Nothing Lasts Forever: A DNA Story

Looking back at the past is always interesting, at least I’ve always found it so. I love reading about history and I watch lots of TV history documentaries. Shakespeare once said ‘what is past is prologue’ and he was right! One area of the past I’ve been looking into recently was my own and my Christmas present to myself was a DNA test.

I got the test from the website and I received my testing kit just before Christmas and sent it off on the 24th December. I kept checking the website to see if the ancestry people had received it yet but nothing came up. Maybe Christmas Eve wasn’t such a great day to post something so important. Anyway, they finally got the sample and to make things exciting, on the ancestry web site you can see how things are progressing with updates like sample received, sample ready for testing, sample tested, DNA extracted, checking DNA and so on.

While I was waiting for all that to happen, I still seemed to be getting nowhere tracing my great grandfather Patrick Henry Higgins. He is mentioned on my grandfather’s marriage certificate of 1920 as being deceased so clearly he passed away sometime before that date. A distant cousin on the Ancestry site seems to think he was born in Roscommon in Ireland. Perhaps so but Patrick Henry Higginses are ten a penny in that part of the world so I turned my attention to my grandmother who was born Ellen Beresford. I vaguely remember my dad mentioning that he had relatives in the Staffordshire area and that Ellen originally came from there. I know from her marriage certificate that her father was George Beresford, a collier and Ellen was born into a mining community in Leycett, Staffordshire.

A few clicks on the internet and I find that the village of Leycett, as well as having a colliery, also had a miners’ institute, a church, a village shop with off-licence, a post office, a butcher’s, and a railway station. They also had a recreation ground built by the miners which had a cricket and football pitch and later tennis courts and a bowling green.

The colliery closed down in 1957 and by the mid-sixties the main part of the village had been demolished. The terraced houses which formed the main part of the Leycett community are now completely gone.

My grandmother Ellen

My father told me that Ellen left Staffordshire and came to Manchester when she was only young. Dad told me she was ‘in service’ to a rich family. In the census of 1911, when Ellen was 15, I found her registered as a domestic servant to the family of Mr Chilton. His occupation was registered as a beer seller and his address was the Queens Arms on Brunswick Street in Rusholme, Manchester. Brunswick Street runs from Rusholme to Ardwick and today has almost been completely redeveloped. No Queens Arms exists in 2023 which is a little surprising. Back in the late 1970’s I used to travel up and down through Ardwick and  Gorton many times when I was a trainee bus driver at the GM Buses driver training school at Hyde Road. The area was in the process of redevelopment back then and many buildings were being knocked down although it seemed to me that the pubs always seemed to escape the destruction. The Queens Arms sadly did not. Ellen and my grandad were married in Gorton Monastery in 1920 and I suppose it is not inconceivable that the two met in the Queens Arms.

I joined GM Buses in 1976 or 77 and little did I know at the time that Hyde Road was an area that my Grandparents were very familiar with.

Looking at the tips for tracing relatives it seems that the main one is talking to older relatives. My dad died in 2000 and my mother is aged 93 and stricken with dementia and is not in a position to tell me anything, although such are the quirks of memory that when I sometimes show her old pictures, she can sometime name those in the picture and tell me a little of the background. My only other relative, my dad’s sister, is someone I haven’t seen for years although I do have Facebook contact with her daughter, my cousin.

Alas, my messages to her on Facebook had not been answered for a long time although happily I did get a reply from her recently. She didn’t have much to add to our family story except she knew that George Higgins worked for the Manchester Tramways Department at Hyde Road and was injured after something hit him on the head. My brother remembered that it was something that connects the tram to the overhead electric cables. As a result of that he suffered with epilepsy for the remainder of his life. George died in 1954, two years before I was born.

