Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Meet My Ancestors of Victorian England - A Guide to Putting Flesh on the Bones of YOUR Ancestors

The foul language is due to the fact that from early childhood they have been employed in the fields. It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages. (Farming) wears them out in body and makes them brutes in soul and in manners. They were shambling, slouching, boorish, degraded creatures, improvident, reckless, and always on the watch for what they could get out of the gentry."

This is a description of my English ancestors - my mother's side of the family. One might think that such a description is an afront to my heritage. Nope. It's fact, and there's nothing I can do about it. (Personally, I think it's pretty cool!).
Of course, the above description is not only of my ancestors, but of the lower class populace of the village in England from which they came, Great Oakley.
I find it to be an interesting perspective on the dialect of the English language spoken by the lower class tiny village labourers - it sort of puts flesh on the bones of my long gone 2nd, 3rd, and 4th great grandparents (an elderly relative, who recently passed away, remembers her grandmother - my great great grandmother - from Geddington, near Great Oakley, speaking in a nasally tone).
This information about the type of dialect and style in which my ancestors spoke comes from the book Victorian People by Gillian Avery, a wonderful (and, unfortunately out of print) book about Victorian social history in England.

Another excellent book that I was lucky enough to
obtain is one called Geddington As It Was by Monica Rayne. It is a local (to Geddington, Northamptonshire, England) history book and I found it through my genealogist and good friend who happens to reside near that village. In this particular book I found a gold mine of information on this tiny hamlet that my great great grandmother (born in 1858) grew up in. There are wonderful maps and detailed descriptions, by street name in many cases, of the tiny village, as well as the style of clothing, businesses, daily chores, food, lighting, bathrooms, and even the inside of the cottager houses, just like what my ancestors lived in. Like the other book, Geddington As It Was offers information that puts a flesh-on-the-bones description of the agricultural laborers (farmers) such as my ancestors:
"12 hours a day, six days a week, starting 6:00
am or earlier of hard, physical work. What was known as the 'eight hour bell' was rung at four in the morning, at noon, and at 8:00 at night to give the various labourers notice of the hour to begin their day, when to have dinner, and when to go to bed. This out door farm life was physically demanding, but not necessarily equally heavy all year round.”
The authoress goes on to say that, "there was a class barrier within the village, as there was throughout England. By and large, the children from the larger homes” (described as having three or more rooms) “were not encouraged to mix with children from cottages where families were forced to carry on all their activities in small cramped quarters. The residents of the West Street cottages for instance,” the street on which my ancestors lived "were frowned upon by the slightly more affluent occupiers of some of the larger Queen Street or Wood Street homes. (But) in spite of a strict hierarchy - the doffing of caps, addressing superiors as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am,’ and observing the pecking order down to the seating in church - Geddington was a close-nit community, within which the family unit was paramount. They shared a common background which created a strong sense of community feeling."

I write the above not only to share a little about my ancestors (whose surname was Raby), but to show the importance of social history books and, just as important, local history books. Most communities have them readily available, and the cost usually supports the local historical societies.
I have tried to collect the community history books of all of my ancestral home towns, such as:

A History of Great Oakley by Peter Hill

Burial Records of Northamptonshire 1813 to 1973 by the Northampstonshire Record Office

East Gwillumbury in the 19th Century by Gladys Rolling

Blue Water Reflections: A Pictorial History of Port Huron by Mary C. Burnell and Amy Marcaccio

The Halfway-East Detroit Story by Robert Christenson

(Unfortunately, I h
ave yet to find any sort of local history books from Alcamo, Sicily. Maybe one day...)

The above mentioned books (and others I have not listed) truly gives the researcher a peek into the daily lives of those who have long gone before us - of a lifestyle seemingly archaic by today's standards. Again, putting flesh on the bones of our ancestors.

Then there are th
ose books that can add meat to the flesh and bones: social history books such as Gillian Avery's that I spoke of and quoted at the beginning of this blog. One in particular that I find to be a must for any researcher of the 19th century is Juanita Leisch's An Introduction to Civil War Civilians. Don't let the Civil War moniker fool you - this book, in only 86 pages, gives an excellent overview of the lives, times, and, most importantly, the mindset of mid-19th century Americans.
And there are so many other books, individually covering virtually every detail of lives once lived; books on clothing (including one on period undergarments!), language, death and mourning, occupations, lighting and furniture, homes (and what each room was used for), religion, roads and travel methods...and on and on.

I would also recommend searching out (for usually fairly cheap on eBay) books of Currier and Ives prints. These wonderful collections of the sketches
and paintings are a literal pictorial look at every day life of 19th century America. For the 20th century, we have millions of unposed photographs - 19th century photos are rarely unposed. Most show folks in a photographer's studio or of Civil War battle scenes. Currier and Ives are our main link to the everyday *mundane* life IN COLOR - of scenes and people from the 19th century. Yes, they are drawings, but they are as close as we will ever get to seeing that era in its natural state.

"Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age" Currier and Ives print from 1866. Notice the things in this scene not found in the "great paintings" of the rich: average dress, a hall tree, the style of wallpaper, even a Currier & Ives print hanging on the average middle class family in an average middle class home in the mid-19th century.

For those of us with a passion for understanding the past - and for those of us looking for a method of time travel - books, such as what I have listed above (and more - research!!), are the best way to do so. And, as a reenactor/living historian, they are indispensable for an accurate impression.
However, please do not take every author's opinion as law - there are many writer's books out there, particularly about religion in American history, that try to dispel the truth for their own agendas. Like the pollsters of today, they will take a minority and turn it into a majority.

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