A genealogical mystery… … and how I came to write it

Yesterday I gave a talk to a local family history group about how it came about that I combined my two passions of family history and writing and ended up with my first Radwinter book.

I started, using a PowerPoint presentation, with a little background by sharing places (important in writing, a sense of place!) Cambridge, Weston-super-Mare, Manchester, and back to the south-west to Uphill. I shared a selection of photos from my own past nad my family’s – the people/characters! Me as a child, my mum as a young girl, my dad when he was first married, my mum on her wedding day with her best friend and bridesmaid, my sister and me in our school uniforms, my dad with a group of his rowing friends, my great-grandfather in Tasmania, the posh home my great-great-grandparents lived in London, My great-great grandparents and children – and a man I think maybe my great-great -great-grandfather! All part of my history, all part of my story.

I moved onto my writing and how I was able to self-publish my novels on Amazon KDP when I gave up the day-job… and then I began to explain about how Radwinter came about:

I wanted to write a new novel… something which was linked to my interest in researching family history… I also wanted to write a new novel about three brothers… a vicar, a wine merchant and a book seller… It struck me I could combine the two ideas, the book seller seemed the sort of person who might be interested in finding out about the family past… The three brothers suddenly acquired another brother, the youngest, called Thomas …and then I had to find a name for them… the vicar   became Marcus, the wine merchant Paul and the book   seller John… but I just couldn’t find a surname

I had my family, I needed a name… and out with cousins we went past the small village of Radwinter… and that was perfect!

Radwinter is a tiny village in Essex, and there is no-one (as far as I can tell) who has or ever had Radwinter as a surname… Radwinter is about twenty miles from Cambridge and about fifty miles from the port of Harwich.
I decided that Thomas should be the character to investigate the Radwinter family history – and to tell the story from his point of view. I wanted him to be excited and intrigued by what he discovered. I decided that Thomas should be a total amateur and never having done anything like this before, so any reader in a similar position might feel that they too could become a genealogical detective for their own family. Thomas uses a completely fictional research site…. MyTimeMachine.

I mentioned the connection between family history and other stories:

Like any story, our genealogical stories have key aspects:

people/characters – our ancestors
places – where they lived/worked/travelled to
plot – the story of their lives and events in their lives

A fictional story also needs other aspects, not necessary in a family tree

perspective/point of view

Without giving away too much about the plot, but concentration on the genealogical side of the story, rather than Thomas’s story I shaed some of the plot:

The story follows Thomas’s amateurish research and is one of the narrative threads – to make the novel more intriguing to the reader, Thomas does his research in a back – to front, idiosyncratic way trying to find the earliest mention of a Radwinter in the records. In actual fact this is ridiculous – but as a writer I want to intrigue readers, and make a story out of what could be just a linear search The earliest ancestor he can find is another Thomas Radwinter of foreign birth who first appears in the 1841 census, in the village of Radwinter.

Thomas discovers his ancestor was actually Taras Radwinski and  he follows him on his journey from Radwinski in the Ukraine, to Warsaw in Poland to fight in the 1831 uprising, to Germany, to Harwich to jump ship and end up in Radwinter. From Radwinter in Essex, Taras goes to London, then Portsmouth, before ending up in my fictional town of Easthope. The true story of the Warsaw uprising in 1831 is little known, but I hope it adds interest and tension to the story – the defeated Polish and Ukrainian soldiers escaped to Gdansk, fleeing the Russians, where they could board ships to Siberia or America… no choice really! In my fiction Taras jumps ship in Harwich and from there makes his way into Essex and finds himself in Radwinter which he adopts as his name – Radwinski becomes Radwinter

The Warsaw Uprising of 1831 is a little known event in European history, but it was significant in Thomas’s story. I visited Portsmouth where some of the Polish soldiers ended up and saw their memorial.

Lest we forget the kindness shown and the help given by the people of Britain’s premier naval port – Portsmouth to 212 Polish soldiers, members of the first Polish community in Britain, who arrived in Portsmouth in February 1834, after having taken part in the November uprising against Tzarist Russian oppression, which took
place in Warsaw in 1830 – 1831.
The majority of those soldiers were laid to rest in this very place in a common grave.
At a time when merchants of human rights joined forces in order to destroy liberty – the people of Portsmouth rallied to the aid of those, who fought for that liberty..

I mentioned other things Thomas found out about his family, which many families also have in their history:

Thomas’s research is much more exciting than most people’s – it is fiction after all, but there are the usual problems that all family historians find, missing people, confusing names, peculiar occupations, tragic deaths, unexpected marriages… His family also lost sons in the First World War

… and i shared images of a Portsmouth workhouse, an umbrella factory and a brickworks.

Thomas’s story also explores his own family, and he makes a very unexpected discovery about himself – which is something which can also happen when investigating our history, especially with the popularity of DNA testing!

I came to the end of my talk –

Thomas’s story also explores his own family, and he makes a very unexpected discovery about himself – which is something which can also happen when investigating our history, especially with the popularity of DNA testing!

Thomas’s story – and that of Taras Radwinski is told in my novel:



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