Visiting an Ancestral Home: A Life-Changing Experience

January 24, 2020  - by 
Boy in factory

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

LDS church in England

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.

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.

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.

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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