Radical Family History

Family History in the Digital Age

James Grassby had always been a part of our family creation myth. As the earliest named individual in a family line that left Hull and after much wandering eventually settled in the promised land of Dorset, he was a sort of ur-ancestor. And, of course, there was a family story all about him.

James, it was confidently asserted by my father’s Uncle Reg, had been an early socialist and a Chartist. He had been imprisoned in 1848 at the height of the Chartist “riots”, and had eventually dropped dead while addressing a mob on the steps of the Mansion House in London.

As a Labour Party member myself since the age of seventeen, and having previously worked both for the Labour Left newspaper Tribune and for a trade union, I found the idea of having a Chartist in my ancestry quite appealing. James’ descendants had kept up an involvement in local politics for several generations, but certainly did not share his radicalism.

So when my interest in family history was piqued by the online launch of the 1901 census nearly twenty years ago, I knew where I wanted to focus. James was long dead by the turn of the twentieth century, but as archives opened up to a wider public in the wake of a massive surge of interest in family history, I was able to fill in the gaping holes and correct the surprisingly minor errors in my family’s story.

James really had been a Chartist – active by 1840 in his native Hull, and arrested and tried alongside the Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and other prominent figures in the government crackdown following the 1842 Chartist Petition. James was a stalwart of numerous committees and allied causes throughout the mid to late 1840s, and, for a while in the movement’s dying days, general secretary of the National Charter Association.

I soon amassed an enormous quantity of information from family history sources such as birth, marriage and death records, or census entries, and from other records such as Home Office files and judicial records which had previously largely been the preserve of academic historians. I found that a significant amount of this information consisted of lists of names: newspaper lists of contributors to Chartist good causes, defendants in criminal cases, delegates to conferences and conventions and so on.

A list of names of Chartist delegates, c. 1839, © Mark Crail

As a working journalist, I had already made the move from print to online publications, and setting up a website to share some of this seemed an obvious move. At first, I simply posted lists of names and sources, to help point other family historians in the right direction. But, it became apparent that names without context were not very helpful, and so I started to write about the conferences, causes and events associated with the various lists.

And so the website Chartist Ancestors was born.

I first came into contact with academic historians working on the topic when I stumbled across the annual Chartism Day conference; through which I met Professor Malcolm Chase, then as now the expert’s expert in the field.

Malcolm was friendly, supportive and exceptionally generous with his time and expertise. He provided further lists of names drawn from his own research, and was kind enough to put me in touch with colleagues including Professor Jamie Bronstein and Dr Katrina Navickas, both of whom had transcribed thousands of names from the Chartist Land Company share registers and who clearly shared Malcolm’s commitment to public engagement.

As a result, the Chartist Ancestors website has become a substantial resource, while the assorted lists of names eventually became so unwieldy that I had to create a single databank with a standard information structure to make the data manageable. It currently has 14,000 name entries.

A screengrab of the Chartist Ancestors databank

I am aware that some academic historians view family history and its practitioners with annoyance and despair. I quite understand: a few years ago I launched a second website called Trade Union Ancestors and I still get emails along the lines of: ‘My Uncle Fred was an electrician in Leicester. Please send me his complete employment record.’

I suspect this is more of a problem for historians (and especially those focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) than for most other academics. The pool of amateur mathematicians is probably quite small. But, I can honestly say that I have personally never encountered any hostility or even reluctance to engage.

What I do know is that there is sometimes a return for the time that academic historians invest in patiently dealing with the public. From time to time family historians are able to offer significant new information: providing detailed biographies of individual Chartists that are simply not available in published sources, or digging out documents from their lofts that never made it into the archives. Occasionally they even have a photograph of their Chartist ancestor.

Susanna Inge, secretary of the City of London Female Charter Association. She proved frustratingly elusive in the record until her descendant Lorna Cowan shared her letters, life story and photograph through Chartist Ancestors.

And more generally, of course, it is the spending power of the vast number of family historians out there that has made it viable for commercial publishers to digitise and provide easy access to so many resources, from obscure local newspapers to census records. All of which is of as much value to academic historians as it is to family historians.

The past two decades have seen a transformation in family history. On the whole, people no longer go into it expecting to find royalty or at least the odd duke or duchess in their ancestry. Thanks to the range of resources now readily available online, people are better able to discover their ancestors living in ways that may occasionally have been exceptional, but which for the most part were no different to those of their neighbours and co-workers.

Involvement in radical political causes was a part of many people’s lived experience. Chartism alone numbered its “members” (a difficult term) in the tens of thousands, and its supporters in the millions. In creating and running Chartist Ancestors I wanted to make it as easy for family historians to find out about that aspect of their ancestors’ lives as any other.

It is often the relatively mundane details that help us to relate to our ancestors and in turn to gain a feeling for the world they lived in: the time our train driver ancestor was fined by the railway company after running a red light; the time their poem appeared in the local paper.

For me, that connection came through James and his involvement in Chartism. There are others in my family tree about whom I probably know at least as much; but when I have the time for a spot of family history research, it is James’s world that still draws me back time and time again.

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