History is Personal 1916-2016

History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.

I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.

The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.

Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.

There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.

 

One of the Anonymous

A life getting by

Matthew Bashforth (1876-1941) was the youngest child of Thomas Bashforth and Bridget (formerly McDonald, née Drury), born in Sheffield in a room at the back of the Arundel Castle public house on 8 April 1876. He was the youngest of seven children from three marriages. His father, Thomas, had been widowed with two boys when his first wife died of consumption. His mother, Bridget, had been widowed with one son when her first husband was killed in the Oaks Colliery disaster. Thomas and Bridget went on to have three girls and Matthew as they moved around in the constant hunt for work. Thomas, born in Barnsley of an equally itinerant father, was a blacksmith by trade but would turn his hand to anything involving metal, mostly foundry work, but opportunities were volatile.

Thomas thought he found settled work with Cammell & Co at their Dronfield works, making steel rail mainly for export to the growing global network of railway construction. Unfortunately, the domestic rail links were not good enough to get the products cheaply to the coast and, in 1883, the company relocated to Workington. There was no package of assistance. If you wanted to keep your job, you paid your own way and took your families by whatever means you could afford. Before leaving for Workington, his mother took Matthew to the RC Church in Sheffield where he was baptised on 2 September 1883.

Before the decade was out, both parents were dead and the family was scattered. Matthew became as itinerant as his father and grandfather. He next appeared in the public record, coming up to 15, working as a Blacksmith’s Assistant to his older half-brother, James Bashforth in Birmingham in 1891. If this was an attempt to give Matthew a trade, it didn’t work out. He would never be more than a labourer.

By 1901 he was living in Barrow in Furness, where his older sister Mary Ann and her husband James McIlheron lived. He worked as a general labourer in the shipyard Gun Shop and lodged with an Irish widow, along with several of his workmates.

On 3 May 1909 at Doncaster magistrate’s court, he was sentenced to 7 day’s hard labour in Wakefield prison for ‘lodging out’, that is for vagrancy and sleeping rough. It is not recorded as to why or where the ‘offence’ took place, but he was listed as a steel dresser by trade, so had been on the move again.

Come 1911 he was in a lodging house on Eldon Street, Tuxford, near Retford, in Nottinghamshire, aged 33, still single and working as a general labourer. The census description was ‘Steam Trasher’ (sic) and there were several more lodgers of the same sort from many different parts of the country. Why so many were needed to work with a threshing machine in spring time, I don’t know.

At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Matthew was 38 and enlisted. Whether this was from any great patriotic motive or was simply a case of ‘nowt better to do’, is not a matter of record. His medal index card shows that he served initially as Private 19459 West Yorkshire Regiment, going overseas from 9 October 1915 to the ‘Balkans’ – which was probably Gallipoli via Mudros in Greece. He later transferred as Private 210454 Labour Corps. He got his campaign medals, but that is all we know about his war.

Tuxford seems to have formed an attraction for Matthew. The likelihood is that Matthew remained in Nottinghamshire after his work in 1911 or came back there after the war. When the listing of citizens was completed in 1939 he was working as a chimney sweep and living at 66 Eldon Street.

Matthew died there on 15 October 1941 aged 65, of acute bronchial pneumonia. The death was registered by an Edith A. Robinson, present at death. She was a divorced woman who lived at the same address along with John Stevens, a permanent way labourer. Matthew never married, but he died as he had lived – among his own kind.

On the face of it, this sort of life is never celebrated in public and I feel that such anonymity is undeserved. We are exhorted to think that the world is created by entrepreneurs, statesmen and women, cultural celebrities, great leaders, inventors, TV personalities, and so on. But, in truth, what would any of these people do were it not for the millions of anonymous nobodies? Their world would collapse around them. It would disappear in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t exist in the first place. For better or for worse, men and women like Matthew are the bedrock foundations of society in all its aspects. Think about it.

I feel two connections to Matthew. On the one hand he is a distant relative, the younger brother of my great-grandmother. I have photographs of her but nothing of Matthew. The public records from which I have reconstructed his narrative are a fragmentary surrogate for his physicality and serve to emphasise his personal ‘silence’. On the other hand, I share his situation, for I too have principally been involved in ‘getting by’, in meeting the daily challenges of life, albeit with the advantage of some hard-won workers’ rights. Now under threat. For all my present day materiality seems more rich and complex at this moment, it is just as ephemeral and in 70 years after my death will be as fragmentary. Yet we both have helped in our small, individual ways to shape the world around us, not as individuals so much as part of a greater whole. It makes you think what more we might achieve…

 

The Secret History of My Family 4

In times when there is enormous political and social pressure to reduce or remove welfare benefits, the fourth episode of BBC 2’s Secret History of my Family was compelling viewing. It managed to achieve a balanced survey of some of the arguments without moralising about families in the past or the present. In that regard, this was probably the best episode.

