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.

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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.

Creating History

I am drawn to the view, by whomsoever expressed, that we make our own history, we are not victims of it, even when it appears so. This includes Karl Marx, who suggested that we do not make history in conditions of our own choosing. It therefore includes also Raya Dunayevskaya, in her rescue of humanism from the ravages of post-Marx Marxists. It also includes Cornelius Castoriadis and his view of History as Creation and The Imaginary Institution of Society, from a post-Marxist viewpoint. There are others with whose work I am not familiar enough to cite them.

You will note that this also relates to writers who were writing about political action and creativity, so that my view of history and my view of political action have tended to coincide. The one feeds into the other and has done for me for over 50 years. If I have a generally libertarian view of politics, it is matched by a libertarian view of history, while in both cases aware of the collective nature of human society (I am not an individualist). As human beings we are essentially creative, even when it looks different. This infuses my concept of ‘history from below’, which goes beyond the idea of studying history as if from the lower ranks of society, though it includes that. It comes out in my concept of radical family history, both as a way of understanding the world and as a practice for historians.

I am prompted to these thoughts having just read The Future of History, by John Lukacs, (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011). It is not that he directly addresses the issues in which I am interested, but the honest appreciation he makes of the limits of history, the limits of the surviving record, while pleading for all historians to fight for the profession (which includes so-called amateurs like myself) and for meaningful standards, including readability. There are elements of what he says with which I might disagree, but that in no ways is a criticism[1]. He is also a self-confessed ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’, while I see myself as ‘radical’ – but that makes his views all the more interesting, not least when I find myself often in full agreement. I hope he will not therefore mind if I describe the work as entertaining, by which I mean stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a work worth returning to and allowing his critique to work on one’s consciousness and inform one’s practice.

As a primarily family historian, I am all too aware of the limitations of the records from which I and my co-conspirators have to work. These become less and less adequate, the further one travels back in time. It is, to say the least, a challenge and not merely from a technical, genealogical point of view. It is an even bigger challenge for me to then suggest that this is a way of testing the theory that we make our own history in the sense described above. Just how does that actually work? How can we, as historians, demonstrate that the theory is more than an unproven hypothesis? When the thinkers I mention above talk about history as creation, what exactly do they have in mind? What kinds of verifiable records are there to prove the hypothesis? Or is it just abstract theorising? Sometimes when you read their work it seems like that, not least because of their selection of relevant illustrative events.

As a professed ‘radical family historian’, however, I am not positing an abstract theory: I am testing it to destruction. What sort of family history can I and others of my ilk write and what will it demonstrate? Some have written excellent histories of their own particular family lines and the reader can see how some of the characters shaped their immediate world, while being equally shaped by it (I have mentioned these in previous posts). The balance from one individual to another might vary considerably – some of us are passive and it is the passivity that helps shape our own history and, to some degree, that of the world around us (think of those who can’t be bothered to vote in elections, for example, or pour scorn on others who do try to bring about social change). I have suggested elsewhere that comparative, parallel family histories might offer insights on social change or specific facets of everyday life. My own aim is to use the history of those who took up and bore the name ‘Bashforth’ over three centuries, how they spread around the world, how their fates differed and can be compared, how they ‘created history’ and in what sense. What I can show (let alone prove) with that approach is as yet an open book, with lots of blank pages. One thing I am sure I will find is that ‘radical family history’ is a concept, not a methodology.

[1] I think he describes social history in terms that are too narrow and, while I concur with his view that some of the subjects that are studied and written about by academics in the field of cultural history may seem bizarre (pp 86-87), his list is rhetorically selective (and therefore unworthy) and fails to appreciate the way in which historians today are concerned with the history of ‘everyday life’.

Birdcage Walk

It was an essay in the Guardian G2 Review [4 March 2017] that sent me off to get this book, recently published, by Helen Dunmore[1]. The article was about legacy, a more personal concept than heritage and therefore more humanistic. It struck several chords for me at once. Most personal was the disclosure that the author has ‘a cancer that has a very poor prognosis’. Though not personally displaying any symptoms, following a routine medical check-up, I am currently under investigation for what may be in the same ball park. I hope she does well, as I do for myself.

