The Past is a Foreign Country

The 1971 movie, "The Go-Between", started with the words "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". Never has this been more true than with family history.

I see people on "Who Do You Think You Are" saying that their ancestor must have felt this or that, yet how could they possibly know? While the loss of a young child must have been devastating, is it harder to bear now, in a time when medical science can save so many? Would my ancestor's feelings about such a loss be the same as mine would be? Can we truly understand the horror of the thought of going into a workhouse?

Things that we take for granted now, like a Catholic marrying a Protestant, were the cause of condemnation and shame in the past. Just this morning a friend was telling me about a relative who married a catholic man, and whose father refused to attend the wedding.

The relationships between a man and his wife were often different in the past. We don't want to return to that situation, but do we judge it? Often people misjudge the situation when they find a man leaves property or money to his widow in his will only as long as she remains a widow. He isn't trying to stop her remarrying, but to protect his assets from a second husband who would be under no legal obligation to make sure the property passed down to the children of his wife's first marriage.

"Dinner time at St Pancras Workhouse, 1911". Can we really imagine what our ancestors felt about the workhouse? Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons [By Peter Higginbothom -, Public Domain,]

Another danger is judging our ancestors by today's standards. No doubt you will be aware of the controversy created a couple of years ago when Ben Affleck wanted references to the fact that his ancestor was a slave owner removed from his episode of "Finding Your Roots". Slave ownership was part of the history of the United States, and part of Ben's heritage. And while today we would harshly judge anyone who put themselves into a position of owning another human being, that wasn't the case in the past. And it isn't something that can be forgotten. In fact slave ownership goes back into the realms of pre-history. Even the Bible makes many references to slavery.

Here in Australia, some of us will have ancestors who were responsible for killing Aborigines. But there will also be some who were killed by Aborigines. Both cases fly in the fact of our morals now, but we must bear in mind that these things happened in a different time. We must accept that it is the past and that it happened, even if we don't like it.

While most of us in Australia now are excited if we find a convict ancestor, that wasn't always the case. The "convict stain" was hushed up by families, and there are still some people who want that done now. I am aware of someone who had their ancestry researched, and when they were given a family tree with a convict marked on it, used white-out to remove that reference and then photocopied the chart so the removal wouldn't show.

When you start looking at your family tree you have no idea what you might find. From convicts to slave owners, from thieves to murderers, anything is possible If that is going to be a problem, then don't do it. But otherwise accept what you find, and learn from it. After all, as George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Jenny Joyce

About Jenny Joyce

Jenny Joyce is a professional genealogist, lecturer, teacher and writer from Sydney, Australia. She specialises in Australian, English, Irish and Scottish genealogy and has deep interest in DNA in relation to genealogy, palaeography and historical photography. She is the author of the Jennyalogy blog ( and the Jennyalogy Podcast (

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.