What's Bred In The Bone Will Out In The Flesh

My Interest in Genealogy

I think I have always found my family history interesting. For as long as I can remember my West Indian relatives were something of a curiosity (I was born in San Fernando, Trinidad, in 1962). Like most children, I considered my parents to be definitively normal, and I also remember thinking that my paternal grandmother, while clearly different from my parents, must be fairly representative of most people too (she was not).

Until I was five years old, these three people defined normality for me. Even at that early age, however, I was aware that some of my more distant paternal relatives (including several that were dead) were unusual and interesting. Whenever the adults got together, their conversation was always about familial, and then frequently national, politics, and I quickly became aware of belonging to an established family of distinguished, but crazy, people (both my paternal great grandfathers were legislators).

My interest in family history peaked many years later, however, when I discovered how the Internet could facilitate genealogical research. In January 2000 I sat down at my parents' computer on a whim, and within an hour I had discovered two previously unknown generations of my paternal family! I was hooked.

What Genealogy Has Taught Me

So that explains how my interest in genealogy began, but why do I continue? Why have I devoted so much time and effort recently to tracking down my ancestors? Well, I find it quite simply fascinating. It's fascinating because I am constantly learning about history (family, local and world history) and also, believe it or not, learning about myself. What have I learned about myself? To answer that question you need to know a little of my family history.

My parents met in London, England, in the late 1950s. My father was born in Trinidad, and his family had been in the West Indies in one form or another since at least the 18th century. Some of his ancestors had European roots (Missionaries and merchants mostly), while others were descended from African slaves.

My mother was born in London, and all of her ancestral lines, having originated in rural areas of Britain, migrated to London mostly as skilled labourers in the first half of the nineteenth century. (Interestingly, most of their descendants subsequently left London by the end of the twentieth century, but I suspect these two trends are not unusual. Like many others in the UK, they stayed in the big city until they had joined the ranks of the middle class, at which point they could afford to abandon the crowded metropolis for the spacious and healthy suburbs and countryside once again.)

My parents have a lot in common, despite having very different personalities. In 2002 they will celebrate the 43rd anniversary of their marriage, so they clearly share whatever essentials are required for a successful married life. However, I doubt if any two parents contribute equally to their offspring's inheritance, and in my case my paternal family's influence has been easier to identify, at least to date.

My father's parents were first cousins (fortunately for most of us, the marriage of first cousins is not unusual and has been legal in the United Kingdom since the 16th century), which simplifies my genealogy because two potentially different ancestral lines become one. In this case my paternal grandparents shared their maternal ancestry because their mothers were sisters, and it just so happens that the influence of this ancestral line is comparatively easy to surmise.

Rev. William Fidler
Rev. William Fidler

Eliza (b.1870) and Jessie (b.1875) Fidler, my paternal great grandmothers, were the granddaughters of the Reverend William Fidler (1796-1866), an English Methodist Missionary who spent a total of 32 years working in the West Indies. He was described by a contemporary as "a faithful minister of the Gospel, a strict disciplinarian, and a diligent pastor." (For more on Rev. William Fidler, read his diary for the years 1825 - 1827, in which he records his first journey to the West Indies and the subsequent two years in St Vincent.)

Of his seven children, four either became or married Methodist Ministers and one was ordained as an Anglican priest. The vast majority of their spouses, children and grandchildren were subsequently staunch Methodists by today's standards. They rarely married non-Methodists (hence the marriage of cousins), and continued to subscribe to some of the more extreme tenets of Methodism for a long time. Even my grandparents (four generations later) were teetotal all of their lives, for example.

All of which brings me to my point, namely that each of us manifests characteristics of our ancestors long after they are gone, whether we like it or not; and assuming such an inheritance takes place, it stands to reason that we can learn about ourselves by studying our ancestors.

Let me give you some more examples to illustrate my point.

A Missionary's Character...

What characteristics and skills would a Methodist missionary require? Clearly he would need to be self-motivated with a strong sense of purpose (the work was not well paid and dangerous). Ideally he would be very persuasive in order to be an effective evangelist for Methodism, and of course he would be an enthusiastic student and teacher of the Bible (the academic study of religion gave Methodism its name). Hopefully he would be an effective leader, and he certainly cannot have been afraid to differ from the majority of society (Methodists were non-conformists from the very beginning). So, he would have been exceptional in several respects.

Assuming my premise is valid, it would seem appropriate to ask if these exceptional characteristics manifested themselves in subsequent generations? If so, how? And if everyone is also a product of his or her time and place, how has environment affected the familial inheritance? How has the addition of new genes to each generation affected it?

...Continues To Manifest Itself

My family history provides ample evidence that Rev. William Fidler passed at least some of these distinctive core characteristics on to his descendants. Bible study materialised into a respect for education and teaching (several of his grandchildren attended university; two granddaughters founded a distinguished school for girls in Sydney, Australia; one grandson was the first headmaster of an important school for boys in Grahamstown, South Africa). Methodist non-conformity turned into a strong eccentric streak (Jessie Fidler used to buy two entire rows of tickets whenever she went to the cinema to ensure that no one sat in front of her and blocked her view!).

In my own case, I was frequently criticised in my youth by my peers for being too serious. Imagine my surprise then when one day I discovered that John Wesley's favourite saying had been "Be Serious". I was reminded that my own paternal grandfather had always said, "Life is a business". What's bred in the bone will out in the flesh.

© 2003 Kevin M. Laurence
E-mail: Kevin Laurence

Valid XHTML 1.O!