealogy trail – sent me to Loose, a small village on the outskirts of Maidstone where his birth certificate said he had been born. I had not further information, and spent the one spare day I had wandering around this village and its graveyard, photographing any “Ashby” grave I found. Where these my ancestors’ graves? Some of the time periods fitted and I was very excited by my discoveries. But my lack of understanding meant this short visit was really a waste of time. They were not direct ancestors at all.
On my return to New Zealand, I realised I needed to figure out how best to explore this side of my family so any future trip to the area would not be wasted. I hit upon the idea of contacting locals with the same name. At the Auckland library, I photocopied the appropriate page from the Kent phone book – this was before the advent of www – and composed a letter containing every thing I knew or had found out about my grandfather, including the fact my father had visited relatives there during WWII. In total I mailed about 20 letters to Ashby’s living in or around Maidstone and then sat back with fingers crossed that I might receive at least one response.
I think I received ten replies. Some came from people not related who still wished me well in my search, and a couple suggested they were passing my letter onto someone else they knew. But I also received three replies from relatives. One was a first cousin of my father who remembered his visit in 1939. One lady was a genealogy buff who knew so much about her family that within a couple of letters we had established where my side dovetailed with hers. Another was a cousin who admitted to knowing little of her extended family but who was thrilled to be in contact with a relative across the other side of the world.
I have kept in contact with two of these ladies. Unfortunately the third was soon in the grips of dementia and passed away within a few years of me finding her. Our contact has long since moved on from family history, although I’ve been fortunate to have been able to visit with them and have them show me around my grandfather’s birthplace. Instead we have shared our lives and dreams and families with each other. What started out as a quest for more knowledge about my family’s history, instead gave me two new friends who have become very important to me.
With their help and insight into the area, I found that while he might have been born in Loose (for whatever reason) my grandfather and his family actually lived in the parish of Boughton Monchelsea, another small village on the outskirts of Maidstone. To visit his hometown and be able to walk around his village, I can’t help but wonder at the changes. What had it been like when he was a boy?