A Short History of Just about Nothing


I suppose it happens to each of us from time to time, and this week I started making tentative enquiries as to who or what my ancestors were. I know what triggered it:- a cable channel has been running back-to-back every one of the BBC’s many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are ?, a show where celebrities and the like are taken through a long, often tortuous journey back in time to trace their family trees.

Among the nuggets the show threw up was that Mayor Boris Johnson’s predecessors ruled most of Europe (shock), many of Stephen Fry’s family were jews butchered by the Nazis (v upsetting for him and for the viewer) and Ainsley Harriot’s great, great something or other was a white bloke running a plantation in the West Indies, raping the slave girls wherever he went (knocked a dirty great hole in Ainsley that one, poor sod).

It got me thinking, and that hasn’t happened for a while. I realised that I knew next to sod all about my family. I had known well all four of my grandparents. Both granddads were in the forces -that’s one of them, my mum’s dad Bill- at the top of this page, about to go off to the far east- and the other, Bryan, was a sailor (I have the sea in my blood and if you look carefully you can see where it gets in). But I know little or nothing of their fathers, or their fathers’ fathers. Or their fathers’ fathers’ fathers (ok, Stan don’t labour the point).

Many years ago a bloke called Nigel Bealing (an unknown to my branch of the clan) sent my father a completely unsolicited package which appeared to contain our family tree, or at least the parts he said he’d been able to plot. I’ve no idea where all those documents within that parcel ended up (probably in my dad’s loft) but the only things anyone ever remembers of their contents was a vaguely convincing coat of arms and the fact that we are, apparently, descended from Lord Marmaduke Boleyn, second cousin of Anne Boleyn, she of Henry VIII fame. Boleyn to Bealing in 500 easy years. Hmmm….

Apart from the rather uneasy feeling that there was royalty in my blood (however distant or tenuously linked), the news didn’t really impress me too much, such is the apathy of youth, and I pretty much forgot about it for years after. But as one rapidly approaching his 46th birth anniversary, with the fear of mortality kicking in, and treating myself to a week-long diet of B-listers’ family archives, I decided to my own digging. What would I find? More royalty? Murderers? Artists? Accountants ? (please god, no).

So, having more time on my hands than is decent, I searched for ancestry websites. The start of my long long journey into the past had begun, to become acquainted with all those magnificent old sods whose stories, whose lives and existences I knew nothing at all about. How exciting, I thought. Centuries of Bealings awaited me. Was Anne Boleyn the last of the line to have six fingers? Have we always had small gentetalia? Is my lineage, like Tony Hancock’s “100% Anglo Saxon with just a touch of viking?”. Could it be I’m distantly related to Ainsley Harriot?

First stop: the 1911 census. There he was: My granddad

Apart from the fact that they’d for some reason got his date of birth wrong (he was born in 1900) it was rather pleasing and eerie to see him there in black and white, or black and blue anyway. But apart from that one entry, that’s as much as I got. I don’t know his dad’s name, his DOB or anything really. I could have delved deeper but that would have meant registering and with the site and ‘buying credits’, whatever that meant. My sudden surge of enthusiasm for the past was evaporating like the morning mist on Blackheath common.

No matter. It would wait for another day. It’s taken me 45.9 years to take an interest in old Marmaduke and his descendants so another couple of months won’t do any harm, will it? I logged off and returned to my job-seeking activities. Then tonight, while wading through a whole slew of 911 programs I’d recorded over the weekend I was idly surfing the web when the ancestry bug nibbled me again.

In an act of pure self-indulgence I started Googling the family name. Christ ! There are hundreds of us. Far too many to bother with on a Sunday evening. So I clicked onto Google images to see what I could find there. Here too were many different pictures of Bealings I had no idea existed. There was a John and a Clive. I found a photo of Paul from New Zealand. There was a Crystal Bealing, a black girl from the States and Nicola Bealing, a successful artist from Cornwall. Hundreds of people all with the same silly surname. I suppose if I’d ever joined Facebook I might have found out all of this years ago. But I didn’t. And, just for the record, I won’t.

Feeling reinvigorated, and with plenty of new leads and relatives to keep me busy for the next eon, I was just about to close down my laptop when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a rather odd-looking picture. It was a page from something called Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms.
It is, as is suggested by the title, a list of of rather old an odd words which the medical profession once used. At least I hope they once used them. There, somewhere between some affliction called Bay Sore and the rather alarmingly sounding Beaver Feaver, was this:

If you’re finding that difficult to read, I shall assist. It reads: Beal – A small inflammatory tumor; a pustule. To gather matter; to swell and come to a head, as a pimple. See Boil a tumor. (Prov. Eng.) [Webster1913].

Ok, ok, very funny, I suppose, if your name happens to be Beal. But I’m not. Clearly. But underneath was a derivation, a useage.

An example from an 1853 mortality schedule from Kentucky:

I repeat: Cause of Death: Bealing in the Throat !

Can you image my disappointment? Here I was hoping to discover that I’m the rightful air to the fortunes of some long-forgotten dynasty who were once the toast of the royal courts of Europe, who owned not only all the tea in China but the cups and saucers too. Instead I find that when my forefathers filled in a mortgage application, the staff at Ye Old Abbey National were sent into fits of giggles on reading a letter from a Mr Pustule. I’d had enough again. Sod the lineage. Shut down Mac.

And I don’t want to go down the route of how one could die of “Bealing in the Throat”, I shall leave that to your dirty smutty little minds. Just move away from the computer and forget you ever read about it. Regular readers of this column should find that easy enough.

And the rest is geography.

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