Teasing Out Your Family’s Psychological Inheritance - A Victorian's Inheritance by author Helen Parker-Drabble

In my last blog, I talked about psychological inheritance (also known as emotional genealogy), a term referring to inherited traits, reactions, patterns of behaviour and our take on life. These are unwittingly passed down through the genes and persist over time. Unless we are aware of them, we can carry them into each situation and relationship.

We cannot know our ancestors’ psychological inheritance; but we can examine the genealogical records available, consider the reactions, patterns of behaviour and personality of family members we have known, and speculate using psychological theory. We can honour those who came before and acknowledge what they endured so we could live.

With that in mind, this week I’ll cover some of the key experiences your ancestors may have lived through – and next time, I’ll go into more depth about how the impact of these experiences might have passed down the boughs of your family tree. 

Teasing Out Clues to Your Ancestor’s Inheritance

If you’re like me, you’ve gone beyond creating family trees and you relish in immersing yourself in the time and place in which at least one of your ancestors lived. Perhaps you’ve noticed emotionally charged events or wondered about the validity of family stories. (Alternatively, if you’re just starting out, watch out for these so you can investigate once you’ve built a few generations.)

Tragically, in any family, there will be those who suffered abuse, physical or mental ill health, disability, starvation, imprisonment, bigamy, persecution, trauma and abandonment – and all of these factors can trickle down the family tree, impacting future generations.

To tease out clues to your ancestor’s inheritance, keep a curious, open mind and scan through your tree looking for short life spans, multiple marriages and births outside of marriage (once known as ‘bastardy’, these were significantly stigmatised in Victorian England). Seek their stories through the records kept by workhouses, court and prisons records, lunacy and asylum documents, shipping and passenger lists and newspaper archives.

People strive for meaning and connection and a sense of belonging, so investigate church, union, club & society records. If you can, visit the local history or studies libraries where genealogical treasure such as contemporary accounts, photographs and diaries wait to be discovered. Alternatively, rummage in the worldwide ‘back yard’ the internet offers. Gems can be found on ancestry websites, place-based Facebook pages and in niche books and research papers.


Bereavement connects all of us to our ancestors, but our long-gone relatives lived precariously.  Ask yourself how your relative might have been affected by the early death of a parent, sibling, child or spouse. If there are several early demises in a family, consider if some could be related, for example, by the socially stigmatising and deadly pulmonary tuberculosis, (also known as consumption or phthisis), or as a result of one of the epidemics: cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, influenza or measles.

For example, my grandfather Walter’s maternal grandmother sadly died of pulmonary tuberculosis, aged just 42. His mother, Ann, also lost three siblings before their fifth birthday, followed by her eldest sister. Given the high mortality rates in Victorian England, some have assumed that the poor were somehow immune to the loss of their loved ones. This is soundly contested by Professor Julie-Marie Strange who demonstrates that poverty increased, rather than deadened, the grief of the poor, in her book about death, grief and poverty.[i]


The overwhelming emotional distress that leads to taking one’s life and the damaging fallout in those left behind haunts many families, including a branch of mine. Suicide was a criminal offence in England until 1961, but, where possible, juries gave the deceased the benefit of the doubt, allowing burial clubs to pay out on policies, enabling a ‘respectable’ funeral.

However, family stories, newspaper and coroner’s reports can provide enough detail to allow us to read between the records. For example, my Cousin Mary told me that Walter’s brother-in-law Fred took his own life because ‘he could not live with the guilt of an affair’. I didn’t need the newspaper report titled Rail Tragedy “Accidental” Verdict on Sheffield Foreman to understand the jury were being kind when they ruled Fred had ‘probably’ died by ‘tripping over a signal wire while crossing the line and had fallen in front of a goods train’ – especially when the railway constable was quoted as saying he ‘did not think [the man] had been knocked down by the train, because his hat was still on his head when he was found, showing that he must have fallen lightly’.[ii]

When I learnt of Fred’s tragic death, I hoped his wife Lucy escaped the recent finding that: ‘People who [lose] a partner to suicide [are] at greater risk of all mental disorders, including mood disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, alcohol use disorder, and self-harm.’[iii]

Fred’s son was a tender 16 years old when his father died violently. Modern research indicates today’s teens are three times more likely to commit suicide if a parent has done so, are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression, and it increases their risk of committing a violent crime, compared to teenagers with living parents.[iv] I don’t want to imagine how it was for Fred Jnr, especially if he was aware of his father’s extramarital affair or understood that his father, a WW1 hero, had ended his own life.  Hopefully he did not feel the burning shame associated with suicide in the 1930s.


Clues to your ancestor’s psychological inheritance can also be teased from military records. If you haven’t already done so, seek out dates of military service and see if you can link them to dates of conflict or war. Be alert for those who were taken prisoner. Then, as now, significant numbers of soldiers likely suffered from alcohol misuse, depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Walter’s cousin Theophilus Parker served in the Second Boer War in South Africa. In a letter dated 1899 to his younger brother, Theophilus wrote:

They are being buried at the rate of 5 a day, but we soldiers must not grieve. We only say so and so has snuffed it.

The apparent detachment with which Theophilus writes to his brother suggests a form of dissociation known as depersonalisation disorder. At the turn of the 19th century, such minimising may have been seen as an admirable masculine trait or even a life skill, rather than a way of coping with overwhelming trauma.

