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A more intimate relationship with the past:

Can researching your family history help make you a better history teacher?

‘Paul looked out into the darkness. The silence concealed the landscape he knew: the neat, orderly landscape of hedgerows, shapely trees, hills lifted to meet sky and cloud, fields, streams, cottages, a landscape that seemed set and unchanging in all but the variety of season, the variety of colour and light. But it was not. Beneath it lay all these other things: people working, fighting, dying. The fog rolled back before the cart, revealing a tree, a twist in the track, a clump of cow-parsley heads splayed against the hedge: he imagined other eyes in other times looking at the same things, feeling the same feelings, thinking. No, not thinking the same things. That would be different.

‘You can’t know how they thought,’ he said, ‘Not really.’

I s’pose not, son. But we should try.’

Penelope Lively, The Driftway, 1972.

I don’t know if researching your family history could help make you a better history teacher but I do know that I wish I’d done my research earlier and so been able to make good use of it, in teaching and in writing. The obvious benefits lie in my deeper knowledge of topics that, frankly, I hadn’t been all that interested in previously and, at least as importantly, in my new passion for communicating about those topics because they mattered to the people whose blood I share. I’ve also spent more time trying to think, like young Paul above, about how my grandparents and great-grandparents thought about their experiences. I may not know exactly how they thought but, in looking far more carefully at their lives, I feel I now have a more intimate relationship with them and with the past they lived through - and hopefully that’s made me a better historian.

So, as a spur to anyone wondering how researching their family could be useful, I’ve set out below the main things I’ve learned that would have been useful to me in teaching. It’s important to say that there’s nothing unusual about my family. My Dad did joke that we’re related to nobility but, I discovered much later, our claim to ‘nobility’ was that my grandmother’s maiden name was Duke. So no blue blood – my family tree over the last 200 years is full of agricultural labourers, mariners, bricklayers, shipwrights and clerks and an array of women who worked extremely hard although that work was rarely identified on census returns or marriage certificates.

Starting with questions!

There seem to be two approaches to family tree research.

The first is akin to a game of hide and seek, tracking down names, dates, places of birth, delving as far back into the past as possible. Trawling websites for just one more piece of information did get hypnotic but also quickly felt like ‘just one damn thing after another’.

The second, far more satisfying approach has been to start with a question – what words would I use to describe his/her life? – in order to understand the lives of my grandparents and great-grandparents.

The prime reason for this question was that I knew very little about my grandparents, even less about their forebears. My Dad hardly said anything about his parents who were born in the 1870s and died before I was born. What little I did know pointed in different directions – snippets of information suggested Dad and his siblings had a difficult upbringing but a couple of photographs showed moments of fun. More importantly, my Dad, his brother and sister were all good, decent people so what kind of people had their parents, my grandparents, been? I did know a little more about my maternal grandparents (born in the 1890s) but they too seem to have had many problems. So what words would I use to describe their individual lives?

What have I learned that might improve teaching?

Three general points to begin:

  • the items below are common to the experiences of many 19th and early 20th century families so may relate to your family too. Focussing on family members can create much more dynamic starting points for teaching by exploring individuals’ experiences. I haven’t tried to suggest how this would be done in all ten items below however – you don’t need me to do that!

  • the discovery of family experiences led me to read about topics I wouldn’t otherwise have explored and hence increased my knowledge and led me to think a lot more about their experiences and how they felt at particular times.

  • If I’d researched my family earlier I’d have talked and written about these topics with more passion, my commitment audible in my tone, phrasing and story-telling. I think this would have led to some students taking more in and gaining motivation.

Now for a summary of what I learnt in 10 handy sections.

1. The impact of epidemic disease in the 1800s

My great-great-grandmother died of cholera in 1849. A year after discovering this I still feel deeply sad and, rather to my surprise, angry. Frances and her family lived in a court in Liverpool, sharing a toilet and water from a pump in the street with everyone else in their court. Frances was just 33 when she died, wife of James, mother of 3-year-old John and of Fanny, just a few months old.

I’ve written about the extent and spread of cholera, set activities about the cartoon ‘The Court of King Cholera’ but now it all feels so much more personal, much more harrowing. How much more intriguing for students to have begun with Frances’s death certificate, to read the word ‘cholera’ as cause of death, to discover she was my direct ancestor and then to widen the work out from there?

2. Infant mortality

The 1911 census had one original and revealing feature – it asked people to identify the number of children born to their family, those living on the day of the census and those who’d died. This was prompted by concern over infant mortality and links into the social reforms of the period aimed at child-welfare. However it’s the family details that shook me once again, leaving me looking at those infant mortality graphs with greater insight into the human reality behind the statistics.

What I discovered from that census was that my grandparents, George and Charlotte Dawson, had had two children who died before their first birthdays, young George in 1906 and Bertha in 1908. (The names are from the GRO site – the census just gives numbers of children). These children were never mentioned by anyone in my family. Did my Dad, his brothers and sister know about them?

