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Britishness redefined

Wednesday, 7th January, 2009

Press release from Ancestry UK:

Half of Brits have immigrant ancestry yet few of us know about it – new research from

  • Brits unaware of foreign ancestry as world celebrates International Day of Migrants
  • Most common countries of origin are Ireland, France and Germany
  • Of the 30 million Brits descended from immigrants, 25 million (84 per cent) know nothing of their foreign ancestry

There may be little love lost between us Brits and our neighbours across the channel, but new research from leading family and social history website reveals that we are more closely related than we’d like to think.

One in 10 Brits is of French or German descent and half of us can trace our roots outside of the UK2. Yet as the world celebrates International Day of Migrants (18 December), the majority of Brits (84 per cent) admit knowing nothing of their immigrant ancestry.

And yet despite being unaware of our immigrant ancestry, we practice a variety of foreign traditions every Christmas. For example, the Germans brought us the custom of decorating the Christmas tree, feasting on Christmas Turkey originated in the United States and kissing under the mistletoe started in Scandinavia.

Our religious practices also reflect the diversity of our ancestry. In addition to Christmas, Britons celebrate 12 other holy festivals in December including the Muslim festivals of Eid al-Adha and Waqf-al-Arafa and the Jewish ‘festival of lights’, Hanukkah.

With so many oblivious to their foreign roots, is calling on the public to take advantage of the holiday period to research their own family stories. A wide range of historical records are now online, enabling amateur family historians and experts alike to uncover millions of stories of multi-cultural lineage, as well as fascinating histories of notable British personalities:

  • Camilla Parker-Bowles – the Duchess of Cornwall is descended from a French-Canadian carpenter named Zacharie Cloutier
  • Boris Johnson – the Mayor of London has uncovered a wealth of immigrant blood in his family tree, including ancestors from Turkey, France and America
  • Helen Mirren – the actress famed for role as Queen of England, Helen was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. Her father was from a long line of Russian Noblemen
  • Victoria Beckham – the Spice Girl and style icon is descended from German immigrants who came to Britain in the 19th Century
  • Winston Churchill – war hero and past Prime Minister may be the embodiment of British stiff upper lip, but was actually half American (mother’s side)
  • Christopher Carandini Lee – the Lord of the Rings star is of Italian decent from his mother’s side. Managing Director Olivier Van Calster comments: “So much of Britain’s cultural and political history stems from its immigrant heritage, which makes it even more staggering when we learn how few of us are actually aware of our foreign ancestry.

“For many families, Christmas is the one time in the year when they all come together, which explains why it’s one of the most active periods for family history research. If there are rumours in your family of foreign ancestry, this could be the perfect time to find out more about them.”

Britons’ foreign descendents originate from the following countries3:

  1. Ireland – 23 per cent
  2. France – 10 per cent
  3. Germany – 9 per cent
  4. Scandinavia – 6.5 per cent
  5. Canada – 5 per cent
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