The red suitcase

Family history becomes family stories…

In my last post I introduced my great-grandfather, Victor Streich, a not-very-well-developed figure in my childhood, who nevertheless was someone I knew I was supposed to feel proud of simply because my mother and grandmother told me he had been famous.

Having realised in adulthood that I had been an uninquiring child, and having finally acquired some curiosity about the world and the people around me, I developed an interest in my family history. At first, before the advent of the internet, I revisited the small red suitcase in my mother’s wardrobe, in which were the photographs I had often seen as a child. Back then, I had only been interested in the photographs of people I recognised – my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and my grandparents-as-adults. But now, I discovered all sorts of treasures: sepia photographs mounted on board, taken in studios at the turn of the 19th-into-the-20th century, of women with impossibly small waists standing stiffly in set-piece gardens; I began to ask my mother who these people were. She didn’t always know.

And there was my grandmother, not as the adult I had known, but as a young girl, with her brothers, on donkeys on a beach, with a grim-faced woman standing beside them in the most extraordinary confection of headwear.

The Cawkell family – Jack, Charles, Kitty (my maternal grandmother who married into the Streich family) and their mother Charlotte (nee Rochford)

At this stage I was simply gathering facts. Who was who, who was related to whom, what were their salient ages? How did they die?  I started drawing up crude family trees – did I have a photo of everyone?  I was collecting The Set, still obsessively gathering information; I loved the photographs as objects but I still wasn’t curious about the subjects – their stories, or how they lived their lives.

But, slowly, I found myself working my way up the knowledge hierarchy. Facts became information, information became knowledge, the knowledge made me want to understand some more, and with some understanding came the glimmerings of insight. And real curiosity. I began reading the letters, trawling through old passports, sifting through various bits of memorabilia that had, till now, lain ignored at the bottom the The Red Suitcase, under the photographs. Slowly, the sepia figures stepped out of their frames. I talked to my mother about the Streichs but she didn’t have much to impart about Victor, other than that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition”.  There was a story about him having found a seam of gold, and refusing to tell anyone where it was because he was a principled man; he had found it for someone else and he wasn’t going to do anything that might lead to other people stealing it. I found that a bit thrilling, but had no idea how important that fragment was to become to me, and how it would inform a fundamental research question into Victor’s character for the biography I was going to attempt decades later.

I also talked to her about her mother’s families, the Rochfords and the Cawkells, and the family she had married into, the Wrights.

By the early noughties I was doing basic research on-line as historic collections became digitised. I was part of the amateur genealogy craze. I was buying magazines called things like Discover Your Family’s History (still not “stories”, I now see) and I was learning how unreliable and misleading and incomplete the official records were. I was turning detective, tussling away for hours at some problem set of dates, or missing information. I started guessing at what was going on in the gaps. I started wondering whether people had been happy, or unhappy, thinking about them against the social and political background of the times they lived in; reading bald documents like census records or BDM certificates as a basis for bigger stories.

Something was happening in the collision between my developing interest in where I had come from, the explosion of interest in genealogy that was happening around me, and the emergence of digital online resources.

Actually, I wasn’t working particularly hard on the Streichs. I thought I knew them. My mother had fled the marriage she should never have made in England, and gone home to Australia to her mother and the house she had grown up in, her three young children in tow. I had grown up surrounded by my Streich cousins, in the family home, surrounded by their things. I thought I was steeped in all things Streich.

One day I hit a genealogy brick wall. I had gone as far as I could, for the moment, with the Rochfords and Cawkells. The Luton hat-manufacturing Wrights seemed a bit too dry and dusty that afternoon.  I thought I might as well tool around for a couple of hours seeing if there was anything more to be discovered about the Streichs, and sort what material I had into some kind of order. I approached it as an exercise rather than a something I really wanted to do.

I didn’t know that Victor was waiting for me.

Meet Victor

Part 1

Lower him down, softly there, matey,

Though little he’ll heed a rough journey.

This is thy last trip, Victor, beneath earth’s surface,

And eight unwilling hands are lowering thee.[1]

“Victor” was my great-grandfather – Franz Paul Victor Streich. I’m working on a biography of him, and thought I’d introduce him to you.

