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Most of us have gone up in the world, new survey reveals

It's the hidden time bomb that anyone who decides to look into their family history risks setting off - but secretly longs to know about.

Do I have ancestors who were rich and famous? Could I be living a life of luxury, but for a quirk of ancestral fate? Have I fulfilled my destiny?

Most people would probably prefer not to know if they'd narrowly missed out on a lottery winner's lifestyle through a single wrong-turn by a wayward ancestor!

But the good news, according to a new study by Friends Reunited's family history-building website Genes Reunited, is that you're very much more likely to discover you've gone up in the world than down. Or at least to have stayed much the same.

Nearly 900 Genes Reunited members contributed to the findings. A minority had traced family members all the way back to 1500 or beyond, but, reflecting the experiences of most people who research their history, most had gone back no further than 1700. They were asked to reveal whether they have tracked down relations who were significantly better or worse off financially than they are now, and whether their social status seems to have gone up or down.

The results suggest that only two out of 10 people who trace their family trees will discover an ancestor who was very much BETTER off in purely financial terms than they are now - allowing for inflation of course!

But four out of 10 will not discover much change in the family fortunes as they work back, whilst the remaining four will find an ancestor who was very much WORSE off than them.

Social status is even less likely to have taken a steep downward turn than wealth. Just one in 10 is likely to discover their social status gone down in comparison with the most distant ancestor they trace, half will find they've gone up in the world and four in 10 will have stayed the same.

The chances of discovering a celebrity in your past life are perhaps higher than you'd think - at one in 10. That's the number of people who have discovered ancestors who are 'in any way famous'.

The interesting twist with all this is that the further back you follow your family line, the more likely you are to find a relation right at the end of it who is much wealthier, better known and classier than you are. Just under half the people who have tracked their trees all the way back to 1500 and beyond discover that the most distant ancestor they've traced was, comparatively, MUCH better off than they are now.

Anthony Adolph, an expert genealogist who has studied family ancestry professionally for over sixteen years, explained why: "In the past, land and wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Most people were worse off than the majority are today. If you trace back to 1800 or 1700, therefore, you are likely, on average, to find poor ancestors.

"The same would be true if you could trace those same lines back to 1500, but because the quality and number of records starts deteriorating before 1700, few lines can be followed so far back. The ancestors who tend to be easiest to trace back to 1500 and beyond are those who had some money and who thus left more of a paper trail. Therefore, if you have got as far as 1500, it's most likely that you have traced back to a line of wealthy ancestors - whose affluence is likely to make you feel you've gone down in the world.

"It's very hard to trace ancestors back into the Middle Ages unless they were noble or even royal. Several million people - including the Queen and George W. Bush - can trace one of their thousands of ancestral lines back to the English royal family - to Edward III in particular. Her Majesty and Mr Bush may or may not feel that their fortunes have improved since the Middle Ages, but for the rest of us the distant past is bound to look more impressive by comparison".

From landed gentry to Sainsbury's

Tracey O'Connor, who was brought up on a large council estate in Leicester and has worked at Sainsbury's for the past 22 years, is one of the minority who have discovered her family's fortunes did take a turn for the worse. She says: "I was born working class with not a hope of a servant in sight."

Having traced her mother's side of the family back to 1742, she's discovered that until the late 1800s her relatives included wealthy lawyers and magistrates and a gentleman farmer. But agricultural changes meant the farm was lost and by 1891, after a move to Rutland, Tracey's ancestors were in the workhouse.

Tracey says: "It seems my ancestors lived in a different world to me. I'm not jealous of what they had as life pans out as it does, but I do think it would be fun to go back in time to see what it might have been like".

Married by Nelson's dad

Lynn Sharpe, a civil servant from Hornchurch, Essex, believes she is much better off than her ancestors. She has traced them back to 1787 and discovered many cousins through Genes Reunited she is now in regular contact with. They had mixed fortunes. Some were agricultural labourers while others were shopkeepers, in particular fishmongers and butchers.

Earlier this year, she was delighted to learn that her great-great-great-grandparents were married by Lord Nelson's father Edmund Nelson. It's tragic to know that some of my ancestors were orphaned and in work houses. Equally, we were thrilled to learn about our link to Nelson!"

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Notes to the Editor - About Genes Reunited

Genes Reunited was launched in 2002 as a sister-site to the Internet phenomenon Friends Reunited. Since then it has grown to become the UK's largest genealogy website.

It marked a revolution in genealogy and ancestry by combining them with Internet social-networking. Members are able to build their family tree by posting it on the site and investigating which ancestors they share with other members. They can also search historical records such as census, birth, death, marriage and military records.

It currently has over 11 million members and over 750 million names listed. One new name is added to the site every single second.