Sunday, 26 December 2010

Why I research my ancestry

It's the first Start Your Family Tree Week here in the UK, so here's a tie-in post!

Why research your family tree? There can be many reasons, but for me it started with a simple question asked of my dad when I was small - who were the Patons, and why were there virtually none of us in the Northern Irish phone book? My father told me he thought we were Belgian in origin, having been told as a small child that his father had been evacuated fom Belgium prior to the First World War. With dad's parents having separated when he was only five, he was never able to find more from his father about the truth of that. It turned out my grandfather was Belgian by birth, but born to a Scottish couple, and far from being evacuated from the country prior to the war, he remained trapped in Brussels as an enemy citizen with his family for the duration.

Yet it was not until 2000 that I would really take the plunge and delve into my tree. This was the year of my wedding and of my eldest son's birth. My initial motivation was that I did not want my son to grow up with a fractured identity as I had done - although I was born in Northern Ireland, as a kid I grew up in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, with parents who separated when I was eight, and who each in turn had parents who had separated when they were young. As a consequence I hadn't much of a clue who any of my grandparents really were - I never even managed to meet my grandfathers.

I spent much of my youth in Ulster listening to an unemployed underclass of people from one religion tell me that those of another were evil without explaining why, and even worse, to the quiet middle class majority, which paid lip service to condemnations of acts of violence, and who were actually more engaged in making sure they were present at church each week dressed in their Sunday best, but simply so that they could be seen to be present at church each Sunday in their Sunday best. I found this particularly bizarre at my mother's church, where the congregation would not sit down until the town's mayor made his entrance just before the service started and sat down on the middle of the front pew, reserved for him. Just who was being worshipped here?!

Whilst I have an in built sense of morality learned from the church which I try to pass on to my kids, and a sense of right and wrong, I am now not in the least bit religious thanks to my upbringing in a country with religion allegedly at its core. So when I depart this mortal coil, I don't expect to meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates, old Nick at the Hotel du Fun on the rocky road to Rogerville, or even his holiness, the town mayor of Carrickfergus. We all have wonderful stories, each of them completely unique and equally as interesting as the next, and as far as I am concerned the real afterlife lies in people remembering who we were - so long as we can present them with a story to tell.

As much as I want my descendants to know who my ancestors were, I also want them to know who my wife and sons were, who I was and who my immediate family were. So my reasons for working on my family history are as much about recording the past, in gratitude to our ancestors, and preparing the tale to accept further chapters in the future. I am not just putting down names and dates, but full blown tales about each person, some experienced at first hand, some told to me by others, some dragged from the records and in many cases painstakingly put together over several years. I publish as much as I can along the way, on websites, magazines, forums, social networking sites and more, to increase the chances of the stories' survival. And I also tell my kids the stories, perhaps the greatest form of publishing at all!

In years to come the name Paton may well disappear, as do many surnames over time - but if the stories survive, it may just have been worth it!


Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas at Ruhleben

On Friday 6th November 1914, the mass internment of British civilians living in Germany began. For the next four years, some 5500 British and Commonwealth citizens were imprisoned at the camp, a converted racecourse just a few miles from Berlin, with many not seeing release until the end of the war. Whilst the common belief was "it will all be over by Christmas", few would have realised just how many Christmases would pass until that statement would finally ring true.

My own great uncle, John Paton, was interned at Ruhleben in late 1916, and not released until the end of 1918. I have spent several years trying to find out more about the prisoners at the camp, with so far the stories of some 2000 identified at my site, The Ruhleben Story, at Along the way I have accumulated some interesting cards concerning the camp, portrayed below.

Merry Christmas from Ruhleben!

And there's a bit more about the camp in the following film!


Friday, 17 December 2010

How Are You? and the joys of Gaelic

When I lived in Bristol I learned Scottish Gaelic (you'd be surprised how many Gaels there are in Bristol!), or at least enough to have a blast at a decent conversation with someone, though I am now getting very rusty with it! I've also dabbled in Irish, mainly Ulster Irish which is similar to Scots Gaelic. Whilst I am not completely fluent, and much better at reading it than speaking it, I remember the day when I suddenly realised I was getting somewhere with understanding it. An episode of Hamish Macbeth was on the BBC and two hard men from Glasgow were trying to intimidate the locals in the episode at the village pub. Two old gents sitting on a table were completely unphased and spoke to each other in Gaelic. The first turned to his friend and said "Tha iad gu math boidheach". The reply was "Oh tha, tha iad direach abaich"! It wasn't subtitled, and I nearly wet myself laughing - "They're well beautiful", "oh aye, just ripe"! I know who I'd have been more intimidated by!

