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Friday, 24 March 2017

Friday's Faces from the Past

Life has left little time for genealogy work this week, so just a short blog highlighting a photo from the Gulliver papers that I particularly like – and one of the few that is labelled.

Effra Parade School, Xmas 1946, Tulse Hill Tenants Assn Party

On the back of this picture it says ‘Effra Parade School, Xmas 1946, Tulse Hill Tenants Assn Party’.  None of the individuals are named, unfortunately, but I assume that one or more of the Gulliver children are featured.    I chose this photo to share for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it sparks off some of my own memories about similar events I attended as a kid, thanks to my grandparents’ membership of a residents club.  But mainly I just love the way that the kids’ personalities come through, even more so than in the standard school photos that we all remember.  A couple of the boys in the middle row look typically distracted, while the 4 in the middle with arms round each other clearly want to be centre of attention.  The boy at the left of the second row looks a little forlorn, and someone should have sorted his hat out!  And I assume that’s Santa at the back, and that we can put the slightly improvised nature of the costume down to it being just after the war…

Apparently Effra Primary School closed in 2002.  The kids in this photo will now be in their seventies and eighties.  If by any chance, you remember the school, or recognise anyone, do let me know in the comments!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Here today, still here tomorrow? The importance of ephemera (A Gulliver project update)

This week cataloguing of the Gulliver family papers has continued at a steady speed and I’m now at 130 individual items.  A large proportion of what remains is photos and letters, so the pace is inevitably slowing as I start to wonder about the people in the pictures and get drawn into their personal stories.

All of which has led me to ponder anew on the importance of ‘ephemera’.  As genealogists we can sketch the bare bones of our family history – the who, when and where of births, marriages and deaths that we retrieve, with relative ease, from official records.  But this leaves us with a two-dimensional, colourless picture of our ancestors.  The real challenge is to bring them to life – what brought them joy?  What made them cry?  How did they treat other people and what did others think of them?  An immensely difficult task for most of us but ephemera, those ‘things that exist for only a short time’, can help us bridge the gap between present and past.  Here's a couple of examples from the Gulliver family papers.

'Arf a mo' Adolf' Christmas 1944

Xmas dinner, with 'Forcemeat'

Above is a 1944 Christmas Menu from the Men’s Mess, 2 Company – 6 Air Formation Signals.  Interesting as an historical artefact in its own right (I must find out what ‘Forcemeat’ was!), this really comes to life for family historians when looking at the many signatures on the reverse.  Several of the men have included their nicknames alongside their names, and in some small way the handwritten signatures of Boss, Butch, Puffy and the ‘Double 18 King’ jump out from the page as real people in a way that names in an index do not. 

The Gull-bird

Mr Gulliver is there too – ‘The Gull-bird’.  What an amazing thing to survive – the wartime nickname of your ancestor.    How much do you know about the service histories of your grandparents or great-grandparents?  I know very little about the wartime experiences of either of my grandfathers – I would be astonished to uncover a nugget of information as personal as this.

Dursley Road Street Party

The second item is this Souvenir Programme for a Coronation Party in Dursley Road (in Kidbrooke, south-east London). The first thing that struck me was that, aside from the slightly odd non-seasonal inclusion of Mince Tart, the menu seems vague enough to encompass any similar national celebration over the past 60 years.  The programme of events also brought back my own childhood memories of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  All of which made me realise how little many of us know about the childhood of our parents – did they have a Coronation street party?  What did they do and eat?  Did they go in fancy dress?  Did it rain? Did they enjoy it?  If they are from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, how were the celebrations different?  If the Coronation wasn’t relevant to their country, what national events do they remember celebrating as kids?

Menu and events

It strikes me that while the Gulliver family, and other residents of Dursley Road, might feel a tangible relationship to this programme – and descendants of the Bossleys and other committee members might be interested in their ancestors’ organisational flair – its significance for family historians goes beyond those with an immediate connection.  We can all use this sort of thing as an aide to our own research and as a prop for discussion.  It brings us back to some of those first principles of speaking to our families and recording their lives.

Perhaps we should also be thinking more seriously about preserving our own ephemera.  For those of us with an instinctive dislike of anything that might be construed as hoarding and a fear of ending our days drowning in a sea of pizza delivery leaflets, this isn’t an easy task.  We need to learn how to be curators of our own history – recognising and preserving what may be important, interesting or relevant to future generations.  But beyond the item itself we need to preserve the memories it contains by writing them down.  The army menu and coronation programme are time capsules containing the memories of the Gulliver family, now overlaid with my own family's memories of how the documents came into our possession 35 years ago.  But none of this will survive if we don’t record it.

In a way, it is we who are ephemeral – and it is those flimsy items which survive us that can pass our stories onwards.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Bag it, tag it, record it... A Gulliver project update

This week has been all about trying to bring some order to a random assortment of papers. Clearly, I needed to find some way of cataloguing them.  So I came up with the following categories:

  • Family correspondence
  • Family events and celebrations
  • Postcards
  • Employment related
  • Education and school
  • Health related
  • Housing and utilities
  • Military service
  • ID documents
  • Finance, pensions and benefits
  • Photos
  • Miscellaneous

Each document gets scrutinised, put in a plastic folder (not archive quality I'm afraid - I have to economise somewhere!) and given a reference number.  It's then entered on a spreadsheet with its reference number and a brief description.  It seemed like a reasonable compromise between handing over a Tesco bag full of mouldy documents and trying to recreate my own version of a National Archives catalogue.  At the moment, my table is starting to get covered, like this...

