I’ve reached that phase of life where family history seems to become remarkably engaging and despite paying scant attention for decades to stories held by my mother, a single snippet of unexpected information has taken root and grown in my head leading to fervent online archive searches to feed the growing tree of relationships.
Once statistical details of two or three closely related family members were established, those family stories came into their own by providing more specific identification and the stories began to fit together with the data – migration from rural Hampshire to London, hasty marriages and untimely deaths. This developing, and often poignant narrative fertilises the imagination until people who have just been names begin somehow to inflate into something more plausible, like the process of fleshing out characters in a book. Then with online access to archives of old maps, photographs and present day ‘travels’ on Google Street view, images merge to recreate backdrops of the landscapes they inhabited; so running in the margins of my vision is an expanding film of these distant people – a flickering and indistinct movie with hand coloured stills infused with bizarre animation about people who have become extraordinarily close and in some way relevant.
But one set of information has become especially tantalising, and that’s the work my ancestors did. There’s nothing out of the ordinary there, but the occupations on census or marriage forms are often the best chance of a view into the daily life of their time; there’s a tailor, grocer, domestic servant and cook, footman, straw plaiters (a Hertfordshire speciality for hat making) chemist (for Kodak), clerk, agricultural labourer, coachman. Most are familiar as titles or activities, but learning that a specific person in your family lived part of their life as say, a footman (my great, great grandfather, I believe, employed in Chelsea by an elderly widow born in the East Indies), made me realise how very little an understanding I have of what these trades and crafts actually entailed day by day, hour by hour, and where it might have led them next – the workplace or a trade often provided opportunities for finding a spouse. Did he clean shoes and silver? Serve and clear meals? Accompany the widow in her carriage? Did he meet my great, great grandmother, a cook (her dress fabric in the photo above), on the other side of London, in the course of his duties? And were his mother and sister still plaiting straw by the time he and his wife returned to his home village to have their second daughter? Probably not, many of the plaiters had been put out of business by the mid 1800s because of cheap far eastern imports.
The history of working life is a topic rich in resources where it’s easy to get lost for hours but the questions it’s raised have prompted me to expose (an excusable pun given the occupation) some of the experiences and adventures I’ve had over the years in various fields of photographic employment – as opposed to freelance work as a fair amount of that appears throughout this blog already. It seems a bit indulgent somehow but who knows, some researcher may find it useful, and it could even become of interest to the family – in good time.
Here are links to a set of posts of my photographic memoirs!