The Use and Abuse of Family History

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’[1]. 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[2].

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!).


[1] 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.

[2] At least one library book, whose author and title I have conveniently forgotten, though perhaps not as extreme as this.



“We may find in this process that we too are narratives. Having let go of the notion of a transcendental self, we realize we are nothing but the stories we keep telling ourselves in our own minds and relating to others.” Stephen Batchelor: Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, (Yale UP, New Haven and London, 2017), p 150

The quotation is taken quite out of context (a discussion of the relationships between postmodernist ideas and Buddhist philosophy). Why it leapt out of the page was that I am in the process of writing up the bulk of my research into the history of the Bashforth name, from its origins and development in the seventeenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century. In order to cope with the sheer volume of research and find a way of making sense of it, both for myself and any potential reader, I have found myself constructing just such a series of narratives. In the process I could not help but reflect on how we write our own histories in our minds all the time and how elusive and ephemeral those narratives are.

In trying to make sense of our family histories and sense of the lives our forebears lived, are we trying yet one more way through which to make sense of our own lives – at least in the existential sense? We are born, we live and during that life we may experience illness, decline both physical and mental, and then we die, just as our ancestors did, before we even existed. And on it goes. Only the immediate context changes and the decisions and choices with which we are presented. We keep on inventing and re-inventing our own histories. It is an essential part of the human condition.

A House Through Time: A Refreshing Start to 2018

Just occasionally a historian comes along with some exciting new ways of understanding history. They usually come from the field of ‘public history’. 2018 kicks off with one such contribution from David Olusoga, who has already given us new insights into the personal side of the history of slavery. His new TV series ‘A House Through Time’ (BBC2 from 4 January) puts the spotlight on the homes we live in, at least those with a significant history. The series will explore the occupants over time of 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool since 1840.

What struck me most forcibly, however, was his introductory feature in The Observer (31.13.2017, page 25). It is full of some startlingly pithy statements about the meeting point between history in its grand sense and the personal in its everyday sense. It is worth quoting some of these remarks.

“Our homes, the most acutely personal places in our lives, come to us second-hand, and invisibly link us to people we have never met, people to whom we have no association other than a single shared connection to place.” My previous home had a relatively short history, going back to the 1930s, but we had the original deeds and papers relating to changes of ownership, and there were even neighbours who recalled the previous occupiers in a way that shattered anonymity. One of the first things I did when I arrived in my present, much older, home was to track down its earliest occupants in the census and to form a picture of their lives by wider family history research. The stories that emerged were commonplace but moving for that very reason, involving a seaman’s widow and her young son, an elderly lady and her unmarried piano teacher niece. We add our own stories to their’s.

Olusoga talks of how we make connections not only via documents from the archives, but the sheer physical presence of the building. “To read their letters from within the house in which they were written, or to hold in your hands their death certificates, while standing on their front steps or in their bedroom, is a strangely intimate experience.” Sometimes it can become “too close and a little too real for comfort”.

Historians have traditionally esteemed ‘objectivity’ and distance from their subjects, but this kind of history is the diametric opposite, as is much of family and community history at this level. “Historians love to talk about how we can get closer to the people of the past, but when it happens of its own volition the effects can be unnerving.”

There is much more that I could quote and all of it with hearty approval. But I will finish with the following, which sums up what should be a clarion call to all of us who operate in the field of personal history, whether family or collective.

“There is no official register of historians. No list from which practitioners of the art can be struck off for professional misconduct.”

Amen to that!

The Legacy of Archives

Perhaps one should not confess to ‘guilty pleasures’ on-line for all to access, but mine is not particularly startling. Since the ‘60s I have happily enjoyed the pleasures of spy fiction, most especially the work of John Le Carré, whom I first encountered through the book and film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963 and 1965 respectively). Maybe it sat rather oddly against my involvement in the YCL and CPGB and other left-wing movements at the time. I remember entertaining a sneaking admiration for the character of Fiedler, the deputy head of the Stasi, who at least had strong political beliefs, albeit ruthlessly expressed. The only other person in the novel/film to match that was the naïve and romantic Liz Gold. Both came to a sticky end.

What has reminded me of all this has been the publication of JLC’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, (Viking, 2017). And this explains why I am having this little fictional digression on a blog devoted to history, and family history in particular. Fast forward 50 or so years from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the ‘case’ rears its ugly head again. Descendants of Liz Gold and the spy Alec Leamas have combined to sue the British State for what happened to their forebears when they were shot trying to climb over the Berlin Wall. One at least is determined to have her day in court and not be bought off. It is reminiscent of the cases against extraordinary rendition in that regard.

