There’s a group that meets monthly in Port Coquitlam whose members take great delight in digging up skeletons.
They are not, however, some creepy characters with a Halloween fetish. They hunt relatives, not bodies, and sometimes they find some with colourful backgrounds.
“Everyone seems to have a scoundrel in their family tree, and we all love it. Those closet doors get shaken and those skeletons just drop out,” says Chris Longley.
Longley founded the PoCo Genealogy Club in 2008. They meet the first Wednesday of every month, except in the summer, to swap stories and trade investigative tricks.
Longley’s love of history and ancestry started when she was a teenager in Hampshire and Isle of Wight in the south of England. One day she ventured into the family attic where she found an old picture of their street. “I found it fascinating,” says Longley. So fascinating she studied history in university. But she didn’t start climbing family trees until she followed her heart and came to British Columbia with her first husband. That’s when she got a job working for the public trustee’s office researching relatives for estates of those who have died.
“That was back in the days before the advent of ancestry.com and all the rest of it. It was all done the old-fashioned way. It could be incredibly difficult when you don’t know much about the family,” said Longley.
Judging by some of the reactions she got when she did find relatives, Longley could have been forgiven for souring on investigating ancestry.
“I have to say, in most cases, because they didn’t know who the decedent was it was like, ‘how much am I going to get and when am I going to get it?’ ” said Longley. “More often than not it was a very mercenary response, which was very sad.”
But then there were some heartwarming reactions. Longley tells the story of Leonard, who was from England. She was able to track down his sister, who called her daughter who happened to be living in North Vancouver. The family thought ‘Uncle Len’ had gone to Australia after the First World War, but it turned out he had worked as a logger here in B.C. and had some money in the bank when he died.
“When this niece contacted us it wasn’t the usual, ‘how much and when?’ It was, ‘Oh. Can you tell us where he was living? Who were his friends? Where is he buried?’ ” recalls Longley. “It was just very refreshing. And it’s instances like that that sort of make you think that knowing family history has a good result.
“[The niece] was sad. She was very sad. And she said, ‘if we had only known he would have been in our home having dinner with our family, meeting my kids.’ ”
Her own family tree has produced some interesting findings. Longley’s great-uncle Percy emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and six kids. One of his daughters had a relationship with a Maori man and they had two children born in the 1930s. “Not a good plan in those days,” says Longley. He was killed in Italy during the war so she went back to her family. “They told her to forget it. Nothing doing. ‘You made your bed, lie on it,’ ” says Longley.
She put the two girls in an orphanage but the father’s mother got them out and raised them in the Maori community. Longley met the two daughters this past fall when she and her husband visited New Zealand.
“I have this whole Maori line going on in my family, and it’s just wonderful. It just adds so much flavour to your family history,” says Longley.
It turns out, some of the flavour was closer than she realized. Her grandmother was widowed during the First World War in 1916. She went to live with some siblings in Toronto and fell in love with the landlady’s son. Her mother was born in 1919, but Longley didn’t realize it was out of wedlock until she found some veterans affairs pension applications her grandmother had filed in England. She was originally denied a pension for immoral character. But even when she did receive the pension the report still said she was of weak character.
“If she was a person of weak character would she have been doing a menial job in a photographer’s studio to supplement a wee widow’s pension?” says Longley. “That told me a lot about [her mother’s] attitudes in life. She advanced herself in life, not wishing to go back from whence she came.
“Did my father know his wife was born out of wedlock? I strongly doubt it. I don’t think she would have told a soul. Not a soul.”
She points up to the family tree on the screen at another ancestor.
“Mr. Earnest up there, he had a wife, but he had a mistress. His wife didn’t die until 1925 and he had kids born in the 1890s. Not by her.” says Longley.
Longley formed the PoCo club after doing some sessions on the subject at the Terry Fox Library.
“We have a lot of expertise. Most of us that are in the group have been pursuing our family history for a number of years,” says Longley.
Shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots, along with constant advertising from ancestry.ca have sparked interest in genealogy. Longley believes it doesn’t have to be a solitary pastime.
“There are a lot of people pursuing their family history from the comfort of their computer chair, because let’s face it, your family history is no one else’s family history,” she says. “Joining a genealogy group is actually one way of getting out of that isolation and connecting with other people who may be facing the same issues that you are in terms of finding records.”
One new member, she says, was from Puerto Rico, and although Longley knew nothing of that country’s records she found a bunch of resources and passed them along. The woman came back saying she’d found “a whole pile of records.”
“It just made me feel so good that I had put her on the right track because she did not know where to start. That’s what joining a group can do for you.”
• The PoCo Genealogy group meets the first Wednesday of every month, except July and August, at the PoCo Heritage Museum and Archive, 2248 McAllister Ave., from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The next meeting, however, has been moved up to Wednesday, March 27 because Longley will be away. More information is available at facebook.com/pocogenealogy.