A couple of things had me thinking about family history over the last few days. I watched, on television, a repeat of the Olympics Opening Ceremony from last summer and was struck by how Danny Boyle’s “from rural serenity to industrial chaos” spectacular so very much summed up my family history.
In Yorkshire, my Green ancestors came from the small village of Worsbrough which, before the railways, the coal mines and the sprawl of Barnsley took their toll, must have been absolutely beautiful. They were innkeepers and, before the advent of the railway, that meant coaching inns where horses were kept and changed, coach travellers ate and refreshed themselves and sometimes stayed overnight. Today’s equivalent is probably a motorway services area.
Up in Ayrshire my ancestors entered the industrial age early, as they were coal miners from at least 1770. But the enormous growth in coal mining that resulted from industrialisation, with coal used to power railways, steam ships and factories, as the fuel burnt to smelt iron and eventually to create electricity, meant they were never unemployed, although they did move from mine to mine as pits closed and new ones opened. It was incredibly hard, physical labour, though, and the landscape of Ayrshire was irrevocably changed.
In Aberdeenshire, my ancestors clung on to a rural, almost peasant way of life as long as they could, and much of where they lived remains agricultural. But following the various branches, it becomes obvious that working as a farm servant and eventually getting a lease on a croft had ceased to be the young men’s dream before the First World War. And I don’t suppose any of my ancestors, when they walked along the beach at Cruden Bay, ever thought the north sea oil pipeline would run underneath it.
Then I met up with a friend who’s also a keen family historian, and we were swapping stories about the traumas and tragedies that can be found on both our family trees. It occurred to me that we often focus on such events because they are out of the ordinary, and they tell a story. A series of census entries and births for a happy family leading a blameless life doesn’t add up to a stand-out life story, unfortunately. So it becomes all too easy to know all about the joyless aspects of your ancestors’ lives and not much at all about their joyful moments. They must have had them, and they do seem to have been focussed on family and neighbours, many of whom were also work colleagues.
But have we lost the sense of community that was once so strong? I remember when I found an electoral roll list for the street my mother lived on when she was young, and copied it out to show her. Instead of looking at it, she went into her memory and managed to name, and give details about, nearly all the families who lived on the same street as she did when she was 10 years old. I know four of my neighbours by name and have regular conversations with two of them – that’s all. Most of the others I simply nod at in passing, and wave to if we happen to be putting the bins out at the same time. We may be far better off than our ancestors in monetary terms, but I suspect they may have had a richness to their lives we now lack.