One of the wonderful things about researching your family history is that it provides a welcome distraction from whatever is going on in the world at the present time. After another year of turmoil, whilst we have been in the midst of a global pandemic, it can be a source of great solace, as well as interest and productivity. Beavering away, puzzling out relationships and seeking the truth about our ancestors lives keeps the brain busy and also puts one’s own life and its difficulties in much needed context. Some of the stories that we uncover as family historians can also be truly inspirational. They remind us of the resilience and courage of our ancestors, who often found themselves in challenging circumstances. We can also be grateful for the many benefits in health and comfort that we enjoy today, which our ancestors could only have dreamed of.
With the rationing of certain items of food, earlier on in the pandemic, and shortages of every day essentials, such as fuel, older members in the community may well have been reminded of the challenges of wartime rationing. In Food, Glorious Food, I looked at this topic and the experiences of my mother and aunt, who were both evacuated to Wiltshire as children, separated from their parents and home. Good food was in short supply: shelves were empty and people had to be creative in their cooking. Today, there has been a huge rise in the use of food banks, as people have struggled to feed their families. During the War, it is evident that many people came together and shared what they had with their friends and neighbours. Once again, we have seen how people have benefited from coming together, offering support to their local communities, donating to their local food banks and volunteering their time. One way of finding a community to belong to is by joining a family or local history society. It is a great way of meeting like-minded people who have the same interests. You may also be able to help them too with your time and expertise. In Why You Should Join a Family History Society, I outline the many reasons why joining a society can be so beneficial.
Having an absorbing hobby is also key to good mental health. Our ancestors, though they worked long hours, no doubt had pastimes that interested them. For example, perhaps they loved walking in the countryside or birdwatching. A relative of mine, Hodge, was a master cabinet maker. He developed a hobby of making miniature furniture that was so exquisite that his work is still displayed today in museums and stately homes. I explore his life and work in A World in Miniature.
Women have found the pandemic especially taxing, as they have born the brunt of the responsibility of taking care of elderly parents and neighbours, and the home-schooling of young children. Looking back at my own family history, it seems to me that life was often particularly precarious for women, especially if they found themselves alone. For example, it must have been terrifying to find yourself pregnant with no father willing to support you or your child. I touched upon this theme in two blogs, The Unknown Sister and Margaret.
If a wife lost their husband, they could also quickly find themselves in desperate circumstances. In Romance and New Beginnings, I tell the story of Caroline Bower who married a man forty four years her senior. She found herself as a young widow with seven dependant children, and had to resort to taking in laundry to try to make ends meet. Similarly, Fanny Basing, the neglected and abandoned wife of William Basing, a footman and later butler, was another woman who found herself vulnerable. Fanny had the courage to divorce her husband at a time when divorce had only recently become an option for ordinary people. As a woman, she bravely stood up in court in front of judges and outlined what she had gone through. You can read more of Fanny’s story in Basing versus Basing. Time after time, these women got through the difficult situations that they found themselves in.
We can also be inspired by the bravery of those would fought for their country. My father’s brother, Uncle Gordon, had volunteered for service in the RAF in 1939 and I touched on part of his story in WW2 Prisoner of War Records from the Archives of the Red Cross. Sadly, Gordon died as a prisoner of war in Germany when he was only 23 years old. In a desperate situation and far from home, Gordon displays in his diary an indomitable spirit, sustained by his faith.
I decided to look at the activities of Gordon’s Squadron in the first few months of the Battle of Britain in The “Dunkirk Warriors” of 54 Squadron – Battle of Britain – July 1940 and The Fighting Fifty Fourth – 54 Squadron – August 1940. These young pilots were all heroes, who despite facing incredible odds, gave their lives willingly. The very destiny of their country was at stake. It was sobering to realise that over 40% of the pilots of 54 Squadron who served in the summer of 1940 did not survive the War. They set a great example to us all of courage in the face of danger.
A huge coup for me was to finally get to the bottom of the family story that a relative had lost his arm in an accident. Through research in railway employment records and newspaper articles I was able to identify this individual as my great great grandfather, Josiah David Bullock, who lost his arm in a shunting incident. I tell his story in The One-Armed Railwayman. It must have been absolutely devastating for Josiah to suffer such an injury, yet the sole photograph of him reveals a man of quiet dignity. After the accident, he was given the job of serving as a gateman on a railway crossing. This was a lowly position, in effect, a demotion, but undoubtedly, in his every day duties, he saved many lives and prevented terrible injuries that would otherwise have occurred. This made me think that likewise, there are many every-day heroes all around us, who quietly get on with their own modest jobs without seeking any recognition. We owe them a lot.
When it comes to health, our ancestors’ death certificates alone tell us of their fights against disease and illness. Medical care was costly and limited for most. Unlike today, for most diseases there were no vaccines, and antibiotics were not discovered until 1928. In addition, there was often only a limited understanding of how diseases were spread and could be combatted. Too often, life was brutish and short or diseases caused life-changing disabilities. I looked at ancestors who had particular physical challenges in Ancestors who were Blind and Ancestors who were Deaf. It was remarkable to see how they coped in a world that made little accommodation for them. If it was at all possible, they found work to support themselves. Hannah Lilian Woodcock, who was blind, was supported throughout her life by her devoted parents before ending her days in a home for the blind. Maria Batchelor, who was deaf, lived with various relatives after the death of her parents. The strength of their family ties was evident.
