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.

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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.

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.

Radical Family History on TV

When I first floated the idea of using family history as a means by which to ask questions about the experience of everyday life in the past, I suggested that the comparison of longitudinal studies of families and their experiences would be one significant contribution that might be made if the problem of logistics could be overcome[1]. If it could be collectively organised it might be called ‘radical family history’, but that would be no easy task. It would be history organised, researched and published from below.

There have been a number of examples of where individual writers have tackled their own family histories in a similar fashion to the way in which I am attempting to use mine to illuminate the past, which I have featured on this blog. The latest, however, will hit the TV screens very shortly and incorporates the comparative method to explore (no doubt among other themes) class and social mobility.

The Secret History of My Family is a four-part documentary series on BBC2 starting Thursday, 10 March at 8pm. Joanna Moorhead has introduced the series in the Guardian, 5 March 2016 in the Family supplement. The brains behind the idea is film-maker Joseph Bullman, who has already entertained and instructed us through his series The Secret History of Our Streets. He himself came from a working class background on an East London estate but had the right encouragement from father and teachers to achieve great ambitions. His own experience has prompted the main theme of this new series: what happened to the descendants of selected Victorian people. Only this is not about celebrities, this is ordinary people.

There are the three Gadbury sisters convicted of larceny, two of whom were transported to Australia. Moorhead also mentions Florence Hunt, a middle-class benefactress of John Manley, a boy she rescued from the workhouse as two more characters. This is shaping up to be a fascinating series.

[1] Ashton & Kean, People and Their Pasts, (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), chapter 11, page 218