And it might have been worse – one of their two living sons, Bill, is missing from the family entry in the census. I found him in the entry for a ‘fever hospital’, so what were my grandparents feeling? Two of their children had already died – were they now dreading the death of a third?

There's a further discussion relating to the two examples above (plus documents) HERE …

3. World War One Medicine

I knew that my mother’s father lost a leg in the Great War and, according to my mother, was gassed but it wasn’t until Edexcel devised the GCSE unit on medical care on the Western Front that I researched his experiences. I discovered via his war record on the National Archives website that my grandfather was hospitalised with trench fever, a ‘mild bayonet wound’ to the scalp and shell shock before the gunshot wounds that led to the amputation of his leg. He may also have been gassed though, contrary to my expectations, many soldiers who suffered milder symptoms of gassing were not hospitalised.

You can see further details HERE …

The records of many Great War soldiers were destroyed by fire so I couldn’t find my other grandfather’s personal records. I do know he was a Company Quarter Master Sergeant in the 6th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment – so I now know something of the work a CQMS did and how great was the responsibility he had to handle. I’m now reading the battalion war diary – a more powerful experience for knowing that the events described involved my own grandfather. They arrived in France in April 1915, the place they were heading for was Ypres – I can’t describe my sense of foreboding when I saw that. Yet the scene that stays in my mind took place on 7th February 1915 when the battalion paraded in Canterbury Cathedral for divine service – my grandfather was then 38, he’d left his wife and 3 sons (the youngest my Dad) behind and was heading for a war that hadn’t been over by Christmas.

How did he feel that day? I can’t know but I need to ask the question.

And, suddenly, unexpectedly, I've received something of an answer – finding a letter he wrote from the front HERE …

4. Migration and the mobility of the population

All my great-grandparents were living in Liverpool by 1860 but most were newcomers to the city. Like most new arrivals in towns (in the Middle Ages as well as during the Industrial Revolution) they hadn’t travelled far – from further north in Lancashire or from Cumbria, the latter facilitated by shipping down the north-west coast. This must have meant significant changes for individuals and families – from rural surroundings to a large city, from agricultural work and trades to work in industries. I can imagine this being exciting for my great-grandfather, Seth, whose family moved from the Furness peninsula when he was a boy, but a tougher transition for his parents. I also wonder who took the initiative when two generations of a family moved – Seth’s parents or their older sons who may have been keener to take the risk of migrating to the city?

There were also a couple of examples of longer distance moves – another great-grandfather, William Dawson (an ironmoulder – a skilled job) moved his family to London c1850, though they returned within a few years. How – cart? stagecoach? train? Another generation back, Thomas Loft (a plasterer) was married to a Cumbrian girl in Liverpool in 1789, moved or went back to London where their eldest sons were born, then moved his family to Liverpool in the 1790s.

5. The Great Reform Act of 1832

Forty years ago I thoroughly enjoyed teaching 19th century British political history at A level but it’s the new-found personal link that’s deepened my interest.  I found one of my direct ancestors in the Poll Book for Liverpool for the 1832 election:


The E and T at the end stand for the men Thomas voted for – Ewart and Thornely, the Whig party candidates who were marginally the more liberal candidates. What a way to start work on that phase of reform – begin with that one line and what it might reveal about elections at that time, then get students reading to find out what the policies of Whig and Tory were, what had been happening in the couple of years before the election, how unusual was it for Thomas to have the vote, how he would have voted on the hustings and what attempts might have been made to influence him … plus much else.

6. Surviving family crises without state aid

Time and again I’ve wondered how families managed without pensions, child allowances, free health care etc. Very often they didn’t because of the early death of a parent. To take one example of several – my great-grandfather, Joseph Fletcher Blair, a mariner, died in 1896 aged just 43. His family had broken up by 1901. In that census, his wife, Margaret, was running a grocery shop but only one of her five children was living with her. This was her eldest daughter, perhaps because she was of working age. Where were the other four children? At the time of the census Ethel (my grandmother) was in hospital so she may still have been living at home. I can’t trace Elizabeth but Joseph (aged 12) was an inmate scholar at the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution while John (10) was at The Ripley Hospital in Lancaster which had been founded by the widow of a Liverpool merchant for the education of orphans and fatherless children. Elizabeth, Joseph and John emigrated afterwards to Canada – perhaps a consequence of the family break-up? My grandmother only met them once more during her lifetime.

Another consequence of the death of a parent was the rapid remarriage of the survivor. Nearly all the examples in my family before 1914 show remarriage within 18 months, usually within a year. Affection and love hopefully played a part in these remarriages but there must have been a strong element of practicality when one parent was left with several children to care for. To take the most extreme example in my family – in 1890 Alfred Mansley married Eleanor Duffy. Both had been widowed earlier that year and between them they had nine children to care for - Alfred had 7 and Eleanor had 2. They went on to have 7 more though how they managed on Alfred’s income as a village shoemaker I have no idea.

