Visiting an Ancestral Home: A Life-Changing Experience

January 24, 2020  - by 

An ancestral home is a house, village, or region where your family lived in the past. Visiting an ancestral home—walking where your ancestors walked, putting their experience in context—can be a life-changing way to connect with your past.

Recently, I took my first trip to England from the United States to teach at RootsTech London. As soon as the conference ended, I started driving north. There was one place in England I wanted to visit more than any other: Eccleshill.

Eccleshill is a village that has been swallowed up by the city of Bradford, in Yorkshire. In this old industrial zone, more than a hundred woolen mills once hummed with the labor of thousands of workers, including children. One of those children was my great-great-grandfather Washington McClelland, born in 1861.

As a young man, Washington made two momentous decisions that changed the course of his life and the lives of his descendants, including mine. I wanted to see the place where he lived and walk—at least for a day—in his shoes.

Visiting My Ancestral Home

Learning as much as I could about Washington’s life helped me plan three meaningful stops in Eccleshill and Bradford. Though each destination was a little different, I hoped they would all help me better understand him and feel more connected to him and his parents, John and Jane.

1. Honoring My Ancestor’s Childhood at an Industrial Museum

Washington McClelland

According to a family story, Washington began working in the Bradford woolen mills at age six, after his father died. He walked six miles to work each day. Though he did get some schooling, he apparently worked throughout his childhood.

By age 17, Washington was a foreman in the spinning room. Jane, his mother, worked in the woolen mills too. For a time, she was a burler—someone who cleaned wool.

That’s why I wanted to visit the Bradford Industrial Museum, which tells the stories of the people who lived and worked in the local mills. One floor of the museum displays dozens of textile machines, and I was lucky enough to be in the room when a staff member turned several of them on. Immediately great, clacking, clamoring noises filled the room. For a visitor, it was mesmerizing.

But it was also easy to see that for a laborer—especially a child—moving in and about the machines for many hours a day over the course of many years, this was dangerous and deafening work. Here’s a short video clip of one of those machines in motion:

The museum devotes a lot of attention to the stories of child labor in the mills. I came away with much greater compassion for Washington’s difficult childhood.

2. Worshipping at My Ancestor’s Church

The next stop on my family history tour honored one of Washington’s major life decisions. When he was 16 years old, his mother’s brother, John Steele, came to see the family in Eccleshill. John Steele was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His journal mentions Jane and her children and makes his intentions clear: “I am here to baptize them all.”

And he did. Washington’s baptismal record appears along with those of his mother, several siblings, and two sisters-in-law in the membership register of the Bradford Latter-day Saint Congregation in October 1877.

LDS church in England
Records used to help find ancestral home and church
Record of members, circa 1842–1948, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bradford Branch, Yorkshire, England, Family History Library microfilm 0086984, Items 2–3.

Washington’s new faith became a legacy that was eventually handed down to me, and it is now a powerful force in my personal life. That’s why I wanted to attend church services at the Bradford Ward, which still exists.

I felt at home sitting in a pew listening to the English voices, tinged with various regional accents, singing and speaking phrases as familiar and beloved to me as the sound of my own father’s voice.

3. Strolling through My Ancestor’s Neighborhood

The trip to Eccleshill wouldn’t have been complete without walking through Washington’s neighborhood. From the family’s census records in 1861 and 1871, I found their exact addresses: 12 Stony Lane and 4 Bank Street.

The streets were hillier than I had anticipated and the view lovelier, when I could look over the worn-down rooftops. The Stony Lane address appears to date from Washington’s era and now houses the Eccleshill Working Men’s Club. Bank Street No. 4 is a much more modern home, but across the street still stands the Victoria Inn, which appears on the 1871 census near Jane McClelland’s entry.

Sunny walks ancestral home and village, poses by graves.

I paid my final respects up the street at an abandoned burial ground. Disappointingly, the headstones of Washington’s parents, if they exist, are buried under tangled overgrowth.

As I stood staring at the few headstones peeking out of the greenery, I thought about Washington burying his mother when he was only 17. After a difficult childhood, he faced a bleak young adulthood.

However, within a year, his Uncle John Steele appeared in his life again, this time offering to pay his passage to the United States. Washington went, forever leaving behind life in England’s mills for another kind of hardworking life in the western deserts of Utah and Idaho.

The thought came to mind—they are not here. Whether I was thinking of Washington—who had left this place and never returned—or of John and Jane, buried somewhere under the brambles, I don’t know.

During this entire visit, I couldn’t touch something that was theirs. I didn’t see any documents with their names on them or walk into a home in which the McClellands lived. And yet I came away feeling more connected to them. I have tried to get to know them and see the world as they lived it. And that is enough.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. Your trip sounded wonderful. I would love ❤️ to see Ireland where some of my ancestors came from. I’m 62 and I know that it will never happen. Even so, I enjoyed reading your story.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience, Sunny. It is so cool to be in a place where your ancestors lived, worshipped, died, and are in the records.

