U is for Unity – a historian’s best friend? #atozchallenge

Ok I know we are getting to the tricky letters of the alphabet but you are probably thinking, what on earth can she being going to drivel on about now.

You know those occasions when you have to provide your current occupation? It is usually when you are applying for some kind of insurance. Frequently there is a pre-prepared drop down list with no option for ‘other’. No chance that this list will include ‘historical interpreter’. Often ‘historian’ doesn’t appear either, although strangely most of these lists include ‘art historian’. I told you we were in danger of extinction (see yesterday’s post). Depending on my mood (and what I think will get me the lowest premium) I might go for ‘lecturer’, or ‘researcher’, or ‘author’, or even ‘museum guide’ – none of which describe all of what I do. If I say I am an ‘historian’ it conjures up visions of a, usually male, antiquarian, beavering away in a dusty study, communicating with no one. This so isn’t what I do.

Err, you are meant to be writing about unity remember. – I know I am getting there. There are two aspects to this – how can a united front help the cause of the historian and how can a study of history promote unity in a community or group.

Access to a world-wide audience can give historical research a completely different complexion. Group projects can be undertaken by those who never physically meet. Take, for example, my 1946-1969 project. Nearly 100 women from three continents are contributing to this study, giving me data that would be very difficult to collect If I had to meet with these ladies face to face. The scope for collaborative research is infinite. Databases can be added to by those working in distant locations; group participation makes for more detailed and comprehensive research.

Local historians can accomplish far more as a group than one person can alone. This is not just an issue of time. Each person will bring their own specialist interests to the team and can enjoy working on the aspect of community history that they enjoy best. Someone who has a fascination for ancient earthworks may not be the right person to conduct oral history interviews. Team work brings greater and more focussed results.

The Society for One-Place Studies is undertaking a joint project about the First World War. This is a brilliant idea because members can share ideas and experiences, can encourage each other and will eventually be able to compare results. This will make the research much more meaningful than isolated projects. Members will be able to see just how typical their communities were. Family history is like a jigsaw puzzle. If you work with others you may find some of your missing pieces. Sometimes we are all too keen to hang on to ‘our’ research (See O is for ownership) but sharing really does have its benefits.

Unity of course is power. Many strange things are happening to heritage, to archives, to online genealogical data providers at the moment. If you want to campaign for the retention of an archive facility or changes to an online data provider’s system, then there may not be not safety but there is certainly impact in numbers. Joining together in an organised way is far more likely to bring about change than a lone voice in the wilderness.

Finally, a study of history can bring about unity and I have touched on this in previous posts. Creating a community archive can bring a community together, as they explore their shared heritage. Family history spawns renewed contact with distant family members, it may lead to family reunions, it may help to unite the family. All in all then uniting in groups of like minded people can be beneficial to historical research and engaging in that research can bring a disparate individual together with a sense of common purpose.

T is for Teachers – can they inspire the next generation of historians?

What do you remember about the history of your schooldays? History didn’t make much of an impression on me in primary school, where we started at the stone age when we were seven and worked our way through to the Victorians by the time we left – after all the twentieth century was hardly history was it? This did at least give us the sense of chronology that is now sadly missing from school history teaching. For me the history bug began to bite in the early years of secondary school where an inspirational teacher, Mrs Goodridge, allowed us to do things. Amongst other things, we made a model Viking Village and drew huge plans of the interior of a Tudor ship. Doing things works, it is memorable and it engages the audience. My own former pupils built historically and mathematically correct replicas of the Globe Theatre and made miniature cob cottages (well, minus the cow dung – health and safety rules). The young people I work with rarely forget having their constipation cured by the barber surgeon.

I will say more about young people and history when we get to ‘Y’ because it is not just the young we need to inspire. Television programmes – from costume dramas to Who Do You Think You Are? – help to give people a sense of the past, albeit not always a very accurate one. Series such as Victorian/Edwardian/Tudor Monastery Farm go one better and are rooted in quality historical research. The interest that these programmes inspire should be cultivated. Adults and children alike need to be encouraged to engage with their heritage and what better way to do this than by making history relevant and personal. People are far more likely respond positively to the history of their own town or family than they are to the politics or economics of a far flung country in years gone by.

