Villains in the family: Tracing our criminal ancestors is bound to be entertaining


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The Independent Online

Most of us would be more amused than embarrassed these days to discover that we had a great-uncle in Victorian England with a criminal record as long as your arm. There was a time when having a black sheep was a source of deep shame; families with criminal or humble pasts changed their names and paid genealogists to doctor the family trees in order to conceal such unwanted facts. If possible, they would claim a spurious link to the gentry or some long-ago member of the Royal Family.

This phenomenon was not confined to class-conscious England. Americans used to squabble over the right to claim descent from the founding fathers who had arrived on the Mayflower. As for upwardly mobile families in republican France, long after the revolution abolished the monarchy  they were still adding the prefix de to their surnames in order to claim kinship with the now ruined aristocracy.

That was once the case, but it isn’t now. Just as no one wants to be called “upper class” any longer – we are all from the same “hard-working” class these days – for creative spirits, having noble or – worse – bourgeois ancestry is the kiss of death.

Reverse snobbery has become de rigeur in today’s meritocratic culture, when it helps to let on that your ancestors scrambled out of a gutter, were born in a ghetto or reached New York in steerage. A well-known Monty Python sketch gave voice to this new snobbery some decades ago. In it, four wealthy men smoking cigars on a Caribbean holiday compete to describe the squalor of their respective childhoods. When one claims he was raised in a cardboard box alongside 150 others, his partner exclaims: “You were lucky! We lived in a septic tank!”

Britons will doubtless be trawling through the criminal records held by the National Archives, dating back to 1779 and now available online, hoping to find out that great-grandma was jailed for running a brothel in the East End, or that some more distant relative was a highwayman who ended his life hanging from a noose at Newgate. Crime doesn’t pay – but it does pay to have a criminal lurking at a safe distance in the background.