Family trees bug hits KZN

2014-10-04 00:00

RESEARCHERS claim that a sudden craze has made family trees “the second biggest hobby” in KZN’s middle class suburbs, after gardening.

Now, thousands of mostly older residents are discovering everything from affairs to rogues and royalty in their ancestry — and dozens have used their savings to visit remote ancestral homes.

Meanwhile, some Durban and Midlands hobbyists have sent their own saliva for DNA testing in the U.S. — and the work of local hobbyists in recording over 200 000 local marriages makes KZN the country’s most fertile soil to grow family trees.

Durban engineer Dave Honour was hoping to learn that his family name derived from a respected jurist or medieval mayor. Instead, genealogy research showed it to come from 12th century quarry workers — but he recently travelled to their corner of England anyway.

“It’s a personalised detective journey, and once you get the bug, that’s it,” he said.

Anne Smith, head of the Family History Centre in Hillcrest, said the interest was “phenomenal — now second only to gardening as an interest, we think”.

Smith suggested that the popularity of the TV show Who do you think you are and the book Roots, by Alex Haley, had triggered a surge in the use of online resources, like ancestry.co.za.

Smith said hobbyists of all race groups had approached her for research help, but that black South Africans were faced with a huge challenge, due to oral traditions and Apartheid exclusion.

Together with four amateur researchers, Adrian Rowe — a newly retired businessman in the Upper Highway — has helped to index the marriages of 215 000 KZN couples, going back to 1845.

He said an “extraordinary effort” by the Mormon church to photograph tens of thousands of South African birth and marriage records, going back to colonial times, had created a remarkable new tool for family history buffs, in combination with the Internet.

In addition to adding ancient branches to family trees, he said hobbyists were learning other skills at heritage seminars, like “deciphering” old English language and script.

Rowe recently visited the ruin of a Scottish castle once occupied by one ancestral branch, and an early 17th century village occupied by another.

“It’s utterly fascinating to be there and learn, or just wonder, what the lives of your ancestors were like back then,” he said. “People often get a fright when they find that their great grandparents were completely illiterate, and could only sign their names with an x. Some also find facts they’d rather they hadn’t discovered!”

Yesterday, Weekend Witness found that a number of retirement villages, like Waterfall Gardens near Kloof, have dedicated researchers who crunch the names for fellow residents.

And one Highway grandmother, born Colleen Wade, has written an 80 000-word family memoir this year, based partly on her research. In addition to “undertakers, alcoholics, gamblers and divas”, she discovered ancestors including the trainer of a legendary Durban July winner, Corriecrian; and a global pioneer of meteorology.

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