YOU'D want a good lunatic in your family, wouldn't you? Or a woman of easy virtue who kept appearing before the justices for lewd behaviour. Or at least a rogue who was always being jailed for being drunk and disorderly.

I'd accept, at a pinch, a dodgy butler who fell from grace after stealing the silver. Hopefully, he'd be sent scuttling off to Tasmania on a convict ship.

Or even a serving girl who was knocked up by the squire's disreputable youngest son and fell on hard times.

The trouble is that my relatives, who have been busily researching the Perkins family, have not been able to find a single character among the ancestors of that calibre at all.

Not one black sheep appears in the family tree they sent me, despite their enormously painstaking research.

Why wasn't anyone bringing disgrace to the family name? There wasn't even a bastard child, for heaven's sake.

The Perkins men, it appears, were all good solid London citizens - capital fellows who married, had children, served their country in times of war and came home safely. The Perkins women were respectable, I'll have you know, and let no one down.

My last hope of Perkins shame was one missing link in a branch of the family tree. The researchers had got back as far as Alice Perkins, a Victorian if my memory serves me correctly.

(The Perkins genes are not too clever when it comes to remembering. I think we descended from elephants rather than apes.) But Alice's dad proved promisingly elusive.

Could there yet be a dastardly scound- rel or a good scandal to be had?

Uncovering your family history is a hugely popular hobby today and it is fascinating to speculate on your forebears but, as BBC1's riveting Who Do You Think You Are? programme has proven, it can bring with it mighty shocks.

What can start as just a curious name on a piece of paper can trigger all sorts of complex emotions when you start to put flesh on their hard experiences and ordeals.

Who can forget the tears shed on TV in 2006 by tough presenter Jeremy Paxman when he discovered the poverty his great-grandmother had experienced - a widow battling to look after her 11 children with the threat of the poorhouse looming large?

And what about the heartbreaking discoveries made by Six O'Clock News presenter Natasha Kaplinsky? Her great-grandparents and other family members - including children - were murdered by Nazi troops in a small town in Belarus after it was invaded in the Second World War.

The details revealed to Natasha of how they died were almost beyond belief. Your heart goes out to her for how her family, like many others, must have suffered.

The reality is that stories of family distress not too far in the past can be harrowing when the truth is uncovered.

But when you dig back far enough into history, the struggles that your ancestors faced, rather oddly, seem less real. Which is why a few lunatics and scallywags on the Perkins family tree wouldn't have gone amiss.

One day I hope someone will start looking at my mother's family tree and the old fellas and colleens of County Cork will produce some decent skeletons in the geneological cupboard.

Meanwhile, the diligent relatives on my father's side finally cracked that riddle of who was Alice's Victorian father.

And what did he do for a living?

An adventurer who sailed the seven seas, perhaps? Or a missionary who ended up in a cannibal's pot? Or a member of Royalty who sired offspring on the wrong side of the sheets?

None of them, alas.

Alice Perkins's dad was an Edward Chapman. And he made spectacles for a living.


Isn't that just typical?