The paragraph that struck me with greatest force is worth quoting in full:

“Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit. Ancestors have shifted about in search of work, or been unable to write, or have never had the cash to pay a stonemason. They leave behind a story, perhaps, or an anecdote that is handed down from child to grandchildren, and then is heard no more. Existence subsides into a humus that at first sight looks entirely anonymous. But I want to probe more deeply, because I believe that there is more to it than that. Anonymity is also an inheritance and perhaps a precious one, just as the poems grouped under Anonymous in an anthology are often the most moving of all, honed as they are by generations of memory.”

While Helen Dunmore writes fiction, historical for the most part, I cannot help but see the many echoes of sentiment between what she has written here and my ideas about radical family and community history, especially her use of the word ‘anonymous’ and its resonance with Walter Benjamin’s concern for honouring the anonymous.

Birdcage Walk centres on a family and its circle of friends among 18th century political radicals in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution – less about their ideas and beliefs than about the impact of wider affairs on ordinary people. But these were also the foot soldiers of history-making. We might recall some of the famous names – Paine, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and other later figures. But they would have no significance were it not for the thousands of fellow thinkers out in the wider shires and cities and villages – the artisans and factory workers with copies of The Rights of Man in their pockets. And then there were the millions who simply toiled from day to day as domestic servants, migrant workers, farm labourers in a basic quest for survival, our first instinct. They all made history. They all continue to do so today. It is warming to see them figure in fiction in a way that highlights their humanity as they pass through on their anonymous way, particularly with the focus on the feminine viewpoint – often doubly anonymised in what passes for ‘history’.

One small afterword: on page 15, the ‘author’ is visiting an archivist and is presented with a fragment of paper bearing the writing of the person she was trying to identify: “I touched the paper as if the heat of their lives might come off on my fingers.” Someone who clearly does her research! We know that sensation, even if it only a signature in a marriage register.

 

 

[1] Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk, Hutchinson, London, 2017

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.

A drunk in the family – Part 2

[Continued from Part 1]. George Bashforth’s son John, who was not at home on census night in 1891, but was definitely one of the sons recalled by ‘JWR’, matched his father with 28 convictions from the early 1880s until 1907. He seems to have been somewhat itinerant in his drunkenness, clocking up offences in Dewsbury as well as Barnsley, and many of these were for begging in the streets, or for being a ‘rogue and vagabond’ – interspersed with several ‘drunk and disorderly’ events. His religious affiliation was even more promiscuous, including Wesleyan, Church of England and (mostly) Roman Catholic. He was about 5ft 3ins with sandy coloured hair and a variety of cuts and scars.

The Barnsley Chronicle, 24 June 1876 reported: ‘ASSAULTING A POLICE OFFICER. John Bashforth was charged with being drunk and assaulting PC Parkinson in Dodworth Road on the 18th inst. The officer went up to defendant and two other men on the road. Defendant was drunk, and when complainant ordered him home defendant struck him over the nose without any provocation. – The Bench committed defendant for one month for the assault on the police, and dismissed the summons for drunkenness.’

Along with his brother Charles, John was not above a bit of petty theft to feed their need for drink. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 September 1881 reported: ‘LARCENY BY FINDING AT BARNSLEY: At the Barnsley Police Court yesterday John Bashforth and Charles Bashforth, wheelwrights, were charged with larceny at Barnsley. – Sarah Wait, wife of an engine tenter, of Cape Street, Barnsley, said she went into the town on Saturday night with a silver lever watch in her dress pocket. She returned home, when she missed the watch, and gave information to the police. Prisoners went to Messrs Eaton and Richards, pawnbrokers, Wakefield, to pledge the watch, when they were given into custody. – Prisoners were each committed for fourteen days.’

John Bashforth eventually died in Barnsley Workhouse Infirmary of Bright’s Disease on 11 October 1915[1]. He never married, for which his female contemporaries should be grateful! Charles, meanwhile, gathered a new drinking partner in his younger brother Isaac.

In the Sheffield Independent, 23 August 1887, ‘Isaac Bashforth and Charles Bashforth, wheelwrights, of Barnsley, were charged with being drunk and assaulting Police-sergeant Balls, at Barugh, on Sunday afternoon last. The officer said he was on duty at Barugh when he saw both the defendants drunk and using bad language. He went up to them and ordered them home. Isaac Bashforth struck him on the breast. He was taking him into custody when Charles went up and struck him a violent blow over the eye and knocked him down. When on the ground he was kicked over the leg. – The Bench pointed out that the prisoners were both sons of a tradesman who at one time occupied a position in the town. They advised them to give over drinking. A fine of 5s and costs for each offence was levied. Defendants were also ordered to pay 7s 6d damage done to the officer’s trousers.’

