Why History Matters

Regular readers of this blog (and I am always amazed that there are so many of you) will know that I frequently drone on about what I have been up to and that most of it usually relates to history, with the occasional travelogue thrown in. Sometimes, and today is one of those days, I feel like writing something vaguely more meaningful. Yesterday, a popular TV programme revealed that a third of those questioned did not know who was on the British throne in 1859, more worryingly, a similar number couldn’t name the monarch in 1979! Admittedly the question was not straightforwardly phrased but even so…… Does this matter? Well, at the most basic level maybe not but it is symptomatic of our frenetic clawing towards the future and lust for something new, at the expense of our heritage. History is continually being squeezed from the school curriculum and what is taught is often disjointed and lacking in context. Yes there really is a whole load of history between the Tudors and the Victorians, of which many school children are blissfully unaware, even supposing they have grasped that the Tudors come first! And yes, history does extend beyond the twentieth century political history, so beloved of the examination syllabus.

I have just listened to the news featuring an eighteen year old American scientist who has discovered a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. His mantra was, ‘Science is using your curiosity to change the world.’ Undoubtedly this is true in his case and he deserves every credit. When I explain what I study, I often feel that others think it is self-indulgent and that it does not contribute to the greater good. I am not suggesting history is more important than medical research but I maintain that, in some ways, it is as important. More and more studies are suggesting that an understanding of the past is crucial to our well-being in the present. American research, by Dr Marshall Duke, investigating childrens resiliency and ability to deal with stress, discovered that children who knew more about their families:-

  • Tended to do better than other children when they faced challenges.
  • Proved to be more resilient and able to moderate the effects of stress.
  • Had a stronger sense of control over their lives.
  • Had higher self-esteem.
  • Believed that their family functioned successfully.
  • Felt that they belonged to something larger than themselves.

Recent studies by The Heritage Lottery Fund found that there are positive benefits to an awareness of heritage that relate to quality of life, community cohesion and creating better places to live. Can historians use their curiosity to change the world? I am an idealist, if we each change our little bit of the world, perhaps they can.

History is about using the past to inform the present and the future. It can hone analytical skills and teach people to question but it can also engender a sense of belonging, to a family or a to community. An awareness of a shared past creates unity in the present. You may have spotted the history based quotes at the head and foot of most of the pages on my website. In the dim and distant past (well nine years ago), when I had a history classroom, most of these were depicted in coloured speech bubbles around the wall. Perhaps the most telling of these is George Santayana’s on the home page ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Sadly many are not learning from the past and many never will but I for one have the vision to think we could try and encourage people not to repeat so many past mistakes.

So yes, it matters but how do we spread the word? As my passion (far to far gone to call this merely a hobby) and what passes for my job overlap, I either work 150 hours a week, or I do nothing but enjoy myself! We can introduce others to history in a more moderate way. A bit like faith, we can take history out with us and introduce it to those with whom we come into contact. Not, I hasten to add, in a pushy overbearing way (that doesn’t work for religion either!) but gently, without people even realising that what they are doing is engaging in history. I have just written about this for the British Association for Local History’s newsletter. This blog post is already long enough, so I won’t repeat it all here now but there are many inventive ways in which this can be done; if you watch this space I may be inspired to feature some here. As many of you know, I am particularly focussed on engaging young people with history and heritage. Some of my descendants are on their way to visit (excited face) so I have the opportunity to put this into practice. Yes, I am talking about a fifteen month old and yes it is possible. I will show you the evidence next week.

I know you will say ‘I don’t have the time’ or ‘My friends and neighbours don’t have the time’. Originally this post was entitled ‘Making Time for History and why this Matters’ but I have spent so long on why it matters that I haven’t made time to address how to make time in our busy lives. Another day, another blog post – I promise.

History Hither and Yon

10351733_10206820505215117_6643545054264781746_nIt was a real pleasure to address the Isle of Wight Family History Society at their conference last week. My topic was working women and I made sure I kept my own female ancestors in mind by including photographs of many of them at the start of my presentation. Get out there and trace your female ancestors, family historian friends. Ironically, I returned home from the island only to meet an IOWFHS member at my first talk back in Devon. In my absence, Buckland Brewer History Group entertained Torrington History Society in style, illustrating yet again what a wonderful, active, supportive group they are.

