It was the late Professor John Jinks (former head of the Department of Genetics at The University of Birmingham), if memory serves me right, who used to say that the invention of the bicycle, and its wider availability in the last quarter of the 19th century, did more for the genetic health of human communities than almost any other.
Variety is, so they say, the spice of life. And when it comes to genetics, it’s variety (specifically genetic variation) that keeps populations healthy. Too much inbreeding is not a good thing. Just look what happened to the Habsburgs.
So what’s the link between the bicycle and human genetics?
For millennia, human societies comprised isolated rural communities, with limited contact between them. Members of these communities tended to marry among themselves. I think it’s fair to assume there was some degree of inbreeding, only overcome by marriage with members of unrelated (or less related) communities.
But as the Industrial Revolution progressed and agriculture was increasingly mechanized, there were significant demographic changes as people moved into urban areas. By the end of the 19th century more people in England and Wales were living in towns and cities than in rural areas.
Having access to a bicycle, whether one lived in a rural village, a small market town, or a city, meant that a young man could court his sweetheart miles away. No more shank’s pony. More and more couples married who did not live in the same immediate community, and these communities became genetically more diverse. At least that’s the idea, in a nutshell, behind Jinks’s idea.
So I decided to look into the various geographical connections of my family.
Since 1980, my eldest brother Martin has developed a fascinating and comprehensive genealogy web site (just click on the image below) to record our family history. And I’ve delved into that database for this particular post.
While the ancestry on my father’s side of the family can be traced back five centuries, Martin has uncovered information to the beginning of the 19th century only on my mother’s. Her parents were Irish and came over to England at the turn of the 20th century.
However, let’s look at my mother’s side of the family first in a little more detail.
My mum, Lilian (actually Lily) Healy, was born in Shadwell, in the East End of London in April 1908, the second child (and second daughter) of Martin Healy and Ellen Lenane. Mum had five sisters and two brothers.
Mum married Dad, Frederick Jackson, in November 1936.
The Healy and Lenane families (both Catholic) came from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford respectively, some 75-80 miles apart. While the birth and baptism information going back five generations (to my 2nd great grandparents) is not as complete as desirable, there’s every reason to believe that marriages took place between families that lived close to one another.
But my grandparents, Martin and Ellen, did not meet in Ireland.
Born in 1876, Grandad Martin was the seventh of nine children, from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny. After serving in the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army (Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland at that time) in India (on the Northwest Frontier) and South Africa during the Boer War, he became a police constable in the East End of London. He met Ellen in London and they were married in Wimbledon in January 1905.
Grandma Ellen, born in 1878, near Youghal on the southern coast of Ireland in Co. Waterford, was the second eldest of 13 children, although we don’t know how many survived childhood. I also discovered, to my surprise (although thinking about it, I’m not sure why I should be surprised), that she was an Irish speaker.
Both families came through the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. But at what cost?
My mother once told me that some of her parents’ siblings emigrated to the USA. Others took up arms following the 1916 Easter Rising, and perhaps also during the Irish Civil War, on the Republican side. How much of this is true I have no way of confirming. But it adds another interesting dimension to the Healy-Lenane story.
Now let me turn to my father’s family.
My father, Fred Jackson, is from Staffordshire-Derbyshire stock. He was born in Burton on Trent in 1908. Grandad Tom (born in 1872 in Burton) was profoundly deaf since a young age, and never served in the armed forces. Grandma Alice (born 1880), was Tom’s second wife. Not only raising four children of her own (Winifred, Fred, Edgar, and Rebecca), she was stepmother to Alice and Bill.
Tom and Alice celebrated their Golden Wedding with family and friends in Hollington in 1954, and their Diamond Wedding in 1964 at the home of Wynne (their elder daughter and my dad’s elder sister) where they had moved after leaving their home of decades in Hollington.
Our ancestry can be traced through Grandma Alice Bull as far back as the late 15th century. I’m the 13th great-grandson of someone named Bull, whose son Thomas was born around 1505 in Ellastone on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. As shown on the map below (just zoom in for more details) many of my Bull ancestors (shown in red) came from Ellastone, Cubley, and Hollington (a five mile radius from Cubley) and, in the main, married spouses from the same village or one nearby. But there are a few examples where spouses came from much further away, and it would be interesting to know how the various individuals came to meet in the first place, never mind marrying.
The geographical origins of the Jacksons (shown in blue) are a little more widespread, although coming from southeast Derbyshire in the main. Grandad Jackson lived and worked in Burton, and after the death of his first wife Maria Bishop, I’m not sure how he came to know Alice (who was living in Hollington, about 12 miles on foot), marrying her two years after he became a widower.
Several generations of my forebears were agricultural laborers, some were coal merchants (maybe with a horse and cart for traveling around). Nothing particularly noteworthy.
We are fortunate (thanks to Martin’s impressive research – and others who are also researching many of the same family branches) to have such a fine record for our ancestry. Each time I look through the database I think about the life and times of these forebears of mine. What sort of lives did they really lead? How were they impacted by national events like the Civil War of the 1640s, or the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, for example. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his men right through the area where the Bull family lived, before reaching Derby. Or even international events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo for example, or the Crimean War of the 1850s.
Just plotting their birthplaces on a map (it’s the geographer in me) gives me a sense of belonging. At heart, I am a Staffordshire man.
I’ve also heard the quotation about bicycles increasing genetic mixing from Jinks. My problem with the statement, is that bicycles require superb roads/tracks, and that the demand than usage of these would precede the bicycle effect. More interestingly, do you know of any publications about increased genetic health of human populations arising from more outbreeding? There are various papers about extreme inbreeding. My general expectation would be that outside extremes (say an inbreeding coefficient of 5% or more, eg a single first-cousin marriage, or once-repeated second-cousin marriage), and genetic effect would be undetectable compared to other changes paralleling better communication, such as better food/nutrition, improved sanitation/cleanliness, scouting for sporting prowess, etc.
Thanks for the comment. As I was thinking about this particular blog post, the Jinks anecdote came to mind. I met with Brian Ford-Lloyd that same evening, and he confirmed that Jinks had spoken about this idea – but neither of us could remember under what circumstances, nor whether Jinks had really been serious. No, I have no information per se, nor know any publications about genetic health of human populations that experience some ‘inbreeding’. But it was a pretext to look into my own family origins in this way – which must reflect so many others in any case.
I have recently discovered that Thomas Bull is my 15th great-grandfather, maternal side. Would appreciate further communications with you if possible please. Especially relating to genetic inheritance factors.