Social welfare has been a contentious subject politically since the Elizabethan Poor Laws at the end of the 16th century. It was a moral problem long before that, when benefits were charitable foundations attached to churches and monasteries. The rights and wrongs of handouts and who ‘deserved’ them or not was only briefly taken out of the hands of the moralisers with the introduction of State pensions and the family allowance during the 20th century.

The programme centred on Susan Nelson, a mother of three children in 1903 who had lost her husband in the South African Wars. She tried her best to avoid going into the workhouse but when all means ran out turned to the Charitable Organisation Society (COS) for help. She was placed under the supervision of Margaret Martin, one of the lady volunteers, who was the daughter of a well-to-do solicitor. The COS and Margaret were motivated by a desire to help, subject to the avoidance of ‘pauperism’, what we now hear described as welfare dependency. Interpretations of who was deserving were heavily dependent on moral behaviour. When it was discovered that Susan had shacked up with her brother in law, the three children were taken away and farmed out to distant relatives along with any charitable assistance.

The programme restricted itself to the fate of one child out of the three, Charlotte, and what happened to her and her own descendants. She was eventually rehoused from Deptford to Kent and remained estranged from her mother, as was her son. He himself suffered from a divorce and became estranged from his son and daughter, until reunited by this programme.

Susan meanwhile had three more children with her brother in law Nathaniel, out of wedlock. There were no more benefits from the COS and, after a dreadful incident between Susan and a drunken Nathaniel in which the youngest child ended up in the river before being rescued, she deserted her children to fend for themselves. The programme followed two of the sons and their descendants.

Nathaniel junior found a trade, but life remained hard with a mouth to mouth existence at the mercy of the ‘tally man’. Alfred, who had almost drowned, worked as a ferryman and labourer. During WW2 the children were evacuated to Durham where one son, Alec, acquired a strong local accent. He was teased about that, he passed the 11 plus for grammar school where he was teased mercilessly for lacking a decent uniform. He left to work as a carpenter on parental demands, but worked at night school and eventually also moved out of the area and encouraged his own children to progress through education. Meanwhile another of Alfred’s sons, Alex, deserted his wife leaving her to bring up 5 children on benefits, two of whom carried on that tradition as unmarried mothers with five children apiece.

The sole descendant of the charitable lady Margaret Martin to appear, a great-great niece, might have been expected to moralise about the unmarried mothers, but she was intensely understanding and had herself worked in birth control charities in America. She was the end of her own family line, while the descendants of Susan Nelson had created a massive extended family network, largely characterised by a rough and ready working class culture.

There was much sympathy for Susan Nelson and it is sad that we did not hear much about what happened to her – though she had been known to older members of the family. Yes, there is a working-class argument against welfare dependency, but it is based on the knowledge that it is generally better for all to have the limited independence of wages and that surviving on benefits is just that – survival. We may not be totally prisoners of our circumstances, as stories in this episode showed, but when horizons are lowered and ambitions discouraged by the surrounding culture, choices are less free than the well-off folk might imagine, particularly for women. In those instances, ‘welfare dependency’ is just another way of ‘getting by’ and ‘making shift’ – what those dependent on their labour have done since time immemorial.

The Secret History of My Family Part 4 – NOT

I was looking forward to reviewing the final part of the BBC2 series, The Secret History of My Family today. Unfortunately that will have to wait. Unlike the privileged Tim Dowling from the Guardian newspaper, I didn’t get a preview version to watch. From his review today it seems that is a pity as it addresses the contemporary topic of ‘benefits dependency’ – something that has troubled the well off and powerful since at least the time of the Elizabethan poor laws, if not long before.

Unfortunately, the BBC seems to have a rather skewed idea of its priorities these days. Instead of SHMF 4 the less privileged among us had the option to watch a one hour tribute to the comedian Ronnie Corbett, who died yesterday aged 85. He was a great laugh, but come on, the tribute could have waited a day or two instead of being rushed out as if it had been compiled well in advance – not tasteful at all. However, it seems to be part of a pattern at the BBC to put the relatively trivial before the serious.

