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 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.



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!

The Barnsley Cordwainers Society

Check across to the ‘related sites’ tag on the right hand side and you will find a new site has been added to the list. For at least twelve years I have been researching the history of the Cordwainers Society of Barnsley. This is reputedly the oldest surviving local friendly society in England, having been founded in March 1747/8 by sixteen men from the town. Although they adopted the name ‘Cordwainers’, indicating a link to the profession of making (not repairing) boots and shoes and other leather goods, very few actually pursued this trade. There were two ‘gentlemen’ who acted as patrons and bankers in the early years until the Society was firmly established. There were several miners and assorted metal tradesmen and farmers, among others. The Society continued to include men from all backgrounds. It still exists today, though its welfare activities as such have long ceased to have any currency. Instead it functions as a social club, gathering once a year in the Spring to celebrate its survival on its traditional feast day, and at other occasional informal gatherings often including families.

The website will act as a means of publishing items from the Society’s history and create a focal point through which present day members, as well as family historians tracing links and social historians interested in friendly societies can access and contribute to. My own family name has links going back to the late 18th century, with several members serving on the committee over the subsequent decades. I stumbled into it by accident, having sought permission to use material from their archives (deposited with Barnsley Local Studies), attending a few annual dinners and being admitted as an honorary life member and historian. I am now pleased at last to be getting the history of this unique organisation better known in the 21st century.

Nothing to be Frightened Of

Not exactly ‘archives in fiction’, but close enough, is something I just found in Julian Barnes’s meditations on death, dying and family history: Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

After a long disquisition on what little remains in the family and public archives for his grandfather, he makes the following observations:

A Bertie who changed into a Bert; a late volunteer; a mute witness; a sergeant discharged as a private; a defaced photograph; a possible case of remorse. This is where we work, in the interstices of ignorance, the land of contradiction and silence, planning to convince you with the seemingly known, to resolve – or make usefully vivid – the contradiction, and to make the silence eloquent[1].

Whether he is commenting on his work as a novelist or as a writer of literary non-fiction, what he says is so accurate a description of what those of us working in family history (and history more generally) attempt to do, especially when we are delving further back than direct memory allows – faulty as that is, too. He is a great deal wiser than those historians who try to assert that what they have to say is ‘the truth’, and it too is ‘nothing to be frightened of’.

[1] Julian Barnes: Nothing to be Frightened Of, Vintage Books, London, 2009, page 240

Who was ‘Owd Bashforth’?

There was a colourful sketch of an 18th century schoolmaster in the summer issue of the journal of the Sheffield Family History Society[1]. “Owd Bashforth” terrorised some 50 Sheffield children with his succession of canes drawn from the basement of the schoolroom, including James Bussey the author of the extract from the Weekly Independent. Who exactly was this formidable gentleman?

John Bashforth was baptised 26 December 1750, the son of a filesmith of the same name and his wife Susan (née Ashmoore). He came from a line of filesmiths stretching back into the 17th century[2]. To begin with he would have followed his father’s trade, learning the skills in the home workshop. It is possible to date his change of occupation from baptismal records for his children.

John married Ann Cooper on 3 June 1782 and the couple baptised their first child Mary on 5 March 1783, John giving his trade as filesmith. When they came to baptise the second child William on 11 November 1785, John gave his profession as schoolmaster. He continued to do the same for all the remaining children: Ann in 1788, John in 1790, Thomas in 1793 and Joseph in 1798.

The description in James Bussey’s recollection of his schooldays sometime before 1810 explains the change of profession. “Owd Bashforth” was missing his left arm. The trade of filesmith could be very dangerous to health: inhalation of dust from grinding, lead poisoning and problems with the wrist and hand. Every groove in a file was made by hand using a specially shaped and weighted hammer against a chisel at a rate of anything around 100 strokes a minute. Equally dangerous was the practice of sharpening tools on a grinding wheel, which could be inclined to shatter catastrophically.

Something like this may very well have happened to John Bashforth between 1783 and 1785. With one arm he had no chance of being able to practice his trade any longer. Fortunately no particular qualifications were needed to be a schoolmaster other than a decent level of literacy, numeracy and knowledge of the Bible. John Bashforth had a role keeping good order at the entrance to St Peter’s church and this would have been enough to give him sufficient standing in the local community. Of course, he still had one good arm with which to wield his cane with all the vigour of a former filesmith!

Personal memories such as these are absolutely priceless for family historians trying to put humanity into the basic records from registers and lists. The hard work of people in local societies is the collective endeavour that brings it all to life.

[1] The Flowing Stream, Vol 36 No 2 pp 15-21

[2] Some of the details of this ancestry are sketchy in the surviving records.

Common People – Review

Common People: The History of an English Family by Alison Light (Fig Tree, London 2014)

Having been promoting for nearly ten years the wider value of family history to our general understanding of the past, this year has seen my arguments vindicated in double measure[1].

Firstly, an accomplished academic literary historian has published a history of her own family that exemplifies the power of family history to shine lights into the less exposed corners of the past. Secondly, the book made it onto the short list for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction alongside some very stiff competition. It did not win, but the achievement stands in defiance of all those who dismiss family historians as cranks and the product of their work as nothing better than dull anecdote, meaningless to non-family members. Alison Light’s book Common People is a magnificent example and challenge to all of us who do care about family history to ‘up our game’ and have the confidence to follow a similar path, marrying our research with local and social history.

Common People traces back six generations of Alison Light’s family. They include everyone from the workhouse poor, the criminal and the destitute through to successful small business people and pillars of the chapel, with all shades in between. They are all very ordinary and in their ordinariness tell us more than most other stories (other than fiction) about everyday life in the past. It is the magic of this book, as the author herself puts it, that it is not so much ‘history from below’ as ‘history from inside’.

From time to time, the author steps aside from the narrative to share with us two particular facets of her interest. Firstly there are passing nuggets of wisdom about the value of family history as such. It is best to stumble on these in context to be brought short with their inspirational message, but I will mention one as an example: that anonymity also has its history. Secondly she is unafraid to be passionate about the stories she discovers in her research. It has become somewhat fashionable for historians to ‘rise above’ emotional comment on the iniquities perpetrated on the poor, with the idea that ‘the past is a different country’ and had different values. Alison Light affirms our right to be angry about the cruelty of much historic public policy, noting that many voices were raised in the past for reform and change but they were ignored by those in power. The world was contested then as it remains today – uncannily so with the ongoing debates about welfare and austerity against a background of expenses scandals, bankers bonuses and the audacious criminality of much of the finance industry and large corporations. We need humane voices like Alison Light’s to remind us that we make history, it does not simply happen to us.

She concludes with the hope that ‘this book encourages others to write their family history as a public history’. I hope so too. This kind of detailed forensic examination of ordinary, everyday life has an unusual power. The world is exposed to us in a radically different way from more analytic forms of history and sociology. These lives echo and resonate in our own lives, here and now. It is a way of speaking Truth unto Power. This is what I mean by ‘radical family history’. Finding our roots can change us dramatically.

I would also recommend The Valley by Richard Benson and London Stories by Hilda Kean as two more and different examples of this kind of radical family history, each with its own different viewpoint and value. Alison Light was not the first and will not be the last on this road.

Martin Bashforth

[1] My original arguments are in ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’, Chapter 11 of People and Their Pasts: {ublic History Today, Edited by Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean (Palgrave, London 2009)