Is the Twentieth Century History?

The obvious answer is ‘of course it is’; yesterday is already history. Certainly anyone who knows anything about current UK secondary school history teaching would be forgiven for thinking that the twentieth century is the only history. Students seem to leap from conflict to conflict – the second world war, the cold war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Irish troubles and if they are really lucky, that dim and distant event, the first world war. For community historians, the twentieth century has an appeal because it is within living memory; oral history projects abound. Why then do family historians seem reluctant to venture further forward than the 1911 census? Some adhere to the concept that the twentieth century is somehow ‘too recent’ and therefore not worthy of investigation. Perhaps this is partly because we often already know the names of our twentieth century ancestors, without the need for research. Are some put off by the difficulties of researching in the twentieth century? Records are subject to closure, people migrate or emigrate more frequently, there are just more people. Then what do you do with any information that you might find? Plastering the names of living second cousins twice removed, whom you have never met, all over family trees is, for most, an unacceptable invasion of privacy.

So do we just go back to the comfort of the nineteenth century and beyond? No; your twentieth century ancestors are every bit as much part of your family tree. Perhaps begin with your direct ancestors who are no longer living. Try this exercise:- Make a list of all parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, who were alive between 1900 and 1940 but who have since died. If they were born during this period, make a note of when, otherwise write their age in 1900 next to their name, so you can appreciate their life stage at the time. You will probably be surprised by how many names are on this list. If you have photographs of any of these ancestors you may like to create a montage, otherwise keep the list of names handy. These are important links in your chain of ancestry. You owe it to them to find out more about their lives, their communities and what they experienced.

So here are my direct ancestors who were alive between 1900 and 1940 – no great aunts, great great uncles or cousins – just my direct line.

Cyril Albany Braund 1915

Gwendoline Catherine Smith 1925

Albany Braund 12

Clara Dawson 1858-1949 possibly taken 1886

Clara Dawson

Elizabeth Ann Hogg 14

Frederick Herbert Smith 6

Ivy Gertrude Woolgar 7

Fanny Thomasine Bishop 31

John Hogg 45

Herbert Havet Smith 34

Catherine Seear 34

Philip James Woolgar 45

Clara Dawson 42

Elizabeth Buckingham 67

Elizabeth Pearson 72

William Howe 69

Anne Stratford 66

Mary Archer Bowyer 69

Eliza Seear 77 – she only just makes it, Eliza died on 1 January 1900

Anne Balls Bulley 65

Writing that felt a little like reading the Roll of Honour on Remembrance Day. Perhaps that is how it should be. These nineteen individuals are my personal role of honour, as are all those who died before 1900. I shall be holding them in my mind as I begin my online course on Tuesday ‘Discovering Your Ancestors’ Communities in the early Twentieth Century’. I still have a couple more spaces in the ‘room’ if you would like to join in and feel you can cope with Google+.



6 comments on “Is the Twentieth Century History?

  1. A great idea Janet and certainly when researching in the 20th Century you need to be legally creative on where to look. A Cousin of mine is on Facebook which enabled me to piece together their earlier life complete with 6 children and 4 marriages!

    Interesting that you have Woolgar’s on your family – not a surname you hear everyday, but I have them too!

  2. What a great idea, Janet! Thanks.

  3. Tony Proctor says:

    Thanks for an interesting article Janet. Obviously such a bias in the historical time periods presented at secondary school would be wrong. However, when I was growing up there, I remember it being skewed the opposite way. We started at the Stone-Age and progressed gradually forwards. If we were lucky then we may have heard of the War of the Roses before opting out of history for — in my case — sciences. That meant that I was not taught about any of the events that shaped the modern world. Although the current bias sounds wrong, it still sounds better than my own UK education.

    Regarding genealogists and the 1911 barrier: I’d like to suggest that the blanket “100 year closure” rule that gets wheeled out in the most silly of instances is partly to blame. I have researched a number of lives into the 20th Century and this, together with certain record types being religiously destroyed after 10, 20, or 25 years to save space and money, were huge obstacles.

    • I agree that the availability of, or access to, C20th records is a real barrier. The secondary school curriculum is due for a shake up so I am hoping there will be a more balanced view on its way. It is the exam syllabuses that are often so heavily biased towards the C20th, something I think will change.

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