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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2001

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June 2001 Contents

From genealogy to family history

Until the beginning of last century the term genealogy meant the tracing of family lineage; it wasn't until well after the Second World War, when it became a popular pastime, that genealogy became family history. Most of those researching their past were more interested in discovering the precise details of family and social history, rather than the dry recitation of a pedigree, so family history took over as the populist term. But the basic difference between the two concepts is that genealogy remains the listing of a decent of individuals, while family history is the social history of a family through time. Making the leap from genealogy to family history can be difficult, especially when we are researching the great undeserving poor - the agricultural labourers, or those working in the industrial heartlands of Britain during the nineteenth century.

To gather information we use a variety of records from parish registers, censuses, poor law records, but rarely can we obtain more than a partial picture of the social history of our ancestors. We may use scraps of information from a wide variety of sources but we are indeed fortunate if we can form a clear understanding of their place in their community and its history.

If they fought in the Boer War at Spion Kop then a history of their regiment and accounts of the battle can give us an understanding of the vicissitudes of life during the South African War and we may find drawings of the battle in the Illustrated London News, or other pictorial newspapers of the time. But we can only find that kind of information if they were caught up in great events. For the ordinary man or woman working on the land or in nineteenth century factories the possibilities of extracting anything but the merest detail of life is remote. Naturally if we could talk to them we would understand how they lived and worked, but unfortunately time travel has not been invented yet; however there is another way. There are numerous books that help us understand the social background of our ancestors - from Dickens' novels of life in nineteenth century London to Flora Thompson's 'Lark Rise'1, the history of a local community in Oxfordshire, and the oral histories produced by George Ewart Evans2, and the portrait of an English village, 'Akenfield'3. There is, of course, the magnificent 'The Victorian Countryside'4.

Our ancestors rarely speak to us in their own words. If they were writers or members of the middle class we may be fortunate in finding accounts of their life and times, but the chances of finding similar written material by agricultural labours or mine workers is exceptional, and even if such books do exist, where to find them?

Fortunately two books may help5. As the author writes in the preface to one 'the vox populi is not the best trained or sweetest of voices', but their opinions about people and events are important nonetheless. I came across both books in a library many years ago and they have been constant companions since then, filling in gaps in my understanding of life at different periods and in various occupations.

They take the form of a biographical list by author giving the full title and date of publication together with a short description of the book itself and its contents. Typical of the entries concerns Joseph Arch, 'The Story of his Life', published in 1898. He was a Warwickshire farm labourer and was one of the founders of the agricultural workers' union. His autobiography tells of his early life as a labourer and how eventually he became an MP. Another is the classic George Bourne's 'Memoir of a Surrey Labourer' (1907) that takes the form of conversations with an old farm labourer with incidents in his life and scenes of nineteenth century country life. It's here you will find James Hardy Vaux's 'Memoirs of the last 32 years' (1819), the life of a pickpocket and swindler who was transported to New South Wales.

However, 'British Autobiographies' is much more useful than 'British Diaries' in that it includes an extensive subject index, so that although not without its vagaries, finding a particular book from the thousands listed is comparatively easy. The indexes include entries for vagabonds, tramps, thieves and policemen to actresses, archbishops, millers, poachers and miners. Hardly an occupation is missed, and there are many cross-references. There are wide-ranging entries for individual counties of the British Isles. But it is the entries for working life that form the supreme test for the bibliographies. Hardly a subject is ignored: from the ordinary to the esoteric.

As well as those two there is a listing of British manuscript diaries of the nineteenth century6, although indexed, it does not meet the high standard set by 'British Autobiographies'.


1. Flora Thompson, Lark Rise, Oxford University Press, 1939

2. George Ewart Evans, Pattern under the Plough, Faber and Faber, 1959

3. Ronald Blythe, Akenfield: portrait of an English village, Allen Lane, 1969

4. G.E. Mingay, The Victorian Countryside, 2 Vols. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981

5.William Matthews (compiler). British Autobiographies: an annotated bibliography of British autobiographies written before 1951, University of California Press, 1955; British Diaries: An annoted Bibiliography of British Diaries Written between 1442 and 1942, University of California Press, 1950.

6. John Stuart Batts, British manuscript diaries of the 19th century: an annotated listing, Centaur Press, 1976.

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updated 9th August 2001