Isaac Bashforth added further exploits after his father’s death. He was described as 5ft 4ins with brown hair and various scars around the face. From the age of 39 to the age of 47 he seems to have achieved eight convictions for being drunk and disorderly, the last recorded being on 22 August 1902, when he compounded the offence by assaulting the constable who tried to arrest him. He claimed to have been married at the 1901 census, to a woman called Emma nineteen years older than himself, but there is no evidence of a legal marriage. This last incident occurred at her funeral and led to reports in several newspapers on 23 August 1902.

The Nottingham Evening Post reported: “Disgraceful Scene at a Funeral: Arising out of a disgraceful scene which occurred at a funeral at the Hoyland Churchyard, a charge of drunkenness and assault was preferred against Isaac Bashforth, wheelwright, of Barnsley, at the West Riding Police Court yesterday. The prosecutor was Police-constable Imms. According to the evidence of the constable and several witnesses, Bashforth appeared at the funeral of the woman, with whom he had cohabited, in a state of intoxication, and created a disturbance when requested to leave the Churchyard by Police-constable Imms, who was sent for. Defendant struck him several times on the chest, and a struggle ensued in which the constable was injured. Defendant was subsequently locked up. – Ernest Angel stated that as the funeral procession proceeded down Church Street, defendant was following using bad language. He bent over the coffin, and otherwise behaved in a most offensive manner. – John Cadman gave corroborative evidence. – Defendant pleaded that he did not know what he was doing. He was too drunk. – The Bench imposed a fine of 5s and costs or 10 days for the drunkenness; and ordered defendant to pay 20s and costs or undergo one month’s imprisonment, for the assault.’ He went to gaol.

Isaac Bashforth died of bronchitis in 1904 aged 48 at 1 Court 3 Sackville Street, Barnsley attended by his married sister, Margaret Alderson[2]. The Alderson family seem to have been the ones to pick up the broken family pieces. Margaret’s brother-in-law Herbert and his wife Lucy, with five children, were accommodating Charles Bashforth in 1911 in the crowded conditions of Court No 2, Wood Street, Barnsley. Charles never married and died in 1920 aged 63[3].

On the gravestone of Elizabeth Bashforth, who died 26 April 1853, the mother of George and grandmother of the other miscreants, there is a long, blank, unused area ready for further inscriptions, not least of whom should have been that of her husband Swithen Bashforth, who died in some discomfort on 26 May 1873 aged 79 of old age, paralysis and diarrhoea at 13 Court 5, Sheffield Road, Barnsley, attended by Elizabeth Burkinshaw[4], his second wife Esther wasting no time in re-marrying. It is a graven silence that shames some disreputable offspring, whose several claims to the trade of wheelwright may have been honoured more in the breach than reality.

[1] Death certificate. The disease is chronic nephritis, kidney failure.

[2] Death certificate

[3] Apr-Jun 1920 Barnsley 9c 289

[4] Death certificate

A drunk in the family – Part 1

You may be excited to find that among your ancestors there is a notorious convict, especially if they were transported to the Colonies. Unfortunately, for most of us, they are usually less ‘romantic’ – petty thieves, vagrants and drunks. The records of the West Riding jail at Wakefield provide an insight into this uneasy corner of the past[1].

There was a well-known and respectable wheelwright business in early nineteenth-century Barnsley, established there by William Bashforth (1767-1824)[2] and continued by his eldest son, Swithen Bashforth (1793-1873). In St Mary’s old churchyard, there is a memorial stone for William and several of his family. It was organised by Swithen, who looked after his mother following William’s death. Swithen also arranged a stone for his first wife, Elizabeth (née Stringer), with space for his own inscription to be added.

The Barnsley Chronicle of Saturday, 21 July 1933, quoted an elderly resident recalling the 1870s[3]: “At the corner of Peel Street and York Street was a wheelwright’s establishment, kept by old Bashforth and his sons.” At various times before that, Swithen Bashforth had his workshop at 28 Peel Street[4]. What ‘JWR’ recalled, however, belonged to Swithen’s son George Bashforth (1820-1892). George and three of the sons referred to became well known for less respectable reasons.