Sometimes we can feel the weight of the past on our shoulders and it and it can be difficult to make a fresh start. However, it is always possible to move on and make some positive changes. My great grandfather, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock, as a young man, stole a pair of boots whilst working as a porter in the goods office at Cirencester, Gloucestershire in 1887. As as a result of his crime, he was sentenced to one month’s hard labour in Gloucester Prison. I tell his story in The Pair of Boots. This must have been a terrible and shameful experience but he put this behind him and made a new life for himself, eventually holding a position of respect and responsibility as the Manager of the Wantage Tramway Company. You have to admire him!
Recently, I’ve been looking at my Granddad’s childhood in A Wiltshire Childhood, A Berkshire Boyhood and An Edwardian World of Work. An intelligent man, with many skills, both practical and academic, Granddad had to leave school when he turned 13, and find a job, though he would have liked to have been able to continue with his education. Many of our ancestors had little chance of getting an education at all, and girls, in particular, had high levels of illiteracy. Indeed, most of my female ancestors had to go into service, becoming maids before they had barely entered their teens. In Schooldays, I explore the sources of information on Wylye School in Wiltshire, which my grandmother attended in the early 1900s. It is amazing to reflect on the fact that schooling was not made compulsory until 1880 and wasn’t free until 1891. The fact that many children have missed out on their schooling, as a result of the pandemic, has reminded us all not to take education for granted. We need to value schools and teachers more.
Our ancestors must have also been familiar with being separated from their loved ones. Before the advent of the railways, it was difficult and expensive to travel long distances and visit family members living elsewhere. You also had little time off from work. Communication via FaceTime or Zoom did not exist. Perhaps you could write letters to your loved ones, but only if you were literate. In Courtship, I looked at how my grandparents and great grandparents met each other. My maternal grandparents met during the First World War in London. Granddad was in the Royal Navy and their courtship and the early years of their marriage were marked by long periods of separation.
Many people took the big decision to emigrate and in the Mathematical Instrument Maker Part 3, William Ford takes his pregnant wife and young family all the way around the world to establish a new life and career in New Zealand. Similarly, in Special Relationships, I look at the life of my husband’s ancestor, Stanley Vernon Woodcock, who left the East End of London in 1892 to travel to the coastal port of Tumaco, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, South America, to work for a merchant. What an adventure! Creating a better standard of living must have been a big incentive for many of our ancestors, who risked perilous voyages to leave these shores and make a new life elsewhere. However, in doing so, they were separated from family members and other loved ones, usually permanently. At least the separations that many of us have gone through during the pandemic have usually been only temporary.
Just like today, economic difficulties and rising prices were never far away from most of our ancestors. Many of them would have been familiar with pawn shops and doing without essentials such as heat and light in order to provide enough food for their families. The importance of small kindnesses was brought home to me in the sad story that I uncovered in The Good Samaritan. A young boy is sent away to sea when his family in London fall on hard times due to his father’s illness. After being left behind by the ship, the boy resolves to find his way home, walking all the way from Devon to London. On the road, just outside the town of Calne, Wiltshire, he encounters the Reverend Kyrle, the rector of Yatesbury. The child is in a desperate state, both mentally and physically exhausted and the Rector wants to help, offering him both shelter and food. Tragically, the boy never finds his way to the Rectory, and giving up all hope, takes his own life. Although the attempt to help him was unsuccessful and ultimately, the Reverend was unable to save the boy, it is nevertheless a reminder that small kindnesses have the ability to change the course of someone’s life. The story continues in A Noble Legacy. At his own expense, the Reverend puts up a memorial in the churchyard to George and takes care of George’s grieving mother. He died only a few years later at the early of 38, but what a legacy he left behind.
On a lighter note, I hope that you also find things to laugh about in your family history. In Family Stories – An Amusing Miscellany, I write about some of the funny stories that have been passed down in my family. Despite many difficulties in their lives, our ancestors enjoyed telling amusing stories that cheered people up. They have been passed down as a gift to us. Perhaps we need to look out more often for stories that are positive, life-affirming, or downright hilarious, rather than dwelling too much on the gloom.
I would like to leave you with some of the wisdom from the old folk. In This Remarkable Bevy of Old Age, we meet some remarkable characters from Stockton, Wiltshire, who were interviewed by the local newspaper in 1933 on account of their great age. Mrs Susannah Summers, aged over 90, reported that “It’s hard work and a contented mind that keeps ‘ee alive”. Mrs Surnam, an 80 year old widow is described as being “active as you like”. Clearly, despite their advancing years, they found purpose to their lives and derived strength from their tight-knit community. Good aims for this New Year!
So what can family history teach us? It can inspire us to be brave and to be resilient, whatever adverse circumstances we find ourselves in. Our ancestors too suffered many ups and downs too in their lives. It can help us look on the bright side, to see things with a better perspective, to find joy in community and in small kindnesses. It can also teach us to be more appreciative of all the benefits we enjoy today that were not available to many of our forebears, such as decent health care and education, along with sophisticated communication tools that help us keep in touch with each another.
Finally, many thanks to all of you who have read my blogs, and given me advice and encouragement. I am looking forward to more blog writing, talks and a book is in the pipeline so watch this space! In the meantime, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year. May we all look to the past to inspire us in the future.
© Judith Batchelor 2021