Reading A Legacy of Spies, I gradually became a bit uncomfortable with what was going on. Those who read Le Carré will be familiar with the characters of George Smiley and Peter Guillam, ‘heroes’, if that is the right word, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when they exposed the mole inside the British espionage system. One starts, therefore, with a predilection of sympathy towards Guillam, dragged out of retirement to be interrogated for his part in dispatching Leamas and Gold. One has a similar respect for Smiley, who remains off-stage until the very end of the novel. It seems as if the new breed working in the monstrosity on the South Bank are determined to hang someone out to dry and Guillam is to be the sacrificial goat. For the greater good, of course. It rings bells.

It was not this that made me have doubts about the ‘truth’ of what was being written and how characters were being portrayed, but it was the use of a mysterious paper trail of archive material the interrogators seem to have come across, despite their seemingly having been a clear out of the original papers. Is the reader being drawn in to the idea that these surviving archives are the truth, or are they a fiendishly well-constructed false trail of evidence? Do the ‘real’ archives exist somewhere else and are they any more likely to be credible? There was, of course, only one way for the reader to get a better handle on this – to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in my case for the umpteenth time. And I won’t say any more than that about the intricacies of Le Carré’s cunning novel, other than that my enjoyment of both novels was greatly enhanced.

The point we all have to remember as historians, in whatever genre, is to remember that the archives are not necessarily some treasure-trove of neutral and ultimate truth. Somebody in the past put them there for a purpose and we often have to guess what purpose. Archives also get weeded and destroyed, neglected and decayed. They also get deliberately hidden (e.g. some archives from the British Empire covering its many least attractive aspects). Archives lie. Even some of our ancestors slip out of our view, either by avoiding (or simply not having) contact with the authorities that compile records, or by providing false information about names, marital status. My ‘guilty pleasure’ has a benefit – it provides you with a bullshit detector that you should always keep switched on. Things are not always what they superficially seem.

‘The Grassroots of English History’: Review

While the historian David Hey, a great friend and advocate of family and community historians both ‘amateur’ and professional, may no longer be with us, he left an important legacy in the form of his last book. The Grassroots of English History was published posthumously [Bloomsbury Academic, London etc., 2016] with the sub-title Local Societies in England before the Industrial Revolution. It is a wonderful, broad survey of all the latest understanding of the period of English society up to approximately the middle of the eighteenth century and a reminder of how much we miss the author.

If, as a family historian, you get no further back in your research than that time, then this provides a useful background, but if, like myself, your researches go further, this becomes a vital insight into the social and cultural context. Better still, for those of us of a certain vintage, this volume demolishes a load of old beliefs about the past with which our heads were filled at school about who the English were and are and demonstrates what a melting-pot English society has always been. It is also immensely readable and well-argued, copiously annotated and with a full bibliography to set the reader off on further avenues of exploration. If you read no other book on English history this year, then read this one.

One can pick small faults: the chapter on timber-framed houses could have done with diagrams and illustrations to help follow the text – but that only means you have to follow the notes and bibliography where they take you, and that is no bad thing. The same chapter illustrates the great benefit of this book – its wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the past, and something which David Hey always advocated.

Overall, this book is worth reading several times, it is so rich and stimulating a combination of detail and breadth. There is more than one avenue that I shall now follow in developing meaning from my own family history research.



More New Pages

As part of an ongoing review of this blog site and how it works, I have added two new pages and deleted one. The one that has gone, sadly, is Archives in Fiction: I have not added much to it and the idea has past its value now. In its place there are two pages to feature projects on which I am working and which, each in their different ways, illustrate how I use my concept of Radical Family History in practice. The first relates to the history of the Barnsley Cordwainers Society, the oldest surviving local Friendly Society in England, founded in March 1647/8, to which several people who shared my surname in the past once belonged and of which I am a somewhat geographically challenged member. The second relates to a project, once titled ‘Diverse Evill Disposed Persons’ (under which it featured in Public History Review Journal 18, 2011), centring on events in the ‘country’ around Cannon Hall in 1674, though covering the period from the Restoration and earlier. It illustrates a clash of cultures, classes and individuals during a period of social flux, and is, in some sense, a micro-history of what this entailed at the grass roots level of society. Both of these projects have featured on separate sites, now defunct, but the work still stands. Content will follow in due course.

Changes to the Site

I have made some changes to the layout of the site. Having disposed of a separate ‘blog’ confined to political ranting, I have separated ‘Radical History’ from ‘Radical Theory’ and re-posted some of the posts from the other site as new items under ‘Radical Theory‘. These contain ruminations on a variety of things I might come across, especially reviews of books I have recently been reading, or events in the wider world. Most of it is political, some of it will be highly theoretical as time goes on, as I have been doing quite a lot of re-reading of that sort in recent weeks. As I make new sub-pages, I will use the blog to draw attention and create a link.