7. Emotional reactions and the closeness of families

Exploring emotions is a good way of helping students appreciate that they have much in common with people in the past, that people who lived long ago were not a different species from ourselves. This understanding is, I think, far more important than we give it credit for – otherwise the people studied in history lessons remain just names on a page, almost creatures in a zoo who students can’t relate to. Identifying emotions is therefore important in building the links between the present and the past. For example, here’s my great-grandfather Joseph writing to his wife Margaret in November 1890. He was a sailor in port in south Wales but en route to Malta.

‘My dear wife,

I have had a miserable time of it since we have been here, smothered in coal dust. I have never been off the ship since we arrived.

I am all the time thinking about you and what you are doing at certain parts of the day. God Bless you my Darlings. I wish I had plenty of money so I could always be with you. It is now about 7 o’clock and My Little Pets will be dozing off to sleep. Give them kisses for me. I suppose they are often asking for Papa. I am afraid it will be long before I see your dear faces again….’

A second example – I mentioned above that my grandparents had two children who died before their first birthdays. I was both shocked and touched to discover that their names were George and Bertha, because these were the names of my Dad and my aunt. It must have been courageous of my grandparents to re-use those names but they must have wanted these names as constant reminders of the two babies who’d died. That emotional link between my grandparents and their two dead children brings me as close to my grandparents than any other piece of information I have.

There are many other examples of the closeness of families, indicated by families using the same forenames across generations or using, as a second forename, a mother’s maiden name or, surprisingly often, a grandmother’s maiden name. Hence my grandfather was baptised George Loft Dawson – ‘Loft’ a reminder of his grandmothers who, confusingly, were sisters, Frances and Ellen Loft (and, yes, that means his parents were first cousins – congratulations if you worked that out!)

8. Women’s work often didn’t exist!

Well, obviously, it did but not on marriage certificates. Hardly any of my female ancestors had jobs according to their marriage certificates – the box for employment is left blank. But they had been working – the census returns tell us that. My grandmother, Charlotte, and her sisters were all at work before they were 14 in the 1890s but not according to their marriage certificates. The rare exceptions were mature women who were remarrying after being widowed – they seem to have been allowed to confess to working! Census returns do identify women’s work outside the home but I think those blank boxes on the marriage certificates tell us something about expectations of women, even in working class families.

9. Human nature – the desire to impress other people

Human nature doesn’t change over time. All of us have ‘adjusted’ reality to impress other people. I found two lovely examples on marriage certificates – the new husband upgrading his father’s job to sound grander than the reality and so impress his new in-laws!  My great-grandfather, Seth Duke, described his deceased father as a ‘gentleman’ – a far cry from his various jobs as a herdsman, beer house keeper and gardener. I was even more impressed when another ancestor, Charles Mansley, was described on his son’s marriage certificate as a schoolmaster. Sadly, this wasn’t true either – on every census return and on his death certificate Charles is described as a ropemaker. Still, it’s nice to know that working as a schoolmaster was seen as a step up!

10. By way of conclusion:
A more intimate relationship with the past

History courses in schools tend to be dominated by events, hopefully interconnected but too often strung out individually across time. We meet plenty of people through those events but in practice we only catch glimpses of them frozen in time in 1066, 1381, 1536, 1642 and so on. We rarely follow an individual through his or her life to understand the trajectory of that life. In contrast, researching my family history has allowed me to track the lives of my grandparents, to wonder how they saw the trajectories of their lives and whether my interpretations would be in any way similar to theirs.

Putting individuals first has also allowed me to reflect on the relationships between people and events. We’re all aware of events in the background, a soundtrack to our lives, but sometimes they are more than that and occasionally they overwhelm an individual or family, as that cholera outbreak in 1849 did to Frances, my great-great-grandmother. As a result, events and topics I’ve thought of in a general and objective way have been humanised and this has helped me build that more intimate relationship with the past.

Most importantly for me I now have a relationship with my grandparents and grandparents even though I never met them. This applies particularly to my Dad’s side of the family who were rarely spoken of I have tried to now have great respect for my grandparents, George and Charlotte, and this feels the greatest gift to come out of all this work. I may not know exactly how they thought but I have done my best to try to find out.

Further reading!

While writing this I was re-reading for the umpteenth time Penelope Lively’s The Driftway. It’s said to be a children’s book but I’d recommend it to anyone of any age.

Like all her books, whether ostensibly for children or adults, it’s about our relationships with the past and the complexities of the passage of time – the story revolves around young Paul, full of resentment of his new stepmother, who almost by accident runs away from home, taking his little sister with him. Paul hitches a lift from the driver of a horse-drawn caravan which follows the Driftway – a centuries-old drovers’ road. While they travel, Paul sees and hears scenes from the past: a Neolithic hunter, a soldier fleeing a Civil War battle, an incompetent highwayman and others. These encounters chip away at Paul’s resentments, making him think about how others see the things he sees, how they’ve experienced living in the landscape he lives in.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page


What have I Learned?

Impact of Epidemics in the 1800s

Infant Mortality

WWI Medicine

Migration and Mortality

1832 Great Reform Act

Without State Aid

Emotional Reactions

Women's Work

Human Nature


Further Reading