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.

Radical Family History on TV

When I first floated the idea of using family history as a means by which to ask questions about the experience of everyday life in the past, I suggested that the comparison of longitudinal studies of families and their experiences would be one significant contribution that might be made if the problem of logistics could be overcome[1]. If it could be collectively organised it might be called ‘radical family history’, but that would be no easy task. It would be history organised, researched and published from below.

There have been a number of examples of where individual writers have tackled their own family histories in a similar fashion to the way in which I am attempting to use mine to illuminate the past, which I have featured on this blog. The latest, however, will hit the TV screens very shortly and incorporates the comparative method to explore (no doubt among other themes) class and social mobility.

The Secret History of My Family is a four-part documentary series on BBC2 starting Thursday, 10 March at 8pm. Joanna Moorhead has introduced the series in the Guardian, 5 March 2016 in the Family supplement. The brains behind the idea is film-maker Joseph Bullman, who has already entertained and instructed us through his series The Secret History of Our Streets. He himself came from a working class background on an East London estate but had the right encouragement from father and teachers to achieve great ambitions. His own experience has prompted the main theme of this new series: what happened to the descendants of selected Victorian people. Only this is not about celebrities, this is ordinary people.

There are the three Gadbury sisters convicted of larceny, two of whom were transported to Australia. Moorhead also mentions Florence Hunt, a middle-class benefactress of John Manley, a boy she rescued from the workhouse as two more characters. This is shaping up to be a fascinating series.

[1] Ashton & Kean, People and Their Pasts, (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), chapter 11, page 218

Bashforth and Bashford

I have been doing further research into the origins of the variant names based on Basford. It is fairly common experience for those of us with the Bashforth name to have it misspelt ‘Bashford’ as we move around the country away from the south Yorkshire area, often despite repeatedly spelling it for the unfortunate writer! I had assumed that we had a common origin, but I am no longer so sure. The section on ‘Origins’ has therefore been updated with a note on the Bashford name. It is not yet conclusive, but the name seems to derive from a completely different location, now called Betchworth in Surrey, and this particular spelling has been clustered within a 40 mile radius. Maybe over time as the variants have spread around the country there has occurred some overlap, but Bashford seems to be in principle a completely different surname. Check out the updated page. I have more information on this as part of the ongoing research, but it is as yet too unwieldy to put on line.


Refocussing the site

Older readers may note some changes to the way this site is now organised. Check out the ‘About’ page to see a statement of how I am re-focussing what I put on line. Some pages have disappeared altogether as they were superfluous or repetitive. I debated whether or not to retain ‘Archives in Fiction’, but decided to leave it there. Although I rarely find new material for it, it has a light popularity and often prompts interest in different writers I have come across. Hopefully the clearer focus on the two related and intertwined themes of Bashforth Family History and Radical Family History will help me at least make greater sense of the various pathways down which I travel!