‘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.

 

 

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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.

Pet Massacre or Mercy Killing?

A neglected element of ‘history from below’ concerns people’s relations with animals and vice versa. For a disturbing and unusual insight into an incident, or series of the same, illustrating human-animal interactions, the most recent book by Hilda Kean, covers the killing of thousands of pets at the start of WW 2 in the UK. Called ‘The Great Cat and Dog Massacre’ it is just published by the University of Chicago Press. Details can be found here:  http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo22091014.html

Film buffs may remember Glorious 39, starring Romola Garai as a young actress called Anne Keyes, and directed by Steven Poliakoff, which contains a scene where she stumbles upon one of these processes of pet killing under way. While not the main concern of the film, it hints at how the events are remembered more by a deliberate attempt to hide and forget. Not surprising as the events sit uncomfortably next to the myth of Britain as a nation of animal lovers. I look forward to reading how Hilda Kean deals with all the ambiguities and conflicts that will have been involved.

The Secret History of My Family Part 4 – NOT

I was looking forward to reviewing the final part of the BBC2 series, The Secret History of My Family today. Unfortunately that will have to wait. Unlike the privileged Tim Dowling from the Guardian newspaper, I didn’t get a preview version to watch. From his review today it seems that is a pity as it addresses the contemporary topic of ‘benefits dependency’ – something that has troubled the well off and powerful since at least the time of the Elizabethan poor laws, if not long before.

Unfortunately, the BBC seems to have a rather skewed idea of its priorities these days. Instead of SHMF 4 the less privileged among us had the option to watch a one hour tribute to the comedian Ronnie Corbett, who died yesterday aged 85. He was a great laugh, but come on, the tribute could have waited a day or two instead of being rushed out as if it had been compiled well in advance – not tasteful at all. However, it seems to be part of a pattern at the BBC to put the relatively trivial before the serious.

A few weeks ago the BBC was running a police procedural in the Shetland series based on the novels of Ann Cleeves. It was a particularly moving serial, touching on some very difficult issues to do with rape and violence against women, but the BBC chose to interrupt the series, not once but twice, in order to screen football matches. It makes no sense either in terms of the values of public service broadcasting, or in terms of ‘Ratings R Us’.

Winge! Winge!

PS – I opted to read more of the wonderful book on existentialism by Sarah Bakewell, ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ instead. Brilliant stuff.

 

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!