When I tell people that one of my interests is family history, they tend to smile indulgently. Genealogy doesn’t have a great image: it’s often associated with older people with too much time on their hands, obsessively poring over obscure archives. But as someone who has always been passionate about history, and especially social history, researching the story of my family has simply been my ‘way in’ to exploring aspects of the past that I’ve wanted to know more about. Whenever I manage to push my family tree back another generation, or another century, it’s a pretext for immersing myself in the events and way of life of that period.
Without being too pompous about it, I also believe that researching, and writing, the stories of people hitherto hidden from history has a moral and political purpose. To adapt the words of the late E. P. Thompson in The Making of The English Working Class, my aim has been to rescue from obscurity the servants, shoemakers, laundresses and law clerks whose lives created the conditions for my own – and without whom I wouldn’t be here. And then, of course, there’s the sheer enjoyment to be had from the detective work of chasing down new information about one’s ancestors.
My interest in family history was first awakened when I was a teenager, and my father’s cousin Edna visited from New Zealand. She used her time over here to explore the history of the Robb family, and discovered some intriguing information about our Scottish roots. Edna left us with a few typed extracts from a long-lost family Bible, out of which I constructed the beginnings of a family tree. Some years later, the advent of the internet renewed my curiosity, and I was able to use websites such as Ancestry and Scotland’s People to fill in some of the gaps in the story of my family. Eventually I started a blog, Past Lives, to record my findings, and this had led to three spin-off blogs in which I’ve explored the lives of Catholic recusants and religious dissenters linked to my family, as well as the history of the Essex estate where I grew up.
To begin with, I was much more interested in my father’s family than my mother’s. Both of my parents’ families have their roots in the East End of London, where I was born. However, the Robbs’ origins in Scotland, not to mention their supposed aristocratic connections and involvement in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, gave them a particularly romantic allure. My mother’s family of East End and Essex labourers and gravediggers just couldn’t compete.
At the same time, I think I was also influenced by the intrinsically patriarchal nature of family history. As a result of our naming system, whereby women (at least until recently) automatically assumed their husband’s surname on marriage (unlike countries like Spain, where children tend to retain their mother’s as well as their father’s surname), genealogy has tended to focus on tracing the male line in families. Women often feature as something of an adjunct, attracting less interest from genealogists, despite the fact that genetically we are as much the products of our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers as of our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. I have to admit that I was initially as guilty as anyone of this gender bias, obsessed as I was with tracing the Robb line back through the generations, and failing to follow up the women who married into the family, even though they were just as much my ancestors as the men.
I spent a number of years energetically pursuing the history of my father’s family, back to a village in eighteenth-century Aberdeenshire. But at some point the available records ran out and I hit a brick wall. It was then that I turned to my mother’s family, without any great expectations to begin with. However, by linking up with other researchers online, and thanks to the substantial number of records available for the London area, I was able to trace this branch of my family tree much further back, and it turned out to be rather more interesting than I’d imagined.
In Common People, Alison Light’s book about her own quest to discover her family’s history, she suggests that if any of us go back far enough, we’ll find that we stand on the shoulders of countless generations of anonymous labourers and servants. My experience was almost exactly the opposite. In the late 19th and early 20th century my mother’s family were poor, working-class and definitely hidden from history, but further back it was a different story. I discovered that my maternal ancestors included a wealthy eighteenth-century coal trader who was convicted of defrauding the Crown, a seventeenth-century sea captain who was an associate of Samuel Pepys, a Civil War-era vicar who wrote a notorious diatribe against the Quakers, a Tudor schoolmaster who held on doggedly to his Catholic faith after the Reformation – and going back beyond them, a succession of wealthy landowners and ironmasters in late medieval Sussex. It all seemed a long way from my memory of my Nan, my mother’s mother, in her tiny terraced house in East Ham.
The list of remarkable ancestors that I cited above just happen all to have been men. But one of the really fascinating things about exploring my mother’s family history has been uncovering, and reconstructing, the life stories of a number of equally remarkable women. The detailed investigation of individual lives in one’s family history tends to undermine easy stereotypes about family life in the past. For example, I’ve discovered evidence that some of my ancestors certainly married ‘for love’ rather than simple convenience, and that many of them enjoyed what we would recognise as companionate marriages. And some women, especially those from more middle-class backgrounds, were able to be relatively independent economically and even to run family businesses. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that most of my female ancestors led lives that were far more constrained than their male contemporaries, and that were often dominated by a seemingly endless round of childbirth and domestic toil, often resulting in early death.
Against this background, the courage and resilience of some of my female forebears stand out as truly impressive. I thought it might be interesting to bring together my personal interest in family history and my academic interest in gender and family relationships, and to tell some of these women’s stories in this blog, at the same time reflecting on what their biographies reveal about the changing experience of women and of family relationships. So, in future posts, I’m going to be focusing on the lives of three remarkable women, all direct ancestors of mine, one from the nineteenth, one from the eighteenth and one from the seventeenth century. I’ll be starting with my great-great-great-grandmother, Eliza Holdsworth, who spent the best part of her life as a domestic servant in the houses of the well-to-do.