Radical Family History is Dead

September will be the 12th anniversary of the International Conference on Public History at Ruskin College in 2005. I presented a paper: Absent Fathers, Present Histories. In the subsequent symposium publication (People and Their Pasts) I floated the idea of ‘radical family history’. It is now time to consider the concept again.

In its simplest form, radical family history was a call to family historians to collectively use their skills and knowledge to raise the profile of the genre by using long series of histories in parallel and comparison in order to explore both old and perhaps new themes that emerged from the data. It was a way of conducting a history of everyday life from the ground up: assembling data, analysing it creatively, making interpretations and arguments and presenting the findings. It was posited with an eye to the small minority of family historians who looked beyond the mere collection of trees.

The idea is dead in the water, and probably always was more of a hope than a likelihood. True, there have been individual published histories that have indicated the potential of the concept (books that I have reviewed in this blog). There have been academic-led studies using data in this way and there is another Anglo-American project in progress at this time, studying social mobility. There may be, buried away somewhere, freelance studies of families, self-published and little known and perhaps reaching no higher level than antiquarian recording.

The idea of collective work is out of the question. There is no appetite such as might have been hoped for from the family history societies, who seem more inclined to undermine their own reason to exist by publishing all their data on line for others to mine amid declining memberships. The commercial companies and media continue to dominate much of the field, such as Ancestry and its drive to collect DNA. When it comes to accessing funding for complex projects, academics more or less totally dominate the sources that are available – something equally true of institutions and universities with regard to ‘heritage’. In any case, in so far as family history was part of the public history and heritage domain, the combination of factors above continues to permit the dominance of the standard heritage discourse, to the extent that one might even call it now an ‘ideology’.

There is no room for radical popular innovation, such as I had envisaged, in the present culture, dominated as it is by commercial, institutional, academic and bureaucratic elites. There probably never was, despite the interest shown by a small number of enlightened academics. Radical Family History is dead.


