Sometimes in your family history you can find messages of hope from the past. It is one of the reasons I regard this type of history research as potentially ‘radical’, so long as you are prepared to go beyond collecting dates of baptisms, marriages and burials (though even these records have their contexts). I was reminded of this watching the latest episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on BBC 1 (25 January 2017: 8pm), which featured Sir Ian McKellen, actor and LGBT activist.
Inevitably, it being one of the features of this series, there is the attempt to find roots of the person’s celebrity in their past and, sure enough there was a great uncle who trod the boards and a grandmother who was a mezzo-soprano soloist. Neither were particularly famous, except at a local level, but – pause for thought – each in a quiet way illustrated how we are agents in history, however small, not simply victims of fate.
The greatest revelation however was the ancestor, Robert Lowes, who was a warehouse clerk in Manchester. He was very definitely one of those neglected heroes of the past who made an enormous difference to the lives of those around him. In the 1840s, at a time when Friedrich Engels was writing his classic The Condition of the Working Classes, Robert Lowes, humble clerk, skilfully organised his fellow workers, clerical and manual, to petition their rich and powerful employers for a half day holiday. Robert himself had used the opportunity provided by the Lyceum to build his skills at public speaking, writing, researching, networking and advocacy in his rare spare time. He wanted more of the same opportunities for his fellow workers. This was not a time when it was easy to organise, though demand for change was on the rise. But Robert’s campaign was successful and what we now know as ‘the weekend’ was born. He went on to campaign for workers in other industries, especially the women garment workers in the sweatshops, and was successful again.
This was an uplifting episode at a time when the process of reform and change started by men and women like Robert in 1845 is being put into reverse on a global scale and a Mussolini impersonator inhabits the White House. It is a reminder that we don’t have to be cowed by history or by patriarchal interpretations of the past and present – we can make history too. It just takes a bit of effort, one step at a time.
There is a less dramatic but just as vital example from my own maternal ancestry. My great uncle Edwin Martin was described to me as a ‘black sheep’, who was irresponsible in his working life, was blacklisted as a union organiser, might have been a communist, died of TB and left his wife and child destitute. I grew up with a sneaking admiration for this rebel and was fortunate enough in later life to be put in touch with his daughter, Margaret. He was a lovely man, a keen exponent of amateur dramatics and opera, a trade unionist, socialist in 1930s London. He looked after nieces who came to London to seek domestic work, making sure they were well placed and not mistreated. Yes, he did die of TB, from untreated milk; he did find work hard to get because of his principles; but he is remembered by his daughter with great affection. I was right to secretly admire him as I grew up.