New Internationalist

Digging Into Silence

Issue 247

new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

Digging into silence
Chris Brazier explains why he turned detective.

Every few months I rejoin an underground community. I travel up to London to stand all day heaving down huge heavy volumes, to thumb through page after page of names written in beautiful curling script; or else I spend my day in a half-lit subterranean world where hundreds of people tremble breathlessly over cranky microfilm machines, straining desperately to read the scrawl of someone who wandered from house to house on a doorknocking survey 150 years ago.

You would never know this strange community of searchers existed. But it grows by the day, involving people who travel across the world to partake of its addictive pleasures. We are reclaiming history from the textbooks, digging our own ancestors out of the silence.

Time was when genealogy was the business of dukes – or of social climbers anxious to find a hidden aristocratic connection. Maybe Alex Haley’s Roots helped to change that. Suddenly a generation of black Americans gained a new sense of themselves from thinking about individual African ancestors rather than a mass of uprooted slaves. This sense of vital connection with your ancestors is common to most of the world’s cultures but it has been largely lost until now in the progress-obsessed West.

I started taking an interest when my first child was born – as for many parents, an event which altered my slant on life. Suddenly it seemed important to know where Kate had come from as well as where she was going to. Five years on I still often look at all the names and what I know of the personalities stretching back into the eighteenth century and marvel at the wondrous, implausible fact that my children could never have existed if even one of these people had never lived too, and that she carries part of each of them in her.

The motive for the quest may be personal – but the process itself is like an assertion of the value of an alternative history, one viewed from underneath. My closest connection with the early nineteenth century comes no longer with the great men, the Peels or Wellingtons who made it into the school syllabus. Rather it is with the ordinary women and men of my own and my partner’s family, whether they were shoemakers in York or homemakers in Manchester, blacksmiths in Dockland London or itinerant labourers on the Devon moorlands.

Social history is vital but it paints in broad brushstrokes: movements of people to the cities; mill workers’ living conditions; shiploads of slaves. Family history gives it to you from the other end, in fragments and in glimpses through grimy windowpanes. Through it you see the histories normally hidden from us, that of women in the home or unlearned working people – but here the seamstress taking in piecework to keep her nine children fed is your own grand-father’s great-grandmother.

Here’s how you might start to reclaim a bit of history for yourself. The first step is the most important and is well worth doing even if you have no interest in going any further.

FOUR STEPS INTO THE PAST
[image, unknown] Talk and listen to your oldest relative – a whole generation of memories will die with them. Be patient and take down every detail and anecdote. You will find out much that you didn't know. I knew, for instance, that my grandmother was born in South Africa. But I didn't realize this was because her father had gone there to spend years trying to make it as a touring concert impresario. Sadly he failed and had to return to England and money worries that contributed to his early death. He’s at the centre of the photo with my grandmother second from the right. [image, unknown] Start working your way back via birth and marriage records, which in England and Wales were kept from 1837 and are held at St Catherine’s House in London. If you live in North America or Australasia you will start with local records but are more than likely to find yourself having to make a visit to Europe or Africa in the end. Each new birth certificate is a minor triumph, not least because it gives you a mother’s maiden name, a new surname connected to you. This alone often feels like a blow struck against the historical invisibility of women. [image, unknown] Use the census records to fill any gaps. These have been kept every ten years since 1841 in England and Wales and not long after in other countries ruled by the Victorian British, whose enthusiasm for ordering the world by record-keeping I am no longer inclined to scorn. Censuses can give vital clues: in this way we recently cracked the long-sought identity of my partner’s great-grandmother, a servant in a great house who had fallen pregnant to the coachdriver and then given the baby into the care of another family (a plot worthy of Barbara Cartland).

[image, unknown] Choose the line of descent you want to follow and start going through local church records. You can get quite a long way using only the national records, and that may well be enough for you. But if you go on you will certainly have to choose a particular branch of the family to investigate and start digging around where they used to live.

Of course you may be lucky and happen upon a distant cousin who has already done all the work for you. But that way you’ll be missing out on the thrill of the chase.

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