I had grown up being told that my great-grandfather was an Important Man in Australian History. I knew that he was a scientist, that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition” and that a mountain was named after him somewhere out in the desert. If I got a particular atlas down from the bookshelf behind the winged armchair in the sitting room – the only bookshelf in the house apart from a low, dusty shelf under the louvre windows in the sleep-out, to where my grandfather’s medical text books had been relegated – I could sit on the floor in the space between the shelf and the chair and open it to the page where, in tiny text, surrounded by a little ring of lines, were the words Streich Mound. The numbers beside it meant nothing to the ten-year-old me. But, full of smugness – the Streich name was in the atlas! – I imagined this to be a big mountain, solemnly named by some fat men in a wood-panelled room somewhere, because they knew my great-grandfather to be Important.

There was piece of silver on a table in the corner of the sitting room, on which was engraved “To Clara and Victor” and some other words that I can’t remember. I can’t remember what the object was, either; it may have been a wedding present. I don’t know where it is now; whether it’s still in the house where my brother lives, among other family things passed down, or whether it’s with one of my Streich cousins. I’d like to know, for sentiment sake, now; I’d like to see it again. I’d like to know so much that I didn’t know then.

I must have been a very uncurious child! I don’t think I had even clocked that Clara was the “Nannie” that my mother used to speak of so often and with such affection. Although she was much mentioned, Nannie seemed to have no other name, and Victor (who I think was simply referred to as “Grandpop’s father”) was only spoken of in reverential tones for what he had done, not who he was or what he was like. He was just someone who had died a long time ago – in Coolgardie, my mother said – and I suppose that was why there weren’t many stories about him like there were about Nannie, whom my mother had known and loved. Victor had just … been. And had been, apparently, Important.

So, I didn’t realise that Clara and Victor were Nannie and the famous explorer, or that Nannie and the man with the mountain named after him were even connected to each other.

Victor and Clara, with their young family, a year or two before Victor’s death. My Grandpop, Carl, is on the right.

I had no idea how little I knew, and had no way of knowing how important Victor’s story – and my own ignorance of it – was going to feel later in life.

My mother and my grandmother liked to set us apart from other families. My mother’s father, “Grandpop”, who had died two years before I was born, had been the much-revered local doctor, with a road named after him and a wing at the hospital. He was still a real presence in our house, the big house full of furniture my grandmother pointedly told me was antique.

There were stories about how my English-born grandmother had had maids back in the day, sometime in the 1920s and 30s – in Kelmscott, then a rural backwater in Western Australia, connected to Perth, 20 miles away, by a gravel road. There was a lot of talk about the Rochford Manor House back in England where rich Uncle Joe lived. My mother sometimes referred to our bathroom, when she wanted to reminded herself of the glory days, as “The Maid’s Room”, because that’s what it had first been used for.

With this as my domestic example, my ignorance didn’t stop me skiting in the playground, “My great grandfather”… did I even know he was my great grandfather? Perhaps I just said, “One of my family was an explorer on the Elder Expedition”.

None of my school friends seemed particularly impressed, actually. Perhaps the Elder Expedition meant as little to them as it did to me. And anyway, no one likes a show-off.

I finally acquired in adulthood some curiosity about the world around me, when I developed an interest in my family history.  I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

[i] Frank Brown. The Sun, Kalgoorlie, Sunday April 23 1905.

Been busy…but must blog better

First published 16 February 2013

I’ve been a bit slack with my blogging lately. Must do better.

Meanwhile, the things that are keeping me busy include the two arts boards I’ve joined, at Site Gallery and the Holmfirth Arts Festival.  I also recently had a fabulous weekend at a Guardian Masterclass in Feature Writing, and a really interesting day in Birmingham at a blogging workshop run by Kate Feld.  If you’ve ever considered doing a Guardian Masterclass I’d say, Do It!  I’ve also seen some fab theatre in Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son and the Manchester Royal Exchange’s Accrington Pals. Neither of those two productions, which we saw on two consecutive evenings, is exactly a rollicking, laugh-a-minue night out, but both are must-see pieces of riveting theatre.  And in two weeks time I’m in London for Merrily We Roll Along. Lucky Me

And I’ve added to my family history research, courtesy of distant cousin I’ve just discovered in Australia, and I’ve been rocking in despair at the recent antics of the people who purport to govern us.  But as a staunch supporter of Ed Miliband, I’ve been cheered by Labour’s poll figures, the highest in ten years, and by Ed Miliband’s speech on Thursday on rebuilding the economy. Polly Toynbee and Deborah Orr seem encouraged too.

So, I suppose all this means I’ve been actively engaged in the things I seem to blog most about – writing, the arts, politics, genealogy – rather than writing about them, and I will get back to blogging soon. I must!

The universal sticky beak

First published 13 September 2012

What makes Who Do You Think You Are such compelling viewing, do you think? 

