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

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5 thoughts on “Radical Family History on TV

    • Something that has been on my mind as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising is what I discovered when I was searching for information on 11th DLI in WW1. I scoured through some huge volumes at the National Archives, the registers of the Field General Courts Martial. They would be prime targets for digitisation as they are very cumbersome and difficult to search in, but their size and shape (a two-page panorama register over a metre long) would make that logistically difficult. However, look through the volume for 1916 and there are pages of names listed as ‘Sinn Fein’, including all the big names of the Rising and probably a lot of forgotten ones. The whole series is worthy of several research projects that go beyond the ‘shot at dawn’ issue and look at the wider issue of ‘discipline’ during WW1. Even more numerous than the Irish lads were the vast numbers of Chinese labourers, especially towards the end of the War, as they rebelled against their harsh and probably racist treatment.

  1. I too am looking forward to seeing this. But I think it raises questions about the accuracy /relevance of continuing to use the phrase “history from below” . This looks to be great history that privileges the lives of ordinary people and working class jobs etc however the budget was apparently enormous and not carried out, I gather, by the ancestors themselves. I tend to use radical / progressive histories since this strikes me as a more accurate term. You may disagree, Martin!

    • Although I have used the phrase ‘radical family history’ to describe what I do and what I advocate, I have always felt uncomfortable with the use of ‘radical’ in this context, which is why I tend to fall back on the phrase ‘history from below’, though that too has its specific connotations. The problem I have with the word ‘radical’ is that it evokes the idea of a political position that would not in most cases be appropriate to the subjects of study. One of the faults of the old ‘history from below’ was that it omitted the greater majority of working people from its remit, most especially women domestic servants but the multitudes who were never organised in unions or political clubs or religious movements. So they remained in obscurity. I am seeking to correct this through advocating the use of family history to look at the wider picture. True, I have radical political intentions in that, but that is not the point. In some ways I seek to rescue the wider working classes from the myths and stories of the sectarian left and restore them to a position in historiography that might be their own. The ‘masses’ were actually individuals. Probably a vain hope!

      • Interesting. I tend to think of radical in the context of the person making the history in the present rather than any specific political position in the past. You are right, of course, re. original connotations etc

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