Families and Histories

22 Apr

By Dr Jonathan Healey.

Family history and local history are more intertwined now than they ever have been.

The 17th Century Antinori Family Tree

The 17th Century Antinori Family Tree

We don’t have a ‘typical’ student on our local and social history courses at Oxford, but a lot of our historians started out with genealogy.

Some, a scary number in fact, were people who were actually put off history at school.

The history they were taught was all about learning dates, about kings and battles. Only later, when they started looking into their own family tree, did they have a chance to experience the wonderful, rich world of social history: the history of life, the history of everyone.

From the perspective of an academic social historian, the recent boom in genealogy has been brilliant.

It’s brought a whole new audience for the kind of history I’ve always found most fascinating. I’ve written about peasants, about the poor, about weavers and spinners, about women, and about children. The kinds of people who have kept the human race going (not to mention fed and clothed), but who were ignored by traditional history. It’s the kind of stuff genealogists are doing every day.

Naturally, one of the areas of closest relationship is the history of the family itself.

If ‘family history’ means recovering the story of an individual genealogical line, ‘the history of the family’ is different. It’s about understanding what family life was like in the past. What family size was typical? When did people marry? How much contact did people have with their kin? Their in-laws?

These have been fascinating areas for social historians for a while now. But our views keep changing.

Historians used to think, by and large, that the families of our ancestors were extended and complicated.

Everyone married, and everyone married young, they thought. They had lots of children, and their parents, if they lived to a ripe age, would move in with their children’s families. The model was peasant households in less developed countries – 19th century Russia, for example, or modern south Asia – where it was not uncommon for three generations, and more than one married couple, to share a household.

Thomas More and his family (1594), by Rowland Lockey, after Holbein the Younger

Thomas More and his family (1594), by Rowland Lockey, after Holbein the Younger


In the 1960s and ‘70s, though, social historians pulled these assumptions apart. They looked at lists of households from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and found something startling. The normal family back then was small. It was nuclear. The average household size was around 4.5 – astonishingly close to the ‘2.4 children’ norm the late 20th century was used to. This was so, even despite the fact that many ordinary families took in a servant or an apprentice, who were also considered part of the household.

More than this, historians looked at peoples’ wills, to see who they left money to. Did they leave it to their cousins, nieces and nephews – the kind of clan-like behaviour we’d expect of a proper peasant society? Or were their bequests tighter – more closely aimed at children and grandchildren?

To the surprise of many, the answer was the latter. The nuclear household was key, even in death.

In fact, so central did the nuclear household seem to English social life that it was suggested as a crucial reason why England, rather than anywhere else, developed – very early – a national system of social welfare, in the form of the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

As is often the way with History, however, once a new orthodoxy arises, soon a new generation of scholars starts to question it. If the new, isolated view of the family was associated with ‘revisionists’, then by the 1980s this was being challenged by ‘post-revisionists’.

FamilyPost-revisionists pointed to evidence that kin – cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces – helped each other out in times of need or opportunity. People sorted their kin out with apprenticeships, or helped them raise money, or brought help in times of difficulty. Such relationships, though often short-lived, could exist even for those who’d migrated – to London, for example, or further afield to the colonies in America.

Families themselves were shown to be flexible. People might live for short periods with their kin. Not long enough to leave much of a trace on the records, but enough to make a big difference to them and their lives.

* * *

All this was brought home to me recently when working through an archive of pauper petitions.

These wonderful, vivid, but sad documents, give fascinating insights into the daily struggles of some of our most unfortunate ancestors. There must once have been tens of thousands of these documents across England, but now very few survive. The best set, which contains several thousand petitions, is held in Preston, and relates to the old county of Lancashire.

I’ve read virtually all of these, and sobering as this was, it was worth every minute.
Each petition was written when a poor family needed the financial help of their township. They would say why the family had become poor, and sometimes describe their attempts to survive without formal relief. It’s these bits which give us an insight into the family life of the poor.

Some told of being given money by their kin in times of hardship; others got help in kind: little bits of aid that could make all the difference.

One of Lancashire's many thousands of pauper petitions.

One of Lancashire’s many thousands of pauper petitions.

In 1660, Alice Hartley told magistrates that she had supported her mother into her dotage – she ‘not only begged for her’, but also ‘borrowed money in several places’. Eight years earlier, in 1652, a weaver from Fishwick called Edward Sudell reported being struck blind, which meant that he’d been ‘forced to entreat his brother, which is a poor workman, to lead him from door to door to get a livelihood’. His brother was helping him by taking him out begging.

Others moved in with their relatives. In 1675, orphaned Jane Park of Out Rawcliffe was being looked after by her uncle out of ‘love and respect’. Richard Shorrock, a small farmer in Heath Charnock, was keeping his mother in 1634, she ‘being in house with him’. In 1675, Isabel Edge was 89 years old, widowed, and living with her nephew at Broughton (near Manchester). We have lists of the poor for the seventeenth century, and these show such arrangements weren’t the norm. But, as the petitions show, they clearly happened.

Sadly, of course, such support could place intolerable burdens on the givers – fraying the bonds of family and friendship. James Livesey, a labourer from Pleasington, told in 1698 of having ‘no substance but what he gets from the sweat of his brow’; he had been ruined, he said, by having been forced (at the insistence of the authorities) to support his disabled daughter-in-law and her two children. ‘By endeavouring to keep ‘em’, he complained, ‘he has reduced himself to such strait poverty that, having but one cow, he hath been forced to sell her’.

It’s easy to condemn such attitudes from the comfort of our rich, modern world, but Livesey clearly led a hard life, and the burdens of family could tip people like him over the edge.

It could be an especially big problem when a couple had both an aged relative and their own children to look after. John Houghton of Eccleston fell into this trap, so his father asked for poor relief in 1671, pointing out that his son ‘hath a wife and two little children’, and so was ‘not able further to maintain or relieve his aforesaid father’.

Family life has always had these relationships and these strains. Yes, households were more isolated than we thought – but the work of recent scholars, and the story told by the history of the poor, shows we shouldn’t overplay this. There were always connections.

But there is still so much to learn about this. We need new studies and new examples, using new sources.

Hopefully some of this work will come from local historians who started with their own family story.

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