A few weeks ago the BBC was running a police procedural in the Shetland series based on the novels of Ann Cleeves. It was a particularly moving serial, touching on some very difficult issues to do with rape and violence against women, but the BBC chose to interrupt the series, not once but twice, in order to screen football matches. It makes no sense either in terms of the values of public service broadcasting, or in terms of ‘Ratings R Us’.

Winge! Winge!

PS – I opted to read more of the wonderful book on existentialism by Sarah Bakewell, ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ instead. Brilliant stuff.

 

Review: ‘The Secret History of My Family’, parts 2 and 3

Watching further episodes of the BBC family history series ‘The Secret History of My Family’, it is possible to discern that something more nuanced and interesting may be trying to break away from the demands of the TV’s need for a specific story-cum-message.

The first episode was clunky in its approach to the issue of class as a ladder that one may or may not climb. The second episode continued with the narrow idea that social mobility meant moving up the class ladder, but brought in a story line centred on convergence as lower class people made good, while well-to-do families fell on hard times. It was perhaps best illustrated by the woman from one side who got a job as a bus driver, while one from the other side became a lorry driver. What all had in common was the experience of having to ‘make shift’ to survive in the world, whether escaping from the workhouse or trying to rescue the former country house. It was easier to empathise with the human aspects of the stories. However, there remained one glaring omission. What happened to the mother and the four children who did go into the workhouse? Deafening silence.

The third episode focussed on two families from Salford descended from a period of gang warfare in the 1890s, and the descendants of the magistrate who condemned their forebears to the local jail. It was hard to feel much empathy for the young thugs trapped in the narrow culture of the time and place. At least there was no disguising the resentment and anger, the confining narrow horizons of working class life, and disputed ideas of what constituted justice, legal and social. Alongside the refrain of the importance of kinship and family in working class solidarity (a mixed blessing as some of us might recall) there was once again the concept of ‘make shift’, of ‘make do’, of improvisation, of ‘getting on in the world’. This has nothing to do with climbing the class structure ladder, but everything to do with wellbeing, material and cultural. While one line of descent from the magistrate did exceedingly well, another was characterised by male desertion of the family, leaving the women to pick up the pieces and ‘make shift’. There was, however, the rather clunky contrast of the two different experiences of family life – working class family built on the extended kinship network, middle class based on putting professional life before personal and emotional needs. It was moving, and it may tell us something about the UK’s political class and their incompetent attempts to take up the ‘family life’ refrain, but it was a little too crudely drawn. There needed to be a closer examination of the narrowness of working class family life, rather than seeing it uncritically as a ‘good thing’. It was hinted at but not as strongly drawn out as it might have been.

As the series has progressed, it has brought to the fore aspects of history as everyday life. If the characters keep uttering phrases such as ‘make shift’, then they are echoing Michel de Certeau and what he defines as ‘bricolage’, the ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to life of the majority[1]. They may not make history in the sense that political decision-makers imagine themselves doing, but they do make history in the sense that they create the world in its finer details. It is a different sort of history, a true ‘history from below’, though one that nevertheless links to the political counterpart represented by those movements that have eschewed the cult of ‘leadership’ such as syndicalism, feminism, and the libertarian socialism of no longer fashionable thinkers such as Cornelius Castoriadis[2]. Family history is proving one way into this radical form of history, for too long below the horizon of most historians.

 

[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (University of California Press, 1988)

[2] See for example: Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1991) or World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis and the Imagination, (Stanford University Press, 1997)

David Hey: In Memoriam

Sad to hear of the death of David Hey aged 77. He was the pre-eminent exponent of the linking of family history practice to the development of local and social history, most especially in his writings associated with his native South Yorkshire.

I first became acquainted with his work while studying part time for MA in Local History at the University of York under Jim Sharpe and Ted Royle from 1999-2003. His edition of The History of Myddle was one of the texts, full of named individuals of varying ranks and their potted histories. This was history with a very human face. I had enrolled on the course already thinking of the importance of family history research as a tool in exploring local and social history, in which I was encouraged by my tutors and then inspired by David Hey’s work.

