Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Importance of Family History

As I was writing the last post with its detailed family tree material on the Belshaws of Wigan/ Platt Bridge I wondered just how eye glazing it might be to the external reader.

In a sense that does not matter because I am recording the material for my own benefit. However, the conversation I had with Doug Belshaw on my first notes post on the Belshaws of Wigan/Platt Bridge got me thinking about the importance of family history.

Many thing may have contributed to the rise in interest in family history over the last fifty years, and it has been rising for that period. The spread of more and and higher levels of education, greater wealth, longer lives and freedom from major war have all probably played a part.

It may sound odd to say the last at a time when our news is dominated by war, when there are so many conflicts across the globe. But you only have to look at the numbers killed in the two world wars, set out in my post of 11 November, to see what I mean. At least in western countries, the last fifty years have been a golden age as compared to the previous fifty years with its two world wars separated by the great depression.

But beyond all this, I think that the interest in family history is a response to greater complexity in life, to the speed of change. Over the last fifty years the great institutions that previously provided a sense of continuity in western countries - the churches, the state institutions, the universities are examples - have themselves become victims of change. At a time of complexity and change the domestic, the family, becomes more important in explaining who we are, where we fit.

This may help explain the growing interest but it does not, of itself, explain why I think that family history is important beyond the immediate individuals and families involved. Here my focus is on the importance of family history to interest in historiography, the study and writing of history itself as a discipline.

Because historiography focuses on the human experience, it too has been affected by the change process. This has not been all bad.

When I first studied ancient history at school, the core focus was on institutions, politics and war. Material on ordinary life was included, but it was limited. Now we know far more about daily life, about the experiences and human condition of the mass of the population. I think that's a very good thing.

But there have been downsides. From my perspective the greatest downside of the change process has been the fragmentation of history, the loss of the narrative sweep that used to hold the whole thing together. This is not a comment on the history wars that have been been a feature of discussion in a number of countries, simply a personal observation.

I feel this especially strongly because I have been affected by it in a personal sense at two levels.

I am personally interested in the sweep of narrative history, in the changing human experience over time and space. So I find the fragmentation in historiography annoying.

Equally importantly, I find that entire slabs of history and the associated human experience that I am personally interested in have largely vanished, lost in changing fashions. The building blocks, the previous work, that I want to draw on as a narrative historian, are no longer there.

All this explains the importance of good family history and indeed of good local histories.

Interest in family history often starts with genealogy, the family tree, and sometimes stops there. But to really write a good family history extending over several generations, you have to look at the relationships between the family and the changing external world.

Just taking last century, what was the impact of the wars, the depression? Where did they go to school, indeed how much schooling did they have, where? What did they work at? How did this change?

To answer these questions, to understand the how and why behind the identified family facts, the family historian has no choice but to look at the family against the broader sweep of relevant human experience. Here it makes no sense to fragment by topic, subject or slice. The family becomes a prism through which the changing external world is viewed.

The quality of family histories varies. Even limited ones can provide useful information on otherwise ignored topics, while some of the best are very good indeed. In all cases, long may the interest continue.


Jennifer said...

Jim, I was browsing in the second hand book shop in Uralla today and saw a paper (handwritten) by your father and L Jackson in 1950 on gold mining around Armidale. I'm not sure if you are collecting this type of family memorabila, but thought you might like to know it was available.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jennifer and thanks for the heads-up. I am interested, but limited in what i can do at the moment.

I did not know that you were a new blogger - http://putonthejam.blogspot.com/.

Will be interested to see how the blog evolves. I have found that it takes a little while to work out the personal style that best suits.

Anonymous said...

Hi there...am interested in any family connections we may share as the BELSHAW name is quite unique. I have done a fair bit of research on our branch who arrived in Australian from Northern Ireland in the 1880s. if you want to contact me, my email is michelle_nichols@hotmil.com


Anonymous said...

oops that email address should read:


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Michelle, have emailed you, Jim

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