Last week saw the publication of my article in Local History News (the magazine of the British Association for Local History) about involving the community in history. Then I wore several hats at the South West Area Group Family History Fair. There was plenty of positive response for the concept of One-Place Studies and it was another great opportunity to meet up with people. Mistress Agnes put in an appearance and there were several Swords and Spindles enquiries. We also enjoyed meeting several Braund Society members, so all in all, a good day. I now get two weekends at home!

An interesting conversation between a fisherman of my acquaintance and someone trying to sell house and contents insurance, was recently put on speaker-phone for its entertainment value. Having given the usual name, address, age, number of rooms information, the next question related to property outside the home. You would think that the salesman, knowing he was interrogating someone of pensionable age, would have referred to barbeques or patio furniture but no. ‘Do you have a trampoline?’ he asks. Whilst the three eavesdroppers on this conversation are trying to un-see a vision of the potential customer on a trampoline, the discussion takes an even more bizarre turn. A grandfather clock is mentioned as an item that might need special listing. The salesman takes note and then asks, ‘Do you keep it in a safe?’ Well not currently.

One Voyage and Looking Forward to Another

With very little turn around time since the Braund Reunion, we head off to the Isle of Wight with the caravan. We have a couple of deliveries to make on the way. The first is down a cul-de-sac. Our super new sat-nav is supposed to warn us when we head down roads from which, whilst towing a caravan, there is no return. It doesn’t. Chris manfully executes a 300 point turn in a space that would be tight for turning the car minus the caravan. A lady looks out of her door. She is probably worried that we will drive across her immaculate lawn. In self-defence she suggests that we use her drive and this helps us to effect an escape. Next we deliver a pastie. Not just any pastie, this is a super large Blackwells’ pastie. The recipient is not at home. We secrete it under a recycling box.

We have made good time and arrive for the 6.00pm ferry before 4.00pm. Great news, there’s room on the 4.00pm ferry for us. The bad news is that it will cost an extra £21. This seems ridiculous so we decline. We are told to go away and come back after 5.00pm. We glance meaningfully at the near empty car park but no, it seems we must go and park elsewhere. Judicious questioning of staff members reveals that the 5.00pm ferry had been cancelled and therefore we could come back any time after 4.00pm. It is now 3.55pm but yes we have to leave and come back, which we do.

‘Are we booked in?’, asks the none-too-bright young lady. Her colleague has established not ten minutes earlier that we are indeed booked in but this young lady is struggling to find us on her data base. We provide our surname. ‘No’, she says. We aren’t booked. We spell the surname, more than once – still no. ‘What is the Christian name?’ ‘Chris’, we say – nope. She tries the surname again. ‘Is your name Mike?’ Well it wasn’t a minute ago so probably it still isn’t. ‘I have thirty seven people with your surname booked’, she says. She so doesn’t. We happen to know that there is only one person on the island with the surname and that they are very unlikely to have made thirty six bookings, to add to our one. We finally put an end to the farce by providing an address, which Miss none-too-bright can locate on her list and we head off for our two hour wait. DSCF2462This is enlivened by the realisation that celebrity Eclipse, the cruise liner on which we shall be sailing in two months’ time, is in dock and just about to depart. Chris thinks we should take a photograph. This seems like a good idea but there are all sorts of notices, reading ‘no unauthorised access’, in the way. I am pretty sure that we are not authorised to access these areas and am mindful that taking photographs in dockyards is not always the way to make friends and influence people. Undaunted, I do manage to sneak a few pictures before my camera batteries sink into oblivion.


