Standing before the grave of my great-great-grandparents was disquieting and amazing. Was I doing research? Yes, but the kind of research that I felt in my whole body. Getting to this moment was due to some amazing online research tools: Ancestry.com, Deceased Online.com and Google Maps.
Ancestry.com allowed me to look up census records of my great-grandparents in order to see where they lived and who they lived with. You can use the site for about fourteen days before needing to pay. I started looking at records in the 1840′s and went forward to the last available census records for 1911. This research gave me addresses, names, ages and occupations. Having a unique last name really makes it easier to pinpoint the right family.
I used Deceased Online.com to find where my great-grandparents were buried. You can plug-in a name and it will scan the burial records. For more information, you need to purchase points. This website is still adding records and cemeteries, but luckily I was able to find my family.
With new information in hand, I went to Google Maps and virtually visited all the addresses I had for my relatives. On screen, I could walk along the streets where they lived and even follow the streets from one location to the next. Now I knew what to look for, and whether I thought the neighborhood was safe for me to visit in person.
Armed with this online research, I went on a walking trip to the neighborhood and to the cemetery as soon as I got to London.
My research led me to Hampstead Cemetery. I rode the tube, then walked a few blocks toward the cemetery which I located on my smartphone’s gps tracking. When I got to the cemetery I ran into some trouble despite all the online help. I had the plot number from Deceased Online, but I didn’t know how to find it. I had assumed wrongly that there would be a map with these numbers. I soon found out there was no map and no one in the office. This cemetery is 26 acres and apparently has 60,000 people buried within its boundary, so I wandered hopefully, wondering where my family could have afforded to put a stone.
I followed my nose along a walkway to a large tree, and then stopped myself. It seemed I was on a wild goose chase. Worried that I had spent so much time and effort going in the wrong direction, I turned around and walked back to some benches. On my way, a man asked me to take his picture. After talking it turned out he had the phone number to someone running the cemetery. The office told me that they would call this guy who was on the grounds, but I should also go looking for someone cutting grass.
Reinvigorated, I took off down another path and finally asked a few guys if they were the caretaker. The two guys pointed toward a third, a tall strong-looking man, who had been cutting grass with noise-cancelling headphones on and hadn’t heard any calls. Thankfully, he knew exactly how to find the gravestone. The numbers were half hidden in the grass on the outer ledges of the graves. Strangely enough, we ended up back at the big tree, just where I had turned around, and found the plot only a few feet over. The caretaker uncovered it, under a mass of blackberry brambles and dead leaves.
A line of stones were all but forgotten under a sprawling tree. The caretaker went and got more tools to clear out the gravestone. I felt very lucky I had found him. I would not have thought to look in the overgrowth and I would not have known that budget cuts to the cemetery would allow the stones to be overcome like that.
After he moved the branches, I could look at my family’s stone. The people who were buried there were my grandpa’s father, and my grandpa’s grandparents, and my grandpa’s uncle. That made quite a few great-greats laying below my feet. The caretaker left, and I was all alone with the birds and the sunshine. I was standing where surely my long-lost great-grandmother Ann Elizabeth Catherine Wildy Jarvis must have stood, mourning the early death of her husband. It was over a hundred years after he had been buried. It took a long time before I was ready to leave.
Eventually, I walked into a nearby neighborhood to look at some places where my relatives had lived. I sat in a café and marveled that they had lived just across the street. Visiting a local bookstore for the neighborhood gave me more valuable information. I found a great book that detailed the history of the area.
A few days later, I went to the National Archives outside London to see if there was something in their collection. I found some wonderful references to a Captain Wildy. And I looked at an ancient will of another Wildy.
As I learned about the Captain, I recognized there could be a story there too. When I paid a visit to the over 183-year-old Wildy and Sons bookstore, I thought of what an immensely exciting time it must have been to establish a bookstore at the same time that Charles Dickens was working as a legal clerk and writing his novels. In a town with big history, there were stories everywhere.
Being on a research trip to London was like being in an awesome playground. Everything I did was research. The most important thing I took home was the feelings of discovery and fun I had. I get to revisit them every time I sit down to write my book.