Quite often, I try to rack my brains and think about the memories my dad shared with me years ago. I know he mentioned family in Staffordshire which is how I was able to trace my grandmother’s background. On the ancestry site I use, I found a record of her birth and applied to Staffordshire council for a copy of her birth certificate, hoping that might divulge some further information. One interesting thing that it revealed was that her maiden name and her married name were both Beresford

Eventually my DNA results finally arrived. I can now reveal that I am 56% Northern British and European, 19% Irish, 17% Scottish 6% Swedish and 2% Welsh. The site also threw up 24,785 DNA matches, mostly distant cousins although one of my cousins, the son of my mother’s sister, came up as my closest DNA match. Strangely, not a single person named Higgins was on the list although that only means that few on the Higgins side of the family are interested in DNA testing.

I’m not sure why but I actually wondered whether the DNA test might show up some unknown brother or sister. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much of that TV show Long Lost Family.

A lot of this looking back into the past makes me sometimes wonder about how impermanent our existence seems. Dad used to tell many stories about his time in the army. I honestly think his army life was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to him. He travelled to Germany, Northern Ireland and Hong Kong. Once he mentioned that he and his best mate who went by the name of ‘Lulu’ Lownes (I’m not sure why he was nicknamed Lulu) were in Hong Kong for a night out. They jumped on a bus or tram at the traffic lights. The bus conductor wasn’t happy and when they went to pay asked them for the full fare, even though servicemen were entitled to either free or reduced fare. Lulu was so upset by this he decided to throw a punch at the conductor and the two of them, Lulu and Dad, jumped off the bus and ran off into the night despite the conductor blowing a whistle and calling for the MPs.

Dad on the left of the picture with two of his army mates.

That must have been back in the 1950s and Dad and presumably Lulu are now long gone. Probably the conductor and driver are gone too as well as the MPs who gave chase. The conductor may have reported the incident and the bus company may have in turn reported the matter to the police. The police officers who dealt with the case, if indeed there was a case, are also long dead as well as the Royal Hong Kong Police themselves as back in 1997 control of Hong Kong was returned to China.

It may be then that only myself and my brother are the only ones who know about this event and the only actual record of it may be in this blog post. One day when I am gone WordPress will send a message to my email asking me to pay the small amount for my dedicated website address, No answer will be forthcoming and will presumably either revert to its original WordPress web address or just vanish into cyberspace.

One day some search engine might flag up this blog post in return to some query about Hong Kong and British servicemen and the researcher will click the link only to find something like ‘502 error: Bad gateway’ or ‘site not found’.

If the researcher is not happy with that, he may wonder who Steve Higgins was and decide to do a further search for Steve Higgins, writer and blogger. Then he might even find my YouTube page. There he will find me, just as I used to be back in the 2020’s asking the viewer to buy Floating in Space or to read my blog posts that may no longer exist.

Nothing lasts for ever.

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Technology and a Sort of Personal History

So that’s Christmas and New Year over with, let’s get cracking with 2023. I might as well say, I’m always glad to see the back of Christmas and New Year. Not only that, I’m glad to see the back of December 21st too as the 21st is the shortest day of the year and now, each day gets longer as we gradually move towards the spring and warmer weather.

One other reason to see the back of 2022 was that during a cold snap just before Christmas, our pipes froze and we had three separate burst pipes in the loft. The first two weren’t so bad as we spotted them straight away and our plumber came over quickly and sorted them. The third one was worse. The pipes burst over the spare room which we didn’t notice straight away. It was only as Liz was passing on the way to the bathroom that we became aware of water pouring down into the room. Hats off once again to our plumber who came over straight away and sorted the leak. Sorting the wet carpets might take a little longer though. All that is just another reason to hate the cold.

This year, much later this year I should say, I will be 67 and I start to find myself looking inward, looking at where I have come from as well as wondering about the future.

The future, I have come to feel is about technology. Technology is ever changing and touches even a common individual like me. Once I recorded my television programmes on VHS tapes and now, they can be saved directly to my hard drive at the push of a button. Regular instalments of a show can be recorded automatically and missed shows can be watched on catch up TV. You can even begin to watch a TV show before the recording has finished. I spend a lot of time converting my favourite documentaries onto DVD although by the time I’ve finished, DVD will probably have given way to some newer technology.

