Family History – Messages of Hope

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.

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The Burston School Strike

On 4 September I had the great fortune to join a busload of trade unionists and other campaigners from Norwich to the little village of Burston, near Diss in Norfolk. It was in aid of an annual event commemorating the action of an isolated rural community acting in resistance to the overbearing power of the local squirearchy. I won’t go into all the details of what happened in 1914 and for 25 years afterwards. Best read it for yourselves here https://burstonstrikeschool.wordpress.com/

In short, more than 60 pupils, supported by their parents, went on strike to seek the reinstatement of their two sacked teachers, Annie and Tom Higdon. Annie as Head had fought the local school management for better facilities. Tom had organised the local farmworkers to take over the parish council. The local farmers and the Vicar were incensed by this insubordination. The teachers set up their own school, which was supported by the trade union movement, socialists and others, who provided the funds to build a new school and help maintain it until Tom died in 1939 and Annie could no longer continue.

This was grassroots community action, organised by local people against enormous, wealthy and well-situated opposition. It is inspirational 100 years later as politicians talk incessantly about ‘community’ but mean something completely different, hierarchical and vested in established institutions. Sunday’s commemorative events highlighted how grassroots campaigning can overturn this alien concept of community and replace it with the genuine article. The Strike School in Burston still continues as a community venture, still with union support and still inspires. This is real working-class heritage with continuing power in the here and now. It is worth a million old castle ruins and stately homes.

History is Personal 1916-2016

History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.

I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.

The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.

Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.

There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.

 

Review: ‘The Secret History of My Family’

What a disappointment! The concept of the first episode of the BBC TV series, aired on Thursday 10 March was brilliant, aided by the serendipity of three pickpocketing sisters from Shoreditch in the East End of London whose descendants could be traced. From concept to realisation it was all downhill.

Firstly, the balance of the stories was skewed. More than 30 minutes was devoted to the descendants of Caroline Gadbury transported to Van Diemen’s Land around 1836 – in fact half of this was, strictly speaking, the descendants of the son of her second husband from his first marriage. Around 20 minutes was given over to the descendants of Sarah Eliza Gadbury transported to New South Wales, who ‘behaved herself’ and married well. Less than 5 minutes was devoted to the descendants of Mary Ann Gadbury who was sentenced to 6 months in jail and whose descendants remained in or around Shoreditch.

Secondly, the reasons behind this skewed balance involve intellectual sleight of hand. The programme was supposedly about class and social mobility, and there were some superficial cultural comparisons made between Tasmania (a predominantly convict population), New South Wales (with a powerful free settler class aping the British upper classes) and Britain with its settled class rigidities. But this was on the basis of ignoring completely the indigenous Australian population, especially in the case of Tasmania, where it was virtually wiped out and a highly selective approach to the family stories so that vast numbers of quite large families were excluded as they presumably did not fit the desired narrative. In the process some interesting debates were skilfully skated over, such as how and why two Tasmanian Labour politicians of the 1930s were fascinated by Mussolini and Hitler, let alone the colonialist and racist basis of the creation of the modern Australian nation.

Maybe some of this can be explained by the sheer logistics of a properly balanced comparative study, but that fact itself illustrates how the very nature of TV editing can skew the interpretation and presentation and therefore, ultimately, the public understanding of the past.

The problem with ‘history from below’ as presented by EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (and others of similar bent) was that it excluded the vast majority of working class people who did not become organised in unions, societies and grassroots religious movements, as well as domestic servants and agricultural labourers. His narrative was an important corrective but was selected to fit a desired outcome and in so doing failed to rescue the bulk of the labouring classes from obscurity.

The same applies to ‘family history from below’ in The Secret History of My Family. We actually learned almost nothing about the descendants of Mary Ann and little more about the descendants of Sarah Eliza. This programme was about the anecdotal interest that descendants of the pickpocket Caroline became judges and politicians – an exception rather than the rule.

In the end we are left with the same old regurgitated myths about social mobility. On the one hand ‘Didn’t we do well?’ On the other hand, ‘We were poor but we were honest and respectable’. And we were all happy ever after.

‘Nobody suffered’ in the making of this ultimately dishonest programme, but the true potential of family history did.

Do Museums Have Value?

Apparently not much! In recent weeks I have heard of the closure of at least two museums in the north-east of England with which I have had connections.

The DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will be closing in April, despite a campaign to keep it open. The museum is the depository for huge numbers of artefacts connected with the history of the Durham Light Infantry and its forebears. The regiment has close connections with all communities across the north-east and it is ironic that it should be closing in the middle of centenary commemorations for the First World War and the 70th anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Many local families, including my own, have gifted personal items into their collection. It is proposed to put the collection into permanent storage, though apparently this will be in a disused former tobacco factory on a short lease and with presumably dubious atmospheric conditions for conservation purposes. The museum was housed in a modern building in extensive parkland that was used recreationally by local people, including events at the museum such as those for fathers and children on a Saturday morning. It is proposed to sell the land for redevelopment, so there will be no turning back at a later date in better times.

