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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.

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