History is being squeezed from the school curriculum in favour of ‘more relevant’ subjects. History makes us who we are, it makes our nations what they are too, for better or worse. What could be more relevant than that? Historians of all persuasions need to take up the cudgels for their subject and see that it does not itself become history. Those of us who attempt to impart our love of the subject, must be innovative in order to capture our audience, in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive. We need to meet our learners where they are, be that in a classroom, through the pages of a book or using social media. It is a challenge but needs to be done, history is too precious not to share and too much fun to ignore.

S is for Smith’s Crisps and the Spanish Armada – family rumours – are they true? #atozchallenge

Those rumours – every family has them. Frequently they seem to relate to money in Chancery or Coats of Arms (almost certainly, if you are entitled to these you would know about it). Then there is the three brothers story. This one usually involves them all adopting slightly different spellings of the same surname. Well it happens but rarely as the result of a conscious decision by the individuals involved. Oh and the ‘came over with the Conqueror’ story. Maybe your ancestors did. Are you likely to be able to prove it? – No. When manning (or womanning) a family history stall you can pretty much guarantee that you will get at least one claim of descent from the Normans who arrived with William I. A late dear friend even had a sweatshirt made with the slogan ‘I have Norman Ancestors’ on it. In his case I had no grounds to disagree – his surname was Norman!

Smiths advert c 1920sTwo of the stories in my own family both begin with S. Firstly, my great grandfather, or maybe his father, was supposedly offered a half share in Smith’s Crisps for £50 and turned it down saying it wouldn’t catch on. Likely to be true? Well the surname was Smith – that’s a start. We certainly didn’t inherit Smith’s Crisps millions and in any case they long since sold out to a conglomerate. The Smiths were corn factors, grocers and tea dealers, sounds promising. For years I traced my own Smith ancestry. I discovered who founded Smith’s Crisps and I traced his ancestry too, as best I could. Geographically the families were close but I could not nail the link. I turned to other lines. Then when my daughter, at the time aged twelve, was in hospital she wanted to do some family history so together we revived the Smith research. It was at this point that I had another conversation with the friend I mentioned under ‘K is for Kinship’. Instead of saying ‘I am related to the Smith’s of London’, this time I added the Smith’s Crisps connection. Back came the reply ‘That is my Smith line.’ One of her relations, who fortunately had an unusual surname, was married to the Smiths of Smith’s Crisps and she had the vital piece of documentation that allowed me to make the connection. I can’t actually prove the £50 part of the story but my great grandfather and the founder of Smith’s Crisps were first cousins.

The other rumour is one that has been perpetuated in many branches of the Braund family. Allegedly the Braunds were of Spanish descent and arrived in Devon following the wreck of a Spanish Armada ship. This story appeared in the Evening Standard in 1928 and is dragged out by the media every silly season. It is even mentioned on interpetation boards in the North Devon village of Bucks Mills, home to many Braunds. True? No, total bunkum. There were no Braunds in Bucks Mills until the nineteenth century. ‘But’, say those who rather like the sound of this story, ‘The Braunds are quite swarthy and Spanish looking.’ Well, perhaps Braunds from elsewhere then? Nope. Braunds can be found in North Devon more than a hundred year before the Spanish Armada and in Lincolnshire for 300 years before that. Added to this, no Armada ship was wrecked of that part of the coast, despite ‘Armada’ cannon (that look distinctly Napoleonic in date) in a local park.

Do you have family stories? Often there is a grain of truth in these. They are certainly worth investigating, as long as you do not have great expectations of them being accurate in every particular. The fun is in the chase not the outcome. I greatly enjoyed unearthing the truth behind a friend’s family rumour that she was connected to the chocolate making, prison reforming Quaker Frys. If you want to hear that story you will have to wait until I am giving my ‘From Darlington to Wellington: the sad story of Isabella Fry’ talk!