The facilities at Bede’s World in Jarrow were closed at short notice in February. The site has national and global significance, as this is where the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People during the early 700s. He was locally born and is nationally and internationally renowned. Until recently Bede’s World was directed by Mike Benson, assisted by Kathy Cremin and a host of enthusiastic volunteers, young apprentices, former offenders and local people. It was buzzing with social and cultural significance, the second place that Mike and Kathy have enthused with their particular vision for heritage. Sadly, the Charitable Trust was not up the task and went into liquidation and all this hard work, hope and energy has been wasted by men in suits. Mike has gone on to the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire (I wonder how much longer that will survive in the current climate, since it is quite remote) while Kathy has left the museum sector.

In recent decades, £millions have been poured into the heritage sector only for recent austerity measures and economic downturn to render the survival of the institutions in doubt. Not even major national museums are exempt. The National Railway Museum took millions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national funding bodies to open up its library and archives seven days a week, all year round in a new facility called Search Engine. That vision survived only a few years before staff cuts were made and opening hours shredded. The same sad story is affecting museums, archives and libraries across the country – though there will always be a hand in the till for London and the facilities for the élite few.

And why? In the last analysis it is to prop up the bankers and their culture of high salaries and bonuses for failure. Usually this is couched by the politicians in terms of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Where is the responsibility in trashing the country’s social and cultural heritage in this way? Where is the responsibility in trashing facilities for the disadvantaged, the sick and the poor?

The Big Question is ‘Where the hell is the opposition?’ Why is the population of this country just accepting of this? Where is the clarion call from the so-called anti-austerity ‘Hard Left’ Labour Party leadership? It would seem they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Short answer: sorry, Britain, you get exactly what you deserve. If you sit on your hands – this is what you get and what you, by default, have asked for.

I was recently involved in an AHRC funded project asking the question: who makes heritage decisions? Not the ordinary people, that’s for sure. That was the doubt I began with and the one I still end with.

When the last pit closes

Yesterday the last shift clocked off at Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, marking the end of deep coal mining in the UK. There will be mixed feelings among the men and their families and the communities in which they live (many of them do not live locally but commute from long dead mining villages elsewhere). To get an idea of what it means you could do worse than read Richard Benson’s The Village.

Memories will cling. Pitmen form only a small part of my ancestral legacy, but nevertheless are part of my consciousness as a lad from County Durham. My father, Ray Bashforth, was a painter and decorator and his father was a plasterer, and before that there was a long male line of metal workers of one sort or another stretching back to the late 17th century, with a side line in keeping alehouses. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, would have been very familiar with colliers when he served in 11th Durham Light Infantry in WW1 – most of the recruits were pit men from Durham and Northumberland.

On the maternal side my mother’s grandfathers had connections. While Jim Martin was a cabinet maker by trade, after his own father, he was not very assiduous. He was more interested in his alternative career as a minor professional cricketer, as much for its alcoholic convivial side as anything. Because of that he was often on his travels in search of work and pit villages provided jobs for carpenters – hence Elsecar in Yorkshire and Bishop Auckland in County Durham.

My mother’s favourite grandfather was indeed a coal miner. Joe Percival was born illegitimate in Dirtpot near Allenheads and was farmed out to a lead mining family. He began his working life washing lead ore but when the trade went into decline he and the rest of the family headed for the Durham coalfields and he ended up at Toronto pit near Bishop Auckland.

Mam had two particular recollections of him. Sitting down to his meal, often some sort of meat and potato stew, he would exclaim to his wife, the redoubtable Alice, “Weers t’cyaks, mother?” – a reference to the plain scones that were a component of stews and mince. Aged 4 or 5, she also remembered him in his last years (he died in 1918 aged 58 of chronic nephritis) sitting on a straight backed chair outside his terrace house in Frederick Street, enjoying the sunshine on his face.

The men from Kellingley will have their own contradictory feelings this weekend after leaving such a mucky, dangerous job, but may appreciate the chance of sunshine on their backs rather than the threat of roof falls.

My personal memories from growing up in County Durham include the effects of pit closures. I recall the slag heaps next to the A1 at Ferryhill, newly sown with grass seed in the early 1960s – they called it landscaping. I also recall having to walk the gauntlet of gangs of youths in Darlington on a Saturday night near the bus station. Already suffering from the economic and social blight of closures, the lads and lasses from rival former pit villages found weekly entertainment in facing each other off.

My fondest memory however was a conversation with Jack Elliott of Birtley at Darlington Folk Club in 1963. He was an ex-miner turned folk singer and founder of a folk music dynasty. I remember his songs, but I also remember he told me that he would put the flags out when the last pit closed, for all his repertoire celebrated the miners and their lives. Are the flags out now, Jack?