My husband’s aunt visited today with three CDs of family photos she has scanned and catalogued. We spent much of the afternoon looking at them, and while I’m delighted to now have such a rich photographic record to hand on to my son, it makes me kind of sad to think about the tiny collection of creased and faded photographs I have of my own family. And worse, these photos are all that I have. If there were ever diaries or family bibles, they have either disappeared or are in the possession of distant cousins I probably don’t even know exist. And while I know that grandfathers, great grandfathers and great uncles all served in the military during various wars, their uniforms, pension books and service medals have similarly disappeared.
I’m thinking of this particularly after reading Lynnie57’s lovely post (http://lynnie57.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/the-working-class/) about her working class ancestors. Like Lynn, my family largely consists of generations of Scottish mill and pottery workers, farm labourers and laundresses. For as far back as I’ve looked (only seven generations so far – and that only for one bit of the family); whole branches of the family lived and died within a few miles of each other in the towns and villages of Fife and Angus (they were literally marrying the girl next door)!
I‘m extraordinarily proud of this solid working class heritage, but the downside of being descended from “ordinary folks” is that they left behind only the faintest traces of themselves. They were born, baptised, married and died; and all I will know of many of them is contained in those few statutory and parish records, and in census returns.
Of course, they were working people, so it’s likely that during their lifetimes, their names and other details would have been recorded in the ledgers and other records of the mills, potteries, factories and landed estates where they worked. And maybe with some luck and enough digging I will be able to identify particular workplaces, and maybe those workplaces will have archives, and maybe one day I will see written in black and white, against the name of my forebears, the tiny sum they were paid for their long hours of back-breaking labour. And I know that then I will weep and give thanks for the privileged life I have led.
And of course there are exceptions; I found a “service record” for my great grandfather who enlisted in the Black Watch and was chucked out after 15 days when they discovered he was under-age. A great grandmother was a teacher before her marriage and I’m hopeful that the Fife county archive will have records of her employment. Less happily, the 1891 census informed me that another great, great grandfather was a patient in the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum; ten years later the next census told me he had moved to the poorhouse. While the granddaughter in me feels the awfulness of this man’s fate, the researcher can’t help but be excited; contact with official agencies (even, sadly, hospitals and poorhouses) offers the possibility of more records and a chance to know more. The trace they left behind is stronger and more enduring.
I am glad for my husband and son. Thanks to their aunt’s wonderful efforts, they can look into the faces of the past and see themselves. And meantime, I will continue to search, record and connect and hope that in time I will also find more of myself and “the other side” of my son’s heritage.