I pondered this, wedged on the sofa between my cats, glugging wine, and gobbling up last night’s episode (the perfect Yorkshire winter night’s viewing). Leaving aside the fact that I am one of the millions researching family histories, which creates a natural interest, I think there are several things going on.

Firstly, the producers pick people whose ancestors tell a good story; every editor knows that what used to be called human interest stories when I was a journalism student are media gold.   You might be a celebrity, but if your ancestors had humdrum lives,  you won’t be invited on the programme!

Linked to this is the voyeurism factor; we love peeping into other people’s lives, via letters, diaries, photographs. We’re all what the Australians would call sticky-beaks.

Then there’s the link to a broader canvas: researching the lives of our forebears brings text-book history to life, so suddenly we’re learning more than perhaps we ever wanted to know about the first world war, or the holocaust.. And watching WDYTYA we can’t avoid the fact that sometimes unspeakably awful things really happened to people who were the family of people we feel we know (because of course the subjects are always celebrities).

Then there’s the quest narrative – the mystery…the programmes are constructed so that as people search for answers, and try to fill in the gaps in the stories of their forebears, they might make false assumptions – like the episode featuring Greg Wallace. The story of his forebears took several twists and turns before he emerged with what he accepted as the right picture. Or they might draw a complete blank.

And then of course, there’s emotion. If you watch this programme, how often do you well up?  If you research your own history, the discovery of the details of the lives of our ancestors provides several “pause for thought” moments; moments to reflect on where we’ve come from, the hardships our forebears had to endure, how little we know of what life was like 100 or more years ago … and, perhaps what shaped the people we are.

Reaching back a generation or two past those we knew – typically our grandparents – we can begin to understand, occasionally, and dimly, why our grandparents behaved or thought the way they did, because suddenly we can glimpse the influences of their pasts upon them.  And when we see this happening to our celebrities on screen, it’s very powerful. 

And finally, I suppose, the programme simply taps into the current appetite for nostalgia television.

What’s interested me in the more recent series is an increase in the celebrities doing their own on-line research. Yes, there are still the white-gloved historians, solemnly handing over documents they’ve retrieved from some archive that we mere mortals can’t access. In previous series these professionals have provoked in me a fierce researcher-envy:  “Well, it’s all right for (insert your favourite celeb) to sashay into this or that library or museum and have his/her past handed to them on a platter, without it having cost them a penny to get there”. Oh yes, tracing your family tree can be expensive.  But perhaps sensing that research envy could alienate a core audience of amateur genealogists, the producers now also show their subjects looking up such things as war records on line themselves (using the tool of the programme’s sponsors, of course!)

There’s been an exponential growth in amateur genealogy. More and more of us want to preserve our family stories for future generations, and place our family histories in the context of broader world events.  And the satisfaction of solving a family mystery, or rounding off a good story, is utterly addictive.  

I recently contacted a solicitor’s office in Leeds, on a whim, because I had discovered that they had once held some records that might help prove or disprove a theory I had about my grandmother’s cousin.  I thought the conventional family stories about him didn’t fit what I was finding via my own research. And who knew that the solicitor’s office secretary would be an amateur genealogist, too?  “No, you don’t owe us any money”, she said, handing over several fascinating old documents they’d had mouldering in their archives (she did establish my bona fides first!). “I’ve done this in my lunch hour, because I got so fascinated by him.  I love a good family mystery, me. I don’t know if I should say this, dear, but you do know he may have been illegitimate, don’t you?”  Bless her, I did; and what she gave me was absolutely fascinating –  and supported my hunch.

This is my great uncle, John Cawkell, who died at the Battle of Festubert in 1915. He was 20. Look at that face…I can’t bear it. Years ago, in my family papers I turned up a yellowing newspaper clipping announcing his death that my grandmother had tucked into a black-edged envelope, along with another envelope that contained a lock of his baby hair. The grief she must have felt as she put these two artefacts together and filed them away was palpable.  It made my own hair lift on the back of my neck, and I had to go and have a little lie down.

Right, better stop now.  I need to get back to the knotty problem of where another of my grandmother’s cousins was between the last mention of him in the 1901 census, and a letter he wrote to Nanna in 1939. There could be several reasons for his invisibility – was he ever in prison, I find myself wondering?  I’m troubled a bit by the idea that he could never have known that his sticky-beak great-niece would be grubbing about in things he may have wanted kept hidden…but I brush that aside, because I can’t bear the idea that there’s an irritating gap in the records …. 

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