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A Special Relationship

Adlestrop, Edward Thomas and The Mayflower Pilgrims

Imagine you're the guest on the ancestry TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

Who do you hope to discover as one of your ancestors?  Henry VIII?  Emmeline Pankhurst?  William Shakespeare?

Most of us get a frisson of excitement when we discover an interesting relative, especially if they're famous. The good news is that if you go back far enough you are almost certain to find one.  The reason is mathematical.  If a historic figure had two children who lived to adulthood, and those children had two of their own, then after twenty generations (five hundred years, say), there could be a million descendants.  In reality it probably won't be that many, because as you move down the generations it becomes increasingly likely that a marriage or other pairing will be between distant cousins, a phenomenon known as pedigree collapse.

Still, it's not unusual to discover you have a famous ancestor.  

For example, it turns out that my wife, and hence my children, are descendants of not one but TWO of the pilgrims who set sail on The Mayflower from Plymouth to America in 1620.  Richard Warren was her tenth-great grandfather, and so too was John Howland (probably). The amusing twist is that her family only discovered this when researching their surname, Standish.  They wondered if they were descended from Myles Standish, the most famous of the Pilgrim Fathers, but it turns out he was no relation.

My own favourite relative is buried in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey.  Edward Thomas wrote poems before and during the First World War, but his most famous poem is Adlestrop.  It's an atmospheric pen picture of the brief, unscheduled stop of his steam train at a rural station in Gloucestershire.

The first clue that he might be a relative was when I discovered that he published his first poems under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway.  Why choose that name?  It turns out that his much loved grandmother was an Eastaway and her family was from Devon - a rural and romantic connection that resonated more with Edward Thomas than his family connections with industrial south Wales.

I've always known that my ancestors were from Devon, and after digging through the records, I discovered that Edward Thomas and I shared a great^4 grandfather, making him my fifth cousin.  We are (or were) the same generation, even though Thomas died in 1917.  This weird 100 year generation shift happened because several parents on my side of the family tree were quite old when they had children.

Why do we care about discovering a famous relative?  Maybe we like to imagine that we share some of their more impressive traits.  It's poppycock, of course, I have nothing more in common with Edward Thomas than I do with the footballer John Terry, who is possibly also a fifth cousin of mine. 

But when I discovered that Edward Thomas' best friend was Robert Frost, who was my set poet for 'O Level' English Literature, I felt a bit more of a connection.  And Adlestrop is now my favourite poem.