George Bashforth married the widow Catherine Evans (née Shaw) on 25 March 1844 at Silkstone parish church. Catherine already had one son, James, and the couple went on to have ten more children: five daughters and five sons. Not all of the sons chose to follow their father’s trade of wheelwright in Barnsley, though all started their working life with him. George junior (born 1846) and William (born 1852) went to Worsbrough to the wagon works and the collieries.

The three who stayed were John born 1850, Charles born 1857 and Isaac born 1858. All three were unmarried in 1871, when the family lived at 3 Providence Street (on the south side of town off Park Road). By 1881, the family was at the wonderfully named Jumble Lane at No 9 Court and in 1891 they were at 3 Heelis Street, also on the south side. Catherine had died the previous year and John was (characteristically) out somewhere.

George Bashforth established a reputation for becoming drunk and disorderly.  On 2 July 1867, the Sheffield Independent reported Barnsley Court House, where ‘George Bashforth, labourer (sic), was charged with assault upon his wife on the Friday before’. She was knocked down by her husband in a public house where she had gone in search of him. He was committed to prison for seven days.

On 11 November 1871, the Barnsley Chronicle reported the headline His Eleventh Appearance. George Bashforth, a wheelwright, was charged with being drunk and riotous at Barnsley. The Mayor said: ‘Now George here again’. George replied, ‘I am sorry for it, as I have been teetotal since I was here before’, at which the public broke into laughter. Supt. Sykes handed in a list of previous convictions, which showed the defendant had been before the Court on ten previous occasions. The Mayor commented: ‘Drink! Drink! We should have nothing to do if it were not for drink’. The constable said he had found the defendant in Peel Square creating a disturbance and using abusive language. The Mayor asked the defendant if he had anything to say, to which he replied ‘No, I can say nothing, because I don’t know what I was doing.’ He was committed to prison for seven days.

Between 1881 and 1887, George accumulated a further ten convictions for being ‘drunk and riotous’ for which he received sentences of 14 or 28 days’ hard labour at Wakefield Prison. He was in his 60s and, thanks to the prison records, we learn of his grey hair, varicose veins and that his nose was broken and twisted to the right. Generally, he also had various cuts and bruises. It would appear from his declarations that he may have tried turning to Methodism to control his behaviour, but without success. On 9 October 1886, the Barnsley Chronicle reported that George Bashforth one of the eldest offenders in the town was charged with public disorder. PC Gaythorpe found the defendant drunk and riotous in Lindley Fold and was compelled to lock him up. The defendant was drunk every day and was a nuisance to the neighbourhood. He was committed to gaol for a month. It was only a month since he had come out of gaol.

On 25 August 1888, the Barnsley Chronicle used the headline ‘The Deceived Ones’. George Bashforth, 74, wheelwright, who had been convicted about 30 times at Barnsley for drunkenness and assault, was charged having been drunk and riotous at Barnsley on the previous Saturday. Mrs Smith of New Street, wife of a pork butcher, said the defendant without the slightest provocation struck her a violent blow on the face, on Saturday evening. PS McCrone proved that the prisoner was drunk and very violent in his conduct. He struck the last witness and another woman in the face. He also made use of very bad language and used bad language in Park Row. Prisoner said the newspaper told lies about him, he had not been up 40 times. Mr Taylor told him that the offence record was against him and imposed a fine of 5s and costs.

There may have been subsequent occasions of less riotous drunkenness before he died aged 72 of pneumonia at home in 1892, two years after his poor suffering wife, attended by his married daughter Margaret Alderson[5]. Unfortunately, by that time his sons were establishing their own equivalent reputations. [See Part 2]

[1] Accessible on Ancestry. I have also extensively used the British Newspapers on Find My Past.

[2] From whom the writer is descended.

[3] Quoted in Aspects of Barnsley, Volume 3: Chapter 2 ‘Town End in 1870’ by Ian Harley, p.35 (Wharncliffe, Barnsley, 1995).

[4] Barnsley Streets, Volume 2: EG Tasker (Wharncliffe, Barnsley, 2002)

[5] Death certificate