Tracing Deaf Family History

Picture of Geraldine
Geraldine O’Halloran

“Tracing your Deaf family history can be harder than you think,” explains Geraldine O’Halloran during our interview, “but once you start it soon becomes addictive!”

Geraldine is fourth-generation Deaf on her mother’s side, and she grew up with her Deaf grandmother and Deaf mother, all signing BSL at home. “My grandfather was Deaf, and he signed too, although he was born to a hearing family – one of twelve children and the only one Deaf.”

There was much Geraldine already knew about her family. “My Grandmother was a flower seller for fifty years and had a flower stall in central London. She used to talk about her brother Charlie, who emigrated to Australia and died during the war. She knew he had drowned and used to sign BROTHER DROWNED, it upset her, but she didn’t know any more. The news of Charlie’s death reached the family via the local undertaker in Hoxton, Shoreditch, who knew everyone locally. The undertaker spotted my Grandmother walking past one day and waved at her to stop, he then handed her a letter. It was from her Aunt (who had also emigrated to Australia, in the late 1890s) and the letter said Charlie had died at sea in 1942 and for years, that was all the family knew.”

Geraldine, who lives in East London herself, was intrigued. Since retiring from deafPLUS in 2019, she has been researching her family history, piecing together the bits she knows and using official sources to complete the picture. “I began by taking an Ancestry DNA Test, which involved sending a small saliva sample to be analysed,” she explains. She was surprised by the results. “I couldn’t believe my origins are more Irish than I thought, even though I still have a strong East End heritage.”

“I couldn’t believe my origins are more Irish than I thought, even though I still have a strong East End heritage.”

Keen to separate fact from fiction, Geraldine then subscribed to a family history research site and started to find out a lot more about her ancestors. She was able to search the Australian Census and discovered through War records that Charlie was in the Merchant Navy and 52 years old when he died. Tragically, he was working onboard a hospital ship that was torpedoed off the coast of Japan and he drowned along with 262 other crewmen.

Tracing your Deaf history has its challenges, Geraldine explains. The 1860 Census, for example, details all sorts of information about those recorded at the time, including where people lived, their occupation, age and also whether someone was Deaf. However, some Census do not say if someone is Deaf and information is patchy, so it’s not easy to identify your Deaf relatives if this is the case. If there are inconsistencies, you have to research other sources, such as workhouse records or old files from Deaf schools (where available). Geraldine had traced her great and great-great-grandparents who used to live in Whitechapel and Cable Street – areas that her and her sister still live and work near today. “We often talk about how we walk the same streets as our ancestors,” comments Geraldine.

Notes from the Corner, Friday 12th March 2021

Census Day is on Sunday 21 March 2021, in Northern Ireland, England and Wales, Deaf people can record their first language as BSL or ISL. Scotland’s Census will take place in 2022.

Check out Deaf history on the British Deaf Association’s archive at