Monday, February 27, 2012


(Birmingham, England silverware factory from Victorian era, photo by David Sillitoe)

Yesterday I had what felt like a real "day off", no extra appointments or obligations, just the usual. Rosemary made me refried beans (MY beans!) with cornbread, then dashed out to a nearby barbecue joint for a pound of hot juicy brisket as well as a slice of "diabetic" lemon meringue pie, the latter her idea. The pie was sugar-free and not especially flavourful; I am demanding about lemon, my favourite dessert option, so though there was no immediate spike in my glucose, I won't repeat the experiment.

But the brisket turned Sunday into MEEEET day for me and Dinah both.

Feeling some slack, and having temporary access to UK census/vital records. I started researching Margot's lineage. All I had was the names of her four grandparents -- one of those wrong, as it turns out -- and her insistence that everybody for generations was from the Midlands and/or Black Country. It was my first serious venture into seeing how England has organized its records, a steep learning curve. At least it was in English, but the cultural priorities were noticeably different from even early American values. For instance, no attempt to gather property values on the English censuses, or suss out what is being farmed.

(Tools used in silverware factory, Birmingham, England; photo by David Sillitoe)

Margot's lineage, as of this morning, now has 185 individuals in it extending back into the 1600s on a couple of branches. She is right that she is from overwhelmingly Midlands stock, though a few Welsh and Yorkshire origins have crept in. Her people are working class, in fact poor, and it seems like everyone is named either William, Rose, Joseph or Emma, a bewildering repetition of nondescript names. Children are at work definitely by 14, often by 10 or 11; families are enormous; and women die early. Education is truncated severely.

This is what birth control changed, plain and simple, this handing on of generational despair and poverty. Right there on the page.

The occupations were industrial and sounded stultifying. When there was an identifiable trade, it was zealously handed on to the sons (and sometimes daughters), a way out of the monotony of factory work. Discovering a publican was a relief; he and his former servant wife owned the Bridge Inn, a beerhouse likely near a canal in Ladywood, Birmingham.

My own ancestors were equally poor and limited, but I kept thinking at least they were on farms, had access to clean air and sunlight and fresh food. I know such comparisons cannot be made using modern values, and I had to stop such projections as they arose in me. Follow the record and get it down without interpretation, not until the history comes naturally to me as it does here.

But already I can see what a change the first World War wrought on this world.

Margot had warned me she was not especially interested in the details of her ancestry, it's not "her thing" nor it is important to her mother. However, as I unroofed generations, they both got a little sucked in. How can you not?

The most significant part of the day came when M and I discussed whether she wanted me listed as her partner, thus linking my massively researched pedigree to hers out there in cyberworld, permanently. Ancestry, despite being a Mormon-owned company, sidely includes the possibility for same-sex alliances in the software, and in fact there is an option to link friends or partners into a family unit. M said to go for it, even though at some point Mother may want to see the online chart. So I linked us as partners, a first for me in all my decades of genealogy.

I am still near tears about it. Major symbolic step, my friends.

My dreams last night were too confusing to sort out, full of her kin and my cousins. She has one great-something-grandfather who lived in Wales and gave his occupation as "naturalist", Thomas Crosse; now there's a man I want to know more about, and he was in my dreams, with a long beard and a ratty hat, roaming about cliffs over the sea. Along with my cousin Barney, a huckster and womanizer whose grin still keeps getting him off the hook out there.

Thank g*d I had all that meat, this kind of digging and synthesizing chews through B vitamins. Ahh, Tammi just announced a fresh batch of cornbread is done, do I want a slice? Must go, my people's grain awaits.

1 comment:

Margot said...

This synthesis brings it to life so much more than looking at those names in boxes on the screen. NOW they seem like real people, and I was moved in a way I didn't expect (looking at those weeping people on "Who do you think you are" and thinking "who's he to Hecuba?")

I believe these images are from the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter: "When the proprietors of the Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturing firm decided to retire in 1981 they ceased trading and locked the door, unaware they would be leaving a time capsule for future generations. Tools were left strewn on benches; grubby overalls were hung on the coat hooks; and dirty teacups were abandoned alongside jars of marmite and jam on the shelf.

In the eighty years before its closure little changed with the working practices or equipment used within the family-owned business. Even the décor had more in common with early 20th century trends than a thriving business in the early 1980s. Today the factory is a remarkable museum, which tells the story of the Jewellery Quarter and Birmingham’s renowned jewellery and metalworking heritage."