In the quaint Northumberland fishing town of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, a remarkable project has been unfolding over the past 11 years. Spearheaded by former MP Hilton Dawson, the community has created a massive family tree documenting “everyone who has ever lived here.”
The digital tree, hosted by MyHeritage, traces the lineage of almost 39,000 people, dating back to around the year 1200. The tree contains much more than just names: it includes around 9,000 photos and historical records as well as detailed biographies.
This past weekend, the tree was projected on the walls of the town’s community center as part of a five-day summer festival, stirring a great deal of interest. People came from as far as 100 miles away to learn about the history of this small town and discover their own heritage in the extensive family tree.
It all started when Hilton Dawson, 69, inherited the family tree his mother had started. Hilton had grown up in Newbiggin, but like many members of the younger generation, moved away after graduating school. “I’ve always considered that I had an idyllic childhood in Newbiggin, but by the end of childhood I was keenly determined to leave the place behind,” he says.
In 2012, he gave a talk in Newbiggin about his research, expecting hardly anyone to turn up — and was shocked when dozens of people turned out to hear him speak.
“There were lots of women who came with family bibles and beautiful records and photos, and a few men, some of whom had stuff scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. It was extraordinary,” Hilton told The Times in a recent article about the project. “They had a visceral need to know where they came from and who they were related to. We started there and then, saying we would make a record of everybody who had ever lived in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.”
It would take many, many volumes to record a family tree of this magnitude on paper — but on MyHeritage, the community was able to easily add and document family relationships and connections as well as details about individuals, stories, and various media. A testament to the power of community collaboration, the project has revealed complex interconnections between families, painting a vivid picture of a close-knit community that has weathered centuries of change together.
Hilton believes that the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Genealogy Project could serve as a model for other communities. The wealth of information gathered could be invaluable for academic research, particularly in the field of genetics. Moreover, it serves as a call to action for residents who have moved away to reconnect with their roots and invest in their hometown’s future.
Documenting the family history of the town is of particular importance given its rich history and widespread diaspora. The town was very isolated for centuries, having been devastated by Viking and Scots invaders, and according to the 1801 census, there were only 300 residents living there at the time. Mining changed that rapidly: “The population tripled between 1901 and 1921 which is when the put opened,” Hilton told The Times. When mining ended there in the early 80s, however, the population decreased by 40%. The younger generations has been migrating to cities, leaving their heritage at risk of fading away. “Newbiggin has a worldwide diaspora,” Hilton told The Times. “In a way it’s just the story of England. People have emigrated, often with the impetus of really hard times for fishing and mining.”
This is a familiar story to us at MyHeritage. We launched our pro bono project Tribal Quest to help indigenous tribes in remote locations preserve their family histories as the young people from their communities move away to seek their fortunes in bigger urban centers. As Roi Mandel, our Director of Research, told The Times: “We focus on the importance of preserving family history and sharing it for future generations. This is even more significant when it comes to a community whose glorious past may fade because there is no one to continue its path. The young generation is no longer engaged in fishing and migrating to the cities and who will carry on the torch of their heritage?”
He described the Newbiggin project as a “treasure”: “They have created a magnificent family tree of 39,000 people, over 9,000 photos and historical records,” he told The Times. “This thing is a treasure, which now — thanks to this documentation project on MyHeritage — will remain forever.”
The Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Genealogy Project is more than just a family tree; it’s a living testament to the town’s rich history and resilient spirit. MyHeritage is humbled to have played an instrumental role in bringing this project to life, providing a platform that enables the town to preserve its heritage and pass it on to future generations.
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Source: My Heritage