Suffering from research glut, I have been examining my navel about where I thought I was going with my family history writing. It is always good to turn to the thoughts of others for inspiration. In a somewhat neglected volume on my bookshelf, I discovered the chapter by Graeme Davison, ‘The Use and Abuse of Australian History’. That was where the bookmark was, and it turned out be serendipitous, as the subject was actually family history and genealogy in the Australian context. Davison was exploring, much like myself, the wider possibilities of family history work beyond the stricter confines of ‘genealogy’ as traditionally defined. The latter began around questions of power, property, patriarchy and pedigree and aimed to hold up under legal scrutiny. There are those who still hanker after these values, to hold off the encroachment of more liberal and liberating cultural tendencies of the modern world such as feminism and multiculturalism.
I read this short chapter to check my own family history motivation and intentions against Davison’s hypotheses.
I concur with his archetypal description of the typical family historian as middle class, middle age, educated and female – though in the last aspect this may not be anything like as true in the UK as in Australia. My experience of work with family history societies and engagement with others on line suggests that there is also a good sprinkling of other age groups and educational levels. The middle age and middle-class element does mean that there is an issue of sustainability, faced particularly by the societies and their journals in finding enough volunteers to organise and carry out projects. But the baby-boomers seem to be pretty resilient so far. Obviously, I fit in this category.
Family history is primarily a hobby for most people. Lots go quickly beyond the gathering of data and collecting of distant cousins. I have done all of these, though the cousins have mostly been a welcome accident from this blog, along with others who appreciate my wider approach to the whole idea of family history and what it can do.
Whether family history helps provide ‘a reservoir of stable values’ (p 69) is highly doubtful in my case (and Davison does suggest the opposite later in the chapter). It helped put me back in touch with the male family line beyond my father, for which I am grateful. But that was in reaction to an over-dominant and competitive mother. I tried to break through that by doing her family history, including the distaff lines back several generations in a wide fan. It elicited a few bits of information about her aunts and uncles to fill my gaps and pointing out a typo error. Only the discovery that her favourite grandfather had been illegitimate, and so had been his mother, temporarily cut through before the shutters came down again. She expressed no interest in what I learned of the grandfather’s upbringing or the harsh lives of the North Pennines lead mining communities that moulded him to be the kindly and generous old man he became. I am afraid that, not only in my mother’s case, recent generations can bear too many scars to be repositories of moral health and ‘family values’.
Patriarchal genealogy has no real interest for me. It is a line that runs quickly into the sand. My grandfather was illegitimate and there are only apocryphal Chinese whispers about his father’s identity, plus a cleverly worked and plausible, but still speculative, theory researched by my assiduous cousin (which I am inclined to accept up to the point where it eludes the family story). As my grandfather himself was killed in action in 1918, he is a figure in photographs and mentioned in documents that nobody alive remembers or knew. However, the fact that he was illegitimate, and I use some social media, put me in touch with the family of my great grandma within which he was brought up. This uncovered a treasure trove of old photographs and, more importantly, the chance to discover a whole new positive light on a family generally disparaged unkindly by my own folks.
If I can make a more general point on patriarchy’s doubtful value from my wider research, at least one Bashforth family line dating from the late seventeenth century survived beyond 1800 on the shoulders of one illegitimate male child in Hoylandswaine. His heirs proliferated and remain in the area, while others travelled overseas to Pennsylvania and are still there today.
I firmly agree with Davison’s comments that it may be the discontinuities of family life that stimulate the desire to know more and to delve backwards in time. Researching my WW1 grandfather left me wishing I had known his widow, my gran, much more – had she lived long enough, and I been around to spend more time with her. Perhaps, however, she too would have kept much under wraps, like the medals she kept until he died. Who knows what else had been hidden, destroyed or thrown away in the interests of second family harmony or simple grief. It is not just my discontinuities that matter then, but theirs too. I especially think of my gran, great grandma, and other women in the past struggling with poverty, widowhood, drunken husbands, who elicit most of my desire to know more – even the three-times great grandma who looked after a young family of four in a Sheffield slum in the 1830s while her old man explored opportunities in the New World. Don’t sit on the ‘facts’, so-called, interrogate them for the human beings they represent, their society, their culture and the landscape around.
This also led me to move beyond my own family to explore the wide-ranging discontinuities created by WW1 in the context of my grandfather’s battalion, the men who served in it and their families and their fates through every record I could find. Others are doing similar things – in relation to the Luddites executed in York 200 years ago and other families that escaped that fate; Spanish Civil War veterans whose stories have been swept under the carpet. There is so much potential.
I applaud Davison’s comment that ‘Democratic family history is the story of those who suffered history, as well as those who made it’ (p 71), with one caveat. I would add that their ‘suffering’ is as important a part of the making of history as any action by others: cloth has both warp and weft.
As a personal final observation, I would urge a good starting point is your own ‘BMD’ data. Each step has its associated stories. Each step has made its own ripples in the fractals of history, with who knows what consequences. In my case the final ‘D’ remains undetermined to a degree but is foreseeably imminent. Maybe time will run out for me before I complete my projects. That is a warning of sorts: family history tells us that we are all mortal and family history is no cure (nor the apparent absence of a death record!).
 Hilda Kean and Paul Martin, editors, The Public History Reader, (Routledge, London and New York, 2013), Chapter 4, pp 68-82, originally published in New South Wales in 2004.
 At least one library book, whose author and title I have conveniently forgotten, though perhaps not as extreme as this.