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.
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.