The Twentieth Century – not really history? 5

Family historians often neglect the twentieth century as being ‘not really history’. Some of us have lived through half of the twentieth century; we think we know all there is to know. There is however plenty to be discovered about the more recent individuals on our family tree and the communities in which they lived. Twentieth century research brings with it the difficulties of larger and more mobile populations, as well as records that are closed to view but we need to meet these challenges.

When we first embark on our wonderful family history journey, we usually hasten backwards as far as possible. We probably don’t need to ‘research’ our grandparents, or even our great grandparents, as we may have known them personally, or we know of them. At some point, ideally sooner rather than later, we need to pause in our scramble up the branches of the family tree and re-examine the lives of those individuals who are closer to us in time. To begin, are you really aware of how many of your direct ancestors were alive in the first half of the twentieth century? Try this simple exercise: make a list of all your direct ancestors, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, who were alive between 1900 and 1950 (do not include aunts and uncles). You will probably be surprised by how many names are on this list. Although I associate this half century with my parents and grandparents, it wasn’t until I made my own list that I realised that six of my great-grandparents and seven great great-grandparents also lived into the nineteen hundreds, even though one of them did die on 1 January 1900! This makes nineteen of my direct ancestors to set in the context of the early twentieth century.

One of the advantages of this era is that it is an age of photography, so I am fortunate to be able to picture fifteen of my nineteen individuals. Can I equally picture the lives that they led? This goes far beyond the basic genealogical information. Can I find out about the communities in which they lived, the schools they attended, the clothes that they wore? What books may they have read, what music may they have listened to, who were their neighbours? It is only by investigating this kind of contextual detail that we can truly begin to understand the lives of these ancestors.

I have recently been working on the text for an online course that I am running for Pharos Teaching and Tutoring, which focuses on discovering more about twentieth century British ancestors and the communities in which they lived. This has highlighted how many sources there are that we can use for investigating our more recent ancestors. Census returns, directories, gravestones, newspapers and family sources all spring to mind but in Britain we also have such things as the Valuation Office Records of 1910 and the Farm Survey of 1941 as well as the 1939 Register.

The first half of the twentieth century brought two world wars, the Depression, the fight for women’s suffrage. Do you know how these impacted on the lives of your own ancestors? Can you look at national and local events of the time and then use this as a background for the stories of your own family?

Perhaps we should all make a New Year’s Resolution not to neglect our more recent ancestors in our rush to reach further and further backwards in time. Pause a while and revisit the lives of those closer to you. If any of you have British ancestry at this time and you want to be encouraged to focus on the early twentieth century, my course starts on 17 January and at the time of writing, there are still spaces.

Can we make 2017 the year when we honour some of the ancestors on that 1900-1950 list? I can’t promise that I will be honouring all nineteen but I do plan to start transcribing letters written by my father to my mother, his then girlfriend, during the second world war. Will you join me by resolving to do something similar for your twentieth century ancestors?

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see