Finding their place in the world – moving from genealogy to family and social history

Posted: November 30, 2013 in Family History, Genealogy

This article appeared in the September issue of Family tree magazine (see end)


Genealogy is a fascinating thing. Trying to uncover all our ancestral lines can be a labour of love taking many years, even decades. It’s an endeavour that might never end and certainly we’ll likely never be able to solve all those little mysteries nor be able to be completely certain about each link in our family tree. The advent of the internet has helped a lot. Not only can we now quickly discover things online that previously would have necessitated repeated visits to local and national archives, but the internet can also link us with others with the same family interests – people with whom we can share research and information.

For some filling in the pieces of our family tree jigsaw-puzzle is enough in itself. Yet most of us soon start to become enthralled by the social and economic history of our family, even if we previously had no interest in ‘history’ as we might have been taught it at school. What was life like for one of our ancestors, or his/her family, at a particular time and in a particular place? Why did one of our ancestors emigrate? Why did so many children die young? We literally want to put some flesh on our forebears. We want in some small way to bring some of them back to life, perhaps for the first time in centuries.

How can we do this? How can we move from genealogy to family and social history? And, importantly, how can we communicate and share what we discover? As my old boss used to tell me: ‘There are many ways to skin a cat.’ What I‘d like to do is simply offer a few suggestions derived from my own efforts in researching and communicating the social history of parts of my own family. Some of the results can be found on my family history blog

First we need to make choices. We can only tell our family story in bite-size chunks. It’s simply not possible to tell the full story all in one go. All we’d end up with is a litany of births, marriages, children and deaths, i.e. a repetition of our ‘tree’. Or we’d spend a life-time trying to write the definitive book. Don’t agonize about these choices too much; go with your feelings. If you’re most fascinated by those of your ancestors bearing your own name then start there. On the other hand if you’re more interested in certain places where some of your ancestors lived then research that. Or perhaps start with just one person you’d most like to bring back to life.

How much flesh we can put on the lives of particular ancestors or families will of course vary. If they were rich or famous, if they emigrated, joined the church or accomplished heroic deeds then the records of their lives will likely be more extensive. But even if some or most of your ancestors left little trace of their lives, besides a few events and dates, you can still tell an interesting story.

A good starting point is to research geography. Physically what was the environment in which your ancestors lived? Was it a remote mountain community where people tended sheep? Was it a maritime port heaving with merchants, sailors and fishermen? Or perhaps it was an industrial town full of ‘dark satanic mills’? Try to find out what the physical environment was and how it changed and evolved, and why. Try to be precise. Where exactly was Douthwaite Head Farm in Cumberland? What did it look like? What surrounded it? What was a particular Lancashire cotton mill really like? How had the surrounding environment changed? Understanding the places goes a long way to understanding the lives of our ancestors.

Geography links to my second suggestion. Research what your ancestors did to make a living. The records might reveal that someone was a ‘Waller’, a ‘Chalker’ or a ‘Cotton Bleacher’. What did these occupations really involve day to day – in terms of travel, health, income and the precariousness of existence? Mariners by definition travelled far and wide, as did Wallers (though more locally), whereas ‘Yeoman’ farmers usually stayed put. You might have no personal records of your ‘Waller’ ancestor but you can still start to reconstruct their life from what is known of the lives of others with the same job.

The next thing to consider is the important fact of class. All societies at all times have been stratified. The rich and powerful try to hold on to their privileges and extend them wherever they can. The poor try to survive. The ‘middling-sort’ tries to move up or arrest a decline of their family. A family’s class and economic position and its dealings with other classes in the vicinity can tell us much about their likely lives, their hopes and their decisions. Were your ancestors forced to quit the land because of the centuries-long rapacious land enclosures in England, or the brutal highland clearances in Scotland? Who exactly was doing the enclosing or clearing and why? What were the consequences for your ancestors? Once you understand this you can often make sense of why, to use an example from my own family, a family moved from rural Cumberland to the Bolton cotton mills, emigrated to Canada or joined the military. People tend to make such big moves only when they have to. What pushed them to it?

All of these things: geography, work, class and economics play out at the local level. But it’s also interesting to try to place these events in a wider national or international context. One of my own family members became an army officer and died in Minorca in 1801. What in heaven’s name was the British army doing in Minorca? It turns out to be a very interesting story. Another joined thousands of other British people in the Australian gold rush in the 1850s. What was that all about? Yet another family member started life as a cotton bleacher in Bolton in Lancashire, became a missionary in India and ended up a bishop in the Canadian prairies. Researching this opened up the fascinating history not only of Britain and its empire but also the history of the Canadian West.

Such research will take you down paths you might otherwise never have ventured. The social, political and economic histories you discover will start to have a real relevance because they involved and affected specific people you know and care about. You don’t need vast libraries and certainly not historical training to do any of this; you can find most of what you need on the internet.

Let’s turn to communicating our family stories. Pure genealogical facts are only likely to be of interest to others with the same family interests. But, at least in my experience, if you research, write and communicate family and social history stories, these will find a much wider audience. Others will have ancestors who fought at Waterloo, became Australian gold-diggers or ended up in the mills. Writing and communicating your stories will also pretty invariably elicit responses from remote relatives all over the world, people who are often able to add to your knowledge of your own family.

What is the best way to communicate such stories? Again the internet comes to our aid. My suggestion is create a family history blog. My own choice was to use because it’s easy to create and use, but there are others. If you want your stories to resonate with a wider audience then craft them, don’t just write little snippets however fascinating they are for you. Weave together a narrative from what you know about the subject of your story and what you have discovered about geography, occupations and economic and political forces. If you have letters, military records or emigration/immigration information use these too. Pictures and quotes will help as well. Don’t get too hung up with having to ‘prove’ every statement you make. I wouldn’t want to recommend the old journalistic adage: ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’, but you are writing a story not defending a Ph.D. thesis. The English language is replete with ways to express the conditional, the uncertain and the conjectural. Finally, while some genealogical facts will no doubt need to be included, don’t clutter up your stories with too many of these at any one time. If you do you’ll soon lose the interest of many readers and, after all, you can always write another story!

When I started to research and write stories about my own family, not only did it open up vast areas of social and political history I had never thought about before, but it also elicited many unexpected, illuminating and often touching responses from all over the world. I am sure it will do the same for you.


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