A family history consisting only of facts, such as names, dates and places, can be a fairly dull read – family members may look to see that their information is correct, but get lost and bored in the detail and put the book aside. One way in which you can bring your family history to life is to add some context to your ancestors’ lives. Context helps you to understand the community from which your family came, the links between the various aspects of their lives and, importantly, the choices that your families made given the circumstances of the day. These may help you to discover exactly who your ancestors were.
What do I mean by context? Context can include a wide variety of background information detailing the circumstances and environment in which people lived. I thought of the following examples, but readers may be able to come up with more.
• the religion your family professed could potentially have impacted on their educational opportunities, the social and medical assistance they may have received, the fields of employment open to them, even their freedom to worship
• some occupations had dire effects on the health of workers – bakers suffered from white lung from flour dust, while miners suffered black lung from coal dust, the jaws of matchgirls could rot away due to phosphorus—this was known as phossy jaw
• climate, topography, local, national and international industries, economic conditions and industrial and government legislation could all have impacted on your ancestors’ occupations, where and how they lived
depending upon where our ancestors came from, there will be a wide variety of customs, living conditions, food, clothing, millinery and jewellery, and leisure activities that helped to define their lives
• most of our families have been effected by war in some way – consider the role that military and volunteer service, rationing and censorship played in their lives
• from the 19th century onwards urban and technological advancement has been non-stop – daily lives have been enhanced by provision of town water and sewerage, the coming of electricity, developments in travel by road, rail, sea, and air
• your ancestors may feature in local newspapers for matters ranging from weddings to funerals, to appearances in court, to sporting achievements: such items help to transform them from flat characters to living people
What are the best sources for contextual material?
A good place to start looking for historical or geographical background material is Google or Wikipedia. It is important to ensure that the information you refer to is appropriately referenced.
Newspapers are an ideal source for local, national, and global events. The National Library of Australia has digitised a huge number of newspapers from across Australia and made these available via Trove at http://trove.nla.gov.au/. The UK has the British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
|This family business was located in Queen Street, Brisbane
also available at FindmyPast at http://www.findmypast.co.uk/). Both of these are on-going projects, with new material being added regularly.
|A railway accident at Goondoon, Queensland. This could provide a
link to family who worked for the railways, or those who lived in the area
Did members of your family keep diaries or write letters? If these have survived in the family, then they can reveal many personal stories or reflections – they can even tell you more about the writers.
|Records of patients at Dunwich Asylum may reveal heartbreaking stories of
family members or help you to understand approaches to treatment of those admitted to the Asylum
Archives and records offices not only preserve official government records, but records from businesses, prominent families, authors. Your family may not have created a significant archive of material, but they may be mentioned elsewhere. Records relating to a particular family which originated in the same place as your ancestor could help to fill in the gaps on what life was like there.
|Sporting prowess can be discovered by ephemera such as
cigarette cards: contextual information on the sport would
add to the family history
As well as books, it is worth researching whether an academic thesis has covered a topic of relevance to your family history. Many books are available for loan from local libraries, as reference material in state and national libraries; material located elsewhere can often be borrowed on inter-library loans.
Family history magazines regularly publish articles on occupations, as well as helpful articles on researching in particular areas – this is especially the case with UK magazines. Local and regional history societies, as well as genealogical/family history societies are a valuable source of relevant material. Many society members have extensive local knowledge and can help to fill in the gaps when trying to place a family in its local or social context.
Have you looked at maps of the towns or villages where your family lived – the distance to the nearest town may have impacted on how self-sufficient the family had to be. This is especially important in trying to understand the lives of our female ancestors.
A word of advice – when incorporating social context into a family history, it’s worth limiting the information to that which is directly relevant or interesting. Too much irrelevant information can be just as off-putting as too many facts. A rule of thumb might be to select information that is sufficient to enhance the point you’re making, or to understand the reasons why your family did what they did. Contextual information is also essential when your story doesn’t make sense without the background.
All the photos in this post have been published at various times in Generation, GSQs quarterly journal, with their associated stories. Have a look through the journal if you’re searching for inspiration.
Happy writing, until next time