DJ Taylor: Unearth your family's murky past on the internet

'Mysteriously, one of the prime uses people find for this technology is to track down their forebears'
Click to follow

Few things were quite so calculated to shake me out of turn-of-the-year torpor as the news that the Public Record Office (PRO) has decided to mark the beginning of 2002 by making the entire 1901 UK census available on the internet. As a gesture by a national institution this is almost unprecedented: rather like the Inland Revenue declaring a tax amnesty for the self-employed or the Arts Council offering six-figure bursaries to writers whose surnames begin with the letter T living in the NR2 postal district.

At any rate, it couldn't be resisted. Yesterday morning consequently found me in hot pursuit of, the century-old whereabouts of my grandfather, the late John William Taylor of Norwich, of whose early life practically nothing is known, and half-a-dozen other family mysteries besides.

Alas, several thousand other net-crawlers had been unable to resist this genealogical itch as well: an under-siege PRO website was turning away visitors on the grounds of excess demand. JW Taylor and his even more elusive father, a man so erased from history that only a memory that he liked mustard on his sausages survives, will have to wait.

Yet system overload doesn't negate the importance of this initiative or compromise its animating spirit. To anyone with the slightest feeling for history – their own or other people's – the thought of that gigantic list of names, each existing at the centre of its own more or less ineluctable patterns, is desperately exciting: like a huge pile of sand with a handful of nuggets glittering at its core.

Family history, however innocuously pursued, nearly always ends up with a bad press in this country, where it tends to be seen as an excuse for pedantry, muck-raking, smugness or occasionally a mixture of all three. One greets the group portraits sometimes reproduced from American newspapers of, say, the 517 living descendants of the Wisconsin-based Mooseburger family, great-grandpappy Hiram beaming patriarchally from their midst, with a certain weariness.

Exactly what public point is proved by having five hundred members of the same family eat prawn cocktails in a single aircraft hangar? Surely they couldn't all like, know or care about each other? Moving closer to home, although a terrific fan of the late-career journals of Anthony Powell, I must own to skipping a paragraph or two when the talk turns to Cadwallader Ap Hwel, or whichever Welsh tribal elder it was from which Powell claimed descent.

But mild distaste for other people's family history rarely produces a corresponding lack of interest in one's own: where its members were and what they were doing at a particular time, that elemental sense of connection, purpose, the figure waving back from the crowded landscape. One of the great discoveries of adulthood, it might be argued, is that families have secrets, great gaps, fissures and bits of bygone wool-pulling that no amount of senior-member reminiscence can ever explain away.

As a child, out walking with my father, I would often catch him making discreet eye-contact with a middle-aged man or woman at a bus queue or on the farther side of the street. "Who was that, Dad?" "Oh, that was my cousin Ruby." Who were all these phantom relatives? From what long-gone household had they all descended? I don't think my father, who admitted to a dozen aunts and uncles as well as all manner of subsequent family fracture, knew himself.

All these instances of individual curiosity scrambling to log on to the PRO website have a vast symbolic importance. Here we are, after all, in the foothills of the 21st century, in a world that tends to look backwards only for warnings or justification, where most "history" is simply intended to impress on its students a sense of superiority to their ancestors. It's a world full of the latest future-shock gadgetry, and yet, mysteriously, one of the prime uses people find for this technology is to track down the trails of their forebears from a hundred years ago.

Queerly, in an age of mass culture, built on comfort and convenience, in which the past, for all practical purposes, barely exists, a part of the old-style mental outlook, the kind that in the Victorian age recorded generational descent on the flyleaf of the family bible, survives.

Meanwhile, repeat visits to look set to provide all manner of high-grade entertainment: Taylors, Spaldings (my mother's family), Castells (my grandmother's), not to mention wifely clans of Hores and Harlows. Not long back, for example, I discovered that one of Rachel's distant connections had "married a Varco", in other words hooked up with a member of a time-honoured Cornish family celebrated, at any rate in Norwich, for providing an ox-like centre-forward to the 1920s Norwich City football side.

Somehow the thought that my children may be seventh cousins thrice removed to the immortal Percy Varco gave me an indescribable feeling of satisfaction. Such twitches on the ancestral thread, it goes without saying, make us what we are.