browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Ordinary lives – made interesting

Posted by on January 8, 2015

‘Family history worth its salt asks big questions about economic forces, political decisions, local government, urban history, social policy, as well as the character of individuals and the fate of their families.’ So says Alison Light and her book certainly does that.  In fact it is easy to lose track of her ancestors as she covers five generations of them, including aunts and cousins, and become absorbed instead in the social history. The issues around poorly paid, unskilled insecure casual labour are depressingly familiar to us today – they have re-emerged after some atypical decades of job security and good wages. Society still has no answers and neither does this book.

On the details of her ancestors,  many of us face the same problems – family tales and only basic Birth, Marriage and Death and Census information. Occasionally she uncovers pockets of more detailed

Recently published

Recently published

information from Chapel records and asylum and workhouse entries for those unfortunates who became insane or destitute. She has used her findings to the full by exploring her ancestors’ housing and the towns and villages they lived in, as well as their occupations and working conditions. It is as much a history of the Victorian working class as a family memoir and a bleak picture of the suffering of itinerant working class people from orphans to unmarried mothers, deserted wives, insecure jobs and the poverty that ensues.

Her sense of injustice at the hardship and misery of it all is clear. She is indignant at indifference and callous treatment metered out by officialdom in all its guises and seems to take a Marxist view of the consolations of religious faith. Portsmouth and its districts suffered exceptional adversity due to it being a naval base and commercial port.  Her musings on her motives and responses to her findings might enlighten some of us about our own.


2 Responses to Ordinary lives – made interesting

  1. Diana Devlin

    One point I found particularly interesting, that she brings out, is how mobile people were, moving around the country to find work wherever it was available. She contrasts this with the impression of settled communities that the census surveys tend to give. I did not find her book an easy read, as she seemed to expect us to follow very complicated genealogical ramifications, and to keep the various generations in our heads.

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    Me too – I quickly gave up on the detail of the family tree and got more interested in the background history. My own ancestors, covering the same long time scale, were actually all very settled. The Burnley family in Yorkshire, the Harrison family in the Whitby area and my mother’s Dunkley family in Northamptonshire. Only at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century did I see any significant scattering of extended families. Whose is more typical I wonder?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *