Nostalgia – A Personal View of a Family’s Past
I spent part of my childhood growing up in an isolated country cottage (in fact, a tied cottage that came with my father’s job as an agricultural labourer). It was a good quarter-mile from the B-road connecting Pershore and two local Worcestershire villages, down a dusty lane which was a muddy quagmire in the winter months. The cottage was surrounded by 60 acres of farm crops, woodland, ponds, livestock and hedgerows. We had a damson orchard, and a chicken run. There were lots of wild flowers, trees, wildlife, birds and, in the winters, it always seemed to snow.
We had no central heating (in fact, no gas at all), and the nearest village shop was a good mile and a half away. I would walk 2 miles, every day, to school, and back again in the evening.
Before we moved to the cottage, we had lived in a post-war red-brick council house, in a market town not far from Worcester. We moved back to the market town, in 1971, after spending a large part of the 1960’s in the isolated cottage – which had a walk-in pantry, a huge inglenook log fire that was big enough for you to stand up in, and (curiously) two staircases. There was no mains water; the water was pumped from a well in the yard outside, and I recall we had to have the water quality tested, each year, for health and safety reasons. The original windows had messages and initials scratched into the glass from the 1940’s by, I assume, evacuees.
Although we were well off the beaten track (the nearest neighbour was over a mile away), we often had older men (never women) calling at the cottage, asking for a drink of water or some food, in exchange for sharpening knives or chopping wood for the fire. These were what we then called tramps, and what we would now call rough sleepers.
Life in the countryside of my Worcestershire childhood is not something I am terribly nostalgic about. It was in many ways an idyllic setting, but it was not an idyllic existence. I do remember going to lots of village halls, for their jumble sales, and to lots of market town auctions, for furniture. Auctions have a long history, with the first recorded auction, in England, being held in 1595, although they are probably much older. The rural Worcestershire of my childhood has largely, if not entirely, disappeared – and this is well within living memory. Life was pretty much governed by the seasons, and the customs of the seasons; I recall, after the yearly wheat harvest, how the fields of stubble would be set on fire, to prepare the land for the next sowing. And I recall black & white timbered country pubs (that boasted overnight stays by Queen Elizabeth I) that still made their own cider, and cooked their own hams, and that served what could truly be called a ploughman’s lunch!
One of the things I recall vividly from my childhood is that we had a very large button tin. This was an old biscuit tin (probably worth a fortune now!) which contained hundreds of buttons, just in case they “came in handy”. I think anyone of my generation (and earlier) can probably recall their family’s button tin. Many of the buttons were mother of pearl, some were jet, others were more modern, some were one-off’s, others were sets. Some were very ornate, most were not. I used to pretend, as a very young child (with a particularly active imagination) that they were my personal “jewels”. I have no idea what happened to it.
Other prized possessions, by my childhood self, were the things we dug up, from the land around the cottage – fossils, shards of willow pattern pottery, clay pipes and, on one occasion, a medieval coin with an image of the king (I could never make out which one) sitting on his throne, in flowing robes.
I’m quite interested in family history, and especially interested in the ways in which worldwide, or major, events affect, or impact on, the lives of ordinary people. Take the example of my mother. She was born exactly 100 years ago, in July 1921. Her first job was in Kidderminster, as a carpet weaver on a wooden loom, and she can be found on the 1939 Register, with her occupation clearly listed as “carpet weaver”. When WW2 broke out, she was drafted into the Women’s Land Army, and sent to work on a farm. Her family were all from Dudley, in what is now the West Midlands’ conurbation, but which has previously been part of Staffordshire, and part of Worcestershire, thanks to boundary changes within living memory. Her parents, my grandparents (whom I never met) were both born in the mid-1880’s, and were non-Conformists. Grandfather Nail (a nickname) was a foundry worker, at Hingley’s foundry in Netherton, Dudley. His father, George, my great-grandfather, worked on narrowboats delivering wood, coal, and other goods across the Black Country canal network. I can only trace the family back to the 1790’s, through Ancestry, although I suspect if I had the time to do further research I’d be able to find them before this date, as the family surname was very distinctive, and some of their given names (like with great uncle Methusaleh) were extremely uncommon!
My grandfather made the anchor for RMS Titanic, along with other foundry workers in Netherton. Of course, we know what happened to the Titanic – it sank with massive loss of life, in April 1912. By that time, all of my grandfather’s siblings, bar two, had left Dudley and travelled to Canada, as economic migrants. My great aunt called for my mother to join her, in Toronto, in 1936, when my mother was 16 years old; her aunt had booked a passage on a transatlantic liner, and found her a position as a domestic in a big house. But my mother needed my grandfather’s permission; he recalled the sinking of the Titanic, just over two decades before, and forbade her to travel across the Atlantic. By the time she was 21, and able to make her own decisions, without her father’s consent, the world was at war, and she was in the Women’s Land Army. So, my family history was interrupted by these events, and my mother never emigrated to Canada, which is where I would have been born a couple of decades later. It is fascinating stuff, and I think everyone who researches their family history will find similar tales. The issue of economic migrants is a thread running through my more recent family history; two cousins, for example, migrated to Australia, in the mid-1960’s, as part of the “£10 Pommie” scheme of economic migration, encouraged by the then Australian government, looking for post-war labour and settlement. I also have family members who were shipped to the colonies (as they were then) as, for example, Barnardo’s Boys.
I’m not interested in family archives because of nostalgia – I am interested in family history because of what it tells us about how the wider world impacted on our antecedents’ lives, occupations, experiences, relationships and life chances. In my relatively short lifetime, to date, there have been so many changes; the world is a far more connected place, with the internet, mobile phones, satellite technology and online services from shopping to ordering books to buying sports equipment, or booking a holiday. I think nostalgia is a little over-rated, as is sentimentality; for me, it’s the question of what, exactly, we can learn from the past, both good and bad. For anyone interested in family history, start with what you know, and talk to as many family members as you can, gather family photos and make a list of when they were taken, where and what date. It’s worth also asking what the places were like where your family members lived, and any incidental things like the names of the shops they used, the names of any family dogs, how they spent their leisure time, what their occupations were, when they first acquired a TV set or a telephone or a motor car – the list is endless! Nostalgia, no; learning from our forebears, yes indeed.