    My most memorable visit to England for family history was in 1993. We toured England, and our last stop was in Bath, where I took the train the 10 miles to Trowbridge to visit the County Record Office. I also took a bus the three miles to the village of Hilperton where my Richman and rich families had lived and worshipped for centuries. My Richman ancestors cane to America in 1856. St. Michael’s and all Angels church was closed so I walked the graveyard, and left a note under the door. The rector of the church called that night and asked if we could come to worship on Sunday. We took a taxi from Bath to Hilperton, met the rector and Mr. Potts (the church vestryman for decades), enjoyed the worship service and bell ringing, and Mr Potts took us down the road to check the church records for my Richmans – he had them in his home. He then drove us by the home of the “last” Richmans in Hilperton but no one was home. Mr. Potts dropped us at the train station so we could continue our adventure.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Randy. What a fabulous rector and vestryman, to respond to you so generously. I’m glad you had a chance to attend church where your family did and look for them in the records. I’m always grateful for people who are the keepers of history where they live, and who share it with others who come looking for it.

  3. I LOVE this article! Since 2008 my cousins and I have taken many family history trips to the lands of our ancestors. I spend several months, along with the research I have done on all my family lines for many years, researching the specific families in that area of the world. I send messages to parish priests, parish councils, historical societies in the areas, and local museums, in order to find people who know the area and will be available to show us the places our ancestors lived, attended church, worked, and died. Most often I have found someone to be our guide in all these places whom I would correspond with prior to our visit, who would kindly find more local information about our ancestors and share their knowledge with us. We have visited Sweden, England, Wales, Canada, and many towns in Utah, as our ancestors all joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their native land, sailed to America, and crossed the plains with other pioneers, or traveled by train, to Utah. These have been amazing trips that we will never forget. Just be sure to put forth the effort before starting out so you are not frustrated.

    1. Andrea, Thanks for describing your experience and that fantastic tip at the end–it’s SO important to prepare for a trip when you can. I could only visit those places because I’d researched Washington’s life and discovered his connections to the industry, the cemetery where his parents were buried, and the addresses he called home. Here are some tips for preparing for your own trip: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/heritage-tourism/.

  4. This was lovely! It is so worth it to make the effort to go to ancestor places! Thanks for sharing your time of connecting!

  5. This was so wonderful to read. Thank you for sharing your experience! I felt the Spirit touch my heart when you shared the thought that came to you, “They are not here.” Those are powerful words of such great comfort.
    I’m currently reading a book by Sarah M. Eden titled “Ashes on the Moore”. It tells about a village in Yorkshire similar to your ancestor Washington’s experience. Your stories really bring to life for me what it might have been like to live then. What a dark childhood it must have been, but what incredible joy and light the gospel must have brought to his and his family’s lives! There was a way out from working in the mills for their entire lives.
    Thank you for this inspiring article. I want to go do some family history research now!

    1. Heather, thanks for your kind comments–and the book recommendation. I’m always looking for well-written historical fiction that will open my ancestors’ worlds to me, and I’ve put that on my list of books to check into.

  6. Sunny, I loved your article about returning to the home place of your great grandfather in Eccleshill. I know just how you felt. Many years ago I located the area where my great grandfather and great grandmother lived before they emigrated to Philadelphia, in 1845. Nearby was a restored farmstead that has been turned into a tourist attraction, called the Ulster American Folk Park. It’s buildings were restored or rebuilt out buildings, as well as a house. It has museums full of the farm tools, turf cutting tools, weaving shops as well as films of how they grew flax and turned it into linen. It also showed the life of everyday people who cooked, baked, did laundry and made their own clothing, and what their lives were like. I so enjoyed it and felt a kinship for my great grandparents. The park is still there in Omagh, County Tyrone, and I hope to go there again to see if there was any new displays that have been added since my visit in 1993.

    When I returned home and got involved with Ancestry, I learned so much more. My ancesters were Flax Growers and belonged to an association that helped them with learning the latest information concerning growing, harvesting and selling their products, and learned that my great grandfather at the age of 8 was employed as a weaver.

  7. Sunny, would the textile machines in America be the same as found in England at that time? One of my great grandfathers was a major textile manufacturer in New England starting about 1870. And, information only, a collateral ancestor married the 4th President of the “Mormon” Church and went by wagon train to Utah.

    1. Howland, What an interesting question about the textile machines! I’d look for the answer in published histories of the textile industry in New England, especially in chapters that might talk about their machinery and that compared the industry to England’s. FYI on your collateral kin who migrated with the Latter-day Saints: many early Latter-day Saint families are on the FamilySearch Family Tree, with descendants actively researching them. That’s a good place for collaborating with other descendants.

      1. Sunny – Thank you for your thoughts. I will look for the textile histories. And wikll put a tree onto FamilySearch to see who might be there.

  8. It is great that you visited the museum to learn about the life in the mill. So many people don’t think about learning about the history of a place where their ancestors lived. Seeing & hearing what they experienced brings them closer to you.

  9. Beautiful and compelling story. Although I am not a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, I feel the same way as this young lady did walking in the footsteps of her ancestors.