Another Week in History

Last week, a wonderful welcome from Chagford Local History Society and another lovely venue, Endacott House, in which to present seventeenth century social history. The next day saw me attempt to create a video with little notice and only myself to film, narrate and direct. It was supposed to illustrate our village and needed to show four locations in a minute. Lacking mobile phone or tablet, I was using my camera and I failed to work out how to pause the filming whilst moving from location to location. Running from place to place didn’t seem to work and I was hampered by the noises off of children playing and roadworks. Eventually I hit on the idea of creating a powerpoint using still photographs of the locations. Then ‘all’ I had to do was video the show. I couldn’t film the lap top because of the problems with reflection so I needed to project on to the wall (I don’t have a screen). This required me to hold the camera steady (steadyish) in my left hand, move on the slides using the remote control with my right hand and try to say something coherent with my mouth. This might’ve worked had I remembered to log out of Skype first. Sure enough, in my one minute of filming, up popped a message informing me that x had logged in to Skype. Take 2.……..

Then came the annual excitement that is the Braund family reunion. This involves plenty of eating and chatting, interspersed with visits to places of interest. I had to abandon re-uniting in order to take part in Plymouth Local Studies Day. Up with the lark, or at least up with the sparrows and starlings and off across Dartmoor to Plymouth. We have been instructed to park in a nearby library staff car park, which we locate without incident. Inevitably it is raining, I am in seventeenth century garb and we need to work out how to get from car park to venue. Fortunately we spot our good friend Maureen arriving in the car park; she will know the way. Chris is muttering ‘she’s changed her car’ but to me cars have four wheels and are pretty much of a muchness, so I wave enthusiastically. She waves back somewhat hesitantly. Even Chris is rushing to her car in order to present Maureen with a Guild of One-Name Studies bag that we had promised her. At this point we realise that this is not Maureen after all.

A very appreciative audience for Mistress Agnes’ talk and plenty of books sold, then it is back to the car to catch up with the Braunds at Morwellham Quay. Unfortunately the car park we are in is locked during the day and no-one we ask seems to be able to release us. Chris is eyeing up a narrow gap between two bollards. The question is, is it wider than the car? (that would by my car). It seems that it is.

A lovely, though slightly damp, day at Morwellham. We relive the lives of our ancestors by descending a copper mine, learning how to make rope and being educated in a Victorian schoolroom. The final day of our reunion sees us return to Poundstock Gildhouse for a Tudor Day. Dressed appropriately as sixteenth century peasants, we make bread and ginger beer and attempt drop spinning. I should be able to do this but I have to admit that I am pretty useless at it. Then we move up the social scale and are re-robed as gentry for lunch and dancing. The Braunds, most of whom are of retirement age, essaying a volta are a sight to behold. All agreed that it was our best outing yet.

Is this what passes for recovering from Who Do You Think You Are Live?

Far from ‘recovering’ from Who Do You Think You Are? Live, it has been busy busy yet again with Swords and Spindles taking off and numerous talks in the pipeline. Great to see we made the official Who Do You Think You Are press release photo gallery. Last week I paid a visit to a local U3A family history group, who I join periodically to trouble-shoot and encourage. They had changed their meeting place since my last visit, to a ‘village hall next to the Methodist Church’ in a small village. Said village hall not being immediately obvious on my first pass down the street (there was only one street – or as it turned out – two), I asked someone who knew – or in fact didn’t. Trust me to picked the one dog walker in (insert the name of a very small rural village here) who was unable to distinguish an Anglican church (and associated church hall) from a Methodist Church and neighbouring village hall.

Then a wonderful seventeenth century day at Poundstock Gildhouse but I will leave Mistress Agnes to write of that for Swords and Spindles. I have also spent time try to convince cruise line security that seventeenth century medical equipment does not represent a threat to life and limb. I expect Mistress A. will wax lyrical about that too.

The usual history fest continued with helping to present a Hangout-on-Air on migration for The Society for One-Place Studies, a world war one research workshop for our local history group and final tweaks to my presentations for Ontario Genealogical Society’s Conference. Now to finish my new working women presentation before another trip to the seventeenth century tomorrow. It is our Braund Society reunion this weekend and I have to manage to be in two places at once as I am venturing to Plymouth for Plymouth Local Studies Day – actually I think I will solve this by sending Mistress Agnes in my stead.

It has occurred to me that anyone looking at my internet search history would think me decidedly dodgy. This week has seen my strange Google (other search engines are available) requests range from ‘Victorian Prostitutes’ and ‘urology and astrology’ to ‘female chain makers’. Such is the variety of life!

