Editor’s note: By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
There is nothing wrong with travel for travel’s sake. Exploring places you’ve never been is usually rewarding.
But adding a personal mission elevates a trip and gives it a whole other level of significance.
That was the case for my friend Paul Gereffi and his wife Terry on a trip to England and Ireland to celebrate his 70th birthday in October 2022. To mark the milestone, Paul set out to learn more about his mother’s English heritage.
Many people are using genealogy research companies such as Ancestry.com to travel back into family history. Through Ancestry.com, Gereffi had discovered a large wing of his father’s family that he’d been unaware of.
Delving into his mother’s side, he knew that her father, Francis Willie Perry, was born in 1887 in Wiltshire, a county in southwest England. Ancestry.com further narrowed down his grandfather’s origin to the town of Pewsey.
With the aid of local officials in Pewsey, Gereffi was able to locate the street where his grandfather lived before emigrating to the United States in 1910 and walk the same paths his ancestor tread more than a century ago.
While in England, the Gereffis had another mission. Paul had been fascinated with the Beatles since Beatlemania swept the States during his youth. They arrived in Liverpool , hometown of the Fab Four, on Paul Gereffi’s birthday, which he happens to share with the late John Lennon.
Considering his mother’s English heritage, he’d always clung to the hopeful notion that, “I think we’re related to the Beatles.”
Here’s what he learned:
A Magical Ancestry Tour of England
By Paul Gereffi
Upon entering Pewsey, we first visited the church where my grandfather was baptized. St. John the Baptist church has been on the same spot since the 13th century, but some final structures were added in 1861. It looks like it hasn’t changed much since then.
The large wooden door was open, so we pushed it and went inside. The spacious church was empty except for us. After examining the interior of the church, the altar, baptismal font, and other rooms, we decided to search further into my grandfather’s past.
We visited the local Pewsey Heritage Center, whose staff consisted of three long-time residents, and they kindly offered to assist us in our search.
They determined from the 1901 census that my grandfather and his family shared accommodations with several other families on Raffin Lane. They narrowed the search to a cluster of historical thatched-roof cottages built in the 1850’s and suggested that we walk down a series of paths that went behind existing homes and businesses.
With names like Wilderness Lane and Hidden Row, they would be the way my grandfather and his family would have traversed back and forth to town, markets and church.
Trek back into family history
They drew us a map and off we went. After asking directions of locals, all of whom were very interested in our search, crossing a bridge, walking behind a soccer field, and cutting through a break in some hedges, we were able to make our way to the home(s) of my ancestors.
It was very emotional and fulfilling to imagine my grandfather walking those same paths into town as a boy and young man. He emigrated to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1910, where my mother was later born, then to Pittsburgh. He died there in 1949, three years before I was born.
Pewsey had a population of 1,500 at that time, and today has 4,000 residents. According to the census, many of the female residents listed their occupation as domestics or servants, and laborers or horsemen for the men. Like so many before and since, my grandfather decided his future was limited in England and there was more opportunity in America, so he emigrated.
Growing up, I never thought much about my English heritage. My father’s parents were born in Italy and that dominated our family life. My mom learned to make spaghetti sauce and meatballs and other Italian dishes. Yearly summer vacation trips from our home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where we moved when I was a toddler, to our hometown of Pittsburgh meant huge homemade Italian meals at my grandmother’s house.
We were Italian and proud of it! Besides, who ever heard of someone fondly reminiscing about a great English dinner?
Inspired by British invasion
All that changed in 1964 when the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion of rock groups to the U.S. Watching the lads from Liverpool perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was an awakening moment for me at the age of 12. I remember asking my mother, “Hey, wasn’t your father from England?” When she answered yes, I tried to convince her that maybe, just maybe, we could be related to one of the Beatles.
Of course, she said it was highly unlikely, a million-to-one shot, and there was no way we could ever know. After nagging her for days, I got her to admit that “technically” it was possible.
That’s all I needed, so I ran with it, fantasizing that we “could be” related to one of the Beatles. I bragged to my sixth-grade classmates that I was “part-English,” I even had the same birthday, Oct. 9, as John Lennon.
To celebrate my 70th birthday, Terry and I planned a trip to Ireland and England. Part of the plan was to visit Liverpool on Oct. 9 and do the Beatles tour. We arrived at John Lennon International Airport, where we were greeted by a yellow submarine sculpture just outside the exit, a representation of the submarine featured in the 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine,” inspired by the Beatles’ 1966 song of the same name.
Much like my hometown of Pittsburgh, Liverpool is no longer the grimy, industrial town of years past. As a seaport, Liverpool handled imports and exports through its busy harbor. In the 1960’s, the Beatles became its most famous export.
Bigger-than-life statues of the Beatles are a feature on the riverside walk near the docks and Beatles memorabilia is sold everywhere.
Lyrical references from real places
We stayed in the Cavern Quarter, near the city’s famous Royal Albert Dock and close to the river Mersey. The Cavern Quarter, home of the Cavern Club where the Beatles got their start and still features quality musical acts, is an enclave of pubs, nightclubs and restaurants, and offered a lively atmosphere, with lots of young people and 30-somethings cavorting in the streets until the wee hours.
We dove right in and took tours that included drive-by visits to the homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in addition to stops at Penny Lane (yes, there really was a barber who showed photographs, a banker with a motorcar, and a fire station nearby, and the buildings are still there) and Strawberry Field, a Victorian-style home and garden where John used to play as a child. George Harrison and Ringo Starr lived a bit outside of town. A visit to one of the several Beatles museums was a highlight of the Liverpool stop.
Then we made the drive towards Pewsey to connect with my past.
Window into family history
As Ancestry.com continues with its monthly updates and builds its data base of those who offer their DNA, our family tree has blossomed to almost 10,000 cousins. I’m still hoping that one day I might get an Ancestry “hint” that features the names Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starkey.
A million-to-one shot, like my mother said, but who knows?