Curiosity and where it takes you

Curiosity and where it takes you

Some months ago, the name of an obscure customs official in 1850s and 60s Natal kept popping up in the archival investigations I was doing. Curious about him, and with time to spare, I started to do web searches and ended by finding quite a lot of information about Joshua Walmsley (this can be accessed in a number of earlier blogs). And something similar has happened regarding many other people whose documentary traces have been discussed as part of the WWW project research.

Such is the historical and genealogical interest in the early European presence in southern Africa, that even the lives of the obscure are actually the lives of the scrutinised, aided by the fact that there were not so many of them but that some information could be collected, selected, presented and retrieved about perhaps the majority. This is very different from something that happened over this year’s Easter weekend.

A vivid recent dream included a sequence with two people I was friendly with in the 1970s. I hadn’t thought of either for decades, so I wondered why my mind had thrown up this combination of people just stood having a mundane conversation with each other. For one of them, I had vague in passing knowledge of whatshe is presently doing and where she is living. Curious about the other person, I knew nothing about his later life or where he was or indeed if he was still alive. But I assumed I could easily find out using web facilities, and something would turn up, much like my experience of tracking people in 19th century southern Africa. Wrong!

This former male friend has a name that is not very common, but even so my Google-type searches turned up nothing, while when searching via genealogy sites then over 300 hits of people with the same name were retrieved. I didn’t want to spend as much time, and money, as would have been necessary to investigate all of these to see if one of them was my former friend. So, curious, I picked the name of another friend from the same period of time, someone with a more unusual name.

The same thing happened: no hits at all through ordinary web searches, and hundreds when using genealogy websites to search. Hundreds in spite of the unusual set of names in this latter case. And what would have resulted, if this had been successful, would have been dates of birth, of marriage or civil partnership, children, divorce, and death. Probably not much beyond this, again different from the South African situation which brings together information from a variety of sources and provides a fuller picture of people and family groups.

The explanation is likely to be the size of the UK population, particularly when tracked back over for five decades or more, and that many businesses are involved in filtering the information sources and constructing paywalls. This differs from South African explorations, where many volunteer and civic society groups have constructed voluminous sources of information about the white presence in South Africa from the late 18th century on and made this freely available. It’s at times not very good, sometimes quite wrong, but it’s still done and it provides starting points for cross-searching and verification activities.

My curiosity took me thus far and no further. But if I had wanted to go further, then Facebook would have been an obvious choice, and also to make use of 14 day free trials of some of the commercial sites and painstakingly work through the hundreds of hits that they provided. I’ll wait for another dream to stir my curiosity! But it is a sobering thought that, in some circumstances, perhaps more can be found out about people from the historical past in a settler-colony than is possible for the current present in an imperial metropole.


Last updated:  21 April 2022