R is for Referencing #familyhistory #forensicgenealogy

Under ‘E is for evidence’ I wrote about the importance of evidence for historians. Diligent historians not only seek sources that will provide corroborating evidence for statements that they make but they will cite those sources equally diligently. In the world of family history there should be no vital event on a pedigree, or statement in a family story, that is un-attributed. You may know where a piece of evidence came from but does anyone else? When you are no longer the custodian of your family history, someone else should be able to follow your research trail. References serve to authenticate your work and enable others to understand how you reached your conclusions. Without references you might as well write a work of fiction. Without evidence you probably are writing a work of fiction!

Lately there has been a upsurge in courses and articles stressing the need for genealogical proof and this is laudable. The phrase ‘forensic genealogy’ has being bandied about, as if this were some form of elite genealogy. There is even a Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy. What is forensic genealogy? It appears to mean the creation of a pedigree backed up by evidence and cited references. I certainly have no argument with this methodology, which is one I both advocate and adopt. In 2010 Colleen Fitzpatrick wrote ‘Forensic genealogy has established itself as the modern approach to family research, for hobbyists, for the legal profession, and for law enforcement.’ This approach is not new, it is not ‘modern’, it is merely common sense. Forensic genealogy is in fact just good genealogy and many of us have been practising it for decades. Surely forensic genealogy should be the only form of genealogy – we are back to John Titford’s ‘genealogy for grown-ups’ (see ‘I is for Internet Genealogy’). Why would anyone want a pedigree that is based on guesswork?

There are those who say that all this obsession with evidence and with original sources and their citation makes a hobby seem like a great deal of hard work. Thoroughness is a necessary part of the process. Anyone who sets out to trace their family tree surely wants just that – their family tree, not someone else’s, not one that is inaccurate or cobbled together.

The sad thing about the advocacy of forensic genealogy and the provision of courses about genealogical proof is the accompanying suggestion that there is another sort of genealogy. ‘Hey, I’m only an amateur, I’m not one of these forensic guys, I don’t need to worry about evidence/sources/citations/proof.’ Well sorry but yes you do. If you want a pretty chart or that work of fiction I mentioned, go ahead, create your pedigree without reference to your sources, write a family history lacking in citations but this is not genealogy, forensic or otherwise.

Q is for Quotes and Language of the Past #family history #socialhistory

Those who have looked at other pages on my website may have noticed that many of them are topped and tailed by quotes relating to history. One of my favourites is ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’ (George Santayana). A couple more to save you searching every page ‘If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday’ (Pearl Buck) ‘What is the fire in our belly but the eternal flame of a thousand ancestors’ (Robert Brault).

Having cited the telling words of others, let us think about words in general. Those of us who are interested in the past often do not consider how our predecessors spoke and sounded. This is not just about regional accents, although these are important and sadly, rapidly being eroded. It is about the words and phrases that were used. I work in the seventeenth century as an historical interpreter and we do attempt to change our phraseology to sound other than twenty-first century. We do not speak as people would have four hundred years ago. To begin with the only evidence we have for seventeenth century language comes from the literature of the time; Shakespeare being the most obvious example. Studying his language and that of his fellow writers, helps but this is of course the ‘dramatic’ language of the literate and may not reflect how your ancestors would have spoken. Anyone who has studied Chaucer will know that Medieval language would be almost unrecognisable today. Luckily recordings survive for language and dialects of the last century but much of this is in ‘BBC’ English and not everyday speech. Records in the vernacular do survive and the advent of YouTube means that they are become more easily available outside of sound archives. Do take the trouble to seek them out.

