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Visiting an Ancestral Home: A Life-Changing Experience

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.

Source: Family Search

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