Follow the stories or follow the documents?

Someone in a family history group I’m in on Facebook asked whether we should follow stories handed down by family members or the documentation, if the two don’t match.

My advice is to follow the documents, but bear in mind there might be grains of truth in what people remembered among things that have been misremembered or invented!

My grandad said his great-aunt married a man called George Smith, who had “a troop of horse” and was injured during the Charge of the Light Brigade.

What I found out from the documents (census, BMD records etc) was that his name was George Owler, and he was injured at the Battle of the Alma which took place before the more famous Charge of the Light Brigade. His father had been a cattle dealer, which might be where my grandad got the “troop of horse” idea from.

Sometimes people tell you a bit but not all – my other grandad told me that his uncle “played the squeeze box in the Sally Army.” That was all he said. I found out from the Salvation Army archives that Uncle John Barrell and his wife Ada had spent years living in Jamaica and countries in Africa, working to build schools for blind people. His zeal to help came about because his sister Emma became deaf-blind. I even found out, thanks to the Cadbury archives, that John and Emma’s daughter married a cocoa-dealer who worked for Cadbury’s. Although Uncle John did indeed play the squeeze box (I found newspaper reports of fundraisers where he played it, in Kingston – he sounds like quite a character!), he did a whole lot more besides!