Christopher Dyer in his obituary (The Guardian, 23 March 2016) comments that David Hey ‘was unusual among professional historians in responding to a development that colleagues tended to regard with indifference or even disdain’. This arrogance towards ‘amateur’ and family historians has fortunately abated to a large degree in the past 20 years, though it remains entrenched in most quarters. David Hey worked assiduously as a lecturer, writer and in his involvement with various popular history associations such as the Local Population Studies Society (LPSS) and the British Association for Local History (BALH) to dissipate this erroneous attitude. As a result, his voice was no longer solitary and he leaves behind a legacy of grateful students and colleagues.

My bookshelves hold a half dozen of his books and I would happily add further volumes. As well as the oft reprinted Oxford Companion to Local and Family History perhaps the most generally useful of his works is Family Names and Family History (2000) which updated everything that went before on the study of English surnames and remains (alongside work by and with his friend and colleague George Redmonds) the best demolisher of myths on the subject.

Of equal interest to me, with a surname that evolved in South Yorkshire, are all those volumes exploring the history of the area. One of my favourites is Packmen, Carriers and Packhorse Roads (2001) which gave me many clues as to how my ancestors may have crossed into Yorkshire from Cheshire and Staffordshire in late medieval times. Another inspiration is The Fiery Blades of Hallamshire (1991) with its evocation of the Sheffield area through my favourite period of history (1660-1740) and which draws on his own influences from Leicester University’s ground-breaking department on Local History. There are histories of Sheffield, wider Hallamshire and his native district of Penistone.

I will not be alone in mourning his loss, whether it be the enthusiastic amateur researchers he helped in Ecclesfield many years ago, or his more recent friends and associates. I will particularly remember the all too rare occasions when I met and spoke with him for his natural generosity of spirit. I will continue to treasure the legacy of his published work and hope that my small contribution adds to the momentum he set going. Thanks, David!

Review: ‘The Secret History of My Family’

What a disappointment! The concept of the first episode of the BBC TV series, aired on Thursday 10 March was brilliant, aided by the serendipity of three pickpocketing sisters from Shoreditch in the East End of London whose descendants could be traced. From concept to realisation it was all downhill.

Firstly, the balance of the stories was skewed. More than 30 minutes was devoted to the descendants of Caroline Gadbury transported to Van Diemen’s Land around 1836 – in fact half of this was, strictly speaking, the descendants of the son of her second husband from his first marriage. Around 20 minutes was given over to the descendants of Sarah Eliza Gadbury transported to New South Wales, who ‘behaved herself’ and married well. Less than 5 minutes was devoted to the descendants of Mary Ann Gadbury who was sentenced to 6 months in jail and whose descendants remained in or around Shoreditch.

Secondly, the reasons behind this skewed balance involve intellectual sleight of hand. The programme was supposedly about class and social mobility, and there were some superficial cultural comparisons made between Tasmania (a predominantly convict population), New South Wales (with a powerful free settler class aping the British upper classes) and Britain with its settled class rigidities. But this was on the basis of ignoring completely the indigenous Australian population, especially in the case of Tasmania, where it was virtually wiped out and a highly selective approach to the family stories so that vast numbers of quite large families were excluded as they presumably did not fit the desired narrative. In the process some interesting debates were skilfully skated over, such as how and why two Tasmanian Labour politicians of the 1930s were fascinated by Mussolini and Hitler, let alone the colonialist and racist basis of the creation of the modern Australian nation.

Maybe some of this can be explained by the sheer logistics of a properly balanced comparative study, but that fact itself illustrates how the very nature of TV editing can skew the interpretation and presentation and therefore, ultimately, the public understanding of the past.

The problem with ‘history from below’ as presented by EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (and others of similar bent) was that it excluded the vast majority of working class people who did not become organised in unions, societies and grassroots religious movements, as well as domestic servants and agricultural labourers. His narrative was an important corrective but was selected to fit a desired outcome and in so doing failed to rescue the bulk of the labouring classes from obscurity.

The same applies to ‘family history from below’ in The Secret History of My Family. We actually learned almost nothing about the descendants of Mary Ann and little more about the descendants of Sarah Eliza. This programme was about the anecdotal interest that descendants of the pickpocket Caroline became judges and politicians – an exception rather than the rule.

In the end we are left with the same old regurgitated myths about social mobility. On the one hand ‘Didn’t we do well?’ On the other hand, ‘We were poor but we were honest and respectable’. And we were all happy ever after.

‘Nobody suffered’ in the making of this ultimately dishonest programme, but the true potential of family history did.