Well, what a year 2020 has been! On a personal front, it has been the year when I finally launched my family history blog. Yay! It was a project that had been in the offing for a long time. Though the pressure of publishing a blog post every two weeks has been challenging, I feel I can look back at this year with some level of accomplishment, with 26 blog posts produced since my launch back in February this year. Whilst I have been busy blogging, we have, of course, been in the middle of a global pandemic. This has led me to reflect upon the benefits of researching one’s family history. Many of my blogs have been centred around stories that I have uncovered during my research and certainly, these stories remind us of the resilience and courage of our ancestors, who faced many hardships in their lifetimes.
With the rationing of certain items of food, earlier on in the pandemic, and shortages of basics such as toilet roll, the older generation remembered 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 then 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, in 2020, 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.
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. In 2020, there has rightly been renewed attention on the terrible flu epidemic of 1918. We have been reminded that the wearing of masks and social distancing were tools used then too. Arguments on how best the disease should be fought divided public opinion then, just as they do today. I think we can all feel grateful for the advances in medical care that help us combat all sorts of diseases and health conditions in 2020.
Women have found life during this pandemic especially taxing. They have born the brunt of the responsibility of taking care of elderly parents and neighbours, and home-schooling young children. Economically, women have been most at risk of losing their jobs permanently. 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 this year, 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 44 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. This year, as a product of writing my blog, I managed to trace the daughter and granddaughters of Tony Holden, the Army officer who shared a room with Gordon in hospital. Tony wrote a letter of condolence to my grandmother and thorough sharing Tony’s part in the story, his family were able to understand their father and grandfather better. Like many of his generation, Tony had never talked about his wartime experiences and the self-sacrifice it entailed. Of course, Gordon and Tony were not unique in their bravery. I decided to look at the activities of Gordon’s Squadron at the beginning of the Battle of Britain in The “Dunkirk Warriors” of 54 Squadron – Battle of Britain – July 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 July 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 this year 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 be think that likewise, in 2020, 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.
Recently, I’ve been looking at my Granddad’s childhood in A Wiltshire Childhood and A Berkshire Boyhood. 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. This year has made me especially appreciative of the good education my children receive. The fact that many children have missed out on their schooling this year, 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. 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. 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 endured this year, parted from our families, will hopefully only be temporary ones.
Just like today, economic difficulties 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 boys 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.
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 2021!
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 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 to keep us in touch with one another. We have a lot to be thankful about in our lives in 2020 and in the coming year ahead.
Finally, many thanks to all of you who have read my blogs, followed my website and given me such enthusiastic encouragement. If you too have some similar ambitions, I would encourage you to set yourself some goals and just go for it. Next year, I am looking forward to more blog writing but I will also be involved in some online presentations. In February, for example, I am giving a talk to celebrate the Diamond Anniversary of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, (where I started my career as a genealogist). I am also going to launch some new initiatives on my website 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 2020