Upon the wall of my study hangs a picture. Two girls kneel at the graveside of their father, in the shadow of an ancient and unusual church. The man they mourn is John Palmer who died in 1750 aged 43. He is my great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.
The image is fake - created through the wonders of Photoshop - but the church, the headstone and the man himself were entirely real. Thanks to the technological resources available, I got to know him a little, and this is how I sketched out his vanished life.
I find it hard to cope with a computer that has only one monitor. For me two is a minimum when doing anything of any complexity. I have three monitors at home which allow me to view several resources at once and cross-reference names and dates without constantly jumping between applications.
On the left-hand monitor I keep the Ancestry website open - usually two tabs at least, so that I have my tree handy and their search page ready. The right-hand monitor has a browser window open with FreeBMD and FamilySearch sites. Despite Ancestry now including BMD information, I prefer the simplicity of the FreeBMD search and I like the ease with which I can run down their results pages. Plus old habits die hard.
The middle monitor I reserve for Photoshop. In my professional life I use Photoshop every day and despite there being applications better-designed for collating information, drawing diagrams, creating trees and dealing with maps, there is nothing I can work more quickly and easily with. When I'm starting out on a piece of research, I create a big, blank canvas, map out my known family members, and leave lots of space for notes around the edge.
On this particular day I am investigating my Nan's Shropshire heritage. In embarking on this line of enquiry, I have already used the FreeBMD information to order the 1848 marriage certificate of her paternal grandparents via the GRO website. This has given me the maiden name Palmer, and the certificate also tells me the bride's father is Benjamin Palmer, a "Waterman."
I find him in the censuses via a quick Ancestry search: 1841, a Waterman; 1851, Barge Owner; 1861 Captain of a Vessel. From these entries I get his birth year of 1799 and his birthplace of Broseley.
I start to run his name through FamilySearch's parish records looking for his parents. I narrow it down to two results in the right county and then switch to the other vital tool without which much would be impossible: Google Maps.
I enter the name of one of the candidate villages and 'get directions' to Broseley. Thirty miles. I try the other one called Much Wenlock. Three miles! They're neighbouring villages. Perfect. I'm happy that I now know Ben Palmer's father was born in 1765.
I repeat this with great success for three more generations in a row, each time finding an extremely probable father only a few miles away, and the trail moves a little further south through the county of Shropshire. I arrive at a man called John Palmer, born in 1707, in a village called Ditton Priors. I like the name. I manage another leap backwards and find that John's father Francis was born on my birthday in Ditton Priors in 1683. This is the only ancestor I have ever found to share my birthday. I manage one final leap to find his parents were married in 1671 but thereafter the trail cools off. I leave the line there, happy with four hundred years' progress in one evening.
I switch Google Maps to StreetView and have a virtual drive through the winding lanes. The village is centered around crossroads. An old pub sits across from an even older church. I screen-grab the place and drop it into Photoshop alongside the name John Palmer on the family tree I have been building up.
I also have a quick Google look for images of Ironbridge - the town which the later Palmer descendants moved towards and ultimately lived in. The waterman lived in an area called The Lloyds and when I return to Google StreetView I see that The Lloyds is a road that runs directly alongside the river Severn, only a short distance from the famous bridge. These men were in the heartland of the industrial revolution.
The time for armchair research is over and only a field-trip will satisfy my need to understand the lives of these people better. The indispensable tool for the journey is the iPhone. The Ancestry app allows for quick reference to all the necessary information about the tree, but I also copy over my Photoshop notes page to the phone for reference as I always like to have my tree formatted my own way.
The other thing which goes without saying is a good camera. Mine is a Nikon D-75 which is getting on a bit and pretty low resolution but takes a great picture.
I collate a set of postcodes, one of each Ancestor, and begin with Ditton Priors entered into the Sat-Nav. And off I go to Shropshire.
The weather is beautiful (just as the Weather App promised) and the view is gorgeous as I wind my way down the tiny lanes knowing that the closer I get to the village, the more likely my ancestors knew the roads intimately.
Arriving at the crossroads of the tiny village of Ditton Priors, I park up and take some photos of the picturesque place. Eager to investigate the graves, I creak open the gate to approach the 12th century church.
Walking around the edge of the stocky building with its tall, pyramid spire, I snap away on my DSLR, and start to look at gravestones as I go. By the time I complete a circuit I am left disappointed that there are no signs of the Palmer name.
As I walk the path close to the church I cast my eyes down and I am suddenly struck by a mixture of horror and optimism. The flagstones on which I am walking show hints of lettering. They are not normal paving stones - they are recycled headstones!
All the stones in the middle of the path are too worn to make out any words but as I creep towards the wall of the church where the path is less walked, I could read more. I check each one, all the way into the corner, with hope draining away as the numbers dwindled. I reach the very last one, tucked away. It is preserved from the eroding effect of foot-fall but is still incredibly old and hard to read. As I strain against the sun I can make out large and ancient letters ...
"... body of John Palmer who departed this life Dece 14: 1750 Aged 43 Years."
I grab my family tree and check the name as I simply can't believe my luck. I'm not a mathematical genius but I am able to subtract his age from his death year and sure enough it is the 1707 man I am looking for. The bottom of the stone is badly worn and much of the middle is hard to make out.
I have brought with me some sheets of paper and delving into my pocket for a good, old-fashioned pencil I take a rubbing of the stone. It helps tease out a little more of the wording. I can see the words "so must you" and also "do not delay." I pull out my iPhone and type these fragments into Google (in inverted commas to ensure the phrases are searched as a whole) and I add the word "grave" for context. Sure enough the first result reveals it as a known monumental inscription, of which mine is a slight variation. The others on the internet allow me to work out what has been written:
"Juft as I am So Muft you be
Therefore Prepare to Follow me
Repent in time Do Not Delay
For in my Prime I was Snatched away"
In his prime he certainly was snatched away. Just 43 years old.
I sit and reflect on the stone for a while, looking up at the church. It is quite something to read the words chosen at great expense by your ancestors to remember a man they loved. To touch the very stone they would have touched. To sit where they would have mourned. They could not have begun to understand the future in which I live. They could barely have guessed at the industrial changes which were to take place in the hundred years after John's death, but only another hundred years after that would see the dawn of the age of electronics. The world would become filled with gadgets which would seem both incomprehensible and impossible. Tiny, magical devices which would lead me back to Ditton Priors.
This is what I do it for. To find them, to remember them, and to connect to them. To learn the names they spoke every day, and find out whose DNA I carry centuries later.
After considerable musing on times past and present, I eventually jump back into the car with the next postcode ready. I make my way up towards Ironbridge to follow John Palmer's descendants - but that's a story for another day.
Once home I take the photos of the headstone into Photoshop and ramp up the brightness and contrast, allowing for a better view of the lettering. I redraw the entire inscription clearer, as it might have looked when freshly engraved.
Sad at the fact the headstone had fallen and been moved, I decide to Photoshop it back into a standing position outside the church. And after a little image-searching for some suitably sad-looking girls, a picture is formed to show a sad scene. It's not very realistic, but it is evocative. And so it ends up on my wall to remind me of that little village in which John Palmer lived and died.
As more resources become available online, I hope to find out more about his life. I want to investigate the tantalising prospect that John's great, great grandfather may have married in Boston, Massachusetts only 17 years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Plymouth. Is it possible I will find my distant cousins in the Palmer family still living in Massachusetts today?
As we leave those simpler times behind, we also enjoy new surges of technology which makes accessing the past easier. I can't wait for the next wave of innovation which will take us even closer to our ancestors and the lives they lived.