‘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.




Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research

Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research, [edited Keri Facer and Kate Pahl, Policy Press, Bristol & Chicago, 2017] – paperback retailing at £24.99

Until 2014, I was involved in a project examining the issue of socialising heritage and legacy, part of a wider series of projects under the A.H.R.C. Connected Communities label looking at collaborative methods of working. Our particular strand concerned ‘heritage’ and, from the start, set out to be collaborative – including the design of the research. The outcomes of this strand are summarised and analysed in Chapter Four of this book: ‘Socialising heritage/ socialising legacy’.

My involvement was as an individual freelance family and community historian, participating in the York’s Alternative History group. There were more than 20 of us in this project, from a variety of backgrounds in a well-designed balance of university academics, heritage professionals (including local planners) and members of community organisations. The boundaries of the group were fluid enough to include new people as the project developed, as well as (memorably) the critique of another 20 or so volunteers at a mid-way event in Manchester. It was a wonderful experience, very inspiring, though not without its conflicts, and I met some great people whom I much admire. From my perspective, one of the best outcomes has been the way in which things changed in York with the involvement of Richard and Lianne Brigham and how that has continued and grown (see https://en-gb.facebook.com/YorkPastandPresent/).

At the point I moved away, the project was being written up and at this stage I began to develop the only slight negative feeling. The unease I felt has redoubled on the publication of this book. In some ways, it was to be expected that the final writing up of the project would fall principally to the academics, so I initially dismissed my reservations since I trusted the academics involved, and drafts were always referred around the group as a whole. However, now that I have the collective publication in my hands, the unease has returned.

From the very start of the editors’ introduction the emphasis is on a two-handed division: academics on the one hand, everybody else on the other hand, in the context of ‘the boundaries between universities and publics’. On scanning through the contents as a whole, this pattern seems to be the norm. It seems to be all about justifying the funding of academia by bringing in the participation of the community. The latter is never clearly defined, though it is stated that communities are ‘seeking evidence and validation for their practice’.

I would demur from that statement as the emphasis in this volume is largely different – the academics are coming to us for their validation and our evidence. While I am perfectly happy with the way our own strand developed and the kinds of outcome it produced (notably the DIY Heritage Manifesto contributed by Danny Callaghan, a freelance grassroots heritage consultant in the Potteries), I am initially disappointed by the way in which the editors have characterised the issues we explored as some sort of problem for universities. The real problem is how grassroots initiatives can be validated in their own right and escape the bureaucracy involved in funding bids – which are heavily biased in favour of academics and professionals in the heritage and legacy milieu as they are more adept at filling in the forms.

I hope that my initial unease will be dispelled as I work through the various other project write-ups in this book, though a quick glance indicates I may have to wade through a lot of jargon and bullshit to extract what is really useful. Nevertheless – set aside the academic bias, these are all worthwhile projects in their own right. It will be worth the effort to persevere with the book – though I suspect a lot of community activists, if they hear of it through their networks and can get past the rather forbidding title, may find it hard going.

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

The Secret History of My Family 4

In times when there is enormous political and social pressure to reduce or remove welfare benefits, the fourth episode of BBC 2’s Secret History of my Family was compelling viewing. It managed to achieve a balanced survey of some of the arguments without moralising about families in the past or the present. In that regard, this was probably the best episode.

Social welfare has been a contentious subject politically since the Elizabethan Poor Laws at the end of the 16th century. It was a moral problem long before that, when benefits were charitable foundations attached to churches and monasteries. The rights and wrongs of handouts and who ‘deserved’ them or not was only briefly taken out of the hands of the moralisers with the introduction of State pensions and the family allowance during the 20th century.

The programme centred on Susan Nelson, a mother of three children in 1903 who had lost her husband in the South African Wars. She tried her best to avoid going into the workhouse but when all means ran out turned to the Charitable Organisation Society (COS) for help. She was placed under the supervision of Margaret Martin, one of the lady volunteers, who was the daughter of a well-to-do solicitor. The COS and Margaret were motivated by a desire to help, subject to the avoidance of ‘pauperism’, what we now hear described as welfare dependency. Interpretations of who was deserving were heavily dependent on moral behaviour. When it was discovered that Susan had shacked up with her brother in law, the three children were taken away and farmed out to distant relatives along with any charitable assistance.

The programme restricted itself to the fate of one child out of the three, Charlotte, and what happened to her and her own descendants. She was eventually rehoused from Deptford to Kent and remained estranged from her mother, as was her son. He himself suffered from a divorce and became estranged from his son and daughter, until reunited by this programme.

Susan meanwhile had three more children with her brother in law Nathaniel, out of wedlock. There were no more benefits from the COS and, after a dreadful incident between Susan and a drunken Nathaniel in which the youngest child ended up in the river before being rescued, she deserted her children to fend for themselves. The programme followed two of the sons and their descendants.

Nathaniel junior found a trade, but life remained hard with a mouth to mouth existence at the mercy of the ‘tally man’. Alfred, who had almost drowned, worked as a ferryman and labourer. During WW2 the children were evacuated to Durham where one son, Alec, acquired a strong local accent. He was teased about that, he passed the 11 plus for grammar school where he was teased mercilessly for lacking a decent uniform. He left to work as a carpenter on parental demands, but worked at night school and eventually also moved out of the area and encouraged his own children to progress through education. Meanwhile another of Alfred’s sons, Alex, deserted his wife leaving her to bring up 5 children on benefits, two of whom carried on that tradition as unmarried mothers with five children apiece.

The sole descendant of the charitable lady Margaret Martin to appear, a great-great niece, might have been expected to moralise about the unmarried mothers, but she was intensely understanding and had herself worked in birth control charities in America. She was the end of her own family line, while the descendants of Susan Nelson had created a massive extended family network, largely characterised by a rough and ready working class culture.

There was much sympathy for Susan Nelson and it is sad that we did not hear much about what happened to her – though she had been known to older members of the family. Yes, there is a working-class argument against welfare dependency, but it is based on the knowledge that it is generally better for all to have the limited independence of wages and that surviving on benefits is just that – survival. We may not be totally prisoners of our circumstances, as stories in this episode showed, but when horizons are lowered and ambitions discouraged by the surrounding culture, choices are less free than the well-off folk might imagine, particularly for women. In those instances, ‘welfare dependency’ is just another way of ‘getting by’ and ‘making shift’ – what those dependent on their labour have done since time immemorial.

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)

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.