Soldiers are not the only victims. A recent study, which looked at adults whose parents had either evacuated or remained in Finland as children during World War II, found that daughters of female evacuees had the same high risk for mental health disorders as their mothers, even though they had not faced the same trauma.[v]

Women also suffered the mental consequences of war. Walter’s youngest sister Lucy, whose husband took his own life (see above), was later described by a grandchild as a rigid, cold woman. Her widowhood was not the only challenge to her mental health: for three years her son, Fred Jnr, was a Japanese prisoner of war. I can’t imagine living Lucy’s life without breaking.

Multiple Marriages

We often think of stepfamilies as being solely a modern post-divorce reality, but the word appears as far back as eighth-century England. For our Victorian ancestors, step-parents and blended families often followed the death of a spouse. For working-class families in particular, multiple marriages were a practical necessity, as men and women were mutually dependent on each other. It wasn’t unusual for a man to have three wives in his lifetime, as was the case for Walter’s Uncle James. Why not have a look and see if any men in your family married the housekeeper, or a nursemaid?

It seems natural that if today’s children are adversely affected by the death of a parent, then Victorian children would have also been affected.[vi][vii],[viii]


Census records, marriage records, children’s baptism records, electoral rolls, death certificates and more can alert us to migration and the potential for an emotional legacy. Migration is a natural part of human behaviour which has taken place over millennia. However, migrants are rarely a representative cross-section of the population. For example, many early 20th century Italian migrants were unmarried men in their teens or twenties and most early 20th century Russian migrants were Jews escaping persecution.

Migration often takes place during a particular stage of the life cycle. It is especially common for individuals to migrate on marriage or during adolescence or early adulthood.[ix],[x] And it’s not always a one-way trip. Ship records can reveal multiple crossings.

Escaping war, famine, disaster, drought, flood, ethnic cleansing, revolution, religious persecution, the slave trade, the death of one’s parents and low wages are obvious triggers for migration. Just as understandable are those seeking riches, from Australian and American gold or South African gold and diamonds, the growth of new industry; the prospect of adventure; or the tantalising hope of a better life. For example, the 19th century saw over 50 million people leave Europe for the Americas. [xi] Whatever the reason, it was not without psychological consequence.

Until my grandfather Walter Parker and his cousins left England, most Parker family changes of location appear to have been motivated by work, often from village to village, fairly close to their place of birth. Others can be plotted by the railway network. By asking ourselves why, when, how and with whom our relatives moved, we can open up a rich source of research. Here local study centres, historic societies and family history groups, research papers, dissertations, social history and history of place publications can be particularly fruitful.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article has given you some ideas about where to start in your own exploration of the psychological inheritance in your family. Our inheritance is as unique as our ancestors and their experiences, so I encourage you to share your thoughts about your family in the comments section below.

Next time, we’ll be looking at how the experiences summarised in this article can impact on future generations. Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss that article. If you would like to know more about what I discovered, please register an interest.

[i] Strange, J. (2006). Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain By Hilary Marland. History, 91(303), pp.471-471. (Professor of British History and Head of History at the University of Manchester, UK)

[ii] Sheffield Independent Saturday 02 May 1936, pg7, column 2.

[iii] Watts, V. (2017). Loss of Partner to Suicide Increases Risk of Mental Health Problems, Death. Psychiatric News, 52(9), pp.1-1. doi.org/10.1176/appi.pn.2017.4b14

[iv] Wilcox, H., Kuramoto, S., Lichtenstein, P., Långström, N., Brent, D. and Runeson, B. (2010). Psychiatric Morbidity, Violent Crime, and Suicide Among Children and Adolescents Exposed to Parental Death. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(5), pp.514-523.

[v] Santavirta, T, Santavirta, N, Gilman, SE. (2017) Association of the World War II Finnish Evacuation of Children with Psychiatric Hospitalization in the Next Generation. JAMA Psychiatry. Doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.3511

[vi] Glatt, A. (2018). A Death in the Family: The Differential Impacts of Losing a Loved One. Canadian Journal of Family and Youth, [online] 10(1), pp.99-108. Available at: https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/cjfy/index.php/cjfy/article/download/.../21347 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].

[vii] Behere, A., Basnet, P. and Campbell, P. (2017). Effects of family structure on mental health of children: A preliminary study. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 39(4), p.457. doi:  [10.4103/0253-7176.211767]

[viii] Perales, F., Johnson, S., Baxter, J., Lawrence, D. and Zubrick, S. (2016). Family structure and childhood mental disorders: new findings from Australia. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(4), pp.423-433. DOI 10.1007/s00127-016-1328-y

[ix] Maatsch S. (2013) Who Migrates? Theory, Lessons from the Past, and Latest Data. In: Central and East European Migrants’ Contributions to Social Protection. Studies in Economic Transition. Palgrave Macmillan, London https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137295811_2

[x] Migration and mental health: An interface H. G. Virupaksha, Ashok Kumar, and Bergai Parthsarathy Nirmala


[xi] David Eltis Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic slave trade

Helen Parker-Drabble
is a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.

Family history doesnt survive unless its in print, which is why 
 Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography
that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression. Helen is now not simply a genealogist, but a geneatherapist, investigating the roots of inherited traits, bringing them into the light and seeking to heal (and help others learn to heal) future generations.

Teasing Out Your Family’s Psychological Inheritance

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