2 thoughts on “Radical Family History is Dead

  1. I have been fascinated to read your ideas on radical family history; I was shown your blogs by Alan Brooke, author of the website “Underground histories” and we have often discussed related ideas in the past.
    For years I have done what I have also called radical family history, although I fear that I have had a more individualist approach than that the cooperative ventures that you have suggested.
    I began researching my family history in the 1980s when my parents tried to understand their own backgrounds, both having been brought up by grandparents whose stories were obscured by family mysteries. I caught the bug and, like so many others, soon amassed lots and lots of names. I was particularly fortunate because my father’s ancestry was unusually easy to research, most of the family having remained in the same South Yorkshire parish since the beginning of parish recording. My first visits to Doncaster archives 30 years ago were exceptionally trouble free and productive.
    However I found myself wondering whether it really mattered how many generations of Joseph Stocks there had been, and whether anyone would care if I’d made it all up. I then began looking for more information about these people, and how they had lived, so that I could see them as more than names and dates.. I’ve always been interested in radical and social history so I tried to put myself in their shoes, as they experienced the social and political changes of the last few centuries. I know that everyone’s ancestors lived through the same changes, even if we don’t know their names, but it does feels easier to visualise it when we have a name and a place. I found that it also enabled me to use the wonderful researches published by local historians. These helped me imagine my relatives experiencing the civil war, reformation, enclosures, the industrial revolution and the changes of the twentieth century. This led me to an awakening of a deeper interest in the history of the last few centuries,
    I’m not sure how common is this approach to genealogy. Many people, at least at first, seem content to try to go back as far as possible, or to amass the maximum number of names. We are suffering from the ease with which we can use the commercial information providers to find names on the internet. It is easy to forget what we were trying to discover, and why.
    Although I applaud your proposals for communal research, I fear that amateurs who want to do more than research their own families will remain busy with indexing , transcribing records, recording gravestones, or else they will help running their society’s research centre. In any case, the numbers of volunteers are limited and probably declining. I hold little hope of many academics doing much outside the limitations of their institutions…
    I haven’t intelligently developed a plan on how to do radical FH. Instead, like most of us, I have found myself drawn to events and people in my own wider tree which illustrate something which feels important to me. I suppose I have looked in my tree for events which illustrate the wider economic, political and social history of the last few centuries. In this I am dependent on the existing radical histories and my own pre-existing political understanding.
    In addition, I think I have been unconsciously mining the tree for what seem to be good stories. I’ve been spent more effort on the coal mining revolutionary who was a founder member of the CP, or the Irish rebel of 1916, than on the countless families of ag. labs about whom I can discover very little. Yet I know that theirs are the lives of a class in change as they were forced off the land by poverty, and into coal mines, factories and service. I’m sure that they are more relevant to our history than the tiny handful of exceptional individuals we have found. However, we’re all suckers for a good tale.. I suppose most of have found a few whose lives are crying out to be told and perhaps we should rescue them from anonymity if we can set them in their political context. (I think Victor Serge, a hero of mine, tried to write fiction which depicted people more as members of their class than as exceptional individuals)
    As an example of what I’ve been trying to do, I have spent most of my energies over the last few years on the story of a man who was a cousin of my wife’s father. We’d always been told that he went from Manchester to fight in the Easter Rising, but we’d been doubtful if this was true as the histories had no mention of this and there seemed to be no evidence. However a lot of detective work led to Irish records which showed that the family tale was pretty accurate and that he was one of a small group of Manchester Irish Volunteers in 1916. I was particularly pleased to discover the links with political radicalism through one of the Volunteers who was inspired to become as socialist as well as a nationalist through hearing Jim Larkin and James Connolly in Manchester, and through being sold a copy of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. As a result we got in contact with members of the Irish community in Manchester and radical archivists and historians in Dublin and put together the story of this group The result was somewhere between family and, local history. Here was an occasion where the standard histories were added to (and corrected) by the concentration on detail that only a family historian would spend on an insignificant individual.
    One problem of local and family history is that it is difficult to write without it becoming boring and impenetrable. We amass a huge amount of detail that we want to share, without realising that most of it will only interest a reader with an interest in a particular surname or locality. Another problem is that working class people seldom leave dairies, letters or interviews so we rarely know much about them beyond the bald facts.. I tried to solve these problems by illustrating the experiences of the four Manchester volunteers using the eye witness accounts of those who were there with them. This allowed me to create a hopefully gripping account of exciting times without fictionalising the facts. I always enjoy reading the memories of “those who were there” but it know that too many quotes makes book harder to read than if it written in one voice. I did self-publish the story as a book in time for the 1916 Easter Rising anniversary last year and it generated a reasonable amount of interest and became almost self supporting. We did talks, mainly in Manchester and Dublin but it never got noticed outside of a specialist community. It was reviewed very positively by Sinn Fein and the Morning Star (and in local FH society journals) but ignored by the mainstream and academic media. If you are interested I could post you a copy so you can see what you make of this approach to radical family history. My email is robinstocks@hotmail.com and there is a website at https://hiddenheroesofeasterweek.wordpress.com/
    Perhaps the question is how to get family history researchers to look at their history from a wider and radical standpoint. I think the two questions are different. Family historians who have got past the obsessive collecting of names are often wanting to discover how their ancestors lived, though I don’t know how many find their way to local history sources. Perhaps it would be useful if there were more books or websites on the social history of different classes at different times. Something like- “how our C19 ag lab ancestors lived” . I wonder if anyone’s done it?
    The difficult bit is to get Family historians to understand the politics of the world that their ancestors inhabited and the changes they experienced. Most family historians have the same conventional attitudes to history as the rest of the population, with opinions moulded by school history, TV historians and the rest of the media. I don’t know how we can change that.
    I have a few ideas of projects which I’m planning on working on next. I’m wondering whether it would be possible to create a narrative of the last hundred odd years from the experiences of members of the wider family. It could be a social and political history of a century illustrated from one family. My great grandmother remembered going gleaning and others of that generation made the transition from agriculture to coal mining. They lived through the great unrest with one miner becoming a syndicalist and a railway man getting a medal from the union during the rail strike. There were several victims of WW1 and women whose lives were changed by working in munitions .. ( And the Easter Rising , of course) There is oral history within the family and even some documents and photos so I’ll see how it develops. This project could be a way of using family history to tell a radical history, or it could be hopelessly ambitious….
    I remain interested in your ideas, and would be happy to send you a copy of “Hidden Heroes” if you think you might want to read it.

    • Thanks for this, I appreciate your comments and support in this regard. Normally I would edit out any personal contact details, but I have left yours in, in the hopes that there are others who will take note of your efforts. All is not lost, as we both and others like us can still continue to work on our own families in the ways that you are exploring. There are a few others who have done this and successfully published the results – I have reviewed examples on previous posts, notably the books by Hilda Kean, Alison Light and Richard Benson. Much depends on what other sources you can access beyond the purely genealogical. I recently came across an American historian in the mid-West called Joseph A. Amato, who is trying in a similar way to marry family and local history – something David Hey urged us to do in the 1980s, as did Stan Newens (of History Workshop) in the 1970s. One thing I would add, a pet theme of mine, is not to ignore those of our ancestors who were not radical in the political sense otherwise we get a very narrow concept of working class history and lose the wider cultural context. Good to hear from you.

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