Colin Rieley with his bearer and his sister Kristine in the 1930s in India.Abigail Rieley/Findmypast

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Hitting a wall is an inevitable part of researching your family tree – but sometimes breaking one down will take you in a completely unexpected direction.

When I was a little girl I knew my father had been born in India. I knew that the first time he saw snow, when he was sent to England to go to school, he thought it was raining sugar. I also knew that my surname came from Ireland, along with my grandfather. That was the assumption I had when I started to research my father’s family and it led me straight into one of those brick walls.

My mum once told me that my father had applied for an Irish passport, but the birth records he had needed had been lost in the Four Courts fire. Working for Findmypast, I’m well aware of the records lost in the Four Courts fire during the Irish Civil War. I also know that sometimes you have to take family stories with a pinch of salt. Sometimes romance gets in, facts get forgotten – sometimes what you thought you knew just doesn’t add up.

I happily went with the story that the records of generations of Rieleys had gone up in smoke in 1922 but surely there would be something in the parish records or even the 1901 Irish census? But it seemed as if my father’s family began with my grandfather. I couldn’t find any records before his marriage to my grandmother.

All that changed when I started looking in the British in India Collection on Findmypast. Suddenly I found record after record, ancestor after ancestor. It soon became clear that my father would not have qualified to play on the Irish soccer team. His father had not in fact been born in Ireland but in Madras, in British India. Generation after generation was born in Madras and they married into other families who had been born and lived in India. As the branches grew and intertwined it was clear that this was a thriving community who were very much rooted in the country they lived in. A far cry from the story I had always believed, that my grandfather worked for a few years in India before returning home to England.

The earliest Rieley in Madras appeared to be Patrick, a school master at the Free School. In May 1819 he married Sophia Hunter in St Mary’s Church in Madras. Sophia is described as being “of the Female Orphan Asylum”. She was probably one of the orphans. This small detail might be hold the key to the confusion. Why my father might have been told his families records had gone up in smoke in Ireland. Why my great uncle, in the 1920 US Census, says he was born in Ireland like his parents despite his birth record, like my grandfather’s and my great grandfather’s showing that place of birth as Madras.

Many of the orphans in the Female Orphan Asylum in Madras would have had mixed parentage. In the early 19th Century and earlier, Irish men, all European men, arriving in India were encouraged to marry Indian women. It invested them in the future of the country where they were planning to make their fortunes. The children of these marriages were generally known as Anglo Indian, or Eurasian. Before the Indian mutiny in 1857 to be Anglo Indian meant access to good steady jobs in the civil service or the army. After the Mutiny that attitude shifted. The Anglo Indians were no longer the privileged children of the Empire but its shameful secret. As the stigma grew then those who were born with light enough skin tried to “pass” as European, cutting themselves off from families that could prove different.

It can be difficult to identify your Anglo Indian ancestors. They will have European names, they will probably define themselves as English or Irish in censuses. But there are tell-tale signs. Often it’s in the jobs. Certain jobs were mainly done by Anglo Indians - they ran the railways for example. A lot are jobs that are responsible but not in charge. From the point of view of the English administration, the Anglo Indians inhabited a similar space to the Anglo Irish. People to keep close, and happy, but who ultimately could not be trusted because they were “Other”. It’s impossible not to see those comparisons when you look into this world, especially with that Irish perspective.

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