I've always loved trying to get to grips with the language, and whilst I know of two ways to ask how somebody is in English ("How are you?", and the more proper form in Ulster English, "What about ye?"!) Gaelic is much more fun, with many different ways to ask the same thing depending on where you are from! Here's a smattering...

"Ciamar a tha thu?" Textbook Scottish Gaelic!
"De mar a tha thu?" Western Isles
"De man a tha thu?" Western Isles
"Cionnas a tha thu?" Sutherland
"Cad e mar ata tu?" Ulster
"Goide mar ta tu?" Donegal
"Conas ata tu?" southern Ireland
"Kys t'ou?" Isle of Man

They all say the same thing, and they are all corruptions of the same words, but each area has mutated the greeting in a different way. Written down they all look similar, but their pronunciation varies quite dramatically.

Here's a few thank yous also...!

"Tapadh leat" - most of Scotland
"Gun robh math agad" - Islay
"Go rabh maith agat" - Ireland
"Gura mie ayd" - Isle of Man

If you have Gaelic speaking ancestors and want to learn the lingo, don't just grab the first Gaelic book you can find - try to find something that will help with the right dialect of Gaelic that is relevant to your ancestry. BBC Gaelic today tends to be heavily influenced by the Western Isles where the language has survived the longest, and where most of the BBC's Gaelic department staff come from, but there is quite a difference between an island dialect and that of Perthshire, where it is all but extinct now, for example. There is also quite a difference between the Gaelic of Lewis, which is almost Irish in its pronunciation, and its neighbour of Harris, technically on the same island but a world apart linguistically!

Now You're Talking is a great fun way to dip into Ulster Irish, available from Amazon at Speaking Our Language is the equivalent series for Scottish Gaelic (, presented by my former boss at STV, Rhoda MacDonald. Both are 'parrot fashion' learning courses so you will need to source more formal texts such as Boyd Robertson's "Teach Yourself Gaelic" (for Scottish Gaelic) to get to grips with grammar, but hearing the language spoken is half the battle.

Have fun if you decide to go for it also - you won't regret it!


Friday, 3 December 2010

The missionary rescue mission

My family has a long association with the Royal Navy. My father was a submariner, my uncle in the Fleet Air Arm, and my brother a Chief Petty Officer, whilst several cousins have also served in the senior service. And then there was my grandfather's cousin Mary...! Mary was not in the Royal Navy, but a Presbyterian missionary serving in China. She too, however, was destined to travel aboard a Royal Naval vessel.

In 1937 a British warship set sail from Hong Kong with a single mission in mind - to rescue Mary Paton. From the Daily Mirror of September 14th 1937:


British destroyer HMS Thracian speeded from Hong Kong under special orders yesterday...

She was off to the rescue of Miss Mary Paton, a fifty-year-old Presbyterian missionary, solitary British resident of the small town of Swabue, South China.

For twenty-three years Miss Paton has defied war, fever and bandits to found schools in remote Chinese villages.

But now she must leave for the Japanese have landed near, at Bias Bay, after having bombarded fortified positions in the district.

It is reported from Hong Kong that after the ships' guns had bombarded the town at Bias Bay marines landed and blew up Chinese naval works and anti-piracy forts and an arsenal.

She Insisted

The parents of Miss Paton, who is a sister of Mr William Paton, chief of the Presbyterian Mission Society, live in Watford, Herts.

She returned to England for a short time, but eighteen months ago she insisted on returning to Swabue, where she founded another school.

Mr. P. V. Thomas, head of the American Seventh Day Adventist Mission Hospital at Wacihow, arrived at Hong Kong yesterday with his staff.

He stated that the Japanese had bombed the hospital despite the American flags displayed.

Mr. R. G. Howe, the new British Charge d' Affaires to China, leaving Shanghai at 3.30am today for Nanking by road, informed the Chinese and Japanese authorities that the party proposed to take the same route as that covered by Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, British Ambassador to China. A large Union Jack was painted on the roof of the car.

Japan has been unable to trace any attack on Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to China, the Foreign Office spokesman stated in Tokyo.

He admitted that Japanese planes had met motor cars on the roads about Shanghai during the recent fighting, but said that none of these coincided with the time and place of the attack on Sir Hughe.

The Japanese reply to the British note on the attack is still in course of preparation.

The Chinese explained a big withdrawl on the Shanghai front yesterday.

Mary returned to England, living in Watford until she passed away in 1974, though she was able to make one final trip back to China a few years prior to her death. I have been able to carry out a great deal of research into her life, with her personal correspondence and photo albums having been donated to the London based School of Oriental and African Studies (, which has a fantastic archive service.

If you have missionary ancestors, other great resources include the MUNDUS database at, whilst the International Mission Photography Archive at can also help.