Late one wet September afternoon in 2010, still exhausted from a recent sightseeing trip to New York, I lay on the sofa, trawling the internet for something undemanding to distract me from that miserable, out-of-sorts feeling that comes from being jetlagged – and from the housework that had formed in my absence. After several false starts, I stumbled across an intriguing-looking TV programme about the Waugh Family, based on the book Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh (part of the excellent Fatherhood Season which had recently aired on BBC4). And by the time the story of the Waughs had drawn to its natural conclusion, I felt like an addict who’d been denied the next fix.
Images from the film continued to spool through my head while I tackled the ironing basket. Like others who had left comments on the website, I’d been both maddened and moved by the content. The Waughs were clearly the kind of family that had heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country (and in their particular case, a literary legacy). And even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the generations, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they things to prove it – pieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions.
This set me thinking about my own namesake family again. Since my first attempt at genealogical research (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), both my father and uncle had died, making me more keenly aware of the time that was running out: twenty-five years can decimate a lot of witnesses to the past. Perhaps that is why Alexander Waugh’s documentary had affected me so much. There is the parent explaining death to the child: One day we all die. Even I will leave you, as you in turn will leave your children; and the needy child inside the adult: Why did my parents have to die! But Waugh at least seems to take comfort in knowing that there are graves to visit if one chooses (even if only to spit on); there are books which chart the family history; there are copious photographs and records of the family member’s lives. And that is before mentioning the literary oeuvre, as well as the more tangible objects of houses and heirlooms.
Those originating from a more ‘ordinary’ kind of family (although I do not believe that any family is truly ordinary) often have scant knowledge about their ancestors. Lack of space, time and money meant that little was passed on from one generation to another. Some might be lucky enough to find letters and cards stored in an old hat box in the attic. A christening shawl or part of a wedding outfit might be discovered, yellowing in a leather suitcase. Or a family bible, the family names annotated inside in fading ink, located at the back of a woodworm-infested bookcase. But for most amateur genealogists the photograph album is the place to begin.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. I am not sure if they have a particularly high success rate, but they persevere in the belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images, which are posted on the web in the hope of reuniting with their descendants, are sad and silent. They are sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too in turn will soon be forgotten about. Many of the photographs come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility that was necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will simply judge them to have been grim and stern. These images can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent in their daily lives.
A further limitation of these photographs is that they mostly only cover a certain time period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, and then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most of us. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.
I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I must have been around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that visit it became a ritual: every time we went to stay with our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the century before I was born? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I hadn’t quite made the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.
My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts (whose Christian names were now our middle names), standing in the street holding hands with a neighbour’s child, both of them in grubby pinafores and tackety boots; our mother, proud in her new school uniform, towards the end of the war; Grandad in plus fours on his motorcycle, smoking a pipe. We saw our living relatives in ways that we had never imagined before, and we learnt about the others who had gone before us but who still touched the lives of those who’d once known them.
It puzzled me that in contrast my father did not seem to possess any photographs of his family. So in many ways it was inevitable that I would be drawn to want to continue to find out more about the paternal name-carrying side of the family of which I knew so little about.
The Waugh documentary was simply the catalyst to carry on with my quest.
To be continued next month in In my Beginning is my End
The Incidental Genealogist, September 2015