‘Finding their place in the world’ –

Posted: June 24, 2014 in Family History, Genealogy

 

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Trying to uncover all our ancestral lines is a labour of love taking many years, even decades, particularly if you really wish to gain a full understanding of your ancestors’ lives and share them with others having the same family interests. It is this fuller understanding of the social and economic history that our family lived through that enthralls Stephen Lewis and has helped him to make some touching discoveries…

For some people 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? And, importantly, how can we communicate and share what we discover? 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 grisdalefamily.wordpress.com.

First we need to make choices, but don’t agonise too much about where to start. 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 that 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. However, 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.

Our ancestors’ landscape

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 Dowthwaite 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.

 Making a living

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.

Class & cash

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?

 Making your research relevant

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? My research turned up a very interesting story covering the time of Britain’s four-year ownership of the island. 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 a great deal of what you need on the internet. 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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Comments
  1. JOAN BORROWSCALE says:

    Hello – and thanks for your stories and research of the Grisdale families I have made contact with a ‘cousin’ of one Charles Grisdale – a son of John Bird Grisdale of Kirkby Thore. She is USA

    Joan Borrowscale

    ________________________________

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Dear Joan

      It’s weird but I’m just preparing a story about this US family. Perhaps you could ask her to drop me a line? My email is on the blog.

      Best wishes

      Stephen

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