Book Club: Common People

As its title suggests, Common People: The History of An English Family is the story of everyday folk. We don’t meet any kings of industry or aristocrats here; instead, author Alison Light introduces us to needle makers in Alcester, builders and Baptist preachers in Portsmouth, and sailors setting sail to Newfoundland. These are lives that at first sight might seem unremarkable, yet Light uses her creative touch to ensure they become remarkable. She is working with the kind of family history material that most of us discover in our tree –  yet she nimbly interprets the family storylines,  enriches the narrative with local and social history, and reflects upon her role as the family historian along the way.

The book falls into four extended chapters, each one based around a grandparent and their ancestry. Thus, we hop around the country following Light’s quest for documentary records and other family traces. We spend time with grandmother Evelyn Whitlock in the Women’s Forage Corps, get locked inside the Netherne Asylum with Sarah Hill, and head out at sea with ‘Captains’ Giles and John Hosier. It’s ambitious in its scope – spanning five or six generations on all sides – but it’s skillfully handled, a sign of Light’s talent as an ‘historian of forgotten people’.

Every now and then, she steps aside from the storyline to reflect upon the joys and challenges of being a family historian:

“Family history, like all historical work, is messy and loose-ended, full of false starts, red herrings and wild goose chases, discoveries which are sheer serendipity and might so easily have been missed. Far from being dead ends or time wasters, these detours are part of historical work. They reveal our misconceptions and dislodge our assumptions about the past.”

Placing her relatives in context is a key priority. “Unless it is to be simply a catalogue of names, the history of a family is impossible to fathom without coming up for air and scanning the wider horizon. Once the branches proliferate, families become neighbourhoods and groups, and groups take shape around the work they do and where they find themselves doing it. Without local history to anchor it, family history is adrift in time.” Light coralls her research material successfully – deftly conveying a sense of place for each location, whether we’re exploring rural Wiltshire villages, Birmingham suburbs, or the crowded streets of Portsea.

As she explains, “Family history can only take in stretches of the road. The journey metaphor, so often used to ‘chart’ the ‘course’ of a life in memoir or biography, falters and peters out. The past is formless until historians and storytellers shape it up to their own ends, but family history, with its stops and starts, its uncertainties and gaps, can never be a seamless narrative.” However, for the aspiring family history writer, Common People is an inspiring example of what can be achieved. Haunting in places, and speckled with intrigue, it’s a recommended read.

About the author: Alison Light is a writer and critic. She is also an Honorary Professor in the Department of English at University College, London. She spent several years helping to establish the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Archive in London. Her last book was the much-acclaimed Mrs Woolf and the Servants.

A couple of ideas inspired by Common People to help you capture a sense of place

1. Expand upon a census return to meet the neighbours

Like all family historians, Alison Light draws upon census returns from 1841-1911. But she uses them only as starting points – not reciting a list of family names and ages but instead taking us on a journey along the street. In 1901 she walks us along Frances Road, Cotteridge, analysing the mix of people who live alongside her Whitlock relatives (see pages 40-45).

“For all its rich display and suggestive detail.” she writes, “the census remains a still life, frozen in time, giving the illusion of a settled world, in place at that moment, for that date at the end of March or the beginning of April, once every ten years. We never learn what happened the next day, the next week or month, or the day before… women scrub steps; neighbours stand and talk in doorways, calling out to children; shoppers bustle; traders put out their wares or stop to chat; passers by accost the milkman or joke with the coalmen on their rounds; boys loaf and flirt on corners; men congregate outside pubs; all the sounds and smells of a way of life that escape the census and its enumerator in his stiff white collar and sober frockcoat.”

Write away: Choose a census return for your own family and study the other people living in the street: look at the jobs they did, consider why they might have moved there, analyse the mix of young and old, incomers and those born there. Read Light’s piece on Frances Road, and then have a go at drafting a paragraph or two yourself along similar lines. You don’t need to list everyone – aim for a succinct piece, choosing details about neighbours that really illustrate your analysis and findings.

2. Immerse yourself in the locality

In her genealogical quest, Alison Light takes us around the country to a number of villages, towns and cities. Each time, she meshes together strands of local history to convey a sense of place. Some paragraphs are scene setters, others dig a bit deeper. So, for example, when describing Portsea she initially sets the scene by drawing upon the kind of detail you’d find in a trade directory or guidebook, and then in the follow-on paragraph she describes the housing encountered at the time.

“Portsea, or Portsmouth Common, as it had first been called, had mushroomed during the eighteenth century and the boom conditions of the French wars. The township had its ornaments: a graceful church, St George’s, in an elegant square, built by a company of shipwrights, and a number of superior businesses along the broad stretch of Queen Street (a nod to Anne, who had originally granted the permission to build). It had its tranche of officers, lawyers, surgeons and an architect or two, but the most fashionable streets were in Portsmouth. Guidebooks might be at pains to emphasise the ‘elegant assembly room at the Crown’ and the ‘very commodious’ coffee house on Portsmouth High Street, but other observers noted that some quarters were filthy and squalid, and the children ‘indigent’, especially in Portsea.”

“Many of Portsea’s earliest streets, like Butcher Street and Kent Street (1697), were crammed from the start with inns, shops, workmens’ cottages and lodging houses. Few Portsea houses had double frontages, and any larger residences for Admiralty officials were inside the dockyard walls. Some of the better houses, with one room on several storeys and the occasional bow window, were inhabited by service personnel, tradesmen and skilled artisans. Charles Dickens was born in such a house in 1812, his father a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. These were palatial compared to the squat two-storey weather-boarded cottages in which the majority of people lived, where the front door opened from the street straight into a twelve-foot room; above, a single tiny bedroom, and outside, a handkerchief of a backyard. Some of the smallest terraced properties in Britain were built here in the 1800s.”

Write away: Choose a neighbourhood related to your own family history. If possible, opt for a small area – a village or parish, for example, or cluster of a few streets. Spend an hour or two researching that neighbourhood, using local history resources – maps, photos, books. Jot down brief quotes or phrases as you go. You can find a remarkable amount online (for example, take a look at British History Online, Historical Directories, Genuki and Wikipedia). Now have a go at mirroring the style of the two paragraphs above – one to set the scene, one to describe the housing. Keep it tight, aim for no more than 200 words on each.

Let us know how you get on.