Mistress Agnes gets Dated – day three at Who Do You Think You Are

Day three and a slightly more leisurely day is in store. The first two hours I got to sit down, as I did my ‘being an expert’ stint. I fielded queries about non-conformists, about lost relatives, who seem to have been incarcerated in asylums and someone who went to school before they were born! Then there was the Waterloo veteran who wasn’t and the inevitable Smith family member, lost in Birmingham. Said Mr Smith was a sausage skin manufacturer – got to be today’s favourite occupation! I even found a missing marriage where one of the witnesses was a member of my one-name study.

Contemplating a baltic cruise (1)

Captain James contemplates a Baltic Cruise

Next, good to catch up with one-place studiers – more sitting down – this can’t be right. Then it was Mistress Agnes time again. Today she was jilted by Master Christopher and went alone to help on the Unlock the Past stall. Finally Master Christopher, in C21st guise, accompanied Mistress A. round the arena to get photographs with Captain James Braund. Captain James is about six inches tall and is a travelling ‘person’ (I daren’t use the word ‘doll’) who has been round the world several times and crops up here and there to encourage members of our one name study. He even has his own blog.

At the time, it seemed a good idea to photograph Captain James with antiques’ expert Eric Knowles in the background. Much to Mistress Agnes’ mortification, Master Christopher decided that it would be a better course of action to approach the great man himself (that would be Eric Knowles not Captain James) and get a proper photo. Eric Knowles then proceeded to ‘date’ Mistress Agnes. For the sake of clarity, it should be explained that this means he gave an assessment of the era from which she came. He was absolutely spot on, which says much for his knowledge and for the authenticity of Mistress A’s garb! Embarrassing though this may have been, I guess it would have been worse if Master Christopher had asked for a valuation!

Grateful thanks to Mr Eric Knowles – what a gentleman!

Friday at Who Do You Think You Are Live

The day dawned and we were off for another round of chatting and meeting friends, together with rather too much standing up. Sadly I don’t seem to have managed to listen to any talks this year – the ones I’d like to hear mostly seem to coincide with stall duties or my own sessions. Without wishing to harp on about feet, I must mention that one advantage of listening to talks is that it does at least provide an opportunity for sitting down. Of course there is much to be learnt as a bonus!

DSCF2408I began by spending a short time on the Methodist Heritage stand. This weekend has seen the launch of the MyBibleChristians community website with which I have been involved. Then some surname look ups for The Guild of One-Name Studies and suddenly it was time for my own presentation on Early Twentieth Century Communities. Where did that four hours go? No error with the title of this session and it was very gratifying to have another full house, especially as I was billed against some big names. I was in Studio 2 this time and here there was much less problem with the sound. Always great to enthuse about that special brand of research that is One Place Studies.

Time then for another transformation into Mistress Agnes. After yesterday’s queues for the facilities, I had decided to use an alternative ‘rest room’ (why are they so called? – no one was resting) outside the main arena. Having left my speaker’s pass right up the other end of the hall, on my way out, I had my hand stamped with a smiley face, in order to be allowed to re-enter. I travelled back in time and realised that Mistress A. needs hose (or in C21st terms – socks) under her never very comfortable latchets (that’s shoes to you modern types). Have I brought socks with me? Inadvertently, no I have not! Bare feet, especially feet that have been stood upon for two long days and latchets are not a comfortable combo. Smiley faces on one’s hands are not Mistress A.’s style so I start to wash it off and then realise that, if I do, I will not be able to get back into the auditorium! Just in time, I manage to retain enough of the smiley face to assure my readmission.

Great to meet some of the ladies who have been working so hard on my memories of 1946-1969 project over the past year. Their role is nearly over now and I think some are already getting withdrawal symptoms. More time spent promoting Unlock the Past cruises and booklets in the afternoon. I also seem close to agreeing to take on yet another task – heigh ho – ask a busy person and all that.

Back to the van to discover that my website has had one of its busiest days ever, thanks to an ‘anonymous’ review of yesterday’s talk, that has appeared on Celtic Connections Blogspot. Many thanks anonymous, much appreciated – you know who you are and so do I!