I've logged about 60 documents so far.  They include things such as National Identity cards, rent books, a book of postcards from Algeria and an officially issued wartime notebook with handwritten guidance about operating switchboards and orders to burn everything if the Signals Office is in danger of being captured...

A lot of documents relate to financial security, or the lack of it - insurance contributions cards for health and pensions, savings clubs, Co-ops etc - and reflect the fragmented nature of welfare provision before the Welfare State.  It struck me that this was a family in reasonably secure employment who could afford some measure of cover for illness and hard times - not everyone could.

I have been reflecting on what I can share on this blog.  I'm aware that there is an ethical responsibility - this is not my family and I do not have permission to share their personal stories in any great detail, particularly as some of the people in the documents may still be alive.  I won't be sharing life stories or contents of letters, though I will need to provide names and areas of residence as a potential aid to tracking them down.

This doesn't mean I can't share some things which have a broader interest as I work my way through the pile.  In the first week, perhaps the most interesting find was a report from Reuters about the last British newspaper journalists leaving Berlin ahead of World War Two.  It's dated 25th August 1939, exactly a week before the war began with the German invasion of Poland.

Reuters report
This seemed to have an importance beyond family history and I felt I had a responsibility to see it safely transferred to an archive.  I'm pleased to report that I've been in contact with John Entwisle at The Reuters Archive and the document is now on its way to him.

Reuters centenary celebration

John was also interested in other Reuters-related documents that I might find among the papers.  For the moment though I think my priority is to try to reunite them with the family.  The decision of whether to pass them on can then be theirs.

I would imagine, for example, that Mr and Mrs Gulliver would have been quite proud to attend this Reuters Centenary event.  I had no idea who Christopher Chancellor was but a quick Google revealed that he was a British journalist who became General Manager of Reuters from 1944 to 1959 and was credited with keeping the company intact despite the challenging circumstances of the war.  So perhaps the Gulliver family might want to keep this?

If you have any comments or questions about the papers, please feel free to add them below.  For my next post I'm going to write something about the Coronation...

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Gullivers are travelling at last

In 1982 (or thereabouts), my family stumbled across a cache of old papers, although there's some confusion about whether it was my sister or my Dad.  Our school was near 'The Dumps', a Municipal wasteground of World War 2 bomb craters, broken masonry, weeds and rubbish, and a favourite haunt of kids skiving off school to share a pack of B&H (so I'm told).  My sister was about 10 at the time, so perhaps it was my Dad that made the discovery, although his reasons for roaming around The Dumps are perhaps best left shrouded in historical mystery.

In any case, these papers relate to a family, The Gullivers, and include an amazing selection of photos, family letters and historical documents dating back to the 1930s.  My sister used them as a basis for a school project on family trees.  Attempts were made to locate the family but in the pre-internet era of telephone directories and classified ads, nothing came of it.  

My sister even wrote to Blue Peter about her discovery.  She received a Blue Peter badge for her trouble, but their decision not to do a feature was accompanied by a somewhat stern admonishment that they hoped she had endeavoured to track down the family.  The fact that their huge national platform gave them an ideal opportunity to assist with this appears to have passed them by.  Blimey, even at the age of 15 I think I would have made a better producer.  But I digress...

Time moved on, we all got on with living, and the documents were relegated to a dark corner of the family's loft.  When my mum moved, they passed to me, with some vague notion that I would do something with them, but, again, life went on and they were relegated to a dark corner of my very own loft.

35 years later, older and more appreciative of the importance of family history, I've decided that it's time The Gullivers papers to make their final journey.  I've undertaken a mission to catalogue each item and to try to construct a basic family free.  Armed with this I can use the various family history platforms to try to track down a descendant.

It may not be easy.  Not all families have an amateur archivist, and for many people the idea of having a file of smelly old family papers bestowed upon them produces a look of horror, or a shrug of bewilderment at best.  We'll see.

I'll try to keep you updated.  Wish me luck.

What, why, when?

I've been investigating my family history, on and off, for about 10 years.  I can't remember why I started - maybe I saw an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and got fired up with ideas about storming the Palace to reclaim my long-lost birthright.  I suspect it was something more mundane and I just geeked out on the idea of inputting an endless stream of dates into a database and drawing up relationship charts.

In any case, it's not at all like WDYTYA?.  I haven't somehow bumped into a professional researcher in an archive or cafe who holds a mysterious document that unlocks a 200 year old family mystery.  I haven't found a connection to Queen Victoria, or even minor European nobility.  There's no long lost family fortune (sorry Mum), just an unbroken stream of working class families with their share of struggle and success.

I've started this blog as a way to share some of my experiences and opinions about genealogy, as well as some information about my own family.  Hopefully it may find an audience among fellow researchers.  Casual readers with no interest in genealogy should be forewarned - not all of it is going to interest you.  But some of it might.  I don't know how frequent my posts will be - working full-time allows me to make no promises!

In any case, the first run of posts won't be about my family at all.  I'm embarking on a mission to resolve a decades old mystery...

The last leaf

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1831