Annabelle Lee is slowly getting comfortable with her first laptop, which she bought early last year for a then-new seniors’ computer course at the Fleetwood Recreation Centre.
“I’m not a guru with computers. I’m just hunt-and-peck,” says the sprightly 83-year-old Fleetwood woman. “When I get into too much difficulty, I call my grandchildren.”
Her instructor, Bob Bray, noticed her interest – and that of other seniors – in searching for their family histories with the new computers.
He decided to start a genealogy course, which Lee took. Then she took another, getting up to speed how to use online databases on free websites.
Pretty soon, she was time-travelling backwards hundreds of years, working to complete a puzzle that suddenly needed solving.
Ultimately, it couldn’t be – but that was part of the fun.
Lee didn’t know a whole lot about her family history at first. She kicks herself now for not talking more to one knowledgeable uncle when she was younger, but the more she learned from her new hobby, the more genealogy pulled her in.
“I got just absolutely addicted to it.”
Once she understood the basics from the classes at the recreation centre, she branched out on her own, slowly building the family tree on her father’s side.
Lee’s search, which began in March 2010 in Surrey, took her in August to the villages around Nottinghamshire, the ’hood of an English folklore hero – albeit hundreds of years after his mythological existence.
“I didn’t know anything about Nottingham other than Robin Hood,” says Lee, who had travelled to the UK before, but never between London and Scotland.
She found the place a revelation, a far more immersive area to search for information that the Internet.
Lee discovered a 1,000-year-old church in which her ancestors had worshipped as far back as the 1600s – the limit local records would take her on her father’s side of the family.
While there, she attended service at St. Mary’s Church in Nottingham with her 23-year-old granddaughter.
The search for Bend, her paternal grandfather’s family, took her back about eight generations.
The town records showed a number of her ancestors tied to cotton-related factories in the late 1700s, early in the Industrial Revolution. Others were farmers or, in later periods, teachers.
More information would be gleaned from official census records, which would begin in 1801.
She discovered huge families (her own father, Albert Bend, was the youngest of 11) and that relatively recent family middle names were once surnames further down the family tree.
To her dismay, Lee was told that one gravesite she looked for was probably under a parking lot.
Although Lee doesn’t expect to make a ground search of her mother’s territory in Scotland, Lee is starting to make some difficult inroads into her late husband’s Irish ancestry.
“I can’t get along with the Irish very well,” she says with a laugh, explaining that the cost-for-service websites are not something she’s comfortable with.
“I haven’t gotten past the free stuff.”
(As an aside, Lee says records show three-generation links of her husband’s family to Scotland, not Ireland, and has yet to convince his family).
Some of the difficulties in her genealogical searches – part of the addiction – is trying to mesh family hearsay over the years with the breaks in the records or changes in surnames.
Lee explains she’s having trouble finding credence to the family legend that her paternal grandmother’s side goes back to a lieutenant of William the Conqueror (one of his commanders).
According to that legend, a Pigott (or a variation of that name, perhaps Picoat or Piquot) was one of several military officers who were rewarded with land – in this man’s case, Ireland – in the decade after William’s Norman invasion of England in 1066.
But the connections are hard to find.
“I can get Bend back into the 1600s, I can get the Pigotts back part-way, but I’m trying to come up from William and I’m having trouble finding out the names of his commanders.
“I’m working at it,” she says. “It’ll take me the rest of my life to find it, if I can.”
Last Christmas, Lee gave her family a printed family tree and history lesson.
There was no royalty there, she told them, just ordinary, hard-working people.
A couple of cousins are into the hobby – her four kids and 12 grandchildren have yet to get drawn in.
“Hopefully they carry it on. I started too late. I should’ve done this 50 years ago.”
Bray says seniors such as Lee have an affinity for the hobby because, with contact they had with their grandparents when they were younger, they have a link with as much as 150 years of family history.
“When they record the family history, it’s really a gift for the younger generation,” he says. “It’s a contribution to the strength of the family.”
For more information about the available genealogy and related computer courses for seniors at the Fleetwood Recreation Centre, call Bob Bray at 604-318-3553 or visit http://fleetwoodseniorscomputerclub.shawwebspace.ca/