The Beano. Picture courtesy

Years ago, I used to read a comic strip called General Jumbo. The general was actually a small boy who had various crime fighting adventures with a unique set of radio-controlled toys or models. I always remembered him controlling the models using something like an iPad although when I researched the General, who appeared in a famous UK comic called The Beano, I see he controlled them with a device that fitted over his wrist. Maybe it was some other comic strip hero that used the iPad like device but either way today’s iPad is one of my favourite devices. I’ve had an iPad for a number of years. I used to edit my blog posts on the iPad and produce and schedule most of my tweets and other social media posts but recently I have not been able to.

My iPad is fully up to date but alas, many apps will not work anymore. Many need an update of 14.5 and my pad, despite being fully updated only updates to 12.5. This is a most disappointing aspect of the iPad but it represents I suppose the ever-changing face of technology. It also represents something of a mean streak in the people at Apple, for they are not content for us to buy their very expensive gadgetry, they want us to buy the same item again, suitably updated and up-priced, several years later.

Fair enough, technology must move on but why at the expense of old technology? Anyway, one most wonderful and unexpected Christmas present I received this year, courtesy I might add of Liz, was a new iPad. Now I can reinstall the apps that I could no longer use on my old iPad. My banking app works again and I can sort out my social media posts with ease.

At Christmas I always get myself a present. It’s usually something like a DVD or a book but this year I bought myself a DNA test. It came with three months free on the web site and it was pretty fascinating looking back at the paper fingerprints left behind by my ancestors in marriage documents, census forms and birth certificates. Having said that, researching your family history isn’t easy, especially when your grandfather for instance had the name George Higgins, a pretty unremarkable name in turn of the century Great Britain.

A lot of what I have found on the ancestry web site is nothing new and seems to merely confirm things I have found out by other means. I have my father’s birth certificate which gave some information and my grandfather’s marriage and death certificates which gave me more. My grandfather as I have mentioned was George Higgins. He died in 1954 before I was born. Ancestry linked me to the family tree of a distant relative who seems to claim that George was born in Ireland. Now that contradicts something my father told me many years ago. He told me that his grandfather or great grandfather came from Ireland. The man was a catholic and in order to marry a protestant, he was forced to come to England. That being the case I find it hard to understand how George came to be born in Ireland. Did his forebears return to Ireland or has Ancestry found a different George Higgins? On George’s army documents, he reports both his mother and father as being English, not Irish.

My Grandfather, George Higgins fought in the First World War with the Royal Horse Artillery so my father told me. This is him in this splendid picture with his horse, Prince. My Dad had the picture with him in his wallet when he was in the forces and as time went on it got a little torn and tatty and somewhere, I suppose it must have been in Hong Kong where he was stationed for a while, he found a little photographic shop that specialised in rescuing old pictures. The background of the picture was originally a forest but the rescue work removed them in order to make the picture good.

Over on Ancestry I found that George served with the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1912 to 1921. In 1921 he enlisted in the 52nd East Lancs Corps which was a Territorial Army Unit of Field Artillary.

Both sides of my family, my father’s people and my mother’s, came from the back-to-back terraced houses of Salford. They moved to Wythenshawe in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. Wythenshawe was known as the ‘garden estate’ because instead of small terraced houses, here were bigger and better houses with front and back gardens. The estate was built on land purchased by Manchester City Council from the Tatton family. It was originally rustic countryside full of farms. My Dad worked on quite a few of them and my Mum tells me stories of getting milk from Potts dairy farm which stood apparently just across from my old junior school. You’d never know because no trace of it remains today, just a row of council houses.

I had hoped to find more about the past but navigating the records that hold the keys to the things that have gone before is not quite as easy as I had thought.

My great grandfather is mentioned on George’s marriage certificate. He was Patrick Henry Higgins and was no longer alive in 1920 when George married my grandmother. What makes the search difficult is that there are a great many Patrick Henry Higgins’s about. One day, during an epic troll of various census records, I found an Annie Higgins in the census of 1901. She was the head of quite a large household. Her husband was no longer around but one of her sons was called George. Was she the widow of Patrick Henry? Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps that elusive DNA report might help when it finally arrives. One day I hope to find out.

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