I first became interested in my family’s past when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I realised that when he goes, he will be the last of a generation of my family and there will be no one left to answer questions of the past. So I set about building a family tree, nudging my Dad for clues whenever I got stuck. Within a month I had a fairly comprehensive list of the people who had made my family what it is. I’d discovered illegitimate children, adoptions and even a minor scandal, but the names on the paper were just names of dead people - it was hard to animate their lives to better understand them.
I wanted to know what the people in my tree were thinking and experiencing, and why they made some of the decisions which set the course of my family history. So I set about understanding the cultural, demographic, economic, political and social makeup of the period they had lived through in order to put myself in their shoes and understand their lives. This proved to be eye-opening and at times I felt like I was right there looking down on them, emotionally attached to their thoughts, watching them live their lives. As I got deeper into their lives, I found myself struggling with their struggles and lost sleep when I felt their sadness.
In the course of my research, I stumbled on an amazing story about my great great grandfather, Charles Robert Owen Jarvis - a working class man from the East End of London who came from humble beginnings yet participated in a defining chapter of England’s history. In a nutshell, Charles Robert Owen Jarvis suffered the loss of his father at an early age, left school at 13 and worked in the shipbuilding industry on the River Thames as it boomed, reinvented itself and then went bust. Along the way, he struggled to pay the rent, suffered the birth and loss of his children, moved house constantly, went to Brazil and Prussia and spent four years on an expedition to Africa trying to abolish slavery. Charles Robert Owen Jarvis wasn’t a hero through any of it, but he became my hero.
His story was remarkable because it gave me a deep insight into Victorian England and a gripping account of the struggles facing those who lived through it. Although he never kept a diary and not a single photograph or portrait of him exists, he left a couple of pieces of paper that I discovered almost by accident. Those two sheets of paper - an application for a job - provided me enough clues to lay out his entire life story. And wow, it was a remarkable story that began over 250 years ago.
But this website goes beyond a single person - it catalogs and recalls many of my relatives. You might be related to one of them.
If you're a Jarvis and you are researching your family and discover that you have some distant relationship with Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, then this website is definitely for you. But if you have any relative who lived in the East End between 1830 and 1880, this website might fill in a few blanks for you.
And I would love to hear from you if you are related to anyone I discuss. It means you are related to me. Perhaps you have information that I don't have? I'd love to hear from you.