More recently, it is about the use and meaning of words. The linguistic differences between English speaking nations is significant. We all know that English English needs translating for Americans and vice-versa. The differences between English English and Australian English are less marked (perhaps because colonisation came later) but they are there none the less. Anyone aged forty or more can think of words that have changed their meanings within our life-time. Each generation has its own cult or slang words. New words come into our vocabularies and regrettably, many more drop out of use. If we are writing our own memoirs, or the story of our families, we should also include a flavour of the words that were used. So ‘groovy’ of my 1970s teenagerhood has gone but ‘cool’ has recently been revived. What phrases or sayings do you remember from your childhood? Are there words or expressions that were unique to your family or area? Preserve them while you can.

P is for Patchwork and other Heirlooms #family history #atozchallenge

The history of our families comes down to us through documents that we may need to seek out, through memories (our own and those of others), through places and through objects. Many of these artefacts are only significant if their stories are known, preserved and perpetuated. You may be aware of the significance of various ‘heirlooms’ but do your nearest and dearest? Items that may seem of no value, financially or aesthetically, become precious if their background is recorded. Do therefore take time to make a note of why objects in your possession have a family significance. At least then, when you are no longer their custodian, your descendants will be conscious of what they have inherited. Any decision that they then make to keep or discard items will be an informed one.

DSCF1583I am fortunate enough to have inherited two patchwork quilts, neither of which is quite complete. One was made by my mother in the early 1960s. It contains many materials that I remember from my early childhood. The other is much older, begun by my great grandmother in the 1880s. Most of the fabrics are tiny, floral, Victorian prints. Some of the papers are still within the hexagons; these have been cut from an exercise book of a similar era. My grandmother and mother also contributed to this quilt and I have begun to finish it by hemming round the edges. DSCF1588I shall deliberately leave a little undone, allowing my children and grandchildren (okay so the grandchildren have to get a little older before we trust them with a needle!) to work on the quilt too. That will make six generations working on one object and providing I record its story, it will be a true heirloom.

O is for Ownership – do you own your family tree?

Recently Dick Eastman commented on ownership of family trees, berating those who complain if their family information is ‘stolen’. Dick wrote, “Many genealogists think the information they collect becomes private for some reason and that no one else has a right to view the info. They collect information about names, dates, and places throughout history and then seem to believe that they “own” the information, even though they obtained all that from publicly-available sources. I believe they are wrong, both for legal and for practical reasons.”

In my opinion, there is a distinction here between genealogy and family history. Genealogical facts are primarily in the public domain and do not ‘belong’ to anyone. The synthesis of that information in order to produce a true family history, complete with national and local context, memories and social historical comment is very different. This is your personal family story.

I don’t consider that I ‘own’ my ancestry. I have shared genealogical and family historical information for nearly four decades. I do so by email but not online because I want a genuine two way dialogue with people who may have information to offer in exchange. I also want to be able to explain exactly how I reached my conclusions. I accept that people with whom I have shared family trees may pass them on and publish them online. They may be ‘stealing’ my interpretation of the data but others could come to the same conclusions give the same facts. I am however far less accepting of those who take lengthy portions of text that I have written and incorporate them in their websites or other ‘publications’, frequently without consultation or acknowledgement. I believe that the in-depth research and the synthesis of material from many sources that I have done in order to create my family history is indeed my own.

My sources never include ‘I got this from an online family tree’. That is not and never should be, a source. Work that others have done may be a guide but it is not family history (yours or anyone else’s) unless it has been verified in original sources. As I commented under ‘I’, the internet has given us ease of access to records in an undreamed of way. Equally, it has encouraged ‘short-cut’ genealogy, where the family trees of others, however poorly researched, are imported into the family tree of those name hunters eager for the largest family tree; a tree that will be in severe need of pruning.

When people learn that you are researching your family tree they inevitably ask you, ‘How far back have you got?’ The sooner we promote the alternative, ‘How much do you know?’ outlook the better. A family tree with names but no places, occupations and sometimes even lacking in dates, is not a family history, it is a diagram. It is not a substitute for a personally researched ancestral story. You may not own the genealogical data but you can own the fully fashioned family story.