The bad side to genealogy

Posted on 6th September 2013

For most people, myself included, genealogy is an exciting experience that is exciting, thrilling and at times heartbreaking. However, it is still very enjoyable, and finding out about our predecessors’ lives – whether they lived in prosperity or poverty – is something us genealogists will continue to do no matter what we uncover.

A couple of months ago, I have my first negative experience of researching my family tree. I am going to be very vague, as the matter in hand relates to many people still living, and it would be completely insensitive to post details about the matter online.

I received an email from a cousin who filled me in on some information about a not-so-distant (and only fairly recently deceased) relative. What they told me was very shocking. I didn’t know much about this person’s life to start with, but what I found out was still completely unexpected. It did however explain a lot of what I knew about the views and attitude towards family and genealogy of some of the close family involved. After receiving and processing the information I received, I almost wished I had never enquired into this relative.

Typically when we find an ancestor or relative from generations back in a criminal records register, or one that is a bit of a black sheep, in our research, it is usually quite an exciting find to have a bit of drama in the family tree. However when the relative is one who wasn’t alive that long ago, and well within living memory, that thrill just isn’t there. I think we always try and assume the best of people, when sadly it’s not always like that.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

  • Heather Collins

    My family is a really good example of this kind of history. My father’s family in particular has a long history of alcoholism, incarceration, and even suicide. My father was not excluded from from the poor decision making and emotional instabilities that were so characteristic of the men in his family. What I have learned from this experience of researching my father’s family is that these spots of behaviors are never isolatedin terms of being arbitrary or random. They are usually learned or repeated behaviors, and it takes a very concentrated effort over multiple generations to break the cycle. all we can do learn the lessons of sad experience and not represent them. And I have found that in the end, knowing the negative history, and learning to forgive is a much more rewarding experience than than not having known the truth at all.

  • Hi Niall,

    We have exchanged emails in the past regarding our Collingwood roots. For my sins, I embarked upon a one-name study into the Collingwood surname (see and this has led to the identification of circa 60 branches of the Collingwood family tree. Some contain only a handful of names, whilst others contain over a thousand. I store my research at and you are most welcome to request access to join this site.

    As a spin-off to my research, I administer a Collingwood DNA Project which can be accessed at Through this, I have matched my DNA with a living Collingwood descendant who can trace his family back to Northumberland in the 17th century. We share a yet to be identified common ancestor approximately 12 – 14 generations back. My DNA match has some interesting ancestors in his line including William Collingwood the famous water-colour artist and his equally famous artist son William Gershom Collingwood who was a close friend and autobiographer of John Ruskin.

    One of W.G.Collingwood’s daughters, Dora Collingwood married an Armenian doctor by the name of Ernest Altounyan and it was their children who inspired Arthur Ransome to write the Swallows and Amazons stories. In fact Ransome unsuccessfully proposed marriage to two other daughters of W.G. Collingwood. There is a wonderful book written by Jeremy Collingwood called ‘A Lakeland Saga’, which describes the story of the Collingwood and Altounyan family in Coniston and Aleppo (you can find copies on EBay if you are interested). I had the pleasure of meeting Jeremy Collingwood last month as he is a third cousin three times removed from my DNA match and therefore distantly related to me as well.

    One of the many tests that FamilyTreeDNA offer in conjunction with the straight-forward Y-DNA test, actually provides an insight into the possibility of inheriting many conditions from simple things such as male-pattern baldness to alcoholism. My father’s sister died in her 50’s from an alcohol related disease and both my father and grandfather before him consumed large quantities of rum whilst serving in the Royal Navy. My siblings and I are far from being described as teetotallers, though I don’t believe any of us could be described as alcoholics. My great grandfather was a beer swilling stevedore in the Port of London, but I guess this was the norm for many cockneys in the East End of London at the turn of the 20th century.

    As for other black sheep, I have found several references of Collingwoods falling foul of the law, including a handful who were transported to Australia. Then of course there was the infamous slave trader Captain Luke Collingwood and his involvement in what became known as the Zong Massacre which made headline news in the 18th century. I guess if you dig deep enough into any family, you will uncover many skeletons in the cupboard. I recently assisted the illegitimate son of a Collingwood daughter trace his origins and was able to unite him with two half-brothers he knew nothing about. Of course, these matters have to be handled with great sensitivity and care as you can never gauge people’s reactions to the shock of discovering that they have family they knew nothing about. Two of my mother’s siblings were illegitimate and her father was ostracised by his family for marrying a woman with two children born outside of wedlock. Thankfully, modern opinions have shifted considerably in the last 100 years and being illegitimate is quite rightly no longer such a social stigma.

    • Hi Gordon. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I remember our email exchange. My Collingwood ancestors are one of the most interesting lines I’ve come across in my family research. Although I don’t have close cousins with the surname, my great-grandfather was Harry Collingwood Mitton (although he was originally registered just Collingwood Mitton). He named his son – my great-uncle – Leslie Collingwood Mitton. In turn both his son and great-grandson have the middle name too.

      When I first started my research it soon became obvious that Harry got his middle name from his mother, Agnes Eliza Phoebe Collingwood. Her father was Thomas Collingwood, born in 1821 in Plymouth to an army Lieutenant who traveled a lot due to his service; Thomas’ siblings were born in Portsmouth and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their father was Lieutenant William Dixon Collingwood, born in 1786 in Alnwick, Northumberland. His father was Dr Thomas Collingwood, a renowned surgeon in Sunderland, born in 1751 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Thomas’ father Robert Collingwood – the furthest Collingwood ancestor I have tracked down – was born in 1701 and died in 1788 in Ayton, Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders.

      According to various documents I have tracked down (such as obituaries of my Collingwood ancestors) Robert was supposedly descended from Sir Daniel Collingwood of Brandon. His seat was Brandon Whitehouse. Daniel was chaplain, and later sword-bearer, to King Charles II. I suppose this would have been in the mid to late 1600s.

      Daniel was supposedly descended from Cuthbert Collingwood, the border chieftain, and had 6 six sons of his own. As of the mid 18th century, the only remaining branches were that of Henry Collingwood of Lilburn Tower, John Collingwood of Chirton and the sons of Dr Thomas Collingwood (my ancestors). The same document says that a J Collingwood, presumably a son or grandson of Sir Daniel, married a Selby, was attained in 1715 and fled to France where he and his wife died of typhus. He left two sons, John, and George, the latter who was around 7 years old. The former was an apprentice to a merchant in Newcastle.

      The document states that John was the grandfather of the Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, and George the grandfather of Dr Thomas Collingwood. I am not entirely sure how much, if any, of this is true. I am pretty sure the Admiral’s grandfather was also a Cuthbert. Plus, if this George was born around 1708, he could not be the father of Robert Collingwood who died in Ayton in 1788 aged 87. What the document says about George does make sense though; “…the latter, about seven years old, was left in the care of a steward, James Fowler, who bred him to agriculture, and set him up in a small farm…”
      Robert later farmed at Cocklaw, a small farm very near the Scottish/English border, so there could be some truth in this.

      Perhaps some of these names, places and dates are familiar to you. If you could help me find out about Sir Daniel Collingwood that would be great.